Edna St. Vincent Millay & Twitter

Twitter is a fascinating medium for poetry, short poetry that is.  As you probably know, a Tweet is limited to 140 characters including punctuation and spaces. The distillation of a complete thought, emotion or expression in a compelling form in a mere 140 keystrokes is a wonderful intellectual and artistic challenge.

My novice attempts at Twitter poetry have put me on the look out for examples of great short poetry by writers who know what they’re doing. Today, I stumbled across the poem, Ebb by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Checking in at a whopping 171 (or so) characters, this doesn’t quite fit the Twitter form but it proves the point of how powerful a few words can be.


I know what my heart is like
    Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
    Left there by the tide,
        A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.

Edna St. Vincent Millay published in Sensual Love Poems, collected by Kathleen Bease, published by Ballantine Books, 2002


Never Give All the Heart for Love

Never give all the heart for love,
so goes Yeats’ song.
And so I think of you my love,
and pray that Yeats is wrong.

Never Give All the Heart

Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight,
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

William Butler Yeats
A Poet to His Beloved: The Early Love Poems of  W. B. Yeats
St. Martins Press, New York, 1985

Atlas Shrugged – revisited

I read Ayn Rand’s 1957 masterpiece, “Atlas Shrugged,” in high school. I remember the appeal of her story describing the power of an individual making the choice to act counter to the crowd and the system. It was a welcome message to me then and I have kept the yellowing paperback with me over the past thirty years. I now wonder if what I took from the book then was simply what I wanted – teenage validation of a naive self-image of independence and self-sufficiency.

As I worked yesterday with the radio playing in the other room, I heard the words, “Atlas Shrugged.” The words cut through the white noise of the news of failing economy, betrayed trust and political change like the sound of your own name overheard in a crowded room. I immediately stopped and turned my attention to the radio but the story was done. I don’t know the context but somehow I understood that the it’s time to reread the book. This time to discover the depth and power of Rand’s intended message and not to be satisfied with wading in the shallows.

I’ve just begun but have already found in the first few pages validation that this book promises to speak to our times. I reread these three paragraphs several times as the awareness of institutional and leadership betrayals of the past several months colored the white spaces between the words. I expect this book to be full of new insight and nuance written in a voice that we haven’t heard over the din of the crowd for a long, long time.

The great oak tree had stood on a hill over the Hudson, in a lonely spot on the Taggert estate. Eddie Willers, aged seven, liked to come and look at that tree. It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there. Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk deep into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and whole of the earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree’s presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength.

One night, lightning struck the oak tree. Eddie saw it the next morning. It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel. The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside – just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.

Years later, he heard it said that children should be protected from shock, from their first knowledge of death, pain or fear. But these had never scarred him; his shock came when he stood very quietly, looking into the black hole of the trunk. It was an immense betrayal – the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed. It was not himself, he knew, nor his trust; it was something else. He stood there for a while, making no sound, then he walked back to the house. He never spoke about it to anyone, then or since.

Religion and Self-Control

I read an interesting blog post today by NY Times Science writer, John Tierney, on the topic of religion and self-control. I submitted a comment to the piece and have copied the essence of Tierney’s blog and my comment here. While I stand by what I say below, I have to admit to the irony of this blog. I should have been working on the more pressing items on my “To Do” list. So much for self-control.

You can find a link to Tierney’s blog, TierneyLab, under  “Blogs I Like” on the right.

Religion and Self-Control

Is self-discipline one reason that religious people tend to live longer? Do religious belief and piety promote self-control? You can find one answer in my Findings column. It discusses research from two psychologists at the University of Miami, Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby, who have surveyed eight decades of scientific literature (pdf) to see if people who are more religious tend to have stronger self-control.

1. Are there any specific religious or spiritual activities that you have found to help build your self-control, or your child’s self-control?
2. Religious activities can also be exhausting, and presumably they could they could wear down someone’s self-control. Has this ever happened to you or your child?
3. If you’re not religious, what do you think of Dr. McCullough’s advice that it might be possible to build self-control by tying your New Year’s resolutions to sacred (but non-religious) values like self-reliance or concern for all of humanity?

My response:

I believe that this phenomenon of ‘religious’ people demonstrating more self-control is probably true but not due to the ‘religion’ that one learns at church, temple or mosque but due to the ‘ethics’ and ‘values’ discussions and education that occurs there. As the author, Karen Armstrong, documented in her book, ‘The Great Transformation,’ most cultures and faiths have independently developed some interpretation of what’s known to Christians as the Golden Rule as a positive way to live our lives on earth, irregardless of what some god may have in store for us later.

The notion that we should treat others as we wish to be treated requires an examination not only of others’ behaviors and actions but of our own. Once we begin to be aware of (and are then self-critical of) our own behaviors, we are more likely to avoid doing things that others might find reason to criticise – we exhibit self control. In doing this, we enable others to treat us favorably.

My own experience is that most people tire quickly of sermons and lessons (and water cooler talk) that focus too heavily on spirituality and theology. Zealotry, like a good martini, has a time and place but a little bit goes a long way. We would rather be taught how to make our faith relevant to our day-to-day lives. Personally, the sermons that don’t put me to sleep or to checking my blackberry are usually those that offer practical advice on how to live happily and productively among others. I suspect that anyone who regularly subjects themselves to a dose of practical ethical reminders is more prone to self-examination and to therefore improve their self-control in many aspects of their lives. And this, I believe, will lead to improved quality in one’s life.

As the Theory of Relativity is foundational to modern science, the Golden Rule is to life. We don’t fully understand the scope of either which is why inquiry and faith (in science and humanity) are so important. We do know through our own experiences however, that things get more difficult when we act as though these fundamental principles don’t exist.

Thank you for posing these important questions.

— John Fonner

Cream Cheese Banana Bread with Pecans

cwc-07-1220081This post is dedicated to my pals at Cooking with Caitlin who have shown me how much fun playing with your  food can be. See them at http://www.cookingwithcaitlin.com/

I’ve made the Joy of Cooking Banana Bread recipe several times and it always turns out great. OK, I confess that I use brown sugar instead of white and always add an extra banana but those are ideas that Irma Rombauer suggests in the chapter on Quick Breads so they don’t count as innovations of mine.

So why mess with a good thing, right? Well, I had a dream. Really, I had a dream a few nights ago that I could substitute the butter with either cream cheese or sour cream. In the dream, I got a little of the tangy sour milk flavor and still get the richness (ie milk fat) that the butter brings. When I woke up I thought it was a pretty weird dream but I said, “what’s the worst that can happen – give it a try.” I’m glad I did!

I haven’t tried the sour cream version yet but the cream cheese sure makes a denser, moister bread with a bit more flavor than the original. Frankly, I think it’s great! The banana really comes through and the crust still has that crunchy sweetness to it.  I think there’s a hint of the sourness that I dreamt about, but it’s subtle (or I’m still dreaming.) I’m guessing that sour cream would probably deliver more tang on the tongue – I’ll let you know.

Generally, I think that the idea of  low-fat cakes & cookies is oxymoronic. No, actually it’s just moronic in my book.  Creating a low-fat banana bread certainly wasn’t my goal but I did notice, while the first loaf was in the oven, that regular cream cheese has about half the fat of butter. Half the calories too. You’re welcome to try this line of rationalization on your cardiologist (I know I will) but don’t be suprised if Doc still frowns at you. 

Again, be sure to say thank you to the legacy of the Rombauer – Becker clan for giving us the Joy of Cooking. The original Banana Bread recipe is on Page 773 of my JOC 1997 edition. Compare this Banana Bread with the original and let me know what you think.  Oh, and remember to follow your dreams.

Blah, blah, blah. You just want to try it (you know you do) so here’s the recipe:

Have all the ingredients at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease an 8  1/2  x  4  1/2 – inch (6-cup) loaf pan.

Whisk together thoroughly:
1  1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

In a large bowl, beat on high speed until lightened in color and texture, 2 to 3 minutes:
3 oz. cream cheese
2/3 cup brown sugar

Beat in flour mixture until blended and the consistency of brown sugar. Gradually beat in:
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Fold in until just combined:
3 very ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans

Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick comes out cleanly, 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes before unmolding to cool completely on a rack.

Machiavelli would love times like these.

The following qoute from Machiavelli’s timeless classic on power and politics, The Prince, is often cited as a reminder of how hard it can be to implement change in organizations, systems and cultures. Times like these, when it is very difficult to defend the status quo, are exactly when major changes and initiatives are most likely to succeed. Make your move, NOW!

“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

Shame, hypocricy and humility & The Big Three

dogbert-hypocrite-022509I’m no apologist for the US auto industry, I switched to owning Toyota cars years ago for better quality and value.  I’m a loyal customer and it will be very hard for the Big Three to win me back.

However, the idea of shaming the CEOs of GM, Ford and Chrysler into driving to DC instead of flying in corporate planes is the grand height of hypocrisy in my view.  I suspect that every one of politicians and talking heads that are criticizing these CEOs have flown on corporate jets to speeches, conferences and plant tours several times in their careers to advance their own interests. And how many fighter jets get scrambled every time the President takes a helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base no more than 25 miles from the White House. Honestly, that practice is at least as much a demonstration of power as it is about security. Let’s all show some humility for a change.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the mess we’re in. We’re all culpable; government, corporations and consumers (the real Big Three) have all have made stupid decisions over the past decades following the ‘Madness of Crowds’ in our sense of entitlement and greed.  This is no time for rightous grandstanding or political posturing.  It’s time to fix stuff and get our priorities right.

If our so-called ‘leaders’ want my respect, then they need to take my grandfather’s advice before they start pointing out others’ flaws and failures, “When you point your finger at someone, remember that there are three more pointing back at you!”