I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Affirmations

People say doubt does all sorts of things. It holds us back. It even “plagues” us. I’ve had a lot of contact with the creature, and I’m still not sure about it. Sometimes doubt is my best friend. Other times it’s hurt me. Self-doubt — all doubt — leads to questioning reality and I think that’s often good.

These days we’re not supposed to doubt. There are products in the market to help us overcome doubt. Pillows for our sofas and beds, wall decals, books, daily emails and post on Facebook with “affirmations” to motivate us through self-doubt. The first time I ever heard of affirmations (remember, I don’t watch TV) my “friend” Lana and I were hiking. I was talking about writing and she said, “You doubt yourself. You need to give yourself affirmations every day.”

“What’s an ‘affirmation’?”

“Nice things you tell yourself about yourself, positive self-talk.”

“Like what?”

“I’m improving every day.”

I thought that sounded like a line from the Return of the Pink Panther, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”

I thought about this even though it seemed paradoxical. If you tell yourself you’re improving every day, what shit hole were you in? I even told myself I thought too much, but I saw that was negative self-talk. “Damn,” I thought. “Where do I start?”

I started with Goethe and his advice to his secretary, Eckermann, became my companion through some very sketchy times. I don’t think it’s an “affirmation.” I think it’s just good advice and advice I needed then — and now.  Doubt is often the result of not knowing what to do, which choice to take, which way to go. Goethe’s words resolve the questions we meet at every one of life’s intersections, big and small.

“Hold your powers together for something good. Let everything go that is for you without result and is not suited to you.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Still, I knew (know) that’s not an “affirmation” as Lana meant it. It doesn’t tell me how great I am or what wonderful things will come to me if I only project my desires into the universe and believe that they will “manifest”. I don’t want to live in such a universe. I have no doubt about that.

I think life is puzzling by its very nature, and difficult. I think the expectation that “everything will work out and I will be happy” is false. Good people every where face immense challenges that they did not have any part in causing and no “affirmation” is going to change that.

Back in high school I read Also Sprach Zarathustra mostly because Nietzsche had said, “God is dead,” and I wanted to argue with him. What I found in that book has stayed with me all my life. When Zarathustra comes down from the mountain full of wisdom and beautiful words, the villagers are spellbound. They go to him with their complaints and problems, and Zarathustra says,

“You tell me life is hard to bear, but were it otherwise, how would you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the afternoon?” Friedrich Nietzsche

I was reading this book sitting on the sofa in the living room of my family’s house. My dad was on the other end of the sofa. I was, in fact, at that moment “baby”sitting my dad. Someone needed to be with him all the time in case something happened, he had a back spasm and slid/fell off the sofa, for example. His MS had gotten him to the point where he was using a walker, and he was no longer able to get up and use the toilet. If  he needed to pee, he had a urinal. I was there to help him with that, too. So, there I was, sitting on the end of the sofa reading Nietzsche while dad was watching TV. I was thinking about Nietzsche’s words and how beautiful they were and how true and how they made the situation I was in at that moment bearable, acceptable and even lovely in the sense that things can be no other way than they are.

I read it to my dad.

He liked it.

Stoics don’t need no stinkin’ affirmations and self-doubt is OK.

But I’m also a “child” of the 70s and I truly believe…


Unlike Any Other

I value originality very highly, but even my hero, Goethe, says there is no such thing, that whatever we do we — at the very least — build on what has gone before, reuse it, refresh it, or in Etsy-speak, “re-purpose” it. This from a man who wrote a play that is VERY original, so original that even though it is performed, I’m not sure it’s ever fully understood. I sure as hell do not understand it — fully. But it has given critics, over a several-hundred year period, something to write about and dispute. That would be Faust, Part Two.

In my opinion, an original mind is one that sees potential in extant things.

So what? Well, Bear. I don’t know what (or who) her ingredients are but in no way is she like any dog I’ve ever owned. She’s a livestock guardian breed — an Akbash — who’s lived her whole life as a companion dog in a small home with two other dogs and me. I have worked hard to socialize her, and she loves everyone and everything. She’s a very affectionate dog who especially loves small children. Out in the “wild” she is vigilant and observant as her breed is supposed to be, but I doubt she would take on a bear or a wolf. Because of her basic nature, her early life as an abandoned stray, and her training, her mind is unique and her behavior original.

She’s learned to get a cookie in the evening by asking to go out when she doesn’t need out. When I realized what she was up to, I began saying, “OK, but I think you’re lying.” She now understands the word “lying,” and has stopped completely the pretense of taking a turn in the dog run before coming back to me. We just walk to the gate and turn around. It seems she thinks that going to the gate of the dog run is worth a cookie (to me). She’s also figured out that I love it when she lies down. So, she will lie down in front of the cabinet with the cookies in it and then say, softly, “Woof!” to get my attention. She thinks I like throwing things for her to chase and it’s clear she’s doing me a favor in the morning by bringing me something to throw. When she wants my attention, she brings me something.

This creature has built a bunch of “if” statements and has me programed. I love her to pieces and think she’s hilarious. And original.



Happy Goethe’s Birthday!

Cheating the Daily Prompt since the first place the word “cheat” takes me is to the Evil-X and I don’t want to go there.

Today is August 28, Goethe’s birthday. I don’t know why this isn’t celebrated everywhere, but maybe because (poor) Goethe now has a “literary reputation” for being deep and inscrutable and profound and being the “Shakespeare of Germany.” I am more interested in Goethe’s discussions of life and art than I am in his songs, poems, plays or fiction. I know there are nine-hundred million different (and often pedantic) takes on what Goethe meant here or there. They don’t interest me; my relationship with Goethe is a personal one. In some strange way, I think we are friends.

Among the many things Goethe was, he was at the right place at the right time with the right miserable and depressing little novel, Sorrows of Young Werther. Novels were a relatively new thing at the time, it seems a mostly English thing. Goethe loved the novels he’d read, especially The Vicar of Wakefield, which influenced not only Goethe’s perception of the world, but the story behind Werther.  There had never been a book like this before. It was an instant international “bestseller” and Goethe was forced to drag Werther around with him for the rest of his life.

Goethe, broken-hearted over his rejection by Lotte Buff and the suicide of his friend, Jerusalem, discouraged by his inability to get his work published, wrote Werther. I imagine Goethe’s mind at this moment of his life as a giant crucible into which pain and loss had been poured, partly in an effort to make sense of it, partly to create something from it. I know that crucible; I have my own.

I think that there was a time in Goethe’s life when he was a pretty dreamy young guy, I don’t mean a dreamboat, but a guy who looked at the world through dreams.

I think that dream-laden mind is apparent in Werther and visible in the attempt of the protagonist to turn Lotte Buff’s family into the family in Wakefield. I love Goethe for that — among other things. I’ve struggled all my life to make a distinction between the dream in my mind and the reality in front of me. This was a lifelong quest for Goethe, and he has been my lighthouse for the past twenty years. I’ve always sensed that, as a writer, nothing mattered more than developing the ability to observe the world, life, as it is.

“What can we call our own except energy, strength and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.” Conversations with Eckermann

Here’s a beautiful thing for Goethe’s Birthday!



The Blues

Color matters very much to me and it’s a property in which I have an innate ability that may have been developed through painting. I don’t know. It’s always intrigued me. A science project I did in 8th grade was about color in light. It wasn’t as easy to do then as it is now. My dad and I had to order gelatin slides in red, green and blue, the kind you would have found in theaters. We built a box and used a projector to show how the the three colors in light made white. That that is what happens is still mysterious to me, a kind of physics miracle. I didn’t win a prize that year (as I had the year before for my project on the geologic history of the Tetons) but I learned so much.

Goethe was also fascinated by color, particularly with light. I wonder how it would have been to have lived in his time when many of the discoveries we take for granted were completely new. He took on Newton, was laughed at, and only lately have Goethe’s color theories been taken seriously. It seems he was onto something. His theory of the color of light essentially says that light shifts to blue in shadow and to yellow at the source. He did not know that yellow is a mixed color, a secondary color, in light, not, as it is in pigment, a primary color. But his observation was right and extremely perceptive in that the blue of the end of the day is one of the longest rays on the visible spectrum and yellow one of the shortest.


Goethe’s Color Wheel

The English painter, Turner, applied Goethe’s theory of his paintings and it accounts for some of the marvelous effects that make Turner so well-loved. Unfortunately, Turner didn’t “paint for posterity” so a lot of his work is damaged and his pigments were mixed without thought to “forever” but this painting (and others) was painted consciously following Goethe’s theory.

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)  - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00532

Pigment is another thing and there I’ve always been able to see how two colors would come together, what would be the result. I don’t know why. I think it’s a thing I was born with, some compensation for myopia or something.

One particular color haunted me for a long time, a certain blue. It was in my dreams and I looked for it everywhere I went. It’s almost but not quite Ultramarine blue as it comes out of a tube of paint. It IS true ultramarine blue, a pigment made from lapis lazuli. I’ve seen it, true ultramarine, coming into complete clarity in the combination between the blue and the chemicals and crystals in the plaster, certain plaster. I saw it in Padova, in the Baptistry of the Cathedral painted by Giusto de’ Menabuoi. That strange experience of being obsessed by a color taught me to see exactly in any blue what other factors are involved — blue with black, blue with yellow, blue with red, all of them because of their chemical composition have a tinge of some other color even if they’re not mixed. This blue is pure. This was used ONLY for the clothing of Christ and his mother and was known as “sacred blue.” I could worship it. It’s made of lapis lazuli, was incredibly expensive and is the subject of a funny book, Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore.


I even like reading about colors and pigments, especially those used in medieval times when a painter had to be a master chemist and most paints were deadly. Those that weren’t? Paints made from earth and that right there, something that should have been obvious to me all my life just from the names on the paint tubes (red earth, green earth, burn umber), came to me as a surprise one moment long ago. Colors from earth, clay, dirt, are (duh) the most durable and the least poisonous (usually).


Paint Mines, Calhan, Colorado

It’s possible to find a moral there. I have.




Daily Prompt It Builds Character Tell us about a favorite character from film, theater, or literature, with whom you’d like to have a heart-to-heart. What would you talk about?

I want to hang out with Goethe. I worry (a bit, but not much since it isn’t likely ever to happen) that he would not be the man I think he was, but that’s actually OK. The reason I would like to hang out with him is to know who he really was. I’ve read almost everything he’s written that’s been translated into English. I got a bit bogged down in his Theory of Colors because, besides setting out his theory of colors, it’s a polemic against the then brand new notion of scientific method which consciously strove to eliminate direct observation. Goethe had issues with this. His theory, however, inspired the artist, Turner, whose work I learned to love through Goethe. The painting above is Turner’s rendering of the theory. Light and Color (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning After the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis Exhibited 1843. An amazing painting but I wish Turner had used better paint and taken better care of his work when it was finished…


My meeting with Goethe was not in school — well, I was AT school, the library in the college in which I was teaching — but it wasn’t like it is for many people, required reading of a literary great who makes no sense sort of the way most people meet and feel about Shakespeare, all so serious and riven with consequence.

I “met” Goethe in 1998 about a month before I was going to Italy on my own to visit a man. I had been looking for a tour guide to Genova when I checked out Italian Journey. I was stunned by the way his mind worked. I fell in love with him, then as my own Italian journey ended up having so many things in common with Goethe’s, I was even more captivated. It took me years to get all that Goethe was saying, and if the little myth that the deity sends the spirits of the dead as angels to Earth to help people Goethe was my angel.

I had a lot of internal struggles between 1992 and 2008. Those were the years of “overcoming” in the sense Nietzsche wrote in Zarathustra when he said “life is an overcoming.” I don’t think I could have made it without the lantern of Goethe’s words and his experiences lighting the way. I actually had a photo of the lantern Goethe gave his guests to guide their way home sitting on my desk. Over the lantern I inserted one of Goethe’s poems:

All is given by the eternal  Gods
To those they love, whole.
All joy, unending,
All sorrow, unending, whole.


Goethe’s Lantern, Now Resting on my Bookshelf

There was a hard little hill where I used to hike, it was such a nondescript little hill that no one went up it, and, it was steep, too steep for mountain bikers unless they were hardcore. On top was a small plateau that was covered with flowers in early spring — that’s February in San Diego. I named it the “Goetheberg” and I would go there when my heart and mind were charged with confusion. I was struggling with my brother’s drinking, an unrequited love, a career that didn’t seem to gel, money problems and the first novel — Martin of Gfenn and the hopes I did not dare feel. On top of this little hill I would “talk” to Goethe. What I was doing was actually — through the liberty of hard physical exercise — listening to the words I’d read.

The relationship was solidified when I found that Thomas Carlyle had also adored Goethe through Goethe’s words and Goethe had influenced Carlyle’s beliefs. Thomas Carlyle was a big influence in my life through the conduit of family. He was my maternal grandfather’s favorite writer and thinker and the old man hammered Carlyle’s thinking into the family philosophy. I got a copy of Correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle and it read to me like Agatha Christie reads to mystery fans. I saw I’d been brought up to love Goethe.

Goethe was a character in his own stories — he is an ingredient in Werther. Wilhelm Meister carries Goethe’s own experiences through both the Apprenticeship and Journeyman years. Goethe kept an enormous journal where, clearly, he did not live an “unexamined” life. I see Goethe’s beliefs about himself and the future in his rendering of Faust — and his vision of God at the end. But the most important of Goethe’s writing, to me, became Conversations with Eckermann. This is NOT literature. It is the journal of Goethe’s late-in-life secretary. It is Goethe with others, Goethe struggling with Faust II, Goethe grieving over the death of his son… In this book I found the most beautiful advice from Goethe.

“Hold your powers together for something good and let everything go that is for you without result and is not suited to you.”

The words I needed to hear all those days on the Goetheberg. What would we talk about? I believe I would be happy just to listen — as I have all these years.

School Daze – Eweniversity?

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The New School.” You get to redesign school as we know it from the ground up. Will you do away with reading, writing, and arithmetic? What skills and knowledge will your school focus on imparting to young minds?

I’ve thought about this question since I was in school — well, since my brother was in school and he started a year after I did. I always liked school. I wanted friends and I wanted to please people and I liked learning. My brother was different and I can’t say exactly how, but I suspect ADHD. He couldn’t sit still. He disrupted the class. He wouldn’t do what he was told to do. He didn’t care about pleasing the teacher on her terms. I don’t know why; I never lived in his mind. I wasn’t an ideal student, either. I was easily bored. I wanted more engagement. I discovered in the fourth grade that I’m a physical kind of person.

My ideal school would be a good school for people like my brother and like me and, I think, most kids. Even special needs kids would cease being so “special needs” at my school. The ability to care for animals or grow tomatoes does not require “accommodations.”

It would be a farm with a schoolhouse and an airplane or, at the very least, a comfy Greyhound bus. My school would be the world — micro and macro.

Back in 2000 the students in one of my classes said I was like “Miss Frizzle.” I didn’t know who Miss Frizzle was, but when I learned, I agreed. She was teaching in “my” school.

My students would learn responsibility for others and for the world by caring for animals. They would learn diligence and patience by growing food. They would learn to appreciate beauty by living close to nature. They would come to understand the inevitable cycle of life and death and the importance of the arts by experiencing the transience of life. (“Ars longa, vita brevis”) They would not be encouraged to have “school pride” or anything like that. They would be encouraged to have pride in overcoming a difficult challenge. They would play sports — team and individual sports. The classroom would be a laboratory, a microcosm of the larger world and a place in which to learn the skills that would give them the ability to do the things they wanted and needed to do. They would learn two foreign languages — by going to the countries in which the languages are spoken and living with a family for a year. Their sophomore year in high school, they’d be asked (and tested both in terms of aptitude and achievement) whether they wanted to pursue a career in something that required higher education or if they wanted to go out into the working world with skills they could use to earn a living. Still, every student would leave the school with the skills needed to support themselves.

I had this idea when I was sitting in a high school English class junior year. I was so bored that I began creating trouble and ended up out in the hall. It was a beautiful day and rather than discussing Macbeth or some other Shakespeare play, I wanted to be out in the world. Like a lot of high school kids, I felt confined. I thought that school should be liberation, not confinement. I still think so.

Years and years and years later I found Goethe had envisioned a school like “mine.” I read about it in his book, Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre.

Is it Worth Reading?

Here it is, September 11, again. People are posting here and everywhere (I imagine) about remembering the events of this date in 2001.

Why? It certainly did not wake us up and make us better people or more aware of our place as a nation in the WORLD. Following on the fall of the twin towers, we had a president who committed war crimes and can barely even leave the US, he’s so wanted by other nations for the evil he sanctioned during what I can only call his “reign.”

I still don’t think anyone really knows HOW it happened or really WHO did it.

Ultimately, it all seemed to have been pre-visioned by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (of four books…). It all seems to me like the Krikkit Wars and the US is Krikkit.

Krikkit is am immensely xenophobic planet. The people of Krikkit are just a bunch of really sweet guys who just happen to want to kill everybody.

The first Krikkit attack on the Galaxy had been stunning. Thousands and thousands of huge Krikkit warships had leaped suddenly out of hyperspace and simultaneously attacked thousands and thousands of major worlds, first seizing vital material supplies or building the next wave, and then calmly zapping those worlds out of existence.

The planet of Krikkit was sentenced by the Galactic Court to be encased for perpetuity in an envelope of Slo-Time, inside which life would continue almost infinitely slowly. All light would be deflected around the envelope so that it would remain invisible and impenetrable. Escape from the envelope would be utterly impossible unless it was unlocked from the outside.

That morning I was driving to school and listening to the classical music station that broadcast out of Tijuana. I didn’t even know about the events until I arrived and everyone was going around “Did you hear? My God! Isn’t it horrible?”

Yes, it was.

Class was held as usual but students were so distracted it was difficult to teach. Smart phones didn’t exist, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the US had been attacked.

After class, I went to my job at the school’s writing tutorial center. Everyone was talking about the attack (of course) and debating whether to turn on the TV. We were also waiting for the President of the college to announce that school was closed. Meanwhile, I worked thinking about how all my life the US has prepared for war. I grew up 2 miles from a large bevy of B-52s. “Peace is Our Profession” said the Strategic Air Command signs at every entrance to the base where my dad worked. I mostly just wanted everyone to shut up. The damage was done. Life goes on. I held my peace about that, though. I could already tell that Xenophobia would become the order of the day (week, year, culture). I’d lived in the People’s Republic of China soon after the Great Proletariat Culture Revolution and I KNEW what could happen if “most” people got the “wrong” idea about a single dissenting individual.

I knew that real freedom was on the way out.

Just at the darkest moment of all this, one of my former students came in. He’d been 17 years old when he was in my first class, an intro to literature class. He’d never read poetry or studied literature before. His dad was from Germany. His mom was Mexican. He loved the class and it inspired him to read literature and write poetry. He also learned to love Goethe because of the class and to be interested in learning German and maybe going to visit his grandfather in Germany. So, in he walks, “Hey Martha! Is this any good?” He holds up Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

And I thought at that moment, “Yeah, the twin towers have been attacked, and the Pentagon, but the world holds to its eternal thread of beauty and here’s Schorsch to remind me of that which really matters.”

Meanwhile almost everyone else was watching the Twin Towers fall again and again and again and again; hypnotic, rage inducing.

The following days I was stunned by the kindness and gentleness of strangers in the grocery store, on the street, everywhere. I loved the silent hills over which the planes had stopped flying. Messages of condolence came in from all over the world expressing sorrow over the act of terrorism and (worse) the loss of innocent lives. The pace of life slowed and then, just as suddenly, there was Christmas music in the stores causing people to salivate heavily and buy things, the planes were back, people were taping a newspaper insert American flag to their front windows and wearing American flag lapel pins and (horribly) “REAL” Americans started attacking our local Chaldean businessmen in fits of stupid, fucking, ignorant fear and rage. A government agency was set up — a new cabinet position — “Homeland Security” and the “Patriot” act was passed making many of our Cold War nightmares come true. White powder in envelopes was feared to be anthrax and on and on and on… A new normal for us Krikkits.

Americans need to get out more both to SEE the world and BE SEEN.

On the big stage, Tony Blair and Dubbya and Chainy cooked up a fake case against Saddam (based largely on a dodgy doctoral dissertation Tony Blair had plagiarized). I stopped class the following March so we could watch, on TV, the first attack on Iraq.

So…I don’t know how to view 9/11. I’m very sorry for all the people who lost loved ones. I also think of all the people all over the world losing loved ones to terrorism here and there. Having lived in a neighborhood which was a haven for refugees (lots of Section 8 housing) I saw waves of disturbed, distressed and disheartened people from all over the world who were not in the US because it was their dream, but because it was their only hope of safety.

In 2004 I went to Italy where, after a young Swiss woman berated me angrily for the war in Iraq, I learned it would be wise of me to let people think I was German. It was an effective disguise, except, of course, in Germany itself.

Dilettante? Amateur? OK By Me

I feel a bit guilty — now that we are getting new prompts in the Daily Prompt and I’m not writing them, well, I am, but not much and/or well. I’ve been feeling the press of life, I guess (and a migraine).

I’ve been thinking a lot about “being” an artist as opposed to just making art or painting. This summer I’ve been in a show and dealt with the co-op and the upshot was that I didn’t like it much. I was excited about it all at the beginning, but no longer. I’m looking forward to a couple of shows I could be hanging my work in, organizations I could belong to (or remain a member of) and, as they say, I’m just not “feeling it.” A friend of mine — well a couple of friends — are professional artists and they spend all their time painting. They are pressured to produce and they produce. I like their work, but I also see that they paint one painting over and over again.

I can’t see how it would be otherwise.

Then I thought of Leonardo.

The guy was not exactly prolific and he had a hard time finishing things. He didn’t win competitions for work and, it seems to me, that he painted but doesn’t seem to self-identified as a painter.

That would be the end of the comparison between me and Leonardo except I have been in Milan.

When you paint and show your work to others you come up against comments like, “You need to learn to use color,” and that from a person who chose to paint in bold bands of pastels and tints and lay contrasting colors side-by-side.

Often it means, “You need to learn to paint the way I want to paint.”


He actually wrote a little treatise on the words “amateur” and “dilettante.” I wish I could find it. Somewhere during his Italian journey, he decided that — as far as visual art was concerned — he was a dilettante. One who delights.

I don’t know what paintings or drawings he did after his return to Italy; I suspect none, or nothing more than sketches for stage sets and costumes, but I really do not know.

But I have also realized that, as a painter, I don’t want to be a business woman or a career artist. I don’t know if I have the talent or skill, but I know that I don’t have the interest in making what has so far in my life been a joy into work.

Happy Birthday, Goethe

On August 28, 1999, I returned to San Diego State University. This time I would not be teaching English as a Second Language at an attached international school,  but really teaching university classes in composition to native speakers. I’d worked hard to make this career transition; it had taken me five years of a rather challenging apprenticeship in three local community colleges, but I was there. I had honestly never imagined I’d make it. I was over the moon that day with happiness and excitement. I would have ten very, very happy years there before the serious problems with California’s economy and the maturation of No Child Left Behind changed my world.

It was one of the happiest days of my life and it was even better because I began teaching on Goethe’s 350th birthday. I taught my two classes. Both were interesting with very lively and bright young people. Afterwards, I went up the hill to the library. As I walked the carillons called out from the beautiful bell tower in Hepner Hall and I took it as a sign that the whole world was sharing my happiness on this day.


Hepner Hall — “Old Main” at SDSU, gorgeous old Spanish revival building with a bell tower.

I wanted to see what works of Goethe were held within the walls of SDSU’s Love Library (a library I DID love, by the way). I got up to the fourth floor and saw what I would say was about 100 square feet of Goethe, most of it in German.


My eyes filled with tears. I couldn’t read most of it, and I doubted (correctly) that I would ever be able to.

Later that day, I met a friend at Pacific Beach and as the sun set, we walked along the beach. Someone had made an immense sand castle and lit the windows with candles. We watched as the waves slowly undermined the castle and put the candles out.

It was Goethe’s birthday cake.

At that time in my life, Goethe was my best friend. I know that sounds odd, but I’ve never been so narrow minded that I have limited friendships to the living. Now I know that Goethe’s mind that went easily from art to science, resounded with my own. Perhaps it was the time in which he lived, at the beginning of thoughtful and systematic scientific inquiry, a moment that coincided with the development of the novel in the west. Goethe loved Tristram Shandy and The Vicar of Wakefield. Whatever the cause, Goethe’s way of seeing the world was instructive to me, particularly because he, himself, had to learn it — and he wrote about his process of learning it.

Even today (and I despise it) there is a tug between “heart” and “mind” or art vs. science, intuition vs. reason, etc. etc. etc. as if it were not completely obvious that they both exist in the same world at the same time and therefore it would seem that, uh, they both exist in the same world at the same time? Goethe had realized (slowly) that the so-called intuition/heart/sentiment could hold him back from life, from seeing reality (ie. his current crush, Frau von Stein, was just stringing him along for her own entertainment — it was unrequited love), from creating new work, from forming real relationships. He could be caught in the veil of illusion woven by desire and hope. Finally, he went out into the world — ran away from his job and social ties — in his 30s with the question (a good question) “What’s REAL, anyway?”

I’d asked that question, too, in my early 40s. It’s a dangerous question for anyone who really asks it because it has the power to up-end a person’s world. I met Goethe toward the end of that moment in my life. He was a good landing spot.

Fortunately for me, Goethe examined his life through writing and he wrote a lot. In reading I found many wonderful treasures. One of my favorites is the letters between Thomas Carlyle and Goethe — Carlyle was a young man, a young thinker, who had just found Goethe. By then, Goethe was an elderly man. The two struck up a friendship that included baskets of gifts and visits to Weimar. For me, personally, the letters formed a bridge showing me something about my own thinking and upbringing. My maternal grandfather loved Carlyle more than any writer or thinker, and I was lucky to have seen his worn and well-read volume of Sartor Resartus.

I began this year reading a small, paper bound volume of some chapters of Italian Journey that I found in an Etsy shop. It was sold by a book collector in Spain. The small book, printed in the 1920s, was published in English in Italy, a cheap edition, the type that would have been sold from open air stands at train stations (I think).

A little back story; Goethe had tried painting when he was in Italy. His idea was to paint his journey (no cameras, right?) and he also wondered (since he had not written much of anything since the comet that set the world ablaze, The Sorrows of Young Werther, whether he was a writer or not. He wandered around Italy, particularly in Rome, and spent time with a group of artists and tried to paint. The watercolor at the top of this post is a painting by Goethe of a scene in either Northern Italy, perhaps Lago di Garda, or of a lake in Switzerland. Of his sojourn into the visual arts he said:

“The artists are ready enough with their hints and instructions, for I am quick in apprehending them. But then the lesson, so quickly learnt and understood, is not so easily put in practice. To apprehend quickly is, forsooth, the attribute of the mind, but correctly to execute that, requires practice of a life.”

It’s easy, often, to understand what we need to do using our reason and mental muscle, but in many things that is only the beginning. Practice alone leads to mastery, and I believe that is true not only of painting but of life itself.

Here’s last year’s birthday card to Goethe.

Happy Birthday, Goethe.

Portrait of Goethe in the Italian countryside by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

Portrait of Goethe in the Italian countryside by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.



I think about all the times in my life I’ve thought I knew what I was doing only to look back and see that I had no clue. This is another one. I was a little less occluded than in times past when I retired but occluded nonetheless.

I’ve been learning all these months. Like a lot of newly retired people I have a work habit meaning I’m used to a certain level of work all the time every day. In my case it was pretty intense. When I quit the co-op I plead something like “PTSD” from teaching. I don’t think I was understood. I don’t think anyone here really gets what it is like to be a “freeway flyer” in California and teach at more than one “institute of higher learning” and patch together an income, often with little or no job security.

One of my new friends here — a wonderful woman that I really like — made a point about that. “College teachers don’t know what it means. I taught all day every day.” She was a public school art teacher. I listened politely and got the “hidden” message which was “How can you as a college teacher begin to know what REAL teaching is like?” I’m not sure but I think her model is the normal college teacher with tenure who teaches 3 or 4 classes/semester and doesn’t some committee work and gets a sabbatical every seven years or so.

That was never me. I taught 7 classes most semesters, 2 classes most summers, and all were writing classes which is an immense grading load. I usually taught six days a week and often drove 40+ miles to teach ONE class. I was also expected to maintain my professionality at a higher level than my tenured colleagues. To remain competitive I had to be ahead of the curve learning the necessary educational software and I had to be able to adapt very quickly to any changes in administrative policy anywhere I taught. I was obliged to publish and to attend conferences, but on my own dime. It was hard work. And, as time went by and it became clear I would never have tenure and that the people I taught were turning into unrecognizable creatures thanks to No Child Left Behind, it became absolutely painful to walk into a classroom. I lived for moments of light and fresh air, an intelligent engaged student, a student who would accept a challenge to learn, someone who was simply nice. I had learned the difference between sucking up and genuine interest, and the sucking up made me angrier than being told to “Fuck off” did. I’d long loved teaching, but at the end, I thought it was a complete waste of my time. I wasn’t, personally, going anywhere with it. It had become a dead end.

Relentlessly. I had no status anywhere I taught and yet as obliged to get along with everyone, never rock a boat, make all my students happy etc. etc. When I wasn’t teaching I was prepping or grading or learning how to use new software or examining texts. I was ALWAYS teaching.

For the most part, I’ve come to a peaceful place with teaching since I retired. I had things I wanted to say, and I’ve said them on a different blogging site (Medium) and, I think, reached a few people with some points that might be useful. And I was done…

But “PTSD”? Sure. Besides having dealt with physical threats and attacks of other natures — complaints from students to, no less, the President of the university once, verbal attacks, the frustration of students unhappy with their grades, the criticism of bosses who knew nothing about what I taught and couldn’t possibly have done it (didn’t do it, when it came to it), I have endured thousands of chaotic meetings. There are few things I hate more than being trapped in a small space around a table with a bunch of people who are pushing their own agendas.

I taught business communication which included how to have a good meeting. First rule, consider the comfort of the people there, ie. don’t meet at dinner time without eating. Second rule, limit the amount of time people can speak, including discussion. All of this enveloped in that most important thing; respect each other.

So now it seems once again Goethe’s words are my best friends…

“Hold your powers together for something good and let everything go that is for you without result and is not suited to you.” Conversations with Eckermann