The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

The Old Snowshoe.

Source: Wikipedia

In just a few years Curling, which had its modern debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, after originally being part of the 1924 Winter Olympics, went from an obscure sport understood only by Canadians to a popular phenomenon with men’s teams, women’s teams, and mixed doubles teams playing in tournaments worldwide and still only understood by Canadians. With this remarkable success many Olympic watchers have been asking, what will be the next big breakout sport? The most obvious place to look is back at events that were once part of the Olympics but that have since been discontinued. Here are some of the top contenders:

  1. Bandy

Best described as “hockey with a ball” the game of Bandy is definitely one that’s been bandied about.

Pros-

Already played as a demonstration sport at the 1952 Winter Olympics

Very similar to hockey

Popular in Scandinavian countries

Cons-

Very similar to hockey

Popular in Scandinavian countries

Did I mention it’s similar to hockey?

  1. Skijoring

Also known as “ski driving” Skijoring is, well, water-skiing on snow, with a single skier pulled by a horse, a dog team, or a motorized vehicle. It may be a speed race or may involve jumps and tricks.

Pros-

 This has a high degree of difficulty as the skier must maintain their balance while being pulled, which makes it exciting to watch.

It has a long history among the native Sami people of Norway.

The Summer Olympics have Equestrian events and this would be a good parallel.

Cons-

The Olympics have kind of an image problem and horses, or even dogs, on snow and ice could potentially put the animals in danger

The motorized version is basically what your cousin Larry did in the backyard that one winter with a brick on the pedal of his go-kart and, well, your aunt complains about the doctor bills to this day.

  1. Synchronized Skating

It’s exactly what it says, but, unlike synchronized diving, Synchronized Skating can have teams of up to twenty people all working in unison.

Pros-

That many people on ice working together has a big wow factor.

Similar events, although showier, are already often part of the opening ceremonies.

Cons-

That many people on sharp blades on ice moving together seriously raises the odds that someone’s going to get cut and bleed all over the ice. Also a “pro”.

  1. Ski Ballet

Ballet on skis. It’s the sort of thing you pretty much have to see.

Pros-

No matter what you think of ballet it has an athletic quality, requiring both endurance and control.

Cons-

Judging artistic events is subjective and therefore always controversial, and given the issues around ice skating it’s not surprising the IOC doesn’t want to add another one to the mix.

  1. Snowshoeing

Also known as “snowshoe running” this is a speed event that involves running in shoes specially designed for crossing snow.

Pros-

Currently part of the Winter Special Olympics

The difficulty can be appreciated by anyone who’s ever run, or just walked, in snow.

The World Snowshoe Federation has their own magazine. No, really!

Cons-

Kind of at a loss here. Seriously, this is amazing. Even with specially designed shoes crossing snow at high speed is an impressive feat. The only con here is that Snowshoeing isn’t a major Olympic event.

Off The Menu.

Source: Fromoldbooks.org

“Where’s the menu? Okay. So what’s good here?”

“Well, they have a big plate of festering pus with a tableside flambé presentation. It’s not on the menu but you can ask for it.”

“What?”

“That’s just a ridiculous question. I’m not even sure why you asked since I haven’t been here either and the server doesn’t know what you like.”

“I’m just asking for recommendations and trying to get some idea of what I might like. And making conversation. What’s so wrong with that?”

“Hey, did you know orange roughy used to considered a garbage fish by fishermen who called it ‘slimehead’?”

“Do you want to go to another restaurant? How about we just go home?”

“Well, we already did a lot of research before we picked this place because you’re so picky. You don’t like chains. You won’t go to any place that has more than two locations.”

“So I like to support local businesses.”

“The menu has to be really specific. Beef and chicken have to be free range, no veal, no pork if we can help it, and no shrimp.”

“Shrimp might kill me!”

“It would if you had an allergy. And the place can’t be too dark inside.”

“I like to see what I’m eating.”

“You want a window table, close to the front.”

“Everybody hates being stuck in the back next to the kitchen.”

“And that’s just when we go out. You’re just as picky at home. You want crunchy peanut butter blended with creamy because you want it crunchy but not too crunchy. You want ranch dressing on your sandwiches instead of mayonnaise but it has to be homemade and thick enough to spread and so it won’t make the sandwich too damp. And to prevent that you want a piece of lettuce, but only one piece, on both slices of bread, with the dressing on the inside. You want white bread but it has to be the artisanal kind, and it has to be sliced and lightly toasted.”

“Okay, okay, I get it. I’m sorry.”

“I just hope you appreciate the effort I go to.”

“I do, really.”

“I’m sorry I snapped like that. Let’s just order.”

“Okay. So what’s bad here?”

Ring Around The Moon.

There was a ring around the moon.

We’d had snow then rain then more snow and periods of bitter cold and periods of cold that wasn’t bitter but wasn’t exactly sweet either, and I was really starting to hate going outside for anything, especially at night, especially on clear nights when the empty sky is cold, dark, and hungry, and just stepping outside meant pulling on heavy boots to avoid the risk of slipping on the frozen patio, or even on the frozen mud out in the yard. It wasn’t really a time for looking up, although when we had snow it did offer a nice view, especially at night when it was a luminous blue, like a seascape seen from a submarine.

I remember when I first learned about lunar rings. It was eighth grade and there was a whole chapter in my school science book about clouds and other meteorological phenomena. It also had a whole chapter entitled, “Will We Ever Reach The Moon?” which just reminded my friends and I how badly funded science education was, but that’s another story.

There was a picture of a three-quarter moon, like an opal, with a ring around it, and an explanation that sometimes ice crystals high up in the atmosphere would cause the moon to shine like a gem. Somehow I’d never seen this, although it must have happened—and in fact that very winter I’d see my first lunar ring, and understood why I might never have noticed one before. Unlike the one pictured in my science book the one I saw was enormous, stretched out almost to the horizon. It was unusual, but I suppose I never noticed rings around the moon before because, as much as I liked to look at the night sky, I must have been focused on the moon itself. Other times I’d see rings that were indistinct. Like the Pleiades on certain nights some lunar rings couldn’t be observed directly; they were elusive and couldn’t be seen if I looked directly at the moon. They only existed at the edge of my vision when I looked somewhere else.

According to folklore a ring around the moon means bad weather is coming: rain or snow, which makes sense. Since a ring around the moon is caused by ice crystals, or, more specifically, flossy clouds, it’s a sign of moisture in the atmosphere. I can’t understand why something so amazingly beautiful would be considered a sign of bad luck. I was glad to be outside to see it.

Things Are Going To Start Happening To Me Now.

There it was, at the end of the driveway—a shapeless pale green mass. I was hesitant at first but then I noticed there were similar masses at the end of every driveway up and down our street. I approached it carefully, and as I got closer I could see it was a plastic bag, and inside the bag was…a phone book. It was just the yellow pages, for local businesses—I don’t think they publish a residential phone book anymore, or, if they do, it goes exclusively to telemarketers who, when I ask how they got my number, tell me it was dialed at random and, when I ask, “Okay, how’d you get my name then?” hang up on me, but that’s another story.

I can’t remember the last time we got an actual phone book. Maybe we got one last year around this same time and I just can’t remember it because, well, that was a year ago, and I immediately put it in the recycling bin because that’s all it was good for, but I don’t think so. I don’t think we got one the year before that, or even the year before that, or, if we did, I can’t remember it because, well, that was three years ago and the recycling bin’s been emptied a few dozen times since then.

There’s something really annoying about getting a phone book these days. I’m old enough to remember when the yellow pages were advertised with “let your fingers do the walking” even though you were eventually going to have to use your feet eventually, and walking on your fingers is just asking for broken fingers. And also there seemed to be something deeply recursive about advertising a big book of advertising that was given away free anyway. Maybe that’s why even before the internet became the most widespread and popular way to find information, including phone numbers, phone books became a prop for tough guys who’d show their strength by tearing one in half. And I’m pretty sure someone’s already made a joke about how hard it is to tear the internet in half but you don’t have to be that strong to destroy a laptop or even a tablet, but you show me someone who can tear a warehouse full of servers in half and I’m not going to stick around because I’m sure that monster will destroy us all. I’m also old enough to remember phone booths and, for that matter, when a call was just ten cents, and I remember the time my friends and I looked up the number for a pizza place and found two that were close by, so we picked one, called in a pickup order, and then went to the wrong one because we didn’t have Google Street View to check and see where we were going before we went there.

I can’t even imagine why I’d use the phone book now—and I say this as someone who still reads, and even prefers, regular printed books, since there’s something baffling about trying to look up, say, gardening equipment, only to find “See: Plants”. I see a lot of plants which is why I want the gardening equipment.

On the other hand there is something to be said for the discrete, even private value of the phone book. It’s not keeping tabs on what tabs I have open or recording my browsing history. It’s not going to start throwing targeted ads at me based on the page where I happened to stop. If I want something embarrassingly personal like a shoe tree or a place that sells ceramic aardvarks and takes cash only I can probably find it in the phone book—if I can just figure out where to look.

Games People Played.

Actual Christmas Parlor Games Of The 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries:

The Ribbon

Everyone would be given a piece of string or ribbon to hold while one person in the middle of the room would hold the other end of all the strings or ribbons. The person in the middle would then say either “pull” or “let go”. When asked to “pull” all the players would have to let go of their strings. When asked to “let go” they would have to pull. Players who got the commands reversed would have to pay some sort of penalty, because it’s not the holidays without strings attached.

Shoe The Wild Mare

Players would have to straddle a wooden swing high enough that their feet would be off the ground and hit the bottom of the swing with a hammer and hopefully not fall off. Players who lost would have to pay some sort of penalty—usually a broken arm.

Jacob! Where Are You?

A version of Blind Man’s Bluff this game involves a blindfolded player who calls out, “Jacob! Where are you?” while chasing another player with a bell. If the bell ringer is caught the players trade places, which makes it a hilarious game for two people and a chance for everyone else to just wander around and drink.

The Toilette

One person would take the role of Lord or Lady. Everyone else would select or be assigned a toiletry item—a comb, a brush, a mirror, etc. When the Lord or Lady called for an item the corresponding person would have to answer. Or the Lord or Lady could call “All toilette!” and everyone would have to jump up and change seats. Each person would take the item of the previous seat holder. Playing this today would be a chance to assign Uncle Jerry the nose hair trimmer and maybe he’d get the hint to use the one you gave him last year because his nostrils look like they’ve been stuffed with porcupines.

The Doctor

One person chosen to be “The Doctor” would go around the room and each person would have to feign an illness. The Doctor would then prescribe the most ridiculous treatments he or she could think of. After going around the room the Doctor would then go back and ask each person what they’d been prescribed.

Hot Cockles

In this version of Blind Man’s Bluff a person would be blindfolded then hit and would have to guess who hit them. This game was a great opportunity to get into the Christmas spirit by taking revenge on someone for something they did back in July.

Steal The White Loaf

A person would sit at a table facing away from a piece of bread or cake and other people would try to grab it without being identified, which seems to be a common theme in Christmas parlor games and maybe how the whole “Secret Santa” thing got started.

Snapdragon

A large dish of raisins would be doused with brandy and set on fire because it just wouldn’t be Christmas without flames. The idea of this game was that everyone would take turns reaching in and grabbing a raisin from the dish. The winner would be the one with the most raisins who didn’t need medical treatment or set anything else on fire. To this day, though, more people have been sent to the hospital by family games of Monopoly.

Source: Tenor

Any Color Christmas.

Source: fromoldbooks.org

A white Christmas never meant that much to me as a kid. I liked snow, and still like it—when it comes to weather I’ll gladly take snow over torrential rains, thunderstorms, and tornadoes, even if I do live in a place where the mere threat of snow causes everyone to stock up on bread, eggs, and milk as though French toast is some kind of magical survival food, and cars go sliding up and down the streets and into ditches because no one here knows how to drive in the snow. Granted I said that once to someone who lives in a place that gets lots of snow and she said, “Well, what they should do is wait until the snowplows have cleared the streets because the trick to driving in the snow is you don’t try to drive in the snow.” And I just laughed at the thought that there are places that get snow on such a regular basis that they actually have snowplows that go out and clear the streets.

What I really looked forward to at Christmas, aside from the presents and food and all the TV specials, was two weeks off from school. For me what made the holidays was an actual holiday—a break from having to learn stuff. I could read books without having to worry about being tested on what I’d read which somehow made whatever I was reading a lot more interesting and more memorable. All our other school holidays—Thanksgiving, Easter, the occasional teachers’ work day when they’d have to go in but we didn’t—lasted only days. Christmas was a solid two weeks. It was like a brief burst of summer, only right in the middle of winter. Getting snow at Christmas would have been a mixed blessing. It would look nice but one of the benefits of whatever snow we did get, which usually came in late January or February, was that we’d get time off from school. Snow at Christmas would have just taunted us with the fact that we were already free.

It was two days before the start of the Christmas break and we were in the midst of final exams. Having final exams right before Christmas seemed cruel, forcing us to jump over a major hurdle when our minds were already focused on the bacchanalia to come, and yet having exams after Christmas, which I’ve heard some places do, would have been even worse because we’d have to sweat and study in the midst of the bacchanalia. At one point I suggested that we really should be tested at the beginning of the year, the idea of education being to teach us what we didn’t know, and it made sense given my mind’s perverse ability to mostly remember stuff I didn’t have to remember, but the idea didn’t go over so well with my teachers.

Anyway there we were, late December, hunched over our desks and checking the skies between classes because there was a chance of snow in the forecast. And, as usual, there was some dipstick sitting in the very back who’d occasionally yell “It’s snowing!” and everyone would jump and look out the windows, although, really, you could do that in the middle of May and everyone would still jump and look out the windows, and maybe they’d be even more interested because snow in May would really be something.

So as I was saying I was in the very back hoping the weather would hold off. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” gets played so often against a backdrop of snowscapes that it’s easy to forget that he wrote it in warm, sunny southern California where they’d never be able to get the snowplows out because nobody’d know how to drive the damn things. He was dreaming of a white Christmas but to me it sounded like a nightmare because school would be shut down and the rest of our exams would be delayed until after the holidays. It was, I think, the one and only time I sat in school wishing it wouldn’t snow.

And thankfully it didn’t. Not while school was in session, anyway. We finished up our exams and went home and a couple of days before Christmas it snowed. It wasn’t a heavy snowfall—not enough to disrupt anything, but just enough to lightly dust everything, giving life to an otherwise drab and gray winter. It was cold enough that the snow stayed powdery, swirling around the streets and in the air, but I distinctly remember that for breakfast that morning I had French toast.

Light A Candle.

The squirrels have stayed out of the attic. At the start of every Hanukkah I think about this because several years ago we had a squirrel infestation. There was at least one family nesting in the insulation. The scrabbling sounds that woke us up in the middle of the night were a minor inconvenience, as was the possibility the squirrels were using whatever we had stored up there for nesting material. A bigger problem was that they might be tearing up the insulation, as was the possibility that they might chew through wiring which could start a fire and burn down the entire house, leaving all of us without a nest, and unlike the squirrels we couldn’t easily move to a clump of leaves in the nook of a tree.
So I unfolded the rickety wooden ladder and climbed into the attic through the door in the hallway ceiling. I was able to chase some squirrels out but that was a temporary solution so I also took some traps smeared with peanut butter. I used the spring bar traps, the kind that used to be sold under the slogan, “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Since we were dealing with squirrels, though, I used the size intended for bigger animals. These had the slogan, “These will cut your fingers off,” and could be sprung from ten feet away by a good sneeze. I discovered dexterity I never knew I had and set the traps carefully, hoping they’d serve as a deterrent and convince the squirrels to move out. I wasn’t so lucky. I had to bag a few bodies, their necks broken by the steel bar, and carry them to the garbage then reset the traps, trying not to sneeze.
Then one night I found a squirrel still alive in one of the traps. It was struggling to get away but badly injured. I knew I couldn’t let the squirrel go. Even if it survived its injury, which wasn’t likely, even if it avoided being run over by a car, even if it escaped neighborhood dogs, stray cats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, even if it wasn’t attacked by other squirrels, it could get back into the house. And it would spend whatever life it had left in excruciating pain. I’d caused it to suffer and I had a responsibility to end that suffering.
I knew all this, but I wasn’t looking forward to what I had to do either. My wife suggested I use a hatchet but that would mean I’d have to look at the squirrel, I’d have to aim carefully, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. A history teacher once told me that Mary Queen of Scots, as she approached the chopping block, turned to her executioner and said, “Be mercifully quick.” Her request apparently made him lose his nerve; it took him three tries to finish the job.I put the trap with the squirrel still in it into a white plastic garbage bag and took it out to the driveway. I got a shovel out of the basement. The squirrel struggled a little in the bag, which I appreciated because it told me exactly where to hit. I wanted, for both of us, to be mercifully quick.
After the clang of the shovel faded, I heard a flute playing. Someone a few houses away was in their backyard practicing “Jingle Bells”. For some reason this song always makes me think of people and woodland animals sharing the sleigh ride together, a sort of Eden with snow and blinking lights. The sun had just set, and in the stillness I realized that in some houses and places of worship the first candle of the menorah had either been lit or was about to be lit.
I’m not Jewish. I’m not even religious in any traditional sense, but I know Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates hope and perseverance. It’s about a miracle of light and life–one day’s worth of oil burning for eight–coming to people who have just been through darkness and death. It’s a celebration by people who survived an all-out attempt to wipe them off the face of the Earth. It may not be the highest of holy days but it’s usually celebrated around the solstice, and there’s something fitting, even poetic, about candles being lit against the darkness on the darkest nights of the year.
I first learned about Hanukkah when I was a Boy Scout and working on a project about religion. I was supposed to learn about a faith other than my own. I was raised in a very relaxed Presbyterian church and because I wasn’t particularly religious then either I could have picked just about any other Christian sect and had friends who were Catholic and Baptist and Methodist, but I didn’t know any Jews. I’d read stories about Jewish families and traditions. The minister of our church had a sign on his office door that said, “Shalom!” I decided I wanted to know Judaism better. I went to a local temple one afternoon when it was empty. First the rabbi took me to his office and started asking me questions. How long had I been a Boy Scout? What was my project about? Why had I chosen Judaism? It was nice to have an adult take an interest in me but also confusing. I knew “rabbi” was the Hebrew word for “teacher” and I was there to learn, not talk about myself. When he asked if I knew anything about Judaism I panicked. I should have done some cursory background reading before coming, I thought, but I hadn’t done anything to prepare. I admitted this and prepared myself for his disappointment. Instead he smiled.
“There’s no sin in ignorance.”
Suddenly I felt relief. I’m sure adults had told me that before, but it was not what I expected, especially from a teacher. I spent most of my youth feeling like I was supposed to know things that I’d never been told; everything seemed to be a test, and I frequently thought I was failing. At that moment I felt assured that it was okay to not know anything as long as I was willing to learn.
“Do you know any Jewish holidays?” he asked.
Since I’d learned about Passover in Sunday school I didn’t think of it as a Jewish holiday. Instead I said, “Hanukkah,” which I knew sometimes overlapped with Christmas.
“Do you know the story of Hanukkah?”
I still didn’t feel great about not knowing anything, but he smiled again and told me the story of the Maccabees, and the destruction of the temple, and how the oil that was only supposed to last for one night burned for eight, and Hanukkah is the celebration of this miracle.
Then he took me into the main sanctuary and showed me around. It was very much like other churches I’d been in, very much like the Presbyterian sanctuary I went to every Sunday, in fact, with pews and a raised section at the front, but with slightly different decorations. He explained about the Torah, how the ark that holds it is positioned so those who face it are facing toward Jerusalem. Then he pointed upward to the Eternal Light. It was just an electric light, made to look like a flickering flame, but the specifics didn’t concern me. I was captivated by the symbolism. I had only a vague idea of how unkind history, particularly the 20th Century, had been to the Jews but here, I thought, was the central symbol of a belief system built around hope.
In college I took a class on Judaism, and attended services at the local synagogue. The first time I went I picked up a prayer book and opened it. On the first page there was a short story about the prophet Isaiah, who stood at the door of the temple and said, “I cannot go in, this temple is full.” The people looked in and said, “There’s no one in the temple. Why do you say it’s full?” And Isaiah said, “The temple is filled with prayers that are not sincere. Only prayers offered from the heart will ascend into Heaven.” Again I felt that deep sense of hope. Faith, the ultimate expression of hope, is worthless if it’s not sincere.
I went to services at the temple several more times, and took part in Passover seders in the spring, and, with a friend, lit the menorah candles for Hanukkah. One day while I was doing research for a paper in the synagogue library I sat in on a talk the rabbi gave parents about coping with, and hopefully preventing, teen suicides. He was emphatic that “l’chaim”, “to life”, wasn’t just a toast made at meals but a philosophy, that to be a Jew meant taking joy in life.
In my studies of Judaism I kept going back to Hanukkah and its traditions. I read how, over a thousand years ago, two rabbis, Shammai and Hillel, had competing ideas about how Hanukkah should be celebrated. Rabbi Shammai said all candles should be lit on the first night and then one extinguished on each night as a literal representation of the diminishing oil. There’s a strange beauty in Shammai’s literalness, and I assume the growing darkness would end with a grand blaze. Rabbi Hillel said that one candle should be lit each night so on the final night all eight candles would blaze with glory. Instead of increasing darkness there would be growing light and hope. Hillel’s tradition is the one that’s survived.
None of this has anything to do with the squirrels, but it all came to me anyway. I was extinguishing a light even as in other houses flames were being offered up against the darkness. It seemed like the universe was conspiring to make me feel bad about what I’d done, but I accepted the responsibility. I’d even say I welcomed it, even if I wished the epiphany had come more easily. I can rationalize until I’m blue in the face. I can say that even though one-fourth of all mammal species are presently in danger of extinction squirrels aren’t one of them. I can say that at least I’m not actually harming another person, and that through history people have done terrible things to other people with less justification than I have for killing the squirrels in the attic. Nothing I can say changes the fact that, hokey as it sounds, I don’t want to be directly responsible for the deaths of squirrels. I don’t think squirrels are a cornerstone species, or that the disappearance of Sciurus griseus would tip the balance and lead to the extinction of Homo sapiens, but being too casual about extermination threatens us all. As long as the traps were killing them I could shirk responsibility. I was just a caretaker; the traps were doing the work. When the trap failed, I had to face what I was doing. I thought about a poem by Maxine Kumin, who was Jewish, called “Woodchucks”, about her efforts to protect her vegetable garden. She opens with a quick description of first using gas, “The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange/was featured as merciful, quick at the bone,” but it doesn’t work and over the poem’s thirty lines she quickly escalates to shooting them, “The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling/to the feel of the .22.” One woodchuck evades her and in the end she laments, “If only they’d all consented to die unseen/gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.” This is the danger that comes from being too casual about death. She feels herself becoming her own worst enemy.
It’s not a perfect metaphor. The only perfect metaphor that I know of in English literature is from Gertrude Stein, also Jewish, who wrote, “a rose is a rose is a rose”. There is no justification for the Nazi concentration camps. The woodchucks, on the other hand, threatened Kumin’s food supply, or at least her rhubarb and brussels sprouts. The Biblical land of milk and honey is called that because, in theory anyway, called that because nothing has to die to provide them, but we can’t live on milk and honey alone. Part of the web of life is death.
As a counter to that I also thought of a poem by Gerald Stern, also also Jewish, called “Behaving Like A Jew”, about finding an opossum shot and lying in the road. He says, “I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death./I am going to behave like a Jew/and touch his face, and stare into his eyes.” What exactly he does next isn’t clear, other then moving the opossum off the road, but what is clear is that he refuses to let a death pass; he is going to mourn the loss of a life so small and seemingly unconnected to his.
I didn’t reset the trap in the attic that night, or again. Something in me had broken, but in another strange coincidence the squirrels left and didn’t come back. There were still a few traps up there at either end of the attic, where I’d balanced carefully on the rafters and tried to avoid stepping through the insulation, but they stayed empty. Maybe the injured squirrel had frightened the others away. Maybe it was just a coincidence. If I were religious I might believe they knew I’d prayed for the killing to stop and that because my prayer was sincere it rose up.

Smell This.

Benjamin Franklin famously said “Fish and visitors stink after three days”, and it seems like solid advice when staying with someone, at least depending on the size of their house. There used to be some reasonably sized houses in our neighborhood that were torn down and replaced with sprawling edifices with seven-car garages and indoor golf courses–houses so big you could drop in and stay for three years and the owners would never know you were there, much less smell you.

Anyway I get the visitors part but why fish? More importantly who keeps fish for three days? You don’t put a fish in a cool part of the basement to mellow like you would a ham or a bottle of wine or Uncle Charlie, not even for just three days. I’m pretty sure a fish would start to stink in the first twenty-four hours, if not sooner. Most fish smell as soon as they get pulled out of the water, although there’s some difference between fresh and salt water. And even then there are not so subtle distinctions. What I’m saying is if you pull a catfish out of a backyard pond you might not want to put your nose too close to it, although not just because of the smell but because they can bite.

What was Franklin thinking, anyway? The late Eighteenth Century was a notoriously bad time for food preservation, even though most people might not have realized it at the time. Yes, he could get electricity by putting a key on a kite string, but this method could rarely power a refrigerator for more than ten or fifteen minutes, hardly long enough to keep any fish fresh for three days.

I think we can also say with some certainty that, although Franklin was a successful printer and inventor, he never really did work in an office, at least not with other people because if he had his famous aphorism would have been, “After three days visitors are like fish after three minutes in the microwave–they stink up the whole place, seriously, Kevin, do you think you could bring something else for lunch?” While it lacks the pithiness of the original I think we can all agree it’s an improvement, especially those of us who’ve worked with Kevin, but that’s another story.

Granted the time of year can make a difference. In the summer, even in New England, keeping any kind of fish around for three days would be lunacy, but in the winter most kinds of fish, if you could get them, could be preserved on ice or even packed in snow, and this would be a good way of keeping them as long as the weather stayed cold, but it probably wouldn’t work so well with visitors.

Except Uncle Charlie because, you know, he smelled like that when he arrived.

Pen & The Art Of Writing.

Source: From Old Books

Someone in my writing group brought up the subject of writing software–that is, programs that are meant to assist writers, not writing programs which is more specifically called “coding”–because they were working with a new one called Vellum. And several other people talked about using an older program called Scrivener, and someone yelled out “Notepad!” and if we’d been in the same room I would have high-fived them because I’ve used Notepad and also actual notepads. And I thought about writing something that would make fun of writing programs since my own personal preference, most of the time anyway, is to write on actual paper, or to use the most bare-bones word processing program I have available (see Notepad) but I’m pretty sure that joke’s already been done and more importantly I realized it violated something I sent to a friend several years ago when he told me he was writing a book and asked for advice. And I sat down and thought about it and wrote out the Nine Commandments Of Writing:



1. Write every day. As much as possible write at the same time every day.
2. Set a specific quota for your daily writing. For a lot of writers this is two-thousand words or roughly four pages.
2. Use a specific place to do most of your writing.
3. Save all drafts. Writing by hand or using a typewriter is the best way to do this but most word processing programs can now save old versions of whatever you’re working on.
4. Before you start writing take several minutes to mentally prepare yourself. Don’t just dive in.
5. Isolate yourself when writing. Writing is a lonely art by necessity.
6. Avoid distractions. Stay focused on the writing in front of you.
7. Get down a rough draft or an outline before you start revising. Have a specific ending in mind.
8. Everything will need to be revised.
9. Throw out all these rules. How you write is how you write. It may take a while to figure out what your particular method is and you may even try different things, but do whatever works and if it works don’t let someone else tell you it’s wrong.

I do try to follow some of those rules myself but I purposely put some things in that list that I don’t do just to be able to point and laugh at myself. And just to underscore the importance of Rule #9 here are some examples and counter-examples: Virginia Woolf wrote standing up, Mark Twain wrote lying down, Nabokov wrote on note cards, and I once met a TV writer who fed a roll of butcher paper through his typewriter so he’d never have to worry about reaching the end of a page. Philip Levine has said he hates having a view and was once staying with friends whose house looked over the Golden Gate Bridge, so he went and wrote in a closet. Joyce Carol Oates, who’s famous for her output, likes to look out the window while she writes. A minor quibble I have with Stephen King’s book On Writing is he puts down writer’s retreats, and, well, maybe they don’t work for him, but I once had a very productive weekend at an arts retreat. It got me out of my usual space and headspace. I also like to write in coffee shops where people come and go. Once I was working on a story and I was interrupted by a person from Porlock and the story took a turn that made it better.
Some people work just fine on a computer with a word processor. Some writers I know buy old typewriters and use those even if it means doing all their typing twice, although advances in scanning technology are reducing that need. I like to write by hand, best when I use fountain pens–I have some heavy ones that make me feel like my ideas have more importance until I go back and read that I’ve written, “Dogma is more engaging than catma.” I also end up having to retype everything because there will never be a scanning technology that can read my handwriting.

Source: Imgur

And while I don’t use them myself I can see the value in high-powered writing programs that store all your drafts and track changes, have easily accessible sub-folders for notes, and can even auto-generate a table of contents for your book, which does seem a little weird to me. I’m going to go off on a tangent about tables of contents because I like how some writers, like Henry Fielding in his novel Tom Jones would write descriptive headings for his chapters. Carlo Collodi also did that for Pinocchio. My favorite one is Chapter 35, after Pinocchio’s been swallowed by a giant Dog-Fish, and the heading is, “In the body of the Dog-Fish Pinocchio finds…whom does he find? Read this chapter and you will know,” and I said, “Thanks for the giant spoiler there, Disney!” More recently there’s Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler where it’s best if you don’t read the chapter headings at first because there’s a giant spoiler there, but I’m getting off the subject.
Maybe the one inviolate rule of writing is that reading is important–I’ve never known a writer who didn’t have a love of reading, who didn’t start writing because they fell in love with a book or books and said, “I want to do that.” Samuel Johnson wisely said, “one must turn over half a library to write one book,” and I’m not allowed to go back until I pay for the damages, but that’s another story.
I could turn the importance of reading into its own rule and make it an even ten but I’d rather leave it as it is. If you want ten commandments write your own list.

 

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