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dear carol 2
There was a moment in my life I was unemployed. I received unemployment checks for some weeks before I was handed a job interview with The Carolina Peacemaker, the black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, N.C. The fact that I was white seemed to make no difference. Neither did the fact I had no journalism experience at all.

Initially, the paper was looking for a photojournalist — actually, they just needed someone who could process film. When they hired me, they asked if I could write, too, and within a few months, I was “news director,” a title that sounds a whole lot more impressive than the reality. Reality was a staff of me and one other writer, a secretary, a typist, an ad salesman and Mike Feeney, a cynical Irishman and washed-out New York Times reporter who came in once a week to lay the paper out. He spent his spare time in his office drinking bad coffee and filling out the Times crossword puzzle in ink, without ever needing to use any of the “down” clues. It was like filling in an application blank. His desk was piled with ancient moldy paper coffee cups, with dehydrated grounds in the bottom, along with crushed out cigarettes. There must have been a hundred of them. I don’t know why he chose not to throw them out.

When Feeney quit, I became “managing editor,” although all that meant was that I had more work. I edited all the copy, wrote all the headlines, laid out the paper each week, developed all the photographs, sized them and sent the works out to the printer.

I also wrote many of the stories, and all of the editorials. It may seem strange that a white guy should be writing editorials telling the black population of Greensboro who to vote for, but I have to say that I never felt the slightest sense of resentment or mistrust. The paper never hid the fact that I was not African-American, and I had excellent relations with everyone I met in the black community.

But it wasn’t only editorials and news stories. A few years after I got there, the woman who wrote the advice to the lovelorn column retired, and I inherited the “Dear Carol” spot. I also became the “Kitchen Magician,” and wrote a weekly cooking column.

I have to say I had fun with Dear Carol. I created a distinct personality for her: She was a militant black feminist. I knew her entire biography, where she was born, who her father and mother were, where she went to school — the whole nine yards. I didn’t need to invent her: She was there, inside me waiting to get out.

But the most amazing part of the “Dear Carol” column was that I didn’t only have to write the answers to the letters, I had to write the letters, also.

Week after week, I concocted letters with some of the oddest and most peculiar personal problems I could think of. I had a ball.

Here are a few of them:

LOUD TIES

Dear Carol,

There is this really cute guy in the office where I work. He is a salesman and I am a secretary. But though he is friendly, and I think we could really get together, I worry about him because he wears the most disgustingly loud ties. And his socks never match. In fact, I don’t see how he can be the successful salesman he is when he shows such miserable taste in his clothes.

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but a book doesn’t choose its cover. This guy chooses his gold lame neckties.

Should I try to become used to his clothes, or should I forget about him and look for someone else?

— My Clothes Match

Dear My,

Why aren’t you a saleswoman? You have more class than this dodo that’s pulling in the loot, but you type his ungrammatical letters.

There are three ways to be about clothes. One is to be oblivious. Many people just don’t care what they look like. Clothes just aren’t important. If they keep one from being arrested or from catching pneumonia, that’s enough.

Another whole group of people love clothes and they love the way they look in the latest fashions. They know how to dress and they do it. You can see them not only on the neon disco floor, but even in church on Sunday mornings. These people just look classy.

Then there is our salesman. He apparently wants to dress well, but doesn’t know the first thing about style. He should just relapse to the first phase and not care about his clothes. When he tries to look good, he becomes a joke. Plainness is better than gaud.

The choice is yours. Do you want a turkey who looks like a Reynolds Wrap mummy, or do you want some other turkey?

If I were you, I would just bide my time and not worry about men. When you find the right kind of man, it will be soon enough. In the meantime, you just don’t need one.

ON THE MAKE

Dear Carol,

I am a salesman for a small business and my boss is a woman. I can get along with a woman boss just fine, that doesn’t bother me. In fact, she’s real good at what she does. But she has made advances to me that are more than suggestive. They are downright rough. If she had her way, the janitor’s closet in our building would be a mighty busy place.

But she is not my type, and besides, I’m married. My wife is a quiet sort who hasn’t been around much.

My boss has been a round a lot. Especially around my desk, chasing me. Will I have to quit my job?

–Chased, so far

Dear Chased,

Don’t quit  good job merely for personality problems. If you enjoy your career and you are making a good living, don’t blow it just because of one lecherous boss. If she is really good at her job, she will be promoted or will change companies as she rises in management. Then your problems will be gone. Until then, realize that her attentions are only a nuisance. Let her know that you are satisfied in your marriage and tell her she is bothering you.

And when you make it into a management position, remember your lesson and don’t bother the women you supervise. It’s a two-way street. I know.

NOT SINCE HIGH SCHOOL?

Dear Carol,

Boy, do I ever have a problem.

I am getting married next month to the man I’ve been engaged to for two years. We have a good relationship and I love him a whole lot.

We have always had a good sex life and we enjoy each other a lot. But I am pregnant. (That’s no problem since we both want a lot of kids).

But the problem is that several months ago, I decided that if I was going to be married, I should get out and have a last fling. Things got a little out of hand and I made it with 16 different guys in a week period. It was during that time I got pregnant. Now, I don’t know if the baby will be my fiance’s or not.

So far, the notorious week has been a secret, though I don’t know how. I haven’t done anything like that since high school. But should I tell my man or not?

I just don’t know what got into me.

— Monogamous

Dear Monog,

First of all, don’t ever say a thing about it. You will only cause pain for the one you love. It is spilt milk, so forget it.

Second, don’t ever let it happen again. If you’ve been with this guy for two years and having “a good sex life,” you are as good as living together and in my book, that is the same as marriage. And marriage requires trust. If you aim to make it safely through the many years you have left, you will have to give some reason for your hubby to trust you.

Of course, the same thing goes for him. I don’t want to leave the men off the hook.

They probably need to listen to this advice more than most women.

With a child on the way and a marriage upcoming, you will need a whole lot more maturity than you showed several months ago. You will have to be more circumspect as a mother.

But what in the world did you do in high school?

THE RAT COMES HOME

Dear Carol,

I am in a rage. The man I have been seeing for five years is seeing another woman. My man is married and his wife never knew about us. We kept a good secret, but now I find my man has been keeping a secret from me, too.

I got so mad that I told his wife about his affair with the third woman, but I still haven’t told her about us. His wife threw him out of the house for playing around with the other woman and the rat has come to me asking for a place to stay. The whole thing is a mess.

Well, I just want to say that for the first time ever, I understand the wife’s point of view. It hurts. But should I keep the rat, or let him drown?

— Tables Turned

Dear Turned,

You should have learned your lesson by now. The rat won’t drown, he’ll just ask a fourth or fifth girlfriend for a place to stay. He may have already. Did it ever occur to you that he may have been turned out by other girlfriends before he even asked you? Forget him. And clean up your own act.

A STINKER

Dear Carol,

My wife embarrasses me every time we go out. She has a nasty habit of smoking cigars. She likes those imported Italian cigars that are triple-dipped in asphalt and she smokes one with a cup of coffee after dinner. That is not so bad at home, but she does it when we are visiting friends and relatives.

My mother never liked my wife, and now this only seems to confirm, for my mother, the nasty things she has thought all along. But aside from the cigars, my wife is wonderful. I love her very much and don’t want to lose her. What can I do?

— Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Dear Smokey,

Cigar smoking is unusual in a woman. I dislike all smoking and try to convince everybody to stop. I’d try to convince your wife to stop, too, but I doubt it would work. Best thing is for you to do is talk it over with her. Compromise and let her smoke among certain friends that are used to her, and ask her to forego the stinkers when you visit relatives, especially the worried mother. I know how that can be.

Just remember that several great women smoked cigars, though I doubt George Sand smoked those Italian jobs.

PAINT PAINS

Dear Carol,

My son is in college now, studying art. For Christmas last year, he gave us a huge painting to put over the couch. This canvas in the frame is at least six feet long. But Carol, the painting is terrible! It is six feet of modern abstraction, all bright blue, red and green. It looks like a wreck between a paint truck and a ketchup factory. It has been hanging up there since Christmas and I can’t take it anymore.

I thought that after a few months I could get used to it, but I don’t think several decades would help. I don’t want to hurt my son’s feelings, but I can’t stand the pain in my eyeballs anymore.

What can I do?

–No Whistler’s Mother

Dear No,

I sympathize with you. I once received a hall clock that was a statue of a naked lady with a clock in her belly. It was too big to put in my hall and so I finally put it in a large dumpster.

But your problem is that it is your son who gave you the painting and the only way to handle the problem tactfully is to ask him to paint you a new one. If you flatter him into painting a new one, then it can take the place of the old one. Give yourself several months to get used to whatever he paints. Give the old one to his father and let him worry about where it might fit in his workshop.

HER MAN IS A PICKY EATER

Dear Carol,

My boyfriend is such a picky eater. He won’t touch most anything that normal people eat.

He eats peanutbutter and marshmallow sandwiches and mashed potatoes stirred up with mustard, but practically nothing else.

His mother always let him get away with being picky when he grew up, and now I think he’ll never change.

One the other hand, I enjoy good foods. I go crazy in a Japanese restaurant or around a food processor. I love nice cookware and I own a beautiful set of carbon steel chef knives.

Well, my boyfriend and I are thinking about getting married, and I wonder if our eating habits will cause any trouble. Do you think I have something to worry about?

–Gourmet

Dear Gourmet,

It might cause a problem at first, but as the years go on and on and you fall into a common marriage pattern, you won’t be eating together anyway, so it will make no difference.

You will wind up eating salads or soup alone and hubby will come home late and fix a P-butter and Marshmallow sandwich and sit down in front of the tube.

Mothers — When your children are young, make them eat at least a bit of everything that you serve. If a kid hates mashed rutabaga, make her eat one spoonful every time you make it. In a few years, rutabaga will be among her favorite vegetables.

A kid can’t complain about one spoonful, and almost any food problem can eventually be overcome this way. Start early with your children and they will lead fuller, happier lives.

I know. My mom made me eat rutabaga.Dear Carol 1

I CHEATED, BUT NOW MY WIFE WANTS A TRIAD!

Dear Carol:

I’ve been married for ten years and have no children (by choice) and I have always gotten along with my wife. In those ten years we have never had a fight.

But as I hit my 35th birthday, I began to wonder where my life was going and I began to be afraid that I would be caught in a dull life. So when the opportunity arose to cheat on my wife, I took it.

The other woman was a waitress with huge beautiful brown eyes and a pair of legs that belongs in the Guinness Book of Records. But she was only 19 years old.

Now I knew that a lot of men go through what I did and I know a lot of wives find out about it, like mine did. But most wives either ask for a divorce, or make the big effort to forgive. My wife has a different idea. She wants all three of us to live together.

She went to the restaurant to talk to the other woman and they liked each other. My wife told her that even though she was jealous, she would control it and that she would like to find out what I would do if we all lived together.

What I’m doing is panicking.

Now a lot of guys would get real excited about living with two women and I agree it has its points, but what most men don’t consider is what it would be like to have two women telling him to take out the garbage; two women telling him to mow the lawn; two mothers-in-law.

If I had my choice, I would just go back to my wife and things would like they always were. My life is no longer dull, but I don’t think I can manage this a trois.

–Off The Pace

Dear Off,

Now you know what life is like in the fast lane and you are coughing exhaust fumes.

I think your wife is trying to teach you a lesson and it sounds like it’s a lesson you’ll never forget. Now you know the grass on the other side of the fence will only get you in trouble.

Pardon me while I gloat.

I’m sure that if you explain to your wife how you feel and if you promise to be a good boy and not do it again, she will let you off the hook. Personally, I marvel at the ingenuity of your wife. She must know just how to make you suffer.

Dear Carol,

I lost a part of my thumb in a mill accident several years ago. That is not a problem by itself, but I love bowling and my bowling ball has only two holes drilled into it.

Many years ago, a lot of people had ball with only two holes, but most of the buys in my league don’t remember that and they make fun of my bowling ball.

I know I’m being touchy about it, but they make the same jokes all the time and it gets on my nerves. “Hey, thumbs up, Bill,” they yell at me across the lanes. Last Christmas the guys on my team took up a collection and bought me another hole for my ball.

Am I being too sensitive?

–Spare me

Dear Spare,

Repetitious jokes can get on anyone’s nerves. What you need to do is talk to your team next time you bowl and tell them how you feel.

Don’t make a big thing of it, just say quietly, “I know you fellows mean well, but I’m sensitive about this matter and I wish you wouldn’t make jokes any more about my ball or my thumb.” That’s all there is to it. Most people are mean only for thoughtlessness. If they know the score, they will go ten frames for you.

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Four seasons may seem like enough. Maybe for a resort hotel. It is the conventional way to divvy  up the annual circumambulation of the sun. But four is an arbitrary number. In some places, two seasons are all there is, rainy season and dry season, or in Arizona: unbearable heat, and respite from unbearable heat.

And even in those climes where the traditional four account for our calendar, there are really any number of discernible seasons: Indian summer, midwinter spring, mud season. In Maine, there’s black fly season; there’s tourist season at the Jersey shore. Many places have their annual infestations.

Some of the most interesting moments of the annual cycle are those that fall between the seasons, those moments that are neither quite winter nor quite spring, or neither summer nor fall.

Of these, my favorite has always been that slip in time between autumn and the harder breath of winter — when the color has passed from the cheeks of the trees but not all the leaves have dropped to gather in soft, brittle piles on the ground.

It was like that near the end of October at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of Boston. The Canada geese were flying south in droves across the crisp sky, the alders at water’s edge were naked except for the tiny seed cone at the tip of each branch. The pond water was beginning to chill, but not so much that the fish lost their will to bite the hook.

Walden Pond is a small kettle pond, left in place just south of Concord by the glaciers that covered the land 10,000 years ago. It is essentially a dimple left in the ground by the weight of the ice. When the ice melted, the water remained in the depression.

Around the pond, the land rises up in places something like 20 feet above the water level in formations the geologists call ”eskers,” which are the loose junk left behind by the ice. The twin tracks of the railroad run along the back side of the pond.

On the October morning, before the sun arises, the temperature is in the low 40s and desert-dry. You can see the light catch in the tops of the trees along the heights of the eskers and slowly descend into the water as the morning progresses. walden pond aerial view

Walden is an oblong stretch of lake, with one shallow bubble along its northeastern side. A bit of the lake is cordoned off by a footpath causeway, leaving a shallow lagoon trapped in the backwater.

Most of the trees’ leaves have dropped, leaving only the maroon of the red maple and the bright tan of the beech tree still hanging. A huge number of the leaves have collected on the surface of the lagoon, making it look as if it were paved in tree droppings.

On the water, about 50 yards out, I can see four ducks buzzing along, with their necks held flat on the water and their faces half-submerged as they wiggled their heads back and forth, gleaning a meal from the detritus of the pond. As they swam this way and that, moving like feathered zambonis, each left a wake behind it cleared of leaves.

Immediately, what had seemed a randomly mottled pond surface of tree-junk took on order and meaning as the old ”contrails” remained, leaving the water scratched with a history of duck dinners. Their names may have been ”writ in water,” as Keats had it, but those signatures had persistence.

I crouched down at the mucky edge of the water and waited. Patience pays off. The ducks slowly swam my way. Twenty minutes later, they were so close I could have stroked their slick, waterproof feathers. One started and flew off, leaving two females and a single male mallard. They scooted in circles, clapping their bills through the jetsam. One of the females came up to the water’s edge where I knelt down and began poking her beak into the mud. She found something to eat and continued.

A small boy approached on the path, calling back to his mother. I looked at him, put my finger to my lips to hush him and pointed at the birds. He looked briefly and walked right past. I wondered what he could have been racing to find that wasn’t right here: three ducks in arm’s reach.

It was early on a Sunday morning and the path around Walden Pond had perhaps 10 hikers on it. It is about a mile and a half to circumambulate the pond, so it never seemed crowded.

In addition, there were a dozen or so fishermen standing at the western and southern ends of the pond with their poles anchored in the sand and bobbing weights hanging like goiters from the poles.

”What do you catch?” I asked one.

”Trout. Rainbows and brookies,” he said in that dodgy Boston accent. ”This is our second time out this year” — said as “yee-ah” — “and we haven’t caught anything yet. There’s a fellow down the way there who pulled in a couple of them this morning.”

When I got to him, he had them strung on a line and submerged back in the water about three feet out. Each was about a foot long, one was speckled.

”Mighty good eating,” was all he said.

By the time I made it all the way around the pond, the sun was up and the temperature had climbed into the upper 50s. The light gleamed on the bark of the tree trunks and glared on the remaining leaves.

A century and a half ago, when Walden Pond first became known to a wider public, it was a quiet place, a few miles outside of town, where only the muskrats and crows came for recreation.

The silence was shattered only momentarily when the train to Fitchburg came through. Nowadays, a road passes right by the pond, and a divided highway sits only a quarter-mile away.

The sound as you walk across the far shore of the pond is a constant but subdued roar of whizzing cars, mixed with an occasional jet airplane and the same railroad commotion.

Oddly, though, as you walk around to the edge of the pond nearest the highway, its noise becomes blocked by the esker and the pond seems quiet once more.

Journalism is a funny profession, because its readers read about what happened yesterday and its reporters are writing what will be published tomorrow. It has little use for today.

But a day as distinct as this one on Walden Pond, in the cusp between the seasons, speaks only of the deliberate now, the specific and incandescent moment, as thin and sensuous as the membrane of the water’s surface as you stick your arm through it to pick a pebble from the pond’s bottom.

Egerton 737  f.1

The writer was asked to speak to a creative writing class about what he does. He feels uncomfortable, because he does not much think about what he does; instead, he does it. For more than three decades, he’s been doing it.

But, because he was asked so nicely by the teacher of the class, he agreed to try to explain what he does. 

So, he gets up in front of the class of college-age students, each of whom probably intends to be the next Hemingway, or maybe the next Perez Hilton: It’s hard to know nowadays. 

He speaks:

I was flattered to be asked to speak to you, but I’m not really sure why you asked me, because I really don’t think that I am a very good writer. I am certainly a writer; I get paid for it. But, I’m certainly not a normal writer. I can name a dozen people at my newspaper, for instance, that I admire for being able to accept an assignment, do all the research and distill it into a readable and entertaining article.

I can’t do that, or at least not very well.

On the other hand, I must admit, I don’t find myself reading those stories all that often. I’m simply not that interested in what this week’s celebrity has to say about the vegan diet, or why red suspenders are making a comeback in men’s haberdashery. I’m proud to be a journalist, but I’m not really a journalist.

That could be said for a lot of people these days, especially those writing blogs online. Have you tried reading most of that stuff? It’s like trying to eat an old mattress. Indigestible, self-serving, and just outright bad writing. I don’t really care whether you like boiled eggs or not, and why do you think I care?

But in preparation for coming here, I did some thinking about what makes good writing. Or at least, what makes the kind of writing I want to read and the kind I attempt to do.

And the bottom line is this: What makes good writing is having something to say.

The world is full of “hired guns,” who can turn out PR with the surface lubricity of an eel. The world of journalism is full of such writing: Reporters gather their information, marshal it into rank and file and parade it past the reader in perfect order.

Such writing is found by the car load in the bottoms of parakeet cages.

And blogging has turned instead into public journal keeping, as if we needed to know your every movement. There are some great blogs out there (my favorite is “Think Denk” by pianist Jeremy Denk, who is about the best music writer out there. It is often comic, but it has substance, too. He says real things about the music). But the majority of blog writing is a waste of server space.

Writing that matters — and I cannot see why one would want to write otherwise — writing that matters happens when the writer has something to say, something he cares about, something he knows about.

And I don’t mean, knows about in the sense of having learned a few facts, but I mean knows about, the way you know how to ride a bicycle or the way you know how it feels when you’ve dug a garden: The feeling in the bone, under the muscle. That is knowledge. The population of the Detroit metro area is mere fact. The experience of living in Detroit is knowledge.

And then you must have the missionary zeal to want to broadcast this knowledge.

This needn’t be a soapbox that I’m talking about. Novelists of worth burn to tell us what it feels like to be alive.

But without the need to say something, you have journalism, you have blog-blather.

This is a problem not only in writing. I am an art critic by trade and I see it constantly in galleries: Someone has decided for whatever misguided reason that he or she wants to be an artist. So he learns how to make a painting and creates an art that looks just like art, feels just like art, but isn’t art, it is only the imitation of the way art looks.

The drive in such cases is not to say something but to be recognized as an artist, to be acknowledged as being a member of a certain job description. It is a bureaucratic ambition.

A child in the first grade, for instance, has no interest in being the next Picasso. The fame of art, the sex, the openings, the white wine — these simply aren’t why he makes art.

No, he has been given a bunny rabbit to hold and his eyes light up. The rabbit “kisses” his nose, he feels the fur under his fingers and he simply bursts with the need to express what he has experienced. You put paper and paint in front of him and he will find his “adequate means of expression.”

That phrase, from art education pioneer Viktor Lowenfeld, describes for me what good writing is.

Viktor Lowenfeld

Viktor Lowenfeld

You are burning to say something and you will find the best way possible to say it: its adequate means of expression.

The contrast is the writer who churns out news stories or magazine articles not because he has something to say, but because he thinks it would be neat to make a career out of being a writer.

That’s not to deny there can be a certain romance about being a writer. The exotic myth of downing gin with Hemingway or having sex with the jeunes filles of Paris with Henry Miller. “I admire such and such a person, so I want to be like him. He writes, so it must be cool.”

But Hemingway or Miller were not journalists. They wrote because they had something they were burning to say.

There is a related problem, which is the belief that writing is  somehow different from thinking, that writing is the clothing of thought. It is not, it is the thought itself.

Writing isn’t something applied to a subject, like peanut butter on a slice of bread. It is not how you express thinking: It is thinking.

One cannot think through a subject, come to a conclusion and then say, “Well, now, I guess I’ll write it down.”

No, the writing is how you find out what you think; it is how you come to a conclusion. It is also why you rewrite. If you don’t rewrite, you haven’t done your job: You always write and rewrite, think and rethink.

And again, style is not a fancy evening dress with sequins you put on before going to the dance: Style is that adequate means of expression and it flows naturally from your personality and your way of thinking.

Style is the sum total of your faults, is how Hemingway put it. It’s not your goal, it’s an accident you cannot prevent.

But today, more and more people, the result of years of reality TV and fashion magazines, believe style is the reason you’re in the business to begin with.

It is not. Style is the death of art, it is the death of writing.

You must be as direct as you can be, without distorting what you need to say.

If what you need to say is baroque, the style will naturally be baroque, also. If what you have to say is sophomoric, the style will follow suit.

There are things to look out for and chief among them is formula:

Journalism is full of formulas and many writers use nothing but. But good writing is always done fresh, from the ground up, each time. When you start doing formulas is when you know you are burned out and need a career change.

Each subject must generate its own form; it suggests what is important, what should be left out. There are writers who complain that  this is reinventing the wheel and my only answer is that it is vitally important that we do reinvent the wheel.

It is only when I invent the wheel for myself, and not borrow someone else’s wheel, that I understand the wheel.

To the extent that you use someone else’s words, or someone else’s form, to that extent, you don’t know what you are talking about.

And finally, I must say something about that old writers’ canard: Write what you know. I recall some great writer — I think it was John Updike — saying on the contrary: Write what you don’t know.

My synthesis of the two dicta is this: Write what you know about, but always on the level of what you don’t know. In other words: I write about art because I know something about art. But I try to write about art I don’t yet understand. Through writing about it, I come to understand it.

One should always work at the limits of your ability, at the edge of your knowledge. Writing only what you are thoroughly familiar with will make for academic writing. Writing only what you know nothing about at all will lead to saying really dumb things.

But take what you already know best and seek out the far corners of that universe and explore.

Then you will really have something to say.