Off the Top of My Head

July 9. Hot, humid, but still pleasant enough out back, where we have a protective layer of foliage. That drops the temperature maybe ten degrees. Of course, that also means loud birds and squirrels scampering overhead. So frayed nerves replace hot/humid. Life in the big city.


I like to think of myself as well read (doctorate in English, strong liberal arts background, always had a book or some reading material at hand, even in bed at night where I contend I ruined my eyes by reading by the light of a 40-watt bulb in the hallway) regular visitor to the library (first card when I was six) and on and on. Reading is the story of my life–I have no idea how many books, magazines or cereal boxes I've read. There are 17 books in my to read stack, with maybe another six in my e-books folder

Harvard Classics fiction

Turns out I may not be as well-read as I thought. I was browsing an e-book site (not like browsing in the library but still something) looking for Seneca's Letters (don't ask) when I came upon the Harvard Classics at a very attractive price. I mean, a buck or two for a five-foot shelf of books? What's not to like? All 71 volumes, all 36,500 pages, over 400 authors, curated by Charles Eliot, a noted scholar of the day and President of Harvard.

So why? When the series started in 1909, America was still an immigrant nation, and there was a great desire for upward mobility. One of the ways to achieve that was through education. Most people finished school in the eighth grade, and there was a great push on to build high schools and encourage attendance. College was for scholars, professionals (doctor/lawyer/engineer) and farmers. But education was encouraged as a life-long activity, and to be well-educated and cultured one should be familiar with the great minds of the past.

So that's why my aunt had a copy of the Harvard Classics (the fiction/literature part), which she insisted be passed on to me when she died. They're very impressive sitting there on the shelf (see picture), but I've never looked at the paper copies–they're the type of book that you don't want to read because you're afraid something bad will happen, like a cracked spine or torn page. God forbid you might want to make a note in the margin. I don't know if Aunt Mary ever read them either, but they were there as a sign of culture and education.

I suspect that in a lot of homes, the Harvard Classics sat next to a set of encyclopedias, another sign of culture and learning. Since the Harvard Classics were published by Collier's, a leading encyclopedia publisher who sold the encyclopedias door to door, I wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't the way the Classics were sold also.

The days of scholars being able to establish a canon of common works we all should know are long gone. The last gasp was E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, published in 1987. The book was met with a storm of criticism saying that the whole concept of cultural literacy excluded non-European, non-white, non-male voices, and gave precedence to DWEEMS, or dead white educated European males. Some people didn't question the idea of a common knowledge, but did have questions about what Hirsch saw as cultural touchstones (some baseball references but few if any football references). There are people who still push for a common or core curriculum, but their voices are muted and the debate has moved into academic circles.

Anyway, back to the humbling. When I skimmed the table of contents, I realized that, for all my reading and learning, there were a lot (42) of authors I hadn't read (I counted only authors where I had read nothing at all, but books not in the HC {for example, I have read Henry James, just not Portrait of a Lady]), and others I had never heard of (24). So I am not educated, or even particularly culturally literate, according to the HC.

So now what? Do I start frantically rushing through the HC, focusing on all the people I haven't read, or just accept that I am a boor? How did this happen?

I started looking at my reading life. Most of the books I read, especially on my own, were American and British fiction post Civil War, and that was my area of concentration in college. Obviously most of what I read could not be in a book series published in 1909, with a great emphasis on the classic-classics of Greek and Roman philosophy. A lot of my reading has tended toward the contemporary, that is, the authors aren't dead yet, and includes categories like motivation and creativity, not represented in the HC. And if you're going contemporary, you have to contend with over 80,000 books published in the United States alone last year, another reading goal I'm not going to reach. So I'm going to dip into the classics as I feel inclined, or need to find out some information (remember Seneca?). Mostly, I'll carry on plowing through the books to read stack, and adding to it as needed. So still staying the course.

If you'll excuse me, I have to go to the library to pick up a book that I put a hold on before the lockdown. The library is a little bit open, which I guess is good news. The book is an entertainment and will never be in a revised or updated Harvard Classics, or on any list, except maybe a best-seller list.

Don't judge me!

Speaking of Libraries

I went to the library to pick up a hold I placed before the COVID Carnival began. So the good news is the libraries are sort of open (the lobbies). It's a start, but the gatekeeper librarians are out in force.

Also, please update the number 17 in the wanna-read stack reference above to 18.       top


Why we tell stories.

Fred the Flower

Hard to believe Fred's been around for nearly ten years.

Fred espouses openness..

Fortnightly T-Shirts

Sometimes it's a mug, sometimes a meme, sometimes it's funny. But the price is always right.

T-shirts you just can't buy.


Poetry Corner

Saturday Morning Poem

Number 20 in the series.


My aura

Normally bright and strong

Is crushed

By the weight

Of the world

And blankets.

I must wait

For restoration

Before I rise.



A poem from my teaching days.


Isn’t it curious
That we use fatigue
To describe tired to overwhelmed
To the bone, to distraction
Beyond sleep, beyond thinking,
As well as soldiers’ garb,
No matter how they feel?
I need clothes
That announce my state of mind.
Fatigues are a good start,
For the many tireds I feel,
Adding caps and gowns, overalls
And clown shoes
Down the road.
I will need a larger closet
To hold my many moods.



allergy season.


Big Think has some thought-provoking articles.

New comic I'm following: Eric Scott's 1 and done.

My brother-in-law Harvey's academic-politics cartoon: SNAF-U

My sister Mary Pat's blog: LaBrea Rambles.

Suzanne's blog: The Tabard Inn.

Austin Kleon's blog.

More quirky cartoons at The Oatmeal.

Last Week


June 27, a week later than June 21. Noted for nothing more than being a week before July 4. June has been interesting (which is the shorthand way of saying Not at all interesting or fun. It was so sloooow until Father's Day, and suddenly it's a week later.

By the bye, this post is going to do nothing to enhance the fame of June 27.

And, in light of the holiday, and the fact that the July 1 subpost is appeared so late, I am giving myself a microvacation. The next post will appear on July 9.

The Conspiracy Theorist

One of the things I've noticed about a lot of politicians, especially on the right, it seems, is that they accuse their opponents of the very thing they themselves are doing, or will do. Often, the claims are a distraction from a larger issue.

There are lots of targets. George Floyd was an actor was one. That's the base for The Conspiracy Theorist's new claim: All the various maskless Karens showing up in stores and various other venues demanding service or to buy something even though they're breaking store and probably city and state regulations and rules by not wearing masks are all professional actors who were hired to impersonate people of privilege and allowed to go way over the top in demonstrating their acting skills. Meanwhile, distracting from the important matters at hand, like health and justice. It puts the Conspiracy Theorist in mind of the summer 2016 evil clown sightings, which was either performance art, diluted flash mobs, or out-of-work re-enactors.       top

Thinking, Scheduling, Adjusting

We're three and a half months into the whole shelter work-from-home social distancing thing started by COVID-19. I've read reports of higher incidences of mental health issues, and not just among people. I've seen stories about preparing your dog for when you return to work (cats, of course, are wondering what's taking so long to get the interlopers out of their houses.). And a lot of people, especially creatives, have dropped the ball in keeping up grand plans for production they announced when the lockdown first started. There's lots of reasons, not the least of which I'm sure are people not being able to function without an externally imposed routine, but I think it's also lots of people, like with New Year's resolutions, trying to do too much without an underlying structure or preparation.

Well, a couple of people have offered a fix, basically saying work shorter. Dean Kessick, in The New York Times Magazine describes The Pomodoro Technique. Basically, the inventor proposes breaking your day into 30-minute segments. Twenty-five minutes are for work, five minutes for decompression, mind-shifting, or going to the bathroom. The trick is to keep going once you start, and stop at the end of the appointed time. Kessick says we spend too much time working on things in large blocks, with diminishing returns. An unquestioned assumption in our culture holds that the more hours spent on work — whether a passion project or office drudgery — the better we’ll perform and the more successful and happier we’ll be. How often have you stayed on a project long after the creative juices have dried up, but keep working anyway.

I'm sure the time could be changed (I noticed that the time is half of a typical college class, or a psychiatrist's session, with a ten minute break) but the important thing is to take a break in there.

The second method comes from Arianna Huffington, and is called microsteps. The technique is designed to reduce stress, and promotes changing our harmful habits by starting small. Very small. B.J. Fogg suggests making the minimum viable effort. And that's what a microstep is–a block of time as small as sixty seconds in which you do something. Huffington has a number of microsteps to consider, leading to better sleep, better nutrition, more focus, exposure to new sights to promote creativity, declaring an end to the day, practicing gratitude. The real trick is to commit to doing the thing once a day for 32 consecutive days.

Huffington also promotes keeping a gratitude journal. Five minutes a day, write what (or who) you're grateful for. Also a stress reliever.

And if you've thought journaling was a good idea, but could never follow through on it, there's a Daily Stoic Journal. Stoicism, for those of us who slept through that particular class in Greek philosophy, teaches how to live happily by embracing now, and what we can do. We can't control external events, but we can control our minds. Marcus Aurelius used to end his day with summary writing in his journal. The Daily Stoic Journal starts and ends a day with writing, and keeps with the theme of short. Sample journal entries average around 60-80 words, or one side of a 4 by 6 index card. If you need prompts, there's a version of the journal available, or you can just grab quotations or thoughts from wherever. Just another way of shaping one's life.      top

Earworm Redux.

All my life, at least as far back as I remember, I've had earworms–little snippets of songs lodged in my brain. I noticed recently, however, that they've vacated for long stretches. There is no musical accompaniment to my life. The good news is that it makes it easier to meditate, particularly step 3. That's not enough profit to make up for the loss of music. This lack would be more worrisome if it was a sign of COVID-19, but that seems to involve a loss of smell, not auditory stuff.

This morning, I had an earworm when I woke up–Creedence Clearwater Revival's Lookin' Out My Backdoor. I have no idea why–there were no prompts from ads or radio or anything. I do know that CCR sure knew how to write a hook. As it played, I thought, I could use that as the base for a poem. so off to the backdoor I went and thought, The first two lines of my poem will be about how dirty the window glass and screen (which made me think about the courtroom scene in My Cousin Vinny, second witness). Ah, let me open the door, at least. No, that doesn't help.

As I looked out on the usual scene (trees, grass, flowers, lawn chairs, fence, fragmites) I wondered if John Fogarty had opened his backdoor to look out. But try as I might, I could not remember what the song was about, what the lyrics were, and even if he says if the door was open or closed. We know the status of the front door, It was one of those fuzzy lyric songs popular in the 60's, not as bad as Louie, Louie, but up there. So closing the backdoor, it was off to the computer to look up the lyrics. And here they are:

Lookin' Out My Backdoor


Just got home from Illinois, lock the front door, oh boy!

Got to sit down, take a rest on the porch.

Imagination sets in, pretty soon I’m singin’,


Doo, doo, doo, Lookin’ out my back door.

There’s a giant doing cartwheels, a statue wearin’ high heels.

Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn.

A dinosaur Victrola list’ning to Buck Owens.


Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band.

Wont you take a ride on the flyin’ spoon?

Doo, doo doo.

Wondrous apparition provided by magician.


Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band.

Wont you take a ride on the flyin’ spoon?

Doo, doo doo.

Bother me tomorrow, today, Ill buy no sorrows.


Forward troubles Illinois, lock the front door, oh boy!

Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn.

Bother me tomorrow, today, Ill buy no sorrows.


Well, then. My first thought was Drugs, but I never heard any controversy like there was for Puff the Magic Dragon being about marijuana. Maybe it was just the times. There was little controversy about the more contemporaneous White Rabbit and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds after the groups explained they were about Alice in Wonderland and a girl named Lucy, even though they both had mystical music and ambiguous lyrics. Everybody chuckled and moved on with their lives.

Actually, Lookin' Out My Backdoor reminded me a lot more of Lewis Carroll. L.S.D. was trying for a mystical headspace, and is not a little pretentious. Backdoor is just wacky fun suitable for children. Fogarty claimed it was for a three-year-old nephew, which I believe. If it was drug-fueled, I wonder if I can get a prescription for whatever it is he took.

But to get back to the original question. Now that I have the oyrics, I'm trying to figure out how he's lookin' out the back door and sitting on the porch. Most curious.

Thanks for reading along. It was a lot more fun than meditating.      top

TomatoPlanet!! is a random collection of writing, cartoons, and things that strike my fancy. © 2003-2020, John McCarthy

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