Sunday, March 7, 2021

Cultivation

 A few things this week. First, certainty.

Very little in my life has been as constant as the certainty I feel when I write. It bubbles up in the process of writing every story, whether it's six words or six thousand. At some point—maybe multiple points—I will stare at the page I'm working on and know, with absolute conviction, that it's dog shit.

When you know you're writing garbage, it's tempting to set it aside and start on something else. It is much harder to recognize that what feels like certainty is in fact the same resistance you've felt before. Certainty means knowing that this time it's different; this time your gut is correct; this time you're working on garbage.

In these moments, a valuable practice for a writer is the cultivation of doubt. This does seem bad, doesn't it? But let's just see where it goes. Let's write to the end to be sure.


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I've been reading Will Cuppy's How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes. Cuppy was a humorist maybe most famous for his book of history, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, but he spent much of his time researching and writing about nature. Most of the pieces in Apes are only a page or two long, which is kind of a shame, since Cuppy's humor really works best when he's got room for asides and diversions, like in his essay What I Hate About Spring:

“More than one psychologist has hinted that there must be something amiss with a bookish old recluse who does not enjoy the combined yawpings and yowling and yammerings of the entire brute creation while he is trying to get some plain and fancy writing done. I reply that there must be something wrong, and radically wrong, with a lot of birds who cannot let a poor hack have five minutes of peace in which to grind out his copy.

I advise pedants to skip my classification of bird noises. I find that most birds, if left to their own devices, are likely to go zeegle zeegle zeegle. There is also the bloop type, and I may as well mention the phut phut and willuch willuch varieties—see the text of my articles for the details.

Or, one may divide the avifauna of Jones's [Island] into those that sound like scraping a blackboard with chalk, those that resemble the sound of blowing into a bunghole, and those that remind the hearer of delicate steel gimlets boring remorselessly into the more sensitive tissues of the human brain. Another bird which I should love to get my hands on emits a circular whiz guaranteed to turn a cave-man into an incurable neurotic in five minutes of steady application. Perhaps I may be pardoned for regarding the Jones's Island Whizzer as a menace to American letters.”


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I've also been reading Derek Lin's excellent translation of/commentary on the Tao Te Ching. According to the sticker on the cover I bought this book fourteen years ago, which means I've tried and failed to read it off and on for the last decade and a half. This month, I guess I was ready.

It's always a mystery why and when certain books finally click. I'm still stymied by Marcus Aurelius, which is slightly embarrassing to admit, since Meditations is usually regarded as a pretty accessible point of entry for Stoicism in particular and philosophy in general. It's like saying I'm stymied by Aesop's Fables. 

Periodically I'll read an Aurelius quote that seems straightforward enough. Something like: “It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”

I'll read that and think, Well that doesn't seem so difficult. Maybe I should try it again? But a few pages on I'll find myself stumped and set Meditations  aside.

This is why I have so much trouble getting rid of books. Maybe I didn't like it, maybe I couldn't get into it, but it hardly seems fair to blame that on the book. Maybe I just need to grow into it. If I carry it with me for the next fourteen years, who's to say what might happen?


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And, finally, I pruned up our peach trees this week. They were badly in need of a trim, not least because they were stretching out over the neighbor's front yard and dropping stones in their lawn. 

This will be the sixth year we've had the trees, and in that time I think we've harvested perhaps twelve ounces of edible fruit. It's the pests. Every year they beat us to the punch, eating the peaches well before we can, and it's never the same pests twice. 

The first year it was the squirrels. The second year it was a ground hog, which our neighbors swore they saw leap from the tree multiple times despite being as large and as round as a pot-bellied pig. In year three we had bees. Year four was the stink bugs. And last year the peaches were covered in wasps, which were frankly much worse than the bees. The bees at least seemed to respect each other and take turns nibbling. The wasps treated it like a free for all, swarming the fruits fifteen at a time whether they were still on the tree or the ground.

My wife is an organic gardener, which rules out most of the defenses other gardeners might use, but last year we had a terrific jalapeno harvest. I diced most of them up for pickling, and as we've eaten our way through the jar I've been saving the juice to spray on our trees. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't, but I say let's just see where this goes.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...