Thoughts on Romantic Reformers

“When the romantic fails to illuminate or enlighten others, and when social reform is slow to come—or seems not to come at all—then he or she can only resort to violence.”

The Nation review of Man’s Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War by Philip F. Gura

“They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience … They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance

***featured image: The Gang by John George Brown

7 Reasons For Working Against Nature

“There are no green thumbs or black thumbs,” wrote horticulturalist Henry Mitchell. “There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises. It sounds very well to garden a ‘natural way.’ You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners.”

Blogger CRISTIAN MIHAI recently wrote about the idea of truth being stranger than fiction. Many times I’ve found that lies I’ve told myself are easier to believe than truth and that stories I write about real events seem far more unbelievable than when I’m just coming up with stuff. Novelists take what is natural (chaos) and turn it into gardens.

In the natural world sheep throw their babies away if they’re weak or sick. Some people do the same. Most of us are okay with defying the natural on this.

I like wild places (this is a partial lie because I’m afraid of bears and parasites), but I love manicured places best: gardens, hay fields and beaches with boardwalks.

There is a sense that humans somehow invaded the planet and really should go back to where they came from. Humans write these things and talk about these things. I’ve done it myself (usually after oil spills), but there are valid reasons to stand in defiance against nature.

Back to the Land: I once was a proponent for this lifestyle choice. I went on guided walks in Brooklyn to learn how to scavenge food from Prospect Park. I learned that cattails taste like cucumber. I moved to a farm. I considered (briefly) making my own shoes. Yet every avenue I explored circled back around to leaving a footprint on something “pristine.” Without my help many an animal would have died of parasite overload or starvation after being caught in a bramble. Those natural potato beetles I squash everyday have taught me a lot.

Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes by John Singer Sargent

Cave Drawings: Okay, I suppose primitive art is interesting in a way, but John Singer Sargent’s portraits prove to me that practice and defying our natural state can be a pretty great thing.

Plumbing: I know it’s cliche, but it has to be mentioned.

Leisure Time: A nomadic existence being one with nature (which again is sort of a lie) doesn’t leave much time to invent the washing machine. Or the novel.

Novels: I like novels–no, I love novels. When you’re doing whatever has to be done to make shoes and to fight off wilderness creatures, writing and reading novels kind of takes a back seat. (don’t forget paper! I refuse to feel guilty about loving the invention of paper).

Computers: How many back-to-the land bloggers are out there? Quite a few. How many times have I found great “natural” remedies for common insect problems online? Many times. Yet sometimes I’ve given myself and my animals modern meds. I want to live!

Garden of Eden: News flash: we don’t live there. We’re not perfect. The other day an old comment I made (2013) on someone’s blog came back to haunt me. I upset a reader by clumsily trying to make the point that in my opinion every race, color and creed have the seeds of evil and good in them. The person wanted me to think that only people with a European heritage were “evil.” I respectfully disagreed and wished her well, even after this person told me to take my bullshit else where and that I didn’t belong on a blog that wasn’t even her own. Can I help it if I see us as all one big, screwed-up family? Can I blind myself to the danger of silencing others by labeling entire groups as “evil” or “guilty”?

When I was young I liked to point the finger and to imagine that with home-made shoes and no novels life would be better. But it was a lie. People may have the seeds of evil, but their defiance of nature has, in so many complex ways, created a lot of beauty as well. I feel sad that human creativity has been channeled so often in ugly directions. Celebrating our degradation is not great art to me. Take me to a garden, however flawed, draw me a picture, write a  novel about love. It’s an act of defiance–life-enhancing defiance.

Are you a gardener in life? Tell me all about it.

THE MYTH OF CREATIVE INSPIRATION

50 WAYS TO FIND INSPIRATION

20 THINGS THAT CAN HELP YOU FIND INSPIRATION FOR WRITING

Human paths can be beautiful.

 

Save

How to Handle Criticism

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
Benjamin Franklin

The other day my husband and I were discussing who we were going to hire to put in an asphalt driveway after two different companies sent their men with estimates.

One of the men who came by wasn’t a very good speller but had been laying asphalt for 20 years. The other came with his wife and laptop, fancy postcards and a brand new truck. My husband was undecided since the estimates came in almost the same. He took to his own laptop and started reading local reviews. The bad speller’s company had a perfect 5 star rating. The fancier guy’s company had one bad review.

The wife of fancy guy responded to the bad review. Not good. She passive aggressively pushed the blame for the customer complaints onto the customer. She then described the death of a family member and various other personal issues that may have prevented her in 2014 from returning the disappointed customer’s phone calls. She pointed out that her company was a family run business and one bad review could really hurt its reputation.

At church the other day an artsy acquaintance and I were talking about swapping my book for her music CD. “What if we hate each other’s work?” she asked, jokingly.

Critics have been around since Satan grumbled about his place in heaven, yet pondering the asphalt situation (my husband chose the bad speller) left me thinking that maybe being a critic wasn’t the best way to pursue a happy life. There is a savage thrill in expressing a heavy-handed opinion with a superior toss of the head during a movie about super heroes. But is it really fun for those people around you?

On the rare occasion when I actually leave the house to go to a movie I ask my husband what the reviews are for the film. He usually responds, “Who cares? I want to make up my own mind.”

My husband takes a bad movie in stride. He’ll admit to a movie being less than he hoped but does not get worked up about it. He also never sits down to write bad reviews. I never do either. I may rant about something for a few days, or complain to my husband about a dumb book that’s really popular, but I have no desire to put pen to paper if in my mind the book or film or asphalt company deserves less than 4 stars.

Some people seem to think they’re doing the world a great service warning a buyer against a book, movie or driveway but sometimes silence is just as appropriate as words. A book with no reviews leaves just enough doubt in a reader’s mind without having the author’s reputation tarnished forever (or until an EMP STRIKE takes down all electronics). Only once did I check out a reviewer’s other reviews when she left a bizarrely personal and vicious attack/review. It was very eye-opening. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to live in her world of miserable negativity. I’m not sure I believe in karma exactly but wonder if in this age of YELP and Amazon we are not turning into the crows I see on my property who peck baby birds to death for fun.

the-noon-recess-winslow-homerWhen I used to teach 5th graders, the rule was that the kids had to think of three nice things to say about a fledgling writer’s efforts before the pecking began. My eleven-year-old students very easily learned this skill and the young writers flourished. Adults sometimes seem to think it would take too much time for such civility.

Critical thinking and perceptive critiques certainly have their place and it is almost never worth it to respond to criticism with whining or defensiveness, but I wonder if my mother’s advice, “if you have nothing good to say . . .” isn’t something we all should consider now and again. Maybe we should even consider what our true motives are at times. I can usually tell when I’m just in the mood to be a bitch (so can everyone else).

Once someone close to me said, “Well, it’s not like you’re the best writer who ever lived.”

REALLY? Who knew?  The person is someone I know loves me and her words came out wrong (or did they?) but they still annoy me . . . a little.

In the old myths the gods pecked at and destroyed each other in battles of ego, jealousy or stupidity. What kid didn’t love reading about such battles? But none of us are gods. We play them in critique groups or in dark movie theaters and basically just annoy and rob joy from others (again, I do realize that sometimes criticism is good and appropriate).

There may be some people who produce junk on purpose, but most artists and asphalt layers are just trying to do their best in life. Silence is golden in many (most cases).

My singer acquaintance at church and I decided that if we didn’t like each other’s work we’d say nothing. That way we could each pretend that maybe the other person hadn’t yet found time to read or listen to the works that bared our souls.

What about you? What’s your favorite example of toxic criticism? What has been someone’s most helpful criticism in your life?

PS~How great are the looks on the critics’ faces in the above painting?

HOW TO SPOT TOXIC FEEDBACK

I REWROTE MY NOVEL THROUGH A CRITIQUE GROUP AND LOST MY WAY

HOW TO HANDLE CRITICISM: THE TOP  TIPS FROM THE LAST 2500 YEARS

Save

What are Your Favorite Film Adaptations of Books?

pierce brosnan courtesy AMC
Pierce Brosnan courtesy of AMC (I love this pic!)

You know mine will be period pieces set in 19th century America, right?

THE SON

Okay, so I haven’t watched this one yet but I will. Pierce Brosnan in a western family saga? What’s not to like?

GLORY

One of the few movies that captures the nuances of race relations during the American Civil War. The cinematography and music are beautiful.

“The screenplay was written by Kevin Jarre, based on the personal letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the book One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard (reissued in 1990 after the movie), and Lay This Laurel (1973), Lincoln Kirstein‘s compilation of photos of the monument to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on Boston Common.” Wikipedia

THE OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL

Alan Gurganus tells how he came up with the idea to write this epic saga about a crusty old Civil War veteran who married a very young girl which I devoured when it came out.

Back in the day television networks actually called people at home to complete surveys about miniseries ideas. I answered the phone and they asked me if I’d like to see this book made into a miniseries! They granted my wishes!

What are some of your favorite books made into movies?

Can Education Change The World? (or is it all in our heads?)

“I’ll keep having babies until they stop taking them away.”

Yes, that’s what a mentally challenged young woman told the social services workers outside family court. She’d lost five or six children to the system already. A talk on birth control would have made little difference.

I heard about this case from our foster daughter’s lawyer after I asked her if M could possibly get some baby pictures of herself that her mother “Tracy” used to have. The lawyer shook her head in sad disgust.

“I doubt Tracy would have kept the pictures. She’s never in one place for long, but when I see her at court next I’ll ask.”

“Court? Again?”

“Yes, she’s had two more kids in the last two years—both of them are already in the system,” the lawyer replied from behind the heaps of documents on her desk.

No one’s told M that not only does she have two sisters (adopted locally) and a stepbrother living with M’s scary father but also two new baby siblings—in the court system.

So I ask, “Is Tracy mentally deficient like the other woman you just told me about?”

The lawyer thinks a moment. “No, she’s just evil.”

I’m sort of shocked by her honest appraisal and inclusion of a moral take on the woman. Knowing M’s history I’d have to say the stuff that was done to her was evil.

What would phrenologists of the 19th century say? Phrenology is the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities.

Walt Whitman wrote in his 1870 sexual-eugenic essay Democratic Vistas that America’s youth lacked sexually. They were “puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe, and characterized by an abnormal libidinousness and a diminished capacity for good motherhood.”

Whitman’s remedy: “crops of fine youth planted” to become America’s best breeders.*

As a gardener and foster parent of a girl with “delays”  I’m troubled by the analogy. How are we to be rid of the weeds that grow among the fine youth?

To be pro-life is a radical idea in the history of the world where weeds, misfits and mistakes are gotten rid of. Slavery, body parts for sale, war and thousands of cast off orphans are the consequences of the human proclivity to get rid of weak and uncomfortable things.

How often do we hear now from “civilized” and “compassionate” people that this or that leader should be assassinated?

We hear of new procedures that may one day eradicate unacceptable or messy human misfits—a pipe dream at best but chilling when taking into account the many ways we find fault with each other.

George Combe, the Scottish phrenologist in his The Application of Phrenology to the Present and Prospective Conditions of the United States (1840) had this to say: The enlightened classes “raise the mental condition of the people . . . which will enable them to understand the moral and political principles on which the welfare of nations is founded.”

Combe predicted “an uncontrolled development of the faculties of Acquisitiveness (greed), Self-Esteem (excessive self-confidence), and Love of Approbation (vanity), in which could destroy the Union.” If something wasn’t done. *

We mustn’t judge the Victorians too harshly when we find that many embraced the idea of social and moral uplift through education and selective breeding. If we are honest we will see ourselves in the historical mirror.

vaughts-practical-character-reader-1902-2Studying bumps on someone’s head may seem silly to us. Frat parties and pussy hats would probably have seemed “funny” to them. We judge our Victorian ancestors harshly for bringing “civilization” to “less civilized” people (but if we’re being honest not many of us want to live the Rousseau dream in a buggy forest with no air-conditioning (see the movie The Mission).

How much moral uplift has come from the public school system (or the Ivy League colleges—many of which were founded as Christian seminaries?).

How many less unwanted children have come into the world because of legal abortion?

Yes, I had to make the terrible choice to terminate a pregnancy (after seeing the baby’s perfect body on an ultrasound). My very flawed and very human doctor dismissed my concerns about a blood clot in my leg for weeks. A vascular surgeon saved my life at the very last minute, but the doctors refused me treatment until the baby was gone.

I hadn’t really wanted another child, but until this very day I suffer from a profound sense of loss. Funny how the heart works.

The 19th century perfectionist idea that we can, through science and education, bring heaven to earth was an illusion. It still is.

It’s easier to be rid of things, to divide the skull into seemingly rational sections that tell us our fate, to abort babies who have low IQs or the “gay gene.”

We must be careful in labeling someone we disagree with a fool or someone to be gotten rid of. We so rarely see the evil in ourselves and gladly kill the other for reminding us of our own weakness.

Judges 6:24 says: “The Lord is peace.”

What are we?

* From Pseudo-Science & Society in 19th Century America, Arthur Wrobel, Editor

** Pictures from VAUGHT’S PRACTICAL CHARACTER READER

In THE DEW THAT GOES EARLY AWAY Buck Crenshaw stumbles into a selective breeding program with mixed results.

Sex, Love & Hating Men Before School

When driving an eleven year old girl to school each morning you have to make some concessions. Ten minutes of pop music shouldn’t be so bad, right? The problem is (ask my ex-husband) that I find it impossible to take off my social critic hat. Movies, books, TV, ads are all fair game–all the time (I just sent an email to Diamond Crystal Salt praising them for their silly but cute radio ads about a husband and a wife who actually seem to love each other–and Diamond Crystal Salt, of course).

My soon-to-be daughter is beginning to find this part of my personality exhausting.

First song:

Oh, I don’t know what you’ve been told
But this gal right here’s gonna rule the world
Yeah, that is where I’m gonna be because I wanna be
No, I don’t wanna sit still, look pretty
You get off on your 9 to 5
Dream of picket fences and trophy wives
But no, I’m never gonna be ’cause I don’t wanna be
No, I don’t wanna sit still look pretty

Mr. Right could be nice for one night
But then he wanna take control
And I would rather fly solo

That Snow White
She did right
In her life
Had 7 men to do the chores
‘Cause that’s not what a lady’s for

The only thing a boy’s gonna give a girl for free’s captivity

After hearing Sit Still and Look Pretty by Daya about a million times I ask daughter if she understands what the song is about.

“Love?” she replies tentatively.

I turn the radio down. “Nope. It’s actually about hating boys and men.”

“I just like the tune,” my daughter says.

“Yeah, it’s catchy, but the singer has a warped sense of reality if she thinks: The only thing a boy’s gonna give a girl for free’s captivity.”

“What does captivity mean?” daughter asks.

“It means the boy wants to trap and control you.”

“I think that boy Josh in Ms. Wood’s class is nice, don’t you?” She likes to deflect to happier thoughts but I can’t let it go.

“So this catchy little tune is making you think boys are a waste of time and that looking pretty is stupid.”

Daughter looks as if I’ve robbed her of her dream. “So this doesn’t mean you won’t let me wear make up when I’m in high school, does it?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying. My point is that you can’t believe everything a pop song says. If you think a bunch of elves are gonna clean up after you, you’re mistaken.”

“I like the dentist elf best,” she says.

She turns the music back up. Her favorite song Closer is playing and we both sing along (because it so super catchy). If you haven’t heard the song it’s about a guy and girl who haven’t seen each other for 4 years. They hook up for the night in the back of the girl’s Range Rover that she can’t afford like the tattoo on her shoulder. Later they spend time on a stolen mattress.

Just before we get to school  this comes on:

And if you feel you’re sinking,
I will jump right over into cold, cold water for you
And although time may take us into different places
I will still be patient with you
And I hope you know

I won’t let go
I’ll be your lifeline tonight
I won’t let go
I’ll be your lifeline tonight

Cause we all get lost sometimes, you know?
It’s how we learn and how we grow
And I wanna lay with you ’til I’m old
You shouldn’t be fighting on your own.

Yes, this is a Justin Beiber song. It mentions getting high at the beginning, but you can’t have everything in pop music.

My daughter turns to me and says, “That boy Justin.”

I nod. “Yeah. That boy.”

*** Featured image from really funny article: UNHAPPY MOTHERS IN WESTERN ART HISTORY

AND . . . if you like reading stories about messy relationships . . .

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Weary of Running by Adrienne  Morris

Weary of Running

by Adrienne Morris

Giveaway ends December 12, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

The Witch of Wall Street

800px-hetty_greenHetty Green was a famously shrewd investor on Wall Street when women still had to sneak “a growler” at the back door of a saloon. Having been to enough bars in my early 20’s to witness drunken women collapsed in dark corners with their skirts up I sometimes wonder if bringing the tradition of women drinking at home back might be a good idea. 😉

Hetty was a Quaker so maybe she didn’t drink. She was miserly, too, so probably wouldn’t have paid for a martini (invented during the Gold Rush, btw).

When her father died he left Hetty a fortune to invest. She’d opened her first bank account at age 8 and read to her blind grandfather all the financial news of the day so was well prepared for taking her place among the Wall Street warlocks of the day.  Her dying father suggested that he’d been poisoned by someone seeking his fortune and that Hetty should expect the same.

What can we say about misers?

“Hetty Green’s stinginess was legendary. She was said never to turn on the heat or use hot water. She wore one old black dress and undergarments that she changed only after they had been worn out, did not wash her hands and rode in an old carriage. She ate mostly pies that cost fifteen cents. One tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap.” WIKIPEDIA

Eccentric men of history abound and some probably didn’t wash their hands. I fear women sometimes don’t like being harshly judged as men often are. My sons recover more quickly from dressings down by rivals and friends than my daughters do. It seems Hetty didn’t suffer fools lightly, but modern women tend to take real offense at being called horrible names. It’s as if they feel they should be treated better than men somehow.

Hetty made sure when marrying to get her spendthrift investor husband to renounce all rights to her fortune. Being such a cool-headed woman of finance who bought low and sold high, who kept tons of cash on hand to swoop in during panics to buy up other people’s heartache and who was even called upon by the city of New York to lend money to keep the metropolis afloat more than once, I wonder what the attraction to her husband was. I suspect she was drawn to his lack of control for a time. The marriage failed.

But as people say, the marriage wasn’t a complete failure. They raised two beautiful children (don’t you kind of hate that saying? I’d still prefer not to have had a failed marriage).

Hetty’s son broke his leg as a child. Hetty was rich but wanted to save money so she brought Ned to a free clinic for the poor. They screwed up his leg and after much pain and suffering (on the part of poor Ned) his leg was amputated.

An independent woman making wise investments on Wall Street is admirable (if you don’t mind preying on weakness, greed and stupidity in some cases), but being such a cheapskate with your own children seems kind of witchy to me.

What do you think? Is calling a woman a witch going too far?  Where is the line drawn between cheap and sensible?

MORE ABOUT HETTY GREEN

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Weary of Running by Adrienne Morris

Weary of Running

by Adrienne Morris

Giveaway ends December 12, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway