And sometimes when you look into the abyss...the abyss looks back into you

There are a number of bookstores in the surrounding towns that allow people to bring in books they’ve already read and trade them for others. I’ve been checking these bookstores out periodically over the last year or so, trying to find the one that would give the best deal. I went to the final one a couple of months ago. I took Shannon because it is a paperback exchange kind of place, and if you’re going to exchange paperbacks then you naturally need to say something to the proprietor, something like, “I’d like to exchange some paperbacks.” I would like to have had Shannon do the talking, but she’s pretty socially stunted, too, having the misfortune to take after me in that respect. So, even though I was the one forced by necessity to engage in conversation, it was nice to have Shannon as support, standing behind me and a little to the left. Just knowing she was there made it a little easier to speak up.

So, the first thing I did was ask the proprietors (there were two of them, both middle-aged women, one with scary eyebrows and the other with ratty hair) if there were any restrictions.

“What do you mean?” said Ratty Hair.

“Well,” says I, glancing at Shannon, who by way of encouragement raised her eyebrows. “I’ve been to places where they say you can only trade the kind of books you bring in, like sci fi for sci fi, romance for romance, and stuff like that.”

Ratty Hair shook her head.

So far so good. I continued, “And I’ve been to places where they give you credit but they still make you pay a little bit per book, like 75 cents or something, regardless of how many books you bring to trade.”

“No,” said Ratty Hair, “you get credit based on the cover price of the book.”

“So there’s no extra charge?” I said, wanting to be perfectly clear on this point.

“What kind of charge?” said Ratty Hair. Her question really confused me. I looked at Shannon, who had apparently become very interested in some colorful children’s books and was beginning to drift to the other side of the shop.

“A charge for each book you trade,” I said. Ratty Hair just stared at me. I tried explaining it in a different way: “You know, for each book you trade, there’s a charge.”

“There’s no extra cost for the books,” Scary Eyebrows broke in. “You use up your credit and that’s it.”

“Okay, thank you,” I said. So I gave them the books I’d brought. They went through them and decided they could only use about a fourth of them.

“We can’t really use these others,” said Scary Eyebrows. “We have overstock in them already.”

“What kind of books do you find that you need?” I asked.

“Well, the popular authors, like Janet Evanovich and Nora Roberts. Oh, and classics. If you have classics, we could use those.”

“Okay,” I said.

Then Ratty Hair, who had been calculating the value of the books I brought in, told me the amount of credit I had.

I spent the next ten minutes or so picking out four or five sci fi books. I also chose two mysteries, making sure to stay within my credit limit so I wouldn’t have to pay anything. Every once in a while I looked over at Shannon, who had now shifted her attention to the resident Chihuahua belonging to Ratty Hair. The dog was trotting around the bookstore, licking the books at Chihuahua eye-level. Finally, I took my selections up to the counter. Ratty Hair added them up and subtracted the credit.

“That’ll be $1.34,” said Ratty Hair.

I stared at her. She stared back at me. It was very unnerving. Fortunately, I was able to keep my head and figure out that the price she quoted included tax.“Oh,” I said, “I get it.”

Ratty Hair was still staring at me. I paid her and said, “Thank you.” Scary Eyebrows said, “You’re welcome.” Ratty Hair just stared. Then Shannon and I grabbed the leftover books and we got out of there as fast as we could.

Out in the parking lot, Shannon said, “That’s a creepy place.”

“You noticed that, too,” I said.

But I decided that, since it was the only paperback exchange around that gave a straight trade without any restrictions, I’d have to find the courage to go back someday with a bunch of classics, of which I had not a few.

Last week I did it. And I did it alone. I went into the store with a bag full of good classic books by authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Edith Wharton and Ring Lardner and Aphra Behn and Miguel de Cervantes. Just for good measure I also tossed in a loose Debbie Macomber romance and an Earlene Fowler mystery that happened to be lying about.

There was a man at the counter, a pleasant-enough-looking man, who took the bag of books and invited me to look around while he went through what I had brought. His politeness and good interpersonal skills immediately put me at ease.

I went over to the sci fi section again, and started the process of trying to decide which books I would get. There were so many I wanted, but I knew I’d have to limit myself.

A few minutes later I headed back to the counter and was a little surprised to see that the pleasant-looking man had been replaced with Scary Eyebrows.

She indicated the books I’d brought in. “We can’t use most of them,” she said, “but we can take these three.”

I looked at the three: the Debbie Macomber, the Earlene Fowler, and the Edith Wharton.

“Ohh...kay,” I said. I wanted to ask her what she considered to be classic literature, but I knew that was a line of inquiry that would probably lead to a dead end.

She continued. “I noticed you were looking in the sci fi section. If you want to trade for sci fi, you’ll have to bring in some sci fi books.”

“What?” I said, looking at Scary Eyebrows with an expression of mild shock mingled with disbelief, but she must have been taking lessons from Ratty Hair because all she did was stare at me.

“The last time I was here,” I said, explaining things very slowly and clearly, “I got sci fi.”

“Then you must have brought in sci fi to trade,” said Scary Eyebrows.

“No,” I said, “I brought all kinds of stuff.”

“Well, there you go,” she said, as if that proved her point. All it proved to me was that this was a creepier bookstore than I had thought. I knew there was no point in arguing with her. In places and cases like this, the customer is always wrong.

“Well, I don’t want anything else,” I said, trying not to sound like I had just lost at a game of marbles or something, “so I guess I’ll take my books back.”

“I can write down your credit and you can use it later,” Scary Eyebrows offered.

“No, that’s okay,” I said. So I took my books and left the store and promised myself that I would never go back to that creepy bookstore again.


I'm gonna sing the Doom Song now. Doom doom doom doom doom doom doom...

There’s been something on my mind for a really long time that raises a lot of questions I wish I could figure out the answers to. It doesn’t puzzle me continuously, but it does come up with somewhat regular frequency, usually but not exclusively at high school commencement exercises, baseball games or any other event where some singer, when nearing the end of the National Anthem, insists on going up to that high A flat at “o’er the land of the freee-HEEEE!!!” My questions are: Who told them to do that? Who ever convinced them that was a good thing to do? Why do they think anyone wants to hear them? How can we eradicate this behavior?

I don’t know if there are any answers. I suppose that, at some point in the last 30 years or so (because I sure don’t remember it from my childhood, and hearing that teeth-clenching rendition is something I would remember because it would have provided such scope for mockery), some famous four-octave-voiced singer who could actually reach that note while still sounding sane decided to show off a bit by hitting the A flat. And I suppose that, after such a demonstration, every two-bit singer eager to imitate the professional would naturally want to give it a go. Add in a few tone-deaf relatives to applaud and deceive those singers, and you have established the foundation for ensuing cacophony. Now it is a matter of course at public functions to hear that tympanum-rending rendition.

I bring this up because yesterday was Memorial Day. Late in the morning we went to the local cemetery for a program put on by the local VFW post. There was a lot of flag-waving, partly because there were about 75 flags there. Maybe more. And then there was the singing. Really, if we can’t replace the Anthem with a more rational song like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, then there has got to be a change made in the way it’s performed in public. Because it is currently not a beautiful thing.

Some people among my acquaintance think I'm unpatriotic because I'm overly critical of the National Anthem. Some people among my acquaintance think I'm unpatriotic because I don’t get caught up in the flag-waving paroxysms of patriotism that the public goes through on the holidays specifically set aside for such celebrations. Some people among my acquaintance think I'm unpatriotic because I believe men’s neckwear imprinted with the stars and stripes is a bad idea.

I don’t see much difference between a guy putting a flag tie around his neck and a guy putting a flag around his shoulders. Both are irritating, and if the guy doing it is at the Olympics, it's even more irritating. But that’s just me.

But I think I'm patriotic. While we were at the cemetery, watching all the flags waving and listening to bad national anthems, adequate speeches (I judge speeches at these kinds of functions on the “next to of course god america i” scale), and a touching rendition of Taps (played by Ian and echoed by Jeanette, a fellow trumpeter from the high school band), my DVR was very patriotically recording war movies back at home. I had very patriotically set it to record Bataan, They Were Expendable, The Great Raid, and The Guadalcanal Story. I was hoping they’d also show So Proudly We Hail, Cry ‘Havoc’, and Back to Bataan. With those movies (minus The Guadalcanal Story), you can get a pretty fair picture of the course of World War II in the Philippines.

Of course, I'm not saying you should rely solely on movies to give you your history, but I think it can help. I once read an article (non-fiction, so it’s true, but I can’t remember who wrote it) by a guy (I think he was a teacher) who said he was sitting there in the living room watching some World War II movie on tv. His high-school-aged daughter has her friend over, and while the daughter is doing something or other, the friend wanders into the living room and starts watching the movie. After a minute, she says, “What’s this?”

“A World War Two movie,” says the teacher.

“World War Two?” says the girl, sounding confused.

The teacher, a little surprised, but knowing that some students get historical facts mixed up, says, “You know, when we fought the Japanese and the Germans back in the 1940s.” He goes back to his movie, and the girl watches silently for a few minutes.

“We had a war with Japan?” she finally says. “Who won?”

Now you might not believe that anyone can be that ignorant, but I do. I had a friend whose daughter’s 19-year-old boyfriend was surprised to find out that Canada is located north of the United States. I was there, in person, and heard his very words when he expressed that surprise. He didn’t actually say he was surprised to find out that Canada was located north of the United States. What he said was, “Canada’s on top of the US? I didn’t know that!”

I didn’t know him. If I had, I would’ve found a heavy book, like an encyclopedia or a world atlas, and chucked it at his head in the hopes that some of the knowledge contained therein would, by momentum, make its way into his brain.

Books, I hope you will agree, are a great way of finding things out. Watching movies can even be useful, although I feel that movies should be a supplement to and not a substitute for books. Either way, though, I don’t understand how anyone who watches tv and movies as much as people do today cannot have at least a basic understanding of our nation’s history.

There is a danger in taking films too literally, though. I’ve heard a couple of people use Shakespeare in Love as proof that Queen Elizabeth attended the Globe Theatre to see Shakespeare’s plays. And there are those who think Sir Walter Raleigh was on board fighting the Spanish Armada because they saw it in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

I once thought of writing a book about “History According to Hollywood”. I had part of a chapter devoted to the proposition that Ginger Rogers single-handedly saved America from Nazi invasion.

So I enjoy World War II films (as long as they have actors in them that I like), and I think they are important for getting some sense of how people back then experienced the war, but I sometimes question what I see. For instance, I was a little skeptical when I first saw Back to Bataan. In that film, John Wayne refuses to surrender to the Japanese with the rest of the Army and becomes a guerrilla fighter instead. Okay, I have no problem with that, because he did the same thing in They Were Expendable, which is based on a true story, so I know that not every American got herded into concentration camps.

He then rescues Anthony Quinn from the Bataan Death March and Anthony Quinn (playing the fictional grandson of a real Filipino hero) joins the guerrillas, too. All right . . . I'm still with them.

What made me look askance was that Beulah Bondi (most people know her as James Stewart’s mother in It’s a Wonderful Life), who portrayed an American school teacher in the Philippines in Back to Bataan, also hooked up with John Wayne’s outfit and lived, marched, and fought with them for the next three-plus years. I wasn’t sure I could believe that. First of all, can you just picture James Stewart’s mother slogging through the jungle with a gun slung over her shoulder?

Secondly, all the accounts I’d heard of before, both factual (I'm thinking of the woman who wrote The Drainpipe Diary, and the ex-Army doctor I knew back in Provo in the 1970s who spent the war with her two little children in a camp near Manila) and fictional (movies like So Proudly We Hail and Cry ‘Havoc’), led me to believe that American and pro-Allies European women and children in the Philippines were pretty uniformly rounded up and sent to camps.

All that changed for me a couple of weeks ago when I read Guerrilla Wife by Louise Reid Spencer. It’s an autobiographical account, pretty well told and extremely interesting, of a group of Americans in the Philippines – some attached to the Army, some (like Spencer’s husband) working for a mining company there, and some serving as missionaries – who all refused to surrender and who instead took their chances living in the jungle, moving around occasionally to avoid capture.

In addition to describing what they went through for two and a half years, the trials they faced and the loneliness, illnesses, and the losses they suffered, Spencer gives due credit to the Filipinos who sympathized with the Americans and helped them survive, even at the risk of their own lives. The book has humor and suspense and some really sad parts, and it opened my eyes. Now, indeed, I can believe in Beulah Bondi as a guerrilla fighter, right up there with John Wayne.

I have a small collection of World War II first-hand-account books, and Guerrilla Wife is a welcome addition.

I also have a collection of World War II movies, and I think it’s a little sad that Guerrilla Wife isn’t one of them. Really, this story would make an excellent film or, even better, a miniseries.

And I also think it’s noteworthy that, in all those patriotic films, regardless of all the flag-waving – and there’s a lot of flag-waving – no one ever screeches the National Anthem. Ever.


Your mother can't be with you anymore

Last weekend was Mothers’ Day, and on that day I am reminded (by myself) of one of my favorite quotes, by George Bernard Shaw.

He said: “Perhaps the greatest social service that can be rendered by anybody to the country and to Mankind is to bring up a family. But, because there is nothing to sell, there is a general disposition to regard a married woman’s work as no work at all, and to take it as a matter of course that she should not be paid for it.”

When my children were little, I didn’t want anyone raising them but me. On the other hand, I didn’t just want to sit around rendering the greatest social service ever to the country and to Mankind by guiding the development of a handful of future happy, productive, self-sufficient citizens. I wanted to achieve some level of financial success as well – sort of like having your Mammon and eating it, too. I thought for a long time that I could make money as a writer. I took as my model author Jean Kerr, who I discovered back in my late teens. She and her husband, theatre critic Walter Kerr, had six children. I admired the fact that she managed to raise her family and write 10 or so Broadway plays (one of them a Tony award winner) and four books (which are among my favorites ever, and which I reread with regularity).

I think the secret to her success, at least in part, was that she didn’t write at home. In her most popular book, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, she explained that she would go and sit out in her car and write there, where there was little to distract her. I think the rest of the secret was that she had a maid.

I didn’t have a maid. Still, I decided that I was a writer and I let people know it.

My friends sometimes used to ask me how I found the time to write with four children.

“I don’t write with four children,” I would assure them. “I use a word processor.”

Which I thought was really funny, but they just looked at me like my brains were addled, and I suppose they were, because finding time to write in spite of – not with – four children was something of a challenge that I was not always equal to meeting.

It’s all very different now because the children are grown, or nearly grown, so I have a lot more time in which not to write. No sense in spiting them when they’re not around to appreciate it. But even back in those youthful days it was always very easy to put off writing because, first of all, I only wrote when I felt like it, and it was a feeling that came and went, kind of like the children. Still, when it did come and I was thinking about it, it did no good unless I had a pen and paper handy with which to take action immediately, because as soon as an idea came into my head, I’d say, "Oh!" And then the scenario would continue something like this:

First I think, "Man, I ought to write that down!” Then I think, "Where's a pen and some paper?" There isn’t any handy, so I go to find some, and on the way I see a rubber band (or paper clip) lying on the floor, and I stop and pick it up and go to put it away, and then I think, “What was I going to do?"

Then one of my kids calls me to come smash a giant spider crawling up the wall, and I yell back, "Smash it yourself! I'm busy!" Then they start crying and carrying on about how this huge black widow tarantula is going to bite the baby if I don't come right away, so I hurry down the stairs (after all, the baby had been known to pick up bumblebees now and then and try to eat them), and I see all four children standing around in a huddle, doing little jigs and pointing at the wall. I look and it's this minuscule little teensy spider scurrying away probably in terror from the kids, so I tell them if they don’t want the spider in the house they can just carry it outside. Then they cry out "Ew! Gross! No way!" and make gagging sounds, so I tell them to be quiet, and they don't, but one has to choose ones battles carefully in situations like these so I let it go, and then I think, "What was I going to do?" and then I think, "Oh, yeah, I was picking up stuff off the floor." So I look at the floor and see that the kids have left all their toys out, so I tell them to pick up their toys, and then I go balance the checkbook because it gives me a sense of usefulness.

And that’s how I managed to forget for one more day that I hadn’t written, even when I wanted to.

But not all mornings were like that. I remember one morning in particular that was different. That morning the baby woke up at 5:00 a.m. – which was really 4:00 a.m. to me because we had just set our clocks back the day before for Daylight Savings Time, which is why I remember that day, but none of us had internalized the time change yet – so the baby woke up at really 4:00 a.m. and was feverish and crying and kept trying to throw up but wouldn't. Finally, after I rocked him for a couple of hours, it got to be 7:00 a.m. (really 6:00 a.m.) and he fell back asleep, so I thought, "Boy, what'll I do with all this free time before the other kids wake up?" But before I could even put the baby back to bed, his just older sister woke up so it was too late. However, since she was nearly three years old, I figured she could pretty much take care of herself, so I got her breakfast ready, then went upstairs and decided to look at my checkbook in an attempt to take a more sober point of view about life.

Then I saw the PC monitor on my desk staring me in the face, and this image came into my mind of a set of scales, like the one Blind Justice holds, with me sitting at the computer, writing, on one side of the scale, and a more sober point of view about life sitting on the other side. I could see the scales going up and down, up and down, and finally coming to rest, with the side with me and the computer tapping the ground ever so lightly, and I thought, "I'll write instead." So I took a deep breath and prepared to boot up the computer, when I was interrupted with a flow of questions from a flow of children:

1) Mommy, what matches with this shirt?
2) Can I play with the Lincoln Logs?
3) Should I brush my teeth now?
4) What's today?
5) Did you say she could play with the Lincoln Logs?
6) What's three plus four?
7) Do I have to wear socks?
8) Is the baby asleep?
9) Then why is his door open?
10) How do you work the Lincoln Logs?
11) Why is the cat throwing up?

And so on. It made me want to boot up my children. And that reminds me of another of my favorite quotes:

“A child should never hear aught from its mother’s lips but persuasive gentleness; and this becomes impossible, if she is very much with her children.”

I don’t know who said it, but if I ever finish writing a book, I’ll dedicate it to them.

Anyway, by 10:00 a.m. (really 9:00 a.m.) the baby was still asleep and everyone else was playing happily with the Lincoln Logs (except the cat, who had been banished to the garage), and I’d lost the will to write in a haze of sleepiness from being up so early, so I decided to lie down for just one minute. And one minute was all I got, because sixty-one seconds later my oldest daughter materialized next to my bed and said, "Do I have to brush my teeth?"

Me: Yes.
Daughter: Did everyone else?
Me: Yes.
Daughter: They did?
Me: Yes.
Daughter: Why?
Me: Because it's part of your morning chores.
Daughter (with great surprise): It is?
Me: Yes.
Daughter: I didn't know that.
Me (refraining from telling her that she's only been doing it since shortly after she first grew teeth): Well, it is.
Daughter: Why is this sticker on your desk?
Me: Because it is. Go brush your teeth.
Daughter: But why is it?
Me: Go brush your teeth!
Daughter (taking the hint): I'll ask you about it later.

Then I heard the other two girls singing the snake-charmer's song (the snake-charmer’s song was the only tune they knew all the way through at the time, so they sang it a lot, like thirty or forty times in a row), and the baby coughing, and the cat scratching on the garage door, and the scales swung wildly, and I fell out and the computer fell out and so did the sober point of view about life. Then we all decided to fingerpaint instead.

When I think about being a writer, and when I see all the zillions of books by the same 20 or 30 authors that come through the Bottom Shelf on a daily basis, I'm reminded of yet another of my favorite quotes, this one by the writer Flannery O’Connor:

“Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

My children were good teachers. They have rendered a great service to the country and to Mankind.


It appears that once again we find ourselves threatened by the great Cat Menace

Every morning after I wake up, the third thing I do is pull the covers up on my bed. By this time, one or more of the cats who reside in my house is sitting at the foot of the bed, staring at me, waiting. As soon as the comforter is on and straightened out and the bed is all made, the cats jump up on it and fall asleep. Well, sometimes they lick themselves for a while, but eventually they all take a nap. It’s like they’re waiting for me to prepare the bed for their use.

This wouldn’t be so bad except for a) they shed fur all over the comforter, b) they poke little holes in it with their hind claws when they propel themselves off the bed to race to the window because they’ve heard some hypersonic chirp, and c) they’re cats.

So I thought how considerate it would be if, every evening before they leave my room for the night, the cats would pull the covers down in preparation for my using the bed. Wouldn’t that be a nice symbiotic relationship? Wouldn’t that be share and share alike? Wouldn’t that give the cats a purpose in life? It’s a little thing, but I think it would go a long way toward making up for all the anxiety and frustration and expense they have caused me.

I can picture them using their faces to push the covers down. They’ve all been declawed, so they would have to use their faces, or maybe their teeth (except Sylvester drools, so he has to wear one of those masks, like a dust mask or a surgical mask, while he turns down the bed).

I can no longer explain why, but ever since I was a child cats have been my favorite domesticated animal. I’ve had other favorites over the years. When I was in grade school, I also liked elephants and wished I had one, like that boy on the tv show Maya. I'm glad they’re not really domestic pets, because I can’t help thinking three elephants asleep on my bed is nothing but a recipe for disaster. I’ve also liked raccoons and otters, and currently when someone says “What’s your favorite animal?” I answer “Tiger”.

But all those are wild animals. As far as domesticated animals go, cats take the cake. Especially Sylvester. He jumps up on the counter when I'm not looking and takes whatever food happens to be there and drags it down into the garage and hides it there, where it gets stale and moldy, because he’s not really going to eat cake or pizza crusts or peanut butter sandwiches, or any of the other non-feline food items he’s made off with over the years.

Back in the olden days, I occasionally used to read cat care books and magazines. I read one article about a cat who was trained to use the toilet instead of a litter box, and even to flush afterwards. If cats can learn to do that, surely they can learn to turn down a bed. You’d think.

I also read Undercover Cat, by Gordon Gordon and Mildred Gordon (I could have written Gordon and Mildred Gordon, but I wanted to call attention to the fact that Gordon Gordon’s parents apparently named him Gordon Gordon, which I think is ridiculous). Undercover Cat was the basis for the Disney film That Darn Cat, which I had seen and which inspired me to seek out the book. Well, we all know how Disney changes things. There’s even a neologism, “disneyfy”, which means to simplify or sentimentalize something.

I haven’t read Undercover Cat for many many years, but I can recall thinking how different it was from the film, and how, oddly enough, I liked the film better, simplified though it may have been. The one specific simplification I do remember is that in the film they called the cat DC, which stood for “Darn Cat”, but in the book it stood for “Damn Cat”. At the age of 11 or 12, I was a little shocked that a book for young readers (or so I thought it was) would have swearing in it.

Undercover Cat is the only book about cats I’ve ever read that’s got “cat” in the title and is not a picture book. (I know there’s a whole series of cat mysteries by Lilian Jackson Braun, like The Cat Who Wrote a Million Books or something, and it’s a very popular series, but I’ve never read a single one of them. There are several other mystery series for adults featuring cats but I’ve never read any of those, either.) To prove what I say, I’ve come up with a list of books I’ve read during my life that have “cat” in the title that aren’t picture books. I’ve already mentioned Undercover Cat. Here’s the rest of the list:

Millions of Cats – Okay, it’s a picture book, but it’s a very cool story, because what do the cats do to each other? That’s right!

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Actually a play, not a chapter book, but I read it and I’ve seen the movie. Not really about cats, so it doesn’t count.

The UK dust jacket

The US dust jacket

Touch Not the Cat – One of my favorite novels by one of my favorite authors, and the cat in question is a pictorial representation of, I think, a leopard, so it doesn’t count.

Cat’s Cradle – No cats. Whatsoever. However, there is a lot of weirdness and it deals with the total destruction of human life, so it comes close.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – Poetry, so it doesn’t count, and it’s by T S Eliot, so it doesn’t count even more.

French for Cats – Non-fiction so it doesn’t count.

It’s Like This, Cat – I started reading this Newbery-award winning book, but it was boring so I took it back to the library before I got to chapter 3, therefore it doesn’t count.

Catwings and Catwings Return – sort of picture books, plus I was reading them to my kids, and besides cats don’t really have wings (more’s the pity), and the first one is better than the sequel, so these books don’t count.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven – also sort of a picture book, except not really, but I don’t think there are any chapters, so I'm going to say it doesn’t count.

The paperback edition I read back in the day

The hardcover I hope to get some day

The Lion’s Paw – a lion is part of the cat family, so I'm including it in my list of titles, and this was a full-length chapter book, a mystery (and a very good one for when you’re in junior high), only it’s not about cats or even lions because the lion’s paw is a rare seashell that these three runaway kids (two having escaped from an orphanage) want to find, and they have a sailboat (was it a catamaran?) and they sail around Florida and the Gulf of Mexico having cool adventures, only (suspense!) someone is following them, not to mention the police are looking for them, and I really wished I could’ve sailed on that boat with them – but wait! – in a way I can because I still have the book so maybe I’ll read it again one of these days, but anyway it doesn’t count.

I can’t think of any more. Besides, I just heard an unusual sound in the kitchen, and when I looked at the bed, only two cats were sleeping on it. The cat who went to heaven, my eye!


I wanna live! I wanna experience the universe! And I wanna eat pie!

I was volunteering a while back at the Bottom Shelf, our local Friends of the Library used bookstore, when a woman came in and bought two copies of The Celestine Prophecy. (This book is like cockroaches: if you live in southern California, you know they’re there, waiting to come into the open.) Anyway, this woman says, "It’s such a wonderful book. I buy copies whenever I find them and give them to my friends." With friends like that . . . .

I suppose it was bound to happen, that I would someday run across someone who actually thinks highly of the book. I read it once, back in 1997, under a sort of duress and after having been promised that it would change my life. In a way that's true. I think that's when I finally decided that I really didn't have to finish every single book I started.

I took nine pages of notes while reading the book. Note-taking is not something I habitually do when reading, but I was often irritated and sometimes infuriated by what I read and I wanted to remember where those passages were. I distilled the nine pages down to the following summary.

Basically, the book offended me in three different areas.

1) It is poorly written. No, wait, that is an understatement. It is atrociously written.

Here's a statistic for you by way of example: just to keep myself amused while reading, I counted the number of times Redfield used the word 'look' to introduce or break up blocks of dialogue: e.g. (and these are actual, real quotes), "Looking at him for a second, I nodded moronically", or "He looked pale and cross-eyed", or "She looked at me intensely and bleated, 'Look at the energy level in that flock of sheep!'" (And here I wonder if he used 'bleated' and 'sheep' together in the same sentence out of happy coincidence or if he thought he was making a joke.)

I didn't even count synonyms like 'gaze' or 'stare', which he used a lot, too, or the use of 'look' within dialogue (like the sheep example I just mentioned), and I came up with a total of 322 occurrences. Statistically, that's 1.3 ‘looks’ per page, but, being a statistic, that's nearly meaningless. What makes it interesting is that he uses 'look' three, four, and sometimes five times a page. And then he gets into those long, long dialogues, so four or five pages go by without someone looking like or at anything. Page 208 has the most occurrences (six), but 209 is my favorite because he uses 'look' or 'looking' four times in three sentences.

It seems that Redfield has a limited vocabulary eked out with a bit of New Age jargon. He uses the same words over and over to describe things and ideas that require more precision than he is able to give them. So there are meaningless phrases like "get connected with the energy", "get clear", and "guilt tripping". Or this gem of sagacity: "That insight is amazing." Oh, yes, I understand it perfectly now.

But my favorite phrase of his is "love is a background".
Now, I’ve been told that love is all we need, that it’s lovelier the second time around, that it’s a many-splendored thing, and even that it’s a battlefield, but not until I was informed that it’s a background did any of it make sense (less).

He also misuses words that are near what he wants but not what he wants: 'laid' instead of 'lay', 'hedonistic' instead of 'selfish', 'intensely' instead of 'intently'.

I wonder if Redfield ever went to Peru or ever spoke with someone who has limited English skills, because there is no sense of place or individuality of character in this book. I got as much or more of a sense of Machu Picchu from looking at a postcard of it as I did from his description. And the pie served at that boarding house in the remote Peruvian village? I don't think so. Pie is not a Latin American staple, and the more remote the village, the more remote one's chances of coming upon a pie. And his limited English speakers, after giving the requisite 'eh' (meaning, I suppose, 'er') to show lack of fluency in speech, proceed to come up with some pretty syntactically and vocabularically demanding paragraphs. My favorite is Pablo, who cannot think of the English word for 'interpret' (which, by the way, is ‘interpretar’ in Spanish); and yet, a few sentences later, he tells our hero: "Even people who are still unaware can stumble into answers and see coincidences in retrospect. . . . It heightens everyday experience. We must assume every event has significance and contains a message that somehow pertains to our questions." Interpret that, Pablo.

2) Redfield doesn't know what the heck he's talking about.

a) He says the Celestine ruins were originally built by 'the Mayans', who subsequently vanished without a trace in 600 BC. First of all, where does he get the idea that the Maya ever built ruins in Peru? And in my encyclopedia, it says their civilization existed from AD 300-800. And what do all those Guatemalans and Mexicans of Mayan descent, who still speak a Mayan dialect, have to say about not being considered traces?

b) His description of history is off-the-wall and culturally chauvinistic. He speaks of western medieval culture and its collapse to begin with, then starts talking about this restlessness and materialism as if the entire world were in the throes of it, thus ignoring the development and intellectual growth of all the eastern cultures, which were in some ways far ahead of the West.

And this bit about "we sent out the explorers", but they took too long to come back so we decided to preoccupy ourselves with a "new, secular purpose, one of settling into the world making ourselves more comfortable". . . I can just see us all, 500 years ago, standing impatiently around the hourglass and asking ourselves, "Where the heck is that Columbus? And Magellan, and Cabot, and all those other guys we sent out? They're taking way too long to get back, so let's raise our standard of living." Is he saying exploration is separate from scientific invention? All of those secular endeavors meant to make people more comfortable, aren't they explorations in their own right? And as for Columbus and his pals, it was partly as a result of their explorations that “we” got the means – gold, and ideas and food from other cultures (yay cacao!) – to move on with raising our standard of living.

c) His scientific ideas are a bit wild, too, like when he says "the first matter exploded into the universe" with "each successive generation of stars creating matter that had not existed before". I feel I'm on weaker ground here, because science is not something I've studied extensively, but I always thought matter could not be destroyed or created, only changed in form (like to energy or something). I thought there was no such thing as an ex nihilo creation.

Also, he says he's sitting on a ridge having a mystical experience and he sees a quarter moon setting, then he imagines it going on round to the other side of the earth where the inhabitants will see it as a full moon. That's just wrong. The moon looks the same to everyone on earth as it goes through its phases (taking into account that, in the southern hemisphere, it happens in the opposite direction from the northern hemisphere). It's a quarter moon in New Zealand, China, Africa, the US, and New Brunswick all at the same time.

d) Finally, there’s his reduction of the psychology of the human race to four types: the intimidators, the interrogators, the aloof types (can't remember his term for them), and the "poor me's", and his claim about our supposed need to gobble each other's energy. I find most humans to be much more complex than that. For instance, I know from watching cop shows that interrogators can be very intimidating. It’s like a person’s psychological makeup is a continuum that you move along as you experience life, or maybe it’s a sort of Venn diagram with lots of possible combinations. Or yeah, here we go: it’s a Venn diagram that moves along a continuum. (And, by the way, what the heck is a 2400-year-old Peruvian manuscript written in Aramaic doing using terms like 'poor me' and 'get clear' and 'find the silver lining'?)

3) His spiritual ideas, even if they made any sense – which they don’t – are as simplistic as his psychology. Just as a (bad) taste:

a) He says, "Any one adult can only focus on and give attention to one child at a time.”

He’s apparently never been the mother of toddlers. Anyway, to continue:

“If there are too many children for the number of adults, then the adults become overwhelmed and unable to give enough energy. . . . Adults often glamorize the idea of large families and children growing up together. . . . The Manuscript says humans will slowly understand that they should not bring children into the world unless there is at least one adult committed to focus full attention, all the time, on each child."

Well, I think I know one adult who should be committed, and his initials are James Redfield.

But seriously, this concept raises a lot of objections in my mind. For one thing, can you imagine someone really and truly focusing their full attention, all the time, on you? That’s called stalking. People need to be on their own once in a while so that they learn to be independent. Okay, if my parents had focused their full attention, all the time, on me, I probably wouldn’t have got that hanger stuck in my eye when I was five years old. But because they were smart enough to leave me occasionally to my own devices, I learned the valuable lesson that one should not try to hang wire clothes hangers in the tangles of one’s freshly shampooed hair when that hair is draped in front of one’s eyes. I have never, ever tried doing that a second time. For another thing, children are not always that interesting. I think that's one reason they have earlier bedtimes than adults. And when you do focus too much attention on them, they have a good chance of becoming very spoiled, incapable of doing their own laundry or even slicing tomatoes.

I'm not saying kids don’t need attention. Sometimes they do, especially when they are babies. But how are you going to decide which parent (or caretaker or whoever) is going to do the focusing? And for how long? Consider if you will the logistic nightmares associated with scheduling who will focus full-time on which child and when during a 24-hour period. Think of the conflicts that would arise between the parents (or caretakers, etc)! They’d spend so much time arguing over it, they wouldn’t be able to focus on the child at all.

b) He says, "Our gifts should go to the persons who have given us spiritual truth. When people come into our lives at just the right time to give us the answers we need, we should give them money."


Silly me. I always thought spiritual truth was free.

And with the depressing observation that I know there are people who have taken and who will take this silliness seriously (like the woman in the bookstore, and the person who read the library's copy before I did and left all those underlined passages and admiring annotations in the margins), I think I better stop now by summing up with Dorothy Parker's comment that "this is not a book to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force".