Hey, Labor Day's for neanderthals too

BILLs TO PAY: Neaderthals didn't have mortgages to pay, but they still had plenty to worry about. Time for a quick reflection, via a new book, on the American holiday that celebrates work, Labor Day:

Not much has changed about the nature of work since the guy pictured above was roaming the earth, and that fact should prompt you to think more deeply about the career that you give your life to. This came to me in the course of reading Ryan Coonerty and Jeremy Neuner's inspiring new book, "The Rise of the Naked Economy: How to Benefit from the Changing Workplace" (Palgrave/Macmillan).

Why inspiring? Because, my friends, as you're looking ahead to a busy fall, the authors of this book offer a fresh perspective on who we are and what we do in the context of the much bigger frame of human history:

From the moment the first hominids scampered across the African savannas, the human species has been consumed by the work of staying alive. Our oldest ancestors are often referred to as hunter-gatherers, because that was their work.... Some studies show that hunter-gatherers worked only three hours a day, then basically hung out for the rest of the day. Once again proving that evolution isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The single most salient difference between early humans and contemporary humans is not why but how — and, more strikingly, how quickly — the nature of work has changed.

Their book is concerned with this fact -- that the nature of work has changed and accelerated (what's one of the culprits behind this acceleration? yes, it's technology). Even though some people measure this acceleration as being beneficial -- the "naked" in the title refers to how technology enables more people to avoid being stuck in an office five days a week -- the authors also make another unsettling point. Things move so fast, their book suggests, that we become paralyzed by our work. We have little time to evaluate what we do because we're trapped in the constant, hyper-pressures of meeting deadlines:

Early humans were engaged in the basic subsistence of hunting and gathering for two million years; during that period cultural evolution took hundreds of generations and technological advances took a millennium. Today we witness fundamental, even radical, social and economic change within a decade. This rate of change has made us more adaptable than the generations before us. But when it comes to work, an activity as central to human life as eating, sleeping, and procreating — though not nearly as enjoyable — we don’t have the opportunity to analyze and control what is happening to our lives. We are happy if we just keep our dental plan.

It's far too easy to lose ourselves in the rush of business, and the authors' book makes a fresh plea for each of us to do what we can to find the deeper, more meaningful sense of purpose in our work -- even if it's a tedious grind of paperwork and rubber stamps.

Easier said than done, I know, but still it's some welcome food for thought. Wasn't it William Wordsworth who said, back in the early 1800s, that "the world is too much with us"? Man, I wonder what he'd think today.

Have a good one, my friends.

'Belief is possible at night': Averill Curdy's poetry

Poetry by ancient light. (Credit: www.davidtribble.com) It was such a nice experience this week dipping into Averill Curdy’s "Song and Error," published a couple months ago by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and finding Ovid there. It’s a pleasure to pick up a book by a contemporary poet like Curdy (or Carol Ann Duffy, whose favorite seems to be Virgil) and find someone who doesn't hesitate to invoke the Latin greats.

It's encouraging too. Here's a writer who believes that those laureled heads still have much to give to our present.

In "Ovid in America," we listen to 17th-century translator George Sandys as he meditates on life in the new world (Sandys was an early settler of Jamestown) and shares the great poet's sense of exile in a strange, unfamiliar place:

Without coppice, park, romancely glade, Or commanding vantage, Woods press on us; they fester.... I find no empires here, no apostles or emeralds. Instead, all things a-broil with an awful begetting & my hours unsettled by some new show Of riotous & mystical imagination...

Long before strip malls and highways, America existed in a mythic state, wild and  "a-broil with an awful begetting." Magnificent.

Words are so powerful, but how often do we think about that in the course of our days? We don't. We write memos and send texts, using language like a shovel or a fork. Which is why poetry matters, and why a poet like Curdy, a teacher at Northwestern University, is to be appreciated in this book, her debut collection.

Here, a little later in the same poem, is an act of creation, as Sandys hovers over  his translation:

From my hands at night (my light Some oil in a dish or a rush taper smoking, Not so different from Ovid’s), flower His fantastic shapes, shadows Of an old empire’s former splendor... Belief is possible at night, solitary, firelit. Then, I can believe in Ovid’s centaurs, Or that he was met at death by a three-headed dog....

The shadow of Robert Lowell falls here, Amy Clampitt's, too. Sometimes her language is much more complex, more elusive--and if it feels too elusive at times, well, that's okay too. The beauty of the language more than compensates, as in “Anatomical Angel” :

Unfastened avidly from each ivory button Of her spine, the voluntary muscles open Viruousities of red: cinnabar

The mutagen, and carmine from cochineal Born between fog and frost....

I think I get it, but even if I don’t, does it matter? The words stay with me an hour later, an hour after that, at the end of the day, at the end of the week.

Can I say the same thing about a text or a TV show?

Not really.

That's why it's poetry. That's why it matters.

Stop the presses

The sidewalk internet, circa 1902. Considering the hits that the print media business has taken in recent years, it shouldn't come as a surprise that CareerCast.com has identified newspaper reporting as the worst job of 2013.

It's never been an easy job -- you're constantly on call and on deadline -- but that's what makes it such an honorable profession. But the other aspects of the business today -- less job openings, constant threat of layoffs, squeezing the life out of shrinking staffs of writers -- were the deciding factors in CareerCast's assessment.

I read the item with a feeling somewhere between relief (my own relief) and sympathy for colleagues still on the front lines. And I couldn't help thinking of all those great mythic figures in art -- from Penn Warren's Jack Burden to the unnamed reporter questing after Rosebud's identity in "Citizen Kane" -- that partly inspire you to consider that profession in the first place.

What are some other reporter-characters in literature? Lucien Chardon in Balzac's "Lost Illusions" -- does he count, even though he's just a hack? Peter Fallow in Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities"? The character of "John Berendt" in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"? Who else? Lend me your thoughts.

I envy -- and worry about -- all those young college grads with journalism aspirations. They're entering a world where headlines aren't the brightest about their chosen vocation, and yet it's an occupation that's needed the most -- without reporters, how else do you keep the rest of the world honest?

Two words that changed LBJ's life

Speech_balloonIn fables and myths, we find plenty of moments when magic words come into play. Not a magic spell -- just a simple statement that unlocks hidden possibilities for somebody who really needs help. Think of abracadabra, open sesame or valar morghulis ... to name a few.

In the case of Lyndon Johnson, 36th president of the United States, two heartbreaking words produced a transformation on the Texan Democrat that was nothing short of magical. That's what Robert Caro said last night.

I had the pleasure of listening to Caro deliver a talk at Claremont McKenna College about his research into The Passage of Power, the latest installment of his mammoth-sized, multi-volume biography "The Years of Lyndon Johnson."

There's nothing better than having a world-class historical biographer describe his research methods: how he studied secret memos and photographs, how he tracked down interviewees, how he dug deeply into historical moments that we all thought we knew.

Take, for example, the hours after the assassination of JFK in Dallas. We all know that the Kennedys scorned Johnson. They called him "Rufus Cornpone," Caro said, and they referred to Johnson and Lady Bird as "Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop." Johnson stood off to the side, forgotten, while everyone waited news of Kennedy's condition.

Then, Caro said, someone approached Johnson and uttered two words to him that made the situation clear:

"Mr. President."

"In that instant, a change comes over him," Caro told the audience. "A moment of transformation" in which Johnson's stature immediately grows as he realizes what he has become.

I was struck by the magic quality of Caro's narration of that historic moment ... and I was heartened by the thought that words still possess magic.

It's easy to forget this in the constant barrage of twitter feeds, google alerts, etc. Words are cheapened, turned into fast food, discardable. But as Caro reminded me, and as I wish to remind you, my beloved friends, words still have the power to reach into the depths of myth.

A Challenger memory

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1996. Photo credit: NASA I was a high school student when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff 27 years ago yesterday.

I still remember the shock and horror of that accident. I also remember the extraordinary, consoling beauty of Pres. Reagan's address to the nation, crafted by his speechwriter Peggy Noonan. His speech on the evening news was a brilliant consideration of grief and the risks of space exploration that built to this powerful climax:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

At the time, I thought those final words belonged to Reagan himself (and his speechwriter). Surly bonds. I didn't know some of the words were in quotes. I didn't know that they belonged to an American aviator, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a poet who died during World War II.

Here, in the wake of this sad anniversary, is the full text of Magee's poem, "High Flight," which supplied Reagan with the perfect words to reflect the sorrow and dignity of that terrible day:

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.