The Art of Not Thinking

tree painting
The sages tell us that the knack of not thinking is the pathway to serenity, that we should focus on the here and now because the past and future are abstractions existing only in the present. Rather than obsessing about your worsening health, your culture’s decline, or the peril the planet faces as oceans rise and deserts expand, you should play it cool, like the lilies of the field.

Don’t fritter away your time worrying – they say — taste the sweetness of the apple upon your palette, appreciate the miracle of the buzzing fly battering against the brilliance of the windowpane.

Be present in the present.

However, to riff on/off Elizabeth Bishop, “The art of not thinking is difficult to master,” especially if you’re staring down the barrels of big time problems like bankruptcy, prison, or debilitating disease. Obviously, if creditors are leaving angry messages on your phone or your joints throb or you’re packing a suitcase for the Big House, it’s extremely difficult not to dwell on these much-more-than-inconveniences.

Yet, the sages are right: worry and fret don’t help the situation. They short-circuit your taste buds, blind you to the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. Unrelenting worry can turn your life into a Gerard Manley Hopkins dark night of the soul:

Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Hence, philosophies like stoicism, religions with afterlives, spiritual exercises like Zen meditation, and of course, drugs.

The problem with drugs, even though they offer the quickest respite, is that they wear off, leaving you possibly worse off than before, so you tend to turn to them more and more often, and the more and more you rely on them, the less and less effective they become. Eventually, if you manage to stay alive and out of jail, they stunt the amygdala, the pleasure center of the brain, and joy becomes increasingly difficult to experience.

But it’s not like you can become a stoic in a day or a Zen master with a week’s worth of sitting. Religions with afterlives can offer speedier relief, but generally, non-believers don’t opt for them until they hit the bottom of the abyss.

When I was a child, I was a crybaby.  I’d cry when I lost my crayons at school, when my favorite team lost, when I thought about something sad that happened to my mother as a child. However, over the course of my life, through reading literary fiction, I developed a sort of stoicism. What I discovered in Thebes and Elsinore and Yoknapatawpha is that suffering is universal. To quote Rick from Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”   In other words, suffering doesn’t make you special; it makes you human.

And, yes, in moderation, alcohol and drugs can help as well, help you relax after a hard day or get your serotonin levels back to normal so you don’t wake up at 3 a.m. and feel the fell of dark, not day.

Ultimately, treasure right now what one day will be gone without thinking of the fact that one day it will be gone.

That’s knack of not thinking.

* * *

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,

The maddest noise that grows, –

The birds, they make it in the spring,

At night’s delicious close.


Between the March and April line –

That magical frontier

Beyond which summer hesitates,

Almost too heavenly near.


It makes us think of all the dead

That sauntered with us here,

By separation’s sorcery

Made cruelly more dear.

It makes us think of what we had,

And what we now deplore.

We almost wish those siren throats

Would go and sing no more.


An ear can break a human heart

As quickly as a spear,

We wish the ear had not a heart

So dangerously near.

~Emily Dickinson


Free Verse Fails as Political Satire


Writing free verse, Robert Frost once noted, is like playing tennis without a net, and although I disagree with that overly simplistic characterization, I do think when it comes to political verse satire, you’re better off possessing the talents of Ogden Nash over those of William Carlos Williams. In other words, you want the inherent attraction of traditional verse — standard meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc. In the realm of satire, sing-song trumps subtle sonic stitching; Muhammad Ali KOs Marianne Moore.

For example, this ain’t gonna hack it:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 8.48.46 PM

Nor will this:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 8.49.15 PM

One obvious problem in the current Presidential campaign is coming up with words that rhyme with the candidates’ names. This difficulty is especially pronounced for surnames with two syllables.

Sanders isn’t too bad – sanders/pander – but John Kasich and Hillary Clinton, ugh.

Kasich/ wasted.

Clinton/sent in.

Of course, with HRC, you can go with her first name, and bam, you get pillory, which offers many illustrative possibilities.

But let’s face it, as far as rhyme goes, the candidate with most promising last name is Trump, which offers a veritable plethora of pejorative rhymes:

bump/clump/dump/frump/grump/hump/ lump/mumps/ rump, sump, etc.

Cruz comes in second with dues/snooze/ flooze/abuse/news/, etc.

But then, even if you can get the rhymes going, you have to worry about meter.

Forget it.

What muse worth her whispering is going to descend and inspire you to write some shit about Carly Florina?


No Replicating Prince, the Lord Byron of Pop



Okay, you’re Dr. Frankenstein, and your mission is to construct not merely a living, breathing hominid, but to piece together Prince.

Let’s start with the brain – to replicate Prince’s virtuosity one puny human brain ain’t gonna hack it.

First, you need to cop James Brown’s primary sensory cortex and those regions called caudate nucleus and thalamus. They control dance gyrations, and when it comes to busting moves, no one compares to the Godfather and Prince, unless you want to throw Michael Jackson into the mix – but let’s face it, both Jackson and Prince owe an unpayable debt to the late, great hardest working man in show business. He is the progenitor.  Here’s some very low quality video of Brown, Jackson, and Prince on stage together.



In addition, Prince’s exquisite thumping funk originally comes from that same source, James Brown. So that part of the brain that rules the beat, the cerebellum, we need that to come from the Godfather as well.

At one count Prince played 27 musical instruments, but it’s his searing guitar solos that stand out. You’ve probably heard the story of Clapton’s remark, “I dunno, ask Prince” when someone asked him how it felt to be the greatest guitarist in the world.



So we need slices of Hendrix’s brain as well.

Prince’s song writing — where to begin? He could be as melodic as Smokey Robinson, as raucous as Rick James.

And charisma, where in the hell does charisma come from?

It’s time to drop this stupid Frankenstein conceit. There’s no replacing, no replicating Prince, a true virtuoso.

I’m just thankful I got to see him live twice, once with the Musicology tour in Columbia, SC 21 April 2004 and then in North Charleston 30 March 2011.

The Columbia concert was the second best concert I’ve ever seen, just losing out to the time I was on the front row of a Springsteen concert during the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. The crowd at the Prince concert in Columbia was largely African American, and there was an electricity in the air, something smacking of Beatlemania, for the lack of a better term.

And what a friendly, generous performer. You got the idea he loved the audience as much as we loved him.

But now he’s dead, gone all Lord Byron on us. Poof!



The Unhappy, Self-Righteous Warrior

In your spleen, you know he's right

In your spleen, you know he’s right

I’m wondering if the pro-Bernie bombardments on my Facebook feed have diminished because his followers are losing faith in his high-mindedness or because the algorithms dictating what I see there have determined I consider Sanders a tiresome scold, an inflexible ideologue, a magical thinker, a self-righteous prick capable of cruelty.

Let’s take the last charge first. Here’s a piece from the 16 April 2016 New York Times:

In Vermont, however, Mr. Sanders was known for belittling opponents at times, rather than merely challenging their ideas. During one debate in the 1986 governor’s race, Mr. Sanders was asked if he viewed Governor Kunin as “the lesser of two evils,” given his descriptions of the Democratic and Republican parties as “Tweedledum” and “Tweedledee,” and if he thought he might contribute to her political “demise.”

Mr. Sanders chuckled and then looked at Ms. Kunin, seated a few feet away.

“Governor, how does it feel to be the lesser of two evils?” he asked. “I think that really is what this campaign is about.” Ms. Kunin was stone-faced.[1]

Here’s an example of self-righteousness:

Peter Smith, the Republican candidate for governor in 1986 and the congressman Mr. Sanders ousted in 1990, said that Mr. Sanders used passion to create “a contrast between him and his opponent that may not, in fact, exist.” Mr. Sanders’s aides in the 1990 campaign said they would regularly taunt Mr. Smith about his positions on issues like the minimum wage, which the congressman would dispute, and then Mr. Sanders would come forward and accuse Mr. Smith of dishonesty. As a result, a running theme of that campaign was that Mr. Sanders had integrity and Mr. Smith lacked it.

“The tool he uses is his intensity and his belief that, on the major issues he cares about, there is only one right answer,” Mr. Smith said. “And it is his.”

No wonder Sanders wanted to meet the Pope — he could meet a peer in infallibility.

In his current race, of course, he has abandoned the high road he promised to take and has now launched a series of negative ads even though the only way he could possible win the nomination is if Clinton is indicted over her email server. In the 2008 cycle, Clinton found herself in a similar position mathematically, and although she didn’t drop out (as I wished she had), she did start to tone down her attacks on Obama. Although Sanders has backed off from questioning Clinton’s qualifications, you can bet either Cruz or Trump will use Sanders’ quotes in blistering TV ads.

Of course, if in the unlikely event that Sanders were to be the Democratic nominee, it would take an unprecedented landslide in Congressional races to provide him with the pie-in-the-sky Democratic majorities needed to enact legislation so he could break up the banks, provide free tuition, etc. However, Sanders doesn’t bother to raise money for Congressional races. I guess he believes the force of his righteousness is contagious or either he doesn’t want to dirty his hands, like Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, raising tainted money.[2]

I can’t help but wonder if Senator Sanders’ hatred of Wall Street trumps his compassion for people, if he sees them as abstractions, figures on a spreadsheet. Certainly, some of his supporters who don’t bother to vote for down ballot Democrats in primary and caucuses and say they’ll sit out an election between Clinton and Trump or Cruz.

So what if the ACA is overturned, if Trump gets to appoint the next Supreme Court justice, if Medicaid is slashed if it means you have to vote “for the lesser of two evils?”

Of course, none of the above will convince the true believers of the Bernie Cult. As someone on my Twitter feed said, “Admitting you’re for Hillary sort of feels like coming out in the ‘60s.”  Sanders supporters tend to take criticisms of him personally as if he’s a religious figure beyond censure. If Clinton supporters took criticisms of her personally, they’d very well might need hospitalization.

I sort of dread posting these comments, and I certainly expect a tsunami of dyspepsia in response to this post; however, I felt that venting a bit of spleen of my own might be therapeutic this melancholy spring.

[1] Cf “self-righteous prick.”

[2] Cf. “magical thinker”

Shakespeare’s 2016 Election Endorsement

tumblr_nthmbnnhJR1r9xd1wo1_500I remember the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth back in 1964. I was 12 and wouldn’t have made the connection, but someone mentioned the anniversary of the Bard’s birthday on a TV program I was watching.   I can’t swear to it, but I think the show might have been That Was the Week that Was, which was broadcast live on Friday nights and satirized the week’s news, a sort of prototypical cross between The Daily Show and Onion TV, only with lots of musical skits.

Unfortunately, the show has essentially been lost – only the pilot survives along with some amateur audio recordings, one of which you can listen to on YouTube if you’re a nostalgia junkie or history freak.

Interestingly enough, the episode on YouTube from 12 June 1964 mentions a stop-Goldwater movement within the Republican Party and features a skit lampooning unsophisticated Goldwater supporters.

8baae185de80f51c0b9df60316bdc5f8I’d forgotten what cigarette ads sounded like – Raleighs came with coupons —  and also forgotten about Twist-O-Flex watchbands that were so flexible you could tie them in a knot.

Ultimately, for me, though, in 2016 the skits fall flat. Topical humor has a short shelf life, especially if you’re blindly listening to a visual medium — unlike Master Will’s humor, which can still provoke laughs from high school sophomores who don’t need to see it performed to find it funny.

April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and so, obviously, the 52-year span of his life fits within mine. If he had been born in 1964, he would have arrived in an election year when Barry Goldwater, much to the chagrin of the Republican establishment, became the nominee, and if he had died in 2016, he would have survived just long enough to see Trump’s triumph in the New York primary, much to the chagrin of the Republican establishment.

In fact, at least according to the very dated AL Rowse book I just finished, Shakespeare was a very political writer himself, which a quick google search readily reinforces. In fact, the website offers UVA professor Paul Cantor’s series of 25 lectures on “Shakespeare and Politics.”

So the question arises – whom would Shakespeare have supported for President this cycle.

Will was, after all, a monarchist, a conservative in the old form of the word – one who valued tradition, order, and obedience, so no way he’s feeling the Bern or could suffer a buffoonish upstart like Trump.  Cruz?  That modern day Malvolio? Forget it.  Hillary?  I doubt it.

I say Jeb!

shakespeare for jeb





Keats to the Rescue

Portrait of English Poet John KeatsYears ago, I invited my former student, Paul Edward O’Brien, to introduce a unit on poetry to jaded high school seniors. It was springtime, and they were sick of school — sick of their childhoods. To most of them poetry was the language arts equivalent of a math problem.

Paul, an oncologist by profession and actor by avocation, majored in English at Harvard, taught freshman composition there during a sabbatical from med school, so he is a man of science and of letters. The old-fashioned word “dashing” does him justice, so I thought a swashbuckling evangelist for poetry might at least hold their attention. Maybe even convert one.

He began by quoting “Who Goes with Fergus” and explained how he fell in love with the poem without even having any idea what it meant. He told the students at one point that “Poetry can be your friend, your companion, help you in times of need.”


* * *

Last Monday, with about three-and-a-half hours of sleep and feeling something very close to despair, I stumbled into my first period class of sophomores to discuss John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” The poem had been slated for this day on my syllabus before I had received some very disturbing news, and it’s not necessarily a poem I would choose to teach right now given what is going on in my life.

I started the class by asking students to close their eyes and for three minutes and attempt to remember vividly a time when they’d been blown away by nature – overawed by a breath-taking vista or a ferocious thunderstorm or an encounter with a wild animal. I asked them to try to conjure images – sights, sounds, smells and then to capture those images with words.

Once I saw that all their eyes were shut, I closed mine as well and thought of last summer when my wife Judy and I sat at a picnic table on top of Mount Mansfield in Vermont.

. . . behind us clouds rush over the summit, revealing a patch of blue sky. A waterfall of light pours through the opening and cascades down the side of the summit, progressively devouring shadows. Actually, the light’s more like lava because a waterfall is always pouring forth, but this light is creeping, shimmering its way down, illuminating boulders and green growth . , ,

Instead of reading their responses, they shared them orally. One, nighttime in Oxford, England, green-green-green night grass and a profusion of stars. Another, atop a mountain with fog blanketing below, except for a rectangular opening, like a window, through which he could see the sloping vegetation below. A third, the sound of water rushing over river rocks during a night of utter solitude.

I asked them to articulate their emotional responses. Virtually everyone agreed egos tended to disappear in the face of their experiences. No one thought, “How cool that I’m experiencing these wonders,” but the wonders themselves took precedence over the perceiver.

I tied their experiences to Romanticism and explained in the ode Keats is trying to escape his anguish via nature and imagination.

We then turned to the poem itself, that beautiful meditation on death, suffering, attempted escape, the failure of the imagination, among other things.

I’ve given up having students read poems out loud in class; I read them myself for the sake of fluidity.

So I started the first stanza, and as I did, sunlight flickered across the page underscoring, as it were, the delicacy of the verse, the ephemera of poor Keats’s rapidly disappearing days. I tried to keep my voice steady.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

Keats was suffering from depression. His beloved brother Tom had died of TB the summer before, and TB’s first symptoms were beginning to manifest themselves in him.

I asked the students to identify the tone using the first line: “aches” “numbness,” “pain.”

“What is hemlock? I asked. “Opiate?”   “Lethe?” “Dryad?”

I had trouble with the third stanza in that I feared if I might start to weep.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

The sunlight flickering shadows from the trees outside the window upon the words of the poem was quite beautiful.

John Austen's Hamlet

John Austen’s Hamlet

“Dissolve.” I recited Hamlet’s first soliloquy. “O would this too too solid flesh melt/And dissolve itself into a dew. . .” I explained Hamlet’s sad situation, his father’s death his mother’s marrying his uncle within a month.

This is true misery, I said; Hamlet and Keats long for vaporization, demolecularization, surcease of sorrow, absolute disappearance.

We discussed the slowness of the lines – the caesuras – how those commas make the reader hesitate, to limp along with “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” . . . where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs.”

The sunlight flickering on the page. The sound of my own voice reading the words.

I was not alone. I had the students, of course, but also Hamlet, Keats, those old immortal friends, to help me get through those miserable moments. No, not alone, and paradoxically, I felt keenly alive, felt something like joy by the time it was time to let them go.




Above and beyond the computer screen outside the closed window of my study, palmetto fronds and magnolia boughs shimmer in a sunny morning breeze. Seemingly, inside my computer, Robert Plant (and to a lesser degree Allison Krauss) is pleading for someone somewhere to “please read the letter [he/she] wrote.”

Some algorithm created by Steve Job’s brain trust has selected this song from a mix called Singer/Songwriter that shuffles music I have purchased. I happen not to like the song, nor that album. Critics convinced me to fork out ten bucks to buy it, so I did.  It’s not a big deal, but it has not made me happy. Perhaps the next song will better suit me, and as it turns out, it does, Joni Mitchell’s “Car on a Hill” from Court and Spark, an album I first purchased in 1974.

I think back to the Joni Mitchell concert I attended that year with Debbie Kellam with whom I was madly in love. Now Andrew Marvell is whispering in my ear: deserts of vast eternity.

 photograph by Kaisern Chen

photograph by Kaisern Chen

In his History of Happiness, Darrin McMahon informs us:

Language reveals ancient definitions of happiness. It is a striking fact that in every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck. Hap is the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness, and it just means luck or chance, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur, good fortune or happiness. German gives us the word Gluck, which to this day means both happiness and chance.

In other words, etymologically, happiness is happenstance, the luck of the draw, whether it it be a full house or the inherited brain chemistry that creates a naturally sunny disposition.


McMahon notes that the classical philosophers came to believe that happiness could be attained, not as feeling, but as a state earned through living a virtuous life, “measured,” as McMahon says, “in lifetimes, not moments.” Hence, happiness must be earned through the cultivation of virtues, which Malcolm catalogues for us in Macbeth:

[. . .] justice, verity, temperance, stableness,

Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,

Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude (4.1, 92-4

In desert-born religions, the world becomes a vale of tears and ultimate happiness only possible in some exalted state, e.g., in prelapsarian Eden, i.e., the past, or in some future state, i.e., at the return of Christ in the millennium or in one of the many mansions of heaven.

Massah ain’t treating you right. Keep working. The low swinging chariot will be here any minute.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by Richard Bennett

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by Richard Bennett

Now, coincidently, Paul Simons is singing “Slip Sliding Away”:

We work at our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip sliding away.

Slip sliding away,
Slip sliding away,
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip sliding away.

The Christian view described above provides a theoretical escape hatch for Simon’s paradox, but left-brained Enlightened philosophers and Founding Fathers supplanted that view and argued that happiness was, again in McMahon’s words, “more than a divine gift, less fortuitous than fortune, less exalted than a millenarian dream.” In fact, it is an American right to pursue it, and God knows we do.

detail from The Palace of Hedonism by Kris Kuksi

detail from The Palace of Hedonism by Kris Kuksi

God bless the Enlightenment! It has taught us that sensuality is not sin, that we deserve happiness because we are, and rather than donning hair shirts and spending our winter nights barefooted in the snow self-flagellating, we should make the best out of a sure thing, the here and now, for, yes, death is just around the corner. In fact, Lucretius, following the wisdom of Epicurus, argued 1600 earlier essentially the same concept.

However, happiness as a constant state is unsustainable in the flux of day-to-day occurrences, medications, moods, adrenal secretions. The classic philosophers and stoics were correct: True happiness is impossible without a foundation of compassion that directs one’s thoughts from the self to others.

In other words, lasting happiness is impossible outside the context of a virtuous life, but, of course, a virtuous life doesn’t guarantee “lasting happiness.”

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Nevertheless, let’s give Epicurus the last word:

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly.  And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.

detail from David's The Death of Socrates

detail from David’s The Death of Socrates


The Fog of Recollection: What We Half Perceive and Half Create


 detail from Aydin Aghdashloo, Memories of Ice & Fire III

detail from Aydin Aghdashloo, Memories of Ice & Fire III

Even as a very young child, I sought escape through books, movies, television, and imagination.  Unlike my first best friend Bert Pearce, nature held no magic for me.   To Bert, a frog was a creature of wonder, something to stare at for fun even though it just sat there like a stone.  From him I learned that they arose from tadpoles, which was cool,  because it was mysterious with intimations of procreation.

I remember dreaming of a pond in kindergarten and being able to breathe while I swam underwater.

The window sill of the kitchen of Bert’s rambling clapboard house on Laurel Street served as a sort of laboratory, lined with prison jars of lizards and frogs and caterpillars, but to me, a frog was a creature likely to pee on you, a creature whose skin or hide or whatever you called it would feel bumpy or slimy or both.  In a word, yucky.

March 2011 018

This would have been 1957.  We were only five, but I remember that Bert, not his mother, made our lunches, always peanut and jelly sandwiches, and when he poured milk in glasses, he poured a bit in one, then the same amount in the other, repeating the process, carefully eyeing the levels, making sure they were absolutely even until they reached the top of the glass.

But with memories, especially distant memories, you never know.  Like dreams, they’re aery, unsubstantial, slippery, unreliable, dubious mental constructs that may bear very little resemblance of what transpired.

For example, maybe he only had one frog in one jar and only made lunch once.droppedImage

My family stared not at frogs or butterflies but at movie and television screens.  Before my youngest brother and sister were born, Mama and Daddy took my brother David and me to drive-in movies, the Magnolia and North-52, where I could experience the first half of adult movies like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Butterfield 8, and Vertigo before falling asleep from boredom.  Brother David and I also got to enjoy Winstons, which tasted good like cigarettes should, as we breathed in prodigious quantities of secondhand smoke, which no doubt provided better protection than the Pic insect coil repellent burning away on the dashboard.


I recall one vivid memory of going to the concession stand during Vertigo and not being able to find the car on the way back because as Jimmy Stewart suffered his nightmare amid strobing colors on the distant screen, the projection/reflection kept changing the colors of the parked cars like a clicking kaleidoscope, a frightening Kafkaesque experience for a seven-year-old laden with Coca-Colas and popcorn

I’m much more confident of this memory, however, because it has been reinforced by many retellings.

The television stayed on at my house from the time we were up until the Star Spangled Banner signaled that Big Chief Test Pattern was about to appear with his high-pitched warning before the upcoming six-hour blizzard of snow on the screen.  I watched Elvis swivel on Sullivan and later the mop-headed Beatles in skinny pants stand stiffly and play music amid screams.  Watching Ed Sullivan was a sabbath ritual much more practiced than the two-minute drive to church.

Also, every Wednesday for a time my mother took me to Poppleton’s Five and Dime where she bought me cardboard bound reprints of classic novels that cost 59 cents. I can almost still smell the fresh, slightly burnt odor of the pages as I hung with the Swiss Family Robinson or watched Tom hoodwink his pals into whitewashing the fence.

So, unlike my friend Bert, who had left my life and moved to Mt. Pleasant, no doubt collecting samples in the backyard of his new brick home, I became a sedentary soul and traded the beauty of the outside world and its paragon of animals for the inner world of Alice’s Wonderland where playing cards could talk and falling down didn’t hurt.

Illustration by Pedro Campea

Illustration by Pedro Campea

Nature versus nurture?  Chicken or egg?  Was Bert’s fascination with flora and fauna innate or did his mother Carlotta instill his interest?  If Daddy had taken me hunting every Saturday, would I now have antlers holding camo-colored hats in my study rather than shelves stuffed with books?

William Wordsworth addresses this mystery in “Tintern Abbey” when he writes

. . . Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,

And what perceive . . .


Half-create . . . what perceive.  Do we essentially construct our own worlds, our malleable minds morphing like tadpoles into frogs – or, perhaps to employ a more pleasing image, caterpillars into a butterflies?  Do our predilections and experiences constantly reconstruct our minds to conform to their blueprints?

And does the Protean mind we possess at this instant reconstruct memories to adhere to its present decor, replacing the portrait of boring old Gertrude with glamorous, chain-smoking Aunt Sarah, who shot herself in the head with the door cracked open for her first cousin to see?

Get on it, neuroscientists.  I want to know.

Ordinary Objects in the artist creative mind 1887 John Peto paintings

Ordinary Objects in the artist creative mind 1887
John Peto paintings