Living in a Future/Past Perspective

9780679729976In his short story, “A Guide to Berlin,” from The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, the eponymous author writes the following passage:

The horse-drawn tram has vanished, and so will the trolley, and some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century, wishing to portray our time, will go to a museum of technological history and locate a hundred-year-old streetcar, yellow, uncouth, with old-fashioned curved seats, and in a museum of old costumes dig up a black, shiny-buttoned conductor’s uniform. Then he will go home and compile a description of Berlin streets in bygone days. Everything, every trifle, will be valuable and meaningful: the conductor’s purse, the advertisement over the window, that peculiar jolting motion which our great-grandchildren will perhaps imagine–everything will be ennobled and justified by its age.
I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.

Though the story was published in 1925, or perhaps because it was, the truth that the passage of time lends a kindly sheen to the events of yesteryear rings true still today. Hopefully that made sense, because there were a lot of references to time there.

Anyway, I like the perspective that even the mundane becomes fascinating when viewed through the lens of posterity. The tricky thing here is in trying to adopt this perspective without that necessary passage of time. What if we started viewing modern life as though it were merely a reenactment of life from the year 2014 as though we were one hundred years removed?

Imagine for a moment that you aren’t just a restaurant worker, but that you are a person doing your best to reenact the role of a restaurant worker of 2014 for an audience of fellow play actors.  Are you convincing in your reenactment? Perhaps you are acting as an accountant, limiting yourself to the technology of the current year in order to keep the books for your company. Are you believable?

And while you are doing that, I’ll be here writing and bookselling and being a father to the best of my ability, trying to realize that even my most mundane task is valuable because it IS valuable.


On the Origin of Bear

polsonI walked into Shannon Huffman Polson’s “Writing into Lament” session on memoir expecting to learn something about how to transform grief into something helpful and literary. I knew nothing of Polson’s writing or the journey that she had taken into grief in the wild north where her parents died. I walked away from the session with two pieces of information. One, writing memoir requires courage. Two, bears are wild animals.

Polson was visiting her brother’s family when she got the phone call that a bear had walked into her parents’ camp and killed them. Her reaction was not just one of grief, but a longing to understand how this could have happened. And so she did something that I can’t imagine anyone doing. She went a year later to retrace the path in the wilderness that her parents, avid lovers of the Arctic wilds, had taken.

She told us about how writing requires the same courage to revisit the places in our lives that cause us pain. “All good writing is about pushing on the bruise,” she said.

And then she told us about the research she had done on bears. Even the origin of the name “bear” was surrounded in superstition.

Angry Brown Bear in GrassAccording to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “bear” is rooted in the proto-Germanic “beron” which means “the brown one”. The superstition part comes in because people said “the brown one” as a placeholder for the real name just as in the Harry Potter novels, people said “he who shall not be named” in place of Voldemort. It was believed that saying the true name for bears had power enough to call them down from the wilds to terrorize your village.

This was not just true among people who spoke English or proto-Germanic. Other cultures used placeholders as well. Instead of whatever the word for bear was, Irish people used “the good calf,” Welsh people said “honey-pig,” Lithuanian people “the licker,” and Russians “honey-eater”. So no one really knows what the original name for bear is any more. It’s locked away behind history’s iron curtain.

I9780310328766ronically, as Polson shared about her dual exploration into the wilderness and into herself, she did the very thing that the ancient people refused to do. She named the fear and brought it into the light of understanding.

I can’t say that I’m itching to get into writing memoir based on what she said, but if and when I do decide to “press on the bruise,” I at least know what to expect. I just hope that I can do it with the same courage that Polson used in writing North of Hope.

I am a father of future teenage daughters.

Picture 1019

Just after my wife found out she was pregnant, we had the following exchange:

“I hope it’s a boy,” said my wife.

“Why?” I asked. “I don’t know if I could live up to the expectations of being father to a boy. I don’t hunt, fish, or play sports. We’d be destined to have a nerd.”

“Better a nerd boy than a teenage girl,” said my wife. “I was a teenage girl and it was horrible. If we have a girl, we’re leaving her at the hospital.”

“Um,” I said.

Things have turned around since then. Even before we found out that we were going to have a girl, my wife started secretly hoping for one. And now, our hopes have been answered by not one but two girls.

I can’t imagine my family any other way. I love my girls madly.

And yet…

There remains the fact that they will someday become teenage girls. I have mixed feelings on this. From the observations I’ve made since becoming a father, teenage girls are strange creatures. They can be awkward and self-absorbed, annoying and without any sense of propriety. In fact, they have probably always been like this since Adam and Eve spawned their first strange relations for Cain and his brothers.

But for as many examples as there are of selfie-shooting gum-chewers, there are always a few polite girls that make me think, “Their parents did something right.”

But what did they do? Seriously, help me out here. I’ve only got a decade to steer my girls along the narrow path of healthy body images, proper manners, and respect for her fellow humans. I’d like to think that I’m doing things right, but that may just be a parent’s fallacy.

So, if you are a female and you think you managed your teenage years without any serious emotional (or physical) scars, what made that the case? What did your parents do or not do to equip you for a successful future?

And if my girls are destined, despite my best efforts, to become everything that annoys me about teenage girls, how do I overcome that?

Friday 5 | Click-worthy Links

Wireless Computer Mouse with Wheel

Here are 5 more places online worth checking out:

  1. I believe that books are solutions, but here are 99 exceptions to that belief.
  2. What is the definition of dictionary? According to the fine folks at the Oxford English Dictionary, the answer to that may require a digital answer. The 3rd Edition, or OED3, is more than twice the size of the 2nd Edition which was published in 1989 and spread over 40 volumes. Is it possible that we have too many words?
  3. In a strange coincidence, I just started reading The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov a few days ago. As I was reading this article, I discovered that his birthday was just a few days ago. Though he’s most famous for his morally-challenging work, Lolita, he wrote a ton of sumptuous short stories as well. Here are a few recommendations on where to start with Nabokov.
  4. The other day, I shared Scott Cairns view on the difference between literature and pop fiction. Here’s another insightful view that chalks the difference up to marketing.
  5. “Josh! Stop talking about Catch-22 already! Geez!” you say. “No,” I reply. I sincerely hope that this stage adaptation is successful and spreads to the US soon.


Walking for Fun & Profit

Imagine a world where walking was considered a sport. And not just a sport in the same way that cheerleading is a sport, but in a real competitive, spectator-drawing, gambling-on-the-winner type way. Now stop imagining, because that was the reality of the world of the late 1800’s.

9781613743973The sport was called Pedestrianism and I only learned about it because of an NPR story featuring Matthew Algeo, author of the book, Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport. According to the story, one of the events that led to the rise of this sport was a lost wager between gentleman concerning the presidential election. Edward Payson Weston bet against Abraham Lincoln and terms of the bet were that Weston had to walk from Boston to Washington in order to see the inauguration in ten days time. This, he did.

Word of this feat of tired feet spread. Soon, 6-day walking competitions started popping up, and people were walking for fun and profit.

I was fascinated, but not too surprised, to find out that my favorite president, Chester A. Arthur, was a fan of attending pedestrian events in his hometown of New York City. I can just imagine him strolling among the crowds, dressed to the nines, rubbing shoulders with the big city elite who came to wager on the outcome.

This is a Penny-farthing, in case you weren't sure.

This is a Penny-farthing, in case you weren’t sure.

Sadly, the popularity of walking competitions waned in proportion to the rise of technological advances in getting from Point A to Point B. When the modern bicycle replaced the penny-farthing, things started to stroll downhill. And when the bicycle was usurped by the automobile, we became a nation no longer impressed by moving long distances in short amounts of time. Time and interest gave way to new sports like baseball and American football, and pedestrianism was all but forgotten.

Today, it limps along as one of the most derided of Olympic events. Perhaps it is time for a comeback. I don’t know if I’d be willing to do nothing but walk for the better part of six days, but I could see that being more likely than my playing baseball or football.

Would you come out to watch me walk?

An Idiot Who Wants to Become a Fool

EPSON DSC pictureWhile attending the Festival of Faith & Writing, I inadvertently wandered into a session led by the poet Scott Cairns. The title of the presentation was “Writing as a Way of Knowing” and since I often don’t know what I’m writing until I am writing it, I thought it may be a helpful session.

Though my expectations were quite different from what was delivered, I really enjoyed the presentation and wrote down quite a few quotes from Mr. Cairns. Here are a few of them:

“People are under the impression that writers are people who have things to say. They are just people who have found out how to say things.”

“Make good friends with really accomplished dead people.”

“The act of writing is literally ‘coming to terms’ with something.”

“I am an idiot who wants to become a fool.”

9781612615158About that last one, Cairns was talking about his most recent project, Idiot Psalms. He broke down the root meanings of the words “idiot” and “fool”. Though it came to its current derogatory meaning in the 14th century, the root of idiot is “idios” which means “one’s own” or a private person. A fool, in the religious sense of “holy fool”, is one who holds to the truth of the gospel under the guise of folly. It is a person who is more concerned with others than what others think of them.

I think that’s beautiful.

Cairns then read a few poems from Idiot Psalms and convinced me that perhaps I have misjudged the literary value of poetry.

And as a side note, Cairns discussed his views of how one can determine whether a piece of writing is literary or not, a discussion that always seems to happen in the fiction world where I live.

The degree to which a piece of writing can be considered as literature as opposed to popular text is in its opaqueness. By that he meant that when you are reading a piece of popular writing, the author has provided an absolutely clear window into the scenes they describe. Readers no longer notice the words on the page; they see only the pictures put into the text by the author. But when a piece of text is slightly opaque or translucent, you are drawn away from the scene by the beauty of the text describing it. You can see what the words mean, while at the same time, noticing the carefully chosen words themselves.

When asked to continue the thought as to whether something that was completely opaque was the pinnacle of literary value, Cairns commented that no, that was just bad writing. You still want people to see the scene, after all.

And so, as a writer of fiction, I’m going to see about applying some translucency to my stories, and some foolishness (not idiocy) to my life. I may even start reading poetry for some pointers, starting with Idiot Psalms.

Is Art Selfish?

Yang-Gene-Luen-webI recently attended the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing, and I’ll be blogging through some of the things that I learned while I was there. If you went, I’d love to hear your take on things. If you didn’t, you’ll just have to trust that what I learned is what the presenters intended to be learned.

The first talk I attended was a plenary session with Gene Luen Yang, the award-winning graphic novelist behind American Born Chinese. Yang told us his journey from creating and selling comics to his schoolmates as a boy to belonging to a creative community as an adult to being a husband and father while continuing in his craft. The main question that the talk sought to answer was one with which I have struggled ever since I decided to call myself a writer: Is art selfish?

9780312384487Yang spoke from personal experience as an author and illustrator who spent valuable time on his craft when he could have been spending it with his family. Fortunately, his projects have sold and he’s been able to justify the time spent because it brought in money. But is money the only way to justify art?

As a creator of things, I want to believe that art is not inherently selfish. I want to believe that it is a good unto itself without respect for any financial considerations. I want to believe that I am creating something that will benefit other people simply by its existence and that art, in this way, can be a selfless endeavor. But I know that creation takes time and that the time is usually taken from those who I love the most.

So, is art selfish? When Gene Luen Yang asked his wife this question, she responded thus: “It can be.”

I agree. Fortunately, Yang went on to provide four considerations to keep in mind when we are creating art.

  1. Think of art as an icon (in the Eastern Orthodox sense) – Art is a tool to point to something higher.
  2. Think of art as a prayer – Creativity allows God to speak through us, his creation.
  3. Think of art as an organ (like a liver) – Many artists cannot function without it, but it is still only one part of the body.
  4. Think of art as an act of service – Craft stories as maps to assist others through life. Art should renew us as a people.

I’m still chewing on whether or not my personal art is selfish or not. But I think that keeping these four things in mind will help.

What do you think? Have you quit your art because you thought is was selfish? How do you balance it with the rest of your life?

I am the opposite brother.


My older brother and I are about as different as two people can be. At college, where people knew nothing of my older brother, I told them that he was a tall, skinny, smart, black woman. And all that is true, except for the black woman part.

Well, he and I are both a little black, but that’s another story. Having sired two boys of his own, I’m fairly certain that he isn’t any part female.

Anyway, we fit the stereotypical birth-order profiles perfectly. My brother is the meticulous one, the committed one, the natural at schoolwork, the one who did not break his toys within ten minutes of receiving them. I was the creative one, the one with varied interests and lots of friends, the one who put off assignments until the night before they were due.

Growing up, my parents used to tell us that we would make a great team. They told us that I would come up with the creative ideas and my brother would find a smart way to make them happen.

And I think that if we ever tried to, we might have made a good team in this way. After all, I tend to do my best work when I’m allowed to think as outside the box as I wish, and I’m pretty sure that my brother is most comfortable deep within a well-defined box.

But the teamwork between us never really happened. He went off to college when I was a sophomore in high school. I was more concerned with my group of friends than I was with hanging out with my older brother.

He moved out-of-state right after college and made a successful living working with computers within that box of his. I stayed closer to home, struggling to apply methods to my chaos (until I got married to a wonderful woman who provides the love, money smarts, and organizational wisdom that help me thrive).

Now, I don’t want to paint my brother in a boring light. He’s a pretty cool guy in his own right. His wife’s first impression of him was as a motorcycle-riding rebel (something I never knew him as), so he’s definitely multifaceted. But as far as the typical oldest/youngest child thing goes, we both fit our roles pretty well.

And I regret that a bit. I regret that I thought his love of rules and structure was a character flaw. I regret that I valued my time with friends more than time with my brother. I regret that we never really tried to make the teamwork thing of my creativity and his organization work. And I regret that in embracing the fact that he and I were so different, I never embraced the things we had in common.

With my own kids, I can already see certain character traits. Whether they are related to birth-order, or the responsibilities that each are able to handle at their different ages, or whatever, I find myself hoping for a different sibling relationship between them than the one I had/have with my brother.

Parents of differing children, how do you encourage a relationship between such disparities?