2019: Year in Review

Marcia and I are hitting the road tomorrow for New Mexico (where we’ll see out 2019, having welcomed it in Paris, France), so it seems a good time for my annual recap and summary of stuffs and things here as a final blog post from a big year, on a wide range of fronts for our family, most of them documented within these pages.

ON THE BLOG:

This is the 70th post on the blog this year, up from 41 in 2018, 35 in 2017, and 27 in 2016. A very positive trend (if not as many posts as I used to poop out annually a decade or so ago), and a good indicator that getting off of social media (a goal established in last December’s “Year in Review” post) was a good way to redirect time and energy to pursuits that I consider more rewarding. Traffic was up a solid 40% over the prior year as well, confirming once again that volume drives reads, as long as quality remains acceptable. As satisfying as that is, given my own goals for the year, I doubt that I will hit the same high post mark in 2020, as I plan to work on some projects for potential professional or commercial purposes, and don’t intend to share them until I know there’s not a market for them. But I do have a couple of new ideas for public writing for pleasure knocking around in my brain, so I may surprise myself.

I completed my planned Credidero writing project this week, an act of thinking out loud in public over the past year about a dozen concepts of interest, looking to see what beliefs might emerge from such active reflection and analysis. It was satisfying to click the final “publish” button, seeing that effort to fruition. Of course, I’m lousy at letting things go cleanly, so I will re-read and mull the entire project output soon, and write one last summarizing article in January, to assess themes or thoughts that emerge from between the lines for me.

As I report each year, here are the ten most-read articles among the 70 new posts here in 2019:

And then here are the ten posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2019. It always fascinates me which of the 1,100+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on an early version of this blog, long before any of us knew it was to be called a blog. (I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Here’s hoping that people realize that the perpetually-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke . . .

ON THE WEB:

I begin my day, every day, reading two utterly brilliant sites: Thoughts On The Dead and Electoral Vote Dot Com. My deeper thoughts on the former are here, and on the latter, suffice to say they’re my main online source for hard political/electoral news and analysis at this point, and have been since the early ’90s. I will admit that it is hard, sometimes, to decide which one of the worlds they describe in glorious detail (the first a semi-fictional universe built around the exploits of a time-traveling Grateful Dead, the second an academically rigorous view of our Nation’s electoral processes) is the most absurd and unbelievable anymore. I definitely would prefer to live in Thoughts On The Dead’s universe some days when I read the reports on Electoral Vote Dot Com and cringe at the idiocy, if not outright evil, of our ruling class. Beyond that, I didn’t add any new crucial web sites to my roster of favorites this year (see the “Regular Reads” block in the right side-bar), which I suppose is another good indicator that I spent less time trawling and more time creating in 2019 than has been the case in recent years. Good on me.

TRAVEL:

As noted above, we greeted 2019 in Paris, France and will see it out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We also celebrated our 30th anniversary in June with a great trip to Greece, and our first retirement trip was a jaunt to Spain. In the middle of all that, we consolidated our household in Des Moines, Iowa, after having split time between there and Chicago for three years. I traveled less for work in 2019 than I had in the four prior years (it’s harder to get anywhere from Des Moines than it is from Chicago), though I still got to enjoy my fifth Tour des Trees, this time in Kentucky and Tennessee. Next year the team will ride in Colorado, with Iowa as the target destination the year after that. I hope that health and schedule allow me to continue rolling with them, minus my management responsibilities. At bottom line, 2020 will be mainly about the travel that Marcia and I choose to do, not that we need to do. That will be refreshing. We have trips to Arizona, Ireland, Spain, Costa Rica and Iceland in the family’s conceptual hopper at this point, and we shall see what else the next year brings. Here’s my 2019 map, as a benchmark (with this week’s trip to New Mexico already penciled in):

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2019 and Best Albums of 2019 reports, and consider 2019 to have been an outstanding music year.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

Alas, this is the one section of my annual report that’s ready for retirement, with us having left Chicago. We saw dozens of shows (of both types) each year when we were living just off of The Loop, and we’ve seen, well, close to none, since we moved back to Des Moines. The one concert that stands out was our final one as Chicago residents: King Crimson at Auditorium Theater, where we had front row seats to watch the Seven-Headed Beast work its magic. A wonderful and fitting chapter closer for four great years of concert-going and museum-strolling in a world-class cultural city.

BOOKS:

I set a goal to read more books in 2019. I did read more books in 2019, once again demonstrating the perfidy that Twitter and its ilk impose upon us as time sucks and soul wasters and dumb-down distractions. Here’s the list of my favorite nonfiction works, novels and short story collections of the year. I feel smarter having read them.

FILMS:

We’ve seen a lot of movies this year, many of them quite good. (We’re pretty astute at just not going to see things that we think are not going to appeal to us, so I don’t often get exposed to garbage). Here’s my Top 15 of the year, thus far, in alphabetical order:

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • The Art of Self Defense
  • Booksmart
  • Brittany Runs A Marathon
  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • The Farewell
  • Ford v Ferrari
  • Good Boys
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Knives Out
  • The Lighthouse
  • Midsommar
  • Parasite
  • Ready Or Not
  • Rocketman
  • Us

I still have some Oscar Bait late-in-the-year or below-the-radar films that I would like to check out: Pain & Glory,  The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Monos, and Hagazussa. I’m iffy on The Irishman, as I have a hard time wanting to sit through anything that long, especially a gangster movie, as much as I like the (most of) the film’s cast and director. I thought Little Women was unwatchably bad, so I’m flying in the face of critical consensus on that. In theory, I will amend this to create my final list after I catch the ones I’m going to catch, though once the Academy Awards show rolls around, I usually lose interest in catching up, and start looking ahead to next year.

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward to New Mexico and beyond. I assume that I will be back here at my desk (wherever my desk lives at that point) in December 2020 with a similar report (as has become my habit), marveling at that which was, and eagerly anticipating that which is yet to come. See you then?

What’s A Caucus?

We live in Iowa, where our state political caucuses play a crucial role in the selection and election of our next Presidents. (Why is this the case? Here’s my take. Should this be the case? No. Here’s why.) The year before we moved out here from New York (2011), I was managing a group blog called Indie Albany. In anticipation of the then-upcoming Presidential campaign season, I had registered a new blog portal called “Cerberus Caucus,” the underlying premise of which was that it would serve as a three-headed place where a liberal, a conservative, and an independent/centrist could argue political points of merit. I was prepared to play the leftist, and I had a hardcore (e.g. scary) rightist lined up, but was never able to secure a legitimate centrist voice, so that project was shelved in favor of others.

I still own the rights to the Cerberus Caucus domain, and a couple of weeks ago, I received a renewal notification for it. Before re-registering it, I did a Google search to make sure that I wasn’t holding something that had become toxic or noxious. I did not find anything problematic or offensive during that search, but I did stumble across an arcane document from 1844 that tickled me to pieces, given (a) how much I enjoy etymology, and (b) how we throw the word “caucus” around here in Iowa as thought it’s something that everybody in the country understands implicitly.

The document was from a book called Nugæ by Nugator, (which is Latin for Trifles by Jester, or Joker). The version of the document I found bore a stamp saying “Harvard College Library, Sheldon Fund, July 10, 1940.” Searches for the two names appearing on the attribution pages (“St. Leger L. Carter” and “Edward St. O. Carter”) mostly reveal a variety of documents from the Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia. If I had to guess based on what I’ve found, the two Carters are the same person, notwithstanding one source related to the recording of copyright where “Edward” states “I am not the author, but proprietor.” I imagine Mister Carter was a prominent citizen of a somewhat self-indulgent creative bent with sufficient community clout to be worthy of respectful deference by Virginia’s House of Delegates, hence the acceptance of Nugæ into the official record of the Commonwealth’s business. (If someone knows or finds otherwise, I’ll be happy to update this assessment).

I reproduce the cover/credit page of Nugæ, and the particular article that piqued my  interest, below. The piece is framed as an unattributed letter to the editor, but I suspect it’s just the work of Mister Carter being cute, since its tone and language read very much like the rest of  Nugæ to these eyes. Note that the piece (which references ex-President Martin Van Buren, a fave of mine, as a longtime Upstate New Yorker) was written during the 1844 Presidential election, which ended with Democrat James K. Polk defeating Henry Clay of the Whigs. I find the text both entertaining and topical, and it made me do a little research to discover that “caucus” isn’t an ancient Roman or Greek word (as I would have supposed), but is a relatively recent addition to our American English dictionaries, most likely derived from an Algonquian word. Huh!

I hope you enjoy this little nugget of bygone times as much as I did. And in closing, here’s hoping we Iowans use our own upcoming caucus wisely (as the Democrats did in 1844 when they selected Polk at the national convention), whether we really know what the word means or not.

 

 

Best Books of 2019

When I did my 2018 Year in Review post last December, I noted that I was deeply embarrassed by how few new books I had read over the prior year. That was a primary driving reason behind me saying “Ugh! Enough!” when it came to social media soul-sucking time: tons and tons of words passed through my eyes and into my brain in 2018, yes, but very few of them added wisdom or produced pleasure. Goddamn you, Twitter!! Curse you to hell, Russian Trolls!!

In response to that sense of literary embarrassment, I closed out most of my social media accounts last January and made an active commitment to read more books, and less drivel, in 2019. As I look back over the past 12 months, I’m pleased to see that I did indeed devour many more books than I have in most recent years. When picking my reading material, I made a conscious choice to focus on new 2019 books, rather than just defaulting back to reading old books by known favorite authors, and I think I had a better reading year for having done so. The contemporary literary scene seems fertile and pleasing to me.

Over a decade ago, I posited an Eric’s Book of the Every-So-Often Club, noting that my typical reading broke down as follows:

10% Fiction: Usually I will read new books by the the dozen or so authors I know I already really like. Breaking in new authors is so risky and hard. Why bother, neh?

40% Natural History: Ideally books about bugs, trilobites, fish, or birds, or parasites that live(d) on bugs, trilobites, fish and birds, or things that eat/ate bugs, trilobites, fish or birds, or interesting theories about the ways that bugs, trilobites, fish and birds interact with or influence people. I’m a bugs, trilobites, fish and birds kinda guy, y’know?

40% Music Biography: I have read at least half a dozen full-length books about Genesis, to cite but one example of my vast contemporary rock biography collection. And if someone comes out with a credible new book about Genesis next year, I will read that one too. Because someone has to, right? And it might as well be me.

10% Tales of Human Suffering: People falling off of Mount Kanchenjunga, going insane in the Arctic because of the toxins in their tinned food, or trying to walk across the Sahara Desert alone will always be welcome in my book collection. Masochism World, baby! Yeah!

Interestingly enough (to me), I pretty much bailed on “Tales of Human Suffering” and “Natural History” in 2019, with “Fiction” playing a far greater role in my pleasure reading than has likely ever been the case in any year of my adult life. There were still several great examples of “Music Biography” in 2019, supplemented by nonfiction works of other stripes. I guess I need to find some good Bug Books in 2020 to make up for this shift in focus. Bug Books make everything better.

I provide my list of the best new release books of 2019 below, divided into three categories: Nonfiction, Novels, and Story Collections. I present each category in alphabetical order by author, with links for further exploration. The ten very best books are shown in orange typeface, if you want to consider a shorter list for your own reading, based on my recommendations.

Here’s hoping I can continue to read this many great books in the year ahead. And, now that I am a gentleman (writer) of leisure, here’s also hoping that I might write something that could join a list of this variety at some point down the line. That’s the goal. Check back in December 2020 to see how I do.

2019 NONFICTION (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR):

  1. The Ballad of Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson and Mark Blake
  2. Have A Bleedin’ Guess: The Story of Hex Enduction Hour by Paul Hanley
  3. What We Did Instead of Holidays: A History of Fairport Convention and its Extended Folk-Rock Family by Clinton Heylin
  4. How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr
  5. Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
  6. The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy
  7. Henry Cow: The World Is A Problem by Benjamin Piekut
  8. Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography by Chris Salewicz
  9. Baptized Into the Buzz by David Thomas
  10. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

2019 NOVELS (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR):

  1. Interference by Sue Burke
  2. The Silk Road by Kathryn Davis
  3. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht
  4. Will Haunt You by Brian Kirk
  5. Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
  6. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
  7. The Invited by Jennifer McMahon
  8. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
  9. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
  10. The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada
  11. Lanny by Max Porter
  12. The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
  13. Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer
  14. Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

2019 STORY COLLECTIONS (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR):

  1. Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
  2. Someone Who Will Love You In All Of Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
  3. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  4. Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
  5. Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson
  6. A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs
  7. Raised in Captivity by Chuck Klosterman

My Tree Peeps should check out “Semiosis” and “Interference” by Sue Burke. Trust me on this one.

Five by Five Books #9: “Gog” (1967) by Andrew Sinclair

(Note: After a lengthy hiatus, I am returning to an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? This immense novel opens with a naked, seven-foot man washing ashore on a beach between two cliffs in Scotland. He has no knowledge of his identity, nor any memory of his past, and the only clues available to him in unraveling those mysteries are the words GOG and MAGOG tattooed across the back of his knuckles. The giant experiences an overwhelming compulsion to reach London, some four hundred miles to the south, and after a brief stay in the hospital where his rescuers carry him, he stuffs stolen bread into the pockets of a stolen uniform and sets off on his quest, not knowing why he wants to go, nor what he expects to find when he arrives. Gog describes the giant’s journey in glorious detail, down the full vertical span of Britain, mostly by foot, his unfolding story tangling knotted ropes of past, present and future as recurring allies and nemeses (it is often hard to tell which are which) assist or dog him along the way. While he relearns, recreates and/or revisits his own stories, Gog (as the giant eventually identifies himself) also uncovers the ancient narratives and mythologies of Great Britain and how they shape the narrative of modern England and its people.

Who wrote it? Andrew Sinclair (1935 – 2019) was an English novelist, historian, biographer, critic, and filmmaker. After earning a Ph.D. in American History from Cambridge, he pursued an academic career in the United States and England, publishing his first novels in 1959, and his first nonfiction works in 1962. Gog, published in 1967, is his best known novel (it eventually spawned two sequels — Magog in 1972 and King Ludd in 1988 — forming what Sinclair called his “Albion Trilogy”), while his nonfiction work has included books about the American Prohibition Era, the emancipation of American women, Che Guevara, Jack London, Francis Bacon, 20th Century European Aristocracy, Dylan Thomas, and many other subjects. In the early 1970s, he wrote the screenplays for and directed a trio of films, most notably Under Milk Wood, based on Dylan Thomas’ play, and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole. He was honored during his lifetime as both a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

When and where did I read it? I first picked it up in a public library during my high school junior year in Newport, Rhode Island, sometime soon after I had read The Flounder by Günter Grass. It was one of those books that I had to hide while reading at home, as the title alone (referencing the twin nations that would ally with Satan in his final battle with Christ and His Saints) would have been enough to set off alarms with my highly-religious parents, never mind the earthy, bawdy horrors and hoots they would have found had they opened its covers. I got maybe a third of the way through the book before I had to return it to the library in advance of our family’s move to Jacksonville, North Carolina — and then I don’t think I ever saw the novel again, anywhere, for decades, despite looking for it every now and again in libraries or used book stores over the years. Those occasional searches finally paid off when Valancourt 20th Century Classics reissued Gog in 2015, and I acquired and devoured it on my Kindle, mostly in our condo in Chicago. In the glow of finally completing this monumental and inspirational work, I did track down used print copies of Gog‘s two sequels, though they remain unread as of this writing; the original novel was such an epic totality in its own right for me that the early goings of Magog undermined the original in my estimation, rather than enhancing it, so I set both sequels aside, have not returned to them, and may never do so.

Why do I like it? This one pretty much hits on all cylinders and pushes all buttons when it comes to the things that move me in literature. It tells an immense story through both macro (e.g. the history of the people of Britain) and micro (e.g. the grittiest, grimiest, grossest details of Gog’s travails southward toward London) lenses, and it deploys all of Sinclair’s formidable skills as novelist, researcher, journalist, and screenwriter as it unfolds, with chapters whipsawing between formats and styles, each suited to its own particular theme or topic, like some shaggy modern-day fellow traveler of James Joyce’s more-urbane Ulysses. The book’s recurring characters are all archetypal, though they hide their true selves from the reader, and from each other, and from Gog (the character), until they don’t, but unlike most literary archetypes, Gog (the novel)’s dramatis personae are not stereotypes, nor are they even internally or externally consistent from scene to scene and chapter to chapter, even though they always are what they are, except when they’re not. While Britain (real) and Britain (ideal) are certainly documented and documentable, and Gog certainly touches upon centuries of story-telling and history-making in placing its rollicking narrative within both of those Britains, the specific literary megacosm through which our giant protagonist strides ultimately represents a masterful piece of world-building, where the reader is rarely sure whether he/she is experiencing Gog’s delusional interpretations of a factual world, or Gog’s factual interpretations of a delusional world. I enjoy few things more than a fully-realized surrealist universe that feels like something we could all live in, somehow, somewhere, sometime, despite its hallucinatory fantasias and suspensions of natural law and logic, and Gog is simply nonpareil on this front.

A five sentence sample text: “Beyond Innerleithen, the first attempt is made to kill Gog. He has walked through the bruised border town with its hopeful crest of a tame bear and bridled horse, supporting a shield, which shows St. Ronan calming the troubled waters that rear up a full inch high above the mottos Live and Let Live and Watch and Pray, as though these words had ever been the least defense against the boiling Border barons, who made the local ballads bloodier than anything since the Old Testament.  And Gog has passed the old graveyard in the town where a weathered anchor is carved on a sailor’s tomb with the pious expectation, SOON LOST BUT NOT TOO SOON FOR GLORY. And Gog has passed Traquair House, standing among its trees in tall granite and freestone rubble, with its windows slit against arrows and crows. And he has sweated up the steep slope of his first real hill, the track towards Minch Moor on the short cut to Yarrow, with flies teeming about his burning face to drive him mad.”

Click the link to score your own copy of this epic masterwork.

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

 

2019.5

Last December, I noted that I was utterly, mentally fried by the endless onslaught of exhausting, soul-sucking social media agita over the prior year, and that I was dismayed by how it had eaten into more productive/positive writing and reading and living time. I set myself three goals for 2019 accordingly:

  • Read better political coverage, and less often.
  • Write better stuff, about something different.
  • Read more books, and less social media.

I’ve achieved the first goal by un-following any and all social media accounts that have any whiff of the political about them, and by beginning my days by reading a few trusted media outlets over coffee, and then not looking again until the next day. As I noted in December, “America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or televisions, and we did just fine all that time. Better than we’re doing today, actually, by most metrics.” I feel that was a good and accurate step and assessment. It’s working for me.

I didn’t explicitly say “write more” in my goals for the year, but that has happened: in addition to my regular writing for work, I’ve put up 33 pieces on this website in the first half of 2019, compared to 21 in the first half of 2018. Reader traffic is up by about 20%, which isn’t really a priority for me, since I’m not monetizing or selling anything here, but it is still nice to see. I feel good about my Credidero project, which is on schedule, up to about 22,000 words in aggregate at this point, and is actively leading me to reflect on some personally meaningful concepts in ways that I have not done before. Personal growth gold star there. Dunno if it’s really been of interest to others, but it is pleasing me, and I think there will be a nice 50,000-ish word manuscript there at the end of the year that might be a cornerstone document for some future endeavors or activities.

On the reading front, I’ve already read more books in the first half of 2019 than I did in all of 2018, so that feels very good in terms of filling my head with entertainment and wisdom, rather than hate and noise. Since I usually do a “Best Albums of The Year (First Half)” report here, I figured I’d also share my fave new book reads of the first half of 2019, in case in any of these might rock your worlds as well.

On the cusp of last year and this, I had mentioned in December that my next read was Richard Powers’ 2018 The Overstory, and it was indeed the masterwork I expected it to be, as I reported here. I also read one other great 2018 book after I did my year-end report last year: Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. If you only know the story of USS Indianapolis from Quint’s soliloquy in Jaws, you owe it to yourself to read the full account.

And then, on to 2019, first half, the best of what I’ve read so far, the dozen things I’d most recommend to you . . .

NONFICTION:

FICTION:

The best of the best so far this year . . . glorious and heart-breaking . . .

Credidero #4: Absurdity

My father was born and raised in Albemarle, a North Carolina Piedmont mill and rail town near the Uwharrie Mountains. He left there after college to embark on a long and successful Marine Corps career, living and traveling around the world, but his parents stayed on in the same house on Melchor Drive until they died, Papas before Grannies, both passing when I was in my twenties.

While I never lived in Albemarle, I had two decades’ worth of grandparent visits there, with many fond memories still held dear of those mostly gentle days. Until I developed teenage cynicism and ennui, one of my favorite things about going to Albemarle was hunkering down in a comfy chair to read my grandmothers’ copy of The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. I have that battered copy of the book to this day, as my aunt gave it to me after my grandmother died, knowing that no one else had ever read or loved it as much as I did.

(Amusing [to me] side note: The book was given to my grandmother by her friend, who everyone called “Miz Doby,” in June, 1966. I opened it today and looked at the front-piece inscription and smiled to realize that I still do not know what Miz Doby’s first name was, since she just signed it “E. Doby.” They were both elementary school teachers, so presumably the book was originally intended for my grandmother’s students, before I laid claim to it).

As is often the case with big hard-covers that are regularly handled by children, the spine of the book is cracked, there are stains throughout it, and it’s clear to see where the most-loved, most-read pages were, as they’ve been bent back, breaking the glue that held the pages to the spine. If I just set the Untermeyer book on its spine and let it fall open as it will, it drops to pages 208 and 209, containing Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and “Humpty Dumpty’s Recitation.” If I flip to other broken-open pages, I see these poems:

  • “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” and “Calico Pie” by Edward Lear.
  • “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” by Ogden Nash
  • “Old Mother Hubbard” by Sarah Catherine Martin
  • “The Butterfly’s Ball” by William Roscoe
  • “How To Know The Wild Animals” by Carolyn Wells
  • “Poor Old Lady, She Swallowed a Fly” by Unknown

Some of these poets and some of the poems are better known than the others, but they all do share one prominent recurring similarity: they are all nonsense verses, rhythmically engaging to the ear, deeply earnest in laying out terrific tales without any meaningful anchors in the real world whatsoever. They and others like them could readily be described as “absurdities,” which my desktop dictionary defines as “things that are extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously.”

I can still recite “Jabberwocky” by heart half a century on, and my early love of the absurd has pervasively infused both the inputs into my intellectual development, and the outputs of my own creative work, throughout my entire life, and likely through however many years I have remaining before me.  Indulge me three examples on the output side, please: these are short poems that I wrote when I was in my 30s or 40s, clearly related to, and likely inspired by, the doggerel, wordplay, and rhythmic whimsy of those gentler children’s poems in the Untermeyer collection:

“Tales of Brave Ulysses S. Vanderbilt, Jr.”

I don’t know how to make this damn thing go
James Monroe won it in the hammer throw
Won it very long ago
Won it in the hammer throw

Time goes by while we’re learning how to fly
William Bligh dreamed of sour rhubarb pie
Dreamed it with his inner eye
Dreamed of sour rhubarb pie

On the sea, Bligh and Monroe sail with me
One degree south of Nashville, Tennessee
South of Rome and Galilee
South of Nashville, Tennessee

Home at last, feeling like an age has past
Thomas Nast drew us through his looking glass
Drew us as we crossed the pass
Drew us through his looking glass

I don’t know how to make this damn thing go
Even so, sell it quick to Holy Joe
Sell it painted red Bordeaux
Sell it quick to Holy Joe

Sell it with a piping crow
Sell it for a load of dough
Sell it at the minstrel show
Sell it, man, and then let’s go

“Field Agents”

“Let him out, he’s coming now, he’s alone,”
(I can not tolerate the taste of this megaphone).
Deep in the coop, the fox, he sees that some hens have flown,
his cover’s blown, (tympanic bone, Rosetta stone).

And then the hawk drops down from his perch on high,
(spearing the fox through, he lets out a little cry),
Justice is quick here, we stand and we watch him die,
I dunno why (fluorescent dye, blueberry pie).

We pull the poor poultry out from the killing floor
(some of the pups get sick there in the feath’ry gore),
out on the lawn, we stack them up and note the score:
it’s twenty-four (esprit de corps, espectador).

Back in the barn, now, safe in our little stalls
(I watch those damn bugs climbing around the walls),
We sleep and eat hay, waiting ’til duty calls,
as the time crawls (Niagara Falls, no one recalls).

“Natural History”

The ammonites farmed with diazinon
to kill eurypterids beneath the soil.
Which perished there in darkness ‘neath the lawn,
but rose in eighty million years as oil,
which dinosaurs refined for natural gas
to cook their giant land sloths on steel spits.
As sloths were butchered, forests made of grass
rose from the plains to hide the black tar pits,
where trilobites would swim to lay their eggs.
Their larvae flew and bit the mastodons,
while tiny primates scampered round their legs,
feeding on the fresh diazinon.
At night, the primates fidget as they dream
of interstellar rockets powered by steam.

What do these, or the many other poems like them that I have written over the years, mean? Damned if I know. But damned if I also don’t think that they provide better insights into my own psyche and mental processes than the more lucid prose I write professionally and for pleasure. My brain’s a messy thing, and there’s a lot of stuff going  on inside it that doesn’t make a bit of sense, but which nevertheless consumes a fair amount of internal attention and firepower. These absurd little nuggets spill out of my brain easily and frequently, and I enjoy extracting and preserving them. They seem to reflect a particular lens through which I often view the world: it’s astigmatic, has finger-prints on it, is lightly coated with something greasy and opaque that can be rubbed around but not removed, and there are spider cracks latticed throughout its wobbly concave surfaces.

So many of my tastes in the various arts align closely and clearly with this warped view of the world, as though my internal center of absurdity vibrates in recognition and appreciation when presented with similarly incongruous external stimuli. Examples: I have been drawn to surrealist paintings since early childhood, I regularly read books in which language and mood are far more important than linear plot or narrative, and I once did a little feature on the films that move me most, titled: My Favorite Movies That Don’t Make Any Sense At All.

I must admit that since rolling the online dice three weeks ago to decide which of my Credidero topics I would cover this month, I have had to repeatedly tamp down the very strong urge, prompted by the word “absurdity,” to merrily write 3,000+ words of absolutely meaningless gibberish wordplay and call it “done,” rather than actually considering what “absurdity” really means, and processing what I really think and believe about it. And that initial, innate reaction to just be absurd, as I do, has made this a more challenging topic for me to write about than ones that have come before it. Whenever I thought about how to frame the narrative, I always found myself in some sort of “eyeball looking at itself” scenario, an impossible infinite do-loop of self-reflection where I know the mirror and the object reflected within it are both irregularly warped and pointed in different directions, and I don’t (and can’t) quite know what the true image is.

I must also admit that this isn’t the first time I’ve reflected on such matters, even without the formal structure of a public writing project. I have long found that the easiest way to break out of a wobbly self-reflective do-loop has been to create and export a new loop, so I can look at it from the outside, not the inside. When I read the poems reproduced above today (and there are a lot like them in my collection), they strike me as relics of just that type of act or urge: I wrote them as absurdities, I see them as absurdities now, I embrace those absurdities, I know that I created those absurdities, I know that the act of creating them was absurd, and that any attempt to explain them would be equally absurd.

But at least those bits of absurdity now reside outside of me, self-contained and complete, where I can see them more clearly, rather than having them whirring on blurry spindles within me, occasionally shooting off sparks that ignite other bits of weird kindling lodged along the exposed and frayed wiring of a gazillion neurons packed inside my skull. They mean nothing to me objectively, but they mean everything to me subjectively, because they’re so closely aligned with the ways that I think, and what I think about, and how I view the world around me — or at least how I view some world around me, even if it’s not the one I actually live in.

Pretty absurd, huh?

When I do try to order my thoughts on this topic in ways that can be meaningfully communicated to others, I’m struck by the fact that many of the poems in Untermeyer’s great poetry collection for young people are just as absurd as mine are, and just as absurd as the playground chants that kids around the world somehow seem to learn by osmosis, or the songs we sing to little ones, or the goofy talking animal imagery of countless children’s films and television shows. Utterly absurd! All of it, and all of them! But they love it, don’t they, and we seem to love giving it to them, don’t we? When we describe the whimsy of those ridiculous art forms as “absurd,” we imbue the word with fun, and frolic, and laughter and light. Look at the smiles! Look at them! Joy!

Then minutes later, we turn from our young ones, and we check our Twitter feeds or pick up news magazines or turn on our televisions and are confronted with words, actions, or events precipitated by political figures with whom we disagree, and we may scowlingly brand their actions or activities as “absurd” with vehemence, and bitterness, and anger, and darkness in our hearts. Absurdity is somehow colored in different hues when it manifests itself in real-world ways outside of the acts of the creative class, or outside of the bubble of childhood. And rightly so, as is most profoundly illustrated in our current political clime, where elected or appointed public figures routinely engage in acts or spew forth words that are (to again quote the dictionary) “extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously.” 

It is to our own peril, unfortunately, when we don’t take such manifestations of public, political absurdity seriously. Talking animals don’t kill people. Absurd public policies do. Nonce and portmanteau words don’t break people’s souls. Propaganda and hate speech do.  Surrealistic imagery does not poison minds. Unrealistic demagoguery does. Absurd fantasy stories about non-scientific worlds do not destroy the real world. Absurd fantasy policies anchored in non-scientific worldviews do — and there is only one real world within which they function and do harm, no matter how fabulously untethered their sources may be.

People with severe mental illness may act publicly in absurd ways, and we sympathetically view that as a part of their pathology. But what are we to make of people without such pathologies who consciously, actively engage in absurd behaviors specifically designed to remove value and meaning from the lives of others? I’d move them from the absurd pile to the evil pile, frankly. And we’d all be better off were we to rid ourselves of their noxious influences, which is why the fact that 50%+ of our country-folk don’t bother to vote at all is, in itself, utterly absurd.

There’s a vast repository of philosophical thought and writing (from Camus and  Kierkegaard, most prominently) dedicated to understanding absurdity and the ways in which it manifests itself in our lives, and how we are supposed to respond to or function in its grip. Not surprisingly, the philosophy of absurdism is built on the same “dark” theoretical frameworks as existentialism and nihilism, where there is a fundamental conflict between our desire to imbue our lives with value and meaning, and our inability to find such objective worth within an irrational universe that has no meaning, but just is. Once again, the nonsense that is charming when fictionalized for children is often appalling when framed as the architecture within which adult humans function. Why try, when in the end we all die, and we will never know why?

It’s easy for me to embrace and understand my own sense of inner absurdity as an adjunct to the whimsical absurdity of youth, but not so easy to reconcile my inner landscape with the often awful external vistas associated with public, political, and philosophical absurdity. Can I love one and hate the other, or is that in itself an absurd mental position? Is there meaning to be found between those poles, or is life just a pointless, endless Sisyphean push up a hill until the rock crushes us for the last time?

I took a stab at framing my thoughts on why we are what we are some years back, and, of course, I framed it as an absurdist piece called “Seawater Sack Guy Speaks.” If pressed about the article and what it says or means, or why I wrote it, I’ll usually frame it as something more akin to the absurd whimsy of youth, ha ha ha, but if I’m honest here, it’s really a bit more than that, and there’s more objective truth about what I believe, or what I will have believed (credidero) within it than there are in most of my absurd writings. It begins thusly . . .

There’s an explanation for why we exist in the form we do, and I know what it is.

We are all about moving little pieces of the ocean from one place to the other. That’s all we are: sacks of seawater that can convert solar energy into locomotive force, so that we can move our little pieces of the ocean around. Unlike most seawater sacks, though, we are conscious of our selves, and this consciousness leads us to question our primary universal role as movers of hydrogen, oxygen, salts and minerals.

Consciousness is an electrochemical process that our particular strain of seawater sacks have evolved. No better or worse or different than a tail, a gall bladder, or an appendix. Because we don’t understand how this electrochemical process works, we use the very same electrochemical process to create mystical, non-biological explanations for its workings.

And it ends with this . . .

I’m not going to be carrying any metaphysical seawater around any metaphysical heaven or hell when my sack breaks down and releases all its atoms, so I figure I should use every bit of the consciousness I’ve evolved, here and now, to enjoy my fleeting, warm, moist moment in the Sun. This is not to say that I’ve a problem with other sacks of seawater whose enjoyment of their own fleeting, warm, moist moments in the Sun involves the belief in something different. If such chemical processes provide them joy or comfort (or at least the chemical processes that cause their seawater to produce such sensations), then such is their right, and who am I to force my chemistry upon them?

I take joy and comfort from just being conscious, and consider that scientifically miraculous enough.

Is that absurd? Yes. Is it a “good” or the “bad” manifestation of absurdity? I think the former, but I know some would say that if I shared it with a child, I’d inflict harm, and some would say that walking around as an adult thinking such thoughts could readily slot me into the pathological spectrum of absurd beliefs and behaviors. And they may be right. I am absurd, I admit it, inside and out — but I am not a philosophical absurdist. I do believe we can glean meaning and value in an unfeeling, unthinking, and unknowing universe. And I do not believe that a fundamental conflict between the quest for meaning and the universe’s indifference to it drives my own inner absurdity.

When I start thinking about these Credidero articles each month, one of the first things I do is to look at the etymology of the word to be considered. “Absurdity” surprised me in its roots: it is a Late Middle English word derived from the Latin absurdum, meaning “out of tune.” That elicited a “huh!” moment from me, as I am also actively, eagerly drawn to “out of tune” music: the first time I ever read about Arnold Schoenberg’s dissonant 12-tone music, I had to hear it; the first time I ever read about the tritone (“The Devil’s Interval”), I had to find a piano so I could play it; my listening library of thousands of songs contains a high percentage of music in which standard, pleasing Western melodic structures are in short supply. I didn’t realize it, but apparently my musical tastes are absurd too. At least I am consistent.

When I considered the concept of internal and external absurdity as a form of musical expression, I was immediately reminded of a wonderful, favorite song by Karl Bartos (ex-Kraftwerk), called “The Tuning of the World.” In it, Bartos writes about wishing that he could believe in God after seeing a haunting Laurie Anderson concert, noting:

I connect to the sound inside my mind
Closer I can‘t get to the divine
I wish I could believe in God
Life would be just safe and sound
I‘d build my house on solid ground
It‘s rather hard to understand
Why some believe and others can‘t
Who rules the tuning of the world?

I don’t know the answer to Karl’s final question there, for Karl, but to whoever rules the tuning of my own world, I am thankful that you left things in a state of wonky intonation with a lot of busted keys and clammed notes and buzzing frets, since I honestly like it better that way, absurdly enough.

Note: This article is part of an on-going twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this fourth article complete, I roll the dice again . . .

12die

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Twelve: “Inhumanity.”

Caution: This book may detune your world.

 

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue