Friday, December 31, 2010

Our Readers Want to Know

As we move into the new year it seems like a good time to answer some of the imaginary queries in the Van Winkle Project's invisible mail bag.

To make the process as personal as possible, Van Winkle sat down and responded to each question which was presented to him by a Friendly Interlocutor (FI).

FI: Well, it's nice to finally meet you in person, but we have to say that we're a bit disappointed. You seem to prefer to remain anonymous as possible.

Oh, the bag? You want to know about the bag?
VW: Excuse me. Was there a question in there?

FI: We don't want to be rude or anything, but we can't help noticing you're wearing a paper bag over your head. We assume there's a reason you're obscuring your identity?

VW: It's a visual representation of the fact that the Van Winkle Project is about testing a concept. It's not about focusing on the quirks and the minutiae of a particular person.

FI: How so?

VW: To be Van Winkled, as we've been defining it at this blog, means to cut back on opportunities we're offered for taking in information about the world beyond our own immediate personal sphere. The goal is to  see if there are losses and if there are also gains. My point is: Any person could do this.

FI: All right, but how's it working out for you in particular?

I almost decided to stop this entire thing...
VW: A few days ago I almost decided to stop this entire thing.

FI: Really? Why?

VW:  Frankly, it sometimes feels like I'm not doing anything except inconveniencing my family. Several times a week I have to warn them not to talk about certain topics. Over the holidays I was at my father's house and, like a lot of older folks, he had the TV on much of the time. I found myself hanging back from him in case I might overhear something that constituted "news" on the TV. I should have been spending time with him.

FI: Are there other problems?

VW: Yes. I've invoked all these extreme precautions, but  I have a sense that so far I've only avoided news that was not of earth shaking or historical importance. It could be that I'm going to all this trouble and all that's happened since I went to "sleep" is that the other Bush daughter (what's her name?) has gotten engaged and the Obama girls and their mom harvested pumpkins from the White House organic garden.

FI: What makes you think that nothing "earth shattering" or "historical" has happened since you began this project on Sept. 11, 2010?

I don't see aliens in our midst.
VW: Well, we're all still here. I don't see aliens in our midst. The sky is very much in place rather than falling on us. Cars are going down the roads and obediently stopping at the red lights. The main thing is that Wal-mart has way more people in its parking lot than you'd ever suspect for a place with such an ill chosen name and Denny's is open 24/7 every day of the year. That's how I tell if America is breathing normally. I drive past Wal-mart and Denny's.

FI: So you'll continue the project? Why?

VW: I keep thinking that if I can make it until my cut-off date of Sept. 11, 2011, I'll be able to learn all kinds of cool stuff all at once. For starters I have a stack of newspapers and magazines that are growing out in the garage. Thinking of that sustains me like a person on a diet lives for the promise that when the diet finally ends he can celebrate by pigging out for a few days on mountains of food.

FI: A lot of the people we're pretending write to the VWP want to ask you this: Of all the varieties of news, weather, entertainment, and cultural events you've given up, what do you miss most?

VW: I miss my Sunday newspapers. I used to really look forward to paging through them. They're so thick and I loved looking at the ads that swell them up. I could curl up in a chair and spend a lot of time swimming in text and images.

FI: What do you miss second most?

I do miss the NFL games...
VW:  The NFL season. I'm not a huge sports fan, but I've discovered that there's something about seeing a green field with stripes on it and big men colliding with one another that defines part of the year for me. Take it away and the world seems a bit too quiet and empty. I miss the quarterback going back to throw the long bomb and the ball coming down toward the receiver's outstretched fingers. Such an unusual moment of grace in the midst of brutal violence! To not get to see that is like being told you can't go to museums and look at the Rembrandts and Vermeers.

FI: Hmm. We doubt the NFL Marketing Department has ever thought of it that way. Let's move on to a question near the top of the invisible mail bag: What's the biggest surprise of the project?

VW: That people I'm around hardly ever have to be warned not to say something that will prove to be a "spoiler." It's not just out of consideration for me and what I'm doing. It seems that people simply aren't discussing the news as much as I expected. Of course, this is one of the pieces of evidence that has led me to suspect that not much has happened since I went to "sleep." Of course, I could be wrong. Am I wrong?

FI: We won't answer that, but it does occur to us to bring up the subject of temptation.

VW: Do you want to know if I try to get little hints about the news from people?

FI: More. One reader is asking that if it's possible that when no one is looking you go out to the garage and read your saved newspapers or if you listen to news radio when you're alone in your car. Therefore you actually might be faking your newsless state to draw attention to yourself?

VW: Of course I could be doing that. Scripting my own reality show. But I'm not. That would require a whole layer of unnecessary of complication and I don't like complicating tasks more than necessary. It would also be perverse. I'm not a perverse person. In fact, I used to have a T-shirt that said that: I'M NOT PERVERSE.

FI: You did?

I know this is going to sound very egocentric...
VW: No. But it would make a wonderful T-shirt. Only problem is I consider T-shirts, to be a rather perverse way of communicating with society at large.

FI: You could wear the T-shirt and it could be ironic?

VW: Hey, you're right! Are people still doing irony?

FI: Sorry. We can't reveal that. Besides, I think we're getting off-topic. Let's return to the invisible mail bag. One reader is wondering if you could guess what is the most important thing happening in the world as we straddle the line between 2010 and 2011?

VW: Right now?

FI: This very moment.

VW: I know this is going to sound very egocentric, but I'm getting concerned about how hot it's become beneath this paper bag.

FI: Oh, the issue of global warming?

VW: No, the issue of Van Winkle warming.

FI: If you don't mind we have one Barbara Walters' style question we'd like to end with.

VW:  Is Barbara still alive and well?

FI: We're not at liberty to divulge that either.

VW: Shucks.

FI: So, if Barbara Walters were here, she might want to know: Supposing Van Winkle were a potato chip, what kind would he be? Sour cream, barbecued, ridged, or plain?

VW: Tell Barbara that Van Winkle is the potato chip that fell on the floor. It doesn't matter what kind of chip he is, only that he's still around after the party is over. Happy New Year. See you in 2011!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When Dragons Ate the Moon

One of the main complaints I hear about the news is that it's "so depressing."

No, I did not suck on a lemon. The news did this to me!
It's true that what tends to make the headlines is mostly bad news. Because of this, one way to look at the Van Winkle Project is that it's about finally doing the right thing.

Like a man who has been pummeled by too many body blows, I've finally decided to walk away from such abuse. Bad news? I hereby renounce it!

Actually, I find this view a little too simplistic.The lunar eclipse last week reminded me all over again why I turn to the news even when it isn't uplifting or cheerful in nature.

Setting the Scene
We were in a hotel room because the best medical minds had assigned us a task: My wife and I had to take turns entertaining our 12-year-old son so he would not fall asleep at any point during the night.

Sounds like a kid's fantasy, right? Stay up all night, cool! But the truth is 1) our son likes to sleep and 2) there was a serious purpose behind our regimen. At 10 a.m. the following morning he would have an Electroencephalogram (EEG) and the test had to show his brain waves during both sleeping and waking states. With our son, who has never taken naps since he was one year old, the only way to make sure he will fall asleep during the test is to not allow him to sleep one tick of the clock the night previous.

I admit I'm no night owl. I'm more like a night ox. I'm this big lump in bed who rolls to one side and later to the other. Sometimes I land on my back and snore lightly and my wife shakes me. Okay, it's back to my side. If I see stars during the night, it's only because I'm dreaming about them. It is this fondness for sleeping that can cause me to miss the cosmos' greatest hits.

Not this time.

A Lunar Eclipse to Remember
Last week as we were trying to keep our son awake with DVDs and bleary eyed conversation, there occurred the first total lunar eclipse in three years. It was, in fact, the first total lunar eclipse to occur on the same day as the Winter Solstice since 1638.

As the eclipse became "total" the moon
began to appear to us to be brownish.
For us, our viewing of the eclipse was a simple matter of opening the door of our second floor hotel unit, walking out on the deck, and canting our heads back. The moon was directly overhead. By midnight the show was in progress and the total part of the eclipse took hold between 1 and 2 a.m.

Since I had a lot of time on my hands during the long, long, long, long night, I found myself meditating upon how people have always been drawn to observe these phenomena.

Prescription for upset dragon:
Take one moon and see me
in the morning
Mysteries of Luna
Early in human history the show in the sky was a source of alarm.

  • It was thought that dragons or monsters were devouring the moon.

  • Or the eclipse was believed to be the manifestation of some god.

Soon, however, humanity came to terms with the lunar eclipse. Agrarians already tracked the moon as the basis for a calendar upon which planting and harvest depended. This led to their understanding when an eclipse was coming and that things would return to normal until the next predicted sighting.

Still they looked.

Shadow Compulsion
It's true that certain poets, lovers and "lunatics" have always been drawn to the full moon, especially when it's low to the horizon, "like a big pizza pie in the sky." Throughout the ages, the moon in full bloom, so to speak, was invested with magic powers capable of kindling romance and the imagination.

Yet it was always the moon with the earth's shadow cast over it that attracted widest notice. You didn't have to be in love, writing verse, or out of your mind for the lunar eclipse to prove compelling. It was something everyone noticed.

This is where I think of the news. Ordinary life that moves along in a happy or, at least, neutral and inoffensive fashion, is like the normal moon in it its phases, waxing and waning. The regular stuff of life is always there, looming large, becoming small, but always reassuring in its basic rhythm of eat, work, play, and love.

What the news comes along and offers to us is life that is the equivalent of the moon being eclipsed. The news tells us whenever a shadow has fallen over some portion of humanity.

Enter the Count
The opening of Count Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina is famous and perhaps quoted far too much, especially by those who have never read the book:

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I've read Anna Karenina twice and I've always thought that Tolstoy is only partially correct. I don't really think any category on earth is "all alike," including happy families. Give anyone a minute and they can think of several versions of a "happy family."

What I think Tolstoy really means is that from a storyteller's point of view happy families are alike in not being very interesting. What can the novelist say about them except that they're happy and then offer the details about what makes them happy?

Unhappy families, on the other hand, offer real story potential. There's enough going on to push the writer's pen over page after page, and this is exactly what happens in Anna Karenina. How did these people become so unhappy? Is there any way they can extricate themselves from sorrow and find in its place the happiness they alwasy hoped for? Or will their condition worsen until they end tragically? Will they be eclipsed partially or totally? And will we get to see their eclipse come to the end and the light return to their lives?

Test Results Are In
As far as I can tell, the make-up and conditioning of our species is such that unhappiness, or call it the "tragic," causes us to want to know more. As some awful, unhappy event casts its dark shadow over the globe and the clumps of humanity clinging to it, we are drawn to the latest headlines and flickerings on our screens.
EEG tracing
 Does this make us morbid creatures? I don't think so, not if we're only occasional viewers of such. In my experience I don't think we can easily deny our attraction to the shadow, even while we protest that we don't like bad news because it's "so depressing."

When the dragons eat the moon, we'll show up. We'll watch. And when the moon is given back we'll look on with relief. Just like we did the next day when the doctor came into the exam room and said to us, "Everything looks great." Then we went back to our hotel room and you can already guess the rest. The eclipse was history. It was time for our family to get some sleep. - V.W

Coming Friday: An end of the year interview with Van Winkle. Will he continue this project? Does he actually enjoy being a big dummy? Find out when V.W. reveals ALL including (for the first time) a photo of himself...          

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas With George

Since I'm Van Winkled, I can't know for sure, but I imagine this lull before the new year once again is a slow one for the media. In lieu of natural disasters or political upheaval,  much of the TV talking heads' palaver is likely about the holidays and how the shopping is going and what products are "hot" gifts and what everyone is going to give and get.

Well, if they can do it, I can too, right?

So as we stand on the eve of Christmas 2010 , I am led to offer up the memory of the most humble, yet possibly best gift Santa ever brought me.

A Room Littered With Critters
Stuffed animals have figured in a large way in our son's life. Since he's now 12, last week he decided he ought to take stock of his holdings and possibly thin the crowd. He pulled down all the friends from his loft bed and set them in the floor. A photo shoot ensued.

Part of our son's collection...
This proclivity for stuffed animals is not something he got from dad. I never owned such a large herd of fluffy, furry, or terry cloth creatures. For one thing, my parents were minimalists, always citing this thing called a "household budget" which meant no one person in the family could have too much of anything and the best way to get something was for free. Like the baseball cards I scissored off the back of the cereal box or the comic books I found in the neighbors' trash.

Besides the thrift gene, I wasn't the type of child who cuddled and slept with his make believe friends. Not that I didn't believe in make-believe friends. There was George who arrived in my stocking on Christmas morning when I was six years old.

Downtown Magic
The fantastic new May D&F dept. store circa 1958
In those pre-shopping mall days of America, the place to go to meet Santa and reassure him that I had been a good boy all year and tell him what I wanted him to bring me for Christmas was the department store.

That year we were living in Denver, Colorado, so my brothers and I were taken downtown to May D &F. I had no idea why it was called May D & F; I just loved the name, so rich in initial consonants and long vowels. I couldn't have been more excited if we were headed for a moon landing.

Walking along city streets our breath streamed out in front of us in the cold air. Men and women passing us by on the sidewalk wore long overcoats and gloves and mufflers. Bus rumbled past and I smelled the diesel fumes. My middle brother spotted Santa up ahead on the sidewalk. Brother ran ahead and started jabbering along the lines of "This is what I want for Christmas, Santa!" working hard to be heard over the noise of the red coated one's ringing bell. Our mother had to pull him away and explain about the Salvation Army and the kettle to collect coins. You see there are Santas (sort of like fake Santas) and there is the Santa. No problem. We resumed our family sidewalk stride, window shopping along the way. That was when it happened.

...At First Sight
George in 2010.
He was in a window along with a lot of other stuff that I don't remember. That I even saw him is rather remarkable. But there he was. I thrust out my little boy arm, pointed, and to my parents I said these words:

"There's George!"

This was funny in one obvious way. How had I instantly named this item which I had never seen before? And why George? The only George I knew was George Washington.

The other amusing thing was my choice of stuffed animal to fall in love with. I should have been drawn to a Raggedy Andy or a Mickey Mouse doll. Instead, my heart was all tied in mushy knots for what appeared to be a rendition of the world's homeliest horse. With his twisted, knock-kneed legs he looked like he was suffering from rickets. His neck was too thin and his head implied he had some eggplant in his lineage. To underscore that this little 7" horse was ready for the glue factory the poor soul had multiple cloth bandages applied to his torso and legs.

At this point a declaration was made.

"I want George for Christmas."

The Santa Shock
My brothers and I with dept. store Santa.
Our thrifty mother sewed the matching red shirts.
Further adventures followed that afternoon. I remember arriving at the entire block occupied by May D&F. What a 1950's marvel! There was an ice rink beneath the triangular roof structure out front. Then there was the multi-floored store which went on forever. We made our way past the glossy modern furniture which competed with traditional plump couches.

As we got beyond these American living room ice floes we came upon another new modernist statement. An aluminum Christmas tree. The whole thing was dazzling silver. As I walked past I had to reach out and touch. At that moment I was struck by cosmic forces.

The spark was visible, exploding in front of me, blue, yellow and bright. And the pop was audible. I nearly fell down. My family gathered around and slowly an explanation was delivered to me. We'd been shuffling along over dry carpet and I had just received the greatest static electricity shock of my young life.

At least it cleared my head for Santa. A few minutes later my brothers and I got on his lap for the requisite photo. I remembered to tell him about my new love that I had added to my list which also included Elgo Co. American Plastic Bricks in a can.

Santa, oh, please, Santa, I want George for Christmas!

The Day Arrives
Kodachrome moment: I meet George who is hiding
in my stocking while little brother goes flying
out of the picture in pursuit of his own loot.
Maybe I was savvy and knew not to ask for high ticket items, but Santa always worked pretty infallibly for me.

Sure enough, on this Christmas morning Santa delivered right down the chimney. The brown head and big eyes and fringed mane peeked up from my stocking that hung from the fireplace mantel. I was ecstatic. George!

Over the years I would be very particular about George. I noted that he was fragile and so took care to display him where he would be difficult for me or visitors to touch. I just wanted to see him and know he was watching over me.

All these years later George's fragility remains evident. Flipping him over for a close inspection I detect that  he's made on the inside of wires and straw. Yes, straw. He's very dry, he's very brittle, but he's still hanging around.

Feeling George-ish
What can I say? I loved George. Years later I would read that awful early scene in Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov dreams of walking along with his father and encountering a man beating a horse with a whip and then a wooden shaft while a drunken crowd looks on. The boy begs his father to save the horse to no avail. I couldn't help myself. I thought of George: Please, just because you're more powerful, you have no right to treat the innocent this way.

George is frail and his innards show...
wire and straw.
I look at George now and perhaps I understand my attraction to him better than my younger self ever could. Like Dostoevsky's boy in the dream, I pitied him and felt protective toward him. Most of all, I appreciated him for who he was. No derivative of a TV or movie character, George was simply George and, as such, he deserved an honored place in this world.

This deeper enrichment of my understanding of the significance of George is similar to how today I can look up information about the May D&F store and enlarge upon my childish attraction to that structure.

I learn that it was designed by the I. M. Pei. Really? I had no idea. This is so exciting! I love Pei's buildings. But who was I. M. Pei back when I encountered that store? Not yet the famous architect who is so well known today. I could only sense I. M. Pei at that point, through his ability to create a structure that evoked a sense of awe in me.

As for the May D&F company, they have now been subsumed by Foley's, one of the few lingering remnants of the great age of the department store.

Worse, my research tells me that the wonderful structure we visited that day is no more. It was torn down in the 1990s and replaced by a black glass cube that belongs to a hotel chain.

Someone beat that that beautiful example of 1950's modernist architecture to bits with a wrecking ball. Then they sent what was left to the glue factory.

And "God Bless Us Every One"
I like to call how I tend to relate to humanity the Tiny Tim Effect after that great piece of literature by Mr. Dickens. In A Christmas Carol even someone as hard-hearted as Ebenezer Scrooge is deeply moved by the cheerful little crippled boy. Likewise, from an early age I've had a tendency to empathize with the mistreated and the marginalized,  the people that don't look glamorous and are never the recipients of praise and awards, i.e.,  the people who have a much tougher life than me.

Why am I this way? Well, I admire their endurance in a way I can never admire people who are born with advantages and have things come easily to them. And there's the fact that they appeal to my curious nature. There are fewer mysteries to comprehend among people who are just like oneself. It's something the narcissist never figures out.

Just like me = boring.

The Tiny Tim Effect was furthered in me as I grew a bit older and became an inveterate reader, particularly of novels. The most interesting characters were almost always the ones who were not dealt the best cards in life, but nevertheless struggled. Looked at this way, George is straight out of  the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath or he's a war wounded Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises or he could even be a manifestation of how Nick Caraway feels out of place walking into a room full of Jay Gatsby's easy going rich friends.

Or, in another really great story, the one a lot of people have been talking about for going on 2000 years, George could be one of the cast of animals quaterered in a stable. He's peering across at people that are in nearly as humble of condition as him.  All George is hoping for this Christmas, I think, is a little love and, really, how can you not love a face like that? - V.W.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My First 100 Days

Several times a week I'm asked by people who know of the Van Winkle Project a general question: "So how's it going?"

I appreciate the interest, but it's a difficult question to field. Even at this major milestone in the project as I glance to the right and look at my "Time Remaining Before I Awake" counter and notice that it's fallen below 265.

Hurray! I've just put in my first 100 days.

Feeling Presidential
Ever since FDR took office in 1933 and followed with a quick whirlwind of economic moves designed to keep the nation from sinking deeper into the Great Depression, the first 100 days have been scrutinized whenever a new president assumes office. The thought is that if some remarkable achievements are made during that time, it bodes well for the remainder of the 4-year term. Conversely, failures in the first 100 days could doom the presidency.

The historical record doesn't necessarily bear out such simplistic sentiments.

There's a website that tallies significant presidential 100-day accomplishments, starting with FDR up through George W. Bush. Below is a partial snapshot of the wonderful graphic: you'll find there

When I look at the complete chart I notice presidents who began inauspiciously, ugly, or even with a near disaster, but then they had later successes, and often they were re-elected:
  • John Kennedy presides over the Bay of Pigs debacle, the failed U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba.
  • Richard Nixon orders the bombing of Cambodia.
  • Ronald Reagan is shot by John Hinckley on Day 70.

Then there were presidents who generated 100-day excitement and later circumstances thwarted their agendas or damaged their reputations: 
  • Gerald Ford declares war on inflation.
  • Jimmy Carter makes moves to address the U.S. energy problem.
  • George W. Bush places large tax cuts before Congress which will soon pass, even though the experts say he lacks this the needed political power since he is the winner of an election that had to be decided by the Supreme Court.

In reality, presidential 100 days are a lot like the NFL preseason. A team can lose most of those games (which don't count) and still end up in the Super Bowl. Or they can win them all and stumble once the regular season begins.

Of course, the Van Winkle Project isn't really about doing, so much as it's about not doing (i.e., refusing access to information about what's going on in the world politically, economically, and culturally). This makes it hard to offer up my own sort of 100-day accomplishment report.

Van Winkle Accomplishes Nothing
When I judge the success of my first 100 days (and try to answer that pesky opening question), I realize that the standard of looking at what I haven't done casts everything in an unusual light. A successful 100 days of "sleep" for me means that I've truly kept myself in the slackest intellectual state imaginable. To do this, I have to daily pare back my natural curiosity with the equivalent of a sharp knife.

For the most part I have succeeded. There have been a few leaks that I didn't step out of the way of in time, and a couple of times I was weak, put down my knife, and gave into temptation and read a newspaper headline or glanced up at a scroll on a screen tuned to the news in a public place.

Don't get between Van Winkle and his knife!
On the other hand, I really have no idea who is going to make the NFL playoffs, what movies are in theaters, what President Obama's approval rating is, what the Republican-Democratic make-up of Congress will be for the next two years as a result of the mid-term elections, what the unemployment rate is, whether there have been any hurricanes, or if any famous people have died. And there's probably more that's happened that I can't even imagine, right? Wait. I'm picking up my knife. Don't tell me.

So to convince myself, as much as anyone, that my first 100 days have proceeded pretty much according to plan, I prepared a chart.
Mandatory essentially meaningless graphic
 My 100 Day Failures
As the above chart shows, I had some moments when the news leaked through or I weakened and brought some of it into my life.

1 - I found out about the rescue of the Chilean miners because I was reading our son's school newsletter and there was a headline about it. I was shocked. The last I heard was that the miners would be out "sometime before Christmas." I still have no idea how they were rescued so relatively quickly.

2 - After the mid-term elections, I really started itching for political news. I'd see headlines with the word "Obama" in it and then another with the word "tax." I eventually pieced together that the president was working, with difficulty, to get Congress to pass a tax bill before they adjourned.

3 - I went to get a haircut last week at Sports Clips. What could I do. The place has "sports" in its name because it's thought that a good way to get men to patronize anything is to offer them sports. So every screen, even on a Monday morning, is tuned to ESPN. I sat in my chair and I closed my eyes, but I still heard the post-Sunday analysis of the end of Brett Favre's "streak" of playing in 297 consecutive games. I know now that his shoulder hurts and his throwing hand is still numb and that he's never taken that bad of a hit in all his years of playing. It's likely the end of the road for the 41-year-old who, in football terms, played just about forever.

It hurts, bro.

How Do You Spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S?
Another measure of success beyond the quantitative (how successfully I avoided any kind of news information) is the qualitative. I think when people ask me, "How's it going?" this is what they're getting at. They want to know how I'm feeling--and holding up.

Here's a list of feelings I've experienced. They run the gamut as at different times I've felt:.
  • Lonely
  • Free
  • Weird
  • Fake (like I'm not really missing anything)
  • Pretentious
  • Relaxed
  • Anxious (what's going on out there!)

For the most part there have been benefits to this project, some of them unexpected. I'm thankful for that because, otherwise, it would be difficult to face the fact that I'm still less than a third of the way done with my newsless regimen.
  • I have a bit more time each day.
  • I have no opportunities to think hyper-critically about current events or the cultural landscape or to get up on my soap box and rant about them.
  • I've written 38 posts which is excellent practice at what amounts to a whole new genre of writing, blogging, which I now know has its own needs and demands.
  • I've had a chance to exercise my sense of humor when I write.
  • I now have a better idea of what others are doing in the blogosphere, which is humbling because there's SO MUCH out there, and the blogs that are good manage to be shockingly original in the midst of the overall blog glut.
  • Close to home, where most of my "news" now takes place, I've noticed more than ever before what I can only call "everyday wonders."

Thrilling Conclusion
I'm going to hang in there even though I'd really like to flip on the TV and catch some NFL or NCAA heroics before the seasons end or I'd love to go to a new movie or read a review of a book that just came out. Oh well. I'll try to accentuate the positive. If I get a tax cut when I go to fill out my taxes in 2011, it will be like a second Christmas. I won't know about it until Turbotax tells me. Still, I wonder how much it might be? A few hundred dollars? Five hundred? A thousand? Oh, someone help me! - V.W.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Eroica Meditations

Happy 240th!
These days in lieu of paying attention to the news I find myself taking note of significant dates in history. I figure if as long as I'm Van Winknled I can't quite live in, respond to, and comment upon the present, at least I can happily romp around in the distant past.

Today happens to be one of those days when long ago something significant happened, although at the time it wasn't news to anyone except a man and woman of little note.

Two hundred and forty years ago, in Bonn, Germany, a son was born. The parents named him Ludwig.

This was the same name given to their first child who had died young. It was also the name of little Ludwig's grandfather, a Court Capellmeister.

In his early years the fact that the boy was Ludwig Van Beethoven meant nothing to the world. He was just another kid in Germany. We know what church he was baptised in, what houses he lived in, but little else about him caused ripples until he took up a musical instrument. By age 8 we have it recorded that he gave a public concert in Cologne. Now it was becoming clear. He was a child prodigy. The next Mozart!

Another good reason to check out garage sales.
I learned these facts and more from a large book I bought at garage sale years ago. Produced for the Beethoven Bicentennial in 1970, it is filled with reproductions of period documents, original musical scores in the master's hand, and paintings of key historical figures and sites.

This book is the closest thing I know of to a Beethoven scrapbook. Buying it at the garage sale for a buck was an easy decision. After all the time I've spent listening to  Beethoven's music, how could I not want to know more about the man behind it?

Some of the first LPs we owned
Begin With the Ears
When I was a first grader my father did something quite remarkable for a former Oklahoma farm boy supporting a wife and three young sons on an entry-level accountant's salary. He went and bought us a Hi-Fi.

The Magnavox unit, a large piece of cherry wood furniture, was roughly the size of a kitchen cabinet. It contained an automatic record changer with a tone arm that weighed approximately 2 lbs. and an AM/FM radio. In its guts were glowing vacuum tubes.

The man at the music store knew we would need music to play on our new record changer. My father had heard and liked some classical music when he went to college, so the man suggested the Nutcracker Suite, Rhapsody and Blue, and the 1812 Overture. We stacked up the records. I sat back in my child's rocking chair. Immediately I was overwhelmed by the rich monaural sounds pouring out of the 12" speacker behind the gold and fabric grill. But the best was soon to come.


Over the years there would be many discovered treasures. The Pastorale. The. Eroica. The Ninth. The Appasionata. The Emperor. The encounters with Beethoven's music would be spread out over time, but the effect was always the same. The music left me searching for words to describe something so titanic, so emotional, so true.

How to Achieve Greatness
One day, several years and several houses after the hi-fi, a piano showed up. This was how it seemed to my brothers and me. Our parents would later claim they ran the idea past us, but I don't recall seriously contemplating what was suddenly about to be required: I was going to have to take piano lessons.

Truthfully, this seemed a little nerdy and what for? Neither of our parents played any kind of instrument. Sure, I liked to listen to the music on the hi-fi, but my early years of playing the piano was the furthest thing from that kind of music making. I played simplistic ditties or boring measures from the Czerny book, all of it resounding in a clanging cheap fashion on the Wurlitzer upright. To obtain such aural miseries I had to practice a half hour every day when I would rather have been reading history books or chasing horned toads in the dirt.

This was not a happy time.

Then we moved to Alaska and I finally got a better teacher who 1) had a baby grand piano which actually could be made to sound amazing during my lessons, 2) challenged me to reach a level of proficiency where I could some play music I cared about, and 3) made me meet the highest standards of technique and interpretation. I was still no Horowitz, but I now hated practice and lessons only 70% of the time instead of 100%.

For each lesson I received a grade on a scale of 100. I usually made a low 90. After so many lessons with a cumulative score of something or other, I qualified for a prize in the form of a miniature statue of a famous composer. Actually, this wasn't particularly motivating. Especially after I acquired all the major composers. Years later I threw away almost all of these plastic blandishments. But I kept Beethoven.

Not everyone can be a Schroeder (sigh).
Looking back, I realize my piano lessons weren't all for naught. They taught me that greatness begins with practice and excellent teachers. Even someone with the genius of Beethoven did not form himself without help.

I learned from the bicentennial book that as a child, Ludwig studied for two weeks with the mighty Mozart. Soon after that he had a year of lessons with the great Franz Joseph Haydn. After that he studied with other notables in Vienna who at the time were considered the very best. By his teachers Beethoven was challenged and he was encouraged. This is what good teachers do. The rest, of course, is up to the pupil. Does he or she have that mysterious quality that we think of as a "gift" or "talent"? Will he or she make the most of it?

The answer for me was no and no. But by the end of the my piano lessons I could limp through Fur Elise and I could play with feeling and satisfaction the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Sometimes if you can't be great yourself, you have to settle for touching the hem of the garment.

Mercurial Personality
By the time he was in his early 30's Beethoven knew that he had a reputation for something besides being an incomparably gifted composer and performer. In 1802 he inked out the so-called "Heiligenstadt Testament" and he dealt directly with the issue of his terrible interpersonal relationships.

To those who saw the side of him  that seemed (in his own words)"quarrelsome, peevish or misanthropic" Beethoven wanted them to know that this wasn't the real him. Inside was a tender man with nothing but outpourings of affection for humanity. Why did he come off as such a jerk in person? There was a "secret reason why I seem to you to be so," he wrote.  Beethoven went on to reveal that for the past 6 years he had suffered from an incurable condition. It caused him to withdraw in an effort to disguise his disability. He described his life as a "miserable existence." Of course, all us know what he strove to keep secret in the early years of his life. The composer was going deaf.

First pages of Heiligenstadt Testament
The ensuing years brought more masterpieces, but no improvement in Beethoven's disposition. In 1825 he received a letter from a copyist he had been working with and whom he had criticized for performing his work poorly. This man, Ferdinand Wolanek, decided to return the scores and withdraw from the assignment after Beethoven called him a "Bohemian blockhead." In his letter to Beethoven, Wolanek defended his professionalism and stated, in essence, that Beethoven was impossible to work with.

Beethoven's reaction was to place a giant X across the front of the letter and write in large letters: "Stupid, conceited ass of a fellow!"

That wasn't enough. Beethoven scribbled over the margins of the letter: "So I am to exchange compliments with such a scoundrel who steals my money. Instead I should pull his ass's ears." He flipped over the letter and wrote still more invective on the back. In today's parlance, Beethoven went ballistic.

Beethoven answers his mail

Don't Roll Over Beethoven
As fascinating as the lives of artists tend to be, especially ones like Beethoven who struggled against afflictions and adversity, in the end I have to admit that the personality is not all that important. The main thing is the notes in the air or the paint on the canvas or the words on the page--how they impact my body, mind and soul.

Recently I've been reading a book that makes this point. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (with photos by Walker Evans) Agee recounts how he and Evans went down to Alabama during the depths of the Great Depression and lived among poor white sharecroppers for one month in the summer. Their plan was call to America's attention the plight of these ignored and ragged people and their children by using a combination of striking black and white photos and exquisitely poetic prose.

Agee was particularly concerned that the resulting book might be wrongly received as an aesthetic object. He worried that people would thus sidestep the real purpose of the book which was to do justice to the people who were the subject of it and then move the reader to relieve their distress.

Early in the book Agee states that a disillusioning attainment to the level of "art" is what habitually happens to the best creative human expression. What starts out as what Agee calls "fury," something "dangerous" to our conventionality and pre-conceived ideas, is taken over by others and tamed. It is officially accepted, hung on the walls of a museum, it is played in the concert hall, it is studied in school. Agee calls this "castration."

Agee turns to Beethoven as an example. He suggests that if one wishes to get back to what the composer intended, he should take a recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, turn it up as loudly as possible, get down on the floor, and put his ear next to the speaker and stay there, completely concentrated on listening.

"Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is..."

I think that starts to get at it. Those are some of the words I couldn't find to describe what I was feeling all those years ago and, indeed, still feel today whenever I listen to Beethoven. Music like his changes how I receive and think about life. Beethoven in my ears leads me through a world that is simultaneously more beautiful and tragic than I normally recognize.

Surely, he has this effect on others, although not everyone, of course. In that way, Beethoven is a bit like religion. Only the faithful can believe in his version of heaven or his hell. Yet Beethoven does not need to proselytize with missionaries or priests or use manipulations by emperors or kings to win adherents to his "church." For more than two hundred years his music has gone out and found those who have ears prepared to hear.

For those the music chooses, the result is absolute devotion, an urgent wish to hear more, so they can feel connected to something larger that this "deaf" man heard more loudly than the rest of us ever have.

"Anyone who understands my music will never be unhappy again," Beethoven is reported to have said at one point. All these years later I think that's the one of the most intriguing claims I've ever heard and it's reason enough for me to keep on listening, keep on trying to understand. - V.W.

PS: Also, historically important, today is my wife's birthday. Happy birthday, darling! How lucky you are to share a birthday with Ludwig!

PPS: For anyone who is wondering, "eroica" is Italian for "heroic" and it is the title Beethoven gave to his Third Symphony.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Review of My Dictionary

Is there an iPad or one of these in everyone's future?
I have a friend who is what used to be called a "booster." Boosters once were commonly found lurking among Rotarians and other such groups of business people. They were quite often loudly heard boosting the latest greatest thing that was, incidentally, likely to make some people in suits a lot of money. A power plant, a factory, a new subdivision.

When it comes to digital technology, especially the use of portable versions of the computer (e.g., iPhone, iPad, e-readers), my friend sees almost limitless possibilities for their use in education. He emphasizes how through these devices a cornucopia of knowledge on the Internet can be delivered to students at anytime. Simultaneously students can use the devices to easily connect with peers and discuss what they're learning.

 booster: 1 a person who  boosts; an enthusiastic supporter     

In his enthusiasm my friend goes around the country, and sometimes overseas, and delivers speeches about what is unfolding. He says the change we're looking at is a on par with  the one wrought by Gutenberg's printing press when, for the first time, books potentially could be made available to the masses, not just to the wealthy or a cloistered religious elite.

He forecasts the new prevalence of the digital version of ink (especially once all the old books are scanned into the new system) will soon allow each of us to hold in his or her hand all the world's writings from all eras, past and present. There will be no barriers to information in terms of time to acquire it or having to relocate ourselves to access it. It will all come to us instantaneously.

This means books, as we've known them for centuries--physical volumes housed in libraries and bookstores--are essentially dead.

He may be right. 
Or it could be that he's only partially right. Or it could be he's completely wrong.

Our son, who at age 12 is savvy beyond his years, reminded me when we were out walking last night how the Victorians thought steam was final word in technological marvels. Once they had steam in their factories and driving their ships, they thought it was only a matter of time before everything would be powered by steam. Horseless carriages. Crafts for flying through the air. But the Victorians were wrong about steam. It's heyday was something less than a hundred years.

About the only steam-anything you'll buy today is a steam iron.

The Good, The Bad, the Jury's Still Out: Even if my friend is correct that books and book stores and libraries as we have known them are bound to go away, I'm not prepared to concede that every aspect of "new" is "better." In fact, if I consult my dictionary, nowhere in the definition of "new" am I told that "new" always equals "better."

Of course, sometimes the new thing brought to the market is indeed better (caller ID and men's briefs are two of my favorites), but sometimes it's eventually recognized as bad (DDT and Yugos). Most often what is new is a confusing mix of costs and benefits (women's high heels and Dipping Dots).

Digitizing Our Books: It's easy to see a benefit to having books available through electronic devices. When I travel I don't have to pack up the heavy things and squeeze them into the overhead bin on the airplane or pay to check a bag containing them. I can even foresee the day when I will rejoice that our son's textbooks are offered to him digitally and he can put away the crippling 30 lb. backpack he lugs to school each day. The portability of e-books is a decided advantage.

But there may be costs the boosters have not recognized yet.

Start with the promise of access. Is it always really good that I stay deep in the couch cushions at home and pull up book after book with a tap of my finger? Frankly, I enjoy driving to my downtown library and following the numbers on the shelves until I find the book I seek out. Of course, the entire process is far from instant, taking me about 45-minutes round-trip and, yes, I will burn fossil fuel when I drive my car.

  enjoy: 1 to take pleasure or satisfaction in 2 to have for one's use, benefit

But on the other side of the balance sheet, in the library I will meet adults and bump up against excited children. I will smell the books. I'll smile at the woman who checks out the books. I'll even do enough walking that a few calories will be burned as opposed to staying at home on the couch. So there's an entire social, physical, and mental health benefit to the process.

And still another benefit awaits me when I get home with my analogue version of the book. As I sit down and open up a physical book, I am able to experience the sensation that knowledge and words have weight and texture.

She's So Heavy:
Meet my dictionary. If it were human, it would now be old
enough to have graduated from college. But could it find
a job in this down economy?
The mention of weight brings me to just about my favorite book. It also happens to be the largest.

As I pick up my Webster's Third College Dictionary and thumb through it, what I balance in my lap amounts to a heavy portion of the best of what our language has to offer. How heavy? I decided to take the dictionary to the bathroom scales.

Four and a half pounds! But actually that is nothing.

If I want the complete riches of the English language, then it comes in a Vatican-size residence for the text: the Oxford English Dictionary in twenty volumes.

A few years ago a man in England named Ammon Shea read the entire OED which amounted to 21,731 pages. He read some days for 10 hours straight and it still took him a year to get through the entire work. It was hard going, but he reported in the book he wrote about his experience that it was also rewarding. Obviously he learned some new words. A lot of them. But he also thought the panoply of vocabulary had aspects of reading a great novel.

                              Ammon Shea at work reading...the dictionary.

Word Fights: The dictionary figures in one of my favorite classroom stories from college. 
John Hersey 1914-1993

When I was at Yale I was fortunate to be able to take a creative writing class from the writer John Hersey. Hersey was a tall, patrician man and the author of many books and novels, including the bestsellers A Bell For Adano, A Single Pebble, and Hiroshima, the latter being the definitive on-the-ground account of what it was like when the first atomic bomb was dropped.
Everyone was in the class because Hersey represented a rare chance to study writing at the feet of (intake of breath) a Famous Writer.

Hersey was kind to me. Believing I had notable talent, he personally submitted a story of mine to The Atlantic Monthly. He was also fairly acerbic as he upheld the highest standards in writing. One day he began bashing the dictionary. The dictionary? Yes indeed.

"In Webster's Third, damn them, they've made 'nauseated' and 'nauseous' synonyms. They've destroyed a perfectly good word," he lectured. "Soon we'll all be reduced to just making grunts!"

Hmm. This sounded serious. My profs, especially civilized ones like Mr. Hersey, didn't usually cuss. But perhaps it was called for. People grunting throughout the day did seem an unpleasant prospect. As Mr. Hersey backed up and gave us some definitions, I understood why he thought the new version of the dictionary was doing us all a disfavor.

That day I learned from the writer (and never forgot) that "nauseated," means "I feel like I'm going to vomit." "Nauseous" (pre-Webster's Third) can only mean "capable of inducing a nauseated feeling in someone" as in "They encountered a nauseous odor." So if someone pre-Webster's Third said, "I feel nauseous," they were actually (stupidly) saying, "I feel like I can make other people throw up!"

But Webster's Third, in a language liberalizing move, had added a second definition to describe how some people misused "nauseous" when they really ought to say "nauseated." For an old-school fellow like Mr. Hersey this was a red flag in front of the bull. A dictionary ought to prescribe, not describe; otherwise, the misuage was legitimized.

All right, good and well. Still, I also could see how people confused the two words and meanings. Doesn't saying "I feel nauseous" just sound, well, more sickly, more nauseated?

The larger lesson stayed with me in any case. Words are important. This is a creedal statement for anyone who even dreams of being a writer.

  creed: 1 a brief authoritative formula of religous belief 2 a set of fundamental beliefs

Consider just one page of the dictionary...

Dictionary Adventures:
A number of years ago I wrote a novel that I never could get published. The heroine is a famous but disenchanted Hollywood movie star who slips away to a small seaside town in Oregon. There she meets a man nicknamed Shep. Shep is a fisherman whom everyone regards as a sort of holy fool. Shep is always talking extravagantly about the nature of reality, the sheer miracle of it all. One day he pulls out a staggeringly massive unabridged Webster's, turns to one of the "C" pages, and starts lecturing the actress on the definitions . As he nears the end of his two-page soliloquy he's  really getting worked up.

            "And we must not overlook coriums, attached to every bug! Here we find the long middle part of the beetle’s wing. What can that wing do? It traverses great distances and, just as easily, folds up and disappears beneath the streamlined armor in order to join a body waddling across the hard ground.
            "Oh! The coquilla nut! You’ll find it in the top of the piassava palm that grows in Brazil. Break open the nut and smash and knead its meat and you obtain rich oil. However, do not discard the hard brown shell. Touched by human hands and tools a different result is derived. It can be carved and polished like the finest ivory.
            "Please don’t forget the short tale of cordierite. Formed in the fiery belly of the earth it is coughed to the surface. The colors dazzle the eyes of those who pick it up and hold the bluish crystal in their palms. And it finds its way into necklaces and jewelry and where it has often brought delight to kings and queens.
            "And I still have not told you of the coquito, that palm of Chili whose sap is sweet and becomes a tongue tingling wine, or the impossibly beautiful Ionian isle of Corfu, or the amazing coreopsis, those plants with dazzling yellow, crimson or maroon flowers, or the cordgrass that grows ten feet high in the middle of forbidding tidal mud flats, or the delicately drooping pink and white flowers of the coral bells blooming nearly half the year on our own continent, or the deeply hued Cordovan leather, made from fine goat skins obtainable in Spain, and the men and women who walk the dusty roads in shoes made of it.”
            Shep stopped speaking.  He reached a hand to his forehead.  The fingers stayed there as if feeling the after-vibrations of his own thought...         

Rating Time: My character's point is that the dictionary is not just information. It's a collection of names for wonders that humans have encountered. Every entry there contains a story. The words have dimension because they are attached to human actions and thoughts. Holding the book in our hands, running our fingers over the paper as we turn pages, picking up a pencil or highlighter and rubbing our own response into the page encourages us to realize this dimensionality.

I treasure the dents on the cover as well as the barely visible
Simon & Schuster logo in bas relief.

But what happens if we flatten all that out digitally? I would have no Webster's 3rd with beat-up indents in the cover and creases in the pages. Using a computer as the sole source of my information I would acquire words the way someone who is fed through a tube gains calories. The tube does its job, efficiently and quickly, yet the flavor and the pleasure of chewing have been removed.

I've had my trusty Webster's Third for 22 years. It serves me well. Since I'm enough of a language liberal to overlook the "nauseated" and "nauseous" scandal, I can give it without qualms four stars **** - V.W.


Friday, December 10, 2010

How to Do Something Esoteric and Useless Too!

Today’s replacement for the news is a practical lesson in how to do something
that possibly few people on Planet Earth have undertaken.
But I have good tidings. At this blog we do not abuse readers. We're not going to ask anyone to hold his or her breath under water for 30 minutes. No one will even ask you to try to cook French soufflé that doesn’t fall. You won't be encouraged to figure out decades too late how to stop the 12:00 from flashing on a VCR.

This one is e-a-s-y!

First, Check Your Shower and Tub Area
Conduct an all-out sweep of the entire area, paying special attention to drains, ledges, and soap dish areas. Here's what you're looking for:


The expected thing, of course, would be to take your soap slivers, wet them, and mash them all together into a single frightening clump that resembles something regurgitated by one of your pets, and thus extend their life of cleansing. This is classic household advice.

We won’t do that. That wouldn’t be esoteric. It would also be very much like a certain longtime newspaper column.

Isn't That Handy (Thrifty Too!) 
Whenever I picked up the lifestyle section of the paper and happened upon Hints From Heloise  her readers were always up to the same thing--sharing wild and revolutionary innovations that not only extended the monthly budget dollars, but turned the home into a pragmatic but aesthetically pleasing sanctuary, a vertitable Americanized Louis without the 'Quatorze,' just "Louie Louie".

Not necessarily dishwasher proof.
Dear Heloise,
I receive so many of those address labels sent by charitable organizations, but I don’t write letters anymore. So I take the labels and cover a coffee mug with them and give the appliqued mugs as gifts to friends. That way every time a friend drinks from the mug she’ll think of me and remember where I live. And if we’re no longer friends, I stick outdated labels on the mug. She’ll look for me in the wrong city. Sucker!
         Peppy in Poughkeepsie

Dear Heloise,
My husband drinks a lot of wine, too much wine, but that’s another story (ask his friends in AA ha!). The problem is that we end up with a lot of wine corks which I just hate to throw away. I finally realized what they’re good for. I stick toothpicks in them and, well, that’s it. I place them by each dinner plate when I have company over for pasta and everyone just marvels at my “Tuscan toothpick holders.”
                 Tired of Tipsy in Tucumcari

At dinnertime place it in front
of the knife where it will be handy.
Okay. I made those up. But the following is actual world-real experimentation on behalf of all those seeking to do something around the home at absolutely no cost to themselves, others, or the environment.

Back to the Task At Hand
We will re-purpose the soap sliver in your bath or shower into an object with no purpose whatsoever. (So really it’s not technically “re-purposing”, is it?) This simple project allows you to take the remains of the humble household item that once served you well by lathering your skin and carrying away dead cells, dried sweat, and other signs of being a bipedal animal species prone to funk and filthiness, and in 5 minutes voila! (as Louis XIV would say) you will have turned said slivers into something even more humble.

Step 1
Get a knife. Find a solid cutting surface.

So far, so good!

Step 2
Shave the soap sliver into fine cuttings or, alternatively, chop it up like you’re shredding a parking ticket you absolutely refuse to pay.

Be careful here! See cautions below.

Step 3
Examine what you now have.

Congratulations. Looks interesting...and useless.

Step 4
Place the slivered soap slivers into a zip-loc bag because zip-loc bags are ideal for everything.

Step 5
Hide the zip-loc bag with the slivered slivers of soap beneath a random couch cushion where you’ll be sure to forget about it.

Step 6 - Enjoy!
Open a bottle of wine, pour it into an address label appliquéd coffee mug, and drink deeply while using the wrong end of a “Tuscan toothpick holder” to poke yourself so you’ll always remember that you haven’t had this much fun in a long time!

 A Very Brief History of Soap                                                                                      
 Frankly this sounds disgusting, so there’s no point in going on at length. Apparently, until a scientist had a break-through in the early 20th century, all soap was made from animal fats that were heated up and mixed with the equivalent of ash. Wow, let’s wallow in some ox and goat goo with a nice side of charcoal and get clean, people! Let’s even run our clothes through this putrid porridge! But it must be true because it’s on Wikipedia.                                                                                                                                                      

  • Do not use any implement except a Swiss Army knife which may be purchased at the following link.
  • Do not cut yourself with the Swiss Army knife because it will hurt and you will bleed profusely and have to go to the emergency room.
  • Do not taste any curlicues of soap shaved by the knife that visually remind you of caramel or chocolate because they will not taste like caramel or chocolate only bad and you will have to have your stomach pumped in the emergency room.
  • Do not handle soap slivers containing a high level of radioactivity* because you will go to the emergency room, be admitted to the hospital, die a slow cruel death, and before your final gasp your hair will fall out and you’ll look like Chris Daughtry.
  • Do not go near any electrical outlets because there is always a potential for shock which will send you to the ER with hair that looks like Troy Polamalu, although this is survivable and it’s always a good idea to insure your hair beforehand.
  • Do not go near any one who wants you to wire money to an overseas bank account saying their mother is dying of cancer and they need to purchase 10,000 Swiss Army knives to sell as a fund raiser to buy chemo treatments for Mom in Nigeria.
  • Do not try to rub your stomach, chew gum, and say, “Tommy Tuna Took a Taxi to Tijuana” five times fast while you are cutting the soap sliver with your Swiss Army knife or you will end up, well, you know.
  • Do not speak to any personal injury or product liability lawyers for the next 90 days.
*To ascertain whether you have radioactive soap, purchase a $719 Geiger counter at this link.

The author does not represent any of the foregoing to be safe to either physical or mental health and can not be held responsible for any of the content therein because he was asleep at the time - V.W.