Tag Archives: Mark Twain

100 years later

Today, I went on the Powell’s Books Web site and ordered Mark Twain’s Autobiography, published on November 15, 100 years after Twain’s death. Coincidentally, today Dick D. from the Palo Alto church sent me this passage which he found in Twain’s Autobiography:

The multimillionaire disciples of Jay Gould — that man who in his brief life rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died — have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that; that our people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration; that our Christianity which we have always been so proud of — not to say vain of — is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy; that we have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things.

As Dick said, plus ça change….

The eternal Spring of the Bay area

San Francisco Bay, the land of eternal springtime: there are flowers in bloom all the year:

“San Francisco is built on sand hills, but they are prolific sand hills. They yield a generous vegetation. All the rare flowers which people in ‘the States’ rear with such patient care in parlor flower-pots and green-houses, flourish luxuriantly in the open air there all the year round. Calla lilies, all sorts of geraniums, passion flowers, moss roses — I do not know the names of a tenth part of them. I only know that while New Yorkers are burdened with banks and drifts of snow, Californians are burdened with banks and drifts of flowers, if they only keep their hands off and let them grow.” (Mark Twain, Roughing It)

At the moment here in San Mateo, the rains have just ended, and for most of twelve hours a day the sun shines out of a cloudless sky, and everything is green and beautiful. The acacia trees are covered in thousands of little yellow blossoms cover acacia trees; bright orange California poppies appear along the roadsides; white flowers, purple flowers, red flowers, there are flowers everywhere.

Nor is the beauty only visual; the rich heavy scent of flowers fills the air. I wheeze and find it hard to breathe; our downstairs neighbor sneezes explosively about ten times an hour; our car is covered with a faint yellow film of pollen and I have to wash the windshield twice a day. It is beautiful in this land of eternal springtime, except that I can’t breathe and the pollen in my eyes makes me want to claw them out. I wish we could have a good hard frost and maybe some snow to end this eternal springtime and kill all these damned flowers.

Five years old

Five years old on Monday, I was taking a lunch break in my office in the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, a stone’s throw away from the little stone church building built by Unitarians in 1843, just a few years after the Illinois frontier had opened up after the conclusion of the Blackhawk Wars. I had spent the morning looking through old church records, to what end I no longer recall. On my lunch break, I decided to start a blog on AOL’s now-defunct blogging service. Being a peripheral participant in geek culture, of course I had to name it “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist Blog,” although I soon dropped the last word. The only person I told about it was my partner Carol, yet within a couple of days several people in the congregation had discovered my new blog, and the blogger’s collective at the old Coffee Hour site had reviewed my first post. Something interesting was happening here: religion had expanded into the digital realm. And there I was, one of the people exploring this new landscape.

It’s been a wild ride since then. Here are some of my favorite moments from the past five years:

  1. I was asked by Peacebang to serve as an example of a poorly-dressed minister when she was interviewed by Mainstream Media about her “Beauty Tips for Ministers” blog. Alas, my photo didn’t make it into the published interview.
  2. I attended one of the Boston-area UU blogger’s picnics, where I got to meet a couple of blogger spouses. They were both very nice mild-mannered people.
  3. Upon being introduced to me at a denominational gathering, a woman said, “Are you really as mean as Mr. Crankypants?” She looked frightened. I was completely nonplussed, and made some halting reply that did nothing to reassure her.
  4. I have had several entertaining online arguments with my older sister, bouncing back and forth between our two blogs.
  5. Commenter, fellow-blogger, and friend E recently took me to task in a long phone conversation for willfully misunderstanding J. D. Salinger in a post (she was right, of course, not that I admitted that while we were talking).

I started out thinking that blogging was just another publishing medium, like letterpress or photocopying. Then I began to understand that social media like blogs are more than a technological means for getting my words and ideas out to a wider public; they are really a way to carry out a larger conversation than can happen face-to-face. Recently, I have begun to understand that really all writing and publishing are forms of social media: when Richard Steele published The Spectator, his letterpress-printed words opened up a broader conversation; when zines started using the new technology of photocopying, they too were opening up a broader conversation; blogs and other online publishing platforms use new technologies, but the ultimate goal of a broader conversation remains the same.

For those of us who use online technologies, the real challenge now is to raise the quality of our writing. We bloggers need our Steele and Addison — or better yet, the blog equivalents of Mark Twain — people who write good prose and who have something to say that’s worth saying. We bloggers need someone who will raise the standard for the rest of us. Maybe the blog equivalents of Richard Steele and Mark Twain are already publishing but I haven’t seen them. Most bloggers write prose that’s either precious, cute, tainted with the contemporary workshop aesthetic,1 confused, rushed, or just plain bad (I tend towards the latter three). Currently, we read blogs for the information, not for the quality of expression.

I plan to write this blog for at least another five years. I hope that five years from now I will be able to point to several blogs written by great English prose stylists. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be one of those writers.


1 See: David Dooley, “The Contemporary Workshop Aesthetic,” Hudson Review, Summer 1990, no. 259.

Rose City reading

My sister Jean just did a reading from her new book, Rose City: A Memoir of Work at First Unitarian in New Bedford. OK, I’m biassed because she’s my sister, but I really enjoyed hearing her read from her book.

Here’s what I said about her book when it came out:

“Just got your book…I like the way you write about work from the inside, not like John McPhee or Tracy Kidder who never really have to do the work they write about, much as I do appreciate their books. Your book is more like Mark Twain’s book, ‘Old Times on the Mississippi,’ about learning to be a river boat pilot; I think Twain gets it right in that book, about what it means to work. So do you. Now that I’m a minister, I’ve decided that work and working is one of the top three spiritual problems I see people facing: meaningless jobs, jobs that deny who you are as a person, not having a job. It’s good to read someone (you!) write about work as it really is.

“What really got to me in your book, I guess, was the bits on worker safety; because of my own memories of worker safety. I remember seeing a guy’s foot pulled off by a forklift. I remember seeing an old-time house painter, his hands all knarled from using lead paint. I remember standing in a 52′ trailer unloading insulation, lungs filled with itchy little fiberglas fibers that can cause silicosis. I remember choking on bronze fumes at the foundry. I remember always always always worrying about getting hurt when I was a carpenter, every single frickin day. On the funny side, I remember the carpenter I worked for climbing up into the cupola of the old Emerson School, in order to put up chicken wire to keep the pigeons out, but when he popped up the hatch all the pigeons flapped their wings covering his head in pigeonshit. In spite of all that I love to work, I have loved every job I ever had, at least at some level. You get at that in the book: the work can kill ya, but ya love it anyway.”

From the Los Angleles Times book reviews:

Rose City is a remarkable contribution to the literature of labor, a working woman’s portrait of an industry that has virtually disappeared from the United States…. Nowadays, should you want to bring your love a bouquet of red roses, be advised that such blooms have been coaxed by pesticides illegal in the United States, tended and picked by even lower-paid, less-protected laborers (most of them women)…. Perhaps a book about roses—grandifloras, hybrid teas with ‘the faintest of fragrances, like clean-washed hands,’ sweetheart Minuettes with vanilla petals ‘dipped in ruby sugar’ — a story of love made manifest in the work of roses, is a better gift.

What th…?!

Sitting at the table in our apartment having lunch today, reading Mark Twain, and every now and then gazing out at the sunny courtyard of the Whaling Museum. Suddenly, I realize that there are two eight-foot-long white sperm whales in the courtyard, lined up one behind the other, facing me with their heads up, smiling with pendulous lower lip hanging down, and tails pointing smartly to starboard. I stand up to get a better view. No, I was not imagining them. Funny I didn’t see them before. Must be some exhibit for the Whaling Museum. Back to lunch and Mark Twain.

Five minutes later, I look up again. Now there are four white whales, two ranks of two, all facing me and smiling, all four tails pointing smartly to starboard. I know the other two whales weren’t there five minutes ago — were they? I get up to look. No one standing in the courtyard. No truck or delivery vehicle on the street. Who put them there? Maybe I just missed them before — ? Oh well. Back to lunch and Mark Twain.

Five minutes later, a fifth white whale appears, smiling at me with nose in the air and tail pointing smartly to starboard — but this time, I see the two guys in Whaling Museum polo shirts just straightening up after setting this last whale down. At last I know — that’s where the whales have been coming from.