Writing Life: To Keep or Not to Keep

This piece from Quartz is actually talking about journaling or diary writing, a more personal form of expression than writing a blog that is open for public view. But the question is pertinent: to keep or not to keep.

The opinion writer here suggests that diaries are not to be kept, for the simple reason that “very little writing stands the test of time, and that’s fine.” Diary writing has numerous benefits for the individual who writes, but the entries are not necessarily of timeless benefit to the literary world.

Here is one enduring benefit, and it strikes a chord with me in terms of blog writing.  I think blog writing makes me more fluent in the language of both contemplation and observation.

Journaling also offers some of the same benefits as meditation, refining your relationship to the mind. It’s an opportunity to observe thoughts and feelings, watch them arise, and then let them go. Just as a meditator is taught not to judge thinking, but to note its qualities—how thoughts are constant and constantly shifting—a diary writer can become fluent in the language of contemplation.”

There is really no backup on the WordPress system for blog posts, which I’ve been writing since 2009. I could create my own backup, or I could print out the daily posts and enter them in a notebook, keeping what I’ve written in the old fashioned way. But I choose not to. The point of the blog is that I observe and contemplate the world around me, part of a daily spiritual discipline that involves being attentive and grateful for the immense gift of being alive. The point is not so much what I write as THAT I write.

And that you read, of course. That’s the difference between blogging and journaling. Blogging has readers, and journaling has an author who is the singular reader. Blogging is reciprocal and active. Journaling is individual and contemplative.

Your thoughts? Do you write regularly in any form, and do you keep what you’ve written?

The Comey Book

Hard not to think that Trump underestimated the degree to which his sleazy business practices and personal infidelities would come under public scrutiny once he entered politics. As a private business owner, Trump had nearly unlimited payoff money and his fixer, Michael Cohen, to make the deals.

Now, Trump’s sleaze is pouring out into public view, revealed in books like that of James Comey.

Trump can fulminate all he wants. The religious right can profess not to care about Trump’s personal morality, or lack thereof. Republicans in Congress can continue with their devil’s bargain and defend the indefensible.

But the drumbeat continues, and the next elections are in November. The 60% of voters who are not tribal Republicans are watching, and listening, and deciding which man’s story is closer to the truth, Trump or Comey.

Writing Life: Finding my Blog

My late father-in-law, Dr. Max J. Klainer, was a physician in private practice in Stoneham, Mass. Max died of a massive stroke in the early 1980’s.

Yesterday, in the Comments section, I received this note from Richard Holt, who found my blog during a search and wondered if I had more than the same last name in common with Max. Holt’s late mother was a patient, and he wanted to reach out to express his gratitude to someone who might have known Max .

Here’s the Comment, which initially references a post on Dr. Martin Luther King:

Wonderful, wise commentary you provide. Thank you. I am touched, moved and inspired. Bless you.
I found you by searching for Max Klainer, M.D., who was my mother’s doctor,
and shrink, it would seem. A deeply thoughtful, generous man whom my mother loved, and who helped me enormously. I find myself wanting to say thank you to someone who might have known Dr. Klainer, who, I assume, has passed away. Sorry for your loss, of your husband Jeremy.
And sorry to ramble here.”

I sent the comment along to family in Boston and Maine, and to Sara and Matt — Max’s grandkids.

Holt’s impulse to express gratitude for his mother’s care is a lovely thing, and the fact that someone who knew Max could find me after all these years and communicate is part of the marvel of blogging. This is the best of what an interconnected world can make possible.

The next post, about Facebook, references the internet’s darker side.

Hogg v. Ingraham

Score one for the good guys. Conservative pundits like Laura Ingraham and Alex Jones and Ann Coulter pour out venomous criticism and rampant conspiracy theories with seemingly little consequence or accountability. But when Ingraham went after Marjorie Stoneham Douglas student David Hogg, she got it right back — wielded by a young man just as adept, if not more, at using the media. Ingraham made fun of Hogg for not being accepted at all the colleges to which he applied. He in turn called for a boycott of her advertisers, and got several of them to announce they were withdrawing their advertising dollars from her Fox news show.  Ingraham blinked first, offering a tepid apology for her slimy remarks.

You notice that Trump has been picking his battles, and not going after the Parkland school shooting survivors. I hope that if he does, Hogg and the others send a blowback pitch in his direction too.

It seems as if the adults who are trying to set limits on Trump could learn something from David Hogg.

NY Times Obits: Retroactively Honoring Women

I don’t usually read the obits. My mother did, frequently calling me with an item from the long running Kearny Observer, the local rag. The conversation would run something like this: “Do you remember Eddie Schlagenhaft? He played with Wendy. His cousin’s mother married somebody who lived near us on Maple Street, and that person had a uncle whose brother is a descendant of someone who served in the Civil War. Anyway, the brother’s third cousin just died and he’s being waked at Eddie Reid’s Funeral Parlor.” “No, Mom.  I don’t remember Eddie Schlagenhaft.” “You have to remember Eddie Schlagenhaft. I knew his mother. They’ve been a Kearny family forever.

If you saw the Oscar nominated film Lady Bird, this conversation is right along the lines of something that might have passed between Lady Bird and her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf.

But I did read that the NY Times is having pangs of conscience about the fact that their obits have mostly covered white men. In this time of honoring women, they have remedied that by writing obits for prominent but overlooked women whose deaths passed unnoticed at the time: Ida B. Wells, Diane Arbus, Qiu Jin, Sylvia Plath, Henrietta Lacks, and many others.

Take a few moments to check out the article. I knew about many of these women, but not all. And I loved being reminded of the courageous lives of people like Ida B. Wells, who deserves to be lifted up and honored by the NY Times and by history in general.


Anderson Cooper in Seattle

Anderson Cooper, who spoke on Sunday night as part of Seattle’s Unique Lives lecture series, filled McCaw Hall on Oscar night. McCaw Hall is the opera venue, and it has a lot of seats. Cooper himself joked that when he realized he was booked to speak during the Oscars, he figured nobody would come. Wrong!

In person Cooper is every bit as engaging, witty, charming and funny as he is on CNN. I really like his nightly news program, and watch both hours every night that I can. He is my go-to guy for political coverage of contemporary events.

He has a really interesting and powerful life story, much of which I knew. His mother is Gloria Vanderbilt of “poor little rich girl” fame. His father died when he was ten, and his brother committed suicide jumping from a ledge in their mother’s New York apartment when Anderson was a senior in college.

Cooper had lots to tell about his life as a journalist, his travel through war zones reporting on conflicts, and the current state of political reporting. What intrigued me most, though, was a personal story. During the Q&A someone in the audience asked which celebrity Cooper might like to invite for dinner. Cooper responded that because of his job, he’s had dinner with tons of celebrities. The person he’d most like to have dinner with is his late father, whose memory exists fleetingly through a book that the older Cooper wrote, through a still existing recorded interview made during the book tour for that publication, Anderson’s own memories, and stories people have told him about his father. Cooper quoted a favorite author, Mary Gordon, who lost her father when she was seven. I know Mary Gordon’s work well, and recognized the quote. It’s this, approximately — I don’t have the citation in front of me: “When you lose a parent, everything is possible and nothing feels safe.” Cooper expanded that to “when you lose a parent and a sibling …”.

I share that experience with Cooper, having lost my father when I was fourteen and my infant sister when I was four. I came across that Mary Gordon quote myself many years ago, and it affected me as deeply as it did Cooper. What it means is that losing a beloved parent when you are a child is the worst thing, so if that can happen, everything else terrible can happen too. “Nothing feels safe” means there is no protective barrier — not religious faith, not other people who might fill in for the lost parent, not your own still less-than-adult-level resilience. Each of us — Cooper, me, Mary Gordon — figures out individually how go on, rebuilding a sense of safety about life and about the world.

For Cooper, that meant throwing himself into as many dangerous reporting situations as possible, and working through. For me, that might have been a good part of the motivation to go into the Peace Corps.

I like watching the Oscars, especially this year when I’d seen most of the Best Picture options and was heavily invested in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations. But I’m glad I went to hear Anderson Cooper. It was important for me to be there.

Writing Life: Evolution of a Writer

I zoomed through Thomas Perry’s eight books created around the Native American heroine Jane Whitefield. Liking the author a lot, I went to a much earlier and shorter series, three books written about the Butcher Boy.

The evolution of Thomas Perry as a writer is fascinating. I can see elements of what became Jane Whitefield in the earlier books: a single, highly skilled expert who prevails over a daunting number of bad guys, someone who is very good at tracking, someone who is good at shape-shifting, or convincingly assuming different identities. There is one big difference: the Butcher Boy is a hired killer. Jane Whitefield helps people disappear when the law has failed them and their lives are in jeopardy.

Early in my career a literary agent told me that with my writing skill, I could churn out a mystery or Gothic romance a month, and make a lot of money that way — all the while taking time to write the stuff I wanted and trying to get it published for a smaller market. I chose not to follow that path, although I appreciated the advice from someone who had a lot of experience knowing what kinds of books sell.

I think at the time I was making a distinction between “serious” writers, and those who found a mass market niche and doubled down on writing for it. Looking at Thomas Perry’s earlier and later work, I’m acknowledging that he’s a serious writer too, albeit a mass market one. His books have character development and tightly woven plots. His writing has evolved with time, gotten better and better. That takes work, and focus, and commitment.

These days my writing is focused primarily on the blog, which is enough of a daily commitment for me. But I haven’t lost my interest in the writing life, in what makes a serious writer — or in what sells. I have no plans to stop writing, and I hope Thomas Perry doesn’t either.

Contemporary Life: LongReads

There are certain journals — Foreign Affairs and the Economist come to mind — that require time and attention and intellectual focus when you turn to an article. The content is long, dense, and requires a more advanced vocabulary, ability to reason, and level of critical thinking skills. The antithesis, I suppose, might be something like People magazine. You might pick up People in a doctor or dentist’s waiting room, because if you get interrupted it hardly matters. You got the gist in the first few sentences. Whatever you read is probably forgotten by the end of your appointment, and it’s nothing you are going to go back to because what you read is, well, little more than gossip.

Judgmental, I know. My apologies to fans and subscribers of People.

We’re all aware of the opioid crisis, at least on some level. We know that too many pills are floating around. We probably know that fentanyl is dangerous and can kill you. We know that opioids come in a medicine bottle, often with a doctor’s prescription, so middle class people can become addicted without feeling like junkies. We may know that opioid addiction seems worse in the Rust Belt, in coal country, in the hollowed out heartland where people in small, once-thriving communities are left with little to do.

But to really understand the opioid crisis, you need to do a long read — something like the journals I described in the first paragraph. New York magazine has just the right piece, by Andrew Sullivan. You can’t read this article quickly. You need to take time. Here’s a sample, to entice you:

“It is tempting to wonder if, in the future, today’s crisis will be seen as generated from the same kind of trauma, this time in reverse.
If industrialization caused an opium epidemic, deindustrialization is no small part of what’s fueling our opioid surge. It’s telling that the drug has not taken off as intensely among all Americans — especially not among the engaged, multiethnic, urban-dwelling, financially successful inhabitants of the coasts. The poppy has instead found a home in those places left behind — towns and small cities that owed their success to a particular industry, whose civic life was built around a factory or a mine. Unlike in Europe, where cities and towns existed long before industrialization, much of America’s heartland has no remaining preindustrial history, given the destruction of Native American societies. The gutting of that industrial backbone — especially as globalization intensified in a country where market forces are least restrained — has been not just an economic fact but a cultural, even spiritual devastation. The pain was exacerbated by the Great Recession and has barely receded in the years since. And to meet that pain, America’s uniquely market-driven health-care system was more than ready.”

Even the quote is long, longer than I usually include.

Take time to read this article. It puts the opioid crisis in a wider context that we all need to know.


Writing Life: Speaking of Gossip…

There’s a new book out about the Bouvier women, entitled Janet, Jackie & Lee. This is a serious biography, more than gossip, but it sounds a little gossipy. Who knew that in the months after Jack’s death, Jackie took a lover, the architect Jack Warnecke, who designed the gravesite memorial at Arlington?

Janet sounds like the mother from hell.

I probably won’t read the book, but I’m aware as I read the NY Times review by Laura Thompson how invested I am in the myth of Jackie Kennedy as “the silent sphynx” rather than as a “woman of passion, sexual and emotional” as portrayed by author J. Randy Taraborrelli.

The review itself is great writing. Marvel at this pithy opening paragraph, by Thompson:

The writer Nancy Mitford, one of six daughters, once said that sisters “stand between one and life’s cruel circumstances.” To which the younger Jessica Mitford replied that sisters were life’s cruel circumstances. By the end of “Jackie, Janet & Lee,” with its riveting exposition of the relationship between the two Bouvier sisters — who became Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Princess Lee Radziwill — one tends to take Jessica’s side.


In order to read a whole book I have to be interested in the content, and alas, the Bouvier women likely don’t make the cut. But I did love the review, because I love reading great prose. You might, at least, like the review too.

Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield

As I’ve written about before, I read a lot of both literary fiction and non-fiction that would fall into the category of political and historical writing, foreign affairs — reasonably dense material. Then, I buzz through some lighter fare. I’ve always loved mystery and crime writers, all the way back to Agatha Christie and her detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. My love of the genre actually goes back farther than that. As a grade school reader I was enamored of Nancy Drew, whose creator Carolyn Keene called her young detective a “sleuth”. Now that’s a dated word.

On this most recent trip to Panama I discovered two books by Thomas Perry featuring his Seneca Indian heroine Jane Whitefield, and when I came home I downloaded the other six books onto my Kindle. I’m on book #6 now, with two more to go, and loving these well-plotted, fast moving stories. I spent the entire six hours on the plane back from Boston finishing one Jane Whitefield adventure and starting another. The books are a bit formulaic, which I think is common to the genre: Jane has dreams in which the ancestors bring her insight, she hides people who are being threatened in ways not easily resolvable in courts of law, she is endlessly resourceful about defeating the bad guys, she promises her husband that she is done with her salvaging of human lives only to be drawn in again. He loves her so he copes.

But the characters are well drawn and interesting, the plots terrifically engaging, and I love that the action originates in upstate New York, where I recognize a lot of the places where Jane goes.

If you like this kind of writing — if you’re a fan of Inspector Gamache or Gabriel Allon or Adam Dalgliesh — go for these Thomas Perry books and link up with Jane Whitefield. You won’t be sorry.