Friday, November 07, 2008

The Database of Irritating Phrases (DIP)

Very glad to see Oxford has weighed in with some irritating phrases. However….

I’m not gonna lie, it would have been far more impactful if the list had extended to 20, or 30, or 700. A top-10 list is rather unique, of course, and at the end of the day we’re only going to remember that many. But once they’re in for 10, they ought to be in for the whole nine yards and compile as many as possible. Therefore, let us start the Database of Irritating Phrases. Some of our previous posts can count as first entries.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Adventures in Nudity

I get to the art school exactly on time and connect with the PR guy. I’m doing a story on what it takes to be a model. Doing research. I’ve heard of the great work that goes on here—they have 50 models on their roster--and maybe I can get some interviews. The very companionable PR man figures I’m ok and tells me to just look around. So I wander. And the first thing I see upon entering the next office is this.

This painting occupies a seven-foot height on the wall opposite the entrance. The room is none too deep, and none too large, and so the effect of sudden awareness of this figure is to be just about knocked over backward.

It was painted by Nelson Shanks, one of the great portraitists of the world and founder of the school I am visiting, and is now quite a famous painting. The jpeg can’t do it justice. In person it is rich, dynamic, subtle. It seems to breathe the very air you do. And, for me, it pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the day.

I manage to stumble out of that office and through the warren of rooms that houses this school. Along all the walls, in every room, around the very microwave in the break room: nudes, figures, dramatic forms, painted, inked, penciled, sculpted. Men, women, young, old, black, white, all shades in between.

That’s what they do here, drill art students in the rigors of realist form. They call it the human realist approach and the training, designed by Shanks himself, insists on regular and repeated figure drawing with live models.

And so indeed, in the first studio I reach, that training is going forth. Arranged in a semi-circle are 11 students standing before some kind of erasable boards, slashing away in pursuit of the figure before them, a nude woman standing straight up with her hands held over her head.

The teacher is walking around the room with a digital timer saying “change please” every two minutes, whereupon the model assumes a new posture, possibly dramatic, sometimes clutching a long wooden shaft as if it were a holing tool, or an earth-stuck spear, or the walking staff of a Druid.

Students have only enough time to slash a few lines--and the teacher encourages this slashing motion—before the pose changes and the creations of the last two minutes are wiped away so a new figure may be drawn. Two minutes, two minutes, two minutes, pose, pose, pose. After which the model takes a 10-minute break, steps down from the dais in a silk bathrobe, pours some green tea from somewhere, and looks at me expectantly.

Many years ago I did a bunch of stories on the global phenomenon known as Nudism and its modern counterpart, Naturism. Talking to so many who took it so seriously, I learned by heart the boilerplate reply to the charge that used to come regularly at nudism—that it is just salaciousness given a kind of free-spirit, back-to-nature disguise.

No, said the nudists. There is no necessary connection between nudity and sex. We habitually read sexual meanings into plain nudity because nudity is thickly fretted round with prudish taboos. And because there’s a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to selling products through sexual titillation, which so often gets confused with nakedness. There are as many reasons to take your clothes off as there are to put them on.

I had reason to doubt the honesty of the nudist rationale, but not so with the artists. If artists have been drawing nudes with any sort of lubricious intent, they have at least the legitimacy of a several-thousand-year history of doing so. I have heard not a single salacious word on life studies from any artist I’ve ever met.

So I ask the bathrobed woman standing next to me.

No, posing like this has nothing to do with sex, she says. She’s an artist herself and has drawn dozens of figures, scores. Drawing figures trains the eye in recognizing physical structure; if you never draw another nude, you'll still draw a better human shape in any guise. As for modeling, it’s a good job for an artist. She used to wait tables and then hurt her foot and was unable to dash around and this seemed a good alternative.

There’s a kind of athleticism to it, and you think about varying your poses, and putting your weight in different place each pose. You have to concentrate, but sometimes you can let your mind go blank. She guesses you have to be comfortable with your body, though I’m sensing she has never thought about these matters before, as none of the models I have interviewed have thought about these matters before.

She talks for a while and then gets naked and poses, and comes back and talks for a while, and then gets naked and poses, and I’ve never had a conversation with someone who became intermittently nude, and I am rapidly becoming rattled. More women should consider the advantages of taking their clothes off while speaking to a man. It will dispose him very amiably toward you.

In the break room, where I stumble as my wits begin to falter, two young woman students greet me with their names and try to explain why they study here. Did someone tell them I was coming? One of them, an Asian woman speaking perfect English, I cannot follow to save my life. She is trying to contrast the pedagogy practiced by this school and the one she attended previously, but at the first mention of the word “formalist” I am lost. And so I continue to nod vigorously and this is okay because she speaks for 10 minutes without taking a breath. And I’m wondering if she will disrobe when she stops.

While she’s speaking, a little blonde comes in wearing a bathrobe, to get a drink of water, and I realize there are three studios with naked people in them that I haven’t even seen yet. Then the conversation ceases because time has been called and the poses are resuming.

I wander into another studio, where a man is posing on a chair, and into the third studio where the little blond is draped over another chair. By this time I’m so addled with all the friendly helpful nudity that I have to stand outside on a balcony for several minutes breathing deeply.

Finally I get out of there and drive to my well-remembered hot dog stand by the main branch of the library, and how wonderful to be in this familiar place again, with so many people around, a big American City. But something unusual is going on. Everyone on the street is beautiful. Everyone on the street is beautiful. They seem to all understand they are like walking works of art. And I’m thinking, maybe I should go to art school, if only to become less of a cynic.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bad news.

Turns out we’re not headed for any well-known flavor of Apocalypse, neither an old-fashioned nuclear holocaust nor the returned Christ casting sinners into eternal flames for the delight of the saved.

Rather, it’s the escalating pace of technology that will bump us into the void. How else to put this? The expansion of knowledge and the acceleration of thought far, far beyond the human scale. The point where machines out-think us. The Singularity.

You might have thought a word like Singularity could refer only to something radically unique, such as the way your spouse eats. In fact, Singularity refers to the point where computers become so powerful that a new form of intelligence, a super-intelligence, emerges. The science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who wrote about this in a 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” likened this point to the boundary around a black hole, beyond which the known rules no longer apply. He figures it’ll happen about 2030.

Here’s John Tierney’s take on this.

I’m skeptical. For a super-intelligence to emerge, it would require that those of us who currently author ideas, become less and less the authors and more the conveyors of ideas. It would require that the one-time creator become more the transcriber, that mental energies that were once considered ends—the production of thoughtnow become the meansthe transmission of other people’s thoughts, who themselves are transmitters of other thoughts not their own, which from come other non-authoring transmitters.

It doesn't make any sense to me.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What Do You Do When A Good Friend Starts Calling Everyone "Boss"?

Oh, this is a crisis all right. Good friend, known him a long time. Generous, a savant in all things mechanistic, a sailing god. And somewhere along the line he started calling strangers Boss.

It could be worse, I suppose. He could call them Chief. But Boss? Oh, Boss is bad enough.

There we were at the Waffle House, the server before us: "I'll have the homefries with sausage gravy, Boss," he said. Boss. I almost choked on my broccoli florets. What does one do about this? Is physical violence off limits? Do I affect an atmospheric disdain? But I do that all the time anyway; how is he to know?

Oh, oh, oh. This changes everything. How can you think you know a person well, and then learn he calls people Boss?

Friday, September 19, 2008


Boatwork proceeds. The final layers of crud have been removed, the white of fiberglass deep below begins to come up. All the equipment on board has been taken out, scrubbed with bleach and Little Dutch Girl cleanser (“Chases Dirt”) and set to peer at the sun.

Everything has exited: All the old buckets, cans of stainless steel cleaner, fiberglass restorer, boat soap, fiberglass polish, all the thick-rusted paint scrapers and putty knives, ancient Corningware bowls, engine flushing kits for both Johnson and Honda outboards, random strips of rubber, tiny tubs of plumbers’ putty, snarls of nylon twine heavily mildewed, silicone sealant, un-bristled brushes, unused battery boxes.

The lazarettes have been scrubbed, ditto the icebox, all the interior surfaces, floors and crannies de-wasped and de-mildewed. Two portlights have been fitted with new lexan and reseated with polysulfide caulk and the major holes in the fiberglass have been epoxied over with white resin paste, giving the boat a rough-hewn, under-construction sort of look that implies a future tense. A long useless external radio speaker has been ripped out and thrown away, and the bulkhead hole where its wire passed through filled. What is more, I paid my storage bill, one winter and one summer’s worth. That really hurt. But from that moment I advanced an honest and free man once more--no longer the skulk I had been with debts still outstanding. I will remain honest at least until October 15, when the next winter storage comes due.

A sign on a mailbox I pass daily—they love to quote the Bible on mailboxes here—says “Walk Honestly”. And so I shall.

And honesty compels me at last to concede I must lose the sailboat. I have spent now almost three weeks tending to this sloop, and have regained the affection for it I remember well. That affection dictates that I should not keep her imprisoned here on this island of misfit toys, the only sailboat in this yard, and one of an extreme few boats of any kind built before 2004. Someone else should have her. If I did not spend so much time sailing on other people’s boats I might have time for my own.

There are other reasons for saying goodbye. Given my dislike of owning stuff generally, I’m surprised I bought this thing in the first place. The temptation was there, and I had the money. Money will do that. But it wasn’t an easy choice. Eight years ago, after long and careful consideration, I decided that buying a boat would be a bad idea. Then I went straight out and did it.

I do not say it was a mistake, because it wasn’t. In the last eight years I’ve essentially made sailing my career. I’ve learned a self-sufficiency I never had, responsibility for others, navigation skills, how not to panic when the swells are rolling you, how to stop a hole in your hull with just one hand, the importance of warm clothing and rain gear, and many quick fixes for broken marine toilets.

Rather I would say that in my now more, I hope, mature judgment, I would sooner pursue the experience I seek than the object that is supposed to provide it. I’d rather go for the experience itself than the toy that gives it.

This is the mistake I used to make all the time: Experience a desire, buy something to fill it. Experience a problem, buy something to solve it. No. Go straight for the experience, skip the product. Find a solution, not a product. Better yet, it’s not a bad idea to view those desires and needs with a trifle of suspicion. I’m starting to see anything conducive to getting more junk in your life in a very skeptical light. Possessions weigh you.

But we must all have them, I suppose, just as we must all go through Chicken Pox. Well, I’m hoping the departure of the little sloop toward a brighter sunrise will inure me to future temptations of this kind. Besides, I’m starting to think quite a bit about motorcycles.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Where I Floated and What I Floated For

A great coincidence: On the boat I'm staying aboard while I fix my own, there is exactly one book, an annotated edition of Walden, which is readable, I find, even after several nightly shots of refreshing beverage.

Walden is one of those books you can read every year for the rest of your life and never run dry. I've often wondered if Thoreau ever considered living on a boat, rather than in his cabin, on Walden Pond. Forget what they say about boats being holes you fill with money; you might as easily fill them with the fruit of your own ingenuity. Money is so seldom really needed, I find. What is always needed is time, initiative, and good taste.

Whether by land or sea, though, living outside the village requires guile, a deep guile and cunning that can easily go wrong. It is probably good to remember that both Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski lived in small cabins. And add this to their difficulties: When they fail and catch fire and explode, they do so in no way comprehensible to their fellow citizens in civilization. A column of black smoke beyond the far hill, that is all that most will ever know of heroic failure of the very personal kind.

Speaking of heroism, I am celebrating 10 weeks of non-stop sailing by further postponing a reunion with my aunt and uncle, and working on my boat.

I haven't touched this boat in two years, and the solid layer of mold and crud on every surface will attest to that. I had to kill several nests of wasps just to get aboard, and several hours were lost in despair and hair-tearing for the job that had to be done. Thoreau would not approve of this aspect of boat ownership. But finally, after three days, things have begun to improve. I haven't decided yet whether boat ownership fits with a policy of voluntary simplicity, but at the very least the boat needs to be fixed, and care of our possessions is among our first responsibilities, is it not? So long as we still own them.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Somewhere in the second hour of the meeting, you take stock of what has been said so far by the lone speaker. You got actual work to do and it’s getting late.

The very soul of his message, you realize, is this:

We've got to do a good job this year.

Hey, that's an excellent message. We've got to do a good job this year. Words to press to one's bosom. Only--how has it taken more than an hour to convey this bit of intelligence? How does a speaker do that? What groups of words could possibly fill up the space between "We've got to do a good job this year," and the far end of 90 minutes?

These words: Critical, Issue, and Process.

The words critical, issue and process can be put into almost any sentence, and turn an otherwise straightforward message into a vehement lurch toward critical mission objectives. And when you get to these, better settle in for a long drive.

Until you get the food receiving process completed and critical utensil issues resolved you’ll have to order out for dinner. Later you’ll be receiving material as part of the process that is critical to the day-to-day issues of the receiving process.

Going forward, we’ll have to keep an eye on how that issue is processing because it’s a critical issue, and watching it will be part of the process.

Coming up on an hour and a quarter.

The speaker is an unoffensive man, mid-40s, white as a baloney sandwich, somewhat carp-like in the mouth, skilled in the speech of the apparatchik, strapped all over with pagers and beepers and flashers and peepers, eager to meet the objectives outlined in his last performance evaluation. He will touch base with you throughout the year as part of the process that will be critical to dealing with certain issues we faced last year.

Of course, you’ll have to hit the ground running, because the critical time will come just as certain other major issues will need some solution-oriented processes, possibly a team approach, maybe even a team approach strategy.

90 minutes and counting.

You think maybe there should be a way to measure the density of information in any given speech, a number you could put on it—important points per hour or something—and speakers could only speak who could maintain a certain number.

However you measure it, words like critical, process and issue would drive that number down. Also parameter, benchmark, mission, bullet points, heads ups, bangs for your bucks, mindsets, team players, action items, socks knocked off, cutting edges, core competencies, headcounts, all things impactful, scenarios of any kind, all creatures open ended, and red flags of all colors.

Another 15 minutes go by and it looks once more like you’ll have more work tomorrow.

Friday, June 06, 2008

That Brain Dead State of Mind

Here we are again on the Rappahannock, piecing boats together with tape and scissors, waiting for the onslaught of happy, jumpy, NOISY, uncontrollable scout persons to board and go off sailing, which happens in a week. I've been here four days and with 90 degree heat and unceasing hard labor my mind has withdrawn to safety deep within, and is refusing all communication.

Too bad, because either some Times writers have gotten especially brilliant this week, or I am no longer chewing language to digestible bits. I'm thinking now of David Brooks, who always manages to say something entirely new, in a way entirely comprehensible. I hate him. The more so as he's also very funny and, though opposite me politically, the guy I'd most like to hang out with among the whole Times tribe.

Joyce Wadler finds a kind of poignant hilarity in killing garden pests, and a new book is out on Evelyn Nesbit, who's appeared in this space before, most importantly as the former resident of a house we used to live near, and also as something of a fixation of certain architect friends.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Banning for all we're worth

More banned words and phrases:

--Granularity. Dr. Cajka wrote to tell us of textbooks that drill down into information. We also hear of drilling down, but it's often into granularity, or the granular level. The granular level is to be distinguished from the birdseye level, from which very little granularity can be seen. No one has ever told us what the granularity does to the drill, but it can't be good. And now that we think of it, don't birds usually see grains better than anybody?

--Push back. If you say we need to use this word, you'll get serious push back from us. Like, with a shovel.

--Take away. We dither in our discussion here, but there's often solid take-away. Useful take-away. Appetizing take-away. We often get our take-away with extra rice.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Forbidden words, an update

A few more words that will no longer be tolerated in this establishment:

Thought process. No one will be allowed to use this term unless the thought is being mixed by a kitchen appliance.

LOL. Please, please, please, go through all of your correspondence and eliminate, exterminate, obliterate LOL. You could set up a macro key to do it automatically. Delete it without ceremony or burial.

(Any word) activity. One of our staff grammarians recently exploded after hearing of baseball activity on the radio, followed by thunderstorm activity, and then lawmaker activity, which completely overwhelmed his thought processes, and caused some seizure activity on the floor of his hovel.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Word is out now, that I'm an idle desperado commie pedophile, and I have let it out myself: Next I'm admitting to the Kennedy assassination.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Words and phrases that will no longer be tolerated in this establishment (a running list)

--Mindset: Persons using the word Mindset will be subject to various painsets, after which they will exhibit serious injurysets.

--Skillset: You will not have agilityset to escape our wrath. We might then go after your familyset.

--That being said: That being said, we will cease speaking.

--Metric: By any metric, you talk like a cretin.

--Too much on (his) plate.

--The whole nine yards.

--At the end of the day. At the end of the day, you may have given it the whole nine yards and found you have too much on your plate. That being said, you'll have the skillset to get the right metric for the mindset of your colleagues. But that shouldn't prevent serious drinking.


Thank you, Dr. Cajka! Yes, I don't know how I could have forgotten that. Drill down will absolutely not be tolerated, unless it's the sort of drilling down that goes, for example, through the speaker's head.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Further on Ranger Road

We travel down a little road in Virginia, starting from the more-or-less known world.

We leave the historical Williamsburg, with its Governor’s Palace and its Capitol Building, and Wren Hall sitting at the end of the Duke of Gloucester Street, the oldest college building still in use in America.

We leave the tourist Williamsburg with its rentable period costumes and old English script written everywhere, and several genuinely ancient streets now filled with Brande Newe Olde Shoppes. Once out of town, the scrim of woodland crowds right up to the highway and leans over it.

For more than 300 years these have been well known boondocks, the backwoods passage from the civilization of Jamestown and Williamsburg, to the great James River plantations further west, where we’re headed. The motorist, like the horseman of three centuries ago, only hopes to get through without a breakdown.

In general, we’re heading toward Charles City County, which contains no actual city, despite what once may have been intended. It contains no solid places at all, but indefinite locales with the names of families long gone and known only to local usage--that is, except for the plantations on the James. These are very definite.

Charles City County came into being in 1619 because, even then, the restless were eager to move west. Most of them continued west—the county’s population today is about what it was in 1730. But in the remaining evidence of those settlers, it is possible to glimpse the first flourishing of an alternate America, a place Thomas Jefferson had not yet consecrated to the equality of man.

As we move west, they begin with Sherwood Forest, retirement home of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States, who because he’d been “outlawed” by the Whig party, named his home to suit his status.

After that comes North Bend Plantation, and then Shirley, Evelynton, Westover, and Berkley plantations. We have to watch for the signs, usually nailed to trees, as most of these estates are still working farms; no chamber of commerce advertises them. Some still belong to the families that built them.

All of these places were designed to awe. On behalf of their owners, all of them strove toward a status that never lived long in this soil, the status of landed aristocracy, a people removed to higher concerns behind the bastion of their nobility. In a country where only the very rich and the government could build in brick, these great houses hoped to conflate those two spheres.

It didn’t work, of course. The view of an Arcadian America, stewarded by a compassionate gentry and devoted to an ideal of beautiful living, met its decisive end at Appomattox Court House. But the intimation of that vanished life steals among these woods and meadows like a mist at dawn.

Of all the great houses in this county, there is only one that speaks to us with anything like modern vitality and humor, only one I really want to see:
Westover, built in 1736 by William Byrd II.

When Byrd built this house, he was already an accomplished man, heir to a tobacco fortune his father had made. Born in America and raised in England, he came dutifully home to manage the estate upon his father’s death in 1704, but he preferred England. The coffee houses, theaters, company, and the events of great moment all suited his peculiar energies.

Here, he made the best of things by walking his grounds, reading his books, conversing with friends, and living like a biblical patriarch.

“I have my flocks and my herds, my bondmen and bond-women, and every soart of trade amongst my own servants, so that I live in a kind of independence on every one but Providence,” he wrote to his friend the Earl of Orrery. And though the life required energy and courage, he found it amusing, and a continual exercise of his patience and economy, which he enjoyed.

We drive two miles in from route 5, following the nailed-up signs, seen by and seeing no one. Even at the end of the drive: no visitors center, no visitors, no sign of current life, the only parking lot a grassy patch by some little cedars. And then, an old iron gate-- pedestrian-sized as opposed to carriage-sized—with a wooden box for donations and a sheaf of pamphlets. The quiet James commands the entire southern vista, so quiet you can hear waterbirds twittering halfway across. A brilliant, clear day.

We can’t get inside the house itself—still a private residence though no one apparently lives there—but perhaps that’s just as well. Because as we walk in at that gate, past the brick-walled garden, and then out into the front yard, watching the house materialize slowly on our left, the accumulated Georgian magnificence becomes so powerful it could knock you into the river. Nothing inside could compare to this.

For more than 200 running feet, the house presents its stupendous façade to the river, no doubt to the wonder of passing boatmen. It is tall, heavy, steeply sloped in the roof. It seems to claim the same patron god that inspired the great fugues of Bach.

Here William Byrd throned in augustness and industry.

It’s too bad we get our picture of colonials mostly from dour men like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, for Byrd was the ultimate anti-dour. Where learning was concerned, he could have spotted the puritans several laps of education and still won the race.

In addition to English, he spoke French, Dutch, Spanish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and read extensively in all of these. He amassed a library containing more than 3,600 volumes, second only to Benjamin Franklin’s in the colonies, and built a wing to his house to store them.

Byrd is often compared to Franklin, but to me he always seemed more real. He was Franklin without the registered trademarks, no seven maxims for highly effective colonials. He consistently failed in piety, and did so with appealing dismay, but neither piety nor dismay ever slowed him.

He bestrode that Virginian wilderness with seldom a stretch, crossing the Atlantic 10 times to attend the best schools in England, to conduct business, and to travel. While there he joined the bar at one of the great Inns of Court, and was ultimately inducted into the British Royal Society, one of very few Americans to receive that honor. Back home he founded Richmond and Petersburg, and personally established the southern boundary of Virginia.

But he never completely left earth. His encoded diary, discovered in the 1940s and one of the most entertaining of colonial documents, shows how much he never left earth.

July 30, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock….I read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Thucydides. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. I read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson and then took a little nap. I ate fish for dinner. In the afternoon my wife and I had a little quarrel which I reconciled with a flourish. Then she read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson to me. It is to be observed that the flourish was performed on the billiard table. I read a little Latin. In the evening we took a walk about the plantation. I neglected to say prayers but had good health, good thoughts and good humor, thanks be to God.
Byrd died in 1744 at age 70, and was buried in his garden, where his tombstone still stands—a large enough tombstone to list at least some of his accomplishments: Receiver General of His Majesty’s Revenues in Virginia, Public Agent to The Court and Ministry Of England, a 37-year member of the Council of Virginia, and president of that body for two years.
To all this were added a great elegancy of taste and life,
The well-bred gentleman and polite companion,
The splendid economist and prudent father of a family,
With the constant enemy of all exorbitant power,
And hearty friend to the liberties of his country.
For balance, we might list some of his other traits: arrogance, parsimony, contentiousness. Readers of his journals will find Byrd guilty of the usual crimes of his age, including allegiance to the oppressive patriarchy, exploitation of non-renewable resources and, certainly not least, the holding of slaves. He could be cool, he could be cruel. But if there is such a thing as expiation of sins through humor, vigor, and intelligence, I move that William Byrd of Westover be redeemed. Far, far back in the wilds of primal Virginia, he was pioneering in this land the art of enjoying oneself.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Aunt Renoir Scores Again

Last Monday at 4 p.m., Jack, Maxine, my friend Sue and I went across the street to the courthouse where yet two more Maxine Sweeney portraits were adding to the corridors of Elizabeth City immortals. Courtroom A was filled with lawyers, clerks, secretaries, judges, awesomeness, and us four.

The judge called everyone to order, saying this was a ceremonial session and we could shoot cameras if we wanted, though I hadn't waited. He introduced a district attorney who got up and spoke at length about the greatness, the humanity, the forebearance and great heaps of principal possessed by the one judge being honored, who then came up and spoke awhile.

Then another district attorney did the same for another judge, who then came up and spoke awhile.

Then the second district attorney noted that all the paintings in the room had been painted by Maxine Sweeney, who was with us today, and he nodded toward her, and Aunt Maxine stood up and acknowledged the applause, which was good improvisation, as she'd spent most of the day cussing out her new hearing aid and had turned it off. He noted also that her husband John did the framing.

Then the draperies were tugged delicately from the faces of the new portraits, and judges Beaman and Small blazed forth in magnificent visage, with bright delectations of sunlight falling upon them like the glory of sublime justice, and so forth, and immediately court was adjourned and everyone ran for the bar.The local paper ran it front page next day:

and Aunt Maxine is expecting to get work from it. One very nice lady approached her who needed a picture repaired, and Aunt Maxine later told me the lady would buy a pastel. I said, oh, she didn't want a picture repaired? And Maxine said, oh yes, she wants that, too, but she'll also wind up buying a pastel. She just doesn't know it yet.

It's no surprise to me my Aunt Renoir makes a living doing this.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Medium Rare

Whoa, The Ruiner had an amazing experience that I don't know if I believe for a minute. Most of a minute, perhaps. I really need to start watching more television.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sterlingian Majuscule

It’s hard to write about my friend Sterling Brown, one of that great tribe of modern American writers operating well clear of the fatal distractions of recognition, praise, and payment. Hard because it betrays some ugly secrets about this life, brings light to a labor perhaps best left unseen. If you want to enjoy the steak, you don’t visit the slaughterhouse.

But it’s a fact that the heavy preponderance of writers working today do so with no incentive beyond their own crackpot wish to tune a given body of writing to a high state of agreement and felicity, to see a thing well done, to do something well themselves.

I do not lament this fact, only state it, in as much of a cool and objective tone as I can affect.

It’s not enough that Sterling has built several houses with his own hands, run several businesses, renovated three boats—three boats and counting—and employed his gifts to bring many a small project in wood, fiberglass, metal and mechanics to beautiful completion. These accomplishments don’t seem to register. What counts most to Sterling is the writing. The most difficult structure is the story’s. The heaviest raw material is the blank page.

Sterling began his writing career not long after he grasped his first pencil, and has remained loyal to this calling, whether in his right mind or out of it, through a long eventful life, a long marriage, two children, a full-time job.

It’s fair to say his themes and characters were never calculated to bring him instant celebrity. He writes about Atlantic City and its losers, the dying occupations around the old South Jersey bays, the people who still embody the folkways of an older, less polite, less pretty world. But it’s clear the vision burns strongly in his imagination. Some writers nibble and nag away and their little plot of lines, slashing this part, amplifying that, adding three pieces and subtracting two. But Sterling writes like a storm; events unfold faster than he can record them. He is as much an audience as a creator, the mark of a true writer.

Oh, how many hours he has sat at table, watching this or that character jig and caper in utter despite of his instructions, often running off with a plot that had until then stuck to a careful plan. He has witnessed murders, rapes, violences of no clear explanation or intention, and he has seen them enter boldly upon his stage and revise his affairs in a way not consistent with his predictions.

He has rewritten patiently, and rewritten again, a conscious and deliberate craftsman, figuring the actions to the characters, scaling levels of detail, seeing so much that can be put in and choosing painfully what to leave out. His writing desk has been a tabletop at home, the dashboard of his car, the inside of a drawer at work.

His reward for all this—it hardly needs to be said—has been constant and convincing rejection.

Talent, of course, only gets you the lottery ticket. It’s luck that gets the jackpot.

There is no especial reason to decry this fact, just as there is no reason to send the writer anonymous money in a box. Misery is its own reward. Little stories make nothing happen. They don’t cut the tax rate, they don’t shoot down the school board, they do not bring extravaganza points if returned with proof of purchase. They do not gain 5 percent by mid afternoon or signal the flight of capital from growth to value stocks.

Rather, I feel inclined toward gratitude, if not exactly for Sterling the writer, at least for the knowledge that on this planet solitary constructive labor, the work of the independent artist, is going forth with undiminished naïveté—and vigor. Like those monks and hermits who disappear into their hermitages to explore the rare but still important realms of spiritual life, expecting nothing but perhaps the satisfaction of a carefully elaborated new investigation of the soul, so it is good that this writer feels his way toward the illumination of his inner world.

I am glad that somehow amid the cost/benefit analysis of our modern life, there is yet some particle of the imaginative, the thoughtful and beautifully useless at large in the world.

Meantime, Sterling is indeed getting more frequently published—in South Jersey Lifestyle Magazine, Art Beat, and a soon-to-be-released magazine called EnVision. You can get samples of his recent stuff here, here, and here.