My wife Jennifer and I were at dinner the other night with good friends, at their place, high on the hill (local mountain). Dinner was fine (organic chicken, roast veggies, creme brule). And the conversation, like the wine, did not stint.
We were talking about books, and our hosts asked what we thought was the theme of a book? Books in general? I inquired. Particular books?
They tend to read non-fiction, earnest non-fiction, I might say, and are practicing Christians, as Jen and I were once upon a time.
My first thought, as a creative writer, is that we don’t start with themes. Poets especially start with an image, a sound, a story — and go from there. We reason, if you call it reason, inductively, going from particular observations to ends, themes, ideas.
In fact, these ends or themes may not matter much at all to poets, especially if they’re writing short poems. They may be unconscious or semi-conscious at most, left to critics and other analysts to ponder. In my own practice, I think of only one long work, just completed, that might have started deductively: a 31-part poem about brain cancer, pain and suffering.
For the most part, even novels start, I suggest, with a story or a character, not a firm idea or theme. I affirm Mark Twain’s comic take, at the beginning of Huck Finn, on the business of sleuthing a work of art and being a critic:
Notice: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
In this winter of our discontent — specifically, Monday, February 16, 2021 — our six-month-old furnace went out, and my wife and I were freezing in place. Jennifer exclaimed, “I am 74 years old, and the temperature in the house is 47!”
Better, a wiseguy friend suggested, than 80 years old and eight degrees in the house. (And certainly better than the long, unmitigated power and gas outage in Texas.)
But we called our HVAC installer, and they sent someone out the next day. This large fellow (let’s call him Charlie), who barely fit up the stairway to the attic where the furnace is located, fixed the problem quickly. A piece of ice or other debris had gotten lodged near the igniter, and he removed it.
After the job Charlie regaled me with a tale about a “good old boy,” he said, in Pea Ridge, a little town northeast of Fayetteville, who, along with lots of other folks in his neck of the woods, lost his natural gas supply entirely. The good old boy, Charlie said, called the company to relight his natural gas furnace. By the way, he said, his water heater was froze up. So did he have a gas stove? Yep. Was it working? Nope. Well, gas was not getting to Pea Ridge at all, so no gas appliance would work, including furnace. It would do no good for Charlie to come out until the gas supply was running again.
Pointing to the snow all around us, I told Charlie as he was about to leave that a climate scientist is calling global warming “global weirding,” and he assured me, “There ain’t no such thing as global warming.” So we bumped elbows on that one (he was wearing a mask, thank god, or thank his employer); and not wanting to discuss politics, I let him go his merry way, this good ole boy, while I went mine, thankful for his HVAC expertise if not his political or meteorological acumen.
I had to laugh at this exchange, which made me realize there are good old boys and there are good old boys. So what was the difference between Charlie and the good old boy in Pea Ridge? I looked at the Urban Dictionary, a source of lively if not always entirely accurate definitions, and found this explanation:
Would I infer correctly that Charlie is country but not that country? That he might have a gun or two but not a big collection? That he carries only one knife at a time? That he knows how to read, whether or not he does, and doesn’t need his GF or wife to accompany him on the hunt?
The whole affair would be simply ludicrous if it weren’t for the political implications of Charlie’s assurance. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know, anything that contradicts his current beliefs. Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh (may he not rest in peace) have been filling him full of non-scientific balderdash, and he doesn’t want to admit he or any other human could be responsible, in even the tiniest way, for climate change because he drives a gas hog for work or pleasure, and damn well likes doing so, and won’t be without his boy toys or power fetishes; because he believes even today in Manifest Destiny, expanding every upward, outward, westward; because, well, just because.
… not because they were suffering from group psychosis. It is not probable that tens of millions of Americans would be frankly delusional, in a clinical sense. The answer lies, rather, in something fundamental about human psychology and cognition: we are hardwired for plausibility, not truth. We rely on our intuition, which is often misleading, not on fact. And this cognitive trait is a particular liability in the age of digital media in which we are drowning in information—as well as misinformation and outright disinformation—because we are ineluctably drawn to data that confirms our worldview and repelled by data that contradicts it.
Moths to the flame, hey? Ineluctably drawn? A good reason to practice a bit of humility before we pronounce ferociously on any matter, especially one we know little of, have not read about, and about which we are just shooting off our mouths.
Young woman at front desk brisk, efficient, almost abrasive.
Waiting room maybe 15′ x 40′, 7-8 groups of fake leather chairs with stainless tubing.
6 or 7 masked patients, patiently waiting, widely spaced, half of them on their phones, the others also bored.
Rain, rain outside the window and the door, go away.
The wait, the usual interminable wait.
The doctor, remember, wears no watch and is conscious of no time. He simply works, he says, non-stop till the work gets done.
The prospect of beer, later this afternoon, in the rain, just out of the rain, at Crisis Brewing, during this Covid crisis, with the brewery’s comforting outdoor propane heaters at all tables.
Beer with a buddy I rarely see, whom I have tempted or tugged off the mountain, where he lives in an old stone cottage the wind blows through.
Then I’m called and weighed, 188, good gods what have I been hogging these last months without exercise, with the pandemic raging all about and fatalism rooting down.
Mattha, she says, the nursing assistant who weighs me and then works me up, as they say. How was your Christmas? Hers was fine, a husband and four boys, she wouldn’t know what to do with girls. The same problem I have had all these years. She’s tall and thin, her hair long and straight and in a ponytail.
This patient room maybe 10′ x 10′ — examining table, two fake leather chairs, a sink, a rudimentary desk with stool, and on the walls two sentimental poems, in script, re Daddy’s girl and do you want to grow up some day, sonny, just like Daddy? Big print of cowboys whipping their horses through meadow and creek, and a calendar with a verse from Romans.
Several years ago he saved me from death via prostate cancer, the good physician, sending me to a urologist, and from thence to surgery, while a distant friend of mine this summer, in a distant place, died with a PSA of over 600.
In the X-ray room a hulking cold machine and a table where the technician arranges my right knee. Overhead, then turned to the side. You’re done, she says. Take two rights, and you’ll be in room 7 once again.
Where the doctor, the good physician, finally enters and probes with questions, briefly palpates the knee where I tell him the shooting pains originate. He’s had them, too, he says, two years ago. X-rays show no bone damage, but can’t reveal ligaments and muscles. Why not take it easy. If you’re hiking and it hurts, ice it afterwards. Use ibuprofen or Aleve. Don’t pivot on that foot but step away, turn in steps.
The same good doctor I left, last time I visited, with a copy of my book of poems, but he doesn’t remember or it doesn’t impress, and he says nothing except soothing words and to the point and is sorry, he says, my friend died like that. No one really has to, in his view.
Medial meniscus tear, he says. Baby it. Ice it. Pop a few pills. May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust in him.