Getting It Into the Air

October 24, 2016


Once I had decided upon becoming a writer, I still had to make a living.  Just as the Zen Master must still chop wood and haul water, so I drove a Metro Bus part time.  One day, as I was passing through a Seattle suburb, I stopped outside a shopping center for this matronly lady to climb the stairs.  As she dug in her purse to locate her fare, she eyed me to say, “You look awfully tired.  You must work awfully hard.”

“Actually,” I said, “I work only three and half hours a day.”  (Beaming with pride.)

This flummoxed her.

‘Good work, Carl,’ I thought.  ‘You’ve stalled another conversation.’

And since I find enduring embarrassment very hard, I added:

“If I work more than three and a half hours a day, I get these terrible rashes!”  I rubbed my forearm sincerely.

“Oh!”  The woman exclaimed, visibly relieved.  “My aunt had that.”

I love pretense and flummery.  I love spin.  I love taking the day to day quotidian, the endless repertoire of repetitive detail and action which make up the “grit and slog” of our seemingly endless human condition and giving it wings.  Or, as my playwrighting teacher used to describe it: “getting this thing up into the air.”

Not so far up into the air as you lose all connection.  You don’t want to leave home.  No one does really.  You just want to get it far enough off the ground so as to realize some possibilities – to reveal a horizon.

As a writer, politician, actor, salesperson, to successfully practice your profession, you must have the knack for engaging your audience’s imagination.  Perhaps the impulse is native, or perhaps it comes from being raised in a situation so mired in the actual that a person can’t stop striving to ‘get some air’, even after they’ve broken free.  The urge remains.  Or, more probably, the urge is an amalgam of both.  But, in a writer, the urge can be so strong, that the actual effort of making something ‘practical’ happen gets in the way, takes too much time and attention, absorbs too much of one’s energy.  I’m reminded of the cartoonist, Scott Adam’s (Dilbert) testimony, that when he asked writers why they chose the profession they did, the majority answered by saying, “I’m lazy.”

I remember reading of it being said about Whitman, arguably America’s greatest poet, that Whitman was undoubtedly “the laziest person” the speaker had ever met.  Though no doubt, he labored over his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, unceasingly, revising, adding, and then adding again, throughout his entire life – otherwise, he was as he describes himself.  “I loaf, and invite my soul.”

I have noticed, (and in case I haven’t, people close to me, like my son, have pointed this out), that I would appear to avoid work, shirk a laudable profession, and am otherwise devoid of much practical ambition.  From my point of view, it seems astonishing that they cannot see that I literally am working all of the time – all the while they are talking of vacations they are going to take, or just returning from, or of the fun they’ve had playing, with their boats, off-road toys, RVs, or camping, climbing, skiing, surfing, watching sports, drinking, having wild sex or travelling.  The diversions others participate in astonish me in their multiplicity, repetition, and time consumption.  Also, given that so many of them complain about their jobs all the while – gives it an air of lunacy.   Nevertheless, it appears they are right and I am wrong because like in so many areas, there are more of them than there are of me.  It’s a democracy!  The dictionary is a democracy.  Right and wrong are whatever it is said they are.  (Only the word roots remain.)

At any rate, I find myself working all of the time: listening, reading, chatting, taking notes, writing, trying to figure out why things are as they are and puzzling about how to take that story or poem a little higher, squeeze it a bit more.  Even sending stuff off is tedious.  Vacation spots bore me.  Adventuring makes me wonder, ‘What am I doing here, stuck on a cliffside?’  Give me a quite room.  Help me lift this stuff up into the air.  Some trouble free, uninterrupted time.  That’s what I like.  If I had a million dollars in the bank, that’s where I’d leave it.  That’s where it’s working for me just fine.  I’ll eat the same thing for breakfast as I had for dinner, thanks.  Very little variation in my outer world is best.  My inner world?  Now here is where I take flight, break free, imagine other people and worlds.  I don’t have time to watch endless football.  I’ve got it!  They try to possess the ball and move it to the goal line, and they wear different colored uniforms.

There you go again Carl.  You’ve stalled the conversation.

To see more of Carl’s work, visit:


The Unauthorized Use of Something I Read

September 16, 2016



A Facebook friend, Stanley K. Ridgley, PhD., has written The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.  I was so taken by an excerpt of the book on the speaker’s use of the ‘Pause’, a teaser which Stanley had posted online, that I purchased the book.

The author mentions in his introduction that he has: “resisted the pressure to water down this book, to move its focus from you, the business student, and to “connect” it to a broader spectrum of people”…   So.  My use of this book is entirely unauthorized, and whatever calamity ensues is entirely of my own doing but has probably already happened in the poetry world.  It’s a crazy place.   Nevertheless, I figure I could find some of his tips useful for emceeing The Serenity Poetry Series which I run out of a Vienna, West Virginia coffee shop.

Since I am suspicious that life is largely a business situation and that poetry is just life in clearer focus – what have I to lose but some ignorance?  And perhaps I might gain some audience!  Poetry is about as hard a place to draw an audience as West Virginia.   So we’re doubling down here.

Right out of the chute the author quotes the words of Communication coach Lynda Paulson that,” what makes speaking so powerful is that at least 85 percent of what we communicate in speaking is non-verbal”.  She also notes that, “Most people can read and comprehend more content in half-an-hour than you could ever get across in the same time through speaking.”  In other words, as Ridgley notes, a presentation is a “show”, the star of which is “a project or idea (that) has a champion who presents the case in public”.   So it’s not the information so much as the impact of a “personal presence” which makes your presentation.  You communicate, Stanley continues, in “words and actions designed to make your audience feel comfortable – and heroic.”

 “Yes, heroic.  Every presentation – every story – has a hero and that hero is in your audience.  Evoke a sense of heroism in your customer, and you win every time.  Evoke a sense of heroism in your presentation audience, and you win every time.”

Bad presenters Stanley notes, “act as if your words carry the message alone.  A part of you actually believes that it is the force of your argument, your compilation of facts, your detailed spreadsheet that will carry the day.  Because that’s the way it should be, right?  As a result, you push the presentation outside of yourself.”  Doesn’t nearly all of the boring poetry you’ve heard read have poets who believe this?  That their words have created a little machine which just needs plugging in?  While the audience watches – supposedly enchanted – as it achieves nothing?


A little later on in the book our author writes, “…you are there to persuade your audience and call them to action.”   These are troublesome words to the poet, if they are to believe as Auden says, that “poetry makes nothing happen.”  What can a poet persuade our audience of?  And once he/she’s persuaded them, what is she/he to ask them to do?  And how should they go about doing it?

Well I’ve pondered this, and here is a thought.

I would suggest that the action of a poem is to provide insight.  As the poet William Carlos Williams famously summed it up in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

And I would suggest that this is also how we should interpret Auden.  That the essence of insight is in making ‘nothing’ happen; that insight is ignorance giving birth to realization.

 Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, wrote that his years in the world of business were useful to him as a cartoonist in many ways.  One was that it taught him to distill an idea to its essence, which he says is crucial to cartooning.  Well, distillation is important to poetry also.

There’s a saying that “poetry is memorable speech”.  I would call memorable speech which carries insight that demands action –  a slogan.  So I would suggest that the poet reader needs to find the slogan in each poem and urge their audience to consider and embrace it, until those words turn themselves on to glow like a light bulb.


Robert Bly is held by many to be a mediocre poet.  But as a reader and speaker for poetry, he has probably been the most successful poet/personality of his generation.  From his performances you might rightly think that he has read Ridgley’s book.  He speaks proudly and  energetically, building to his goal which are the poetic lines bearing the insight of which he’s spoken.  He recites these lines almost as if displaying a glowing Arc of the Covenant overhead for all to behold.  He insists on their power.  He invites his audience to feel this power of insight themselves, to hold it and to project it.  His job, as he discharges it, is to charge his followers with the joy and power of insight.   He performs the task well.  Whether the insight is up to Robert’s claims is where the poet/critics come in with their knives.  But for the time being, Bly holds the stage, the poet is a heroic figure, and greater insight is the heroic task and joy of his audience.


For books by Carl Nelson, visit:

The Serenity Poetry Series

September 6, 2016
PoetsPoetry Readings Have a Long History

One of the more memorable evenings I’ve spent in stage theater occurred at a small forty person theater in Seattle called the Odd Duck.  A playwright, whose name I can’t recall and wouldn’t tell you if I did, had written a piece for the playwright’s group show.  His stuff was very watchable, but violent, bloody and transgressive.  It was also highbrow and stuffed with old Greek myths, all in all a bit crazy.  The playwright himself was somewhat likeable, but largely an ass.  And not only was he an ass, but he worked at it.  We’d go out drinking and he’d work his magic to get us kicked out of the bar.

Of course, he was left to direct his own piece for the show.  No one else would do.  And he ended up firing several of the actors, finally using a last minute replacement, who took on the role because he didn’t want the evening to suffer as a whole.  The short version is that they got in an unspoken argument on stage regarding the phrasing of a line of dialogue.  The playwright, (as I remember), wouldn’t feed the substitute actor the next line, until the actor would say the last line as the playwright felt it demanded.  This went back and forth, with missteps and false lines for a minute or so until the new actor said “this is bullshit” and  the playwright tossed some food at him.  The actor tossed it back.  A French fry flew out into the audience and hit me.  So I picked it up and tossed it back, striking the playwright on the nose.  He turned to the audience and glared at me.

I remember thinking, in a gleeful moment, that this was making all of the big theater productions feel like canned vegetables.

            For ten years or more I frequented playwrights groups regularly.  Actors would read our scripts and then the clutch of us would discuss what seemed to work and what didn’t.  Then, we’d re-write, or not.  Then have it re-read, or not.  Then seek a staged reading, or not.  Then seek a production, or not.  Then seek a better production or not.  All the while internalizing critiques and struggling to make the work better (more re-writes).  The theater is exhausting.  When you witness a musical production (one of the most arduous stage endeavors undertaken) which has finally made it to a prominent stage, you have to wonder what the hell they have left to sing about?  And how they even have the breath left?

The trick is that they work for the parts of the experience you don’t get paid for.  They work the parts without immediate remuneration or audience approval.  That’s where the fun is.  That’s what keeps them going.  (The rest is ego.)  That’s what kept our group of unsuccessfully realized playwrights working.  We were having group sex with each other’s talents.

(Scot Adams in his book, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”, nails this in Chapter 6: Goals Versus Systems staring page 30.  I recommend it.)

Aside from all of that, the process of dramatic production is one of constantly preening the narrative so that it meets expectations.  What kind of expectations?  Well, the expectations of others.  The audience has goals.  The audience has expectations for delight, surprise, the exercise of favored emotions, commanding characterizations, heightened dilemma, and a through line which embraces a widely favored public narrative – all of which is either at war or at least in a small struggle with the artist’s very individual, specific take on the world.  You cannot remove the politician from a popular piece of work.  Huge numbers of people all claim (honestly, I would suppose) to hate politicians.  But politicians are the only persons large groups of people will listen to in large groups.  Inside of every successful artist is a successful politician.   They aren’t necessarily likable, or positive influences, but they can claim the support of a vast segment of the population as a group.

The general public opinion of artists who are not successful is that they aren’t any good.  But from my years of experience I’ve found that people rarely persist in doing something they aren’t any good at.  (I was pleased to read that Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, agrees with me.)  And there are a vast number of ‘not very good’ artists out there, persisting.  From my years of experience with artistic habituates, I’ve found that nearly to a person, each artist held a shard of genius… possibly a very slender one, at times no more than the thinnest, near invisible gossamer thread.  But that winning at theater is more a game of poker.  You need at least five good cards which augment one another – plus to cop another phrase from Scott Adams again, ‘the X Factor’.  There has to be something about your work which grabs and energizes a particular set of fans.

Talent plus the X Factor is a rare occurrence.   But talent alone is not.  It is literally everywhere.  And this is what unheralded groups of like minded, unrealized artists mine.  They mine one another’s talent, and cast themselves as each other’s audience.  They enjoy the experience of utilizing their talent and enjoying the products of talent.  That’s not a goal, but it’s the system of these small groups of artists who meet and work and persist.

In Seattle, during my time, there were several groups of theater people who would meet to conduct staged readings of new work.  Most of the groups were formalized with a inner cadre of either officers or first rank members.  They received the readings.  Lower members on the totem pole received readings of lesser length and when chosen.  The goals were to produce work of the first rank.  Their goals were to get plays into the local theater or even more prestigious places.  They rarely put up productions of their own.  And you needed to pass muster to join.

Then, there was my favorite group.  It had no officers.  It generally had only one or two members who had taken it upon themselves to do the administrative and organizational work necessary to sustain the group.  And they generally emceed the meetings.  There were no dues, no officers, no qualifications to join – except that you had to be there.  (One fellow brought in a pretty good play written while living on the street.)  Anarchism was the politics.  The meetings were pretty much “Hello.  Who have we got with something to read tonight?”  Playwrights would raise their hands.  One would be picked and he would pick some actors from the audience and hand them a script.  And then, “Showtime!”  If the script worked, we had fun.  If it didn’t work, oftentimes the discussion was better.  Even conversation is a chance for writers to show off their wit.

What was the track record?  The prominent personalities in the local theater world in town vied to become leaders of the more formal organizations.  And those who reached prominence in these organizations were constantly badgering the theaters in the press about using local writers.  They all had lofty goals and big ambitions.  But these goals were not reached, their ambitions unrealized, and the organizations collapsed.  Five years was about the life span.

My group had no goals, other than to meet and do original theater.   We put on 3-4 shows a year, very few of which were ever reviewed in the local weeklies.  We were referred to as amateurish, without standards, and the artists who came through the group and eventually rose to prominence, nearly to a person, never mentioned our group in their resumes.  But, as I was leaving Seattle, our group still throve, about twenty years along.  And the majority of the local writers who eventually were produced in our regional theater, passed through our group.  This information wasn’t and still isn’t generally shared.

Presently I run the Serenity Poetry Series at a coffee house in Vienna, West Virginia.  My goal is to create a place, much like that theater group of mine in Seattle, where we all have ‘skin in the game’.  Anyone who loves the memorable, decorative, clever, or verbally notable for one reason or another is welcome to attend and share.  (You may even attend if you don’t.)  They might share poems, writings, song lyrics, or even jokes.  They can be yours or others.  Your artistic goals are your own business.  But the enjoyment is ours.  There is no audience to speak of, and this is not a career move.  There’s no fame in it – just artists showing off and exercising their talents.

There’s no audience in it, except us.  And there’s no money in it, except ours.  But to quote Scott Adams again:   “…we all know that money distorts truth like a hippo in a thong.”

And we’re all wondering to see what an audience would do!  Drop by if you’re in the area. We meet the second Friday of every month, 7-9 pm, at the Serenity Coffee House in Vienna, West Virgina.

(If you would like to see more of Carl Nelson, visit:  )


Getting Older, the Veneer Wears Thin for a Curmudgeon

August 27, 2016

Old Person2

Just as our bodies fail us, so do our minds and our personalities.  Our charm gets frayed, or takes a few hours off, or leaves us altogether.  Or the glitz which made the more determined aspects of our personalities less pointed and uncomfortable has fallen away, like paint from a splintery bench.  We’re isolated.  The difficulties of minor tasks get exhausting.  Small mishaps make us irritable.  Dropping things gets to be a chronic condition.  Our patience has worn thin, along with our skin and hair, finances and near everything else.  And what used to be a simple matter of bending over and picking the thing back up is now something more like snagging the prize with one of those toy scoops.  But the energy expenditure is enormous.  The small envelope you dropped weighs but several ounces, but getting yourself down and up can be a matter of lifting several hundred pounds.  Each new day, an hour or two in, and you begin to mutter that you are “too old for this!”

The younger bunch blaze ahead heedless.  The wisdom which has taken you so much time and effort to assemble is well…  “outdated”, as if you were a floppy disc.  Having to explain things to someone who is not interested would seem to be a fool’s errand. “Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.”  Young people will agree with this statement and repeat it – to the elderly.  The ironies of life just pile up, as you age.  It should be fodder for the evening news:  “Three irony pile-up on the Interstate this afternoon.”

And along with the humiliation of age comes the paranoia.  It isn’t uncommon for older people to turn on their caregivers, or accuse the helpful relative of stealing, when in truth it’s the elderlys’ faulty memory.  It’s not uncommon for a particularly willful and irascible spirit to expunge dutiful children, who have cared for them for years, from of their wills only to be infatuated by strangers, the ingratiating carpetbagger, a sympathetic acquaintance, neighbor, or give everything to some sketchy charity or balmy vision, or perhaps even some fellow they met in a bar.

Or the relations, friends and caregivers (even that ‘fellow in the bar’) might be taking advantage, being abusive or even stealing.   It’s not paranoia if it’s really happening!  The elderly can easily end resenting everybody and everything who had anything to do with them before they died.  Or they can die, befuddled, bruised, or kicked out into the snowy cold, but still loving and revering the villains who took them for a cleaning.  If your memory were just better, you could keep it all straight or sort it out.

What’s especially fun is arguing with your mate about what ‘actually happened’, when neither of you accurately remembers.  It can swallow the few remaining years.

Dying isn’t easy.  It’s a catastrophe.  There is no fix.  It’s the final loss of all control.  It’s the universe making a pie of you.  You’re gonna be something’s dinner, even if you’re of the progressive sort and are buried in burlap with mulch and an apple seed.  It’s humiliating.  And getting old is the humiliation express.  Next stop the hospital.  It’s life’s effort to completely wear you out, discharge that last bit of energy, spend the last ray of hope, nullify all desire, and prevent coherent thought and speech.  Your body will be in the hi-anxiety of total disarray with all systems failing, while your audience is scouring your slurred words and facial demeanor for those life lessons of wisdom, patience and universal love.  That priceless gift which only a life well lived can give.

Well, it may have to come from somewhere beyond the grave, or perhaps in some sleeping visitation.  Or maybe someone will just have to make this shit up!  Because getting old is like an avalanche and very hard to tip toe through with charm.  We are drowning people clutching for a life ring.  “Getting old is not for sissies,” Art Linkletter once said.

The good news is that, from my experience with loved ones and friends, most go out as the same person they lived from day to day.   If your wife doesn’t like your tie, she’ll probably still want to change it for the funeral.  If you were kind of mum in life, you’ll most likely die silently or with a whisper.  Or, if the emotionally volatile sort, expect lots of flower and tears – especially if big money is involved.  You’re choosing your last words and the ‘death spin’ now as you read this – and don’t even know it.  Ha, ha!

Okay.  Enough said.  Thanks for your time.  I realize that I can be a little grouchy.  (It’s the cancer… very painful.)  Just thank your lucky stars that I didn’t start talking about my last talk with the doctors!  It’s good of you to stop by.  Be seeing you.  Could you close that door firmly on your way out?  It has a tendency to swing back open.

(If you enjoyed this essay, you might enjoy these other offerings at   )

American Home Life

August 17, 2016

Home life

A Modest Lack of Proposal


It’s harder to imagine Hillary Clinton not running for President than her candidacy.  She pretty much outlines the nature of a ruthless political animal in the current political age, where one’s accomplishments for office are that you have held a previous office – or a relationship to that office, and your ‘vision’ is whatever triangulates for a plurality of the Electoral College.

But in trying to imagine Donald Trump as an actual candidate for President, it’s hard to quell the fear of having landed in a parallel universe.  The idea of ‘the Donald’s’ candidacy is preposterous, and the performance outlandish.  But the result is success.  Where has this creature come from?


I would propose that ‘the Donald’ has been living here among us the whole time.  He or she comes home from work every day.  He or she sleeps in the same bed and we share the same bathrooms.  And when possible, we eat at the same tables and discuss the same budget.

For his supporters, I would propose that ‘the Donald’ represents the owner, the boss, the division manager, who has defined how success looks and acts.  For ‘the Donald’s’ detractors – who would claim the Blue States and who pride themselves upon their moral conscience, their educational degrees, their better salaries and their higher intelligence, status and overall enlightenment  – I would propose that ‘the Donald’ is representative of the crude atavistic impulses – their ‘second natures’ which have propelled them there.  That is, that Donald also represents for them the owner, the boss, the division manager, and the hoary roots of the upwardly mobile – which they deny to see in the mirror each day.


Ideally, the reason we head off to work each day is to earn a living and to realize our abilities in a way that contributes to our society and our own development.  This is a good start.  But when one does get to work, one find that modern products are quite complex.  A lot of tasks need doing to create these products, get them to market and sell them.  Our ideal person doesn’t necessarily command their ideal job.  And their ideal portfolio/resume doesn’t necessarily land them this ideal job.  What lands them this job is what I would call their “job charisma”.

Charisma has been at least partly defined by sociologists as the judgment by others of the number of people who would bend to your opinion or bow to your lead.  Whoever is in a position to place our candidate is looking for that person who can lead a project to success, whether it be a simple, one person task, or a complex, highly technical collaboration of unusual minds.  In other words, what entices an employer to grant you the job opportunity you would like is their judgment of your leadership ability in this particular area.

For this reason, (and I suppose many others), being the leader is a very sought after position.  Corporations, the military and Ivy League schools all scour the landscape for the newest crop of leaders with which to fill their ranks.  A body of leaders would seem to be most effective and lead the organization to greater success.  In turn, the candidates all try to present themselves as leaders.  Leaders get to do what they want.


What does leadership, and in some sense popularity, entail?  Leaders generally share the same personal qualities of us all.  We can empathize and be charmed by them.  They can be generous, humorous, good natured, and warm.  But the character of a leader is defined by their priorities.  A leader might be all those things as you or I, and perhaps be even better endowed with any of these qualities than you or I, including charity and selflessness.  But what defines their (and our) character are priorities.

For example, many sales firms subject their job candidates to a personality inventory.  They are looking for candidates who like people, who enjoy understanding people, and who like bonding with people.  This would mark their category of say, ‘relatedness’.  Another category would be an assessment of the candidates’ desire for achievement.  Are they extremely competitive?  A good sales person would be that person whose ‘Achievement’ priority is higher than their ‘Relational’ priority.  This makes the difference between the employee who loves to chat with clients, and the employee who enjoys the time spent but also is always looking for that way to ‘close the deal’, to retail the relationship.  It’s the difference between making a lot of friends and making a lot of sales.


When he or she heads out of the home to their employment, their success in the outer world will depend in a large part on their ability to project leadership.  But in its barest essentials, leadership can appear grotesque – even monstrous.  No one in a sales firm would want for the common public to witness their in-house activities or be a fly on the wall of their in-house culture.  The bosses are extremely aggressive.  They are extremely competitive.  They do not countenance insubordination.  They make extreme demands.  They do not admit to being wrong in any significant sense.  And at the furthest end of the spectrum, they define what is true and what is false.  What is true is what they say is true.  What is false is what they say is false.  These two things can do a switcheroo at any time.  The question most pressed upon every employee is whether they “embrace the company vision” and whether they are “personally invested”.  Anything short of this is treasonous.

To survive and thrive in these environments, the culture must become second nature.   You must react, just like in competitive athletics, without thinking of these basic tenets:  You always put on the pleasant face.  You never surrender your standing.  If someone professes to know something you do not, and you cannot top them, then you ignore them or change the narrative.  You do not wander into areas where you might be vulnerable, or which are populated by the vulnerable – for example, in the business world it would be the ‘arts’ or poetry.  You aggressively limit the conversation to your strong areas.  You aggressively control the narrative, while loyally parroting the narrative of your superior.  You must worship the hierarchy.  Those above you, you listen to.  Those below, you patronize.  Your equals, you compete with.  If the boss says something which immediately contradicts what they’d said before – it doesn’t matter.  The best you can ask for is ‘clarification’.  But don’t ask more than once.  Otherwise they might not think that it is because the thought behind it is too difficult or requires remedial explanation.  If you ask more than once, they’ll either flirt with the idea of you being either insubordinate or a dullard.

Donald Trump is the public embodiment in probably its most pure form to date of all these strategies.


A problem arises when these employees return home.  What has become second nature is not left at the office.  If a mate suggests a failure, they either ignore it, or demean the origin.  They don’t admit to contradictions.  They assume leadership in all areas.   If it isn’t granted, they stand in the midst of the activity until it grinds to a halt without their direction.   They ask, delegate and command without a thought.  It has become their way of conversing.  They do the deciding.  They establish whatever conversation they will listen to.  They drive the narrative towards the result they want.  They retail affection.  They accept generosity as their due, and try to tweak it for a little more.  Eventually, the goal of our employee’s second nature is to make everyone of the household an employee of their personal brand, a helper towards their achievement.  It easily happens that the second nature strategy of outside occupations becomes a family tradition and a root nature of the family in a way that travels down generations.

This whole scenario can become toxic to the family and even lethal to its members.  Once a mate or family member decides to “be all they can be”, it becomes a race to see who can love each other the least, (all the while claiming the opposite).  As Donald Trump himself remarked about his older brother Freddy, an airline pilot with a fun-loving nature, who died as an alcoholic at the age of 43.  “For me, it worked very well,” Mr. Trump is quoted as saying in the New York Times.   “For Fred, it wasn’t something that was going to work.” … ‘The Donald’ ended by saying, ““He’s like the opposite of me.”

To see all of Carl Nelson’s published work, (plus that of others), visit:

Book Report

August 11, 2016

Noodle as Editor

I’ve finished five books of late, and I’m patting myself on the back.  So many periodicals arrive daily that I found I wasn’t finishing the books I’d purchased.  So I have made the effort and here is my report.

A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman:  This is an English translation of a current Swedish bestseller.  It’s a marvel of sweet and sour.  Ove is the sour.  His works are the sweet.  Very dark humor is pitched perfectly for some hilarious moments.  A woman friend recommended this and it got snatched away by my wife midway through my own reading.  I finally pulled hard enough to get it back, and it was worth the effort.

The book is pumped with warmth, infused like steam heat, perhaps because we are in cold Sweden.  It is not sentimental.  Every feeling is earned honestly.  But the book seems of a type with some other current bestsellers which are cooked with a lot of cream.  Rather than thin soup, we are fed a rich bisque.  Not something you would want to have every day, but which can mark off a fine experience.

I wonder at the irony of a story coming from such a PC culture, of a hero who is so anti-PC, swimming in a bisque of such creamy texture.  The feeling function is highly prized in this one.

“Ralph Marlowe” by James Ball Naylor:  I was driving through the rural town of Malta, Ohio to the town of McConnelsville, Ohio just across the Muskingham River, to attend a concert by Marty Haggard (Merle’s son).  I noticed a small historical marker.  It marked the town of Malta as the home of the writer James Ball Naylor, who wrote this bestseller circa 1900.  The story takes place downriver in the town of Stockton and concerns a young man on the lam from a bad experience who takes up with the irascible town physician, first as the pharmacist and then as his partner physician.  There’s a lot of stock characters, (though they are ‘taken from life’), whose rustic tales leave one wanting.  But the narrative has drive and the lead character, as the whole menagerie admits, is a natural leader.  He’s a pretty stiff fellow though, a hair-splitting moralist – but by the books end, I closed it on good terms.

“Excellent Women” by  Barbara Pym:  Her name keeps popping up here and there in my reading, so I decided I had to sample something.  This is a very low key but well written ‘comic’ treatment of the life of an unmarried clergyman’s daughter in immediate post WWII Britain.  The comedy is language prompted and reserved, and the intelligence behind it quite pronounced.  And the through line of the put-upon selfless personality is classic.  No good deed or good person goes unpunished.  If you enjoy hearing the ironic thoughts of a person ignored, even as her companions speak to her, this is your book.

“The Mullah’s Storm” by Thomas W. Young:  Okay.  I kept sneaking back to this one when some of the non-fiction I’m plowing away on got too dry.  A plane goes down in Afghanistan with a high value prisoner aboard.  The second in command is left alive along with a female translator to get this Mullah to a safe place.  The Taliban though have other plans.  So has their prisoner.  It’s a hard marching narrative whose author knows those hills and defiles apparently.  The quiet relationship between the narrator and the female translator is the defining interest apart from survival.

“Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance:  After having moved to Appalachia from Seattle, I’ve been doing my due diligence.  This book is right up there, but it doesn’t need my good review.  It’s already made a lot of noise.  The culture he describes pretty much is as I’ve witnessed, save his background being a little further up the scale, over the top and down the other side.

Some local traits, which have particularly ground on me, look to be a culturally wide phenomena from what Vance relates.  Kinship ties trump everything, especially common sense.  And the child rearing is ‘free range’.  Vance relates the tale of one of his uncles when a child was asked to leave a store because he was unchaperoned and playing with the toys inside.  The grandfather and grandmother walked into the store, destroyed toys, trashed the shelves, and threatened the store employee with grievous harm – all because the man had disciplined their son to protect his wares.

This is further up the scale, but spot on in style from what I’ve witnessed.  And if you consider that a person’s closest family member is themselves – you might understand how stubborn and refractory to correction people around here can be.  It’s an ethos which travels across class lines.  You’re fur’ em or agin’ em first.  Later on, if pressed, they might consider an outside perspective – if only to argue against it and to suggest some previously unvocalized injury.  You couple this with gossip and intermingled family trees which span a multitude of generations – and you’ve got fertile grounds for simmering feuds and bad feeling all around.  It certainly doesn’t help fix things!

I’ve been working pretty hard at never meeting any of my son’s friends’ parents.  My son is pretty savvy at social navigating.  I’m not.  But I’m pretty big, 6’8”, and do best when I just keep my mouth shut.  One day my son said while leaving Home Depot, “Dad.  I think that they are afraid of you.”

I nodded.  We were off on the right foot.

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins:  Okay.  I’m only in five pages.  But my wife swears by it, says it‘s a great read.  And I’m hooked so far…

Meet you at the back cover.

For more ideas, visit:

The End of Experience

July 25, 2016


 Prior to our entry into WWI, the sentiments of the general citizenry were quite isolationist.  Here’s what Mark Crispin Miller says regarding the work of Edward Bernays (among many others) to change that:

“… it was not until 1915 that governments first systematically deployed the entire range of modern media to rouse their populations to fanatical assent.  Here was an extraordinary state accomplishment: mass enthusiasm at the prospect of a global brawl that otherwise would mystify those very masses, and that shattered most of those who actually took part in it.”

As Bernays was to say later, “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

One of the strategies employed by the Federal Government to deflect opposition to the draft in WWI  was to enforce its implementation at the local level.  This insulated the Federal Government from criticism of its policies.   Supporting the draft took on personal approbation.  Patriotic citizenry could question and bedevil the holdouts, the slackers, even root out the traitorous.  The Federal Government, in essence, released the mob.  (My grandmother’s defense of my grandfather’s German roots nearly got him jailed.)   This same strategy continues today.

In political circles there is a concept called the Overton Window, which “also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas the public will accept.” (Wikipedia).   What enlarges or shrinks this window are the intellectual and/or political players at the national level.  But what enforces this window of debate are the citizenry all around us.

In sales, when the prospect you have chosen to speak with is not moved by an argument whose advantages are overwhelming , it’s fairly certain that either you are not talking to the ‘decision-maker’, or that, for some reason, they do not find what you are saying credible.  Either way, you have fallen outside of that person’s Overton Window, and are left peering at the Overton Wall (my phrase).

You may have experienced this same level of mystification when discussing political issues either in person or as it more commonly happens today on social media.  Only experts need apply.  The powers that be have ruled personal experience inadmissible and most probably suspect.  Personal experience or anecdote will place you right outside the Overton Window alongside the rustics.  Common sense need not apply either.  It is outside the Overton Window too.  We’re all experts nowadays, or nothing.  And this applies to both sides of the issues.

Web links – those things which grant us immediate expertise – are the puppet strings.  More and more we move by them.  We think by them.  We exercise our freedom of expression through them.   Or, perhaps, for a less paranoid view, try this which is taken from an article by Nathan Heller in a recent issue of The New Yorker:

“The stories you encounter through your smart phone are stories, basically, asking to be found.

Getting outside of the museum is hard.”

“Encounter thinking” (real experience), “our response to the exceptional, saves us from the errors of consensus and the expectations of smooth process that, like the myths of consolation, leave us ill-equipped to deal with changes when they come.”

Unfortunately, personal experience, more and more, is useful only as a private curio or baubles to be traded in psychoanalysis.  It may rule our stars, but it has little impact socially.  Or worse, it could have a hazardous impact socially and even legally.  You can pass on a link with much less worry of being branded by the content.  You are merely passing on ‘what is out there’.  Whereas, you are personally liable for your personal views.

But what if there is nothing out there that you want to say – which can be copied and pasted?  And a lot that isn’t?

Well, here in our new America, you’re stuck with your own very private experience and your own common sense.  Whether or not you grin and bear what little traction your personal experience gets, looking at the world through your own eyes nowadays has gotten more and more isolating.


Our Current Home

June 29, 2016

Belpre May 2015

I like this place better than my wife does.

“That’s true.”  She frowned one day.  “There’s a reason I left.”

The people here look different and think different.

“Yeah.  And that’s because they are ignorant as hell and stubborn as mules.”

My wife is a salesperson, which in the world of commerce is something like a missionary.  So, now and then, she gets tossed into the native’s supper pot and stirred along with the peas and carrots, and it makes her grumpy.

But I’m a writer.  And I’m living where stories have flourished unmolested among generations of hill sheltered Irish, Scotch and German immigrants.  Life still flourishes in little clannish pockets of rustic growth scattered throughout these hills and hollers like so many petri dishes which have been left open to the air along the culture lab countertops.  There’s nothing quite like it in the Seattle metropolitan area from where I came.

It is said by the author, John Alexander Williams, in “Appalachia / A History”, that historians who have tried to identify this territory as a single entity concluded “instead that it is a territory only of the mind, an id’ee des savants, a place that has been invented, not discovered, an “alternative America” projected onto the mountains and mountain people by reformers whose real purpose is to critique or change things in the nation at large.”  Progressives break their picks on this place – file for exhaustion under a Federal Program, I’d suppose – and move away.  So that in many ways, (including to ‘my’ way of thinking), it’s bliss.  “Almost heaven.”

The brick buildings and infrastructure crumble.   When driving through a town hereabouts and  you see a large sign declaring their place in history, you can pretty well bet that is because there is nothing much going on currently.   Heritage is big, partly because although there was much happening then, there is not much happening now – and partly because so many of the people are related.  We’re talking family, here.

The State of West Virginia has lost population.  The coal mines are shuttering.  Oil prices have dropped.  For some reason, I have yet to plumb, their greatest pride in historical photos is of record floods.  You’ll see old photo after old photo, in the larger of the small towns, of ancestors poling around in boats down main street past the hotel and the mercantile.

We live just across the river from Parkersburg, West Virginia.  A lot of what once gave our town character and hometown beauty was bulldozed when the automobile bridge went through.   (The railroad bridge dates back to the Civil War.)  But to enjoy this place – and many others like it – you need to pan for the small pockets of gold.  For example, a lovely riverside residence sits behind a curved drive, in back of an empty row of store fronts along the treeless main strip which boasts a Hardee’s.  Another hidden mansion sits down a dead end street behind a sign designating it as a historical structure.  A yard sized graveyard hosts “Mrs. Armstrong and 3 children / Killed by Indians / in 1795.”  It’s surrounded by a non-descript, waist high hurricane fence with a gate on a low rent residential block.  Down the way is a house trailer perched high on the Ohio riverbank with a small garden trailing off below it, rowed with corn.  Also buried inside is “Israel Stone Jr. / March 24,1778 / April25, 1791 / Drowned in the Ohio River”.  You’ll find a lot of this puttering around on a bicycle.

The new construction and well maintained real estate appear to be hospitals, rest homes, mortuaries, government facilities and chemical plants up and down the river.  Billboards advertising “our nationally ranked cardiac surgery center” and personal injury lawyers are frequent sights.  It’s oddly easy to find a church and very hard to find a tavern, though the counties crawl with alcoholics and opium deaths are currently epidemic.   You can drive along a road in West Virginia which will gradually peter away into something like a pot-holed driveway, and then continue on to find the road improved and yourself in another small town.  The towns are so small and unremarkable that most of the rural folks identify themselves by the county they come from.

So what is there to like about this place?  Well, we have warm summer days punctuated by thunderstorms.  If you close your eyes summer times, what with the birds talking and the breeze blowing, it reminds me of Mexico.  Quiet stretches of forest full of broad leafs abound.  We have excellent produce.  People talk sports and hunting instead of politics.  The houses have porches which people use.  It rains enough, you needn’t water.  And although we’re a large percentage Caucasian, the minorities get along peaceably.  If you just turn off the national TV, you’re not going to hear a conversation about race, though each seems to stick with its own, as seems natural.

Our neighborhood is quite safe.  No intimidation.  No break-ins.  No burglar bars.  Neighbors wave and nod.   Which is kind of puzzling, since there was a crack house a block and a half north of us, a hooker who lived just up the street, and a trailer court of a half dozen older boxes a block kiddy corner in the opposite direction, and pickup trucks driven by grizzled  guys (and gals) rumble past.   The hooker was the undoing of my contractor.  And I think she got some of my money, too.  But otherwise, kids are respectful and walk past or ride by on bikes and play in the street.  I can’t say I understand it.  In the big city you had to buy your way out of these problems by moving to a development in the suburbs.  Here, it is very heterogeneous.  Lovely old mansions sit a half block from a trailer court.  A tumbledown is right next door to a nice foursquare.    Along the Ohio stately homes are recessed back of lawns sloping down towards the river, with here and there a small bungalow, or a cottage surrounded in junk with a blue-tarped roof.  Churches abound.  It seems every clan which has a member with a bent for religion starts another.  On a short drive to get the ‘best biscuits and gravy’ about thirty miles to the  south, we averaged one church per mile, and I can’t recall seeing a tavern.  In the small town of Carnation, outside of Seattle near where we once lived, there were three bars within a block’s radius.

Our son is busy with innumerable activities, very few of which involve a lot of money as there aren’t many attractions to spend it on.  He attends all the sports events, does pickup basketball,  organizes camping and pontoon boat excursions, goes mudding, cave exploring,  stays up late with his friends around bonfires and is the go-to school photographer.  And he has a steady girlfriend.

The teachers at his school are excellent.  Which puzzled me until my wife suggested that teaching is one of the better jobs to have around here.  The trades and service professions tend to fill up with individuals who in the larger metropolises would have graduated to more lucrative professions.  Families go back generations.  And you have to be careful who you squabble with as there are all sorts of filial ramifications.

So.  About being “ignorant as hell”.  Well, that’s the glass half empty.  The glass half full is that they are well schooled in experience – going back centuries.  And “stubborn as mules”.  Again, that’s the glass half empty.  The glass half full is that what has worked is honored, and they are a profound bulwark against the next incursion by those smarty pants, who are so finely educated that they know better even before their tuition has been fully paid, and are off preaching to “change the world”  with a vision offered from the moral high ground of their immaculate lives .   These damnable progressives, who constantly devalue our traditions… while carping, carping, carping about what a mess the modern world is – a world more and more of their making…  well, don’t get me started.

Like I say, those sorts either move away, or break their pick and go back to where they came from.  And it’s real restful.

Two Problems with Socialism

June 26, 2016


Last night I watched a biopic of Jimmie Hendrix in which one commentator remarked that trying to become famous can be more fun than the actual ‘being’ famous.

I would make the same case for making a living.  Endeavoring to insure oneself a roof over one’s head and food in one’s mouth is wholly more involving than the simple consumption of it.  People who must earn a living become resourceful, capable, industrious and persistent.  People who just consume often become just the opposite.  It would seem humans are made to strive, not arrive.  We are designed to be problem solvers, not consumers.

Take your average consumer.  For the most part, even they are out to purchase the answer to a problem they have.  The housewife needs to dress her children and feed her family and to create a well appointed and comfortable home.  Even the indulgent consumer is either out to create a mood through a hedonistic purchase or a prized look through the purchase of fashion.  I would hazard that even the Socialist has more fun and finds more purpose in life trying to bend the world to their will and moralizing from their soapbox – than when lying back and enjoying the benefits of the free lunch themselves.  I’d guess that they have little envy for what they are striving for, and only envy for what they testify against.  Otherwise, they would move.

Another problem with socialism is that people enjoy doing business.  They love it, even when done for pennies, such as at a flea market.  As Francesca Aran Murphy so succinctly states in her piece, “Is Liberalism a Heresy?”  (and in a former post I’ve made)

“A mixture of rule of law and respect for personal freedom enabled market economies to emerge.  People readily took to the roles of buyer and sellers of goods, because buying and selling involves the kind of role-play in which human beings flourish…..  Buying and selling became a driving force and expressive feature of modern societies, because the clever play of concealment and exposure through language and gesture it entails fits our social, dramatic  natures like a glove.”

Socialism saps the fun from life.  I believe it was Susan Sontag who said, “The problem with socialism is that it is too boring.  And the problem with fascism is that it’s too exciting.”  Have I talked you into becoming a Babbitt yet?

Currently the next conversation due upon the political horizon is of creating a basic national income.  This is being seen as necessary to many, who foretell that the coming jobs available for a large percentage of our citizens will simply not pay enough for them to live successfully.  What is to be done?

I don’t know.  I don’t know if what is foreseen will actually occur.  Nobody does.  But if it does, proponents say that a sample of  studies undertaken seem to show that people given the money do not waste it, but utilize it to create better lives for themselves.

It sounds promising.  But would this be true if everyone got free money?  And if everyone gets free money, wouldn’t this cause a counterproductive inflation of the prices of basic items?

As is usual, the studies seem to indicate one thing, but experience the other.  So the ‘smart’ people tend to line up on one side of the issue and the experienced people on the other.  The record for trust babies doesn’t look good.

How will having more money cause people to find meaningful work?  Or will it?   And if not, what then?  Idle hands are the devil’s helpers, they say.

(To read more of Carl Nelson’s work, go to:  )

Where have all the reporters gone?

June 25, 2016


What with the closing and consolidation of so many newspapers and news outlets around the country, I hadn’t given much thought to where the reporters had gone.

Then I noticed that the attendance to my magazine of contemporary culture had trebled.  Also that the articles I had been reading in these professorial type journals with their college and think tank affiliated authors – also had the contemporary feel of a journalist’s beat.  Have the reporters found shelter in the coves of academic publications and non-profit think tanks?

I don’t know.  And I haven’t been able to find out anything.

I’m not much of a reporter.

(To read more of Carl Nelson’s work, go to:  )

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