Bob Schwartz

Month: October, 2017

Why We Teach The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’ Story to the Very Young

Children sometimes lie, and some of us lied as children. It happens. That’s why we teach The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’ story early. The simple and useful lesson: There will come a time when it is very important to be believed—to avoid getting eaten by a wolf—and no one will believe you.

Here is the story, as found in Aesop’s Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs:

The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’

There was a boy tending the sheep who would continually go up to the embankment and shout, ‘Help, there’s a wolf!’ The farmers would all come running only to find out that what the boy said was not true. Then one day there really was a wolf, but when the boy shouted they didn’t believe him and no one came to his aid. The whole flock was eaten by the wolf. The story shows that this is how liars are rewarded: even if they tell the truth, no one believes them.

Some never learn that lesson, because they always get away with (or think they get away with) lying all the time. Manchild Trump is one of those.

Maybe, just maybe, he is growing to regret no one believing him. In the middle of a distasteful controversy about his failure to deal with the families of fallen soldiers, it is reported that he just told one widow, “He knew what he signed up for.” Trump denies saying this. Most Americans don’t believe him.

It’s not clear that this controversy is “the thing” that politically wounds Trump among his docile and subservient Republican colleagues. But if it is, Trump may finally learn the lesson of the story. Unless, of course, he always thought the story was only about the wolf.

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Richard Brautigan

Do you have $10, or whatever that is in your local currency? Buy a copy of this collection of three books by Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America/The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster/In Watermelon Sugar). Published in 1967 and 1968, one is poetry, the other two are prose so lyrical that they might as well be.

The Poetry Foundation offers a lengthy summary of critical views about Brautigan, including:

Certainly Brautigan’s work, perhaps due in part to his association with West Coast youth movements, generated a multitude of critical comment. Robert Novak wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography that “Brautigan is commonly seen as the bridge between the Beat Movement of the 1950s and the youth revolution of the 1960s.” A so-called guru of the sixties counterculture, Brautigan wrote of nature, life, and emotion; his unique imagination provided the unusual settings for his themes. Critics frequently compared his work to that of such writers as Thoreau, Hemingway, Barthelme, and Twain.

If you’re one who doesn’t need to hear what others think, just try these books. But you might want to know how the Brautigan story ends:

Brautigan’s critical and commercial success peaked with Trout Fishing in America and began to decline following the 1971 publication of The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. Brautigan’s close friend novelist Tom McGuane succinctly summarized the collapse of Brautigan’s career with the observation that “when the 1960’s ended, he was the baby thrown out with the bath water.” Brautigan continued writing throughout the 1970’s, producing such books as Sombrero Fallout and Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942, but friends of the author reported he had grown increasingly withdrawn and depressed over his fading career. He apparently committed suicide in September of 1984, but his body was not discovered until October 25th of that year.

There’s a kind of serious creative playfulness that is gravity and yet is anti-gravity. This is that.


The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
Part 1

Baudelaire was
driving a Model A
across Galilee.
He picked up a
hitch-hiker named
Jesus who had
been standing among
a school of fish,
feeding them
pieces of bread.
“Where are you
going?” asked
Jesus, getting
into the front
seat.
“Anywhere, anywhere
out of this world!”
shouted
Baudelaire.
“I’ll go with you
as far as
Golgotha,”
said Jesus.
“I have a
concession
at the carnival
there, and I
must not be
late.”

The American Hotel
Part 2

Baudelaire was sitting
in a doorway with a wino
on San Francisco’s skidrow.
The wino was a million
years old and could remember
dinosaurs.
Baudelaire and the wino
were drinking Petri Muscatel.
“One must always be drunk,”
said Baudelaire.
“I live in the American Hotel,”
said the wino. “And I can
remember dinosaurs.”
“Be you drunken ceaselessly,”
said Baudelaire.

1939
Part 3

Baudelaire used to come
to our house and watch
me grind coffee.
That was in 1939
and we lived in the slums
of Tacoma.
My mother would put
the coffee beans in the grinder.
I was a child
and would turn the handle,
pretending that it was
a hurdy-gurdy,
and Baudelaire would pretend
that he was a monkey,
hopping up and down
and holding out
a tin cup.

The Flowerburgers
Part 4

Baudelaire opened
up a hamburger stand
in San Francisco,
but he put flowers
between the buns.
People would come in
and say, “Give me a
hamburger with plenty
of onions on it.”
Baudelaire would give
them a flowerburger
instead and the people
would say, “What kind
of a hamburger stand
is this?”

The Hour of Eternity
Part 5

“The Chinese
read the time
in the eyes
of cats,”
said Baudelaire
and went into
a jewelry store
on Market Street.
He came out
a few moments
later carrying
a twenty-one
jewel Siamese
cat that he
wore on the
end of a
golden chain.

Salvador Dali
Part 6

“Are you
or aren’t you
going to eat
your soup,
you bloody old
cloud merchant?”
Jeanne Duval
shouted,
hitting Baudelaire
on the back
as he sat
daydreaming
out the window.
Baudelaire was
startled.
Then he laughed
like hell,
waving his spoon
in the air
like a wand
changing the room
into a painting
by Salvador
Dali, changing
the room
into a painting
by Van Gogh.

A Baseball Game
Part 7

Baudelaire went
to a baseball game
and bought a hot dog
and lit up a pipe
of opium.
The New York Yankees
were playing
the Detroit Tigers.
In the fourth inning
an angel committed
suicide by jumping
off a low cloud.
The angel landed
on second base,
causing the
whole infield
to crack like
a huge mirror.
The game was
called on
account of
fear.

I read the news today, oh boy

I get the news I need from the weather report.
Paul Simon, The Only Living Boy in New York.

When my dearest wakes up, she sometimes asks, “Has he broken the world yet?”

Most mornings, I can’t answer. Because most mornings, I avoid the news as long as possible. Not just because it is likely to include some outrageous, if not globally existential, story. Because it is not an improvement on the new day that has begun, with possibilities admittedly ranging from the excellent to the challenging. Sunny, cloudy, stormy.

Sometime after the preliminaries, the news will creep in or barge in. Some of it will matter, some of it will be an invitation to silly diversion or to demonstrate shallow or deep cleverness, including schemes to make things better.

Boker or. Morning of light. Again.

Random Torah: The Continuing Conjunction in Leviticus 9

Today’s Random Torah chapter (Leviticus 9) is helpful for bible students, students of translation, all writers and all lovers of language. All you need to look at is the very first verse.

In Hebrew the first verse is:

וַֽיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א משֶׁ֔ה לְאַֽהֲרֹ֖ן

(Vayehi bayom hash’mini kara moshe l’aharon)

Two reputable translations render it this way:

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons (New Jewish Publication Society)

On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons (New Revised Standard Version)

But Robert Alter and a number of traditional translations (including the King James) show that something is lost in translation:

And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron (King James)

Or as Alter has it:

And it happened, on the eighth day, that Moses called to Aaron (Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

Alter notes:

And it happened. This formula (wayehi) is characteristically used to mark the beginning of a unit of narrative.

It is hard to know why so many translations leave this out and jump right into the story (“On the eighth day”). But this omission is more significant than it seems.

Beginning writers are often taught never to start a sentence with a conjunction. Like many rigid rules of writing, it can rob creativity and meaning.

“And” in this verse is what might be called a continuing conjunction. If you are a fan of TV series, you get this. Episodes begin with a “previously on” prologue, followed by the implicit “and now this.” Everything that happened before is still present, and now this is happening.

It’s true that as a writer I have a tendency (sometimes edited out when excessive) to start sentences with conjunctions. And I do recognize the habit. But if it’s good enough for Leviticus, it should be good enough for you or me.

Rosanne Cash: Country Musicians, Stand Up to the N.R.A.

The wonderful and gifted musician Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, wrote an eloquent and stirring piece in the New York Times, Country Musicians, Stand Up to the N.R.A.  It is addressed to her fellow country artists. In part:

For the past few decades, the National Rifle Association has increasingly nurtured an alliance with country music artists and their fans. You can see it in “N.R.A. Country,” which promotes the artists who support the philosophical, if not economic, thrall of the N.R.A., with the pernicious tag line “Celebrate the Lifestyle.”

That wholesome public relations veneer masks something deeply sinister and profoundly destructive. There is no other way to say this: The N.R.A. funds domestic terrorism…

A shadow government exists in the world of gun sales, and the people who write gun regulations are the very people who profit from gun sales. The N.R.A. would like to keep it that way.

The stakes are too high to not disavow collusion with the N.R.A. Pull apart the threads of patriotism and lax gun laws that it has so subtly and maliciously intertwined. They are not the same.

I know you’ll be bullied for speaking out. This is how they operate. Not everyone will like you for taking a stand. Let it roll off your back. Some people may burn your records or ask for refunds for tickets to your concerts. Whatever. Find the strength of moral conviction, even if it comes with a price tag, which it will. Don’t let them bully you into silence. That’s where their power lies — in the silence of rational voices and in the apathy of those who can speak truth to power.

In case you don’t visit the NRA Country site, here are the citizens of NRA Country that Rosanne Cash is talking to.

Mysteries of Las Vegas

So many questions. Who is this man? Why did he do it? Who are the victims? Why them? Who are the loved ones who suffer? Who are the heroes who made things better and kept it from being worse? How can we lessen the chance of this happening again?

These and related questions are part of the media coverage and part of our own thinking about this tragedy.

But even if we answer every one of the questions to our satisfaction—which is unlikely—there will still be an ineffable mystery that goes beyond not having an answer. There is something about this for which we don’t have and can’t form a question.

In a time when so many are willing to tell you the answers, and when some of the more insightful are willing to first ask better questions, there are still some things that have neither questions nor answers. And in that standing mute and mindless in the face of mystery is a rare moment.

The Day After Yom Kippur

So the day of self-reflection and modest (or dramatic) aspiration on Yom Kippur is over. The break-the-fast meal has been gladly eaten. You go to sleep and wake up.

Who are you today, the day after?

It is like an amplified New Year. On the civil and secular calendar, the New Year arrives, a big or small celebration, and some people make resolutions. Yom Kippur is the culmination of ten days of New Year, more if you add the preparatory contemplation of Selichot, and instead of a party is a deep dive. Not a cruise ship with entertainment floating on the surface of the ocean, but an exploration—maybe reluctant exploration—below into the dark places.

Having thought about better and worse, will you be better? Is it possible, is it bearable, is it advisable, for every day to be Yom Kippur?