book-Not-Ourselves-450
When I began listening to the audio book We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (beautifully read by Mare Winningham) I really had no idea what I was getting into. I’m not sure how I got it on my reading list except that I am making an effort to read more contemporary literature and I think I saw it on a list of notable new books. I had the vague notion it was a family drama about immigrants, which it was, but the drama was both more and less dramatic than I expected. The novel is basically the story of a life, that of Eileen Tumulty, a woman born in 1941 to working class Irish immigrant parents living in Queens New York. The story follows Eileen’s life, through her childhood, education, career as a nurse, marriage, and parenthood until 2011, leaving her alive at the end.

Eileen’s parents have a troubled marriage and are disappointed with their lot in life, especially her mother who falls into a long illness and then alcoholism after suffering a miscarriage when Eileen is nine years old. Eileen’s father is a hard worker who works a second job at a bar, the place where he is most happy, so Eileen takes over the cooking, cleaning, and care taking of her mother. Fortunately, Eileen is a smart, resourceful, resilient girl who does well in school despite her difficult home life. At thirteen she gets Alcoholics Anonymous on the telephone and hands it to her mother, opening the door to her mother’s recovery, just one of the redemptions that happen throughout this novel.

Eileen’s childhood and teen years set the stage is set for her over-developed sense of responsibility and a persistent desire for a respectable stable upper middle class life, the main ingredient of which is a house in a good neighborhood. Eileen is slim and attractive enough to get a job as a dress model in a department store while attending nursing school. I found it interesting that department stores used to employ dress models for wealthy shoppers. Anyway she has lots of dates with interested men but holds out for one who she thinks will help her get to dream house and lifestyle she dreams of.

Ed Leary is different from the others. He seems smart and ambitious. He studying neuroscience and plans an academic career. But when Eileen buys him an expensive engraved watch before their wedding he refuses to wear such an extravagant item. Eileen nearly calls off the wedding. Eileen’s father, Big Mike Tumulty, tells her he is not surprised because Ed’s family has been in this country for three generations and none of them owns a house. “That’s a sin,” he says. Eileen however loves Ed and marries him anyway.

The book resonated with me on several levels. It’s about what it means to have expectations in life, especially when living a life in a certain period in American history. How sharply defined was that vision about what it meant to have a good life and how many people shared that vision! It was difficult, I suppose, not to see it as universal. The lush neighborhoods we see from past decades as well as the ones we see still being built are witnesses to the size of the market for this vision. Also, Eileen’s life roughly coincides with the life of my mother, who was born in 1939, the daughter of second generation immigrants, also working class. My Mom also dreamed of a better life that involved a house in the suburbs and also achieved that dream. And Like Eileen she also faced many disappointments.

Actually Eileen faces more than garden-variety disappointments. Her husband, always unusual, becomes more and more eccentric. Though he is never in sync with her ambitions she works hard to make their life work. After 10 years of marriage Eileen finally becomes pregnant at age 35, long after she and Ed have given up hope of becoming parents. Their only son Connell is born in 1977 and joins the novel as a major character, going through his own up and downs, being profoundly changed by the end of the book. It was interesting how the author showed the development of Connell’s character: wavering between strength and weakness, good and evil. At the end he 34 years old and we see get an idea of what kind of person he has become.

Eileen is able to buy the house where they have been renting an apartment on the second floor. But things never quite work out as she hopes and Ed keeps getting weirder and weirder: turning down great job opportunities, insisting on teaching community college students for a lower salary, wearing old clothes, freaking out over odd things, never wanting anything to change. But he is great father to Connell and the sex is always good. Until something worse happens and the family faces a dark challenge that changes everyone.

I ended up loving this novel. Eileen  is a wonderful character, a strong courageous woman but with some serious flaws. The way Thomas portrays her  is both deeply compassionate but completely honest. I found her development as a character to be a fascinating look at the intersection between personal character and cultural influences.  The last couple of chapters are especially beautiful as the novel comes to bittersweet resolution. But the book was also quite long and parts of it were painful to read. There are characters who appear rather suddenly without any past history, such as Bethany a former co-worker who leads Eileen to the edges of a spiritual cult. You are just told that Eileen knew the person the past.

But such minor flaws are easy to forgive because the writing is generally wonderful and you care so much about the characters. In the end I am a better, more aware person for having read it. The story sticks. I have learned things and become more sensitive to the sorrows and struggles people may be living through. I have increased insight to my own family past – new things to consider as I sift through the history and the memories. All these things are priceless gifts and therefore I must consider this novel a keeper.

life changing magicApparently Marie Kondo is already a world phenomenon. Where have I been? Not watching talk shows I guess. Apparently Marie has been all over the media and her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been a New York Times bestseller since its publication in November 2014. I suppose it is a sign for a culture that has reached a crisis point in the results of materialism: so many homes so bloated with accumulated stuff that people are overwhelmed with the problem. They cannot stuff another broken laptop into the garage and they are working so hard to pay the bills for the house with the garage and all the stuff it holds that they cannot find the stretch of time and the level of energy to do what it would take to get rid of it.

A co-worker recently enthusiastically recommended her book, assuring me that it really is as life changing as the title promises. Since I have long been feeling oppressed by the clutter in my house, I downloaded it and began listening that day. I was immediately inspired and felt sweet-spot sure that Marie Kondo, who runs a very successful home organization consulting business in Tokyo, is hitting the perfect chord for the organizationally challenged; she presents a combination joyful mindset and a simple specific plan of action. Yes that’s right: a joyful mindset. About cleaning, organizing, and even folding one’s socks. Feeling anything remotely positive about the monumental task of organizing my house is nothing less than a revolutionary concept.

I have read other books on organizing. I also have collected all kinds of organizing ideas on my “Home and Garden” Pinterest board, Pinterest being the closest thing that has ever, up to this point, worked for me as an effective method for organizing anything. The other books didn’t stick, and I suppose it’s too early to tell if Marie Kondo’s method will stick either, but it makes me feel more hopeful about my ability to solve this problem than anything else I have come across. I have already filled two giveaway trash bags full of shoes that failed the “Does it give me joy?” test.
Marie’s method is twofold: first you purge all possessions that do not give you joy and then you establish a home for each item you have consciously decided to keep in your life. During the discarding phase of the process, you gather all items by category (as opposed to by room or space) in this general order: clothing, books, papers, miscellaneous junk, sentimental mementoes (e.g., cards and photos). The idea is to begin with things that easiest to deal with and work slowly up to the more difficult decisions. Marie gently but firmly guides you through the process with anecdotes, examples, reasoning, and encouragement. Handling each item individually is an essential part of the process: you hold the book or the blouse or the old appliance in your hands and ask “Does having this item give me joy?” You keep only those items for which the answer is “Yes.”

In my initial foray into this process I ran into the question of “What if these shoes sort of give me joy, at least such humble joy as shoes can give?” Marie says you can put the “sort of’s” in the keep pile, wait a day or so, and then put those items through a second test. She says, with her clients, many of the borderline items don’t make the second cut. Marie does not fully define “joy.” That is something each of us has to define for ourselves. But her contention is that by starting with your clothing and working your way consciously to more difficult categories, you not only learn what joy feels like for you but you also confront and come to terms with your past and clear out the things holding you back from what you want to achieve going forward. Here is where the life-changing magic comes in. Going through this process not only results in a more organized stress-free living environment but also frees you to step into a new exciting phase of your life. She says she has seen her clients suddenly lose weight, end bad relationships, and begin their dream careers as a result of tidying their homes.

Much of this book may seem a little crazy to some people but to me her approach makes perfect sense. I have always felt there is a connection between the state of my home and the state of my mind. But I guess I sort of assumed that the mind has to come first: to organize my home I first had to organize my mind. Marie Kondo says you can start with the exterior mess as a path to finding interior order. Hey, I figure it’s worth a shot. Starting the mind has not worked.She also suggests talking to your inanimate objects – thanking your socks and shirts and old cell phones for their faithful service. She says taking loving care of your possessions gives them life and energy, even a visible glow. Some readers might think this part is a little off the deep end. Not me. As a child I found it the most natural thing in the world to speak to inanimate objects and felt an energy in certain toys…and walls and bushes….Anyway. So the book either validates my sanity or tells me I am not the only crazy person in the world.

Marie’s consulting business is of course in Japan, so her examples are of Japanese households, with their shrines and the kind of closets and living spaces they have, which are smaller than most American homes. This gives the book a special flavor and fresh perspective that I found pleasant. It was also somehow comforting to know that Japanese people end up with the same credit card statements, warranty books, cosmetic samples, condiment packets, spare buttons, partner-less socks, and other ridiculous debris that accumulates in my drawers, closets, and pantries.

Hello blog friends. I’m back after having drifted a bit off course. I need to get back in the habit of regular writing so if I am not reviewing a book, I will just write about whatever is on my mind. Tonight I am just going to write about the past week of my life because it has been a fairly amazing one. Is there such a thing as “fairly amazing”? I’m sure Strunk and White would say I need to cut “fairly.” And yet I can’t bring myself to say it was amazing unqualified. A casual observer would have seen only the most ordinary of weeks in the life of Carol. I went to work, I came home and vacuumed the rug, I did my daily workout if rather half-heartedly, I went to the grocery store, I had a couple of appointments.

But this week introduced a couple of solutions into my life to problems I barely knew I had. I mean I knew my body hurt and my house was a mess and my son had some dental issues we needed to address and I could not get productive in my writing or my art work. But I wasn’t really thinking about any of these things. I tend to shove things under the rug. (Stunk and White would not like that cliché. Hey Strunk and White – stop looking over my shoulder and let me write already, okay?) One thing I am constantly doing is reading, and that always provides a door to my mind through which solutions can enter without even knocking. Life always brings problems. Books bring solutions. Of course reading without actual action can be and in my case usually is a method for procrastinating. But sometimes things ratchet up to the point that even I am forced to put down the book and do something.

living room dancerSuch was the case this week with my body, specifically the pain in my hips and legs. Of course I have noticed for a long time that my body does not feel as good as it did in my twenties. Not feeling quite right turned into low-grade pain. I ignored it or treated it by doing yoga. If you are faithful with your yoga practice you are supposed to remain healthy and flexible right? I thought that was the deal. Low-grade pain turned into intermittent high-grade pain. I continued to ignore it or treated it with yoga and ibuprofen. When intermittent intense pain turned into not being able to get up and walk, I knew I was not in fact flexible and I reluctantly made an appointment with Dr. Jonathan Schaier, a holistic chiropractor I know.

I figured a regular doctor would just prescribe drugs. I laugh when I hear the ubiquitous caution “Discuss with your doctor.” What do they mean “my” doctor? I have never gone to the doctor often enough to establish one as “mine” and when I do go I don’t get to see a doctor, but instead see a nurse practitioner who usually seems more interested in getting me out the door with a prescription in my pocket than in establishing anything resembling a doctor/patient relationship.

The visit to Dr. Schaier was different. I was there for more than two hours and he took adequate time to discuss my medical history. He gave me a tentative diagnosis and suggested a course of treatment. Then I had a deep tissue massage and then he did a very mild adjustment to my lower spine. The next day I felt ten years younger. The pain was nearly gone, or at least gone enough to realize how much and how long it had been hurting. I felt hope and optimism about the future. I had not even realized how much being in pain was affecting my outlook on life. Maybe this had something to do with my recent lack of productivity. Dr. Schaier has even written a book: How to Beat Chronic Pain & Inflammation and he gave me a free copy. So far it’s good stuff.

Another problem in my life is what I’d call an environmental one. My home environment seems to attract clutter like fly paper attracts flies and I can’t seem to stem the flow fast enough. It causes me to feel oppressed and becomes a drag on productivity. So for a long time I have been attempting to do something about it. Recently I even took two days off from my job just to clean and organize. That costs me time and money so you know it’s really bugging me. But progress is slow and I have been feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of taming the clutter.

Then out of nowhere a co-worker recommended a book for me to read: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Maybe my co-worker noticed the messy state of my work desk and thought I needed intervention. She told me she listened to it for free using the Hoopla app, which was available through her public library. She said, as the title promises, this book is a life changer. So I checked into it and found out I also can get free audio books through the Suffolk Public Library! Yet another glorious discover this week.

marie kondoI finished listening to the book in two days but I was sold on Marie Kondo’s method long before I reached the conclusion. In fact, I listened to the last couple of chapters while purging my shoe collection. The most important point is that you get rid of every single item that does not give you joy. My next post will be a full review of the book and maybe even some before and after pictures.

Is it a coincidence that this weekend, besides cleaning house and cooking veggie sloppy joe for my family, I also started doing art again, finishing two pictures and getting a good start of several others?

the eustace diamonds“We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her,” says the droll omniscient narrator. Then the novel goes on to entertain the reader at great length with the tale of Lizzie Greystock and her adventures. By the time we reach the end of the first chapter, the penniless orphan Lizzie Greystock has become Lady Eustace, wealthy widow of Sir Florian Eustace, whom she married with greatest speed, knowing that he was suffering from consumption and would not be likely to live long. She has also engaged in shady dealings with a loan shark jeweler named Mr. Benjamin and has had some ugly quarrels with her aunt, the Countess, Lady Linlingow.

Sir Florian quickly becomes disillusioned with his beautiful young wife as he has to deal with paying off some large unsavory debts she failed to mention, but he leaves her with a generous living and also an heir to the Eustace property, a son born a few months after he dies. It is made perfectly clear that Lizzie is a lying scheming adventuress. She is a liar who is out for herself but, at the back of my mind I wondered what her alternatives were, if she wanted to avoid a life of impoverished dependency. As if to answer this question, we are soon introduced to Lucie Morris, a sweet good-natured governess, who is the love of Frank Greystock, Lizzie’s barrister cousin. Later on, Lizzie decides that Cousin Frank might make good husband material for herself which generates quite a bit of drama. Frank Greystock is kind of borderline as far as his moral character. He seems to represents everyman, one who tries to be good but is constantly pulled to the dark side, and through most of the novel he vacillates about whether to choose love (Lucie) or money (Lizzie).

Besides being a fascinating psychological character study The Eustace Diamonds is also a crime novel, complete with a group of Scotland Yard detectives who have their own axes to grind. The issue arises from Lizzie’s money grab through her marriage to Sir Florian. After the dust settles it seems that she is in possession of a diamond necklace that the Eustace family lawyer, Mr. Camperdown insists is a family heirloom that rightfully belongs to the estate and not to the widow.

Illustration of Mr. Camperdown trying to get Lizzie to hand over the diamonds. From an edition of The Eustace Diamonds published in 1900. I have been able to find very few pictures for this novel. May have to do some myself!

Illustration of Mr. Camperdown trying to get Lizzie to hand over the diamonds. From an edition of The Eustace Diamonds published in 1900. I have been able to find very few pictures for this novel. May have to do some myself!

The necklace is worth 10,000 pounds. To get an idea of how much money this was, Lizzie’s inheritance from her husband amounts to 4,000 a year which is considered fabulous wealth. Her uncle, Dean of Bobsborough and father of Cousin Frank Greystock, is said to pull an income of 1500 per year as a clergyman, and on that he supports a family of five. Lizzie insists that her husband gave the necklace to her as a gift and refuses to give it up. Conflict ensues. Eventually the necklace is stolen. Apparently. But detectives Mr. Bunfit and Mr. Gager smell something fishy about the whole affair. The newspapers report daily on the situation, everybody who is anybody in London is talking about it, and rumors fly fast and free.

Adding comedy and intrigue to the plot is the motley gang of “friends” Lizzie has gathered around her, first entertaining them at great expense at her castle in Scotland and then sharing a house with the pair of ladies when they return to London. The ladies are Mrs. Carbuncle, a beautiful and charming but impoverished social climber, and her ill-tempered young niece Lucinda Roanoke. A pair of gentlemen round out the party: Sir George De Bruce Carruthers, a nobleman with a shady past and no discernible source of income, and the bad-tempered Sir Griffin Truett, another financially unstable nobleman who is interested in the very incompatible Lucinda.

Lizzie likes to think she likes poetry and casts Sir George in the role of the romantic and poetic “corsair”. She flirts with the idea that, if Frank Greystock doesn’t work out, she might consider Sir George as husband number 2. By the way, she has already accepted a proposal of marriage from Lord Faun, but Lord Faun is so dull and stuffy and he says he won’t go through with the marriage until she surrenders the diamonds to the family estate. It seems Lord Faun does not like embarrassing situations involving trouble with the law.

The writing is fast moving and sucks you in like a strong river current, laughing all the time. Besides being a fascinating psychological character study The Eustace Diamonds is also a crime novel, complete with a group of Scotland Yard detectives who have their own axes to grind. The issue arises from Lizzie’s money grab through her marriage to Sir Florian. After the dust settles it seems that she is in possession of a diamond necklace that the Eustace family lawyer, Mr. Camperdown insists is a family heirloom that rightfully belongs to the estate and not to the widow.

The necklace is worth £10,000. To get an idea of how much money this was, Lizzie’s inheritance from her husband amounts to £4000 a year which is considered fabulous wealth. Her uncle, Dean of Bobsborough and father of Cousin Frank Greystock, is said to pull an income of £1500 per year as a clergyman, and on that he supports a family of five. Lizzie insists that her husband gave the necklace to her as a gift and refuses to give it up. Conflict ensues. Eventually the necklace is stolen. Apparently. But detectives Mr. Bunfit and Mr. Gager smell something fishy about the whole affair. The newspapers report daily on the situation, everybody who is anybody in London is talking about it, and rumors fly fast and free.

Adding comedy and intrigue to the plot is the motley gang of “friends” Lizzie has gathered around her, first entertaining them at great expense at her castle in Scotland and then sharing a house with the pair of ladies when they return to London. The ladies are Mrs. Carbuncle, a beautiful and charming but impoverished social climber, and her ill-tempered young niece Lucinda Roanoke. A pair of gentlemen round out the party: Sir George De Bruce Carruthers, a nobleman with a shady past and no discernible source of income, and the bad-tempered Sir Griffin Truett, another financially unstable nobleman who is interested in the very incompatible Lucinda.

Lizzie likes to think she likes poetry and thinks Sir George fits the role of a romantic and poetic “corsair” so she flirts with the idea that, if Frank Greystock doesn’t work out, she might consider him as husband number 2. By the way, she has already accepted a proposal of marriage from Lord Faun, but Lord Faun is so dull and stuffy and he says he won’t go through with the marriage until she surrenders the diamonds to the family estate. It seems Lord Faun does not like embarrassing situations involving trouble with the law.

Apparently in was quite expensive in 19th century England to live the high life: your clothing, carriage, and your home address were all part of your ticket to society, and being included in society was necessary to living the high life. In the case of men, it was perceived as necessary to do what was necessary to get ahead in society and in their career, and in the case of women, making the right impression might mean the difference between living a life surrounded by interesting people and the basic comforts of life and living a life as a poor dependent, such as Lizzie’s unfortunate companion Miss McNulty.

I started reading Anthony Trollope’s six-book Palliser series a full year ago. I liked Can You Forgive Her? a lot so after finishing the initial book I jumped right into Phineas Finn which was okay but had too many fox hunts and Parliamentary proceedings to suit me at the time. Maybe I just got kind of got burned out on Trollope. So I took a long break from the series before embarking on The Eustace Diamonds. I needn’t have! The fox hunts in this novel didn’t bother me at all. They are perhaps briefer and definitely more interesting. I am eager to read the next one– Phineas Redux and after that The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children. I have high hopes.

The more you read Trollope the more you appreciate the sheer quality and entertainment value of his writing, wit, and psychological depth. Of course, with reading, I know that certain books will interest me at one point in my life and not another and I’ve noticed another strange thing – one book will affect how I perceive the next one. For example, right after finishing The Eustace Diamonds, I picked up The Hours, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner by Michael Cunningham.

I have recently been on a Virginia Woolf kick and knew that this book had something to do with Woolf. And I probably would have enjoyed The Hours at a different time in life, in a different mood. But coming right out of The Eustace Diamonds it struck me as self-conscious sludge and I only finished reading it through sheer determination. The characters in The Hours take themselves so seriously. The book has no sense of irony, no omniscient narrator to shake his head indulgently at their foolish pretentions. The characters seem like some of us feel about real life, left to our devices to sort out the fog and sludge of our illusions, feeling our way in the darkness with only enough light to see through the day.

When I went back and re-read the first several chapters of The Eustace Diamonds the quality of Trollope’s writing felt like a flood of relief, like coming home to something genuine and true. How good to get back to a solid book world in which the author is an adult in charge. Everything is under control, and if the characters don’t know it, the reader does.
I am certainly no Trollope expert. Besides the first three Palliser books I have only read The Way We Live Now. Way back in my distant shadowy past I read Barchester Towers, but I hardly remember it. (Something else to look forward to – The Barchester series!) But I’m pretty sure I am seeing a pattern here: Trollope is very interested in how money affects the lives of his characters: their social decisions, their prospects in life, and especially their moral character. When I read How We Live Now a couple years ago, I thought, well this is all about two things: love and money.

Now, after reading a few more of Trollope’s novels, I see that the emphasis is heavier on the money side of the equation. Oh love gets its due and the deserving characters end up choosing it in the end, but the bulk of the action has way more to do with money. From what I have Wikipedia puts it: “Anthony Trollope suffered much misery in his boyhood owing to the disparity between the privileged background of his parents and their comparatively small means.” He was certainly superb at capturing psychological complexity in his characters. The great writer Henry James, brother of early psychologist William James, has a couple of things to say about Trollope on this subject:

“If he was to any degree a man of genius, and I hold that he was, it was in virtue of his happy and instinctive perception of human variety; his knowledge of the stuff we are made of.” Henry James

And this:

“He remains one of the most trustworthy, although not the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself.”

AJ FikryThe Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is the first heartwarming book I’ve read in a long time. My heart was in dire need of warming and this book did the trick. How it is I end up reading a particular book at the time I read it is an endlessly fascinating question to me. Is it mere coincidence that each book seems to come into my life for a precisely-timed reason, giving me the exact message or inspiration I need? Are books, in some sense, the way the Divine chooses to communicate with me? That does seem to be the case, yet my rational mind insists it is only my fanciful imagination that makes it seem that way. Anyway, I think I found The Storied Life…. on a list of good books published in 2014 and felt like I needed to read it.

If books were the divine conveyers of inspiration, then I suppose book stores or libraries would be the temples. This novel takes place primarily in a book store called Island Books. A.J., the owner, is a depressed literature lover, aged 39 when the story begins, who is grieving the loss of his beautiful wife and business partner Nicole, killed two years previously in a car accident.

Island Books is located on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, a fictional place very like Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, cold and isolated in the winter and flooded with tourists in the summer. It is important to the story that the island is not an easy place to get to – it can only be reached by ferry. Island Books is important to the town of Alice because it serves as a social center for the townsfolk with its book events and book club meetings. It also lends the town an aura of educated classiness, as book stores tend to do. The isolated location of the town provides a sense of cozy boundaries and forces the characters to make definite decisions about things like getting married and pursuing careers.

When the story begins A.J. is grumpy, unfriendly, and self-destructive. But he loves books so of course we know he is inherently redeemable. In the first chapter, Amelia, a new rep from Knightly Publishing Company, makes the long trip to discuss the winter catalog. A.J. is in a bad mood. He is rude to her and doesn’t even order any books, but somehow we know Amelia is going to play a role in his redemption. But first a couple of other life-changing things happen to A.J.: one bad and one good.

I saw at least one review that compares this book to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, one of my other favorite heart warmers. Both novels have rather long titles and both celebrate the healing power, joy, and social connectivity of books. But The Storied Life is a much simpler, quieter book than Guernsey. Rather than being set during and after a war with bombs and Nazis, it is just about a small group of lovable characters who read a lot and draw strength and guidance from books.

A.J. has a marked preference for short stories, and refers to lots of them, so I enjoyed the added benefit of being able to accumulate a list of stories I have yet to read. I enjoyed A.J.’s commentary about several short stories I have read including The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain, and several by Edgar Allen Poe, A.J.’s literary specialty. I am glad I recently read Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find because that story comes up several times in the course of the novel.

Of course there is a charming cast of quirky supporting characters, especially the kindly Chief Lambiase. I wish all cops were like Lambiase, who slowly develops from a non-reader to an enthusiastic book lover through his friendship with A.J. I really think reading books leads anyone to become a better person in general. Also there is Ismay Parrish, the sister of A.J.’s deceased wife, a high school English and drama teacher who is depressed about her bad marriage to Daniel, a philandering writer. By the end on the novel Ismay experiences a redemption of her own.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an excellent read for book lovers, especially book lovers who prefer the old-fashioned paper kind. A.J. is repelled and horrified by be e-readers. I enjoyed how the author deals with the issue of e-readers versus traditional (i.e., “real” books). There is a rumor going around that brick and mortar book stores are going the way of the horse and carriage. This novel makes a valiant and romantic case for their continued survival. I certainly love nothing better than a book store and want to believe such places and their literature-loving book sellers will be around to grace our cities and towns for many years to come.

Just for fun I checked to see if this novel is available for Kindle. It is! In fact you can download it free if you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited.

I have read lots of novels. I am reading one right now called The Storied Life of A .J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. So far it is wonderful, but I am only about a third through it so it’s too early to say more than that. I think I want to write a novel myself, at least a novella. I’ve written one already but it is so bad I would never want anyone to read it. My goal for my next effort is to write something that I might actually want to show people. When I do write this worthy piece of literature, here is the question I want it to explore:

Assuming you are a person who believes in Truth with a capital “T”, Truth that really exists in some kind of objective sense, is it better to pursue that Holy Grail to the bitter end, no matter what it takes, or is it better to accept a reasonable facsimile, some version of truth with a small “t”, and to live happily within the boundaries of that approximation? (I would not want to want to write a novel about a person who does not believe in Truth with a capital “T” although it might be interesting to cast such a self-negating character as the antagonist or a maybe a supporting character.)

World in a dewdrop. Photo by Aaron Apple.

World in a dewdrop. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Another word for these “approximations” is tribes. Ideally life within the boundaries of a tribe is happy, familiar, and comfortable. Such a life can be quite pleasant and I suspect, for the vast majority, a perfectly acceptable way to live. If your particular tribe becomes too dysfunctional, you can always migrate to another tribe that seems to have its act more together. But my protagonist is the type of person who knows that all tribes with their customs and belief systems are approximations, or perhaps at best, rough and very incomplete models of truth. The question will be whether this character can accept settling down and living a life according to an adopted approximation of Truth.

In real life our tribes tend to become so monstrously large that they continually crack into numerous factions. A belief system can only hold its shape up to a certain population size and perhaps for a limited number of years before its structure cracks and it divides into factions. Therefore there are now numerous Christian tribes, however many Islamic tribes, countless secular tribes, and hundreds of other religious ones. All of them tend to demonize the tribes that are most closely related to themselves, those that have most recently separated on the most narrow fault lines.

My main character will be a post-tribal person. Is being post-tribal a misfortune or is it a good thing? That will be something else my novel will have to explore but post-tribal is certainly an inconvenient thing to be. Let’s say, for now, the main character happens to be a woman. She begins to question the whole idea of gathering people into groups and sects by culture or belief system. Should she then go try to form a new tribe for post-tribal people? Probably not. More likely she will slowly and painfully realize that she must accept her lot as an outcast; but the paradox is that she is an outcast who believes that ultimate truth includes all people without distinction, that if everyone knew the Truth, all justifications for delineating ourselves from others through any kind of tribal loyalty would cease.

I am still exploring these ideas. If I ever write this novel, the novel will only be an exploration of these ideas. Because I know nothing for sure and I’m pretty sure I never will, at least not in the brief span of this lifetime. I think I do believe in Truth with a capital “T” but after all my years of reading, thinking, writing, and living, that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I am a slow learner.  I do however believe that Jesus was someone who did know this Truth and that my best chance of coming closer to knowing it is to study his words and strive to understand them, and as far as I am able, to live them. If I do this I believe I will at least be facing toward and not away from the light. Before I die I hope to progress a few steps closer to the light, but if I only die facing toward and not away from the light, I believe I will not have lived this life in vain.

So returning to my thematic question,  I think perhaps my character will be someone who has decided to live happily in an approximation of truth. She will pour vast amounts of energy into embracing the ways of her chosen tribe – perhaps the tribe of the Catholic Church – and then something dramatic will happen and she will have an epiphany that accepting an approximation of Truth means living an approximation of life. She could keep living in the tribe but she can no longer do so happily. In the end, of course, she will leave the tribe and walk into the unknown, believing it is better to exist in the No Man’s land of uncertainty in pursuit of  real life than to exist  within a tribe she knows is only a story, a good stopping-off place perhaps, but not a place to stay permanently.

Photo by Aaron Apple. January 2015.

Photo by Aaron Apple. January 2015.

I know this idea is hardly original. It is probably the basis for just about every novel ever written. But hey, there is only one Truth and we are only one species. We do sure find a lot of different ways to tell the same old stories. My problem will be fleshing out the characters because I am a lot more intrigued by ideas than by people. I really am trying to get more interested in humans. After all, we are the ones who live and experience the ideas. Which may have something to do with why we exist in the first place.

I have added to my collection of Pulitzer Prize winning novels that I didn’t know won the Pulitzer Prize before I started reading them. I found out about this novel about a year ago while reading The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie. Like so many classics I finally get around to reading, my only regret is that I did not read it sooner. Here is the review I wrote for Goodreads….

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A Confederacy of DuncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ignatius J. Reilly is an obese slothful philosopher, who at age 30, lives with his mother in New Orleans during the early 1960s. Ignatius, with his unique medieval worldview and his penchant for conflict with all sectors of modern society, make him a wonderful and hilarious character. In addition the novel bursts with a cast of equally fascinating characters including Irene Reilly, his loving but increasingly exasperated mother, Angelo Mancuso, a meek undercover cop, Lana Lee, the evil proprietor of the “Night of Joy” strip club, Burma Jones, her verbose African-American porter/janitor, Mr. Levy, the owner of a down-and-out pants factory, Mrs. Levy, his pseudo psychoanalyst wife, Dorian Greene, a gay man who loves to give parties in the French Quarter, and Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius’ anarchist ex-girlfriend.

When A Confederacy of Dunces begins Ignatius is waiting for his mother outside the D.H. Holmes Department Store and Patrolman Mancuso attempts to arrest him for being a suspicious character. (There is now a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly where D.H. Holmes used to be. I may want to go see that statue.) Ignatius dresses oddly, always wearing a green hunting cap with flaps and is frequently seen muttering to himself. Chaos ensues as he and his mother escape into the crowd. After a night of drinking at the Night of Joy bar his mother, Irene, runs the car into the wall of an old building and the next day is sued for $8000 in damages. She has become friends with Mancuso and his Aunt Santa and under Santa’s influence, begins to develop a new sense of self confidence. She insists that Ignatius get off his butt and get a job to help pay the bill. This sets the ball rolling for a series of adventures as Ignatius emerges from his cluttered bedroom and begins interacting with the working world.

Ignatius constantly writes his thoughts and experiences on sheets of Big Chief note paper. This gives the reader interludes of first person narration and allows us to understand the workings of his mind, which is a combination of insanity and wild genius. Walker Percy, who helped get the novel published posthumously in 1980, called Ignatius a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” I don’t think you could wrap him up with a better description than that.

In addition to his notes for a future book, Ignatius exchanges long insulting letters with ex-girlfriend Myrna Minkoff. When she challenges him to become more socially active, he attempts to organize the factory workers at Levy pants to attack the office manager and demand higher wages. Later he attempts to organize the French Quarter gay community to infiltrate the U.S. Military as a path to world peace. Neither movement proceeds smoothly.

Toole had to have loved people of all kinds to have written A Confederacy of Dunces; you feel he poured his soul into writing it. Unfortunately he could not get it published and killed himself in 1969 at the age of 31. So sad. The ending just screams for a sequel and it’s hard to imagine any other author being able to come close to the unique voice of this novel: the New Orleans setting is steeped in atmosphere, the dialects are perfect, and the historical time comes across in a way it would be hard to capture again. Toole had to be there, and in fact some of the incidents are based on his own experiences. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a more deserving novel.

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stonerStoner by John Williams was published in 1965 and in fifty years has developed a reputation as a sort of under-the-radar classic, much admired among the literati, little known in the popular market. Fifty Shades of Gray it is not and the novel would shudder with embarrassment to be classed among such vulgar fare. Stoner has been proclaimed by many reviewers as a brilliant but “quiet” piece of literature. I agree with that general assessment – that is if a novel about the storms and agonies of a human soul can be considered quiet. And a novel that can portray such storms and agonies in a way that pulls you in and makes you want to keep reading has to be brilliant.

Williams offers no flashy gimmicky hooks such as sex or murder and certainly not a hint of glamour. In fact, if he promises anything, it to deliver an truthful account of an undistinguished ordinary life. The book begins with an obituary of sorts, telling us that the main character, William Stoner, taught at the University of Missouri for nearly 40 years, until his death in 1956. In part it says:

“An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

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Born in 1891, William Stoner is the only child of a pair of dirt poor farmers who live 40 miles outside of Columbia, Missouri.

“From the earliest time his could remember, William Stoner had duties. At the age of six he milked the bony cows, slopped the pigs in the sty a few yards from the house, and gathered small eggs from a flock of spindly chickens. And even when he started attending the rural school eight miles from the farm, his day, from before dawn until after dark, was filled with work of one sort or another. At seventeen his shoulders were already beginning to stoop beneath the weight of his occupation.”

I quickly developed a caring interest in this big awkward farm kid. I am a bit discouraged to think that a farm life can be as joyless as that of William’s parents. Although they have a humble dignity, they are worn to and emotionally drained, seeming to barely able rise above the dirt they work. I guess I have this image of the agricultural life as healthy, wholesome, and happy, like Leo Tolstoy’s happy peasants or the colorful pictures in some long-ago Little Golden Book, with smiling pigs, cows, and chickens, happy overall-clad children sitting on fences, and town gatherings with pie and dancing like in Oklahoma! The Stoner farm is devoid of anything like these images; the family seems to live a quiet lonely life of backbreaking drudgery.

In 1910 a county agent suggests to his father that William be sent to the University in Columbia to study at the new School of Agriculture. So Williams goes and lives in the attic of a relation of his mother’s. In return for bare bones room and board William does work around the farm while studying at the University. In his second year at the school, he takes Sophomore English with a cynical crotchety professor named Archer Sloane. Dr. Sloane, by a rare miracle, is able to ignite in Stoner’s mind a love for literature. It happens in a moment. Dr. Sloane has just recited Shakespeare’s sonnet #73, which he expects to fall on a class full of deaf ears as usual.

“Sloane’s eyes came back to William Stoner, and he sad dryly, ‘Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you from across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him? William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs.”

In that moment Stoner’s consciousness enters a new level of awareness. He has fallen in love with literature. Dr. Sloane knows he has hit the chord and invites him to change his major. Sloane becomes his mentor and helper in his transition from farmer to scholar. I know that one of the strengths of this novel is its elegant unsentimental prose, but my gosh. When William Stoner goes home one day in the 1920s to bury his father, and sees the shriveled state of the corpse and the wisp of life that is left of his mother, it really hits home what he has escaped. Whatever the drawbacks of the academic life we see that it is better than the life he escaped, which for his parents, has become not much more than a living death.

World War I happens and most of the young men run off to sign up, including Stoner’s two best friends, David Masters and Gordon Finch. Stoner is drawn by the pull of the crowd until Dr. Sloane advises him to think. Does he really want to join up? Does he believe that his work at the university is at least as important as fighting a war in Europe? Does he value the mind enough to continue his studies despite the pressure and loss of worldly respect if he chooses not to go? Stoner spends a day in contemplation and decides to stay and continue his studies. David Masters, a brilliant student, is killed in France shortly after his arrival. Gordan Finch returns and becomes a dean at the college.

Like many of us who stumbled blindly through our twenties, Stoner is book-smart but socially ignorant. When he meets Edith, the daughter of a wealthy business man, at a college social event, I wanted to scream, “Don’t do it!” But he didn’t listen to me. He marries her and incurs much misery for the rest of his life. Edith is an ethereal girl who seems incapable of real love or even affection. Apparently she hates Stoner for wanting to have sex with her.

The author does not pass judgment on Edith as a person; he just reports the facts in an almost tender way. In fact he provides a possible explanation for her behavior:

“Her moral training, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other part of her education, which received most of its energy from that recessive and unspoken moral force. She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfill them.”

They do manage to have one child, a sensitive girl named Grace, who Stoner adores. As Edith is always sick, delicate, and cannot stand the smell of diapers, Stoner is the baby’s primary caregiver during her earliest years. However, when Edith notices the happy father/daughter relationship, she sets out to use the child against him in every insidious way she can think of. Edith seemed deeply disturbed to me, a really chilling character. .

Stoner continues to find meaning and refuge in his teaching and his studies, but when Archer Sloane dies, his replacement, Hollis Lomax has issues and takes a severe disliking to him. When Lomax becomes head of the English department, he sets out to stymie Stoner’s academic career through bad class assignments and petty persecution. The best part of the book is when Stoner, at age 43, finds his true love, a fellow instructor named Katherine Driscoll. Sharing a passion for medieval and Renaissance literature they love being together; it is like fresh rain on dry parched farm land. Of course it doesn’t last. Although they keep their romance low key and secret, the university is a fish bowl and there are those who can’t stand for Stoner to be happy.

Years later, shortly before William Stoner’s death, Katherine publishes her book. The tiny dedication “To W.S.” means everything to him. Although his life has fallen short in nearly every way, he has escaped the life of mind-numbing drudgery and has been faithful to the life of the mind. When he arrives at the end of his life, he is able to face it with the stoicism inherited from his parents and is blessed with a certain grace resulting from his faithfulness to the life of mind. He dies better than his father did. As he reviews his life and its many disappointments, he keeps repeating a refrain to himself: “What did you expect?” How often is a death scene the most uplifting and intriguing scene in a book? I loved this death scene. I think Stoner’s faithfulness and integrity pay off in a higher spiritual life, but you’ll have to read the book to see if you agree.

I am rethinking television. Long ago I filed TV in my brain under “T” for time wasters and stuck two sticky notes to the file that said “guilt” and “self-righteousness”: guilt for when I watched and self-righteousness for when I bragged that I hardly ever did. Actually I really hardly ever watched TV once I reached high school age and only rarely had conversations about not watching it. When my kids were young I did become familiar with the Disney channel and Nickelodeon. Last I saw there was this girl named Amanda Bines and these two guys named Drake and Josh and there were lots of cartoons – Sponge Bob, Dora the Explorer, Rugrats, and one about a scientist kid named Dexter and his ballerina sister. But then my sons grew  up and those shows have faded out of my head like a receding sea. The reruns I watched after school as a kid however are stuck in my brain like black & white tattoos: I Dream of Jeanie, The Beverly Hillbillies, Dennis the Menace, Dick Van Dyke, I Love Lucy, Hazel, Lost in Space, Father Knows Best. And Mr. Ed, of course. Leave It to Beaver was not shown on my local station so I never saw that one until I was an adult.

It seems things have changed in TV Land: programming is better quality and less simple-minded. To be sure there is more trash than ever to waste your time watching, but there are also all these excellent well-written though-provoking serial stories like Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Mad Men. I realize these shows have been around for years and I am very late to the party. But my theory about stories, whether the form is book, film, or TV show, is that the good ones will keep. No need to jump immediately onto every bandwagon. If a series began in say 2007 and it is stale by the time I get around to watching it in say, 2015, then it probably wouldn’t have been worth watching in 2007.

I like to let things sit for a while. See how they hold up after a few years. Then I am in a better position to assess whether they are worthy of my valuable time. Albert Jay Nock had a similar philosophy regarding current events. He said you can’t really analyze the significance of an event until  decade or two has passed. Only then do you have the perspective to discern anything about the extent and nature of the event’s cultural and historical impact. When you look at things at the time of their inception, whether they be newsworthy events or TV programs, your judgment is clouded by many things including the fashion of the moment, the lure of novelty, and hysteria.

Megan and DonAll this is to say that I have finally gotten around to watching Mad Men at the rate of a few episodes per week. I’ve been doing this for the past month and I’m quite taken by the show. It’s not just the allure and raw sexuality of Don Draper either. I am finding it thought-provoking, touching, and educational in the best way: it deepens my insight into the way the world works. Anything that teaches me how the world works is pure gold.

I have always been fascinated by the entire 20th century. What a ride it was, each decade with its own drama, comedy, and distinctive character! But because the 1960’s happens to be the decade in which I entered the human race it has always held a special  magic and mystery for me. Before I developed rational thought I remember feeling a drum beat of change in the air. And as the child of up and coming middle class American people in the process of moving to the ‘burbs I was automatically a potential consumer and target audience for the kind of Madison Avenue dream pushers portrayed in Mad Men. This show really helps me understand how early in the history of television history that was. It throws light on the kooky unsophisticated programming I remember from my early days on the planet. I love their portrayal of the 1960 Presidential election.  Now the medium of TV has matured to the point that it can create a show that critiques itself as cultural history. Boy am I old!

What an impact TV and its slick advertising must have had on early viewers. I remember my mother telling me about when her family got their first television set in the late 1950’s. Mom’s grandmother, Nonie, lived with them. Nonie was born in 1887 and in 1957 was still quite vigorous and active in their small Pennsylvania town. Mom said the TV advertisements used to be quite direct: “Buy Tide NOW!” Nonie would get so excited by the pitch that she’d grab her purse and run “up town” to buy the product.

I don’t mean to make fun of my great-grandmother and neither did Mom. It’s just to illustrate that this kind of persuasive advertising must have been so new to the average human brain. Culturally speaking, they had not yet built mental barriers against its incursions into their psyches. Before TV of course there were travelling snake oil salesmen and then there was radio. Remember that scene in A Christmas Story where Ralphie is all excited about deciphering the secret message in his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring only to find out the message is “Drink your Ovaltine.”

Anyway, Mad Men gives me a fascinating glimpse into the forces that so dramatically impacted the world I was born into. I like how it captures that atmosphere, the newness and the glamour of the Kennedy administration, the feeling of powerful influences so many people did not understand, the threat of atomic bombs, the creeping threat of an obscure new war in some place called Vietnam, and – something so vividly part of my own earliest memories – that sense of enormous cultural change that came complete with its own soundtrack. I love how each episode ends with a snippet of popular music from the period.

The characters of course are the best part: Don Draper and the other white men with all their status quo assumptions about how the world works and their natural placement therein. The attitudes they display toward women are appalling and it does make one wonder how far we’ve really come in male/female relationships. Have we really made that much progress and if so, how did we get from there to here? Because, to me, 1960 seems closer to the Stone Age than to 2015. Can our culture really have shed millions of years of caveman-like attitudes in a mere 50 years?  We know that in other cultures people are still living in the Old Testament, but those are not the cultures (thank God) in which I have been fortunate to live my life. It makes me grateful I made my entrance onto the planet in the time and place that I did. I guess I drew a pretty good culture card.

My 19-year-old son has also begun watching Mad Men. To think –1965 to him is like 1935 to me. Ancient history. And media has been even more pervasive in his life than it has been in mine. He is fascinated by how advertising was set up to get people to eat things and do things just so somebody could make money. A TV show that can raise that kind of awareness within the clamor of our media-saturated consumer-oriented world is truly TV that has come a long way since The Andy Griffith Show.

Ironically enough, Mad Men has spawned its own little consumer frenzy.There are Mad Men Barbie dolls! I wish I’d have gotten some a few years ago because they are already apparently collector’s items going for 100 bucks on eBay. I guess there is a disadvantage to getting to the party late.

 

mad men dolls

 

So what is next in my excursion into the brave new world of TV watching? I’ve heard good things about several shows:

  • Portlandia (Have watched a few of these. Funny.)
  • It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
  • Orange is the New Black
  • The West Wing (This may be my next choice. Sounds interesting.)
  • The Bates Motel (Hmmm – I don’t know….may be violent.)
  • Damages
  • New Girl (I do like the Zooey Deschanel persona, so maybe.)
  • Sherlock

I don’t like a lot of yelling or gratuitous violence in my TV life so, although I’ve heard they are good, I have to cross the following off my list:

  • Sons of Anarchy
  • Dexter
  • Breaking Bad (Yeah, I watched a few of these but stopped after the box cutter episode. Sorry but no blood spurting for me, thank you.)
  • The Walking Dead (I can’t deal with hanging eyeballs. Sorry.)

If you know of any other ones that are good let me know. I’m open to suggestion.

I love freedomLet’s see what I can remember off the top of my head about why we celebrate the 4th of July with barbecues, parades, flags, and fireworks. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress of the American colonies voted to approve a document written by a tall red-haired guy named Thomas Jefferson. Four days later it was read publicly for the first time by an official named Colonel William Nixon at the Philadelphia State House Yard, now called Independence Square. The people were summoned by bells to hear it.

The most famous and important part of the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” After that it goes on to list a bunch of grievances against the king of England.

These lofty courageous words were long in coming to fruition in human history. Jesus is the one who firmly planted the seed of human dignity in the ancient world, and then one philosopher stood on the shoulders on another until the idea gathered enough strength to stand on its own truth against the whole entrenched system of power domination based on force. Of course there was an ocean between the representatives of the power domination system and the philosophical words of truth and freedom, and that surely helped a bit with the courage thing.

Too bad we weren’t able to maintain the lofty ideals. We still stay the words of course, but in fact we have only created another branch of the power domination system. It’s like the human race catches the light every now and then for a few minutes and then gets sucked back under by a powerful undertow. Nevertheless, once a truth is out there it never goes away. As long as the idea remains in alive in the minds of a few living human beings, there is still hope that it may some day find a foothold again.

our enemySo in the spirit of keeping the hope of true freedom alive, I observed Independence Day 2015 by re-reading Our Enemy the State, a book by my favorite cultural critic, Albert Jay Nock (AJN). This book really helped me understand the problem with trying to maintain a free country. I read it for the first time a couple of years ago and summarized its contents on this blog. Today I will concentrate on discussing a particular concept the book introduced to me: the difference between government and the State. Government is an institution that originates in a society by the agreement of the people to protect the liberty and security of its citizens, just like that quote from the Declaration says. The State is an entirely different type of political organization. “This difference is not one of degree, but of kind,” says AJN. “It [The State] did not originate in the common understanding and agreement of society; it originated in conquest and confiscation.”

The purpose of government is to protect the safety and freedom of the people as they going about living their lives as they please, as long as they refrain from hurting anybody else. Government only involves itself in your life if you have harmed or are in the process of harming other people. The State, on the other hand, exists to exploit one class for the benefit of the other. Why? Because, explains AJN, to meet our needs we must either work really hard, applying effort to natural resources to produce food or products that can be traded or sold (AJN calls this the “economic means”) or we must live off the labors of others (the “political means”). Humans don’t like to work hard so we tend to gravitate to the political means whenever we can.

Albert Jay Nock

Albert Jay Nock

Concerning the State AJN says, “It’s primary function or exercise was not by way of Paine’s [as in Thomas] purely negative interventions upon the individual, but by way of innumerable and most onerous positive interventions, all of which were for the purpose of maintaining the stratification of society into an owning and exploiting class, and a property-less dependent class.” So the State and government are different species of birds, the State a vulture, government a goose.

Negative intervention means that the officials only intervene your life if you commit a crime. In a government, crime is defined as a deliberate act that harms one or more persons or their property. Positive intervention means the State has imposed external requirements on individuals and uses its power to punish individuals who fail to obey or fulfill the requirements. Under the dominion of the State, the concept of crime is expanded to include non-compliance with any number of these positive requirements (or regulations or executive orders or laws or whatever term they choose when they shove them down your throat).

This distinction between government and the State has rarely been clear in the minds and writings of even great thinkers such as Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson and this lack of clarity has led to undue trust in an institution that is hostile to the interests of people who simply wish to live industrious productive lives and enjoy the fruits of their labor in peace. Says AJN: “They are so different in theory that drawing a sharp distinction between them is now probably the most important duty civilization owes to its safety.” By “now” he means 1935. That’s when he wrote Our Enemy the State.

It’s amazing how clear language clarifies one’s thinking, and conversely, how the use of one word to mean different concepts clouds it. I was not aware of this distinction until I read the book, and once I did understand it I began to see political events and their coverage by the media so much more clearly. And yet it is so easy to forget because, as AJN points out, that State is like the air we are born into. He says the modern State fills the same role as that of the Church in 15th century Europe:

“The individual was born into the Church, as his ancestors had been for generations, in precisely the formal, documented fashion in which he is now born into the State. He was taxed for the Church’s support, as he now is for the State’s support. He was supposed to accept the official theory and doctrine of the Church, tyo conform to its discipline, and in a general way to do as it told him; again, precisely the sanctions that the State now lays upon him. If he were reluctant or recalcitrant, the Church made a satisfactory amount of trouble for him, as the State now does.”

So what does this mean to me and my life? It means as I understand reality better I encourage my children to find a way to make a living by producing something useful and honest and to avoid unnecessary entanglements to the extent possible. Even if it means they may have to work harder for less money than their neighbors. So far I am glad they both seem to agree that freedom is worth a little sacrifice. As for me it has taken years to become as entangled as I am, and as with any complex knot, it will take some time to pry loose the strands. Meanwhile I will continue to write and study, always with the objective to increase my understanding of and ability to express truth. To me truth and freedom are closely related concepts. Jesus said ,“Ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Those words, though they are both true and free, are not easy.

Entanglements. Steel wool swirlies. Photo by Aaron Apple, July 2015.

Entanglements. Steel wool swirlies. Photo by Aaron Apple, July 2015.