What should Americans swear to and on?

Alan Grayson, Congressman from central Florida, recently said brilliantly (though he was not the first),

“I placed my hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution; I did not place my hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”

I will go him one farther:

I gladly place my hand on the Declaration of Independence and swear to uphold the Constitution.  In America, religion has no place in government or law.


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Influence from Great Writers

Nathan Bransford (author, agent, media manager) asked on his blog“Which Writers Most Influence Your Work?” It’s a short blog, but generated a great deal of response.  It’s worth looking at, if you can get past the Mom and Dad and “My second-grade teacher said…” stuff, although my response slinks a bit toward that.  So, here goes:

At Oglethorpe University (in the dark ages half a century ago) my senior English professor said, “Steve, you have a very nice way with words; you just need something to write about.” I took that as an encouraging comment, whether it was meant that way or not. A year later I was in a writing class at The New School (NYC) in which the teacher was so harsh that I gave up writing fiction for decades. Really. So, they were both influential regarding my writing.

Fortunately over the years I grew up, grew thicker skin, and began to write fiction, my first and long neglected writing love.  The writers who have influenced me in style, process, structure, and thought include Ron Carlson, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Philip and Henry Roth, Alice Munro, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Chandler, Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, E. L. Doctorow, Donald E. Westlake, Bernard Malamud, Melville, and of course Nabokov. Not all at the same time, certainly, but all are behind me kicking my butt generally forward (a self-indulgent fantasy, but not a bad one to have).

Below, I add for my dear readers just how (or why) some of the authors I’ve listed have helped me.

Ron Carlson:  a great teacher and writer of short stories and accessible novels.  He grabs everyday life, wrestles it from the mundane, and makes it meaningful.

William Faulkner:  His more famous works are FAMOUS and worthy, although the style doesn’t fit the modern audience.  Read his earlier works first, which are simpler (Mosquitos and Soldier’s Pay).  Don’t ignore Light in August, a great read, not in the stream-of-consciousness style in which one sentence could run for pages. He does “bad guys” so deeply that you almost root for them.

John Steinbeck is down-to-earth, gritty, and “real.”  Great characters who struggle with right and wrong.  My favorite is Winter of Our Discontent.

Vladimir Nabokov can be hard to read.  (Hey, he’s Russian.)  He’s very internal, not plot driven, actually more personal issue/problem oriented.  Most people know about Lolita, whether they’ve read it or seen the movie.  Many people consider Lolita a book about pedophilia, although the real subject is obsession, which is why I call his work problem oriented.  Amazingly poetic writing given that English is his third language.

Kurt Vonnegut is funny, caustic, incisive, and terse.  I strive for these things.

Donald E. Westlake also writes terrific bad guys.  Read The Ax to see how Westlake goes so deeply into the bad guy that you can understand why he’s bad and maybe start rooting for him (or her).  I became comfortable writing “bad” characters from reading his.  Maybe too comfortable.

Henry Roth shows how to write three-dimensional children who are able to be “smarter than their age” in Call It Sleep.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  You may be wondering where my fiction is (if not necessarily where you can buy it.)  Fair question.  I’ve written four novels and a book of short stories.  I just haven’t published them.  Why?: A)  I love writing stories; sending them out for publication steals time from that;  B) Fear of failure; C) Fear of success; D) All of the above.  But two of the novels will soon be available on Amazon/Create Space and/or BookBaby, affordably priced.  I’d love to know what you think of the novels.



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A Promise is a Promise: My Stories aborning

It’s January 2, 2015.  I promise to publish the first two of my four completed novel manuscripts in the first quarter of this year.  (This is a promise, not a resolution, as I regularly break resolutions.)  I promise this to myself (very important), to Valerie (even more important), and to Chandler (maximally important).  For those who don’t know, Chandler is the one sticking his tongue out at you at the top of my home page.  The two novels are titled Max in Repose and Hangtown.

Max in Repose opens at the burial of a man whose will awards his entire estate to his three wives, to be equally divided, on the sole condition that they live together for one year.  Any failure, including the death of any of them, violates the will and shifts the estate to the Boston chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Hangtown is the story—linked stories, actually—of the five people who decide who gets hanged in a California Gold Rush town in 1850.  A sixth character, a 17-year-old boy traveling to Hangtown, is a likely candidate for the rope at the book’s end.  Each character is driven by his and her own fears, desires, and ghosts.  It’s historical fiction and written with a structure similar to Maxwell Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

Hope I’ve whet your appetite.Smiling @ Ragged



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Best Simile

Literary writing often flows with similes and metaphors.  Also, not so literary writing.  And, of course, poetry.  Here is the best simile I’ve yet encountered, and it comes from the pen of a critic, not a “creative” writer:

“…tombstones cried out of the earth, like teeth around a scream.”

This is from John Leonard upon visiting the Jewish Cemetery in Prague.  (He was writing about Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright, as well as Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first president.)

What is the best simile you’ve ever read, or written?  And what do you think of my assertion that the writing of critics, as critics, is not “creative?”

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A few key words from JFK

I’m sure you’ve heard enough this week+ about JFK.  Still, here is a brief video showing a few well-chosen words from him spoken by young, energetic, and active people whose chosen career is to continue his work.  I just couldn’t let the day pass without offering something from President Kennedy.

(With thanks to great journalist Tom Cochrun —  http://tomcochrunlightbreezes.blogspot.com/2013/11/jfk-everyday_22.html)


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Please read the following article about the Gettysburg Address, which includes the address, itself, in Lincoln’s own handwriting.  Lincoln’s words were brief—only 270 words—and to the point and beautifully said.  Yet, they apply today, certainly about war itself, but I think more so about who we are as Americans and what we need to do.

It’s so easy to get discouraged these days.  For writers with the difficulty of getting their work published, despite the new-form opportunities in e-publishing and self-publishing.  Over the magnetic attraction our government has to war and other massive intrusions into our lives.  Because of the attraction to greed  and power fostered and aided by new technologies, leading to a new social order being commanded, dictated to us.

In the past, during a fairly compact period of time ranging around the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, we had great raging writers—Thorstein Veblen, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Joseph Conrad—who drew vivid scenarios of the plight of ordinary Americans.  (You might start with “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis.)

More recently, the most effective truth-telling has come not from writers, but from revealers of the real truth deeply hidden by our government—Daniel Ellsburg, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning along with Julian Assange—who are data analysts-with-a-conscience rather than writers, per se.  Thank God for them, and hopefully more of them, but where are the great writers (not to mention leaders) who could make the real issues live, as Lincoln did?:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

NOVEMBER 17, 2013, 9:05 PM
from The New York Times “Opinionator”
Lincoln’s Sound Bite: Have Faith in Democracy
The surprisingly short story of the Gettysburg Address is that it was a surprisingly short speech — 270 words or so — delivered by Abraham Lincoln as part of the dedication ceremonies for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, on Nov. 19, 1863.

But the long story is that no single American utterance has had the staying power, or commanded the respect and reverence, accorded the Gettysburg Address. It has been engraved (on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial), translated (in a book devoted to nothing but translations of the address), and analyzed in at least nine book-length critical studies over the last century.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put down his morning paper’s report of the address and wrote to his publisher that “Lincoln’s brief speech at Gettysburg … seems to me admirable.” Longfellow’s friend Charles Sumner wrote, “Since Simonides wrote the epitaph for those who died at Thermopylae, nothing equal to them has ever been breathed over the fallen dead.” He added: “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”
What is less clear to us today is why it struck so many people as a landmark from the start. Partly, this instant recognition of the address’s power grew out of its language. It obeys the Churchillian dictum: Short words are best, and the old words when short are best of all. The address relies on crisp, plain vocabulary, over against the three-decker Latinate lexicon beloved of so many 19th-century school textbooks. Of some 270 words — there’s no recording — about two-thirds are single-syllable, and a half-dozen, four-syllable. Rarely has so much been compressed into such simple and uncomplicated elements.

The address is also memorable because, frankly, it is short on length, too, enough to be easily memorized. Lincoln had been invited to deliver only “a few appropriate remarks” as a kind of benediction. The formal oration at the ceremonies was to be delivered by Edward Everett — former congressman, governor of Massachusetts, president of Harvard, secretary of state (under President Millard Fillmore), senator (briefly) and, most recently and most ironically, candidate for vice president in 1860 on the ticket of the short-lived Constitutional Union Party, running against Lincoln.
If we want to see what classical speech in 19th-century America looked like, Everett is the man. He delivered a two-hour-plus, 13,000-word doozy, reminding the thousands who crowded around the speakers’ platform in the new cemetery that “it was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner,” that the fallen occupied a place alongside those “who fell at Marathon,” that (in Horace’s maxim) “it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country,” and that (in the words of Pericles) “the whole earth is the sepulchre of illustrious men.”

But Everett was all length and no sound bite. At the end, there was little alternative but to report the whole oration, word for word, or simply forget it.

Lincoln’s strong suit, on the other hand, was his capacity to capture an idea in the fewest and clearest words possible. So, in the address, he describes the past and what it did (create a republic of equal citizens), then relates what the people at the ceremonies are doing in the present (dedicating a cemetery), and then moves to what they are to do for the future (dedicate themselves to the same principles the soldiers were dedicated to). In that way, the address is almost anorexic: It makes no mention of slavery or secession or the Constitution, paints no picture of the great battle, and even fails to acknowledge the civilian politicians — David Wills of Gettysburg, Andrew G. Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania — who had made the purchase of the cemetery possible.

Yet, for all of its famous brevity, the Gettysburg Address is not so simple or compact as it seems. It may be only 270 words long, but those words are woven into 10 complicated sentences — all more cumbersome to parse on the page than to hear in the open. And Lincoln does not mind throwing compactness to the wind when he wants to make a lilting impression on the ear. In fact, the well-known repetitive triplets — “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people” — are the exact opposite of compactness and constitute a puzzling luxury if we consider the address only as a terse alternative to Everett’s.
The address is less like an oration, and more like that oldest of American genres, the Puritan jeremiad, the public sermon that warned our forebears of their sins but also offered them a path to redemption. The three-part, past-present-future movement in the address matches the same movement in the jeremiad, and like it, the address contains both a word of warning and a promise of blessing.

The warning Lincoln issues is his admission that the Civil War was testing whether or not democracies are inherently unstable — “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” Today, many take democracy for granted as the endpoint of political development. But it did not look that way in 1863. The French Revolution, which promised to be the American Revolution’s beachhead in Europe, swiftly circled downward in the Reign of Terror and then the tyranny of Bonaparte; democratic uprisings in Spain in 1820, in Russia in 1825, in France in 1830 and across Europe in 1848 were crushed by newly renascent monarchies or subverted by Romantic philosophers, glorying in regimes built on blood, soil and nationality rather than the Rights of Man.

The outbreak of the American Civil War only gave the monarchs further reason to rejoice. The survival of the American democracy had been a thorn in their royal sides, unsettling their downtrodden peoples with dreams of self-government. That this same troublesome democracy would, in 1861, obligingly proceed to blow its own political brains out — and do it in defense of the virtues of human slavery — gave the monarchs no end of delight.

Lincoln’s task at Gettysburg was to persuade his hearers, on the evidence offered by three days of battle, that democracy’s sun had not set after all. Gettysburg was not only a victory, but a victory won with the Union Army’s back to the wall, and its news came, appropriately, on July 4.

Above all, the victory was the product of self-sacrifice — 3,155 Union dead, 14,529 wounded and 5,365 “missing,” rivaling British and Allied losses at Waterloo. These casualties were not professional soldiers, Wellington’s “scum of the earth” who had taken their shilling and their chance together, nor were they dispirited peasants, driven into battle by the whips of their betters, but precisely those ordinary citizens whom the cultured despisers of democracy had laughingly doubted could ever be made to do anything but calculate profit and loss.

Looking out over the semicircular rows of graves, Lincoln saw in them a transcendence that few people, then or now, have been willing to concede to liberal democracy. And he saw something all could borrow, a renewed dedication to popular self-government, “that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.” Like the jeremiad, it would point toward a renewal, a new birth, not of freedom from sin, but political freedom.

The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again.

Allen C. Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, is the author, most recently, of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”
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Who are they?

  • They count on weakness of resolve in the opposition.
  • They operate with the siege mentality (keep on bombing, no matter the cost, and the opposition will give in).
  • They are contemptuous not only of democratic (progressive; Rooseveltian) policy, but of the opinions of ordinary people.
  • They know best; after all, they’re rich and successful and Democrats work for them.
  • God (according to John Wesley, etc.) has given them wealth and power, therefore, they are right, no question about it.
  • They are America’s royalty, even though America supposedly has no royalty.
  • They allow no doubt (though some of them have it).  It’s a classic case of circular reasoning, reinforced, of course, by each other (which is known in adolescent circles as a “circle jerk.”)
  •  Even when they are in the minority, they act as if (1) they are in the majority, or (2) majority/minority doesn’t matter.
  • They see themselves as granite, even though they may be sinking in quicksand.
  • The very fact that “health reform is Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement,” is reason enough to prevent it from happening, even if the majority of Americans want it.
  • They will attack their own from further on the right rather than allow their own members to be soft on anything toward the center of right.

 (Read this again; it’ll make sense.  Sort of stream of ‘un’consciousness; think Snopes thinking in Faulkner.  Or, just let it ride and move on.)


  • When did American politics become dysfunctional?  (I think somewhere around 1800.)
  • We’ve been fortunate to survive, possibly by the grace of the Great Spirit.
  • Our government, all branches and persuasions of it, has ridden itself into a box canyon.  Like watching one of those old Westerns, we’ll certainly see what happens.  And please clean up around your seat.
  • Ask yourself this question:  Are “Democracy” and “Capitalism” incompatible?  See where it takes you.  (I’m asking you to think, not simply to react as you’re used to.)



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So, Congress-Idiots do get paid. Q#2: Why?

Okay, the overwhelming response to this humble blog-site’s question (Do Congress-Idiots keep getting paid during the government shut-down instigated by themselves?) was, Yes, they still receive their paychecks ($174,000/year) during the shutdown.  Why?  Because they are considered “essential” employees, just like those who work for the National Security Agency.

But, I repeat, why?  How “essential” could they be if they contrive to shut down the government they are supposed to be working in, with, and for?  That’s like me going to my old boss, Bob, and saying I’m going to shut down your store, Boss Bob, but I insist that you continue paying me my salary.

Does that make sense?  I’d sure like to hear from someone what sense it makes.  (I’ll probably hear from Boss Bob over coffee at Lily’s on Thursday.)

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Do our Congress-idiots still get paid?

Question:  Do the persons that we elected to the House of Representatives and the US Senate  and the White House  and their staffs still receive pay during the government shutdown which begins tomorrow?  Anybody out there know?  If so, pass the answer to me and I’ll pass it down the line.

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William Faulkner’s War Wisdom

“For six thousand years we labored under the delusion that the only way to stop a war was to get together more regiments and battalions [including, of course, more and more efficient technology of murder] than the enemy could, or vice versa, and hurl them upon each other until one lot was destroyed and, the one having nothing left to fight with, the other could stop fighting.  We were wrong, because yesterday morning, by simply declining to make an attack, one single French regiment stopped us all.”

This passage from William Faulkner’s [with one small bracketed addition] A Fable says  so much so directly (for Faulkner).  A few decades later First Lady Nancy Reagan said it even more succinctly (which is not to say better) with “JUST SAY NO,” although her focus was sex, not war.  Lysistrata combined the two—war and the withholding of sex—to great effect.

Wouldn’t it be truly glorious, efficient, and wise if those who made war happen had to do the fighting, just them, no armies to do the dying for them?  But humanity as a whole, judging by our long record, has been well equipped with brain-power while short-changed on wisdom.

Others have raised the message, too, but I like Faulkner, so I offer his words to you.  Yet, perhaps the most troubling rendition of this message comes from Dalton Trumbo in the form of “Johnny Got His Gun,” a 1939 novel about World War I, made into a 1970 movie.  It’s the story of an American soldier who loses all his limbs and half his brain, so that he has no sight, hearing, speech, yet is alive and thinking, wondering what happened, where he is, who’s there, though the medical staff at the field hospital don’t know of his ability to think, only that his heart still beats.  The opening moments of the film showing generals and politicians and the “glory” of war provide the message behind the credits and a military drum-beat.  Then comes the bomb blast.  Then the army surgeons speculating over Johnny’s delimbed body.

I offer nothing new today, just a reminder from a great writer in our leaders’ latest moment of searching for war.  I love finding gems such as this and feel spurred to pass them along.  A Fable is about World War I, the “war to end all wars,” (a phrase attributed to Woodrow Wilson), was published in 1950, but entered my consciousness just this week.  Lysistrata is a play by Aristophanes first performed in Greece in 411 BCE. which I first encountered in college (Oglethorpe University).  Being young and not yet smart, I was of two minds about the anti-war message (Peloponnesian War) of Lysistrata, actually three.  First (or last), it is a hoot.  More importantly, it spurred my own then uber-masculine urge to fight to defend whatever, while contrarily opening my mind to the peaceful bliss of Canada.  Fortunately, I turned out to be 4-F and have lived out my life in relative peace in this, my nation of war-willing leaders.

Circling back to Faulkner’s opening quotation, the expected price of refusing to engage the enemy in battle is a bullet in the back from one’s own officer, but that’s another story.

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