1899 Questionnaire (via Classics Considered)

Last week Marian of Classics Considered posted a survey which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle participated in — a Victorian meme, if you will.  (He didn’t participate in her survey, because he’s dead, but — you know what I mean.)  Its questions were much more interesting than the usual stuff, so I wanted to participate!

The 1899 Questionnaire 

Your favourite virtue?


Your favourite qualities in man?

Courage, strength,   sacrificial love

Your favourite qualities in woman?

Wisdom and compassion

Your favourite occupation?

Reading, writing, singing

Your chief characteristic?

Getting lost in my own head.  I have a habit of zoning out in public when I’m not engaged in conversation. It’s a bit of a joke  at work.

Your idea of happiness?
Friends sharing good conversation in comfortable environs, beverages at the ready.  That, or a bike ride on a fine spring day.
Your idea of misery?

Unwished-for solitude

Your favourite colour and flower?

I’m most partial to navy blue,  cardinal red, and hunter green.

If not yourself, who would you be?

I wonder if in another life, I’m not a monk…or a member of the Coast Guard.

Where would you like to live?

In a rugged cabin on a generous bit of land  — far enough into the woods where I could see no neighbors or hear no highways.

Your favourite poets?

I have favorite poems but not favorite poets, alas. I most like “Invictus” and “The Tyger”. The latter was the first poem I ever memorized, and I first reached 100 WPM while typing it.

Your favourite painters and composers?

Painters:   From modern painters, I like Jack Vettriano’s works (especially Back Where You Belong and Lazy Hazy Days), as well as Grant Wood’s rural-based pieces. He’s most famous for American Gothic, but my favorite is Spring in Town.

Composers:    Mozart, Vivaldi, and Wagner. (I have to include Wagner just for the Tannhäuser overture!)

Your favourite heroes in real life?

Two men who I especially admire are Isaac Asimov and Robert Ingersoll, both of them extremely well-rounded men.  Closer to home, two men worth honoring are Albert G. Parrish, a passionate  citizen who made Selma the Queen City of the South in the early 20th century,  and Goldsby King, a man who sank his family wealth into a private hospital with so many amenities that his peers chided him for constantly splurging on it. He replied that other rich men had their yachts; his hospital was his yacht.

Your favourite heroines in real life?

I don’t know if I have any female heroes as such, though there are many I admire – from Joan of Arc to Bessie Coleman.

Your favourite heroes in fiction?

Cap’n Mal,  Firefly;     Arthur Morgan, Red Dead Redemption 2;   Jayber Crow from Jayber Crow. Jayber isn’t a hero-hero (his biggest deed is helping a woman and her father when the latter is dying), but I admire the heck out of him.

Your favourite heroines in fiction?

Kira Nerys, ST-DS9;   Sadie Adler, RDR2.  (….I feel bad for not including any book-women, but not that many come to mind presently.)

Your favourite food and drink?

Top three would be fried green tomatoes,  sweet potatoes, and chili. You have not lived until you’ve experienced garden-grown tomatoes fresh from the skillet.

Your favourite names?

I strongly prefer traditional  names like Elizabeth, Abigail, Constance, Christopher, Anthony, etc.

Your pet aversion?

Self-absorbed attention seekers, especially those who employ lawyers, politicians, or their facebook newsfeed.

What characters in history do you most dislike?

The ones who tried to spread ideology or religion by force.

What is your present state of mind?

Energized and accomplished, as I just returned from a 4-mile walk.

For what fault have you most toleration?

Not seeing beams in one’s own eye for the splinters in others. As I like to quote from Yoda: Dark Rendezvous…”It’s so easy to avoid other people’s vices, isn’t it?”

Your favourite motto?

“Live not by lies” – Alexander Solzhenitsyn


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A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying
© 1993 Ernest Gaines
256 pages


“And that’s all we are Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood. until we – each of us, individually- decide to become something else. I am still that piece of drifting wood, and those out there are no better. But you can be better. Because we need you to be and want you to be.”

In 1940s Louisiana, a young black man named Jefferson is  sentenced to death, a victim of both circumstances and poor decisions.  In his defense, the state attorney announces to the jury — with Jefferson’s family in the audience — that the accused is so ignorant and slow that they can’t possibly  think him capable of executing a robbery and a triple homicide.. He’s so far from being a thinking man  like you or I, the defender claims, that accusing him of murder and putting him through the legal system is just as preposterous as say, putting a hog on trial.    Nevertheless, the accused is sentenced to death, and in the six months which remain in his life,  his family want the village teacher  to make a man out of their imprisoned son. Their plea: don’t let him go to the electric chair like a hog to the slaughter — let him die as a man, on his feet.

Grant Wiggins hardly thinks himself up to the task. How do you make a boy a man, anyway? And how do you do it from a prison cell?  Wiggins doesn’t want t obe in the state, let alone spend his time visiting the village jail. If it wasn’t for the love of a good woman, Wiggins would have left the plantation for anywhere else long ago.    Pressed by devotion and duty, however, he submits himself to the constant embarrassment of asking permission from the racist sheriff, and the constant searches of the prison’s deputies,  all in an effort to reach the doomed before his death.   Meanwhile, life goes on outside the prison, and the community of sharecroppers have to sit with the looming death of one of their own.

Although the presumed student of A Lesson Before Dying is Jefferson, the teacher is himself no less a student, as his time with the accused and the deputies makes him think about his own place in this society. He is an outsider — distrusted by the whites because of his education, not exactly trusted by the blacks because  the distance he keeps between himself and the church.  Yet he cannot deny being formed by this place, and rooted in it the way southerners of any color are.  And yet he fears if he stays, he will be broken in spirit — or  so desperate to escape it he will simply  flee, leaving his relations and community in the lurch as so many other men have done.

In the end, A Lesson Before Dying is a powerful story about an individual’s responsibility to himself, to choose to live, to  act in ways that honor himself, the truth, and  his loved ones.   Although the world is poorer for having lost Gaines this past week, I’m personally thankful that the occasion prompted me to read this title.

Going Home“, an essay by Bill Kauffman on Gaines’ return to Louisiana
A letter-poem from Wendell Berry written to his friend and fellow southerner Gaines

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Armistice Day – Never Forget

As well as it is to honor veterans, let us never forget the original meaning of this date, November 11th. 101 years ago the guns fell silent in Europe, and the great horror of the First World War ended. Twenty years later an even more terrible conflict would erupt, despite the earnest hopes of 1918’s mourners that such a war would never be seen again. Let us remember why, and when we wax in hatred toward the “other side”, let the trenches and barren fields rebuke us for our blind arrogance.

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The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes — and Why
© 2008 Amanda Ripley
288 pages



We all wonder what we would do in an emergency. How would it feel to be onboard a doomed plane, or trapped in a burning building?   Would we panic?   The Unthinkable  combines extensive interviews with the survivors of various disasters and a review of  psychological studies with a fear/panic/disaster-response to share what really happens in a moment of crisis, and what we can do better.

Oddly enough, panic as a reaction isn’t the most common.  Most people involved in an intimate disaster experience a strange kind of disassociation, a sense that whatever is happening is unreal. Some will linger in denial, sitting calmly long after they should have begun taken action.  When they finally do stir to move,  latent instincts for gathering information and belongings further slow responses.  Once in action, fear and adrenaline can kick in, and these can both help or hinder —  increasing speed and stamina, for instance, but at a cost of cognition – and that can lead to sorrow, like fifty people dying in a parked airplane because they were incapable of opening the doors and proceeding out in an  orderly manner when the cabin filled with smoke.

There are those, however, who are not sitting in a stupor, or fumbling clumsily at locks and straps. There are people who, in a disaster recognize  it and begin taking action immediately.   Part of this may owe to genes –  the size of the amygdala is a contributor – but the most pervasive difference-maker is training and preparation.  It’s vital to have a realistic appraisal of one’s environment and the dangers in it, however: people often have a distorted view of what is most likely to happen to them, fearing unusual disasters like nuclear meltdowns far more than more mundane events like kitchen fires or automobile accidents. Those who anticipate what kind of things are likely to happen, those who make a plan — those are the people who, when push comes to shove, are ready to act.  Ripley notes that working-class males overwhelm this category, which she suspects owes to their dominating dangerous jobs that entail anticipating physical threats.

The Unthinkable isn’t a book devoted to celebrating the Few, The Proud, The Possessors of an Internal Locus of Control..   Instead,  following the survey of how we react in disasters,  it  shifts to an argument that American society,  both government and civil structures, have a top-heavy approach to disaster response that discounts and demeans the ability of ordinary people to make a difference, hiding information to prevent panics and keeping response tools reserved for professionals.    In any disaster, it’s the ordinary people on the ground who make the greatest  impact –   they are there long before emergency personnel, present when seconds can make the difference between life and death.  What’s most crucial is awareness and training: People who are aware of the dangers in any situation, and prepared to respond to them,  will at the time of crisis be able to recognize what they’ve trained for and move, based on their prior practice.  Even simply reviewing the safety cards in an airline seat,  or knowing where the emergency exits are when present in an unfamiliar room, can make a decisive difference when something happens.

The Unthinkable is one of the most thoughtful and all-around interesting books I’ve read all year, from the disaster play by plays – heroics included —  to the psychological analysis.   The amount of time spent in the Twin Towers was particularly informative – I had no idea there were any survivors from above the impact zones in either tower, but the South Tower had one stairwell that could be made navigable, and four people were able to make it out before the building was lost. I also didn’t realize that the Port Authority had made some token efforts at disaster mitigation following the 1993 attack, but that these were largely ineffectual: people appointed as fire wardens throughout the building were never given any training, and the procedures promoted were fairly useless —  gather  in a common area and await instructions from The Authorities.   (Instructions like… “The South Tower is secure. Please return to your offices”, which turned hundreds of people following their instincts out of the building into victims  fifteen minutes later.)

Definitely recommended.

How To Be Your Own Bodyguard, Nick Lane.  A piece of advice common to both of these books is a negative visualization and practice routine, i.e: what could go wrong, and what steps do I need to take to response?  The  mere act of rehearsing what you might do helps when it needs to be done.




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A Plain Life

A Plain Life: Walking my Belief
© 1998 Scott Savage
224 pages


You have to be careful about working in a library. Sometimes books change your life.  Scott Savage and his wife were both librarians whose environmental interests put them on a path – spurred by books —  altogether different than they would have ever expected for themselves.   For Scott, in particular, it would lead to an eight day pilgrimage to Columbus, Ohio, to surrender his license to drive —  a purpose-filled ritual that for him would seal his decision to  live more deliberately, to drop out of a noisy, frantic, and meaningless consumer existence.  In A Plain Life, Savage reflects on his and his wife’s spiritual journey even as he makes his way to the city through Amish country.

All the answers are not in books, but they can point the way, and so it was that one introduced the Savages to a viable alternative to frenzied consumerism: the Amish.  The plain folk were living proof that the technoid future was not inevitable; it was still possible to live in another way.    The Amish made Scott aware that what he was most yearning for was community – something  most of us in the United States have lost, living as we do in eternal placelessness.    The Amish are not technophobes, but rather a community who thoughtfully consider a given technology’s potential for disruption of their home lives, community health, and spirituality.    Neither Scott nor his wife were religious practitioners, and had consider themselves closed to any Christian tradition – and yet the Amish re-opened that door.

The tradition which the Savages would ultimately embrace, however, was not the Amish but rather the Quaker.  Each chapter follows Scott on his day’s walk, and the text follows his thoughts – sometimes dwelling on the growth of his ‘plain’ practices, sometimes on the history of the area, sometimes on technology and modern life. What brings each day into focus in his religious practice, as he works on memorizing the Beatitudes throughout the sermon; these verses, and his hymns,  often color his thoughts for the day — connecting “blessing are the meek”, for instance,  with a reflection on humility and self-knowledge, connecting also to the places he is traveling through — like a peat island that is disintegrating.

A Plain Life has a lot to say, though how much is heard depends on the audience.  Presumably few people would adopt a life like Scott’s — a home without electricity, for starters — but I imagine a much larger number  would be willing to admit their own dissatisfaction with the atomized lives so many of us lead.  In any case,  a central lesson is that none of us are are free in the sense that we like to think we are, in that we escape the consequences of our actions; our uses of technology shape us, just as they shape our world, and not necessarily for the better.   Scott may have been thinking of how televisions disrupt family life, and how automobiles spur people to continually hunt for satisfaction elsewhere, across the horizon — but  today such inroads are even more invasive, the struggle more close-quarters.  Conversations about technological disruption seem more common,   as people looking for answers as to why politics on every side has gotten more vicious  blame social media.    The tech facilitates abuse, but we’re all the ones feeding the beast.

If Savage rings any interest, I would highly suggest his anthology, The Plain Reader. It’s stayed by my bedside  ever since I read it.

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The book as a squarish chunk of hot smoking conscience

In autumn of 2017, The New Criterion published an article about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “cathedrals“, his Gulag Archipelago and a series of epic ‘novels’ known as the Red Wheel series. I delayed posting this until I was finished with the trilogy, and promptly forgot about it. Given  that I’m facing two enormous Russians at the end of this year, I thought now would be appropriate to share it.

Some excerpts from the piece:

“In taking literature so seriously, Solzhenitsyn claimed the mantle of a ‘Russian writer,’ which, as all Russians understand, means much more than a writer who happens to be Russian. It is a status less comparable to “American writer” than to ‘Hebrew prophet.’ ‘Hasn’t it always been understood,’ asks one of Solzhenitsyn’s characters, ‘that a major writer in our country . . . is a sort of second government?’ In Russia, Boris Pasternak explained, ‘a book is a squarish chunk of hot, smoking conscience—and nothing else!’ Russians sometimes speak as if a nation exists in order to produce great literature: that is how it fulfills its appointed task of supplying its distinctive wisdom to humanity.”

“Like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gulag is literary without being fictional. Indeed, part of its value lies in its bringing to life the real stories of so many ordinary people. When I first began to read it, I feared that a long list of outrages would rapidly prove boring, but to my surprise I could not put the book down. How does Solzhenitsyn manage to sustain our interest? To begin with, as with Gibbon, readers respond to the author’s brilliantly ironic voice, which has a thousand registers. Sometimes it surprises us with a brief comment on a single mendacious word. It seems that prisoners packed as tightly as possible were transported through the city in brightly painted vehicles labeled ‘Meat.’ ‘It would have been more accurate to say “bones”,’ Solzhenitsyn observes.”

“Real people do not resemble the evildoers of mass culture, who delight in cruelty and destruction. No, to do mass evil you have to believe it is good, and it is ideology that supplies this conviction. ‘Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale of millions.’

One lesson of Gulag is that we are all capable of evil, just as Solzhenitsyn himself was. The world is not divided into good people like ourselves and evil people who think differently. “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

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Digital minimalism baby steps

A few readers were interested in updates on my experiment in digital minimalism,  so…here goes!   The ground rules I’ve followed have been:

  • Email checked only 2-3 times a day, around meals, preferably not starting until after lunch.
  • Social media limited to an hour after supper,  excepting goodreads because it’s not a timesink
  • No device use in bed or in active company
  • Streaming ends an hour before bed time.

I made a few  changes on my computer and phone to make the experiment more likely to succeed;  I removed app shortcuts for Facebook and Reddit off my phone, and installed an extension on Firefox that allows me to  control whether or not images load on a given pages.  On facebook, I’ve also started unfollowing noise-y accounts.

The results have been….middling to good.  While my digital fasting record has been patchy —  I’ve taken a “quick look” at email/reddit/etc  with my morning coffee more often that I’ve abstained —   I’ve still experienced positive results.  Beyond an uptick in personal productivity (reading or work around the house),   I’m also quickly conscious and aware that the bulk of my time on facebook is wasted browsing, and the only times I’ve hung around have been when I was chatting with a friend. I can avoid that by remembering to use the Messenger app on my computer.   Reddit can be  more productive for me,  mostly because the majority of subreddits I follow are informative rather than casual, r/askreddit being the most prominent exception.  I’ve also been more mindful about my motive in sharing videos or articles on facebook.   Several times I’ve seen or heard something that my first and immediate impulse was to share…but on thinking about it, I decided  — nope!    A quotation from Marcus Aurelius drifted up from memory, reminding me that whatsoever things are good are good in themselves;  I don’t need to share and see little “likes” to savor a moment.

For the next phase,  I think I will remove the facebook app I use (Lite) from my phone entirely, and log out of my account on my browser, so that I cannot easily take a quick peek. 

Someone (Lydia, I believe) also asked for an update in regards to intermittent fasting; I’ve lost ten pounds, although  I think it would have been more had I not been hobbling for two weeks following a strain to my Achilles’ tendon.   My efforts to mix up my exercise have taken me to a local basketball court, where in the mornings I can wile away an hour in the same way I spent many evenings in middle school — shooting hoops and chasing after my many bounced-off errors.    It’s less repetitive and more fun than just walking loops, whether at home or at the gym.  I was honestly surprised by how quickly I adjusted to eating only two meals a day — it was if, all this time, I’ve eaten breakfast more because I was “supposed to” rather than because I needed it.   Halloween has been a challenge, in part because of all the sweets which collect in the library’s break room. It will only get worse by Christmas, and we already have four bags of cookies in addition to the box of leftover Halloween treaties for the kids who stormed through today.




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