Archive for October, 2013

Holy Spirit or Δαίμων?

©2013 By Bob Litton

“But the mind is still haunted by its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities; and the yearning, the deep and hollowing yearning for divine volition and service is with us still.”
                             — Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness
                                  in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 313.


Back in 1990-92, I regularly attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — many of them — in Dallas, Texas. It was a rewarding experience for me, since I was able to defeat my dependence on beer and, more importantly, discover true spirituality.

Let me dispose of the alcohol matter first. Comparing my drinking problem with others in our fairly large AA group, I concluded that there must be more than one kind or degree of alcoholism. Particularly, a few of the members had had a very rough time both before finding AA and after joining the group. One worried-looking fellow in his thirties used to sit in the group rubbing his six-months sobriety chip as though it were a talisman. Also, two lovely, young female members killed themselves — one by binge-drinking on a gallon of gin and the other by committing suicide (I never heard by what means). One of the many sayings in AA declares that the alcoholic who does not seek help can expect one of three fates: prison, insanity, or death due to alcohol. Fortunately for me, my drinking problem had not reached the stage of chemical addiction. I was able to stop drinking beer after a few months. But, I continued going to the meetings because of the spiritual atmosphere.

Something magical (or mystical) happens in a room filled with about twenty people sitting in a circle, where each has up to five minutes to relate his or her own experience of, or attitude toward, a single topic usually introduced by the group leader. Sometimes the topic concerns one of the Twelve Steps; sometimes it is a problem about personal growth that one of the members has; but in every case the topic must involve alcohol, even if only tangentially. I discovered, through listening to those other persons, that at least five of them would say something that related to some troubled part within my own self. The proportion of twenty percent was so regular that it became predictable.

At the beginning of my association with AA, I was an agnostic and very much opposed to organized religion. But, the frequent mention by other members of “little miracles” and of their close relationship with some “higher power” — sometimes so close as to annoy them (“I wanted to say, ‘Get out of my face!'” remarked one lady) — caused me to surmise, These people are not faking it; their spirituality is actual.

During this time I was working for two temp agencies and studying poetry. One day during a lunch hour while I was on assignment at an insurance company, I was reading a book about the elements of a poem. The author quoted a line from a poem that she neglected to ascribe to any poet; she was using it as an example of simile. The line ran thus: “And music yearning like a god in pain…”. The word “yearning” struck a major chord within me, but I could not fathom why. It looked to me like something Percy Shelley might have written; I resolved to check out its source when I got home that night. I was unable to find it in any of Shelley’s poems, so I tried John Keats, and there it was in “Eve of St. Agnes”. The line’s environment surprised me because the poem appeared to me as more erotic than spiritual. Now that contrast seems prophetic.

At the same time, I was reading philosophy books. In some of them, I kept coming upon footnotes citing St. John of the Cross. Besides wondering how anybody had garnered a moniker like that, I became curious who this “John of the Cross” was and why he was cited so often in the philosophy texts I was reading. Eventually I found him: a 16th century Spanish Carmelite friar, mystic and poet. I read his Dark Night of the Soul , and, although I do not recommend it for its literary qualities, I did recognize a few aspects of myself in John’s words. He wrote of the contemplative’s first recognition of his depravity in a very graphic image: a prisoner in a dark dungeon watching as the grime is wiped off the single window in his cell and perceiving all the motes floating about: those motes are his sins, which were invisible to him before God’s grace gave him light. In another passage, John compared God’s gradual withdrawal of His “favors” to the substance a mother smears on her nipples in order to wean her child.

I do not intend to get into the question of God’s existence or non-existence here, but I have to continue a while with some God-talk, for at that time I was willing to return to my adolescent concept of the man-like Judeo-Christian God. Some AA members had remarked that God speaks through other people. Based on my experience as related above (about how at least five members in any meeting would say something that touched on one of my personal issues), I thought their claim was quite plausible. My only question about it was: Why not books or animals or Nature in general? It seemed to me that some books I had read recently contained paragraphs, or even just phrases, that appeared directed at me. Also, I was conscious of some very strange and powerful sensations during my solitary walks along the shore of a nearby lake and my observations of various birds, fish and squirrels along the way.

One bright, crisp October morning, as I approached my pickup truck, that was parked in the lot behind the apartment I shared with my brother, I heard a bird singing clearly and lyrically in a small oak tree in front of the truck. I paused, one hand poised on the truck door’s handle, and pondered the moment’s significance. I could not see the bird, which I deduced must be a mockingbird, but I tried to interpret its notes. After about five minutes, I gave up and quietly uttered, “Sorry, God, I guess I’m just not there yet.”

The next morning, a Sunday, I lay in bed, not eager to rise, and lifted a New Yorker magazine off the little table beside my bed. After scanning the cartoons, I tried one of the poems. It was by Swedish poet Lars Gustafsson, translated by Yvonne L. Sandstroem, about a recently deceased 86-year-old Mexican woman who had carried a dead fetus around in her womb for sixty years. Most of the poem is a comparison of the Mexican woman’s unborn child and the “child” within the aging poet. However, the poet’s meditation is abruptly interrupted by a mockingbird in an oak tree:

…..Mockingbird, what do you want?
You have so many voices, and I don’t know

which one of them to take seriously.
The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes—

then there’s a kind of clucking
on certain days in early spring,

when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,
as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.

Mockingbird in the green oak tree!
What’s the secret you sit there trying to swallow?

Now, dear readers, you can interpret that episode anyway you like, but the way I interpreted it is that God was saying to me, “Bob, don’t expect me to speak to you through a bird’s songs. They are just copied notes. And, even if I did use that magician’s trick, nobody would believe you if you related the incident to them. I have more natural ways of getting your attention, as through your fellow AA sufferers and even this magazine, albeit I will acknowledge that the poem here borders on the magical. Just settle for the mystical, okay?”

Following that incident, I encountered many “mystical favors” (also called “graces” or “consolations”), a few of which I related to friends, who heard my anecdotes with only tepid interest and doubtful glances. One such “favor” bears mentioning here, for it was not only valid and profound but also similar to one experienced by a woman I met about that time; it is also discussed by St. John of the Cross and, in more detail, by Bernard of Clairvaux. It is the spiritual “fragrance” or “perfume” or “aroma”. Even before I started taking seriously the spirituality in AA, I had smelled a pleasing odor, which I can only compare, inadequately, to that of honeysuckle. I detected it in strange places, such as a concrete parking lot with no plants around nor any perfumed women; it did not match my own deodorant or shampoo either. The experience was brief, and I did not ponder it; rather, I gave it over as something indeterminable and unimportant. But, when I began my spiritual quest in AA and experienced it again, I took it very seriously and noted the references to it in John of the Cross’s and Bernard of Clairvaux’s writings. Bernard, in his On The Song of Songs, attributes the fragrance to the ointment and spices which various women applied to Jesus’ feet, head and body during his life and after his death; while I, unable to connect with either Jesus as Christ or with God the Father, associated what I smelled with the Holy Spirit, a presence with whom I could relate. I deemed the aroma was the fragrance of the Holy Spirit being exhaled from my soul into the outer air where it could be sensibly discernible and become a “lure” toward more spiritual seeking.

The Holy Spirit remains the only “Person” I fully acknowledge; for the Judeo-Christian God is too abstract and encumbered with paradoxes for me to know, much less love; and Jesus can be viewed and interpreted in too many ways, some of them contradictory, for me to accept him as totally real. Moreover, I have never seen how his “sacrifice” was necessary, for I cannot accept the paradox of a “just” and “loving” God demanding the execution of anybody, much less His own “son”. Nor can I imagine any “eternal life” as a desirable condition: oblivion is quite sufficient for me (if only I could have a brief while to savor the relief it offered).

Nonetheless, I continued my spiritual search — and profitably, too — within the Christian tradition, even though I allow that other religions have valid mystical traditions and practices . I studied many of the Western mystics, both medieval and modern; in fact, one might reasonably accuse me of studying mysticism to death. (There really is such a thing as “spiritual gluttony”.)

One of the major mystics toward whom I was attracted was Jan Van Ruysbroeck, a 14th century Flemish monk. Although there were several spiritual insights that I gained from reading Ruysbroeck’s treatises, the one I value most is his classification of spiritual development into three stages: the active life, the yearning (or interior) life, and the contemplative life. The reason this classifying appealed to me was that it had elevated “yearning” from the status of a simple descriptive word to a developmental stage in spiritual growth; it had proven to be, for me at least, the objective toward which that “lure” I had hooked onto in Keats’ poem had brought me.

The Holy Spirit withdrew before I reached the third stage — the one beyond “active” and “yearning” — “the contemplative life”. But, to tell you the truth, I was not interested in becoming “one with God”: the anticipated goal of those monks and others heavily devoted to contemplation. Christian theology contains too many paradoxes and even contradictions for me to accept in toto. I was more in tune with the radical American Puritan theologian Roger Williams, who believed that each person should find his own deity free of pressure from corporate worship and rules; and with Pierre Abelard, the medieval French theologian and philosopher, who published Yes and No, a compilation of 200 problems he had found in the Bible which he urged Church leaders to study and correct. (Bernard of Clairvaux persecuted Abelard unmercifully for his honest effort, which is why I do not consider Bernard a “saint”.)

I decided I should not waste my time and emotional energy trying to correlate my spiritual yearning with any certain concept of God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s withdrawal had left me in what John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul”, and there was no promised date when I might exit from that condition. The complexity of all those theological questions was way above my head, and I was not going to waste my time trying to work my way through the religious maze. If the Holy Spirit wanted to impart some fresh insight to me, He knew where to find me. I would simply let Him do His thing, and I would do mine, but with an eye aimed toward being as honest, compassionate, and understanding as I could be. I am a spiritual seeker, not a religious joiner.

One item in this discourse remains to be dealt with: What is the Holy Spirit’s connection to the δαíμων? Well, recently I had occasion to read several of Plato’s dialogues and some articles about Socrates. I discovered that Socrates claimed to have a “δαíμων”: a spiritual guide that, while Socrates was in the midst of a mystical transport, would warn the philosopher when he was about to make a wrong move but did not advise him about what was the right move (See Plato’s Apology, 31d, in Loeb Classical Library). That information intrigued me: Was Socrates’ “δαíμων” the same as what the Christians call a “Guardian Angel” or even the “Holy Spirit”? I was certainly willing to welcome such a moral or ethical guide, free of theological gobbledygook, into my life, since I frequently am confronted with ambiguous situations and fear my own ambivalence.

And the spiritual quest will continue unto my dying day, of that much I am sure.



Poems For Two Sisters

©1995 By Bob Litton


     Now don’t turn tart or oblivious
     If we celebrate less joyously
     Than you this day, this year,
     This circuit in your race through life.
     It’s only growing pains we feel
     At watching innocence eager
     To share in the sins and tomfoolery
     We grown-ups hide in our talk
     Under the rug called “sophistication”.

     There’s a scene in a book I read
     About a deer, a lusty young buck,
     Who scraped his felty antlers against a birch,
     Slicing the tree’s bark to shreds.
     If the birch lived, it was forever scarred;
     Yet such was Nature’s chosen way to hone
     One creature’s implements for coping.
     I’ve often pondered how like that tree
     Good parents and teachers are, standing
     Sturdily in the way while children whet their wits
     Upon them, testing boundaries and givings-in.
     No misplaced sentiment should wish either
     Scraping or testing not there, since the grace
     For growing comes from the pain that others bear.

     One memory more: A hiker’s trail
     In Big Bend country (short as such trails go)
     Meanders downhill from the comforts of camp
     To an opening cloven in the mountain’s wall,
     Where a creek decants its shallow stream;
     And I could see, as through a keyhole,
     Way off yonder, Santa Elena Canyon,
     With the Rio Grande flowing through.
     “The Window View”, that pisgah is called.

     The trek to it is easy, as all treks downward are,
     So that disdainfully I did pass by
     Some benches set here and there along the trail.
     The return’s a task, though, and I hunted
     Exasperatedly for those seats
     I had deemed absurdly plentiful before.
     Folks I met as they were coming down
     And I, up, appeared too fresh and eager,
     Toting kiddos on their shoulders,
     As though this jaunt were nothing but a journey
     Round the block back home
     Where all is level.
     They stared at my flagging apparition
     As if to say: “What a grump is here
     Who unseemly sweats this autumn day
     And inhales twice to our once
     So he can’t even utter `Hullo’!”
     Off they went, and I turned to watch
     Their butts jiggling jollily down
     The path I had just clambered up
     Huffing step after puffing step.

     That’s how it is with some of us adults
     Who struggle daily to regain
     The guileless coherency you children
     Blithely abandon like molted skin.


BROADWATER, NEB. (AP) — Sixteen pelicans
found dead near here were killed by lightning,
wildlife officials said.


     A chevron of white wings
     brushes the green-grey sky.
     In unison slow, scooper-billed pelicans
     veer now west, now south,
     now west again, slightly, so slightly,
     only Time’s eye can see.

     A thousand feet below
     spreads the great Nebraska plain–
     tawny, like a huge straw nest;
     inviting, yet down there, they know,
     the big cats prowl.

     Afar and weighted beneath black billows,
     a serrated silhouette of purple mountains
     divides sky and plain.
     Thunder rumbles amid the peaks,
     and clouds roll and swirl
     like ocean surf in Chinese prints–
     unframeable landscape
     of terrifying limitlessness.

     Earth may warn dumb beasts
     when calamity is nigh,
     but Heaven’s intent is harder read.
     Thus the pelicans fly
     directly into doom,
     serenely waving their wings,
     until a claw-like bolt,
     scratching through the clouds,
     seizes them in searing clutch,
     and down they tumble.

     Which of us knows
     our true element?






Twilight of “the People”

By Bob Litton
When I started this blog, I privately resolved not to use it for political monologues or dialogues. As a retired reporter, I had had my fill of political polemics and wanted to disengage myself from all that. I did not intend to refrain from reading about politics or discussing it in the coffee shops or voting; I just wanted to maintain the purity of my blog site. However, the governing conditions in the United States — my homeland — have become so polarized and, especially at the national level, so dysfunctional that I feel impelled to comment on them here in The Vanity Mirror.

Only two political parties have governed our nation, almost in an alternating four- to eight-year pattern, since the era of Eisenhower. Although their party platforms throughout the decades of the 20th century reflected a bias among Republicans for the business and capitalist class and among Democrats for the working class, their actual legislative products often differed so little that they were depicted in cartoons as Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Helen Keller, the blind liberal activist of the first half of that century, said, “Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” Some members of Congress made careers of their service, became well-known over time to the country’s population, socialized with members of the other party, and thus found compromising on legislation relatively easy.

With the onset of instant communications, more aggressive reporters, and a scandal-hungry populace, the old-style politicians began to lose elections, wither in influence or die. Perhaps that was just as well, but an unintended consequence of it was that a sense of institutional historicity, collegiality and the art (or spirit) of compromise disappeared with them. A whole new class of politicos — some of them firebrands — took over the arena. Now the Democrats, who are mostly remnants or heirs of the old style, are left dumfounded, perplexed and often enough out-maneuvered by the Republicans’ right-wing. For their part, the conservative Republicans — what few there are remaining of the “old school” — have been either radicalized or subdued by the right-wingers, who, in turn, are under the thumb of the ultra-right Tea Party.

The Tea Partiers and their congressional minions often advertise themselves as acting on principles. Now “principle”, as pertinently defined in my Ninth Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, means 1a. a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption; 1b. a rule of code or conduct. The Tea Party’s main “principles” are 1) drastically reduce the federal $13 trillion deficit; 2) eliminate any type of socialized medicine, whether it is Obamacare or some other; 3) eliminate or at least drastically reduce entitlement programs such as Social Security and Food Stamps; 4) do not raise taxation levels, on corporations and the rich especially; 5) outlaw abortion; and 6) repeal all gun control laws. There may be others, and some of the ones listed here might be open for moderation, according to whatever right-winger you talk to; but they are the ones that linger in my mind as being the most frequently touted and strenuously fought for.

The big stumbling block here is that, while asking our young people to fight and die in wars to defend our national “principles” has been tacitly accepted throughout our history, to risk the nation’s economic and social existence for “principles” is a new stanza for the old song — one that most Americans are not willing to sing. Also, “principle”, when understood only in its strictest sense and acted upon only in that sense, does not leave room for compromise. For the Tea Party politicians even to utter the phrase “let’s talk this over and compromise” is the silliest self-contradiction one can imagine. Actually, while I can accept the emotional role of “principles” in our national culture and in our individual lives, I am not sure as yet what their practical role is or can be. And we have always governed ourselves best when we acted pragmatically. Stars can be an aid in navigating a ship, but they cannot turn the helm in such a way as to avoid ice bergs.

Besides those nettling and time-wasting political issues, our nation and the rest of the world face bewildering planet-centered problems, many of which have developed rather suddenly and exponentially. I am speaking here of cultural and religious conflicts; declining food, water and even air resources; the deadly promise of global-warming; and even the devastations caused by invasive species of animals (pythons, lionfish), plants (Russian thistle, salt cedar)  and microbes (swine flu, mad cow disease).

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking was quoted recently as warning us that, if we humans want to continue as a species, we will have to find some place beyond Earth to migrate, for the Earth will not be habitable a thousand years from now. Considering that the nearest supposedly habitable planet (as of last June) is 22 light years away (a light year = 6 trillion miles), it would take some vehicle much more sophisticated than any NASA rocket to unload a living human there — in fact, a time machine. And if a colony of us ever arrived at such a planet we would certainly, due to our congenital folly, spoil it, too.

To even come close to solving these universal problems, we are going to have to redesign our manner of governance so that we will not be wasting months and years arguing about the same special interest issues. The Republicans played a little sleight-of-hand game during the “shutdown” debates in order to prevent its being quickly settled. They changed one of the House Rules in such a way that only the Speaker (John Boehner) or the majority leader (Eric Cantor) could bring a Continuing Resolution on the floor for a vote. The Republican majorities in several states gerrymandered redistricting so that their candidates would have the greater likelihood of winning an election. (In all fairness, I should add that the Democrats have done the same thing in past years.) So, we need to edit House Rules (and no telling how many other procedural elements) to proscribe party fiddling. We need some mechanisms for redistricting that will eliminate party influence. It would be helpful, also, if we had a couple of more viable political parties — by that I mean non-dogmatic, non-special interest parties — but I realize that might lead to even more squabbling. There are many more political steps we need to take to revitalize our democracy, but are the people awake, are the people concerned enough, are the people angry enough to force those changes? And are the necessary tasks clear enough that well-meaning and eager statesmen and stateswomen can work with them? I hope so, but I am doubtful. I am skeptical enough to believe that our nation, as well as the planet, is heading for the twilight.

Please make me eat crow.


In Somewhat Romantic Moods

Humanity’s Eye

©Bob Litton 2013

It pleases me that other men
see no being through my eyes;
for that gives hope to you and me —
a truer love will find us hereabouts.
You know how the magazines
always present les hautes femmes
all uniform, of eyes severe
and globular lips, as though they
were what a lover of modern taste
most wants to awaken to come morn —
heedless of what he lured to bed.

Other men have less prejudiced eyes —
(of course, so do other women, too) —
which marvels me to scan such field
and find the lard with the rind
together enveloped in a hug;
glimpse the pimple-cheeked lass
who’s kissed by the flat-nosed lad;
the girl whose beauty is unsurpassed
except for her strong, peasant’s hands —
broad-fingered, like a crab’s strong claws;
the thin young man with hardly any chin,
stuttering out his heart’s proposal
to a miss with hair dyed purple,
a rhinestone pin puncturing her lip.

Ah, benign Humanity’s Eye,
how graciously blind you are!


Aesthetic of spurning

©Bob Litton 1964

My darling loved Bach fugues
as much as the leitmotivs of Wagner
or burgundy that sparkled
among cubes of ice
in musical glasses.
Yet did the dearest one spurn me —
I, who could have loved beyond Love’s horizon —
and all the arts of the world
existed for but our sharing.
What proves I am civilized is I’ve loved only once;
but it did not become eternal.
There were established boundaries.
The ecstasy of foreign climes could not be admitted,
so Love is a dry leaf now;
and all the despondent waters
have returned
            to their sanctum
                        of a purple ocean.


Hope of love eternal

©Bob Litton 1962

I take your hand.
See how the fingers spread and cling,
longing for the intertwining,
then relaxing in my palm.
Remember when they were cold in November,
before Love warmed them.
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “All is vanity!”
And our time to love came as it did for all others.
Will the sun, then, also rise again;
or shall this setting mark something new?
And, if at that moment we are bound together,
there will have been a beginning.



Probable Impossibilities in Films

By Bob Litton

The poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable impossibilities.
      — Aristotle, Poetics

It’s kinda  fun to do the impossible.
      — Walt Disney

I feel slightly handicapped as I write this essay, because I started out under a false assumption: I had thought Walt Disney was the first to broach the subject of “probable impossibilities”, yet I just learned that many famous people at least mentioned the concept before Disney, beginning, I suppose, with Aristotle. And I had wanted to hold off on mentioning Aristotle’s Poetics until I begin writing a future post essay on poetic theories.

My first hearing of the phrase occurred while I was watching one of Disney’s early television shows; it was, I believe, one of those ABC network specials just prior to the opening of Disneyland. I was in my early teens at the time and much enamored of all the Disney productions to that date. The scene I am recollecting is of Walt, his backside leaning against a desk in what apparently was his office, speaking directly to his TV audience: It was an educative moment.

The topic was our human ability to suspend, for the moment, rational thinking and accept — just for pure entertainment’s sake — the depiction of illogical events. Walt mentioned by way of example the instances where cartoon characters are seen running so rapidly and blindly that they venture several yards beyond a cliff’s edge until, finally realizing their predicament, they fall to the ground far below. To our open-minded imaginations it does seem plausible that we could continue a few yards — or feet at least — before we lose our buoyancy. The ever popular Roadrunner cartoons, where Wile E. Coyote continually encounters what would normally be considered death-dealing mishaps while chasing his eternal prey, Roadrunner, are prime examples of how we can find enjoyment in episodes depicting nothing but “probable impossibilities”. Those films push the concept’s envelope to such an extreme degree, in fact, as to practically render them “improbable impossibilities” — the very mode Aristotle disdained.

Now, to get to the real substance of what this essay is supposed to be about. I have had several informal discussions with an artist friend in which our critiquing of movies and TV dramas involved frequent mention of implausible sequences. The most common of these, certainly, are those interminable special effects renderings of the heroes diving through glass window panes (without incurring even a scratch) just before a structure blows up, or running ahead of automatic weapons fire (the bullets causing a series of dirt puffs behind them), usually without  being wounded. I would like to think that most of my countrymen are weary of that kind of redundant plotting, but the continual production of such shows warns me that is a pipe dream.

A much more subtle test of our credulity resides in two films by Nora Ephron: Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I love both of these films; I credit them with alleviating my depression for several months. And, as for the implausibility issue, my main interest here is the question: Why doesn’t it bother me? How can I imagine that real people might have progressed through these story lines?

At risk of insulting my readers’ intelligence, I believe I should outline the implausible elements, some of them at least, in each of the Ephron films.

Let’s take Sleepless first, since it was in fact the first produced. If you have never believed in fairy tales or even in “love at first sight”, then you will struggle to sit through the entirety of this movie. Imagine a woman falling in love with a man whom she has never seen, only heard on a radio talk show. Imagine a man, a grieving widower with an eight-year-old son to raise, falling in love the old-fashioned “at first sight” way while he sees the heroine walking through an airport terminal. Imagine the son and an eleven-year-old girl playmate finagling an airline ticket, getting the boy to the Seattle airport and on a New York-bound plane without anyone noticing. (Actually, something similar to that happened just recently, only the boy was nine and the route, Minneapolis to Las Vegas.) But, there’s more to it: mystical dialogue. At regular points during the story, two phrases get repeated by various characters; the phrases are “It is (or “was”) magic!” and “It’s a sign!”

New Yorker magazine movie critic Anthony Lane semi-panned the film partly because of the implausibility factor and because, consequently, it gave too little opportunity for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks to bounce their chemistry off each other.

In You’ve Got Mail , Ryan and Hanks have plenty of opportunity to play off each other’s personalities, but the implausibilty factor assumes a more comical and, at the same time, sinister face. The story line is this: Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is the youngest of a three-generation male line who open a large chain bookstore in New York that threatens the survival of a much smaller (children’s) bookstore owned by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan). A media war between them develops. As contrast, a backstory line has the two business foes involved in an email relationship, one in which they preclude personal identity information but which gets so personal otherwise that they agree to meet. The rest of the story is too long even to summarize here, but I have given enough, I believe, to picture its convolution.

However, there are a few relatively minor elements in the film which I need to mention, for they all bear much on my topic. One is the obvious, huge improbability of a bookstore owner who has lost her cherished store not only forgiving her destructive competitor but falling in love with him. A related but even huger improbability is the likelihood of their being, at the same time, confidants through email exchanges. The funniest line in the film, to me, was Joe saying to Kathleen, near the film’s climax, “How can you forgive that guy for standing you up and not forgive me for this tiny little thing of putting you out of business?” That is Nora Ephron’s way of saying to her audience, “Look, I know this movie is absurd, just accept it as such and enjoy it anyway!”

A third, more comical, improbability is the Fox family makeup and their suitability as Kathleen’s in-laws. Firstly, Joe, who has just recently turned thirty, has an “aunt” (the daughter of his octagenarian grandfather) about six or seven years old, and a “brother” three to four years old: a highly unlikely makeup, although not impossible. But the subterranean improbability is Kathleen’s being able to accept her future father-in-law — a man who is the most hard-nosed competitor among the three generations and a cynic when it comes to business and relationships with women. The grandfather’s profile is not so harsh, especially when he relates that he had known, even exchanged letters with and possibly dated, Kathleen’s mother.

Now, the basic question is: How much of these improbabilities are we willing to tolerate in order to enjoy the cartoons and the romantic comedies?

I don’t feel qualified to assert that the infractions on our credulity should not impede our enjoyment or even to claim that most people will be able to enjoy all of them. However, as for the Roadrunner cartoons, I believe it is acknowledged that children and most adults will tolerate them enough if for no other reason than that the audience fully anticipated such absurdities from the beginning. It is, in fact, the absurdities themselves that are entertaining. It is only when we have seen such cartoons repeatedly that the continual mishaps, like chewing gum, lose their flavor.

The romantic comedies are a more difficult matter. We anticipate at the start of them that the representations of characters and events will closely resemble those in our everyday world, even though the description “romantic comedy” should have clued us that the story is going to be a step above reality, will be funny and will have a happy ending. Still, we can emotionally accommodate that stretch, even happily welcome it as a bit of relief from our own either humdrum or tragic lives. Also, there were the key phrases in Sleepless mentioned above (“It’s magic!” and “It’s a sign!”) that tell us we are watching a modern fairy tale and we should accept it as such. Of course, not everybody will be able or willing to do that much accepting, and we all have our limits for accepting; we have semi-conscious parameters for allowance; and it is usually only when those parameters have been breached that we realize what our limits are.

As for the suitability of the in-laws in You’ve Got Mail, that is something I could not have accepted had the movie progressed to the “meet-the-in-laws” stage; but it didn’t, so my anticipation of what the future holds for the lovers is as thin as gossamer and just as impermanent.


More Rough Poems

©1995 By Bob Litton


Let go my scruff! I’ll leave now!
Since you insist
With burly fist
That I’ve grown ivy on my brow.

But what school rule requires I forgo
The vanity
Time granted me
Of teaching your classes from the back row?

And where’ll the co-eds find delight
When I leav’em?
Sure, it’ll griev’em
To shiver between their sheets all night.

There’s little tolerance anymore
For older students
Whose sole imprudence
Is eating the apple — pulp and core!


The trees unnerved him first — fat, obtrusive trunks
With all true value submerged.
He was quick to appraise the fruit pulpy and bitter,
And unleashed one eye to wander of its own accord
In search of a plant not seemingly made of wax.
Futile! Dribblings of sap unimaginable!
He thought of requesting seedlings from home,
Of ramming them deep into this unwelcoming soil.
Such was the measure of his roots.

Then the populace — the bar-bar speakers!
Like people everywhere, harder to dodge than bullets.
His hungry memory superimposed faces,
Fitting passersby with smuggled visages.
Profferings of camaraderie were flippant
And wholesale: “Six thousand friends await you!”
But he knew the requisite time — counted in moons;
And the risk — the costly welcome
No more retrievable than a hymen. It’s not home.
Such was the measure of his sentence.


Vision gone cockeyed
Turning somersaults
Before the cry can sound;
Sensationless wingbone pounding the block
Like a Determinist’s thudding argument;
Then slowly, fitfully, the gaspless, heaving body
Jerking toward its stillness;
And, separate, the eyes staring,
The beak opening,
From severed esophagus
One last red


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