The most provocative paragraph I read in 2013:
That's from the introduction to They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars--The Untold Story, by Ann Jones. I push back at a couple of the descriptions here, but overall I can't say that the author is wrong.
[It would be interesting to see if people would contribute to a collection of monthly "Most Provocative Paragraph" collections online somewhere, by the way.]
"What bloggers are guilty of -- always -- is telling their story imperfectly," writes Dave Winer in "Blogging matters," a new post. The idea stands out for me because it means that a blogger probably won't claim the right to have the last say on something, knowing as he or she should know that the blog is a collection of views and experiences, not a pronouncement from authority. That leaves room for talking with other people, trading ideas, letting thoughts improve and grow. It invites readers not to play power games, even though some might do so anyway. It feels human because it is about the unfinished business of making sense of our lives. We all need help in that area, if we can get it, although some people believe or pretend otherwise.
We're working on a book design, a fairly complex book with details to attend to, many illustrations to place, and some expectation, due to the subject matter, that the result be attractive rather than merely utilitarian. If we can handle all the details, we will have accomplished one thing, but shaping the book into an attractive set of patterns will take us to another level. Beyond mere accuracy we can try for a sense of design.
Do the two pages we see as a spread on the InDesign screen feel as though they were designed rather than just assembled? And does the design for this spread blend well with the designs of the other spreads? Does the book's design cohere? And before we get carried away with making a pretty package, are the details all in place? Does the design serve the subject matter and its many details? We'll see. But that's what we are reaching for.
The end-of-year newspaper columns looking back at the big stories of 2013 are starting to roll out; the new year's resolution columns are popping up as well. Looking back, looking ahead--both of these bring to mind a familiar weakness of blogging, the fact that for most of us the posts slowly scroll down the screen into the archive never to be read or used again. Categories or tags sometimes help bring a good piece back into view, and links, of course, do the same. Some bloggers are very careful to keep their best work in view on the site--see the sidebar at Pressthink, for example. Some bloggers make a point of writing about older pieces from time to time. A handful of bloggers mine their posts to make up the first draft of a book. Sometimes a post turns out to be a draft for a piece published elsewhere--I have built radio pieces from blog posts, for example.
I am persuaded from personal experience as both a reader and writer that blogging has its own virtues and is completely worth doing on its own, but I feel like we're leaving money on the table if we stop there, letting most of the work slide down the screen into oblivion. I don't have a solution, just a long-lingering feeling that something is not being used to its full advantage. The content is spread out in dozens of entries, not easily reworked, but tempting. There are still useful sentences in there, in the e-dark, waiting.
Blogmath: 250 words a day, say, adds up to 90,000 words a year, enough for a book or a few ebooks.
Calling artists to invite them to participate in a celebratory exhibit at the university, I notice the pleasure in their voices -- they love being asked and they often give the impression that it is an honor to be invited. Some of them are elders, sometimes not all that steady at their advanced age, and in their voices I hear this: "Somebody believes that part of my life's work is still of value."
Hearing a beautiful, modest gratitude in some of their voices, I find myself wondering: "How could people in many other walks of life have their work set up in such a way that they too could feel in retirement that they had done something valuable that we still honored?"
Part of the answer would be in the way the work is set up--the chance for meaning there, and dignity--and part of it is up to the person. Maybe too, part of it is in the way the society talks about work--talks about more than just its financial value. When and where could we hope to sustain that kind of change in the culture? It seems unlikely.
Edward Snowden spoke with the Washington Post for 14 hours, over 2 days, the article by Barton Gellman says. The piece itself is about 4300 words long, and close to 900 of the words are presented inside quotation marks as being Snowden's words. It takes 7 or 8 minutes to read aloud 900 words, so the Post shares only a tiny portion of what was said in those 14 hours. So, it is fine to publish this contextualizing article, but where are the other 13 1/2 hours of the conversation? Why aren't big passages of the conversation being published for people to consider? Snowden is one of the count-on-one-hand most important figures of the year. Let him speak.
[Based on a conversation with Andrew Wimmer.]
I'd like a little button on Twitter that would allow me to designate up to a dozen of my tweets to serve as an introduction to my main concerns, producing something like this: What's @KenSmith about? It's about these dozen tweets, the issues they raise, the small points they begin to make, the fuller resources they point to elsewhere.*
As it is, Twitter sort of relentlessly says, "You will not shape anything but the endless, ever-vanishing flow of tweets in our space. On our terms, not yours. With our goals in mind, not yours."
*A grander version would allow a writer to link old and new tweets in a chain at any time--not just one of these, but any number of theme groups of tweets or tweets that add up to a story.
When I was quite young, my grandparents would travel from house to house on Christmas day, seeing their children and grandchildren at all the houses near enough to their St. Louis home to be visited in a long, full, jolly day. Later, this became pretty tiring for them and a few family members tried to persuade them to take it easy. But they were big big-family people (more than 30 grandchildren in the end) and they resisted. Finally, an idea was proposed that was satisfying:
On the morning of Christmas eve, they'd have open house at their house, and many of us would stop by. A couple of their daughters would make casseroles to serve as the core of the offering, and others would drop by with pastries or cookies or other potluck contributions. People would come when they could, stay for however long, and so the cast of folks around the big kitchen table changed all through the morning and into the early afternoon. Much coffee was poured, conversations shifted here and there around the table, and a suitable big-family tradition established itself in place of the previous one. By the time I was nearing adulthood, breakfast into brunch at my grandparents was as strong a family tradition as any other one we had.
More formally, the invention of tradition is a concept from the research of E. J. Hobsbawm, T. O. Ranger, Stephen Vlastos, and others. It appears that people reshape traditions all the time, sometimes then going on to assert that the new or updated traditions are as old as the hills.
See also, Fiddler on the Roof, "Tradition."
During the brief but highly formal ceremony at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, my mother sat in the seat nearest the road, as we were instructed, and accordingly, the honor guard presented her with the elaborately folded flag in the final moments. The soldier leaned forward and spoke of the gratitude of the nation for those who have served in the armed forces, and he slowly handed over the flag. Later she reported that he had fully kept eye contact with her during the entirety of this exchange. This was just one of the formalities--the slow-motion salutes, the bugle's slow notes, the three riflemen discharging their weapons in unison three times. Part of the meaning is in the formality, part of the respect and the assertion of significance, all of which is a counterweight to the loss we were all feeling moment by moment there among the rows of perfectly aligned white stones.
I ran into my brother's friend and recalled for the first time in years that Dave and I visited their house early on the morning of New Year's Day once or twice. We were sharing a good luck tradition with them--first footing: coming to the back door, bringing food, being the first to cross the threshold in the new year, being from another tribe (one way or another). We were the first footers who brought the family good luck. And we'd stay awhile and have an informal celebration, eating and talking in the living room. I remember they took out their favorite comedy records, Alan Sherman and especially Tom Lehrer, and we heard the best songs. This was my introduction to Lehrer, I believe.
It was a sweet tradition. It endeared my brother to his friend's parents, sparked a little fresh happiness in all who were there, and put some continuity in the holiday over the years. That's enough good luck right there--the custom works already, even if no other good luck follows.
We didn't have this tradition in our family, our tribe. That's just the thing: other people have some great traditions and it's a blessing to get to know them. Maybe add them to our own.
At a memorial service today, two contrasting tones were set. There were speakers who remembered the deceased, who told stories, who said in their own words what they thought those stories meant about the values and the life of the lost one. And there was a substantial layer of theology placed over the top by the minister, in entirely different terms contributed by the institution. Because the minister spoke last and at length, it felt as though he took back the ceremony from the people who actually knew the deceased. It was as if the institution couldn't leave well enough alone, couldn't trust others to say the ceremonial word, couldn't allow the non-doctrinal word to be the last word, couldn't imagine that people could endure without the institution's organizing words. The gut reaction of the institution was to speak and speak, to speak over the top of the other voices, to honor generalities about a life when people who knew the particulars had just spoken. I was annoyed, but it gave me something to think about, not least of all because I m own training and station in the world gives me something of an institutional voice too.
There might even be more layers to the service, if you think about the music, both words and sounds, along with the interpretive moods of the singers, some of whom knew the deceased too and spoke, in a way, through their emotional performances.
In the James Stevenson cartoon, a professor in academic robes stands at the podium, ready to address the graduating class. He's a little heavy, a little shaggy, probably because he's too deep in professorial thought to take care of himself. He pauses, however, and confesses that his mind is so stuffed with information that he doesn't know where to begin.
It's true that any of us can struggle to find a useful thing to say. But the cartoon offers the odd non-context of graduation, where platitudes prevail. It's almost as if there is no meaningful context beyond the obvious there, and that's why so many graduation speeches restate the obvious. In a context-free space, the masses of information in the professor's head have nothing to attach to, and in spite of knowing everything he cannot speak. It is as though meaningful speech responds rather than initiates: it grows out of community, out of shared needs, out of previous speech that asks for a reply, out of problems we would like to address together. When we have a context, a shared problem, there is something for our thought to attach itself to. There is a place for our words to start and a reason in particular to start speaking. The cartoon catches the risk of the ivory tower, cut free from contexts that make speech matter, and there is the professor almost putting his finger on the problem but not actually getting close.
In my rough notes, I put it this way:
In the cartoon, the professor comes to the podium disheveled, and confesses that his brain is stuffed but he has no idea where to begin.
So there are the two kinds of knowledge: a systemizer with no context driving the discourse, and a person whose discourse is meant to respond to the world. The second has reasons to speak and contexts to use in inventing what to say. The first has information driven by its own abstraction, and no reason to speak or context to guide speech. In one, knowledge is prior to life or aside from it, and in the other knowledge is animated by life's demands.
When I passed driver's test, some eons ago, my father handed me a simple metal key ring with four keys on it. Two ignition keys and two trunk keys for the great shoe box-shaped Mercury cars the family owned. I must have smiled broadly because next he said, That doesn't mean you can just use these keys." Which was right of him to say, good parenting. We were in the little kitchen in Crestwood, Missouri, a room I haven't seen for maybe forty years.
I still have the key ring although the two Mercury cars and their keys are long gone. My office keys, house key, car key, bike lock key, and so forth are on the old key ring.
I keep it as a token from a happy memory, a milestone in a young person's life, not just getting a license but also being handed my own set of keys by my parents and seeing, if I'm not mistaken, pleasure in their faces at their eldest accomplishing one of life's necessary steps forward.
And it has come to seem like a simple metaphor of parenting. Your parents hand you the keys you need there at the start of life's travels, organized on a key ring, and later those keys fall away replaced by keys of your own choosing, but still organized on the ring they gave you as they helped you set out.
It shouldn't be that hard to get a clue. I've been calling up artists and asking if they'd like to have a work in a big community exhibit, and it's a tribute to them, and they're happy and they almost all say yes. It's not that hard to get a clue about what is worthwhile and what helps people be happy. It's just not that difficult.
Some evaluations say "I liked this part of the course." Some say, "This part could be done better." Some say, not in so many words, "I never found a way to connect this course to my life" or maybe even "I never accepted the course's invitation to engage." The sometime hollowness of school is familiar to us all. Leave it for now at that.
It's kind of true, a blog entry sometimes feels like not much more than a note to self. But there's also the feeling that you want to be working every day and you want some of the work to be done in words. No telling what it adds up to, and maybe there should be more of an effort to shape the dailies into something, but it's nice to have faith in the work. Or hope. We all need something we can lean on.
See also, Andrew Sullivan in 2008 on blogging.
This is a quick note to self, in a way, and it rehearses ideas that have been out and about for some time now in journalism and blogging circles. And here is the heart of the note: what if a school, a high school, a college or university made publishing skills as central to the general curriculum as reading, writing, public speaking, and mathematics usually are? The skills to operate publishing platforms, to draft and edit, to design, to bring a piece to a wider audience, to publicize. The knowledge that adds depth and context to every part of the process, especially the writing and editing but also the work of bringing something before a growing audience. The attitudes, maybe the most important of all, the attitudes that would be implied by this work: that you are a citizen and a citizen is someone who writes and speaks and publishes. That you live in a country with that kind of tradition of activism. That this is normal and that you contribute to the greater good when you practice the craft. Otherwise, I look at the essentially private lives lived by the most vulnerable among us and see how much their silence cements the life they are living and the world as they, as we, know it.
In Driving Miss Daisy, a black man serves a wealthy white woman for many years. Her sense of class entitlement softens over time; her sense of racial division as well. She treats him as an inferior, but in a "classy" way. You almost never see him at home, where surely nobody treats him that way. That part of his life must be silenced in order for us to see the white women with enough sympathy to endure the long wait for her to improve her attitudes. If we saw him treated decently half the time, at home, say, she would be, for viewers, insufferable. That part of his life must be silenced for the story to continue in the way they are planning on telling it. Once you notice the silence, the absence, you as a viewer are entitled to substantial doubts about the sympathies that the piece is trying to evoke in you. You should probably resist. You should maybe walk out of the theater. Asking who gets to speak and who is silent is a powerful way to resist a book, a movie, a presidential candidate, a political party.
Peter Elbow used to ask his students to read a classmate's draft two ways and respond in the spirit of both ways of reading because they would see different things in a piece when they did so. Read as if you find it easy to accept what you see there; allow yourself to dive in and experience the world as the piece offers it. And read as if you must resist what you see there; push back because you know that you want to ask questions and come to your own conclusions. Read generously and openly; read carefully and critically. Believe, and doubt. Elbow said that we would become better readers if we were good at both kinds of reading.
For six weeks, the Wall Street Journal's @BrettArends ate for $4.30 a day, the amount our country's Nutritional Assistance Program provides. Otherwise known as food stamps. His article makes a good test case for Peter Elbow's advice about reading. [If you subscribe to the WSJ, his article is here. I read it a few blocks away at our excellent public library.]
The believing game. If you have a good strategy and build a good set of skills, and if you can overcome the transportation challenges, you can eat on $4.30 a day, Arends discovered:
For starters, no eating out, no packaged or processed foods, no energy bars, no empty-calorie white bread or noodles, no coffee from a shop, he says in the next paragraph. Then he found three sources of protein that would have to form the core of the diet: peanuts & peanut butter, eggs, and split peas and lentils and their cousins. Next to no meat or fish--no money for that. He got better carbohydrates going: "oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, baked potatoes, and [his own] whole-wheat bread." Fresh fruits and vegetables were tough to afford, he said, but frozen veggies and bananas worked into the budget okay. Add one vitamin pill and a cup of milk a day.
What else? Buy what's on sale. Take the subway to the bigger, less expensive stores. Plan meals ahead so food doesn't go to waste. And for six weeks, Brett Arends ate for less than $4 a day, he reports. His doctors said the food balance was fine, although he ate a lot of peanut butter, he said, and "my diet wasn't always virtuous and dull." There was popcorn; there were homemade sweets based on marshmallows and peanut butter and chocolate chips.
His conclusion: we can eat much better, and much more cheaply than most of us do now. But we'd need to make a good number of changes. And there doesn't seem to be much of a problem with the level of food stamps, he seems to be suggesting. [Hard to tell for sure about that last item.]
The doubting game. Well, unless you have the money for a Wall Street Journal subscription, you had better live near the public library or you'll never see this story--it's behind the paywall. So it's not meant especially to be read by the people who live it: it's for others who want to have an opinion about food stamps. That would help explain why nobody who lives the $4.30 a day life is interviewed here--no need to give them a chance to speak because it's not about them, their insights, their experience. It's about the opinion of others. I'm suspicious of an article that has such a glaring silence at its core. I start thinking about Driving Miss Daisy syndrome. long-term sustainability of health and monotony. expense of travel. estimate of travel time. building skills
There are questions I wish the author had thought to ask and things I wish he had taken time to speak about.
The silences, the untouched areas of the topic--these can make the piece unsatisfying for a reader playing the doubting game.
Both doubting and believing. In a case like this one, believing the author is onto something leads me to think about fairly concrete life-style changes that might be within reach of many of us and that could make a big difference in the food quality of life and the budget of those in poverty. It feels as though there is a particular set of lessons there. In a case like this one, doubting the author leads me to suspect that there are more structural challenges that need to be addressed, and that it is too convenient to research this topic so narrowly, in effect silencing those who probably know the most about the experience. It feels as though the medical expert reports might have been presented in a prettier way than another reporter might have done, too--not sure about that: they get fuzzy and general at a couple of important points. It feels as though there are lessons on this side of the game, too. Both doubting and believing make me feel more well-informed about this topic, or maybe just more thoughtful, even in reading just the one piece.
According to my father, somewhere around 1940, when he was in grade school in south St. Louis, he realized that all the little shops in the neighborhood would run a charge for their family and for many others, and he stopped into the little candy store that he passed on the way home from school and charged a few pennies worth of candy. That seemed all to the good and made a habit of it on the way home each day. Eventually the shop owner presented a small bill to his parents, and his mother, he said, put a boldly punctuated stop to all that. That was another America from the one we know today, don't you think?
We found ourselves making sample book pages this evening that looked kind of familiar. We wanted a generous outside margin, two columns of type on the large page, the columns up a little from center so as to make a generous bottom margin, and for that matter a generous top margin but not quite as large as the bottom. It started to seem pleasing but also familiar. On a hunch I turned on Google, and sure enough, we were roughly recreating the Gutenberg Bible. Well, if you're going to crib a design, crib from the best.
One of the best things I've read lately about citizenship is a column by Andrew Potter (@jandrewpotter) on the lessons we can take from Nelson Mandela. He says that people often think of citizenship as mainly entitling them to rights, such as voting. Potter says that there is a reciprocal obligation of service for those who would like to claim those rights:
These citizens must be willing to engage in public debate, they must have a sense of tolerance and civility, and they must have broad feelings of loyalty, trust and solidarity. The citizens of a healthy liberal state must see themselves as belonging to the same “community of fate,” a community which is willing not only to recognize your rights but to fight for them, to the death if necessary. This is the burden of citizenship.
The idea of citizenship being as much about obligation as it is about entitlement does not sit well with some.
Why the reciprocal obligation to serve? Because, Potter says, rights don't last long in a society without "an engaged and active citizenry." Potter says that these kinds of citizens are "the lifeblood"--the necessary life-giving circulating power--of the "stable liberal democratic states" where rights have a chance to endure.
Mandela claimed that a racist or racial government had no legal or moral claim on him, and his resistance sprang from that judgment. That government saw no obligation that it had to him, and so he resisted. For Potter, this implies the real ethical arrangement that justice requires: "a reciprocal relationship of obligation," something we owe each other, back and forth, in civil exchange. Not just rights that are owed to us. Not just a private life, either. There is an understanding of citizenship here that accepts great responsibility but in return earns the right to make demands for equal justice and responsibility from one's government and fellow citizens. It's a fair trade, not a one-way benefit or contract.
Yesterday I revised this long sentence below into the one below it and claimed I was using a method that Richard Lanham teaches in the first chapter of Revising Prose:
The irony of a celebration of street art being rendered unreadable by its prose style for a wide educated audience does not escape the reviewer, of course.
Brooks notices the irony of celebrating street art in sentences that many people can't read. (about half the words)
Here, step by step, is why the credit goes to Richard Lanham. Lanham says to put the actor up at the start as the subject of the sentence. Who is doing something here? The reviewer, Brooks. So the ending gets moved up front:
The irony of a celebration of street art being rendered unreadable by its prose style for a wide educated audience
does not escape the reviewer, of course.
Brooks notices the irony
Lanham says to get rid of empty, throat-clearing phrases, so the posturing final phrase goes too. It just goes:
The irony of a celebration of street art being rendered unreadable by its prose style for a wide educated audience does not escape the reviewer
, of course.
Brooks notices the irony
Lanham says to try using verbs forms instead of nouns when you can:
The irony of
a celebration of street art being rendered unreadable by its prose style for a wide educated audience does not escape the reviewer, of course.
Brooks notices the irony of celebrating
Lanham says try to avoid prepositional phrases when you can, since they become wordy when they pile up:
The irony of a celebration
of street art being rendered unreadable by its prose style for a wide educated audience does not escape the reviewer, of course.
Brooks notices the irony of celebrating street art
Lanham says the posh insider's phrase can often be replaced by a very accurate single word:
its prose style for a wide educated audience does not escape the reviewer, of course.
Brooks notices the irony of celebrating street art in sentences that many people
Lanham says verbs often need to be toned down. Passive voice is usually for losers, for one thing, and multiple-word verbs are unnecessary except when they add precision. Down-to-earth single-word verbs are powerful:
being rendered unreadable by its prose style for a wide educated audience does not escape the reviewer, of course.
Brooks notices the irony of celebrating street art in sentences that many people can't read.
Those revisions employ most of Lanham's tips from the opening sections of the book. They cut about half the words and they leave almost every phrase changed for the better. With practice, striking and far-reaching revisions like these become possible in a hurry. His method is a great tool for people who have learned bad habits during their education. I use it all the time.
Fairly often, a positive NY Times review of a professor's book by is qualified, probably rightly so, by something like this:
That's from Raillan Brooks reviewing two new books about "Aerosol Art" or graffiti. Brooks notices the irony of celebrating street art in sentences that many people can't read. Doubly sad is that most problems with academic prose are addressed with brevity, practicality, and wit in Revising Prose by Richard Lanham--even in just his short first chapter. Or check out the more advanced and far-reaching Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup. Both books are available inexpensively in good earlier editions on the used-book market, too.
You will find a quick example of Lanham's method here and below, where you see two versions of one of the today's sentences, first rough and then improved with Lanham's help:
Brooks notices the irony of celebrating street art in sentences that many people can't read. (about half the words)
I don't know why it has taken me so long to see how useful it is to think of aspects of one's life not as personal but as reflections of public policy. I am a faculty member at Indiana University's campus in South Bend, for example. I am forbidden by state law to participate in a labor union in my workplace, the last I heard. When my children learn to drive, they are forbidden to have other minors in the car for 180 days after they receive their license, a time when they should be building their skills without distractions and temptations so close at hand. The two political parties in Indiana have a rich tradition of bending voting district lines to their advantage, strengthening or weakening the influence of voters like me in turns. I have tenure, a form of job protection that makes a good amount of sense for faculty who dare to push boundaries in their research, but most people have no chance at this kind of job protection. In many ways my life is not neutral or private or personal; in many ways I life a policy life, as do we all.