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The secret to great prose

May 5, 2021

“Great storytellers make readers co-authors, letting them complete with their imaginations what has been left unsaid on the printed page.”

–Bernard F. Dick, NYT Book Review (letter) 5.2.21

This may be the secret we have all been looking for. Occasionally in Hemingway you can find this idea at work, but you have to keep looking.



October 4, 2020

Is it too much to say that all things are linked, all experiences somehow tied together?   That events and circumstances seemingly unconnected are in fact inextricably linked, that there is no such thing as unintended coincidence?

Sunsets happen every single day, in every single place on the planet.  Only some are visible.  Some horizons are hidden behind mountains and city skylines, some beyond low-lying layers of cloud or the rim of the earth in the polar distance.  There is never a day or a place that they don’t happen, only days and places where we cannot see them.

The shores of western seas are the best places to observe the splitting of the sun into diminishing halves as it slowly sinks into the water, or more technically beneath the level horizon.  The astronomy of the situation determines that the visible sun sets at a farthest north on the 21st day of December every year, dividing the shortest day from the longest night.  And likewise, the summer solstice, that farthest-south track of the setting sun, divides the longest day from the shortest night.

And twice each year, that same track passes the place where the lengths of day and night are equal, the equinoxes, vernal and autumnal.  These are days of some significance, always.  Some ancient civilizations marked these equinoxes with stone monuments set to align that exact line of shadow, from horizon to near stone to far stone.  One has to be present, beside these lines of stone, along this line of light, on these particular days, at that moment when the sun makes that final setting.

Otherwise, these are just stones in a line, a line with no obvious significance.

At Point Arena lighthouse on the coast of California, a stone wall has been built, vertical slabs of stone set parallel to each other, in a line.  A fence—not quite a wall.  Its construction fulfills an apparent need to mark a property line running due east and west, a boundary to a park, an implacable barrier to vehicular traffic.  That much is obvious.

The wall has a Celtic beauty all its own, worthy of closer investigation into the details of its construction.  Flat labs of stone perhaps 4” thick, quarried not far away, resemble the native rock just at the waterline at the foot of the bluff below, sometimes covered by the tide and surging waves, and sometimes revealed.  They stand on end like huge slices of brown bread in a row, at varying 4’ heights with 4” stone spacers between them.  Viewed from either side, the wall has the airy lightness of a California grapestake fence.  At intervals, a placement of much more substantial stones will supply the structural stability that thin slabs alone will not maintain over eons. 

Their deeper significance can only be seen in that rare confluence of the equinox come only twice in a year, and a horizon come clear enough to divide the setting sun into its equal halves, and a curious mind directs the eye to look down that line at sunset, to observe at that very moment the astronomical calendar in all its primitive, elemental glory.

Viewed from the wall’s eastern end, sighting along the pointed tops of the slabs, it becomes clear they are erected in a dead-straight line pointing out to the sea, toward a horizon only intermittently visible in the alternating fogs of this cold and wind-driven coastline.

Equinox, Pt. Arena 9.21.20

“It is union that we want”–President William Henry Harrison

September 18, 2020

“It is union that we want”—selected quotations from the 1841 inaugural address of our ninth president William Henry Harrison—best known for being the longest such address. It should be better remembered for some of the powerful statements within it, ideas and concepts which the current party occupying the White House seems unable to recognize or fulfill.

“The freedom of the press is the great bulwark of civil and religious liberty, one of the most precious legacies,” said Mr. Harrison.

“It should be our constant and earnest endeavor mutually to cultivate a spirt of concord and harmony among the various parts of our government.”

“It is union that we want, not of a party for the sake of that party, but a union of the whole country for the sake of the whole country, for the defense of its interests against foreign aggression, for the defense of those principles for which our ancestors so gloriously contended.”

Compare these ideas to the words of our forty-fifth president: “I am the only one!”

Thomas Jefferson on Freedom of the Press

August 29, 2020

To quote Thomas Jefferson:

“I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another: for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.”

Compare these words to those of a later president, two centuries on, who disparages the free press as “fake news” and “truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”* and panders to evangelical Christians in hopes of securing a few more votes.

Would that we had something at least coming close to that wisdom coming from the White House today.

*Donald J. Trump, April 5, 2019 tweet

“Dark Money”–Jane Mayer’s revealing look at the Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

July 24, 2020

As we look around us today, we are confronted with some of the great mysteries of the world, and are consumed with questions about why things are the way they are. Jane Mayer’s expose first published in 2016 is no less powerful today in 2020 as the sharply divided United States faces an election that will determine the future of freedom and equality in our country.

Why, we ask . . .
• Why was a climate change denier put in charge of the EPA?
• How can someone with absolutely no experience in the field be appointed to head the Department of Education?
• Why is it so important for the richest 1% to increase their wealth at the expense of those at the middle and the bottom of society?
• How is it that such a vacuum of leadership exists at the highest levels of the Trump administration, that is utterly unable to cope with unfolding crises arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden push for racial and economic equity.

The answers can be found in a book, and it is not the Bible. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money reveals how the vast torrents of campaign money unleashed by the Citizens United decision have undermined the democratic standards that once held sway in the US.

Dark Money is a nightmarish tale of greed and intrigue, guaranteed to keep you up at night.

And it’s all true. . . . .

This is a book to be read slowly and shared with others. Knowledge is power.

Mask Mapping

July 18, 2020

Sometimes a simple map can make complicated issues seem, well, almost simple.

“Strange Defeat” Marc Bloch’s clear-eyed view of a world in disarray

July 3, 2020

History is full of lessons not learned, of opportunities lost, of resources squandered—not by those who place value on these things, those who haven’t the luxury of wasting what belongs to the common good. Think of any war in the history of mankind, of those who directed the battles from safety behind the lines while those without influence or money to buy it went to the front and laid down their lives.

Think of the debacle of the French army, and then their government, overwhelmed by the ruthless Nazi invasion. Think of Marc Bloch’s “Strange Defeat.” This soldier evacuated from Dunkirk went on to fight in the French resistance before he was captured and executed by the invaders. Ever the journalist, he kept a record of everything he saw and thought with an undistorted clarity and unvarnished declaration of what he saw as the truth.

He saw a generation of young Frenchmen cut down in their prime. He speaks of the army, in military terms, but you will find his words evocative of the way our government functions today. The looming disaster is not so obvious as an army on the march, but it is looming nonetheless, and those who should be most alert to it are the most blind.

I quote here from “Strange Defeat.” “Their failure was due not so much to contempt as to lack of imagination and a tendency to take refuge from the urgency of fact in abstractions. . . What drove us to disaster was the cumulative effect of a great number of different mistakes.”

One has only to look at the United States government’s utter failure to anticipate the power and speed and gravity of the coronavirus to see how true Bloch’s words can be. Or to look ahead, to the grim spectacle of a world wallowing in its own petrochemical trash, soon enough to be suffocating under the irreversible climate change.

Bloch’s book is full of such insights, applicable enough to any historical era.

For English translation click here: “Strange Defeat

“Collapse” Is this what you want to happen?

June 2, 2020

I’m going to be quoting from a book, Jared Diamond’s estimable “Collapse” (first published fifteen years ago, in 2005). The book deals with case studies of historical once-thriving societies (think Easter Island, or Norse Greenland, among others) and tries to draw conclusions as to why human societies evolve to a certain level, and then collapse. Vanish.

The facts themselves, teased out by careful scientific and sociological study, are pretty alarming. How can we do this to ourselves?

I’m going to quote some passages from the book, but edit them somewhat to eliminate the idea that a casual reader might think “Oh, that was them, that’s not us.” Because, as you know Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

From “Collapse”

“This tragedy resulted from the deliberate choice of a modern elite to foster hatred and keep itself in power. This small, privileged group first set the majority against the minority to counter a growing political opposition from within. The two groups spoke the same language, attend the same schools and churches and bars, live together in the same towns with the same government. The society became divided between the rich haves and the poor have-nots, with decreasing numbers of people in the middle.

“We cannot avoid asking ourselves: how, under these circumstances, can so many be so readily manipulated by extreme leaders? All these facts illustrate why we need to search for other contributing factors in addition to ethnic hatred.”

These words come from the middle of Diamond’s book. The final conclusions that he may have, regarding our own American society today, will not be revealed until the final chapters. But we suspect what they will have to say about how we live, how we allow demagogues and social media to tell us what they want us to know, when all along we already know what we have to do.

Read the book. Share the ideas. Change the world before its too late, as it was for the Easter Islanders, the Greenland Norse, the Rwandan dead.

“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”

May 19, 2020

Far be it from me to hint that doom is right on our doorstep, I leave it to the president to keep on making that apparent to his thinking constituents.

But there is plenty of evidence, from leading scientists and historians, that collapse, of not right on our doorstep, is rumbling up the block from the nearest corner.

I commend to you Jared Diamond’s estimable 2005 detailed study of “Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed.” It is a comparative history of a number of human societies that arose, grew, succeeded, and then failed into oblivion. To the armchair historian, they will be familiar: Easter Island, the Anasazi in the southwest states of the USA, the Maya, Norse Greenland. The world as we know it. . . . (That last bit is a warning. Read this book and take heed.)

The civilizations cited each had their day, quite successful some of them, before quietly disappearing. Diamond cites five overarching reasons how this came to pass, most of which were beyond the immediate control of the citizens of those civilisations. “Demands on the environment grew,” notes Diamond, “its environmental resources declined, and people came to be living increasingly close to the margin of what the environment could support.”

All of a sudden, coronavirus takes hold, societies try to fight it by shutting down, and the once-humming economy stops dead, taking with it the wherewithal of millions of unsuspecting and unprepared workers.

Take heed. “All of us moderns can get away a lot of waste when the economy is good,” he says. Just like those ancient, vanished civilizations, “We forget that conditions fluctuate, and we may not be able to anticipate when conditions will change.”

So we are discovering. What’s next?

The Joy of Reading: a rediscovery

April 4, 2020

With California’s, and lately some other states’ statewide stay at home order, most of us are thrust into a new way of dealing with physical isolation.  We are ordered to “shelter in place,” to remain in our homes unless we need to get out for necessities.  And in this brave new world, work and employment no longer qualifies as a necessity.

The arts and entertainment sections of the big city daily newspapers are now mere shadows of their former glory.  The pages once filled with movie reviews and listings, with Bay Area-wide stage productions are gone—the theaters are shuttered.

Board games can quickly become tedious, the offerings of television even more so.  The mental distractions of such intellectual opportunities are gone.

Gone, all but one.  The glorious luxury of reading.

Now more than ever we have the time to settle down with a good book—entertaining, stimulating, challenging words on the printed page, to take us into seldom visited realms of imagination.

Now is the time to engage in the long-neglected art of reading.  Bookstores may be closed to the public, but they are not out of business.  Is there something you’d like to read, something new?  Don’t go to  amazon, instead call or email your local independent bookstore, place an order and have the book delivered to your doorstep.

The two most vital enterprises to any town or city are the local newspaper and the independent bookstore.  These are more than just important services, they are the nerve center of the intellectual life of the communities they serve, and deserve and depend upon your support