Friday, January 30, 2015

A Rule To Live By?

I'm currently teaching a novel, The Bird Artist by Howard Norman, where one way that he establishes the "family dynamic" of father, mother, and son is to associate each character with a particular sort of mantra, a kind of go-to saying that seems to get repeated, often at key times in the book.

Here they are:

The Son:  "Every breeze may messenger a storm."

The Mother:  "Get on with it, then."

The Father:  "Well, it's no matter to die for now, is it."

Ponder those just for a moment.  And if I may, I suggest a kind of fatalistic outlook for the son, a general resignation for the mother, and, for the father, either a path-of-least-resistance approach to life or a belief that things could be much worse than they are.

You may read them differently, may read the novel differently than I do.  No matter.  That isn't the point.  Inside the book, one obvious point might be that these three perspectives are likely to clash with one another, to lead characters to make vastly different choices, even in the smallest of circumstances.

But even that isn't my point.  I'm wondering, as a way of drawing you in, if you haven't already left, if you yourself have any kind of terse statement that effectively represents your basic outlook on life.

Here's mine:  "Forewarned is forearmed."  From the Latin saying 'praemonitus, praemunitus'.  From Robert Greene's A Notable Discovery of Coosnage (a.k.a. The Art of Conny-catching), 1592: "forewarned, forearmed: burnt children dread the fire." (Both according to

I'm not quite sure when I latched on to that one, but I use it all the time, especially in a teaching setting.  It serves, more often than I'd like, as a reminder to students that I'm telling them what is coming and that they had better be prepared.  Or maybe it isn't even that strong.  Maybe "Forewarned is forearmed" only represents a choice.  If I tell you that something is going to happen, maybe even something as mundane as a quiz, then I have given you a very clear choice as to how to proceed.  Success' best chance is to make preparations.  Doing nothing will leave you defenseless, or scrambling for some help at the last second.

It's an unforgiving outlook.  If I say it to myself, the tone is likely disgust and self-disappointment because the opportunity was there.  If I believe it in a political context, then I have almost no pity for the politician who knew this was coming and could have easily done something about it.  Or, even if not so easily, had time to do the difficult work necessary to rebuff the assault, whatever it might have been.

For me, I think it's no surprise that my rule to live by has military origins.  With a father who was only 12 years out of WWII when I was born, and a grandfather who served in WWI, a great uncle was also in WWII (and brought back "souvenirs") and an uncle who served in Vietnam, my first 12 formative years got a heavy dose of war as both past reality and metaphor for life.

For the characters in The Bird Artist, the fact that they live in a small, isolated town in Newfoundland around the turn of the 20th century most certainly impacts their outlook.  For the boy, the severe weather is the harbinger of bad things.  If the mother is less than excited about her circumstances and the father sees little of import happening around him, well, then "get on with it" and "it's nothing to die for" make perfect sense.

What I wonder, and what I'll be asking my students, even in a matter of minutes, is whether or not they can center on those focusing statements in their own lives, or is it too early for them, or have they not been forced to consider?  Perhaps a particular Bible verse or the line from a song speaks to them in the same way.

I kind of hope so.  I find it very helpful to have that one idea in the back of my mind most of the time, especially since it doesn't leave a whole lot of wiggle room.  Either you pay attention to the signs of whatever is going on around you or you don't.  And then the consequences follow.  Forewarned is forearmed.


troutking said...

Elvis Costello: "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused."

Abraham Lincoln: "A man is about has happy as he makes up his mind to be."

Bobby D: "He that ain't busy bein' born is busy dyin'."

Sounds like an interesting book.

Billy said...

To myself: "All things in moderation."

To my children: "We're talkin' 'bout practice!" (or variants)

To Bob: "You got a minute?"

Good post. I realize it's not too late to find better mantras.

Anonymous said...

how bout…….

listening to NPR drinking PBR.