Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Ensuring the Survival of Life's Details

Second Lt. Andrew Jackson Lacy,
Eighth Tennessee Cavalry (CSA), 1862


My family is fortunate and privileged to have a massive amount of photographs, correspondence, and recordings that detail the history of our family, going back to before the Civil War. This information includes:
  • deeds from the 1850s to the early 1900s
  • dozens of letters written during the Civil War (see my book, Battlefront and Homefront: The Lacy Family's Civil War Documents)
  • over 800 letters written since 1879 (though in recent times the family basically quit writing letters because of email)
  • over 1000 photographs (and color slides) from 1862 to the advent of digital photography
  • extracts of my father's diaries from 1969 to 1981
  • all the articles and newspaper columns my father wrote
  • over 200 cassette recordings ("letters") between my family and my grandparents from 1972 to 1988
  • cassette recordings of interviews of family members (including both toddlers and elders)
  • informal memoirs by several family members
  • VHS tapes of special occasions
The problem is preserving this information. Documents can burn. Photographs fade. Tape recordings deteriorate. Entropy is the enemy.

Digitizing and sharing

I have digitized (scanned, ripped) and/or transcribed all of this information. In some cases I've had to physically disassemble photo albums and scrapbooks in order to scan the material. In the case of color slides and recordings on tape, the original media has been thrown away because it was deteriorating, and it becomes more difficult with each passing year to find equipment that the original media will play on. 

This information has been preserved, but the main task now is to remove duplicates and curate all that information (label it, date it, arrange it chronologically). Even though my parents always admonished us to label photos with dates and names of who was in the photos, well-annotated photos over the broad timescale we're talking about are the exception rather than the rule. In many cases the only way to determine chronology is to study the details (like a baby's outfit), tap the details in our family tree (like when a couple got married, or when a person died), or cross-reference a photo using information from a letter.

A concurrent challenge is that of finding the best way to share all this information. Most online systems I've found don't meet my criteria for ease of use, free or low cost, broad applicability, or facilitating the kind of annotation that is needed. Anyone I share this information with probably can open an Excel spreadsheet, a Word document, a JPG image file, or an audio file. I set up a method for labeling each file and listing those files, with dates or approximate dates, peoples' names, and other information, in an Excel workbook. All the files are organized in folders arranged by information type (letters, photos, other documents).

What good is it?

Yes, I'm crazy to take all this on, but I can't bear the thought of this information being lost, unavailable to future generations. There is enough material at-hand that a family historian could piece together a very detailed chronicle of the lives of my family's members from the time the family settled in the Upper Cumberland region of Middle Tennessee around 1850 to today.

Posterity is the word. Immortality is a pipe-dream, but no one will every have this information if it's not conserved.

For further reading

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Brain

I'm not sure what a "Deligetful Salad" is ...

Growing up, when we took road-trips to visit grandparents or when we needed to take visitors out for dinner, Dad would take us to cafeterias, like Davis Brothers and Piccadilly. Invariably one of us kids would wind up with more on our tray than we could finish eating. Mom would say, "Your eyes were bigger than your stomach!" She would claim that she put little on her tray because she knew she could finish off what we couldn't.

I remembered this because I eat information and I've been putting way too much of it on my tray. I frequently use Instapaper to grab interesting articles on the web for reading at a later time. My inventory at the moment is about 300 articles waiting for me to read. This inventory has grown like it has because I seldom go back to read what I save. I wanted to read these articles when I first saw them; I just didn't have the time or the gumption (or attention span?) to read each one as I came across it. So basically my eyes are bigger than my brain.

We already know (see this post) I have a similar problem with reading books. And with e-books for my Kindle it's like finding online articles to save using Instapaper. In each case, it's a matter of "out of sight, out of mind." If I don't look in my electronic pantries, I don't realize all the articles or books I've stored for future consumption.

Self-discipline is overrated.


Memes and Antimemes: Mental Contortions

Mind-bending stories

There are many popular movies and books known for bending the mind of the viewer or reader. Movies like Memento (2000), Live Die Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Looper (2012) are just a few examples. Many of the storylines for these movies are built on notions of memory and time. Some, like The Matrix (1999) and Inception, deal with layers of reality nested like Russian dolls. In The Matrix, you may discover you've been living in a simulation. In Inception, you may discover you've been living in someone else's dream. In movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), you find yourself encountering mysteries of epic proportions.

Reading the sci-fi novel There is No Antimemetic Division by author "qntm" (yes, that is his/her nom de plume) is like turning your brain inside out. This mind-bending goes beyond mental yoga. It falls in the category of mental contortionism.

Antimemes

We all know what a meme is. We've all shared the frustration of being unable to rid our conscious thoughts of a meme. Sometimes it's a tune or jingle -- an "earworm." If an earworm sticks to my brain like a remora to a shark, I have a "treatment" that sometimes works: I sing the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner with each line reversed:

See you can say oh  
Light early dawn's the by
Hailed we proudly so what 
Gleaming last twilight's the at

An antimeme, as imagined by qntm, does the opposite to us. If a meme is something you can't get out of your head, then an antimeme is something you can't keep in your head. You hear an antimeme and there is instantly no way to recall or recover its content. You read an antimeme and not only have no recollection of what you've read, you don't even realize you were reading something.

The premise of There is No Antimemetic Division is antimemes can be sentient and monstrous and, in general, dangerous. They can sometimes be fought -- but then you can't remember what it was you were fighting. They have been around us for millions of years, effectively invisible because as soon as you see one you instantly forget what you've seen. They can drive a person mad.

Wisdom tooth extraction and drug-induced amnesia

Encountering an antimeme results in selective amnesia. When I had my wisdom teeth removed by a dental student at the Medical University of S. Carolina, I was given an IV of Demerol and Valium. I was told this was an amnesiac mixture (not unlike, in effect, what you receive for "twilight sleep" before certain medical procedures). I would be able to respond to questions or instructions ("are you feeling any pain? can you open your mouth a little bit more?") but have no ability to recall any discomfort. In one moment I could feel a tooth coming out, but in the next moment, I would immediately forget it. The drug mixture they gave me acted like an antimeme.

Well, whaddya know!

An antimeme messes with what you think you know. It's a fifty-dollar word -- epistemological -- problem. Epistemology is one of the pillars of philosophy. It concerns knowledge -- what it is, where does it come from, what does it mean to know something.

There is No Antimemetic Division is an epistemologic nightmare for its characters. We often say "you don't know what you don't know." But in this novel there are things you do know but you don't know that you know them. What you think is real is incompletely real. What you experience is an inadequate representation of reality. The mental health of several characters in this mind-bending novel suffer from epistemological panic attacks when they come to realize that, somehow, their knowledge is dangerously incomplete.

But sentient antimemes are more than just a threat to our mental health. They are also an existential threat to the world, threatening life as we know it (or think we know it). For this reason, the Antimemetics Division (which the title of the book says does not exist) is charged with trying to rid the world of antimemes, much like Ghostbusters (1984) did with ghosts, or Men in Black (1997) with aliens. But there is nothing comedic about the tricky business of trying to fight something you can't recall or understand.

The verdict ...

There is No Antimemetic Division is not an easy read. You not only have to allow your mind to bend -- you also have to hold your mind in a twisted position as you follow the course of the story. Picking up again where you left off after you set the book aside requires getting back into that twisted position. In the end, your brain will feel comfortably stretched, but grateful to return to "normal."

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Deep Geographic Memory, Bagpipes, and Electronic Music

MacDuffee Clan Society Tartan (modern)
This past weekend I attended the graveside service of a dear cousin of mine. Just before the service began, a bagpiper approached playing a solemn tune. When the service was finished, he departed the same way he had come, slowly crossing a rise in the cemetery, signifying the departure of my cousin from this earthly life. We were moved by the occasion, and we were moved by the music.

I was reminded of heritage, and music. I was reminded of writing, and our sense of place on this planet.

Geographic Memory

Cherokee linguist Tom Belt is a descendant of the Native Americans who left their homelands in the Southeast U.S., forced to follow the "Trail of Tears" and relocate in Oklahoma in the 1830s. Robert Moor, in his book On Trails: An Exploration, explains that as a child in Oklahoma, Tom Belt would fantasize, while playing war games on the prairie, "that he was in a land of mountain slopes, soaring trees, and murmuring brooks." It wasn't until Belt moved to North Carolina at the age of forty that he realized this was the landscape he had been imagining. It's like a "sense of deep geographic memory," writes Moor. And while it "may seem mystical ... it isn't--or at least, isn't entirely--because the landscape is 'encoded' directly into the [Cherokee] language."

Scots-Irish Heritage

I believe this would resonate with Sharyn McCrumb, award-winning author of a number of historic novels set in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. I was fortunate to hear Sharyn speak at the first Lost State Writers Conference in the foothills of the Appalachians in 1998. Many of us in the audience were descendants of the Scots-Irish who came to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we have roots in the Appalachians. Sharyn said that our Scots-Irish heritage has followed us in our music, our writing, and especially our choice of where to live, for the Appalachians closely resemble the Scottish Highlands. While my McDuffee ancestors were not Highlanders (they came from the island of Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Scotland), surely some of my ancestors were Highlanders.

Bagpipes, Drones, and Electric Guitar

Scots-Irish heritage following us in our music?! And not just music played on a hammered dulcimer. Take the bagpipes, for instance. The Great Highland bagpipe. When I was somewhat taller and older than a wee lad, I really wanted an electric guitar effect (similar to a "fuzz box" or a "wah-wah pedal") that would allow me to create a drone on the electric guitar. As far as I know, it wasn't until advances in digital signal processing made it possible that one could purchase and use a drone effect. (Or, use what is called a "pad" on a synthesizer.) And I wonder, did my desire to create a drone on a guitar arise from what Robert Moor referred to as a "sense of deep geographic memory"?

The Drive Home

Not long after my cousin's graveside service, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, I got back in my car and headed home to Ohio. There is something I've not yet put my finger on that causes me to feel like "I'm in the right place" when I'm in Tennessee. It could be topography, natural history, or the fact I was born there. Though I never really lived much in Tennessee, I consider it home. This is something I will have to explore.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Wilderness and Italian Gardens

Our backyard, partly by design and partly by serendipity, transitions from a typical suburban lawn to sixty-three acres of maturing forest, Dudley Woods Park, along Gregory Creek, a tributary of the Great Miami River in southwest Ohio.

Years after downsizing to a condo in 2006, we had decided it was time to take the unusual step of upsizing ("right-sizing"). In late 2020, we moved into a new home that borders Dudley Woods. The backyard is fenced, and for the first time, our small dog (Scooter) has a place to run and play. (He pretends to be the dog on the Mighty Dog commercial.) 

Nature close at-hand

We have a great view of the forest, including spectacular fall colors, active wildlife (red and gray squirrels, rabbits), and pleasantly-noisy birds (chickadees, flickers, robins, cardinals). Once the leaves fell last autumn, we could see a number of dreys where the squirrels lived. Then, when the ubiquitous honeysuckle lost its leaves and we were treated to some significant snowfall, we could watch deer approach the fence that separates the yard from the woods. As one deer pawed at the snow, I thought it might be looking for something to nibble on. Instead, it was simply clearing a little spot to bed down and rest. There is a prominent boulder beside a nearby trail in the park that displays deep grooves where bucks have been rubbing the velvet off their antlers for probably years. Paths through the park have led us to cedars, hackberry, honey locust, black cherry, and osage-orange, as well as giant sycamores along Gregory Creek.

Transition from suburban lawn to wilderness

Okay, so maybe "wilderness" is a bit of poetic license. (Okay, it's an exaggeration. Humor me.) 

Our backyard is divided, from one side to the other, by a natural, descending swale that drains surface water from our neighbor's yard and ours. It's not enough to cause any erosion, but we learned, once we moved in, how difficult it was to mow, and how it stayed wet most of the time. (If we were to follow it into the woods, no doubt it would empty into Gregory Creek.) And we hired a landscaper to create an artificial "creek bed" in the swale to help control the drainage. A small garden-bridge lets us conveniently cross the swale and get the lawnmower to the other side. Sometimes Scooter will use the bridge, but sometimes he will run and leap the swale without slowing down.

Something the landscaper said stuck with me. The part of the yard on the other side of the swale is -- esthetically -- a transition zone from our grassy yard to the forest behind us. The trees in the transition zone have not leafed out yet, so I've only identified a beech tree so far, but I believe several of the saplings are sugar maples. Beneath the trees, grass and moss cover most of the ground, with a sprinkling of bright red elf cups (a fungus) and early-blooming wildflowers like cut-leaved toothwort. Thankfully, our fence restrains the honeysuckle (for now).

Italian Gardens?

I have trouble remembering the locations of the light switches in our house, but my brain did remind me of a book that discusses transitions between carefully manicured, designed arrangements of plants (in this case, Italian gardens) and the not-as-random-as-you-think "arrangements" of plants and trees in an area of wilderness. The Wildest Place on Earth: Italian Gardens and the Invention of Wilderness, by John Hanson Mitchell, is not your typical book on gardens or wilderness. The best summary of this interesting book can be found in a Barnes & Noble review on Goodreads. Mitchell, writes the reviewer, uses "Italian garden design as a framework for exploring the meaning of wildness. This is not as much of a stretch as you might imagine. Over the centuries, Italian gardens have always incorporated wild spaces as part of the overall design. It is the balance of order and disorder, of control and freedom that gives these gardens their special qualities." I highly recommend Mitchell's book for anyone who likes novel juxtapositions of concepts.

Though our yard is no Italian garden, our "transition zone" is something I'm sure Mitchell would appreciate.


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Music, Soundtracks, and Accompaniment for an Apocalypse

Pleasant surprises

We all know the power that music has to evoke emotions. Several months ago, as I was driving home at the end of a long day, a colorful sunset lit the sky. I felt enraptured as I listened to "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" from The Planets, by Gustav Holst. My favorite part of "Jupiter" comes as a surprise (see "Rock Music and the Element of Surprise"): a slower-tempo segment of grandeur sandwiched in between frivolity. I have no idea why Holst composed "Jupiter" the way he did. The segment I so appreciate was later turned into a tune used for the hymn "I Vow to Thee My Country," a patriotic piece particularly appreciated by the British and performed (for example) at the funeral of Winston Churchill.

The power of spectacular soundtracks

Like many people, I appreciate spectacular soundtracks for movies. I remember, when I was a boy, repeatedly resetting the needle on my father's turntable as I listened to his LP for How the West Was Won (1962), long before I was able to actually see the movie for myself. By that point, I had already pictured much of the story from the titles and musical dynamics of the tracks on the LP.

But I can't begin to express what I felt, at age 13, when I heard, for the first time, Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, used in both the opening sequence and the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I had to purchase the LP  for the soundtrack so I could listen to this piece again and again. And, feel the sadness behind the Adagio from Khachaturian's Gayane Ballet Suite #3, another piece from the soundtrack for 2001. This soundtrack was just as much an act of genius as the visuals of the movie, given how the skillful use of these pieces helped to convey the vastness and mystery of space.

Inspiration for writing

For both inspiration and pure enjoyment, while I was writing my Civil War stories (MISSING IN ACTION, 1863, and Battlefront and Homefront), I must have listened to the soundtrack of Gettysburg (1993) hundreds of times. While writing fantasy I've listened to Scheherazade, by Rimsky-Korsakov, to put me in an inspired state of mind.

Endings, and an apocalypse

But some of the most moving of orchestral pieces are those used at the climax of movies. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, like Khachaturian's Adagio from Gayane, is a slow and sad composition. Barber's Adagio was famously used for the pathos of the final scene in Platoon (1986). 

And I cannot think of the sci-fi movie, Knowing (2009), without pondering the apocalyptic conclusion to the movie. SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the movie, devastation runs rampant as the world comes to an end. The power of this ending is a result of two things. First, there is neither dialogue nor voiceover. And second, the first part of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, opus 92, II. Allegretto is used to communicate the depths of despair as both the movie and life on earth comes to an end.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

My Mind Has Twisted Corners

"Your mind has some twisted corners," my aunt told me after reading an epic fantasy novel I wrote and published (recently re-titled and re-released as Sword and Gauntlets). It was an observation, not a criticism. It doesn't take a reader long to come across some of these twisted corners. Early in the novel, the sorcerer Raethir Del fuses a hunter with a deerskin as part of a process of recharging his arcane powers. When one of the protagonists, Enkinor, becomes trapped by Raethir Del in the Dreamtunnel, his initial dreams feel like the most horrible of nightmares. 
What is the inspiration for those twisted corners? That's hard for me to say. But here are some examples of inspiration for settings and the villain in the novel:
  • Lake Cinnaril is based on Center Hill Lake in Middle Tennessee
  • the peak upon which Visylon takes the Sword of Helsinlae was inspired by the Chimney Tops, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • the tree growing from Helsinlae's grave was inspired by the grave of a relative who died in 1866 in Jackson County, Tennessee
  • the waterfall in front of the Lair of Ualdrar is based on Fall Creek Falls, near Spencer, Tennessee
  • the shapeshifting sorcerer, Raethir Del, was inspired by the wizard on the cover of Uriah Heep's album titled Demons and Wizards
  • the underground lake in the Lair of Ualdrar is based on the Lost Sea in Sweetwater, Tennessee
Recently I was surprised to discover my Pinterest account and its contents are still online. I've not used the account for a couple of years because, after the publication of an earlier incarnation of Sword and Gauntlets, I shifted my attention to finishing my books about the American Civil War, as well as my recently released anthology, The Trail Behind Me.

When I was actively building my collection of art and photos in Pinterest, my purpose was to capture images that might inspire my efforts at worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is the term describing how a writer fleshes out an imaginary world. It can include everything from politics, geography, religion, science, sociology, and warfare, to clothing and customs. There is even a magazine devoted to worldbuilding.

I group my images in Pinterest boards with these titles:

arms and armor
attire
creatures
domiciles
fortifications and ruins
horses and their riders
landscapes
masks and other decorations
models for characters
    male
    female
mystery
pathways and portals
    steps and stairs
    bridges
    portals
    paths and trails
sorcery and shamanism
storyline triggers
strife
warriors and fighters
women and swords
women and water

Here is a draft of the beginning of a story inspired by a random selection of images from my "storyline triggers," "attire," and "creatures" boards:

A column of knights threads its way through a forest. Afternoon sunlight penetrates the bare woods but does little to lift the mood of the warriors. Shadows fall across their snowy path. One knight has dismounted and leads the others. The sound of their horses is dampened by the snow.

The leading knight, Renault, is intrigued by a black figure he's been watching as they approach. The person stands on the path, clearly waiting for them. As the knights get closer, Renault's keen eyes make out black leather armor, black cape and cowl, a black scarf covering the bottom of the person's face. And a black sword at the stranger's side. Renault is not overly concerned. The black-clad figure is outnumbered. Any sign of hostility on the part of the stranger would be a foolish and fatal mistake. As Renault approaches, he sees the person's eyes and realizes it is a woman who waits for them. Her hand rests on the hilt of her sword. If she is the only one they face, his men need not fear. But Renault has not survived to this age without being cautious.

"Renault!" shouts one of the knights, and points in a different direction. There is a splash of crimson, the color of a winter cardinal. It is another woman, this one mounted, some distance off the path. Her red cloak covers her head. There are no weapons visible. She is not armored but there are large, filigreed shoulder pieces securing her cloak to her shoulders. A long staff with a matching filigreed head is sheathed next to the woman's saddle. Renault is certain she is of high position, maybe even royalty. He looks back to the armored and cowled woman standing in their path, raising his hand to signal his troops to stop.

"There are wolves ahead," says the black-robed woman.

"Thank you for the warning," says Renault. He smiles, gesturing to the men behind him. "We are prepared. Strong bows and sharp arrows will keep them at bay."

"It is not the wolves you should fear. They are being herded this way by something you would be wise to avoid."

If you'd like me to continue this story, leave a comment for me below!

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Rock Music and the Element of Surprise

My latest book, The Trail Behind Me, includes a short memoir titled, "Embracing the Element of Surprise." In it, I give several examples from my youth, growing up in Florida and exploring the wild with my friends, where surprise found us and made our experiences more exciting and memorable.

The element of surprise in music can do the same thing.

When I was going to college in South Florida, eons ago, a band named McKendree Spring gave us a concert one evening. I had no idea what kind of music they played, but it didn't matter. It was the end of a balmy spring day and it felt good just to sit out on the lawn, in front of the stage, and experience something new. 

In addition to a number of original songs, McKendree Spring played a cover of "Down by the River" by Neil Young. The first verse was played in much the same style as Neil Young had played it, but when they came to the chorus, they let loose. Fortissimo! Power chords! I was floored. It was totally unexpected. The surprise was exciting. They were loud, and tight, and sounded like The Who had just come on stage for the chorus. Just as exciting was the transition back to the melodic second verse, mezzo-forte.

Since that time, I've come to appreciate a lot of rock music that begins with a soft, melodic intro that changes, with maybe little warning, into something pulsing with volume and energy. (Some classify these songs as power ballads.) 

Styx performed several songs like this, including "Lady" (1973), "Suite Madame Blue" (1975), and "Come Sail Away" (1977). Grand Funk did this with a short intro to "Sin's a Good Man's Brother" from the album Closer to Home (1970). And there are many others, including "Glory of the Empire" (2005) by the Norwegian progressive rock band, Circus Maximus. "The Shadow Hunter" (2004) by the Brazilian prog rock band Angra begins with a lively Spanish (Portuguese) guitar and some castanets and up-tempo percussion before (at 0:45) bursting with power chords. 

The intros for songs like these are frequently performed on piano or acoustic guitar before electric guitars, bass, and percussion come in with a bang. Certainly, the more you listen to one of these songs, the less the surprise, but even when you expect the shift from "light" to "heavy," it can send a thrill down your spine.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A Little Girl and a Great Big Bomb

Once upon a time, two stern-looking military police knocked on the door of my grandparents' house. Their visit was ominous. They had questions about something my mother, age ten, had said on the school bus about blowing up her school.

In this day and age, comments of that kind would certainly be noticed and followed up on.

Now imagine that comment being made in 1944 at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where research on the atomic bomb was taking place under strict secrecy.

Secret work

Mom had been miffed with one of her schoolteachers. Her comment on the school bus was only an offhand remark and an angry wish. But you don't talk about explosions if your father (my grandfather, Grady Webb) is working at a secret facility building the most powerful weapon the world had yet to see.

Grady, like everyone else he worked alongside, did not know the true purpose of the Oak Ridge facility. He was a millwright, tasked with keeping machinery working, even if he had no knowledge of the final product of all that machinery. Every morning, though, as he and the others entered the factory, guards would wave Geiger counters up and down each arm and leg, head and chest. Few of them knew what a Geiger counter was. If anyone's radiation exposure was too high, they were reassigned to another part of the facility.

Mom got off with a stern warning. In time, my grandparents would better understand why these officials came to their door. Grady discovered, on a tragic day in early August 1945, the role Oak Ridge had played in bringing an end to World War II. He was not a government employee but instead worked for one of the contractors responsible for maintaining the facility, Carbide & Carbon Chemical Corporation (later known as Union Carbide). After the war he was presented with a certificate for contributing to the Manhattan Project.

Recognition for contributing to the end of World War II

"United States of America, War Department, Army Service Forces - Corps of Engineers, Manhattan District -

"This is to certify that Grady W. Webb, Carbide & Carbon Chemicals Corp., has participated in work essential to the production of the Atomic Bomb, thereby contributing to the successful conclusion of World War II. This certificate is awarded in appreciation of effective service."

The certificate was signed by Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, and dated 6 August 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, at Hiroshima.

There are important ethical questions regarding the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in World War II. Was this use of the atomic bomb necessary, or was it avoidable? I am not a scholar of World War II history, so I can't really take a side. But it does cause some real cognitive dissonance. I am proud of my grandfather for his contribution to the end of a terrible war, and at the same time, I lament that this contribution and the work of thousands of other people led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians.

Comic relief

I hope you can forgive me for ending this post on a lighter note: I'm grateful my mother was not jailed for "subversive" childhood comments. And that her most serious offense over her long life was nothing worse than backing out of her driveway into a parked police car. ("But he shouldn't have parked there!")

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

"A Blind Dog in a Meat House," or: Bibliophilia and Difficult Decisions

The philosopher Erasmus if often quoted as having said, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes." Though my personal library includes over 300 e-books and over 700 physical books, I have managed to not wind up starving and half-naked.

It seems like I've been eating books as long as I've been eating food. But it was not until I was in high school that I started tracking books I've read. March 8 of this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of keeping a record of the books I have "eaten." This record clearly shows a case of bibliophilia, if not bibliomania. I inherited the genetic predisposition for this, as did our daughter Kendra.


Decisions, decisions ...

Choosing a major in college wasn't easy. I was interested in too many things. Likewise, my interest in books is broad (despite my father's early criticism for reading too much sci-fi and fantasy as a teenager, something for which he apologized many years later). I walk into a bookstore, or log on to Amazon, and I feel like the proverbial "blind dog in a meat house." Everything looks interesting. What is a bibliomaniac to do?

1. I can't afford to buy every book I want to read. (Frequenting library book-sales and second-hand stores helps, but see #3 and #4 below.)

2. I can't always find the books I want at the library, and when I do, I can't always read them before they're due back, because I multitask my reading, reading a handful of books in parallel. (My wife: "How can you keep them all straight?" Me: "It's no different than watching several TV shows at the same time.")

3. I don't have infinite space to shelve every physical book I purchase. (But e-books are easy to forget about, lost in cyberspace.)

4. I don't have the time and energy to read every book I'd like to.

Prioritization sucks.

So many books, so little time ...

Fifty years into tracking my reading, I see how very difficult it would be to summarize the thousands of books I've read.* I've read non-fiction and fiction of virtually every genre (though I'm not sure I've read a romance novel yet - unless The Bridges of Madison County qualifies).  I've read infamously long books as well as short books that are hardly more than a literary swallow for someone who eats books.  There are few books I've reread, primarily because there are always so many other books waiting to be read I can't spare the time on rereading.  There are books that I'm happy to talk about with other people, and books that are so personal to me I can't comfortably talk about them.

And yet, I can't be sated. I'm still hungry for more books. That's why I wind up buying books faster than I can read them. It's a sickness!

I've begun to worry a bit, now that I'm older, how many more books I can read before I die. Under certain assumptions, I may finish another thousand books before my time comes. I don't mean to be morbid. My problem is, I'm rapidly approaching the point when I will have more physical and electronic books in my collection than I can possibly finish. As my mother would say, "Horrors!"

If anyone knows a creative solution to these challenges, please share it!

And finally, we all should remember ...

"We're all what we read to a very considerable degree." **


* If you are interested in seeing my list, you can find it on my Goodreads account.
** David McCullough, "The Love of Learning," an address to the Boston College graduating class of 2008. In: McCullough, David. The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.


Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Pyramids and Good Nutrition: Food and Information

Many of us love to eat information as much as we love to eat food. But are we eating the right kinds of information?

Eating Nutritious Food on the Road to Good Health

Remember the "food pyramid"? It was a visual depiction of a nutritious diet, based on food groups like meat, poultry, vegetables, fruit, etc. 

Imagine picking up a worn copy of a book at your local library's annual book sale, a book that purports to tell you how you should change your diet, based on the food pyramid, so you can live a healthier, more productive life. The book is only 180 pages long, so it should be an easy-enough read. But when you get home and thumb through this book, you realize the 180 pages include 30 pages of endnotes, index, and scripture references. That means the author must get his or her point across in 150 pages. Undeterred, you begin reading, only to discover the first fifty of the 150 pages of text explain what you already know: you need to choose what you eat more wisely if you're going to be healthy. The next ninety pages explain the food groups in the food pyramid. And the remaining ten pages tell you what results you will see from following a better diet.

This is what The Wisdom Pyramid by Brett McCracken is like.

Eating Nutritious Information on the Road to Wisdom

"Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World" is an enticing subtitle for McCracken's book. Our souls all need special care when we get so much information from the world that is true, partly true, or false. (The need for a term like "post-truth" disturbs me on several levels.) The author sets up a pyramid like the food pyramid to illustrate the importance of each "information group" to reaching actual God's-honest wisdom. I like the basic premise. I like the analogy between the food pyramid and the author's Wisdom Pyramid. 

But ... do I really need to slog through fifty pages of The Wisdom Pyramid to see why a more nutritious information diet will make me wiser? And why put off describing what a healthy wisdom lifestyle looks like till the end of the book? 

I believe it would've been much better to begin with a picture of a nutritious wisdom lifestyle. If I follow certain principles, what will that lifestyle look like, and why should I desire it? After that, I would succinctly explain the challenges we face every day in managing our information consumption, as well as the steps necessary to achieve a better diet. This last part is the meat of the book, and more words should be used there than in any other part of the book.

There are important messages in this book. But the way the problems and the solutions were presented didn't work for me.


Food pyramid graphic from http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/Fpyr/pyramid.gif, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=680809

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Trail Behind Me

Welcome to the re-boot of my blog!

It's my pleasure to share with you the latest news: my new book, The Trail Behind Me: Short Works, is available on Amazon as a paperback for a special introductory price of only $5.99.

This is a selection of memoirs, poems, short stories, and personal essays that I've written over the years.

From the back cover:

"Lacy takes us from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Space Coast of Florida and the Adirondacks, from the Great Wall of China and the coast of Denmark to the hills of Ireland. Each work has some connection to nature, or trails - both literal and metaphorical. The fabric of these works includes explorations both real and imaginary; woven through these works are threads of experience and retrospection.

From humor to horror, from desire to danger, The Trail Behind Me is a multifaceted journey across a personal landscape."