Quoth the Pepper…

It is nothing but coincidence that today is an election day in this country and the subject of this essay is lies… I think.


Bogus quotes are everywhere to be found on the Internet. For some strange reason, people will find a saying they like, but, when repeating it, attribute it to someone different than the person who actually said or wrote it — someone like Albert Einstein or Marilyn Monroe, just to name a couple of more popular attribution magnets. The psychology of what drives people to do this (originally) is fascinating.

There is also the phenomenon of people changing actual quotes into something they think reads better, continuing to attribute their (sometimes vastly) different words to the original inspirer.

Many writers make no effort to discover whether or not any quote they read (and then re-quote) is genuine. I think this says more about the ability words have to convince us than any thoughts about a particular political leader or movement might do. We read it somewhere, so, it must be true.

I have found, over the years, that people never said things I had long thought they said: false quotes are both pervasive and pernicious. Reflecting on it, I found myself asking, “How do I make sure, when using quotes, that they are genuine?”

There are any number of articles on the subject of phony quotes; most of them refer you to sites who check the validity of quotes. However, I decided on a different method for me, which can be summarized in one sentence:

“Never use a quote that you didn’t directly read from the original source.”

I’ll give an example of the first time I employed this principle. I had frequently encountered the following saying, attributed to Charles Dickens:

“A loving heart is the truest wisdom.”

The suspicious thing about this quote is, I’d never seen it in any of Dickens’ works, and I was pretty sure I had read them all. When the exact work a quote comes from is never mentioned, it’s a tell — there’s probably something wrong with the quote.

I couldn’t find the quote, as written, in any of Dickens’ works, using the fact I have them in searchable form to my advantage. However, the following passage, from Chapter 9 of David Copperfield, comes close:

“Daybreak had come, and the sun was rising, when she said to me, how kind and considerate Mr. Copperfield had always been to her, and how he had borne with her, and told her, when she doubted herself, that a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom, and that he was a happy man in hers.”

Excerpt From: Charles Dickens. “David Copperfield.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/tnoDw.l

This is in a passage where David is learning of the death of his mother, and the words are in the mouth of David’s even earlier deceased father, as repeated by his mother, then repeated to him by his nurse.

At any rate, it seems evident Dickens didn’t say the words attributed to him as they are normally stated.

Printing that here will stop exactly no one from using the quote, and continuing to attribute it to Dickens.


Let me contrast that last quote with one that I do remember reading in it’s original context, namely, this famous quote from the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Excerpt From: George Santayana. “The Life of Reason.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/NyuDw.l

What is interesting about this quote is how it’s used or commonly understood. It’s typically thought to mean that people must study history, or they will inevitably repeat the mistakes their historical predecessors made. However, here is the quote, in context, in a section labeled “Continuity necessary to progress.”:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience.”

Excerpt From: George Santayana. “The Life of Reason.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/NyuDw.l

In other words, Santayana is talking about the development of human beings, and how their improvement or progress involves the balance of being able to remember what has happened to them before and taking in new experiences to compare with.

Note also that the quote is often slightly misquoted, with the most common distortion introducing the word “history” into the (mis)quote:

“Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

Which alters the original quote to better fit the misinterpreted meaning.

(To be fair, Santayana is an unusually poetic writer for a philosopher, and his works are full of sentences and phrases which suggest much beyond the actual argument being advanced.)


People will lie when it suits them, and yes, you can quote me on that.

People love to join in a chorus when the music sounds good, and don’t bother to ascertain whether or not the words they are singing make any sense or are rooted in any kind of truth: the music itself is all the truth they need. They don’t stop at falsely attributing single sentences, they make up whole speeches or stories and place them into the mouths (or pens) of people who never spoke or wrote them, the logic being – and it seems faultless, given human psychology – the more audacious the lie is, the more likely people are to believe it.

If you see a quote with an attribution that strikes you, you might do the first thing many other people do, which is, search the Internet for the quote. The bogus Dickens quote, mentioned earlier, returns 33,000 citations, according to the Googles. That’s 33,000 reinforcements that he must have said it, in our minds, not 33,000 examples of shoddy research.

If casual lies, like misquotes, so easily seep into our consciousness, imagine how many other lies have done so.


“Another possible way to avoid using false quotes is to use your own thoughts.”

– Me, about ten seconds ago


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

I Heard The Day Song Clearer

I heard the day song clearer than the night.
I heard it o’er the distant autumn hills.
The hope of those who live to see the light;
Whose legs may tire, but whose steadfast wills

The day will live to see, the stream to ford.
The once held-down – the women and the men —
I heard the day song clearer than before:
For once awake, we shall not sleep
Again

Heraldic Greek

The day is a herald, announcing something, but I’m afraid I don’t speak Dayish. It was offered, back when I was in school, but I chose to take German instead. So, the day can talk as much as it wants, I’m not going to understand it – I will just have to figure it out as I go along.

There are other, not-exactly-formal-languages that I do speak, however. For instance, I speak cat. Cats make sense to me; I seem to make sense to them. I do not, however, speak dog. On a similar note, stars make sense to me; clouds, however, are a mystery. I speak star, I do not speak cloud.

Perhaps you, too, speak languages you were never actually taught. My brother, for instance, speaks water tower: he can tell me a litany of things about a water tower that neither of us has ever seen within moments of first seeing (and his case, hearing) it.

I have friends who speak politics*, for instance; what seems to me incomprehensible makes perfect sense to them. Ditto for my friends who speak car (they can fix them), appliance (they can actually use them), and relationship (they can make sense of them). I don’t speak any of these languages; or, at best, I’m not exactly fluent.

Anyway, my guess is, the day meant to be a herald of more than the coming of strange digressions disguised at blog posts.

If only I’d taken Dayish.

* One of the other Peppers is learning to speak politics – if you haven’t already, you should check out her blog.

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

At Cemetery Ridge

I’m not alone at Cemetery Ridge this morning. There’s a thirty-year-old man here with what appears to be his ten-year-old daughter.

She lays a bouquet of bright yellow roses on a grave. As gray as the morning is, they stand out all the more. The only other color is the girl’s deep red coat.

He puts his hand on her shoulder, as she begins to cry, uncontrollably. He puts his arm all the way around her, as she sinks to her knees, and he follows.

I can’t stare at them anymore, it feels indecent. Instead I wander on from where I was visiting (my father-in-law’s grave) to some of the other friends we’ve lost these last years. One grave, a particular woman who I knew as a singer, is over where the trees grow thorny and wild. The gray and desolate morning only makes the trees look wilder.

This cemetery has a name, of course, but for as long as I can remember, people have called it “Cemetery Ridge”. This hill slopes down on the other side of the trees, and I can see the gray town in the distance. I visit this grave, and then two others, finally heading back to my car.

In the parking lot, I see the man and his daughter approaching their car. To my surprise, there is a woman wearing sunglasses waiting for them within it. I had assumed from what I saw that the man had lost his wife and the girl her mother; but, apparently not, as the woman has obviously been crying in the car. She’s holding a sort of shapeless stuffed animal.

Oh my God, she lost a child. The little girl lost a sibling: a sister, maybe, or a brother.

Now, my eyes are filling with tears. At that exact moment, just as the man finishes helping his daughter into the car and the arms of her mother, he turns and sees me, tears streaming down my face; and I could tell, in that brief moment, that he was concerned about me, and whatever grief might have brought me to this place.

His grief was my grief. My grief was his grief.

They leave within moments, driving slowly away. I stand by my car as a gray wind blows across the ridge, moving the leafless trees.

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

A Time for Learning

The moment she stepped on campus, she told me, she felt like she was, for the first time in her life, at the right place at the right time.

This was where she belonged.

She could never be casual or contemptuous about this place, like the rich kids; nor treat classes as perfunctory, like so many others. This was it, this was learning, this was knowledge — this was the world she’d dreamed about since she was a little girl. And she wasn’t going to waste a moment of it.

Like all long-lasting institutions, colleges and universities mean widely different things to different people. To some, they are places of intense and wild socializing; to others, they are best known for the pageantry of sports and graduations; to still others, they are weigh stations between the servitude of living at home and the inevitable drudgery of a career. To her, though, this was a time for learning, and that was enough. Classes, professors, the library — this was what the university was, and she had only the vaguest awareness of things like sororities, sports, or, for that matter, eventual career concerns.

I went to an entirely different school, and was visiting a friend when we met in her school’s library. I was on a George Eliot kick, reading that library’s copy of “Scenes from Clerical Life”. She happened to sit at the table next to me to look through a copy of “Middlemarch”.

How could we not speak? Two people reading books by the same Victorian author, in the same place, at the same time, when neither was required to for any class was an event rare enough to merit comment, even among the shy — which she certainly was. But speak we did, and the conversation ended up lasting hours, and involved us leaving the library to drink coffee at a place she suggested.

It was a dark and wet fall evening as we approached her dormitory, and I had no thoughts of anything like kissing her before she stopped, put one hand on my shoulder, and looked me straight in the eyes.

I knew the signal.

 


 

Her school was only 45 minutes away from mine, but it seemed like an ocean. We were both over-carrying classes at that time; in addition, I was working three nights a week. I gave what I had to give, but, with her, it was like she had stored up a lifetime of passion and was letting it all loose on me, in those rare moments we could speak on the phone, or, maybe once a month, see each other. The moments were rare, as I said, but I was loving every minute of the ones we got.

It’s strange, looking back, how much of our time revolved around discussing literature. Neither of us had a lot of friends near us at that point in our lives, so, along with doing the things couples do, we talked, endlessly, about our other passions. On the few weekends we’d find, we’d spend virtually the entire time in the library or in my car, as I was not allowed in the dorm. And then, I would go back to my school, and it would be a long, long time until we’d see each other again.

The change (in us) probably happened gradually, but back then it seemed sudden. One day, when I had a chance to call, I didn’t; another day, when I did call and she had time to talk, she didn’t want to. Being the guy I was at that age, I thought maybe she’d met someone else, or an old love had returned to take her attention. That last part turned out to be true.

That old love was learning. We’d had our fling.

 


 

I had already graduated and moved away to start working when I got a graduation invitation from her. She had sent it to my parents’ house. I decided to go. When I had answered her note (giving her my actual address) she had let me know by return mail that she would meet me after the ceremony in front of the library.

How appropriate.

It was a warm day in late spring as I drove on to the familiar campus. Signs pointed visitors towards the graduation hall. I sat down amid the many family onlookers, not knowing where she might be when the graduates came in, but there she was in the program, Summa Cum Laude in the College of Humanities.

When the graduates did come in, I spotted her easily.

The guest speaker at her graduation was a former United Nations ambassador who said that the time for learning would never truly end, but that, after graduation, a new time, one for action, would begin. There was music, and there were student speakers, and there was the slightest hint of lilac blossoms in the air.

I walked next door to the library after the ceremony, and waited. I figured she would need some time with her family first, but, to my surprise, she came out almost immediately. She smiled when she saw me, and I couldn’t help but smile back.

I congratulated her on her accomplishments. She told me that she was staying on, with a full teaching assistantship, and the path was charted for her to get both her her Masters and her Doctorate.

Her family hadn’t come to graduation; they really didn’t see a need to spend the money for the trip, especially since she wasn’t coming home after. I realized that, on that occasion, I was her surrogate family; possibly because none of them understood what that place meant to her, and I had at least come close.

We spoke awhile about what we’d each been reading and various nothings. When I asked her, after a time, if she didn’t need to get back to her friends, she said that she probably did, so she thanked me for coming, and said goodbye. I watched her walk back into the crowd, the sun setting over the graduation hall.

A young couple walked past me, hand in hand, laughing.

The time for learning truly never ends.

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

How Well We Know The Storm

What was becomes what isn’t, in an instant. Like sand castles we labor over as children, the waves come, eventually, and wash everything away.

We learn this young and throughout our lives, bitterly: from the broken toy that no one can repair, to the ice cream cone dropped on a summer sidewalk, and, eventually, to the fractured friendship that can’t be mended, the marriage that shatters, the life’s dreams that pass, and the loves we lose to death. Oh, how well we know the storm; oh, how much we come to fear each fresh approaching.

We have all known loss, but each new one is a surprise. We seem to be wired that way.

I’m sitting out on the beach this morning getting a head start on the weekend as I type these words, and a storm is fast approaching. Years ago, I sat out here with a girl I was dating; we watched the storm roll in, let the rainfall drench us to our skins, went back to my apartment, shed our wet clothes, and tried with all our might to shut out the more metaphorical storm our relationship was engulfed in.  It did not work.

We were over within weeks. All we both gave didn’t add up to anything that either of us really had.

 


 

You may not be aware of this — it’s been sort of buried in the news — but there is a presidential election about to be held in the United States. A few days ago, back home, I sat in an assembly, listening to a speaker from Washington D.C. make the least controversial prediction I’ve heard in this election cycle — namely, that someone unpopular was going to win.

There have been more words written on this election than on any other subject in recent memory; I have nothing to add to any commentary you have already read on the relative merits of any of the candidates. I have my own opinions, of course, based on the most reliable and complete information I can get as to what the state of the world actually is. In practice, people disagree on goals and priorities; on what has worked or will work; and even on what we might call “facts”. Politically motivated people have a tendency to present their particular facts in ways that omit any inconvenient other facts that might dissuade you from supporting their goals.

I too am human, as we all are — mostly — and I make choices as to who seems most trustworthy based on what I know and have seen personally. It’s a system that has inherent limits, of course, but I’d rather form my own opinions than buy them, no matter how many opinion wholesalers there might be on any given corner.
 


 

You may wonder what the two sections above have to do with each other: the first, a quasi-poetic reflection on the transience of life; the second, a brief commentary on contemporary political discussions. I discuss both here because, I’ve noticed the strange way we vacillate between awareness of our human limitations and acting as though we have none, depending on the type of discussion being held. Just yesterday, I heard two coworkers discussing the election, each holding wildly opposite positions on the truth about the two main candidates; within minutes, they were discussing instead the chili cook-off that had been held out in the park at lunchtime, and how subjective cooking contests really were – a point about which they were in complete agreement.

In politics, they each knew everything (although opposite things), on prosaic matters, they agreed that there might not be such a thing as knowledge.

 


 

Unlike my younger days, I’m not going to stay out here on the beach until the rain gets me (or my laptop) wet. How well I know the storm, indeed: it rains on the just and the unjust, as the book says – we will all feel it sooner or later.

All I can do, for now, is push it off a little later.

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.