Henry David Thoreau* wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . .”
On the way home from an oil change last week, car maintenance being an essential fact of my life, I stopped on impulse to explore an unfamiliar footpath. Parts of it were well-worn tracks, other parts nearly hidden by undergrowth. Maples, yellow coneflowers, sudden descent into a ravine.
For John Garvens, living deliberately means pursuing your passions strategically. For Sarah Chauncey, it involves quieting the mind and letting matters unfold. For Nicole Wolfe, it’s a matter of focus and engagement. Merriam-Webster defines deliberate in terms of careful consideration, awareness of consequences, and steadiness or lack of hurry.
Awareness and choice are the warp and woof of living deep. Following my curiosity about a woodland path led to a chosen, unhurried half hour of awareness. Every such half hour sucks at the marrow of life.
*Factoid: His friends pronounced Thoreau with the accent on the first syllable, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son.
Pressing for Medicare legislation, President Johnson told press secretary Bill Moyers, “We’ve just got to say that, by God, you can’t treat grandma this way. She’s entitled and we promised it to her.”
Words are like people; they change and grow. Entitle is a prime example. At core, an entitlement is the grant of a rightful legal or moral claim, like the title to your house or car. The first sentence of the Declaration of Independence refers to “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.”
The shift in usage, from rightful to unjustified, dates from the 1960s and 1970s. Psychologists described narcissists as displaying a sense of entitlement. Politicians dropped the word “earned” from Roosevelt’s description of Social Security as an earned entitlement. Defenders of Medicare and Social Security say the programs aren’t entitlements; we’ve paid into them and earned them. Oddly, it has become an insult to call something an entitlement if the recipient is actually entitled to it.
When earnest, scholarly William falls in love with lighthearted jokester Jerome on Chicago’s South Side, William’s family discourages the relationship. Jerome’s friends complain the two have nothing in common except being gay black men. William’s death in a traffic stop pushes Jerome into a seriousness of purpose unlike any in his free-spirited past.
Would your interest in reading this book change if you knew the author was white? Straight? A woman? From Vermont? Is it fair to evaluate a book on the basis of who wrote it? With growing demand for novels with minority protagonists, is it offensive for authors outside a given culture to jump on the bandwagon? Such issues generate heat in some circles. I’ll jump into the fray.
All novelists write about characters different from themselves; otherwise it’s a memoir. I can never be the wife of a medieval merchant. The farther I’m removed from a character’s culture, the more research and empathy it takes to avoid out-and-out errors and stereotyped, one-dimensional characters.
It can be done. The Navajo Nation honored non-Native mystery author Tony Hillerman with its “Special Friends of the Dineh Award” in 1987. Click here for his obituary in the Navajo Times. An author’s background may help me predict the credibility of a work, but the best test is how the novel comes across to people in the culture it portrays.
After the initial shock and tears, personal calamity leaves most people almost as happy as before, and happier than those with possible calamity hanging over them. Lottery winners average no happier a year later than they were before, and they’re less happy than people striving toward a difficult but attainable goal. We adapt to loss and move on; the thrill of a win wears off. What cheers or stresses us most is uncertainty. “People blossom when challenged and wither when threatened,” says Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.
I wonder if part of the joy of creativity is that we keep setting ourselves new challenges. It never gets dull—or if it does, we try something new. What about the myth of the suffering artist? Sure, some artists are unhappy, but miserable people aren’t more artistic on average than anyone else. When we can’t remove a threat that hangs over us, we may sometimes find a way to reframe it as a challenge and throw ourselves into it with a smile.
Back in grade school, every girl was supposed to have a favorite movie actress. Fond of musicals and ignorant of celebrities, I learned the name of the lead in Oklahoma and was thenceforth ready with “Shirley Jones” whenever the question arose.
Film musicals peaked in the 1950s and faded fast. What happened? Television cut the movie-going audience from 90 million per week in the mid-1940s to 16 million by the late 1950s. Rock and roll changed musical tastes. The specialized expertise to film elaborate song-and-dance sequences dwindled with the end of the Hollywood studio system, which held actors, directors, cameramen, and crew under long-term contracts.
Beth Genné’s Dance Me a Song: Astaire, Balanchine, Kelly, and the American Film Musical (Oxford University Press, June 2018) traces the creation of a whole new dance form specifically for motion pictures. Fred Astaire’s distinctively American “outlaw style” fused elements from jazz, tap, ballet, and ballroom. Dancers dressed casually and sauntered out onto the street. Camerawork was part of the choreography. Genné’s “lucid and exuberant prose” (in the words of one reviewer) lets me watch old favorites with fresh eyes.
Image: Michael Kidd, Gene Kelly, and Dan Dailey in It’s Always Fair Weather. Public domain.
My old Webster’s Ninth uses each term in defining the other. Those who say there’s a difference agree that plot is a series of events linked by cause and effect, but their notions of story range all over the place. To novelist E. M. Forster, story meant the events without the links, meaningless until given a plot.* To director Martin Scorsese, mere plot fades by comparison to the character and camerawork of story.
At the University of Wisconsin’s Write-by-the-Lake week in June, I heard story described as what the work is about, a character responding to an event or choice or challenge. The plot of my life resembles a resume with causal links: After high school in West Virginia, impatience to leave home took me to a liberal arts college in Ohio . . . The story? Here’s one version: None of my major life decisions turned out as intended, and I don’t regret a single one. Writing and exploring have been part of every turn, enriched by the unexpected that happened along the way.
What’s the short form of your life story?
*Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel that “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
Sometimes I misunderstand a sentence like, “I don’t understand why people
Rhetorical questions have value. When fathers sing their daughters Libby Roderick’s “How could anyone ever tell you, you were anything less than beautiful?” they aren’t requesting an analysis of their daughters’ bullies’ motives. But there’s also value in thinking like a historian. The human community could use a little more curiosity and desire to comprehend.
Sprawled on a great lawn in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts years ago, listening to classical music. Exploring ancient ruins last November in pursuit of the Greek gods. What links these memories besides sunshine and delight?
Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in a cottage on what are now the grounds of the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival when he wrote A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1851), retelling six Greek myths. He frames them as loose adaptations by college student Eustace Bright to entertain younger cousins at a Berkshire country house named Tanglewood. Tanglewood Tales (1853) tells six more.
If you grew up on King Midas’s touch or Pandora’s box, a children’s book of such tales may seem like no big deal. In Hawthorne’s day it was remarkable. Greek mythology—full of sex, violence, and dubious morality—was for classical scholars, not for children. Hawthorne’s delightful retellings opened a new world to young and old. On holiday from college libraries and classrooms, Eustace Bright exhibits a lively imagination his professors would doubtless disapprove.
Just to be clear, I don’t find “success” a particularly useful concept in the arts or life. Still, I admit the word sometimes crosses my mind on a cloudy day. We hear of a successful painter, actor, novelist, or musician. They tend to be the famous ones; that’s why we hear of them. Comparing oneself to them is probably unconstructive.
Success is the achievement of a goal. Whether you’re successful depends what you’re aiming for. That needn’t be fame and fortune. It needn’t be overt; some people like explicit goals, some don’t. For decades of freelancing, I aimed to earn a living by writing and succeeded in doing so. Now I aim to do what I love and improve my craft. My most useful measurable goals are the little ones: finish drafting a chapter by the end of next week, post a blog entry every Monday, pull weeds around the irises. Where it all may lead, I’m willing to wait and see.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.