Commonplace Book

Teddy Roosevelt on timing

 

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 5.02.37 PMThis is true and not something a literary education teaches you well. When you spend most of your time rightly reading books written long before you were born, you don’t see the point of a thought having value simply because it is recent. Compared to the great books, most things written recently aren’t very good, or won’t have relevance much past their date of publication. In the classroom, it doesn’t matter when something was said, just that it was said well.

In the battle of life outside the classroom, with wealth and reputation always on the line, the timing of a thought, phrase, or action is everything. We read the great books to remember them when we need to. And unless we speak up when we have to or act before its too late, having a wise thought becomes rather a curse than a blessing, because it becomes an occasion for regret. This is something Teddy Roosevelt likely knew from experience, both in regret and in victory.

On writing: Lyric copywriting v. long-form

To be a bore, one merely has to say everything.

-Voltaire

I’m not the kind of copywriter who tends to write short. I write business-to-business pieces, mostly, which are meant to draw you in, explain the world, and then explain why my clients make something or deliver a service that will make the world better, starting with you, the reader. I want you to read what I’ve written and sound smarter in the next meeting with your boss or client, and that takes time to do. 

When you’re about to spend $8 on a burger, shorter copy is better (“I’m lovin’ it”).

When you’re about to spend $2 million on a piece of industrial machinery, a three-word slogan just doesn’t cut it. The longer and more informative the copy, the better it tends to boost sales or reputation.

But even then, an economy of words is necessary. Every sentence has to balance on a knife’s edge of being informative or soporific. After all, the next sentence might be the one where you stop reading. 

It takes talent to write a short slogan, akin to singing a song or shooting a perfect basket from across the court. But it takes endurance and discipline to write long and not falter.

In the copywriting world, writers of short copy are the rockstars, poets, and abstract expressionist painters. But us long-form copywriters are the novelists, symphony writers, teachers, and genre painters. We are (and I say this affectionately) what Samuel Johnson called the lexicographer: “A harmless drudge.” Our superpower is endurance. Our spells take longer to cast, but are, in my opinion, more powerful for it. 

That said, I have this cartoon pinned where I can see it from my keyboard, to remind me never to overstay my welcome. 

FDR on the Limited Uses of Limited Government

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I visited the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. Down a path from the ancestral Roosevelt home is a Dutch-style building FDR had built to house his library of 22,000 volumes, which became his administrative home during his four terms as President.

It’s now a museum which houses his Oval Office desk, model ship collection, library, and the New York office he used as President, still arranged as it was on the day he died. There’s also an exhibit of many rooms which reconstructs the atmosphere of Roosevelt’s election and presidency.

Far from the triumphalism that has colored our view of the past, every decision of his presidency was made in the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear brought on by economic collapse. Much of what we now think of as inviolable, like Medicare and Social Security, was considered a gamble, even unconstitutional. Nobody had ever made such energetic use of the powers of the Federal Government before.

The Republicans have been trying to tear down what FDR built since the first 100 days of his first term. Trump’s reality show, a smokescreen for the malign neglect of the Federal bureaucracy, is just the latest and most vulgar incarnation of this effort.

And it seems Democrats have forgotten how to argue for the alternative to limited government. They are too busy fighting about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry or defending Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe to reach the same rhetorical heights that FDR scaled without fear.

Perhaps it was the presence of books in every room of FDR’s office and home which helped him find the words that made him so powerful.

In his bedroom, in his office, on surfaces in the hallways, I saw every kind of book: almanacs, mystery novels, editions of the psalms, sermons, dictionaries, ancient and modern classics, indices of the army and the navy. In photos of FDR and Eleanor, they are always surrounded by books, even when sitting on a table outside overlooking the Hudson River.

If we’re looking for the words to combat fascism and an uncaring government this time around, I suspect we won’t find them in the claustrophobic spaces of our little screens, but in the books that surrounded FDR and his cabinet.

From the Commonplace Book: Aristotle on the Purpose of a Paycheck

I plucked this from the endnotes of Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Societyan analysis of life in an age of continuous connection and unchecked positivity. I’ll be reviewing it later this month, but want to share this gem that Han pulls from Aristotle’s Politics:

“So some people believe that this is the task of household management, and go on thinking that they should maintain their store of money or increase it without limit. The reason they are so disposed, however, is that they are preoccupied with living, not with living well. And since their appetite for life is unlimited, they also want an unlimited amount of what sustains it.”

It’s Aristotle, but it could be one of the Sutras, and it is as relevant today as it was in the 4th Century B.C.

The choice is the same as it has always been. We can either spend our lives in the pursuit of perfect security, which is an illusion, or we can seek out the daily moments of spontaneous connection with the good and bad of life, which force us to spend  some of our time and vitality, and to know in our hearts that both will give out some day.

Even on those days when I wake with a clear mind and a sound body, feeling my best, I feel a moment’s unease, because I am confronted with the question of what’s really worth the use of my energy.

Pleasure? Service to others? Drudgery? Solitary reading? The pursuit of love? And that’s on days when I am fortunate enough to have the choice.

What’s worth it to you today?

From the Commonplace Book: Begin It Now

C. S. Lewis says this many times in many different ways throughout his writing, and I cannot hear it enough. Life’s most remarkable journeys begin as interruptions. Our most cherished creations start as distractions or rush jobs. Our most important relationships begin even when we feel like we cannot trust, or are too tired to welcome new people into our lives.

Have a great weekend, everybody. Get out there and do something worthy.