Nothing Has To Be Done

I have been reading a rare book of humor from the old Soviet Union. It is The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union by Vladimir Voinovich, who, for his pains, was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union in February 1974. Unable to make a living as a writer in Russia, he naturally fled to the West. The following excerpt from the book describes an amusing visit to the KGB (Soviet State Security) in Moscow.

During my last years in Moscow, a beginning writer would visit me from time to time when he was in town from the provinces. He’d complain of not being published and gave me his novels and stories, of which there were a great number, to see what I thought of them. He was certain that his works weren’t being published because their content was too critical. And indeed they did contain criticism of the Soviet system. But they had another major flaw as well: they lacked even the merest glimmer of talent. Sometimes he would request, and sometimes demand, that I send his manuscripts abroad and help get them published over there. I refused. Then he decided to go to the KGB and present them with an ultimatum: either they were immediately to issue orders that his works be published in the USSR or he would leave the USSR at once.

Apparently, it went something like this.

As soon as he had entered the KGB building, someone walked over to him and said: “Oh, hello there. So you’ve finally come to see us.!”

“You mean you know me?” asked the writer.

“Is there anyone who doesn’t?” said the KGB man, spreading his hands. “Have a seat. What brings you here? Do you want to tell us that you don’t like the Soviet system?”

“That’s right, I don’t,” said the writer.

“But what specifically don’t you kike about it?”

The writer replied that, in his opinion, there was no freedom in the Soviet Union, particularly artistic freedom. Human rights were violated, the standard of living was steadily declining—and he voiced other critical remarks as well. Good for about seven years in a camp.

Having listened politely, the KGB man asked: “But why are you telling me all this?”

“I wanted you to know.”

“We know. Everyone knows all that.”

“But if everyone knows, something should be done about it.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Nothing has to be done about it!”

Surprised by that turn in the conversation, the writer fell silent.

“Have you said everything you wanted to?” asked the KGB man politely.

“Yes, everything.”

“Then why are you still sitting there?”

“I’m waiting for you to arrest me.”

“Aha, I see,” said the KGB man. “Unfortunately, there’s no way we can arrest you today. We’re too busy. If the desire doesn’t pass, come see us again, and we’ll do everything we can to oblige you.” And he showed the writer out.

The writer visited me a few more times before he disappeared. I think he finally may have achieved his goal and gotten someone to give him the full treatment for dissidence.

“The Best Is Yet To Be”

I never thought I would be alive at the age of 77. My father died at 74 years old; and my mother, at 79. When I was a student at St. Henry Elementary School, I thought, “Gosh, I’ll be 55 years old when we get to the year 2000.” I passed that milestone at a run.

In the illustration above, I am somewhere between the third and fourth figure. Thankfully, my health is good. I can get about without a cane, though I find going down a flight of stairs to be painful. Kneeling on a hard surface is out of the question.

When I think about aging, I call to mind the first stanza of Robert Browning’s poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra”:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!” 

I see some of my friends fall by the wayside, some dying, some suffering personality disorders as they age, and some just isolating themselves.

This is not a subject anyone likes to think about. There are, however, dangers inherent in suppressing any important subject.

The times are always bad—and always have been. Yes, what is happening in Ukraine is terrible. But so was ducking under my school desk at St. Henry to practice for a Communist H-Bomb attack. So was World War Two. So was … oh … Genghis Khan.

I always wanted to be a writer. And in a manner of speaking, I am one. I don’t care about compensation or fame. Just sitting down around 9 o’clock most evenings and writing this blog is a worthwhile effort. It makes me feel good about myself.


This is not how I have written some 2,684 blog postings on WordPress. This picture is wrong for the following reasons:

  • I don’t wear nail polish.
  • I hate coffee. Even the smell of it sickens me.
  • I use a desktop, not a notebook computer.
  • Flowers? Not likely.

The only things that are true to life in this picture is a container for pens and pencils (none of which I use) and the folded eyeglasses. I have two pairs of glasses: one for long distance and the other for reading. It just so happens that my computer screen is midway between the two, so I don’t wear glasses unless I have to enter something from a book.

Next to my monitor on my desk are a Fujitsu Scanner and a Lexmark MC3224 color laser printer. Also various books I have recently reviewed on Goodreads.Com, keys, an MP3 player, various cords for transferring pictures from my digital camera (which is also on my desk), my cellphone, a box of AA alkaline batteries, tons of handwritten notes, and a pile of bills to be paid.

This Is More Like It

Anyhow, this is more in the spirit of the way I write, except I don’t smoke and I use a computer.

How can you become a prolific writer with incurable verborrhea, like me? All I can say is just write. Pick a time of day, have your say, and be religious about it. Every evening at 9 pm, I begin by writing a book review for Goodreads (where I have over 1,700 book reviews), and then thinking of what to post, beginning with an appropriate (or, in this case, inappropriate) picture to lead off with. And prepositions to end a sentence with.

Over the years, it’s become a bit of a compulsion. And that’s the way it has to be if you want to post 2,684 times.


Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592)

I would like to consider myself as a writer—in a small way. I’ve tried fiction and failed: My Hungarian-American detective,Emeric Toth, was an interesting character. My dialogue was fine, but I could never think of an interesting plot line for him to exercise his talents. I’ve never really tried poetry, but would like to at some point. Time, however, is running out.

So what I am left with are essays. In my library are several hundred volumes of essays by such luminaries as Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, who invented the word, which in French means “attempts”; Thomas De Quincey, William Hazlitt, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, William Cobbett, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, Albert Camus, Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, J. M. Coetzee, and scores of others.

Probably the best essays are those of the terms originator, Montaigne. And perhaps the best essay I’ve ever read is ”Of Experience,” in which the author talks about his excruciating pain from kidney stones. Even after all the intervening centuries, it is a tribute to how to live despite all that suffering. If I were to teach a class about him, I would make that essay the first reading assignment. Then I might ass Chesterton’s collection entitled Tremendous Trifles, to be followed by a selection of Hazlitt’s work, especially his essay on boxing.

These posts are all fairly brief, but I look forward to living my life in such a way that I might have interesting things to say. The coronavirus outbreak has made that difficult, but what it has done is made me turn more toward books and film. I occasionally still write about politics, but I feel I have nothing original to say in that area.

To start you thinking, here is a quote from Montaigne:

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death… We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.

To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

There exist excellent translations by Donald Frame and J. M. Cohen.

“So You Want To Be a Writer”

Poet Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

I know he drank a lot and you probably wouldn’t let your sister go out with him, but the man was a real poet and he had something serious going with the muse. This is one of my favorites among his poems. It’s called “So You Want To Be a Writer.” Good stuff.

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.


Pre-Columbian Writing

Detail from the Dresden Codex

At the time the Spanish landed in he New World, there was only one Pre-Columbian culture that had a written alphabet, and that was the Maya. Now I have heard that in earlier centuries, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of Northern Mexico had a written alphabet, but stopped using it after a certain point. Curiously, the Aztecs and Inca did not have their own alphabet, however advanced they may have been in other respects.

Right now, the only instances we have of writing in Mayan are glyphs at various Maya ruins and four surviving codices that escaped the religious zeal of the Spanish missionaries in destroying what they perceived to be heretical. And since the subject matter related to Maya religion, it was heretical insofar as Christianity was concerned.

The most famous destroyer of Mayan codices was Diego de Landa, the Franciscan Bishop of Yucatán in the 16th century. In a famed book burning conducted in 1562, de Landa had 27 codices burned at Mani. He described the Maya as being disconsolate at the destruction of so much of their culture at one time. Curiously, it was the same de Landa who wrote the Relación de Las Cosas de Yucatán, which preserved an astonishing amount of the culture and language, such that it is still studied by Maya scholars. It is still available in a Dover Publications paperback.

Do you see the dots and dashes in the above detail from the Dresden Codex just above the four seated figures? They are, in order, the numbers 16, 4, 9, 13, zero (yes, the Maya had discovered zero), 5, 12, 2, and 1. As you can probably surmise from this, the dashes represented the number five or a multiple of fives; and a dot, a one or multiple of ones up to four. It was a vigesimal system, meaning to the base 20 rather than base 10 like ours. Very likely, the numbers in the illustration represent a “long count” calendar date fixing a particular event in time. You can read more about Maya mathematics here.

The other interesting thing about the Mayan alphabet is that some symbols were hieroglyphic and stood for an entire word and others phonetic, standing for syllables. This confused scholars for years.

At the time I started visiting the Maya world, only the calendrical symbols had been decoded (mostly thanks to the selfsame good/bad Diego de Landa). In the last forty years, we have discovered that the Maya have a history. We have learned names of rulers and translated descriptions of events commemorated by Maya rulers.


Belief and Technique for Modern Prose

Jack Kerouac and Friend

Jack Kerouac and Friend

The following is an itemized list in its entirety of how to write modern prose like a beatnik by Jack Kerouac. It was published in The Evergreen Review, Volume 2, No. 8, in 1959. As usual, Jack varies between the profound and the mundane, all mixed up like:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house [a rule often violated by Jack]
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry, but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Dont [sic] think of words when you stop but to see the picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning [eh?]
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In Praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

The above is reprinted in Fred W. McDarrah’s book Kerouac & Friends: A Beat Generation Album, a not bad introduction to the movement together with photos of its main characters.

If there is a lot of unevenness in the whole beat vision, I think you can see why.


The Eight Rules of Writing

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

I admire the simplicity of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing, as set down below:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. [Maybe this is the best rule of them all.]
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Now these rules pertain almost exclusively to writing fiction. I wonder if I could adapt them to writing blogs. I’ll have to get back to you on that.


You Don’t Say … Please!

William Macy as the Car Salesman in Fargo

William H. Macy as the Car Salesman in Fargo

Whenever I hear one of the following words or phrases, I cringe. If you’re using them to try to sell me, you can see a “NO SALE!” pop up on my eyelids. They appear here in alphabetic order, together with a few comments:

  1. alright – Not really a word, so stop it all ready!
  2. amazeballs – Any expression invented by Perez Hilton deserves to be consigned to the nether regions, dunked in gasoline, and lit.
  3. bipolar – Usually this just means moody. The earth is bipolar, but I don’t know any people who are.
  4. embolden – This was a favorite Dubya term. Everything anyone did that he didn’t like would end up “emboldening” the terrorists. As if the terrorists, by their very nature, would accept anything as a setback! (They know all about spin.)
  5. give 110% – I would like to make that the income tax rate for people using this phrase.
  6. going forward – How about “from now on”? Is that too plain for you?
  7. irregardless – Try “regardless” instead. It doesn’t make you look like an idiot.
  8. let’s touch base – I don’t let salesmen touch my base or anything thereunto appertaining.
  9. like – If you’re not using this in a simile as a preposition, you’ll sound like a Valley Girl. (There, I used it in a simile.)
  10. LOL – Usually means you’re trying too hard. A simple smirk will usually do.
  11. OMG – Again with the Valley Girls?
  12. pwn – What’s this? A Welsh vowel? And the “p” is pronounced “o”? Give me a break!
  13. synergy – A word used in conjunction with mergers and acquisitions which means, in short, “It makes us look good for fifteen minutes, anyway.”
  14. 24/7 – You can contact us by phone at any time, but you will never get any degree of satisfaction from us! Myself, I’m an 8/5 person.

Do any of you have any terms to add to the list?


A Writer of Feuilletons and Causeries

Apparently, Writer’s Block Is Not Much of a Problem for Me

Apparently, Writer’s Block Is Not Much of a Problem for Me

When I was in high school, I thought I’d like to write the Great American Novel. I made several attempts at telling stories, but I found I just didn’t have the knack of inventing a character other than myself. In fact, I thought later of writing a series of short stories using a private investigator named Emeric Toth, patterned after me, of course; but the stories just did not take wing.

I have come to realize that I am what the French would call a writer of feuilletons, or to be even more exact, causeries. According to Wikipedia, the latter term refers to a piece that is:

generally short, light and humorous and is often published as a newspaper column (although it is not defined by its format). Often the causerie is a current-opinion piece, but it contains more verbal acrobatics and humor than a regular opinion or column. In English, causerie is commonly known as “personal story”, “funny story” or “column” instead.

The term feuilleton refers to a kind of op-ed newspaper piece, but can mean a whole lot of other things besides, such as (in today’s France) a soap opera.

Essentially, I write short essays on a multiplicity of topics that run the gamut from politics (though not so much any more, since politics in America got so dirty), religion, literature, film, travel, meditations, humor, science and the Internet, weekend excursions, to you name it. I’ll take on virtually any subject, though I am averse to Internet flame wars and quickly dump water on their beginnings. While I like to say what I feel, I am averse to back-and-forth debates. This is not so much because of any uncertainty in my convictions as an unwillingness to participate in the Grand Ego Theatre of the Internet.

As a literary medium, feuilletons and causeries are definitely writing in a minor key. My words will never be carved into stone or memorized by legions of school children. They are not detailed enough to change anyone’s mind about anything. They serve to entertain and inform, and perhaps point the way to other sources that do a better job in that area.

A few days ago, I re-read Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. I could have chosen instead to re-read one of the Bard’s better-known works, but I have a certain affection for his minor plays. Maybe that’s why I write the way I do.