April 21, 2014
Pack Creek Ranch – San Juan County, Utah
Weather carnival passed through this past week.
Wind, dust, rain, hail, sleet, snow, and unidentified icy chunks.
All in twenty-four hours!
Twenty-two degrees that night – seventy-five degrees the next afternoon.
Followed by a day of clear skies, a full moon, and a full lunar eclipse.
Weatherman says another extravaganza is on the way by tonight.
And, looking down the valley, sure enough, here it comes!
Blowing dust rising up as I write this.
Real climate change - on a small, daily, local scale in spring . . .
All around me is a magnificent multi-layered red-rock landscape.
Thousands of feet thick.
Slowly created over a zillion years of days just like this one . . .
* * *
One response to last week’s posting about Reunions came from a friend who was not a high school graduate – he dropped out, went on, and never looked back.
That’s a wonderful category, actually.
He’s in a class all by himself!
He’s the Class Valedictorian, and Class Clown.
Homecoming King, Most Likely to Succeed, and Permanent Class President.
As for reunions, all he has to do is get in touch with himself – anytime, anywhere.
And whenever he wonders “Whatever happened to that guy in my class?” – he can check the nearest mirror.
* * * *
LYING DOWN ON THE JOB – SUPINING AND PLANKING
The following paragraphs and sentences were constructed while I was lying down several times over the last week – staring up at either the sky or the ceiling.
No, not a sign of illness or weariness – I felt quite fine.
My position was not a precursor to a nap or sleep - my eyes were open.
And my brain was alert.
I was thinking – and writing – while on my back.
Granted, lying down is a suspect activity.
People who frequently lie down leave themselves open to accusations of laziness, and lumpish lolly-gagging.
Sinners in the Sloth category.
Granted that it may be self-deceptive to say I lie down to think and write.
My wife is also dubious.
“Well - not many people combine thinking and snoring.”
So what if I do doze off sometimes?
My body is saying I need a little sleep – and I cooperate with my body.
Besides, a little bit of daytime doze-off may lead to daydreaming.
That’s also a creative state.
So say I . . .
Most of us spend most of our daily lives upright - in a vertical position – sitting or standing, walking or working.
It’s a proud trademark of our bipedal species.
On the other hand . . .
We do get down at important times.
Homo Sapiens take a horizontal position at birth, in copulating, and at death.
Also to rest, sleep, swim, sunbathe, or participate in protests.
There is a difference between lying down face up – the supine position and lying
face down – the prone position.
The latter is also called planking – and is central to a world-wide cult activity that appeals to the human sense of whacky foolishness and creative imagination.
(Step aside here for a bit - Go to planking on the web – here’s the link: https://www.google.com/search?q=%25s&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=AMNVU5G-BebbyQHm1YDQDQ&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1691&bih=818#q=planking&tbm=isch)
There are planking games, mass plankings, and planking world records.
As you will notice, planking is a dubious position for contemplative thinking.
It’s not only stressful, but can be downright dangerous.
I have not tried it.
By the way, there is a German company that makes a very elegant bathroom set-up for taking a shower while lying down. (see link for horizontal shower: http://www.dornbracht.com/en-US/Products/Bath-and-Spa/Transforming%20Water/Horizontal-Shower.aspx)
Whoever thought of this is a genius.
For creative thinking, lying down face up is the way to go – supine.
Call it Supining.
(Nothing on the web – maybe this will start a new cult fad.)
Most of the time focused thinking has to go on in the background while we are busy doing a lot of other things. Multi-tasking may be an admirable ability, but it seldom leads to quality thinking.
Supining is the opposite of planking in many respects.
For one thing, planking requires witnesses – an audience is preferred.
Look at me.
Supining is a solitary enterprise.
Why go supine?
To radically shift perspective.
To disengage from the ongoing traffic of the world’s busy-ness.
To clear away the debris from the wellspring of focused thought.
To interrupt the forever-getting-ready-for-the-next-thing-to-do in life
and be here - in the moment of this day.
To relax the body and let the mind roam free.
To enjoy the contentment of doing one simple thing at a time.
Our usual upright position gives us a view of a cluttered landscape – filled with things and stuff and the activity of other people.
We live standing in the middle of a traffic circle – coping.
It’s hard to focus the mind there.
But when lying down, the sky or the ceiling is a blank canvas offering opportunity for thought - and, often, surprise.
Lying down a few minutes ago, this thought came to me:
“I don’t believe in pterodactyls, but I do believe in dragons and unicorns.”
Lying down supine is not the same as sitting in mediation.
The purpose of sitting in meditation is to focus on emptying the mind.
The purpose of supining is to give the mind freedom to think without pressure.
If you had a video of my morning writing process, you would see me alternating between sitting upright at my desk and lying supine on my couch – back and forth, up and down - back and forth – sometimes inside, sometimes out.
Here’s a sampling of what happens – a stream of consciousness - none of it planned or expected:
It’s Good Friday. The Sabbath Day for Muslims - Christians of all flavors are gathered in Jerusalem – along with the Jews, who are celebrating Passover.
Not many Buddhists involved, I supposed – a Buddhist would say that every Friday is a good day if you look at it with open eyes.
In Moab, Utah, this is Jeep Safari Week – 30,000 people in the valley and the surrounding red-rock canyon-lands – roaring around in their creepy-crawlers over the terrain – the wilder, the better.
This enterprise takes place annually the week before Easter.
Religion has not been left out, though.
There’s a sunrise service for Jeepers on Sunday.
And this morning a caravan of 12 all-terrain Jeeps passed me on the road, headed up and out into the boonies. Each one had a bumper sticker that said,
“JEEPERS FOR JESUS.”
It’s a theologically sound attitude, I suppose.
If God is omnipotent and omnipresent, then He’s out there with the Jeepers.
A memory floated up, unbidden.
I am on my back, lying in a meadow in the Rocky Mountains at dawn.
Many summers ago I was a cowboy on a working guest ranch out West.
One part of my job was to ride out into a meadow at sunrise to round up a small herd of horses, and drive them into the corral to be fed, curried, and saddled.
This morning drill was understood by all the horses.
I only set the action in motion – my horse knew what to do and where the other horses were – and when he showed up, the horse herd headed for the barn.
I would let the reins of my horse go slack and ride along at his pace.
He did the work - leaving me free would take in the loveliness of the morning and the meadow.
Once in a while I would slip off the horse, lie down on my back in the grass, and stare up at the blue sky.
This was not in the standard morning drill and it made all the horses uneasy.
I kept my horse’s reins in one hand so that he would not wander off.
One morning I drifted away – asleep or daydreaming – let go of the reins – and my horse walked away, signaling the herd to move on as well.
Regaining consciousness and finding myself alone in the meadow with no horse in sight, I lay back for a while and then walked back to the barn, at peace with the world – the horses were where they should be, and so was I.
I was a young man then – not yet twenty.
I had been supining and didn’t know it.
Other great supining moments and places came to mind:
On the grass at Farewell Bend State Park on the Snake River.
On the grass at Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River.
On my bed aboard ship in a great storm at sea.
On a sand bank at the mouth of the River Seine.
On a beach on the island of Crete very late on a star-filled night.
And on and on and on . . .
Supining while looking up at the night sky offers a different kind of canvas from the sky of day or a ceiling – it’s a deep deal.
Moving from the vertical to the horizontal often affects sound – it seems quieter when you are supining.
Perhaps I should write a book: One Thousand Places You Should Supine Before You Die.
What do I do for a living? Think and Write.
Almost the opposite of what a UPS driver does.
The UPS driver ran up the steps onto my porch yesterday afternoon.
I was supining at the time.
He dropped a package at the door and ran back to his truck.
I know him – a nice guy – I wish he had time to talk.
He must have some good stories to tell.
But a report I heard last week on NPR said that the UPS drivers and their trucks are constantly monitored for the sake of efficiency.
And every day, every movement of the driver and the truck are recorded in a central computer – and studied to see how much time can be shaved off a day’s work – and the study over several years has increased the daily package delivery
rate from an average of 60 to an average of 110.
True, the drivers are the highest paid and best compensated in the industry.
Still, it seems to me that they do their work in a constant state of panic.
I’d never make it as a Man in Brown.
Getting supine is not part of the job.
The famous astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking came to mind.
He once slept in my bed here at Pack Creek.
He was touring Canyonlands after an astronomy meeting in Salt Lake.
I was not present at the time but was pleased to have him as my guest.
In compensation I only asked that he would let me know what he was thinking as he lay in my bed before going to sleep.
I expected something profound.
“Breakfast.” was the reply.
link to this story
April 11, 2014
Pack Creek Ranch – San Juan County, Utah
Mid- April, 2014
Windy, warm, a mix of clouds and sun.
Calendar head’s-up: Full moon on the 15th – and a full lunar eclipse!
Mea culpa: The Fact-Check App. and The Think-Check App in Fulghum’s brain must have been deactivated when the recent Latin American essay was written.
Thanks to sharp eyes of readers, a correction:
“E pluribus Unem”– the Latin phrase on the Great Seal of the United States - translates as “Out of Many, One.”
It used to be our national motto, but in 1956, In God We Trust – in English – replaced it.
Now you know why Fulghum barely passed Latin in high school.
Ah, well . . .
As the Romans said:
Animadvertisine, ubicumque stes, fumum recta in faciem ferri?
Ever noticed how wherever you stand, the smoke goes right into your face?
The class of 19____ . will be holding its _______ reunion next June.
Your reunion committee has planned a weekend of great events:
A picnic, banquet, dance, and a visit to the old high school.
Some of our former teachers and coaches will join us.
A group photo will be taken – and a scrapbook is in the works.
Come! Be part of the celebration.”
It’s High School Reunion Season.
You’ve probably been getting invitations and reminders since last fall.
The ad-hoc reunion committees have been meeting over the past year, and are now in a state of excitement and anxiety.
Excited about their plans.
Anxious about how many classmates will attend – and which ones.
This is the 10th year for the class of 2004.
The members are in their late 20’s – and many will not come to a reunion, saying:
“I just got away - it’s too soon to go back . . .” or “I’m still in recovery from the Senior Prom.” Those who do come will think things like: “I wonder if _________ is still single or available . . .? or “I’m going – by God, they should see me now!”
It’s the 25th year for the class of 1989 – and many will go – because they are in the reflective years– mid-40’s. Life has settled down. And nostalgia has risen up – for the high school they remember but probably never really was. This is the “proof of spawning” Reunion. The classmates bring photographs with them – children – even grandchildren. Nobody else is impressed - except those who are shocked that, with your genes and looks, you had the courage to reproduce.
The 50th reunion is a big one – for the class of 1964 – in their late 60’s.
Now they know what became of themselves and wonder what became of their classmates. They have answers to the questions of senior year: Where will I go? What will I do? Will I have a job or a career? Will I marry? Will I have children?
And divorce has derailed the lives of half of them by now.
They know the answers to the questions – but they don’t always want to talk about that or go into details.
For the class of 1954, this is the 60th year since graduation – and maybe the last organized one – because they have lived through six decades – and are slowly being diminished in numbers by age, illness, and death.
The 75th reunion will be a small one – if there is one – this is the class of 1939 – those still alive – are in their early 90’s – not many are alive or able-bodied.. The reunion will have the quality of a memorial service.
* * * *
Then there are those who left and found life in the world out there more engaging and meaningful than high school and the town they grew up in. At most they may come back to one reunion – out of curiosity – but once is enough. They have moved on – permanently.
Many who graduate from high school not only never come back to a reunion, but they never looked back after graduation. High school was not a good experience for them – and revisiting negative memories has no appeal. Or high school was simply not all that important in the course of their lives. They look forward, not backward. A week on the beach, at their cabin, at a spa, on a cruise, or to Paris has much more appeal than vising the mausoleum of their youth.
And then there are those who stayed right where they were.
Even if they went to college or the military or a good job, they returned.
They liked the town they grew up in.
They liked their families.
They had a great time in high school.
They married, had kids - and sent them to the schools they attended.
They remain content because they contained contentment all along.
They flourished where their roots were in deep.
And, more likely than not, this group plans the class reunions.
For most high school graduates, a reunion requires a journey across space.
Travel from where you are now to where you used to live.
But suppose – just suppose – that the person you have become now could travel across time and speak to the teenager you were then.
I’m not asking for generic wisdom for generic adolescents.
Specifically - what would you say to you?
Here are my thoughts for Goodtime Bobby Lee Fulghum, age 17, from Robert Lee Fulghum, age 77:
Down deep you are not going to change all that much – just on the surface.
Basically, the person you are now is the person you’ll be a long time from now.
Your character, personality, and style are pretty much in place.
Sex and love and luck will play more in working out your destiny than all the plans and dreams you have now.
Until you’re around 50 you will find life an unpredictable mix of success and failure, joy and sorrow, elation and pain, good and evil.
After that? You’ll get used the way things are and go on.
Most of the worst times of your life will come from those you call “family” –
parents, relatives, close friends, and those you marry.
So will most of the best times.
A lot of what you wanted won’t be worth the effort you put in to get it.
Especially the “stuff” and “toys.”
You’ll spend as much time unloading your wagon at the end as you spent time loading it along the way.
Learn to travel light.
Everything essential is invisible – love, friendship, a sense of well-being, hope.
Everything in the universe is recycling compost – you, included.
You are neither the special target of the dark side of life – nor are you are one of the specially privileged.
Don’t listen to adults who say, “Someday you will understand.”
You will never understand the meaning of the great mysteries of Life, the Universe, and Everything – not soon or someday. But your life will go on without knowing the “meaning of it all.” Meaning is not something you find but invest.
You will learn that you may give meaning to your existence as you grow and become, as long as you live. Understanding evolves, but never resolves.
The test 50 years from now will not be: Did you get what you wanted?
But do you want what you got?
Bobby Lee probably wouldn’t understand or believe these statements at 17.
But he will recognize their truth as they rise up to meet him on the road.
* * * *
So, then . . . . .
When the invitation to the reunions come – no matter whether it’s for the 10th or 25th or 50th you will probably pause - in surprise and denial.
“No. What? Where did the time go?”
You will do some surprisingly serious thinking.
And . . .so . . . .
Are you going?
link to this story
April 07, 2014
Pack Creek Ranch – San Juan County, Utah
Second week of April, 2014
First flowers have arisen – cottonwoods leafed out – all small critters emerged from hibernation – coyote chorale practicing late into the starry night.
More local news:
The Moab newspaper reported several sightings of crocodiles in the nearby
Colorado River this week – photo included.
Not a few tourists were alarmed.
They didn’t notice the publishing date at the top of the front page.
April 1, 2014
Novus Ordo Seclorum.
You carry them around in your wallet or purse.
They pass through your fingers almost daily.
Especially if you are an American or a visitor to this country.
Look at the back of a dollar bill.
Find the Latin on the Great Seal of the United States of America.
Providence Favors Our Undertaking – above the pyramid.
A New Order for the Ages – under the pyramid.
(Go to the web site: “United States – one dollar bill” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_one-dollar_bill
– it’s instructive to read the explanation for all the mysterious stuff on our money – especially the left eye above the pyramid.)
Our official motto, by the way, is E Pluribus Unum – In God We Trust.
It’s on the dollar in plain English, in case the Latin is confusing.
The Russian national motto is something like God Is On Our Side, but not in Latin.
And if you are wondering how desperate Fulghum is for reading matter to be studying a dollar bill, it just happened that I was waiting in the checkout line at the hardware store, with money in my hand, and I looked down at the backside of a dollar and started wondering . . . .
Me to clerk: “Do you know what this Latin stuff means?”
Clerk: “What? Damned if I know. I never studied Latin.”
Me: “What about this pyramid with the big eye over it?”
Clerk: “Maybe it’s a counterfeit bill.”
Me: “How about I give you a credit card just in case?”
Clerk, much relieved to get me out of the way, “Thanks, you’re a peach.”
Latin is not a dead language.
It’s still taught in many high schools and colleges.
The Roman Catholic church still employs it extensively.
Your high school or college diploma is probably written in Latin.
And, believe it or not, there is a version of Wikipedia entirely in Latin.
(Vicipaediam – take a look agina_prima">https://la.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vicipaediaagina_prima
– more than 15,000 entries.)
Maintained by a sub-culture of academics, intellectuals and game-players.
The world of science still relies heavily on Latin for classification.
And a surprising number of English-language books have been translated into Latin – especially children’s books- Examples: The Hobbit, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh, The Adventures of Tintin, Asterix, Harry Potter, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Cat in the Hat.
And a large percentage of the words we use every day are derived from Latin or from Greek, as rejiggered for a different alphabet.
Latin is woven into the fabric of our daily conversations.
If you speak or use English, French, Italian, or Spanish, you owe Latin, whether you studied it in school or not – it’s part of your life.
Even though we are mostly not students of etymology, we are all closet Classicists in subtle ways.
Or in not so subtle ways . . .
Recently I saw three young college-age men walking down the sidewalk in Moab.
They were wearing T-shirts with Latin inscriptions.
Vescere Bracis Meis!, one said.
Totum dependeat! declared another.
Corripe Cervisiam! said the third.
So. I asked.
They laughed and explained they were studying Latin in an Ivy League school.
But they weren’t trying to be snobbish – just cool.
“Latin is a babe magnet,” said one.
“Well, I’m hardly a babe, but translate for me, please. And they did.
“Eat my shorts.”
“Let it all hang out.”
‘Seize the beer!”
Just yesterday day I saw a pickup truck with two bumper stickers on it.
“U.S. Marine Corps – Semper Fi.”
Every Marine knows what that means.
And the other bumper sticker said:
Noli nothis permittere te terere.
That’s one I’ve seen before.
“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
I studied Latin in high school.
On reflection, the young man I was back then did not seem to be the Latin type.
I can only speculate about his language choice.
But, then, there are a lot of things that young man did back then that have no rational explanation – then, or now. . . .
Latin, like all the languages I’ve tried to learn, passed quickly through my brain cells leaving little more than a stain.
But a fondness for the root source of my daily language remains.
I like knowing that the words I read and speak daily have a long, deep history.
I like knowing that language is an ongoing creative process - a moving river, not a prison.
You might say that I am a Latin American.
I even have a personal Latin motto.
It’s engraved on a bronze plate attached to the door of my studio.
I see it – and read it – every day when I come to write or make art.
Iste Bombus Aliquid Significat.
Taken from the Latin translation of Winnie, the Pooh (Winnie Ille Pu)
(see photos on my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/robertleefulghum)
The motto is taken from the encounter the bear has with bumble bees - his yearning for honey rises up.
“All this bumbling means something,” he says.
And that’s my response to much of what I see and hear and experience.
A store in downtown Moab will provide custom-made bumper stickers.
link to this story
If you see an old maroon Ford Expedition with this motto displayed,
Sona si Latine loqueris.
That will be me.
(Honk if you speak Latin.)
April 04, 2014
Pack Creek Ranch – San Juan County, Utah
First week of April, 2014
Classic Canyon Country spring weather - two three-day rounds of dusty wind, overnight snow, clear day, and then again.
Meanwhile The Great Green marches across the land.
The extended pause in posting new journals is a result of my being absorbed in the events of a week-long celebration of marriage.
My wife flew down from Seattle for our anniversary, and my mind was on our
love-fest, not writing.
At the end of the week, I have some thoughts to share.
Carefully walking the line between personal privacy and public usefulness,
it seems appropriate to speak in the framework of a story about “a man I know.”
It’s my way of viewing my life objectively, while at the same time passing along reflections about marriage.
ALL IN . . .
A couple I know became married in a series of events.
A ceremony in three parts over three years.
After living together for a awhile and feeling deeply connected, they created a ritual of intention.
They stood alone together in a special place - without witnesses – and exchanged a simple vow:
“I’m All In.”
That’s a phrase from the game of high-stakes poker, where you bet all your chips on a hand you believe is a winner.
As a sign of this engagement they tied fragile blue cords around each other’s wrists, knowing that the strings would fray and have to be renewed from time to time – like the marriage.
In doing this, the couple had made a private covenant with one another.
They had set in motion a process of becoming married.
They kept their act to themselves – to give themselves time to be certain.
A year later, after testing the depth and quality of the new relationship, they stood alone together by the sea on the Greek island of Crete and renewed their covenant.
Now they were sure.
They were truly “All In” as the new blue cords on their wrists attested.
When they returned home they let friends and family know.
And when it made practical common sense, the standard legal contract was drawn up and signed in the office of an attorney, and the license obtained from the state.
They felt that what united them was the commitment they had made to each other.
But in the real world there are practical issues concerning property and inheritance, and the man wanted to take advantage of the law to provide protection and security to the woman when he was no longer there to do that himself.
Why the precaution?
There is a significant age difference between them.
So they added to “All In” the understanding that their life together might not be long – so they must make it “Wide and Deep.”
Like the blue thread around their wrists, the acknowledged fragility must be
given careful thought and attention.
And so, then what happened.?
Time has passed – life has gone on.
Every year the rite of commitment has been repeated on April 2.
As they did a few days ago.
* * * *
(In parenthesis - An aside:
This affirmation of marriage is being written to balance an equation.
Failed marriage – is a common topic of conversation.
And the red meat of gossip, TV sit-coms, contemporary novels, and the edgy humor of stand-up comedy.
You don’t see or hear much about marriages that succeed.
But as many do as don’t.
When asked, people with lasting, satisfying and workable marriages say:
This is the best friend I’ve ever had or ever hope to have.
We don’t keep score or collect garbage.
A sense of humor is essential – we laugh a lot.
We expect that each person will change over the years and allow for that.
There’s a big difference between a small inconvenience and a problem – a pothole in the road ahead is not the same as a washed-out bridge.
If you focus on what you need to get, you won’t ever be satisfied, but if you focus on giving, there will always be enough.
Just a sample - if your marriage is successful, you have reasons of your own to add to this list – post them on my Facebook page.)
* * * *
Back to the anniversary celebration.
Some events of their State of the Union Week:
Memory sessions where the couple randomly recollected events and images from years past , and took notes in a leather-bound book so as not to forget.
(see Facebook page photos. http://www.facebook.com/robertleefulghum)
Time spent asking and answering questions such as, “Who are you now because of us?” and, “Are you becoming the person you hope to be?” and “Any problems between us that need addressing?” and “How do you want me to dress for the ceremony?”
Washing dishes, making gifts, and stacking rocks together.
Sitting on a secret bench high on a hill, holding hands.
And then the day of the ritual – much of which was spent in silence – looking long at one another eye to eye and thinking what cannot be expressed in words.
This year, as on the first year, there was spring snow to decorate the ceremony, making the ritual all the more memorable.
The couple sprinkled snow water on each other’s head as a blessing.
And renewed the simple vows:
“I’m All In – Wide and Deep.”
This year, the “man I know” wrote these words to his beloved as a benediction -
a grace note at the end of their anniversary celebration:
“It’s essential to keep in mind what we are:
Two separate, distinct, unique human beings.
We are not each other’s property, or pet, or servant.
The world sees us as husband and wife.
But that’s just a symbolic label for so much more.
We are companions, best friends, co-conspirators, lovers, and supporters.
We are playmates, collaborators, advocates, and protectors.
We are sidekicks, patrons, partners, and colleagues.
We are nourishing parents to the needy child still inside of each of us.
And we are witnesses to each other’s ongoing life.
We are not joined inseparably at the hip as a three-legged beast.
We are love-mates, joined at the heart and spirit.
We choose to make it so in our own unique way.
And so shall it be.
The legal contract between us – (a copy of which I carry in my wallet) - reminds me that I have bound my life to yours in every way I know how – it’s official.
The covenant I have made with you in my heart is the real tie that binds.
The blue string of wedding encircling my wrist reminds me that our commitment will always need maintenance and renewal, and I promise to do my part in that.
It is good to spend some time apart and have space between us.
That confirms that while we can be alone, we are not lonely.
Because the other is “there.”
Reunion promises ecstatic joy.
You are my wife.
And I am your husband.
More than that,
We are We.
And that is that.
We will it so, and so it is and shall be – beyond all doubt.
The State of our Union is strong and good.
* * * *
(Note: this message has been read and approved by Willow Bader.)
link to this story
March 25, 2014
Pack Creek Ranch – San Juan County, Utah
Last week of March, 2014
Here’s another example of a story about “a man I know.”
That’s me, of course.
It’s my way of trying to stand outside myself for a more objective view of what goes on in my life.
More often than not, it’s an instructive exercise.
A man I know left college with a challenge – accepted, but not fully realized.
His college mentor, a professor of history - and provocateur of the young -
often said that his classes were useless if his students left without wanting to continue learning.
The last question on his final exams was: “What do you want to know now?”
He made it clear that if you thought your intellectual education was completed with a college degree, you had wasted your time and money.
He meant to infect his students with a permanent case of viral yearning to improve their minds as long as they lived.
He suggested consulting the lists of Great Books or the Harvard Classics series as a way of keeping the fire of education burning life-long.
A noble aspiration.
Many, many years later – just before he died – the professor asked the man I know what he had been reading.
Answer: A list of what he intended to read someday - when he had the time:
Proust, Spengler, Nietzsche, Goethe, Tolstoy, Kant, Voltaire, Dante, Joyce.
The books were on the shelf in his library.
Then the man I know asked his mentor what he had been reading.
He laughed his famous laugh.
“Detective fiction – mysteries,” was his reply.
“All of Agatha Christie.”
He said that a full meal deserved dessert.
He thought that light entertainment balanced deep thinking.
And he also felt there was a lot more to detective stories that one might think.
The man I know continued to keep a supply of Great Books on hand.
And from time to time he read one – to improve his mind.
Recently he plunged into the poetry of Dante – the Divine Comedy.
But he soon fell into that semi-sleeping stupor that comes when he is trying to force his mind to do something it doesn’t really want to continue doing.
It’s not that he’s dense or lazy.
But one cannot stay in the literary gym lifting mental weights for long.
However, taking the hint from his mentor, the man I know also has a collection of detective mysteries in his library – alongside the Great Books - some as them also yet unread.
He put Dante away and chose a big volume containing four of Agatha Christie’s greatest murder mysteries.
He had never read her most famous story, “And Then There Were None.”
According to Wikipedia, there are over 100 million copies in print – the most popular detective fiction ever published..
(Furthermore, there are more than 4 billion copies of her books are out there.
A total just behind the Bible and Shakespeare in the best-seller category.
Also classifiable as mystery writing, now that I think of it.)
The time had come - he turned to “And Then There Were None.”
(He has the questionable habit of always reading the last paragraphs of a mystery novel – not to see how it ended, but to find out if there is as much a sense of intrigue at the finish as at the start. Then he would read the first paragraphs – and if he still wants to know what happened in between, he plunges into the story.)
“I shall be found, laid neatly on my bed, shot through the forehead, in accordance with the record kept by my fellow victims. Times of death cannot be stated with any accuracy by the time our bodies are examined.
When the sea goes down, there will come from the mainland boats and men.
And they will find ten dead bodies and an unsolved problem on Indian Island.
signed: Lawrence Wargrave.”
That’s how “And Then There Were None” ends.
It begins this way:
“In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at his cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news of the Times. He laid the paper down and glanced out of the window. They were running now through Somerset.
He glanced at his watch – two hours to go.
He went over in his mind all that had appeared in the papers about Indian Island.”
What happened in between those paragraphs?
The man I know was still reading well past midnight last night.
Tonight, he’ll finish.
* * *
The narrative story has been part of the human endeavor for as long as human beings have been able to talk to one another.
The best combine fact and fiction – truth and imagination.
Tell us a story . . .
Well, then, once upon a time . . .
And then what happened . . .
The most engaging stories involve mystery.
Who done it?
How done it?
Why done it?
And the best stories end with surprise.
A good joke is the shortest form of the mystery story.
With surprise at the end.
(read this out loud to yourself)
There were four unsolved murders in town.
Perplexed, the police called in a famous private detective.
“Anything that might tie them together?” he asked.
“Well, the body of the first victim was left covered by Corn Flakes.
The second was covered with Raisin Bran, the third with Cheerios, and the fourth with Captain Crunch – what do you make of that?”
“Obvious – there’s a cereal killer at large.”
* * * *
Though there are many genres of mystery stories – literary novels, horror, science fiction - my favorite form involves a detective.
There are many to choose from – Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, Inspector Morse, Miss Marples, Precious Ramotswe, Nero Wolfe – just to name a few. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret is my all-time favorite.
I prefer the stories involving private investigators or amateur sleuths.
Best of all are the mysteries where the reader must be the detective and sort out the clues to solve the mystery.
The reader is the Private Eye.
As is the case in “And Then There Were None.”
* * * *
Stepping back to consider all the detective mysteries I’ve read over the years, I see a metaphorical parallel with the concerns at the heart of all The Great Books.
Mystery is the frame around existence.
Existence itself is a mystery.
The Big Mystery.
The solutions sought in conclusion are the same:
Who done it?
How done it?
Why done it?
And what happens in the end?
So many deaths and crimes, so much suffering and sorrow.
Such a mix of good and evil.
There must be a perpetrator, we think.
There are many detectives at work on the case:
Priests, philosophers, gurus, prophets, and private investigators.
The clues to the Big Mystery are infinite in all directions.
There are many suspects with an infinite number of names:
God, thousands of local gods, Allah, Shiva, Zeus, Thor, Odin
Some suspects have ambiguous names – Creator, Great Spirit, Divinity,
Ultimate Truth, The Lord, Prime Cause.
Each person may choose their chief suspect.
Each human being is a Private Eye.
Trying to sort out The Big Mystery on their own.
From the evidence of the case to the final, concluding chapter, there is an infinite story line – not to be read, but lived through.
And how does it end?
So far, the case has not been closed.
* * * *
It’s helpful to find company in this appreciation of mystery stories.
Somerset Maugham, for example.
He was a literary lion if ever there was one.
Successful novelist, playwright, essayist, travel writer.
A man of superb intellect and wide-ranging experience.
Himself a writer of some of the Great Books.
I recently read an essay he published in 1952 – (62 years ago).
Turns out he had been a life-long reader of mysteries.
He made no apology for his fascination with the genre.
He was primarily a teller of stories, and appreciated a good story – no matter in what form or what category.
Maugham’s essay ends with this paragraph:
“I believe the detective story, both the story of pure deduction and the hard-boiled story, is dead. But that will not prevent a multitude of authors from continuing to write such stories, nor will it prevent me from continuing to read them.”
So will the man I know.
link to this story
An amateur private eye.