Emily Dickinson Once Beat Me At Arm Wrestling

Well, it’s true. Her name was Emily Susan Dickinson, and we were both in third grade Day Camp in Shalimar, Florida. Last I heard, her name was Emily Susan Lanham, and she had left the country. There was little left to accomplish, I guess.

Still, remembering getting my keister handed to me by a sickly 19th century poet got me thinking about another famous literary character of that century, Jane Austen.

Jane Austen, wishing someone would hurry up and invent the camera phone.

The name of my sister blog, “No Talent for Certainty”, comes from Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (the line does not appear in the novel). One of the old taglines of that blog was, “Varnish and gilding hide many stains,” which is from the original novel.

Clearly, I’m something of a fan. Why?

It is a question I can only answer by recording a conversation I had once about my predilection for steak:

“You seem to love filet mignon. Why?”

“Because its GOOD.”

I know many people don’t like steak, and some people don’t like Jane Austen. All I can say to that is, there is nothing more needed to disprove once and for all the ancient Persian theory that we are all really the same person.

About to dig into some more Jane Austen.

Those of us who love Jane Austen love her for all kinds of reasons. The main ones for me are that her stories are timeless, her characters are interesting, and her writing is exquisite. In addition, she has a unique voice; nothing else is quite like her.

The world of Jane Austen fandom has some true fanatics: these are the so-called “Janeites”. These are people who do quite a bit more than post a few reviews on blogs and reread the novels every few years. These are the literary version of cosplayers, specializing in the reenacting of the various dance scenes from Pride and Prejudice and the wearing of Regency gowns.

Which brings to mind a big stereotype: that only women like Jane Austen. My mother thought that way at one time: when I asked her what these books were (her complete Jane Austen set) she said, “These? These are probably my favorite books. But you wouldn’t like them. They’re more for girls.”

(When I repeated this story to her a couple years ago, she laughed. “That was an idiotic thing to say,” she said. “Well I was only twelve, and it was 1974,” I said.)

I also think that Jane Austen – like Emily Dickinson – is a sort of patron saint for struggling writers. Not terribly well-known in her day, she’s gone on to be seen as one of the titans of literature, influencing tens of thousands of authors and millions of readers around the world. Her stories are still read every day: the characters she created are still very much alive.

So maybe I should have arm wrestled one of them, instead.

Rants: “Well, Bully For You”

Years ago, I noticed that while everyone remembers encountering a bully in their life, almost no one remembers being one.  Something about the math there doesn’t quite work.

I mean, if you think about it, the odds seem pretty long that hundreds of millions of people in this country could have all been bullied by say, twenty people. Just getting around to everybody, for even the most dedicated team of bullies, would be exhausting, and bullies aren’t typically known for their blue collar work ethic.

No, it seems more likely that the number of bullies is pretty close to the number of people bullied. Maybe not quite as many, but — close. Certainly closer than “none”, which is the number of people who seem willing to admit to it.

If one were to admit to having treated people cruelly in one’s life, the appropriate response would be shame at the memory of having done so. Shame has gotten a bad name these days, but when it’s needed, nothing else will do quite as well.

Kids, particularly when they are with their friends, don’t need to be taught how to bully; it kind of comes natural. Feeling shame is usually sign of coming out of that. If you meet an adult – say in a dating relationship – who has never known what it is to feel shame, chances are, they’re still a bully.

Remember this: a person who has never felt shame is saying they have been perfectly justified in every single action that they’ve ever taken. If you are thinking about marrying a person like that — a person who never apologizes, that is — you may want to think again. “No shame” = “Most likely still a bully” in my book.

Countless words are written every day trying to understand or explain the wellsprings of human cruelty. Given cruelty’s prevalence, however, it is more possibly the occasional human kindness that needs explaining. However, one needn’t look far for what causes bullying: look into yourself, and think of times you just had no use for certain people you’ve come into contact with. You may have been a kid of any age, or a college student, or, it might be at work, or anywhere else.

When it’s “us” that needs to get better, we may; but when it is always “them” who need to change, nothing ever does.

Rants: “Contests”


Human beings make everything into a contest. Absolutely everything.

I’m watching a fabulous pianist on YouTube. The video is great. The comments below the video, however, are about everything wrong with the performance, and why such-and-such other performer is better — as though it is some kind of contest. (Or that there is one objective interpretation of a work of art which is definitively the “best”.)

Poetry slams are another example. Because the purpose of writing poetry is to win, apparently.

Dance battles. Lip sync contests. America’s Got Talent. Eurovision. Because whoever more people vote for must be better. Even if the singer you liked best was eliminated early. Because popularity is what it’s all about, right? That’s winning, right?

People in marriages refuse to see counselors because the counselor might “side with their wife (husband)”. Because the purpose of counseling isn’t to get insight that would aid a marriage, the purpose of counseling is to support the purpose of marriage, which is, seemingly, to win. Whatever that means, given that it isn’t a contest, there are no rules, and no one cares anyway, because trying to win arguments, most of the time, is just stupid.

In fact, the people most likely to “keep score” in a relationship are typically using criteria no one agreed to and, what’s more, they aren’t really in a position to be objective in keeping score. We all know this, but we don’t care, because — we’re trying to win some kind of contest, one where we’re more right than the other person. Because that matters to us for some reason.

In politics, people consider their side to be right by definition on every issue, and then indulge in meaningless faux arguments online, typically with no one, as people don’t really brook interaction with others who disagree with them. Or, if they do, they do so in an argumentative and abusive way that convinces absolutely no one except themselves. Look at me… I won that argument. That other person just got served.

Except, they didn’t, because they don’t care what you think. Or, better yet, they can tell by your self-serving behavior that you don’t think — not that they necessarily do (actually think), either.

I understand that competitiveness is part of human nature, and that a whole range of activities have developed to cater to it, from games and sports to spelling bees and karaoke contests. It’s the turning of things that are not contests into contests that bothers me. Marriage is not a contest. Friendships are not contests. Of course, arguably, things like spelling aren’t really contests either, unless we make one.

Life is not a contest, where we “win” by appearing to be better than our neighbors. It’s more like a meal we all enjoy more when we share and pass things to each other.

Oh, who am I kidding. If life were a meal, people would claim they make it better back in their hometown.

Highways, Highways

The many hills, the turning miles,
Complaisance in the summer sun;
A hundred tears plus twice the smiles,
The everything, the anyone

The streets of friends and would-be friends,
The cul-de-sacs of turns gone wrong,
The highways, highways everywhere
That lead us far and keep us long

I see your face in truth-filled dreams,
The warmth and light you give, my friend,
As highways, highways, bring us back
And to each other’s side again …

I know the route. Turn off the highway onto Broad Street. Follow that out of town to the county road. Turn off of that onto a street with no sign, but a red barn, and from there onto a dirt road that leads here.

I first came here for a wedding rehearsal more than thirty-three years ago. I was twenty-two, and the wedding was of two friends: one new, one I’d known since childhood. For the first time in my (then young) life, I had not been asked to provide music; instead, I was in the groom’s party. I had come to know the bride-to-be in the previous year, and I loved her in the same way I loved my old friend — without thought, really, because love was like breathing in those days. I just did it.

The wedding the next day was very beautiful. Later in the day, as we watched the newly married couple depart under a beautiful country sky, I took in the scenery, breathed in the air, and thought  — remember this. This day, these feelings. Remember this joy.

Twenty years later, I remember driving to this same church under very different circumstances. Her brother had been murdered.

She had two brothers I had known for years; one very refined, one very much a quiet country type. It was the second one who had died; he was involved in recreational drugs, and a fellow user killed him in his own home, the little trailer around the way.

The church was filled with mourners at the funeral; her parents, her other brother and his wife and child, and a large group of cousins were among the large family there in front. I was with a group of her husband’s old friends, all of whom had attended their wedding decades before, most of whom stayed an extra day or so.

Death is the great dividing line, and it often divides even the survivors, if they allow it. We clung together then in support of our friends, knowing we could not possibly really understand the insupportable weight of their grief.

With maturity comes the illusion of human control; but life teaches us otherwise, and the one thing left we can control – love – is the only recourse we have worth pursuing.

About five years after that, I drove up here again, this time for no reason at all. (We live about ninety minutes away.) It was a Saturday during the fall, and I had taken a series of roads I’d never been on; when I realized I was nearby, I drove the familiar route out to this church.

I got out of my car and could hear the University of Georgia football broadcast coming from a radio nearby. It was a cool autumn day, and Georgia was winning, I believe. I could hear voices of people listening to the game.

On a whim, I drove over to my friends’ house, but they weren’t home. I left them a note I wrote on an envelope from my car’s glove compartment, telling them I’d stopped by and hoped they were well, then left to do more wandering. She called me about two hours later, and we caught up for a while, they I talked to him for another thirty minutes or so while I was driving. They both had started new jobs, and were planning an annual summer party they wanted us to come to next year.

The fourth year of their summer party was last year, but there were more no-shows than attendees; one couple from central Florida made it, and I made it, but no one else showed. One couple had even called them from the road, then inexplicably changed their destination.

Who even death cannot divide, time often can.

Three days ago, I read on Facebook that her mother had passed away. The funeral was to be on Wednesday, so I scheduled time off work to go. I left work and made the familiar drive up here, following the route I’ve come to know so well.

I am the only one of the old friends here, but then I’m the only one who lives close by.  I provide whatever solace I can through the act of showing up. I murmur words of sorrow, we hug each other, and I walk outside the ancient country church, blinking at the light and through tears, wishing I had answers I’ll never have, and that no one ever has, because they are beyond us.

We all get tired, and one day, we lay our heads down to rest, and don’t get up again. Love and life go on, but without the once-living and once-loving.

… There’s sorrow that’s beyond beyond
We walk within it every day;
The bliss of ignorance is this –
We don’t see things turn out this way

But love still travels where it can,
And does its best to do its part —
The highways, highways of the soul
The dirt roads of a broken heart

We now know battles will be lost,
And yet we all must do our best —
To love while we have love to give
Until, at last, we take our rest

The clouds above go sweeping by,
The trees stand silent on the way;
The church stands sleeping in the sun,
While living folks go on
About their day

Anxiety and Creativity

[Note: throughout this piece, I use the term ‘anxiety’ in its original, and not its psychiatric, sense. – Owen]

“Creativity begins with limitations; anxiety begins without them.”

– Me, about ten seconds ago


you’re so like her
in exactly
no ways at all —

I’ve been working in a poetic form that consists of a four-syllable title, then 3 lines of four syllables each. I call the form “444” because I’m original like that. If asked “why not 4444,” it is because the title is frequently (but not always) a repeat of one of the lines of the poem.

The main point is, I am artificially constraining myself by form before even starting on the actual words of each poem.

If I begin writing with an infinitude of possibilities, I have a hard time beginning, so I set arbitrary limits in order to constrain possibilities and limit anxiety. Nothing fosters anxiety quite like having infinite possibilities. This can be seen virtually everywhere in modern life: anxiety has grown as possibilities have multiplied, and our decision-making apparatus is overwhelmed by having to evaluate more than it was designed for.

Take, as an example, listening to music. One can (assuming access to the Internet, which is, indeed, an assumption) listen to almost anything one has ever liked to listen to. This makes choosing rather difficult, as an environment lacking constraints is not where our choosing mechanism is optimized to work. Most people I know don’t just like music, they love it, and the amount of music they love is very great. From the early days of MP3 players, shuffling and randomizing functions became crucial, as it removed the paralyzing influence of having too many choices, and returned things to more of random state — something like radio was, although it is best to remember that radio was a relatively short-lived technological phase. The fastest growing music services are the ones that choose for you, once some “seed idea” is given to it, or that decides based on what you last listened to. We’re happier not having to choose.

For most of history, you typically only heard the music that either you could make, or that people you had access to could make. That kind of limitation is largely gone today. I learned to play the piano to some degree because it allowed me to hear music I could not hear otherwise; I never enjoyed being a performer. Hearing solo instrumentalists has become more of a rarity during my lifetime, as the need (i.e., demand) for them has become considerably less. Many churches, for example, have abandoned single instrument players (pianos and organs) for the sounds their congregants are more accustomed to, namely, bands of players.

It is viewed as a truism to assume that whatever we like, we need more of, and that whatever we like best should be available in infinite supply. I don’t see any way around this tendency, as setting limits on what is enough or too much for people seems beyond the wisdom of any person or group of people. However, given the proliferation of anxiety-ridden people in the modern world, we may need to learn new coping mechanisms.

“Discipline of mind” is the solution most frequently offered; however, it does not work for many of us.

In examining my own life (I’m 55 years old) I find the following oddities about the past versus the present:

  • When I had fewer choices, I read more, and better.
  • When listening choices were more scarce, I enjoyed music more.
  • When they were harder to come by, I enjoyed personal interactions more.

Because each of these things is (to some degree) available without having to make an effort to get them, another part of our innate choosing mechanism is removed, that of what we like well enough to work for.

There’s a big difference between who you’ll be friends with and who you are willing to make an effort to be friends with; if we expend no effort, do we really have friends? If they expend none, are they really friends with us? Perhaps not and perhaps so; however, there is no denying that part of our evaluating mechanism has been undercut, which increases anxiety.

I have been writing, over the last two years, a series of “poems” I call “sketches” purporting to be conversations between my wife and me. These are characterized by four elements, three of which were random choices I made in order to facilitate writing them:

  1. They are always based on actual conversations we have had.
  2. I changed my wife’s profession to that of painter within them. In real life, she is a Christian minister.
  3. “My wife” in these pieces is childless by choice; in real life we have five children between us (albeit none together) and two (with another on the way) grandchildren.
  4. I (almost) always use the model whose picture I have affixed here. My wife looks absolutely nothing like her. I’ve even made a running joke out of the wife in the poems commenting on how this model looks nothing like her.

The last three things are entirely arbitrary, but the constraints they set actually aid the writing process. These pieces are never about our kids, because that’s off the table; that makes them about us. I’m limited to conversations for which I can find a corresponding picture, so everything we talk about is not right for this form. I made her a painter because there was a series of pictures of this model as a painter; however, that allows conversations we have about her career to be seen in a different light. And so on.

I realize that what works for me might not work for any given person reading this, but the principle of using boundaries to aid in creativity and limit the inherent anxiety in the creative process may have some value; at least, that is my hope.


without limits,
so much to choose:
can’t really start

The Train Tracks of My Mind

I often write essays that seem to be one, two, or three sentences long. I use Twitter and Facebook to post them, many times, but here, I thought I’d collect some unused ones that are vaguely related thematically. – Owen

The cycle is perpetuated when you believe you must give in to hatred in order to defeat hatred.

Many philosophies exist simply to justify what people already felt like doing.

It’s hard to forgive people for not being the people we imagined they were. They often had no way of knowing this, of course, but that doesn’t stop us.

When I was twenty, a good friend of mine and her much older husband had their first child. Seeing her with the child, I wrote one of my first songs, the lyrics of which were:

Day is done
And you can’t know
My lovely one
How I live for you
The heart is true
And it’s in your smile
I’ll rest awhile
And sing my love for you

Dream away
At the closing
Of the day
And it’s hard to say
It’s hard to say
Why we spin our lies
And waste our lives
And hopes and dreams away

Treasure find,
Angel mine,
Be my world
Golden girl
Close your eyes
And sleep

Treasure find,
Angel mine,
Be my world
Golden girl
Close your eyes
And sleep

Treasure find,
Angel mine,
Best I’ve found
Love come down
Close your eyes
And sleep

I think I can sit down and remember this song all these years later – well enough to play and sing it – because I still remember how I felt seeing her with her baby. “Her baby” has children of her own, now, by the way.

Me, at sixteen: For all girls talk about how they want a guy with a ‘sense of humor’, they really mostly like guys with good bodies, good hair, and good teeth.

Met at fifty-four: I was right

My father used to talk about a subject even after you thought he was done. My ex-wife would try to interject herself after ten minutes or so, at the first sign of anything like silence, but he would start up again. She asked me about it later.

“The train tracks of my father’s mind don’t really have stations. That train doesn’t ever really stop.”

He’s been dead now for eleven years, and I realize: I’m pretty much just like him.

And it’s the same train, in a way.

Tomorrow and Today

“You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”

– reputed Navajo Proverb

And aren’t we all — pretending to be asleep, pretending we don’t notice what is going on around us, or even, because of us.

To live is to change, and to refuse change is to give up life. In fact, death being exactly that – the inability to ever change again.

To finally awake, we must cease to pretend we are asleep.