Snow: A Five Photos, Five Stories … uh, Story

The photo above was taken on November 26, 2014. The coordinates: 41°24′07″N 74°19′22″W, which if you have a globe, direct you to Goshen, New York. I live a 10-minute drive from this spot.

In “Connect the Colors,” I wrote, “Perception may be the most unique and personal portion of human experience—or it may be the most identical; either way, we do not have a means of testing it, except based on anecdotes from individuals. Perhaps strawberries taste the same for you as they do for me, or they do not.” Perhaps an exception can be made to this perception about perception: the weather. Maybe we all feel it the same.
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If You’re Not a Part of the Solution …

The bitter angels of our nature are sometimes easier to hear. Sometimes, the words chosen and spoken by the “better angels of our nature,” the peace-lovers among us, are heard by the bitter angels as bitter. That is insidious.

When President Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, from which we get the phrase, “better angels of our nature,” there was little he could have said or done that would have averted the Civil War; there was no guarantee the war was going to happen, but enough people were looking for the fight rather than looking for areas of agreement that the war was minutes instead of hours or months away. (Some states wanted to leave—and had already formed a new country—and the remaining states did not want them to leave but did not want them to stay in the Union with slavery as a part of their economy, so there were few areas of agreement.) Once an anti-slavery, pro-Union Republican (a new political party) was elected president, secession began, and war looked ever closer.

Lincoln dedicated his speech to explaining that secession was logically impossible, since a Union is a union, and promising that the federal government would not fire unless fired upon (which happened a couple weeks later, at Fort Sumter).

He concluded his address with an emotionally stirring paragraph, beginning with this plaintive sentence: “I am loath to close.” He did not want to end the speech. It was almost like he believed that, the longer he talked, the longer the Union would remain. But he went ahead and finished with these famous words:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

There was no response from the states that had seceded, official or otherwise, until the attack on Fort Sumter. That was their reply, and then the war was on. Those southern newspapers that deigned to report on the new president’s first speech focused on his “threats” (their word) to preserve the Union and ignored or insulted the concluding sentences. Northern newspapers apparently highlighted the “better angels” passage.

(I have an acquaintance who believes himself to be a Southerner more than an American and refuses to allow pennies in his house, because “that man” is depicted on them. It would be comical, except for it not being funny at all.)

In her book, “Abraham Lincoln the Orator,” a Binghamton University scholar named Lois Einhorn writes about the first inaugural address and the marked difference in reactions to it from North and South:

Selective listening, in effect, means that people hear what they expect and perhaps want to hear. All people listen selectively, hearing only part of any message. In the case of Lincoln’s Inaugural, one could expect a great deal of selective listening because the situation was marked by a high degree of prejudice and because Lincoln had said little to counter these prejudiced views. Many of the editorials evaluating the Inaugural Address support the view that selective listening and selective perception help account for the divergent reactions to the speech. Northern and Southern editorials tended to quote different portions of the speech: Northern editorials usually quoted the speech’s conciliatory peroration, while Southern editorials usually quoted Lincoln’s forceful statements about how he would treat the South.

“Selective listening” is an enormous phrase. I saw it in all its power recently. A friend who was important to me started to express opinions that I found offensive; I struggled to find the words to express my discomfort—this friend was not attacking me personally, after all, so why complain? There must be some reason behind what I felt was ugliness coming from my friend, I thought. I wrote to him, explained that I was not going to attempt to change his opinion, that I did not need an explanation in return nor did I want a debate, but that I simply needed to express my discomfort and for that to be accepted so we could move on to happier conversations. Even if my friend simply expressed discomfort with my discomfort, I would have been fine. (“Agree to disagree,” as they say.)

I hoped my better angels were present. The issue happened to be about social unfairness and race and recent events in the news, an issue I have written about before—in “Guilty of White” —and will again, and my friend responded with a photo of himself with people of color, as if such a thing could even be a response. (I restrained myself and did not write this: “Okay, fine. You have African-American friends. Have you shared with them what I have been reading from you? How well has that been going?”) A joke that I will not reprint followed from my friend; it was at about the same level of emotional maturity as not allowing pennies in one’s house. I have walked away from that friendship, grateful that I learned a lesson, but I am still not certain what that lesson was or is, because this is a friend who tended (tends) to find better angels in almost every circumstance. I was and am confused.

My friend read my expression of discomfort as an attack that needed to be rebuffed; it is sad. Was I selectively hearing his anger as hate? Was he selectively hearing me attacking him? Both at the same time?

There is a line I can not cross just so I can say that I am friends with all sorts of individuals, even intolerant people who insist on being tolerated.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 16 asks, “Do you have a good friend or close relative with whom you disagree on a major issue (political, personal, cultural)? What’s the issue, and how do you make the relationship work?”

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Tapping into ‘Echo Spring’

Every alcoholic has a collection of anecdotes that can be simultaneously heartbreaking, outrageous, and hilarious. Perhaps they are hilarious only to fellow alcoholics; perhaps they can not even be listened to by outsiders. For an outsider, most alcoholic anecdotes may as well conclude with the same punchline, an interchangeable rubber-stamped ending: “And then I got away with it again.” Or, “I didn’t die that time, either.” And then comes the next hair-raising—or eyebrow-raising—tale.

There are two standard anecdotes, one usually about outrageous behavior, and another about the pit at the end of the road. Almost everyone who drinks has a few of the first sort of story.

“I thought things were going great and I was happy to be sober and proud to be in recovery, but I kept having these urges. I was in a good mood and I talked about the urges and people helped me understand. And now it’s two weeks later and I don’t remember these two weeks.” That is the second kind of story; I heard it from someone today. The speaker had “picked up,” which is recovery-speak for “drank.” He “went out” is another phrase.

In her 2013 book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing quotes Andrew Turnbull’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (pictured above):

He describes Fitzgerald in his room at the Grove Park Inn making endless lists “of cavalry officers, athletes, cities, popular tunes. Later, he realized that he had been witnessing the disintegration of his own personality and likened the sensation to that of a man standing at twilight on a deserted range with an empty rifle in his hands and the targets down.” The images are drawn from Fitzgerald’s own account in “The Crack-up,” but somehow have more impact here. (Laing, 84)

That is the second kind of story, too.

Towards the end of my drinking, but really, nowhere near the end, I remember extemporizing for several hours straight about NASCAR to a friend. Now, I am a racing fan so I have a fan’s knowledge base, but I remember feeling like I had turned into an obsessed young boy who has discovered the backside of his baseball cards and wants to read off every single statistic out loud to everyone. And the moment came from nowhere. It was possibly a symptom of delirium tremens, but I recall feeling safe in settled facts and unsafe in the open field of conversation. The subject matter of the facts was chosen at random, by me, and could have been any other topic area, but I cleverly picked one that none of my friends shared enthusiasm for. There could be no conversation. For my friend, it must have felt like what Turnbull described about watching Fitzgerald as I rattled off lists of winners and possible routes to the championship for certain race teams. For hours. (“Cavalry officers, athletes, cities.”) I also remember that I detected an intervention in my future and I figured that if I spoke continuously, no intervention could happen. Instead, I probably hastened one.

That is the second kind of story. My brain was firing blanks, a lot of them in rapid succession, as confidently as my brain had ever fired off substantive thoughts in graduate school classes or in front of classrooms, but blanks anyway. A line from a Robert Lowell poem, “Eye and Tooth,” haunted me: “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.”

Laing’s book mixes travel narrative, expository journalism, and literary biography in pursuit of a personal answer to a large question: “I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically, I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.” She picks six male, American, Twentieth-century, writers—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver—as her biographical subjects, even though she is young, British, female. These figures give her sufficient distance to look more closely at the subject; she alludes to being raised in a house “under the rule of alcohol.” She adds, “There are some things that one can’t address at home,” and decides to travel to America.

What I wanted was to discover how each of these men—and along the way, some of the many others who have suffered from the disease—experienced and thought about their addiction. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge. (Laing, 12)

(The ‘Echo Spring’ of her title comes from Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which Brick, to get away from Big Daddy, excuses himself. Big Daddy asks, “Where you goin’?” and Brick replies, memorably, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.” Echo Spring is his brand of bourbon and the nickname for the liquor cabinet holding it.)

It is the first kind of story, the outrageous anecdote, the prurient tale, that Laing says that she wants avoid, and she successfully does; the hair-raising bits are kept to a minimum, and, when seen, sketched very deftly, as on page 82: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.” That was Fitzgerald at his hijinks-loving “best.” Fitzgerald’s fellow famous Baltimoran appears in the next sentence, at his most pruriently judgmental. “According to Mencken, [Fitzgerald] shocked a Baltimore dinner party ‘by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe.'”

Laing finds and expresses the empathy that can be found in Fitzgerald’s apparent fondness for drunkenly dropping trou, though, and writes about the mask that baldly revealing oneself can prove to be: “Undressing is an act of concealment sometimes. You can yank down your pants and show off your gospel pipe and still be a man in mortal terror of revealing who you are.” An alcoholic will shock to prevent a embarrassing conversation about his drinking.

It is that mortal terror that animates much addiction and certainly contributed to the art these six writers created; to her credit, Laing’s empathy is clear-eyed and clear-hearted and she does not look for redemption where there is none. That second kind of story is too heart-breaking, after all, and each of her six writers lived it. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Berryman did not survive theirs.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 14 asks, “Open your nearest book to page 82. Take the third full sentence on the page, and work it into a post somehow.” This was it: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.”

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James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist, Sitting

For most of 1928, James Joyce’s attention was unequally divided among many projects and complications: He was keeping a wary watch over German and French translations of “Ulysses,” his 1922 novel; readying sections of his next novel, which was still officially titled “Work in Progress” (published as “Finnegan’s Wake” years later, in 1939); defending “Work in Progress” from negative reviews and letters from friends who were urging him to quit his experimental writing; explaining to his patrons when new sections of “Work in Progress” could be expected so that he could have an income; and losing his eyesight.

He was 46 years old, living in Paris with his partner, Nora, and their two children, and life was complicated. He was engaged in writing the novel that became “Finnegan’s Wake,” and his artistic ambition for it and its effect on him were both unsparing. “Ulysses” tells a story of a single day, June 16, 1904, in a particular place, Dublin, using as many types of storytelling and modes of rhetoric as he could use. Joyce intended “Work in Progress” to do the same thing but for the idea of nighttime; it is entirely inside the sleeping and dreaming mind of some unknown person, and it is written in a sort of pidgin English animated by puns.

His letters to his patrons tended to obscure matters even further and made it more challenging to continue funding his project. In one 1927 letter to his most important supporter, Harriet Shaw Weaver, he wrote something with “the intention of enlightenment,” as his biographer Richard Ellmann cheerfully puts it, but what he sent read:

I am making an engine with only one wheel. No spokes, of course. The wheel is a perfect square. You see what I’m driving at, don’t you? I am awfully solemn about it, mind you, so you must not think it is a silly story about the mooks and the grapes. No, it’s a wheel, I tell the world. And it’s all square. (Ellmann, 597)

Weaver tried to get in the spirit of his constant riddling and urged him to square the wheel, a suggestion for which he thanked her but further explained that he was doing something different than that. By 1928, financially and artistically discouraged, he declared to one friend

Critics who were most appreciative of “Ulysses” are complaining about my new work. They cannot understand it. Therefore they say it is meaningless. Now if it were meaningless it could be written quickly, without thought, without pains, without erudition; but I assure you that these twenty pages now before us cost me twelve hundred hours and an enormous expense of spirit.” (Ellmann, 598)

Thus, Weaver traveled from London to Paris in 1928 to see for herself how things were going, on the occasion of Joyce’s 46th birthday. The visit reassured both parties and later that year he received word of an advance payment from two American publishers.

This is the James Joyce captured in Berenice Abbott’s famous portrait of the artist: At rest and a bit more confident in his world. The left lens in his eyeglasses is shaded, evidence of the ongoing battle to save his sight. It is one of the two or three most famous photos of the author, the one fondly parodied on the album cover for “If I Should Fall From Grace with God”:

james-joyceAbbott was an American who became more famous in later years for her portraits of New York City during the Great Depression. She spent the decade of the 1920s learning her craft, working with the photographer Man Ray, and opened her own studio in 1927. She had photographed Joyce before, in 1926, and that photo session saw the author wearing an eye patch after surgery (and a soul patch under his lower lip):



joyce sans hatJoyce apparently liked sitting for Abbott, as there are several other photos from the 1928 session, without the stylish fedora and cane, but obviously from the same session, as he is wearing the same striped necktie. I think the one at left captures Joyce with more feeling; perhaps without the protection the hat and cane afforded him he let his guard down. The iconic photo of an iconic literary figure is followed by a photo of a weary, but not wary, momentarily confident, 46-year-old artist.

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James Joyce died 74 years ago today, January 13, 1941.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 13 asks, “Pick a random word and do Google image search on it. Check out the eleventh picture it brings up. Write about whatever that image brings to mind.” When one searches Google Images for images of the great author, the famous Berenice Abbott photo, the one at the top of this column, is number 11.

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‘A tomar las armas compañeros’

I do not often write until I am certain—or self-deluded into thinking—that what will come out will present my thoughts clearly. When I gush, I feel embarrassed that I am using anyone’s time with an indulgence of self when others deserve a reader’s time more. I don’t deserve a reader’s time just because I’m here on a soapbox. Feel free to move on …

Sometimes I am confused. Are there are too many soapboxes in this world and not enough people reaching out to help people up and expand understanding, or are there too few soapboxes from which to proclaim love, describe help, and attempt to expand understanding?

You already know what took place today in Paris. The fact of a soapbox was addressed with state-less mass murder. It was a terrorist attack on the right to write, to publish, to think, to feel, to love. The right to be jerks, which the cartoonists who were killed today declared for themselves. Each of us, if we wish to claim it for ourselves, has a soapbox from which we can expand understanding, even by expressing shock, revulsion, confusion.

Today is not a day for pretty sentences and confidence in metaphors; it is a day for assuring one another in plain terms that there is a right to write, a right to love, a right to be shocked and confused. A right to hate hate.

The idea that an idea, a clever cartoon, a spoken sentence, is to be met with bloody murder is one that can only be addressed with more ideas and sentences, because the attack is bizarre proof of power of the written word. Murderers are murderers, but murder is not an idea. It is not a political statement. It is not criticism. It empty and totalitarian. Anyone who believes that their God demands blood to defend him/her/it does not understand their own God, and any God that truly can not defend itself from a mere human’s verbal insult isn’t much of a God.

The universe is indifferent and entropy is a reality, but alongside entropy, the universe possesses—or was given—creativity. There is no indifference in creativity. Totalitarianism, of whatever stripe, pretends to be political, but it is a political declaration of being pro-entropy, which is an untenable stance.

We live in an increasingly neurotic era, globally. America, my home, has spent more than a decade (some would insist the number is more like six decades) attempting to strong-arm the world into agreeing with our own self-regard. No one will be taking me and my cane from my desk for typing that sentence and hitting publish.

Murder is murder. It is not an idea. It is a vacuum, and vacuums are totalitarian in their lack of purpose. History teaches us that ideas fill the vacuum, the murderous vacuum. More ideas, please. Love is stronger than hate. That’s one.

The photo-cartoon above is by a Chilean cartoonist named Francisco J. Olea. I cried when I saw it. The caption, “A tomar las armas compañeros,” can be translated to, “Grab your weapons, friends.” More ideas, please. Write them and draw them and hit publish. More ideas, please.

The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was murdered during the Spanish Civil War by soldiers on the nationalist side, the Francoists. In “Fable and Round of the Three Friends,” he foresaw, in his surrealist fashion, his own end:

When the pure forms sank
under the cri cri of daisies
I understood they had murdered me.
They searched the cafés and the graveyards and churches,
they opened the wine casks and wardrobes,
they destroyed three skeletons to pull out their gold teeth.
Still they couldn’t find me.
They couldn’t?
No. They couldn’t.
But they learned the sixth moon fled against the torrent,
and the sea remembered, suddenly,
the names of all her drowned.

More Lorca for a sad day:

City That Does Not Sleep
In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins.
The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream,
and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the
street corner
the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the

Nobody is asleep on earth. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
In a graveyard far off there is a corpse
who has moaned for three years
because of a dry countryside on his knee;
and that boy they buried this morning cried so much
it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet.

Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!
We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth
or we climb to the knife edge of the snow with the voices of the dead
But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist;
flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths
in a thicket of new veins,
and whoever his pain pains will feel that pain forever
and whoever is afraid of death will carry it on his shoulders.

One day
the horses will live in the saloons
and the enraged ants
will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the
eyes of cows.

Another day
we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead
and still walking through a country of gray sponges and silent boats
we will watch our ring flash and roses spring from our tongue.
Careful! Be careful! Be careful!
The men who still have marks of the claw and the thunderstorm,
and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention
of the bridge,
or that dead man who possesses now only his head and a shoe,
we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes
are waiting,
where the bear’s teeth are waiting,
where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting,
and the hair of the camel stands on end with a violent blue shudder.

Nobody is sleeping in the sky. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is sleeping.
If someone does close his eyes,
a whip, boys, a whip!
Let there be a landscape of open eyes
and bitter wounds on fire.
No one is sleeping in this world. No one, no one.
I have said it before.

No one is sleeping.
But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the
open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight
the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.
—translated by Robert Bly

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 7 asks, “A sanctuary is a place you can escape to, to catch your breath and remember who you are. Write about the place you go to when everything is a bit too much.”

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Glass Houses

There is a wonderful show business saying that if a performer is a great enough talent, “you could put him or her behind a brick wall and they will still find a way to entertain.” While I believe this to be true in idealistic theory, I also think that not putting him or her behind a brick wall would be profoundly helpful to their cause. If a website is going to be worth a visit, publicity is going to help get that visit.

I have gone viral approximately not once, so I have some expertise in the field of not being at all famous.

Some of you may not remember that last March I was almost on the verge of getting on line for the waiting room to visit the Land of the Almost Known. My “” page was featured on that website’s “popular” list, and my page, which usually receives about 150 views per day, was seen by 3051 other users, 2000 within the first hour of being listed. Another 1300 visited the next day.

Three thousand. I know, I know. I have lived in at least one building that had a larger population.

What does fame feel like? Living in Philip Johnson’s “Glass House.”

The Glass House. Located in New Canaan, CT, it was built in 1949.

The Glass House. Located in New Canaan, CT, it was built in 1949.

This post will be number 192, I think, on this website. There are a handful of columns that I am proud of having written and published, and they are these:
1. The several pieces I have published about my life with adult spinal muscular atrophy. I even explain the duck on my website. Here, I will group them together in one package: Spinal muscular atrophy.
2. A Conspiracy Theory of Conspiracy Theories
3. Guilty of White
4. Requiem for a Sponsor
5. Two appreciations of the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band and its leader, Vivian Stanshall
6. A column about the Baseball Hall of Fame
7. An appreciation of one of my favorite places, Opus 40
8. Comedy: The ‘Fish-Slapping Dance’
9. A column about W.H. Auden’s character: “Auden’s Decency”

As a self-publicist, I am not certain I would hire me, but I was the only person to apply for the job. On Twitter, there are a handful of people who profess to like what appears here and even share selected pieces. That amazes me, and I am speechless.

There are also people on that service who use unpleasant names (I was called the B word recently, which was a surprise) or offer strange advice (when I shared a recording of T.S. Eliot the other day, the fiftieth anniversary of his death, one person took the time to explain what drugs I ought to get a prescription for, and that he could help). In the name of publicity, I should never block anyone, but I did in both of those cases.

No glass house for me.

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Please visit some or all of the above columns, follow me on Twitter, and please subscribe to The Gad About Town on Facebook: Thanks.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 6 asks, “Your blog just became a viral sensation. What’s the one post you’d like new readers to see and remember you by? Write that post.”

Firsts, Lasts. Somewhere in the Middle

There are many “not-yets” in this particular life. A lot of firsts yet to come. In my clever disguise as “me,” one consistent fact about my me has been its surprising lack of aplomb when doing something for the first time.

My reactions are aplomb-less because they are reactions, not responses, usually. It is often as small a matter as declaring out loud with my outdoors voice, “This is the first time that I have … .”

There is one thing I recall from my first day of kindergarten: Being shoved off a three-step cube that bridged two sides of the classroom together. I had decided to greet each new classmate with a handshake and that was my reward for acting like a grown-up. To this day, forty years later, I am rarely the first to offer a handshake in social situations, and on the annual occasion when I do offer my hand first, the party whose acquaintance I am making usually reinforces my reasons for not offering my hand first.

(A couple years ago, I met someone, stuck out my hand, and then watched as the guy looked at my hand, at his hand, and then back at my hand. He did not shake my hand. Had I challenged him to a duel or something? We did not become friends, and the one time we hung out with each other he spent several minutes verbally lusting for one of my female friends, which I ended by walking away after pointing out that she and I were friends. A first impression may not always be right, but they can be.)

I do not often wear life like a loose garment, as it says somewhere that I should, but there are exceptions: The moment I met my girlfriend. (Her name is Jen, by the way. I have not formally introduced her to you or you to her: Jen, readers; readers, Jen. This is probably because I consider her The Reader and have told her that “Dear Jen” is at the top of the first thing I wrote after she and I met, and that everything I have written since has been the body of that letter, including this website.)

I aspire to wear life like a loose garment. A condition that I have, spinal muscular atrophy, is helping. SMA is a genetic disease, but for me, an adult with the adult-onset version, it is not a life-shortening illness. It reduces my mobility. I move slowly and sometimes walk like I am a flat, two-dimensional, cartoon character. But I can walk. Sometimes, but not often, it hurts. I am not as sadly intimate with pain as so many others are, but what little I get to suffer as my muscles fight a silly fight against atrophying make life into a tight garment for me and every role I embrace—lover, writer, son, brother, friend, handshake specialist—goes out the nearest window.

There is a last first and I hope it is faaaaaar off. It is reported that W.H. Auden desired that his last words would be, “This has never happened to me before.” In a great speech, the basketball coach Jim Valvano explained life:

There are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.

A full day in a loose garment and life will offer no more rude handshakes. As the sadly late Stuart Scott used to say, “Boo-yah!”

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In answer to no one’s question: Yes. I chose a new layout. I was using “The Columnist” all 2014, was happy with it, but thought I would change things for the new year. I am using the free layouts still, but might invest in this website. Any suggestions? Does this layout make my ideas look good?

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 4 asks, “Tell us about your first day at something—your first day of school, first day of work, first day living on your own, first day blogging, first day as a parent, whatever.”

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Be Whose Change, Now?

Blame former Vice President Al Gore. In his bestselling book, “Earth in the Balance” (1992), Gore recounts the story of watching his six-year-old son be hit by a car, and the months he and his wife spent bringing the boy back to health.

He writes that “something changed in a fundamental way” for him that year, 1989: he turned 40, watched his son almost die, and lost the 1988 Presidential election. (He came in a distant “don’t remember him running that year” in the primaries to Michael Dukakis.)

On the same page as that list, page 14 in the revised edition, he writes that,

This life change has caused me to become increasingly impatient with the status quo, with conventional wisdom, with the lazy assumption that we can always muddle through. Such complacency has allowed many kinds of difficult problems to breed and grow, but now, facing a rapid deteriorating global environment, it threatens absolute disaster. No one can now afford to assume that the world will somehow solve its problems. We must all become partners in a bold effort to change the very foundation of our civilization.

(Gore does a far better job connecting the personal with the political than I did for him just now, above; reading the long quote on its own, as I shared it, reminds me of a tire-screeching/pulling-the-stereo-needle-across-the-record sound effect. “One minute, he was talking about turning 40, and then? This is connected to climate change how?” Okay. He spends the first dozen pages laying out his political credentials as a leader trying to avert the environmental catastrophe that we are now 20-plus years closer to than when he was writing. Then he reveals something that few politicians like to admit: vulnerability and teachability.) (My own Al Gore cred: the first vote I ever cast for president was for him, in 1988, in the New York State Democratic primary, which Dukakis won. I voted for Clinton/Gore twice and Gore in 2000. Nine years after its release, I have yet to view “An Inconvenient Truth,” however.)

In the next paragraph, he brings in Mahatma Gandhi, and bumper stickers have not been the same since.

I believe deeply that true change is possible only when it begins inside the person who is advocating it. Mahatma Gandhi said it well: ‘We must be the change we wish to see in the world.’ And a story about Gandhi—recounted by Craig Schindler and Gary Lapid—provides a good illustration of how hard it is to ‘be the change.’ Gandhi, we are told, was approached one day by a woman who was deeply concerned that her son was eating too much sugar. ‘I am worried about his health,’ she said. ‘He respects you very much. Would you be willing to tell him about its harmful effects and suggest he stop eating it?’ After reflecting on the request, Gandhi told the woman that he would do as she requested, but asked that she bring her son back in two weeks, no sooner.

As Gore tells it, or Schindler-Lapid tell it, the mother and son visit Gandhi two weeks later and he delivers his health message to the boy. The mother thanks him but asks why he had requested a two-week wait. “Because I needed the two weeks to stop eating sugar myself,” he is said to have replied.

And we all, without prompting, cast Sir Ben Kingsley as “cuddly Gandhi” in our movie version of this anecdote in our minds. In 12-step fellowship meetings, I promise you will hear someone re-tell this anecdote as if it appeared in the great movie biography, or in any biography of the great man.

No version of the story appears in any biography of Mahatma Gandhi. Nor does the “be the change” quote. According to a spiritual writer named Keith Akers, the bumper-sticker-perfect expression, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” can not be traced anywhere in the world until the 1970s at the earliest. He spent a couple of years trying to find the statement in Gandhi’s published and recorded works. His article, “Did Gandhi Really Say ‘Be the Change,’” concludes that it is a legend. Not that there is anything wrong with the notion—it is certainly a viable suggestion to make in any debate—but someone wanted to add some historical-philosophical oomph to the thought and attributed it to Mahatma Gandhi.

Akers also shares the amazingly ironic fact that several years ago, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association used the phrase in a pamphlet it released aimed at educating school boards about making sure beef was a part of their school districts’ nutrition and wellness plans for the coming school year. It is not attributed to Gandhi, but there it is, uncited and without quotes, in a document dated September 2005. About beef and its positive role in a youngster’s school nutrition.

In 2011, a writer named Brian Morton published in the New York Times an essay titled “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.” Akers also cites it. Morton expounds on several bogus quotations, including the “be the change” thought, and authoritatively quotes this from Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

He calls it the “closest verifiable remark” from Gandhi on the idea, but he does not offer a source so that anyone else can verify its closeness or its anything-ness. A Google search yields articles on spiritual websites that recount the mother and son and sugar story (some quite vividly, making it sound like an adventure tale), and the trek to the spiritual leader, and his request that they check back with him some time later (in some versions it is two weeks, in others, three days). And then the long version of the quote, the Morton quote, is offered in these stories, which were found today in a simple Google search, as Gandhi’s wise words to the mother.

There is no documented evidence he ever even said the Morton quote. Gandhi was an activist, so yes, putting his money where his mouth was would have counted for something. But he was not merely a spokesman for his ideals, telling people how to live. He knew that personal discipline in one person can not change anything, certainly not a government, but that a lot of people of discipline, working together and pushing each other, can. Those who like to vocalize the “be the change” quote are rarely heard speaking about changing unjust political systems or sparking revolutions; usually they use the quote to remind each other to smile more and be more sunny and thus make the world a smilier, sunnier place. And anyone who doesn’t smile back? It’s their fault.

If you want to write a best-selling bumper sticker, water a big thought down to a weak and insipid one, make it sound altruistic but really be about self-congratulation, and attribute it to someone long dead who really was a deep thinker but who would not have thought or even uttered what you are crediting them with saying.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 2 asks, “What change, big or small, would you like your blog to make in the world?”

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