5CT March 24, 2013

My dad, may he rest in peace, had a two word explanation for he who flummoxed him. “He’s Irish.” I’m a bit late, but to all my Irish friends, (especially you and you) may the wind be always at your back. This issue: Banksy, a gorgeous tune of home by Milton Nasciemento, a great magazine from a killing state, some shameless self-promotion, a journey into storytelling…

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Five Cool Things for 11.13.11

Coffee is for Dark Angels

From the sodden bogs of the great northwest in the near middle of November, I send you my greetings. Exfm is a new way to find, collect and share music on the web. Little tricky to grasp, but worth checking out. Nina Simone — wow, please take a listen to that big sound and those beautiful lyrics. Simon Armitage doesn’t seem to have very fond feelings for poet Ted Hughes so he pulls out his bag of metaphors and shoots Ted down. Onetime abstract painter, sometime cartoonist Philip Guston did have Richard Nixon to kick around and had a hell of a good time doing it. Spike Lee tweets — and FCT does not flinch. Always remember what Radio Raheem says, “TWO SLICES!”

a new way to find, share and listen to music

1. Turn on the Web | EX FM

From the not terribly clear exfm website: Exfm is a social music discovery platform —what the heck is a social music discovery platform?  By the way, dear exfm: contact me if you want some help with the language. Continued: “exfm turns the entire web into your personal music library. As you browse the web, exfm gathers every MP3 file you come across, building a music library for you. Exfm makes it incredibly simple to share your favorite music with all your friends.”

Much better description at TechCrunch: That’s why the geeky team at exfm (formerly Extension Entertainment) built a browser extension for Chrome that turns the Web into your music library by running silently in the background and indexing every MP3 file you stumble across. Exfm continues to check the sites you’ve visited, automatically building a library for you of songs you can throw away or turn into playlists. Full article here>>

Check out Charles Mingus doing Mood Indigo on exfm>>


2. Whoa | Feeling Good, Nina Simone

Lyrics to Feeling Good ~ Written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse

You Know How I Feel
Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don’t you know
Butterflies all havin’ fun you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done
That’s what I mean

And this old world is a new world
And a bold world
For me

Stars when you shine you know how I feel
Scent of the pine you know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel

More on Nina Simone here>>


3. It’s About Ted | Simon Armitage

Not The Furniture Game

His hair was a crow fished out of a blocked chimney
and his eyes were boiled eggs with the tops hammered in
and his blink was a cat flap
and his teeth were bluestones or the Easter Island statues
and his bite was a perfect horseshoe.
His nostrils were both barrels of a shotgun, loaded.
And his mouth was an oil exploration project gone bankrupt
and his smile was a caesarean section
and his tongue was an iguanodon
and his whistle was a laser beam
and his laugh was a bad case of kennel cough.
He coughed, and it was malt whisky.
And his headaches were Arson in Her Majesty’s Dockyards
and his arguments were outboard motors strangled with fishing line
and his neck was a bandstand
and his Adam’s apple was a ball cock
and his arms were milk running off from a broken bottle.
His elbows were boomerangs or pinking shears.
And his wrists were ankles
and his handshakes were puff adders in the bran tub
and his fingers were astronauts found dead in their spacesuits
and the palms of his hands were action paintings
and both thumbs were blue touchpaper.
And his shadow was an opencast mine.
And his dog was a sentry box with no-one in it
and his heart was a first world war grenade discovered by children
and his nipples were timers for incendary devices
and his shoulder blades were two butchers at the meat cleaving competition
and his belly button was the Falkland Islands
and his private parts were the Bermuda triangle
and his backside was a priest hole
and his stretchmarks were the tide going out.
The whole system of his blood was Dutch elm disease.
And his legs were depth charges
and his knees were fossils waiting to be tapped open
and his ligaments were rifles wrapped in oilcloth under the floorboards
and his calves were the undercarriages of Shackletons.
The balls of his feet were where meteorites had landed
and his toes were a nest of mice under the lawn mower.
And his footprints were Vietnam
and his promises were hot air balloons floating off over the trees
and his one-liners were footballs through other peoples’ windows
and his grin was the Great Wall of China as seen from the moon
and the last time they talked, it was apartheid.

She was a chair, tipped over backwards
with his donkey jacket on her shoulders.

They told him,
and his face was a hole
where the ice had not been thick enough to hold her.


Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath


4. I am Not a Book | Philip Guston’s Poor Richard 

Intro to Philip Guston’s Poor Richard by Debra Bricker Balken

Mutt and Jeff and the Tartuffisms of a Presiding President

From Poor Richard

Poor Richard by Philip Guston

From Poor Richard

Sometime during the summer of 1971, Philip Guston (1913-1980) began a visual narrative of Richard Nixon’s life, a series of almost eighty drawings that caught one of America’s most maligned politicians in a depraved, monstrous state. Titled Poor Richard, these caricatures play on the brooding self-pitying character that Nixon exuded throughout his life. While much has been made in the ongoing interpretations of the radical content of Guston’s late work — of his brash betrayal of abstract painting and the New York School and his introduction of quirky, incongruous, cartoon – type figures and shapes around 1968  — nothing quite approximates the mocking and satiric nature of these renderings of an American President.

5. Spike! | Tweet of the Week

spike tweets

Five Cool Things 10.16.2011

Let there be coffee.

Wee bit of a ‘traveling’ and ‘place’ theme in this issue; traveling through time, films and places. The New Yorker DVD of the Week comes up with The Devil is a Woman. Looking for a metaphor that is apt for the moment? How about American Inferno? John Jantsch has an industrial strength business idea that is well worth your time. The man who made the film Helvetica, has released Urbanization. And last, the burial place of the man whose travels changed the world forever, Christopher Columbus. And how can you not love this, from literary traveler Samuel Beckett: “To be together again, after so long, who love the sunny wind, the windy sun, in the sun, in the wind, that is perhaps something, perhaps something.” 

1. Calling Paul Murphy | DVD of the Week at the New Yorker

Serendipity, how do we love thee! The New Yorker’s Richard Brody has a cool weekly feature, the DVD of the Week. This week’s selection is “a 1935 romp through the erotic tangles of turn-of-the-century Spain.” Titled, The Devil is a Woman. The filmmaker is Josef von Sternberg and the story concerns a Republican activist who, facing arrest, returns home on a clandestine trip from Paris and meets a woman (Marlene Dietrich) who tempts him to compromise his mission.
Other DVD recommendations; The House of Mirth by British director Terence Davies, Husbands and Wives, by Woody Allen, and The Long, Long Trailer by Vincent Minnelli, which depicts, if you can believe it, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez pulling a trailer around America to madcap and disastrous results. Pop over for a look see>>

~ photos by linda massey & richard pelletier ~


2. Take me to your metaphor | American Inferno 

American Inferno, burning in our imagination

In this gorgeous piece at the Paris Review, writer Margaret Eby takes us along on a journey to a place, to a metaphor, to a source of literary inspiration. Her piece, American Inferno is a beautiful read. Listen;

“The conflagration probably began in a stripping pit next to the cemetery, creeping along the deposits of fuel, burning up to three hundred feet underground. The town grew so warm that some residents no longer needed to turn on their basement hot-water heaters. Toxic plumes erupted, tree roots turned to ash, vegetables roasted on their stalks. The earth became unstable, and yawning holes opened into underground pits without warning: in 1981, twelve-year-old Todd Domboski fell into a sulfurous 150-foot-deep maw that appeared suddenly in his grandmother’s backyard, narrowly escaping incineration by grabbing onto a tree root. Efforts to stop the flames—clay seals to cut off oxygen, slurry pumped into the honeycombed caverns—proved useless. In the eighties, the federal government began relocating the town’s remaining population, razing their homes and shutting down a segment of the highway that had erupted. The fire may burn for another 250 years, encompassing 3,700 acres, before it runs out of fuel.”

Writers Dean Koontz, David Wellington, Joyce Carol Oates and Bill Bryson have all, in some form or other, used Centralia in their work. I love this sentence from the same piece;

“You could come here and never realize the chaos beneath your feet.” Have at it here>>


3. Cool Business Ideas | Commitment Factory

John Jantsch ~ big ideas for small business

Your passion and commitment are essential, but it’s your ability to build passion and commitment for that vision in others that is going to be the key to growth. – John Jantsch

John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing, continues to generate great ideas, big and small, for small business. Now comes an idea for a new model for business; a commitment factory. I’m not loving the use of the word factory here, but I’ll let John speak for himself.

A commitment factory, however, is my idea for the new model of business. A business that manufactures ideas, brilliance, passion and commitment in a community that chooses to join what might be more apply described as a cause. Generating commitment is the new currency of American business and the most important task of a leader of a business defined in this manner is to guide passion and purpose in a way that encourages staff and customers alike to find, nurture and grow commitment around the things big and small that make a business something worth joining.

Here are the six floors of the factory;

1. Get the right people.
2. Tell the story over and over.
3. Protect the standards.
4. Make meetings about action.
5. Teach and share the metrics.
6. Invest in the best tools.

Do read the whole thing>>


4. From the director of Helvetica | Urbanization

“Urban design is the language of the city.”

From the Urbanized website: “Who is allowed to shape our cities, and how do they do it? Unlike many other fields of design, cities aren’t created by any one specialist or expert. There are many contributors to urban change, including ordinary citizens who can have a great impact improving the cities in which they live.” Travel over to the Urbanized website>>


5. Here lies Christopher Columbus | Cathedral of Seville 

Cathedral of Seville ~ iPhone photo by rp

More by accident than intent, I found myself on a bit of a Christopher Columbus tour while in Spain recently. You really can’t visit the city of Seville without visiting the Cathedral of Seville, (ca. 1403) which, it turns out, is the burial place of Christopher Columbus. Very close by is the truly fascinating Archivo de Indias — an historical archive holding 80 million pages of documents including first person accounts from the Conquistadors. This is the place where the Spanish government keeps all the original documents related to Spanish exploration in the New World including Columbus’ plundering explorations under lock and key and temperature control. I was also in Cadiz, in southern Spain, from which port Columbus set sail for the New World. (Thanks to Mr. John S. for that tidbit.) Aside from being reminded of my appalling historical and geographical ignorance, I was reminded of the power of place. I can tell you when you walk around the Cathedral of Seville and you have in mind that Columbus is buried within, you can feel the pull of time, of place, of stories. It’s palpable; the place issues a distinct hold on you. And it’s because of the power of stories; the ones we tell about ourselves about our history, the ones we’ve been told. I was reminded too, of how Church and State seem to be back in each other’s arms again. A very big story in itself.


Five Cool Things 2.13.11

New Media Upends the Old Order in Egypt

In this week’s issue of Five Cool Things, we touchdown in #Egypt – site of one of the most moving and transformational events in recent history. What is so endlessly fascinating is the warp speed at which a truly momentous story unfolded – just 18 days! The means employed by the storytellers – digital photography, traditional and social media – to both share this incredible story with the world, and to effect change, is profound. Whether you Tweet or not, whether you do Facebook or not, whether you understand social media or not (and it could be fairly argued that 21st centruy literacy requires that you ought to) social media tools are here forever and have demonstrated their capacity to change the world. How big a deal is that? It’s stunning on every level. To add a touch of levity to this week’s issue, we visit one man’s communication breakdown. The struggle to write is the touching tale in a documentary called Bad Writing. Read this issue on the FCT blog. Onward!


1. 140 Characters in #Cairo | Twitter in #Egypt

If you were not moved, you’ve got a patch of black ice where your heart is supposed to be. Over the past 18 or so days, the world has watched transfixed, as events unfolded in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of people in Egypt and around the world, took to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogs and Instagram, to communicate emotions, to provide instructions for gathering places, to frame the story. Minute by minute, tweet by tweet, an avalanche began and the forces set in motion could not be stopped. Based on hashtag analysis, over 1, 300,000 Egypt related tweets were posted between Jan. 24 – Jan. 30.


Keywords to the revolution

El Baradei on Twitter, before Mubarak resigned.



2.  Be Afraid (Not) | Aljazeera’s English YouTube Channel

Must See TV

If you find yourself wishing for the perspective that the outside world can bring to historic events, thank YouTube, who provides at least one easy way to gain a foothold on a different view of things. The Aljazeera English Channel on YouTube is (sometimes) riveting but more important, gives you a whole new slant on the news. YouTube allows (most) anyone to set up their own channel and to broadcast (within limits) topics of interest. Visit Aljazeera’s English Channel here>>


3. Googler Uses Facebook | Wael Ghonim’s Revolution 2.0

Wael Ghonim

His name is Wael Ghonim and isn’t it some form of poetic justice that a Google executive, a marketing manager no less, helped sparked what he has called revolution 2.0? Ghonim created a Facebook page to help commemorate an Egyptian who died in the early days of the January 25th, uprising. He says, unequivocally, This could not have happened without social media. It was that Facebook page, We are all Khaled Said, that helped continue to spark the uprising that has changed Egypt forever and also landed Wael in jail for 12 days. Group of fascinating interviews here>>. Brief article here>>


4. The Revolution Will be Digitized | Photos from Egypt

An Egyptian married couple are surrounded by anti-Mubarak protesters at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011. Protesters appear to have settled in for a long standoff, turning Tahrir Square into a makeshift village with tens of thousands coming every day, with some sleeping in tents made of blankets and plastic sheeting. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

from APTOPIX Mideast Egypt, AP Photo/Mohammed Abou Zaid


See an amazing portfolio of images from Egypt at the Atlantic website>>


5. “I Had a Big Hemingway Boner” | Bad Writing

From Bad Writing

From the filmmakers: Bad Writing is a documentary about a wannabe poet who sets off on a quest for answers about writing – bad writing, good writing, and the process in between. What he learns from some leading figures in the literary world will inspire anyone who has ever dreamt of creating art. Click on the image above to watch a trailer.

Five Cool Things 1.23.11

Five Cool Things


In this week’s issue of Five Cool Things we visit the life and work of Reynolds Price, the Southern Writer who died this week in Durham, North Carolina at age 77. He was the author of 30 books — novels, memoirs, essays, shorts stories and translations of the Bible. He considered himself the literary heir to Eudora Welty. The excerpts below emerged from a November 19, 1990 interview in New York City at the 92nd street YM- YWHA. The interviewer is Frederick Busch. The entire interview is in the Paris Review and can be

Reynolds Price ~ Photo by Grant Halverson (AP)

Before we get to the interview, please sit down and take in how this novelist launched his first book and his career. This is the first sentence of A Long and Happy Life.

Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody’s face was Wesley Beavers, and laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him was Rosacoke Mustian who was maybe his girl and who had given up looking into the wind and trying to nod at every sad car in the line, and when he even speeded up and passed the truck (lent for the afternoon by Mr. Isaac Alston and driven by Sammy his man, hauling one pine box and one black boy dressed in all he could borrow, set up in a ladder-back chair with flowers banked round him and a foot on the box to steady it) — when he even passed that, Rosacoke said once into his back “Don’t” and rested in humiliation, not thinking but with her hands on his hips for dear life and her white blouse blown out behind her like a banner in defeat.

FB: Let’s go back to when you were a very young child. You were a gifted artist using pen, pencil, and paint. In your recent novel, The Tongues of Angels, your narrator-hero is an artist. Seeing and turning what you see into something tangible is very important to you. How does the visual intermingle with your obvious love of language?

RP: First, my eyes are my primary teachers. And I assume that this is true for a vast percentage of the human race, certainly for the entire sighted portion. For us, the world enters there—it mainly enters my mind through my eyes, and I make of it what I will and can. The granary, the silo—my garnered experience—begins as stored visual observation. I tell my writing students constantly that roughly ninety-five percent of the human race is legally blind, and I mean it quite literally. You don’t have to be in New York to realize that Americans never see anything; you can go to a small country town and realize that an enormous number of the citizens simply don’t see anything at any given moment but what they are actually hoping to see.

For some reason or other I was born an avid observer and witness. Both my parents were tremendous watchers of the world. I can remember from my childhood that one of the things my mother loved most was just to drive downtown, park, and sit in the car watching people walk by. Europeans and Middle Easterners do that in their piazzas and souks. Of course, if we try it now in Bryant Park or Central Park, we’re dead by sundown. But I love to watch the world, and that visual experience becomes, in a way I couldn’t begin to chart or describe, the knowledge I possess; that knowledge produces whatever it is that I write. From the very beginning of my serious adult work, when I was a senior in college, my writing has emerged by a process over which I have almost no more conscious control than over the growth of my fingernails. The best I can do is to live as if I were training for the Olympics. I try to keep my mind, which is an organ of something called my body, in the best possible physical shape; if I do that, I find that it does my work for me. I think artists of almost all sorts would say that—from great athletes and dancers to poets and composers. There’s a huge amount of discipline and training and specific technique that can be learned; but ultimately it’s a matter of arriving each morning at the desk and finding that the cistern filled up in the night—or that it didn’t, which is mostly my fault.

FB: Now a nastily academic reader—and we don’t know any, but there might be some—would say that your characters are often wooing one another, that they’re warm and generous people, they love one another, the greatest gift they can give is the gift of themselves. I see your characters, almost like those of the Pietà, bearing themselves to one another—but they can never pierce that invisible membrane, can they? Would you care to talk about the sorrow that they all come up against: that they can’t finally be inside one another permanently, give one another their whole lives?

RP: Has anyone ever? I think it’s Aldous Huxley who talks about two lovers sweating quietly palm to palm. No, unless we possess supernatural abilities, we can never be certain that we’ve entered the mind and soul of another creature. I suppose as a very young child I felt what I later discovered was common in children, especially lonely children, which was that I did believe I completely entered the minds of certain animals who accompanied me—family dogs, for instance—and I thought they understood me entirely. I’m not at all sure I was wrong, and the knowledge gave me occasional peace and the daring to try the same with humans. But partly because I was the junior add-on member of this triangle in which I lived, I became aware early of the gap that threatens to open between us at all times, and that I think must be calculated into all the relations we try with one another.

FB: Would I be correct in saying that it is the women in your fiction who often realize that the final gap in a relationship cannot be bridged—and then reconcile themselves to that fact?

RP: I never thought of it that way, but your guess sounds terribly right. If women understand, it’s because they create the rest of the human race. They make these children in their bodies, and the children leave their bodies. Their children are not their bodies. Their children turn out to be portable and detachable, and women are faced with their tragicomic ability to create but not to possess, however hard many parents may attempt that form of demonic possession. All the smartest people that I knew as a child were women—much smarter than the men—in the sense that they were wise, shrewd, foreseeing. The men were often lovable—I grew up in a family of charming drunks, if that doesn’t seem an offensive oxymoron; but there wasn’t a drunk or addictive female in the family; so the women were the great generals, the great feeders and healers—all but perfectly patient and endlessly expert at taking pain and changing it somehow to usable coinage.

I figured that much out very early. And one of the things I like about my work—and I’m not going to tell you what I don’t like about it—is that it presents a rich, and I think very true, gallery of strong women. I’m proud to have made them, in so far as I did make them.

FB: Let us move from the sublime to the wonderfully ridiculous. You once thought to ask, in words, I believe, not unlike these: what was Madame Bovary like in bed, and should we care? I’ve always meant to ask you about this. You were raising other issues, larger issues. Please talk about that for a minute.

RP: I wish I’d invented that question. In the seventies Esquire asked me to write an article about new sexual freedoms in fiction. It was really the time in American fiction when suddenly we began to realize, My God, I can say anything I want to, and even Jesse Helms can’t stop me! I can portray any sexual act. I can indulge any private peculiarity in prose, and if I can convince a publisher to print it and send it to the bookshops of America, no one’s going to clap me in jail. So I tried to look seriously at the question of how much sexual freedom a serious novelist really needs and can use.

For clarity’s sake, I tried to look back, rather than examining my contemporaries. I looked at Anna Karenina, and I said that essentially Tolstoy does not need to tell us any more about Anna’s private sexual life than he does because it’s not a book about sex. It’s a book about something else—how the best of us may conspire with fate to end our lives and harm those near us. I said that Flaubert probably would have benefited had he been able to tell us more about what Emma’s actual adulterous unions are like for her, because the whole subject of the novel is Emma’s romantic and romantically poisonous delusions about sexual love. It wasEsquire who gave it the title “What Did Madame Bovary Do in Bed?” I think I called it something really dull like “Uses for Freedoms,” which I manfully restored when it reappeared in a collection of my essays called A Common Room a few years back.

FB: You have written very movingly about Faulkner. Would you mind addressing for just a moment the Hemingway-Faulkner question, if it is a question?

RP: Here’s something else I’ve spent too much of life explaining, but one more time: Faulkner has not been an important writer for me. I didn’t begin to read him until I was midway through college. Till then I barely knew of his existence. In fact, the American public barely knew of him until he won the Nobel Prize, courtesy of the French and the Swedish. Hemingway, however, was tremendously important to me as a very young reader—just that Greek lucidity of his early stories and novels seemed to me a code that was worth learning and transmuting into one’s own code, if that were possible; and it turned out to be. When I came to read Faulkner later—and I’ve still by no means read all of his novels—I found myself within a sensibility and a world that was not magnetic to my own and that I really didn’t wish to spend a great deal of time deciphering.

Early in my career, really right on down into the middle, a number of readers said, Oh, here comes another Faulknerian novel, which simply meant that people in my novels often talked in some fictional version of the way that people tend to talk, or did talk, in the American South. And since Mr. Faulkner and I were citizens of the same country—this strange republic called the South— some of our characters and prose rhythms resemble one another, but I can’t see that there’s a more direct relation than that. Everyone who grows up in a highly flavored culture tends to sound a bit like everyone else who grows up in the same culture.

FB: When you start a book what happens? You are about to start a book and you are finishing another. What do you do physically? What happens psychically? How do you know that this dreadful thing is going to happen again?

RP: Well, presumably the unconscious has done a lot of cooking in the basement. Then the odors begin to pervade the ground floor; I think, Apparently I want to write this novel about a thirty-six-year-old man who runs away with a sixteen-year-old girl. Then I’ll probably go to the keyboard and begin making notes which are not at all detailed plans. I never have elaborate outlines, not since A Long and Happy Life. I just write endless letters to myself: What if he’s gray eyed and meets her in a music store in downtown Raleigh in April 1956? They’re contingency studies, strategic extrapolations; and I may write those for x number of weeks, months, or years, depending on the complexity of the material and on what else I’m doing before I really get to concentrate on that particular job. Then I tend to get a first sentence. It arrives almost invariably in bed, when I’ve got to turn the lights on and write it down on the bottom of a Kleenex box or something because I never think to have any real writing materials at hand.

Sometimes I’ll say, I’m going to begin it full time on my father’s birthday, or, I’m going to begin it on the anniversary of so-and-so. That might be six weeks ahead or three weeks ahead, and I pack in the complex carbohydrates and begin the physical and mental training. And then that morning I cut the ribbons and go in and start it—the actual novel, no more plans or guesses. In recent years I’ve written at the rate of somewhere between three to ten pages a day; and that will constitute a first draft—written six days a week, more or less all day and sometimes at night. Then I’ll completely run the first draft back through my fingers on the keyboard. Then I’ll print it out. Then I start revising by hand on paper. After x number of those cycles, I feel that it’s finished; it falls off the tree, and I ship it away.

One last thing:

RP: I think the birth of any unusually creative person is completely unpredictable, at least until we get all our genetic research done and can pop out a little Picasso anytime we want or a larger writer than Sappho or Chekhov. I don’t think, by the way, that our present best writers are specifically coming from the various graduate programs in writing. Not that I’m an enemy of graduate training in writing, as such—there are some honorable places to go and some that are worse than worthless. As usual in American education, a few students will benefit. But most lack the congenital gifts of linguistic skill, tale-finding eyes and that other crucial ingredient: the will and endurance of an old snapping turtle, waiting deep in the pond till it’s ready to seize. Most of the students waste their time and money. I always tell my writing students that if they really want to know, I’ll meet them in private and say what I think their real chances are for a lifetime of good books, provided they know that whatever I say is just my opinion, however earnest. The chief harm in charging people for writing degrees is of course the lie you’re all but bound to tell—that each one’s a possible Conrad or Brontë—when most of them can’t even tell a good joke, much less the stories of this huge country. For by now it’s a country with an immensely complicated history, a history that contains at least several epic tragedies on a national scale which have produced for our contemplation a culture of almost infinite diversity and tragic enormousness, if not enormity, as it goes its comic way. We’ve recently been reminded by Ken Burns’s eloquent PBS series of the Civil War as perhaps the single biggest experience that we’ve even begun to digest, so far. We haven’t even tasted the tragedy of the white man’s extermination of the American Indian.