From the Commonplace Book: E.B. White on winding the clock

This quote is from a touching letter E.B. White wrote to a reader about confronting what seems like a bleak future for the world and the human race. Since it’s been a bit rough lately, I thought I’d link to it today.

White, for me, is like Daniel Webster in The Devil and Daniel Webster. An American wizard whose spells are sentences which not only seem capable of better ordering the mind that hears them, but the world as well.

Hang in there, everybody.

Music Review: Chillingham by Oliver Davis

If Ralph Vaughan Williams were composing today, he might have a style similar to Oliver Davis. When the two sopranos and rhythmic strings of Chillingham first played in my Spotify feed, I had no choice but to stop what I was doing and listen, transported from my sterile white desk in Manhattan to a spring day on the coast of England, striding through a manicured garden towards the ocean.

There’s an elevated purity to Davis’s music that is still rich with emotion. It’s particularly English, in the same way that Wordsworth’s plainspoken but deeply felt portaits of the Lake District are, or the landscapes in the background of Kit Williams’s paintings. The greens are pure, the edges of the world are smoothed, and the charms of the old world are somehow resuscitated.

The location evoked in my first listening is specific. Chillingham is a village near the North Sea in England, and it’s also the title of the poem by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (grand niece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) that Davis set to music.

The words, like the music, are a wish to be transported:

    Strike, Life, a happy hour, and let me live
    But in that grace!
    I shall have gathered all the world can give,
    Unending Time and Space!

Is Roe v. Wade our Dred Scott?

Earlier this week I wondered if there were a central axis to the cold Civil War we have in America. In the years leading up to the actual Civil War, all public debate revolved around the question of slavery. You couldn’t fully participate in the world beyond your door without calling yourself either abolitionist or pro-slavery.

When the Supreme Court, lead by the pro-slavery Chief Justice Roger B. Tawney, ruled in Dred Scott in 1857 that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” the country was torn in half. Instead of settling the question of slavery, as Tawney intended, we moved closer to war. In response, Republicans in Congress added another justice to tip the Supreme Court in favor of abolition.

In an editorial for the Post (which was summarized in The Week), Michael Barone posits that Roe v. Wade is the hidden fault line in our current politics. Barone’s editorial isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, but about the way that the issue has shaped electoral politics for 30 years, putting both Republicans and Democrats on ideological islands, unable to find common ground on anything, even when their beliefs or expediency in serving the public good might dictate it.

Is the abortion debate the source of the vast reserves of emotional energy that have been heaped on the Kavanaugh Affair by both sides?

Even if you believe that Kavanaugh’s offenses or the shadow of doubt cast on him render him unfit for the Supreme Court, or if you believe that his confirmation is a deliberate punishment of feminists by reactionaries, it is still worth considering how the abortion debate has invisibly fueled this controversy. It is like the sleeping dragon buried beneath the castle of contemporary politics. We don’t talk about it. We don’t dig it up. But we can feel its heat.

What do you think is the central axis of our politics?

P.S. – I almost didn’t post this, for fear of being misunderstood. Let me be clear: I am *not* calling for a repeal of Roe v. Wade. I am *not making a moral correlation between the wrongness of Dred Scott and the rightness or wrongness of Roe v. Wade. I am making a historical analogy that I hope will help us solve something that puzzles me about our politics, i.e. the source of the hatred and the co-existing unrealities that I see fueling it daily. 

On Writing: Do More Hours Equal Better Writing?

BartlebyThe Economist’s new column about the workplace, had this to say about the way we equate success and long working hours:

If long hours were the key to success, after all, people who hold down two jobs, or nurses on the night shift in emergency rooms, would be rolling in wealth. Ronald Reagan became president despite quipping that “I’ve heard that hard work never killed anyone, but I say why take the chance?”

As with so many things, there’s a double standard about behavior and class. Work 90 hours a week as a maid? How sad. Work the same hours as a C.E.O.? How badass.

But what about creatives? I work in the advertising-public relations-marketing-industrial-complex, where the hours tend to be, shall we say, long. There’s a kind of status or protection that comes from being the most overworked and therefore the most miserable out of any group of people. Sometimes I’ve been that person. Sometimes I’ve given props to that person. And sometimes I’ve pitied that person and been glad it wasn’t me.

Whenever I’m at the office at some unholy hour, I can assure you it’s never by choice. Sometimes the hours are long because that’s just what it takes to get the job done. I’m not complaining about that. Walk through the door of an ad agency and that’s what you are signing up for. Plus, being forced to push yourself beyond what you think your limits are can be invigorating.

Up to a point.

But when does the work start to suffer? Writing and coming up with ideas is like dancing. You can only do it for so long before it starts to get clumsy and unattractive.

There are writers who say they need a certain amount of time to get into an enchanted space, where they are capable of imagining things more vividly. I don’t doubt this. And it’s true, the longer I am allowed to be in a state of flow, the more the ideas and words flow.

Up to a point.

If I were to spend 90 hours a week typing, I’d go crazy and my clients would fire me, because the words would be gibberish. There’s a point at which sheer volume of output has to be balanced against their quality, not to mention quality of life for the worker. This is where the American way of work, which assumes that sheer effort is both virtuous and the way out of every problem, collides with the reality of skilled labor. The challenge, I suppose, is knowing where to draw the line, in itself a kind of intuitive dance.

How do you strike that balance? Intuition? An app on your phone? A spouse or friend who keeps you balanced?

Misusing “around” is making us sound dishonest

Here’s an imprecision in the language that I’d like to call out for deletion: using “around” when we really mean “about,” “in support of,” “relating to,” or any other more forceful preposition.

Around is precise when it is used to describe a physical location. “Let’s all gather around the campfire” invites us to position ourselves on all sides of it. “She was hanging around the neighborhood” means she was both anywhere and nowhere in particular, but somewhere close by.

“Let’s make sure the discussion is around the topic of leadership,” however, means nothing.

That sentence could invite us to revile leadership or praise it. Using “around” to describe notions rather than places is vague in a way that is only useful to propagandists, whose job is often not to say anything substantive, but to say something merely because something has to be said. Propagandists really do speak “around” issues, the same way that soldiers patrol a neighborhood or thieves case a joint. We’re there for strategic reasons. We hang around an issue, both anywhere and nowhere in particular, but somewhere close by.

When I spotted “around” used in The New York Times by a journalist in a piece that purported to clarify the public conversation I was dismayed. Newspapers and magazines should never speak “around” anything. They speak candidly about certain issues to certain audiences with moral authority. The phrase is “speaking truth to power,” not “speaking truth around power.”

We have enough circumlocution (literally “speaking around”) of the truth these days. Let’s expunge it from the only sources of truth we have left, i.e. newspapers and magazines. If we only have enough courage or clarity to speak around something, maybe its better to stay quest until we have the force of mind to speak about it.

For the Commonplace Book: Annie Dillard

Before private libraries and long before the invention of the search function, people used to copy important passages into notebooks called “commonplace books.” I’m not so old fashioned that I keep a written one, but I do have a tag in my files called commonplace book. I click on it for inspiration, so I thought I’d share some of the quotes with you, in the hopes you’ll be similarly inspired.

I read this quote years ago in The Artists Way by Julia Cameron and it has echoed in my mind ever since. It’s less of an inspiration and more of a challenge. We all carry a vision of our future selves with us, usually one that’s better off than we are today, one with more purpose from day to day, more money, more fulfillment, etc. And somehow the days we live, or are forced to live, never quite seem to add up to that future self, do they?

To me, this quote is about the small heralding of big things. Relationships are nourished and great ambitions are shaped one day, one hour, one minute at a time.

What will you do with the next one?