Poor Paul's Almanac

Posted: Apr 03, 2014 6:30 PM
(With apologies to Poor Richard's Almanac -- and a colonial printer named Ben Franklin.)

How to cook pasta: The trick is to keep stirring. Whether it helps the pasta is a secondary consideration. The primary purpose is to clear the mind. It gives the cook one simple thing to concentrate on after a day spent dealing with trivia. All of that goes away as you watch and wait for the water to reach a rolling boil before adding the pasta and then slowly, gently whirling it, first clockwise, then counter-clockwise, then back to ... and all things extraneous evaporate, like the bubbles.

It's like a Buddhist monk reciting the same mantra, or a chasid chanting the same nigun again and again, always going deeper into it, praying continually, or as Benedictine monks say, converting continually, constantly renewing. Done right, repeatedly, the effect is both hypnotic and energizing. You don't just cook the pasta but wash the mind. Maybe it helps the pasta, maybe it doesn't, but it helps you.

A change is as good as a rest, they say. Doing something mindless is a nice change from using the mind all day on tasks not worthy of it.

For example, how do so many people manage to write so poorly? And why do so many of them write to me? Studies Show that 87.6 percent of them send me emails, all of them utterly convinced of the brilliance of their own insights, and the irresistible attraction of their own Great Ideas, or just their own temper tantrums.

Why is that? Because there are a lot of lonely people in the world, and all of them seem to think they're eloquent. They don't write so much as operate under the illusion that they're writing. Expression, so much encouraged these tasteless days, is not the same as exposition. No matter how energetic, the much overrated quality of self-expression will still depend on the quality of the self being expressed. We can't get away from our selves. Better to be still, if only for a moment. The self will be better for it. It can stand a rest.

There's Daylight Saving Time and Standard Time and Military Time, and those are just the start. There's also a Lonely People's Time (it crawls) and a Retired People's Time (which can be fast or slow, depending on the retiree). Then there's Busy People's Time and Never Busy People's Time, and the twain keep meeting, unfortunately. Because the resulting collision isn't pretty. As when an 18-wheeler meets a sports car that has wandered across the center line, R.I.P.

There are perfectly fluent and sensible writers who, when they decide to write about politics, are neither. As when Edmund Wilson, who was Malcolm Cowley's predecessor and mentor as literary editor of the New Republic back in the Thirties, responded to one of Cowley's strange apologias for Stalin by asking: "What in God's name has happened to you?"

What had happened to him was politics, which has ruined more good writers than drink. Wilson's diagnosis of his friend's problem: "I think politics is bad for you because it is not real to you." It was just another art form for Cowley, an abstraction to be critically reviewed in the literary pages, not something real, something that affects the real lives (and all too real deaths) of real people.

There are political writers who draw from real life and their real experiences -- like George Orwell -- and there are those who only project their own drab dissatisfaction with life onto politics. Orwell will last, indeed has lasted. The other kind won't.

Artists grow bored. Some respond by seeking new forms, others only deepen their art, making it last. Such a writer becomes a writer's writer. Such a painter becomes a painter's painter. See -- really see -- a Bonnard, or the work of any painter who can see the beautiful in what's called the ordinary. And who lets us see it. As in the work of an Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper, who were accused of being only sentimental or nostalgic as they grew only deeper.

To see the beautiful in the ordinary, the holy in the mundane, that is a gift. It takes concentration to bring it out -- continual conversion.

Think of Norman Rockwell, who was dismissed as "only" an illustrator -- a title he wore like an honorific. Other painters lose what they once had. A perfectly respectable representative painter like Mark Rothko progressively reduces himself to just lines, color, blocks ... linoleum art. And is much celebrated, his paintings coveted. Which is a better reflection of contemporary taste than of art. There is a difference between success and art, however much one may adulterate the other.

There's loneliness and there's being alone. Two quite different things. Those afflicted with loneliness may not understand why some of us savor being alone. They're quite different, loneliness and solitude. Loneliness agitates, solitude comforts.

How not love solitude? There are so many books to read and re-read, so much music to hear and hear again, and the sweetest music of all is silence.

The trouble with trying to keep house is that everything comes into a house and nothing ever leaves. Like thoughts. They attach themselves to the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the books, to every object in the house. Dizzying, whirling, multiplying thoughts great and small and in-between. They come in assorted shapes and sizes and colors and lack thereof, insights and dustballs mixing. That's when, noticing them cluttering everywhere, it's time to ... Stop.

And make pasta.