Distortions and Obfuscations in Discourse

Recently, I have been struggling with arguments in print, on the internet, in podcasts, and on news programs that fail to provide meaningful support or refutation but, instead — for me, anyway — only appear to distort and obfuscate. In many cases these strategies appear to be used with the authentic belief that they are effective and convincing. Other times, I think they are deliberately used as sleight-of-hand trickery to distract from whatever real issue is being debated. As I find these strategies unconvincing in others, I want to be aware of them for myself, to identify and avoid them whenever possible.

As this list is a work in progress, I expect to think further about it and revise it based on future observations and experiences.

Comparison Strategies

These strategies compare some value between the disagreeing parties that is alternately framed as the measure of effectiveness rather than the actual issue under debate.

Certainty > Uncertainty: “I know I am right, therefore it is clear that you are wrong.”

Strident > Less strident: “If I scream louder than you, I am right and you are wrong.”

Care more > Care less: “If I care more than you, I am right and you are wrong.”

Care less > Care more: “Why do you care so much? It isn’t that big of a deal; you’re just blowing things out of proportion.”

Frequency > Infrequency: “The more I repeat my assertions, the less credibility your assertions have.” This is similar to “My insult for you = your identity.” Both use brute-force repetition to influence the limited attention/endurance of others. This strategy makes use of familiarity: a familiar concept is accepted more easily than an unfamiliar concept, so repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat until your statement is accepted as unproblematic.

Having been wronged > Everyone else: “I was a victim, therefore you have no right to question me.”

Indignation > Any other claim: “How dare you question me?” This is similar to “Having been wronged > everyone else” except with “Having been wronged,” there is either actual or perceived victimization; with “Indignation > any other claim,” there’s only offense. “I’m offended and therefore have no need to justify myself” could be another way of explaining this.

Any assertion > No assertion: “My statement is stronger than your lack of a statement.”

My moral high ground > Your moral high ground: “As I have connected my statement to moral conditions, it is better than your position which does not have the same level of moral conditions connected to it.”

My vocabulary > Your vocabulary: “I have more grandiloquence than you, therefore you are wrong.”

Consequential Strategies

Consequential Strategies move from a cause to an effect and use a since/then or because/then type of construction.

Any error = Irredeemably erroneous: “Because you were wrong once, you will always be wrong.”

Accurate Once = Always Accurate: “Because I was right once, I will always be right.”

My insult for you = Your identity: “I have called you an insulting or degrading name; I have used that name repeatedly; through repetition, I have made my name for you familiar to others so that it is no longer novel or unexpected; for all of these reasons, my insulting or degrading name for you is now your identity.” This is similar to “Frequency > Infrequency” because both strategies rely on repetition.

My disagreement with you = You are always wrong: “Because I disagree and because you have failed to agree with me, you are an irredeemable idiot whose judgment cannot be trusted on any subject.” This isn’t exactly like “Any Error = Irredeemably erroneous” because it’s not based on someone’s error but instead on the act of disagreeing.

My disagreement with you on subject A = My disagreement with you on subjects B, C, D, etc.: “Because I disagree with you on one subject, I will not agree with you on any other subject.” This is particularly distorting because it means that disagreements (including any strategy listed here) may not actually be genuine; one party may be transferring its disagreement to an entirely unrelated subject, and because the end goal is to undermine the credibility of an opponent, it may be that multiple strategies on different subjects are used to overwhelm the opponent or perceptions of the opponent.

Cthulhu Teaches Diagramming

Diagramming with Cthulhu

This week one of my students from last year stopped by my room to give me a stuffed Cthulhu. In the life of a teacher, there are very few honors greater than when a former student gifts you an elder god, especially one that is hand-stitched.

I think Cthulhu makes an excellent co-teacher, though his choice of sentences to diagram leaves something to be desired. I’ve discovered, however, that whether I teach diagramming in English or in the language of the Old Ones, the results are equally abysmal. Classroom discipline will definitely be impacted when Cthulhu turns his cute, fuzzy stare on a disrespectful or disobedient student, waves his tentacles, and drives them to madness or at least, reminds them to pay attention and stop trying to hack GoGuardian.

Some of my students have asked me why I have a stuffed frog, and even when I explain, they look at me in confusion. That’s when I realize that their brains simply can’t handle the idea of Cthulhu, and seeing a frog is a coping strategy that allows them to continue to hold on to the scraps of seventh-grade sanity still in their possession.

There are many moments during a school day when I look at a room of seventh graders, some pinballing from the walls, others comatose, some non-stop gossipy under their breath with heads leaning toward one another, others insouciant, some chewing surreptitiously on Cheetohs, others — those very few — thankfully engaged, and I ask myself that question from Talking Heads, “My God! What have I done?” Then a stuffed, green elder god arrives. And I remember what I always have known but forget when I get wrapped up in my daily life: it’s not the diagrams or the grammar or the IAR (or whatever it’s called this week) or the grades or the lesson plans or the rubrics. It’s the kids, those microcosmic elder gods of chaos and creation.

Thank you, L., for the reminder.

"The real He-Man is the Master of the Universe" Joanna Russ

The Connection between SF Author Joanna Russ and Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

In the mid-nineties, I borrowed a book of essays edited by Damon Knight titled Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction from the library at Kankakee Community College where I attended as a student and later worked as a tutor.

While reading an essay by Joanna Russ, a single line leapt from the page straight into my brain because I grew up on after-school cartoons in the eighties: “The only real He-Man is the Master of the Universe.” The capitalization was hers. The words were hers. But the product that sprang to my mind was entirely muscular and plastic and proclaimed, “By the power of Grayskull… I have the POWER!”

At the time I made a note of the quotation and wondered whether I had observed a strange coincidence or whether I had stumbled onto the kernel of an idea that later became an influential toy of the eighties.

Last month I bought a copy of Turning Points looking for a different essay, and I was reminded once again about Russ’s strangely coincidental line. With the expanding corpus of the internet over the last twenty years, I figured that the truth about the connection between Russ and the He-Man toys would be explained somewhere, whether a fan site or a wiki or an obsessive chronicler of toy minutiae. But what I discovered is that nowhere is there a connection between Joanna Russ and Mattel’s He-Man products. So, I bring it to you, readers, to refute if you can, or accept if you can’t, that someone in the 1970s took a line from an essay and used it consciously or unconsciously in the creation of a line of toy action figures with the exact same name.

According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Russ’s essay was “Originally delivered as a speech at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference, November 9, 1968.” In 1972, the speech was collected in the anthology Clarion II (edited by Robin Scott Wilson) and titled “The He-Man Ethos in Science Fiction.” In 1976 it was titled “Alien Monsters” and collected in Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction. This information matches the copyright page of Turning Points with the exception of the original speech location and date.

Thus, the essay and this sentence were clearly available before the late 1970s when Mattel began looking for a product to compete with the popular Star Wars toys created by Kenner.

The essay itself focused on masculinity in science fiction and its association with power. Russ’s focus on power itself adds another connection to the development of the action figure line because He-Man’s catch-phrase was (as I mention above): “By the power of Grayskull… I have the POWER!” And Russ’s point was that a hyper-masculine male, the Tarzan-type-of-hero who is indomitable in will and overwhelming in puissance is not human at all, but really an “alien monster.”

Any articles or documentaries that I consulted skip over the actual process of deciding the name for the product. The typical format is to focus on Mattel’s quest to create a toy line to get market-share from the then-behemoth Star Wars toys produced by Kenner, describe the original barbarian-like toy modeled by Roger Sweet, and then move straight into product design of the action figures and development of Funimation’s animated series.

The closest I can find is in the documentary The Toys that Made Us, Season 1, Episode 3.

At the 8:39 mark, Roger Sweet, who prototyped the original models for a product meeting, explains that he started with three mock-ups: a science fiction model named “Bullet Head”; another robot-styled model called “Tank Head”; the third, his barbarian action figure, he named “He-Man.” Around the 10:30 mark, Mark Ellis, a former Vice President of Boys Toys, says, “But when I was asked who was most responsible for the success of the product line, I said it was Roger Sweet because he did the preliminary design and came up with the word He-man.” But then the narrator asks Mark Taylor, the artist who brought the look of He-man to life, “That name was coined by Roger Sweet, correct?” Taylor ponders for a moment, his eyes looking up and to the left before answering, “I don’t know.”

If the term “He-Man” or “He-man” by itself was the only one used in the essay, there wouldn’t be any reason to imagine that the essay influenced the toy. After all, it had been in use to describe a “virile man” or “manly man” long before the 1970s. In fact, the use of “he” in front of a noun goes back at least to 1300 according to my copy of the OED. Instead, it’s the rest of the quote that makes the circumstances so coincidental: “the Master of the Universe.” Because after all, the product wasn’t just He-Man; it was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

It is clear to me that the product line for He-Man grew from someone somewhere at the Mattel headquarters who knew of Joanna Russ’s essay, either as an attendee at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference of 1968, or in the book Clarion II (1972) or most likely, in Turning Points (1976), since this last was published so close in chronology to the creation of the toy line. This person appropriated the sentence – whether unconsciously or on purpose – “The real He-Man is the Master of the Universe.” And from that sentence, ironically, in an essay that specifically focused on hyper-masculinity in science fiction, sprang the single-most hyper-masculine action figure ever, an alien monster named He-man who holds a magical sword and declares, “I have the POWER!”


Ruminations on Writing Parts 1 & 2

These are a pair of resurrected posts from andrewwinkel.com before it was hacked. Part 1 was originally posted on December 30, 2012. Part 2 was posted on January 8, 2013.

I am republishing them because both continue to be relevant to writing and creativity, and they introduce ideas that I continue to reference when discussing the challenges of writing with other writers (or with seventh-graders who, in general, are completely uninterested in anything I have to say).

Part 1

Back in August, a writing friend contacted me with the admission that over the last few months he had been suffering from creative paralysis. He explained, “I was mired in self-pity by lack of response and under-appreciation of what I was doing by the populous. I put the brakes on everything and climbed into the ditch.”

To me, the most telling part of this statement was the prepositional phrase, “by the populous.” My friend didn’t hate his most recent project. He wasn’t frustrated that his work wasn’t turning out the way he had originally envisioned it. It wasn’t criticism that sent him into a creative tailspin. Instead, it was the ] feeling that despite all of the energy he had poured into his writing, giving his writing to the world was tantamount to shouting as loudly as he could to a room full of people who ignored him.

On this blog in the past I have facetiously referred to this phenomenon when I addressed my readers as “both of you.” The inference is that my words, pounded on plastic and visible on pixels, will reach a net audience of two. (Note the dual meanings of net…just another example of why I deserve to have more than two readers.)

Writers write from an implicit assumption that there will be at least one reader. The author writes, and the reader reads. Otherwise writing is the tree of the proverbial forest: if you write but no one reads it, do your words make a sound?

The construction of a poem or a story or a book requires an investment of time. For Raceboy and Super Qwok Adventures, I spent as much time in the post-writing process of editing and layout as I spent on the composition process: it was truly like working a third job. I realized that even if I were to add up the total amount of time my readers spend reading my words, the sum of their time will still not be likely to exceed the amount of time I personally invested in bringing that work to life. There is not a word or term in English to identify the point where the invested time of the reader exceeds the invested time of the content creator, but it is likely that a great many works do not ever break even.

When my friend faced this unarticulated realization about his total invested time versus the total time his readers had invested reading his work, he recognized that he had worked hard for a very small — maybe even negligible — return on his investment. And that sent him into a depression.

For most of my life, I imagined a writer’s words to be chiseled in the stones of time, etched for eternity to be read, pondered, appreciated, like constellations in the sky. It’s only been over the last six years as I’ve worked at the library that I’ve realized the impermanence of a writer’s words. The books that fill the library shelves live only while they have readers. I faced an entire shelf of Frank Slaughter’s books, none of which had been checked out in the last thirty years, and finally purged them to free shelf space. Slaughter sold millions of books over his career, but that career ranged from the 1940s to the 1980s. By 2010, they were ignored, possibly irrelevant, and essentially dead.

In the January 2013 issue of Wired, Steven Levy interviewed Tim O’Reilly. When Levy asked, “What is the future of books?” O’Reilly explained, “…I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.”

O’Reilly doesn’t use the p-word, but he’s referring to our paradigms about novels when he answers the question. We expect that our assumptions about novels are eternal and unchanging much like those constellations.

But the thing is, even the constellations won’t last forever. It’s a theme that came out in a different article in the same issue of Wired on an entirely different topic. Andrew Zolli explained, “The sustainability movement has been around for four decades. I think it may have outlived its usefulness. When they tell you they want to conserve the rain forest, save the pandas, and so forth, the message is always the same: They want to maintain a beautiful little picture of stasis. But we need to recognize that stasis isn’t realistic” (pg. 22).

We are trapped in a chronological progression like beads of a pearl necklace, a progression of experienced present moments, and our expectations from one pearl to the next pearl are that the pearls are the same, have always been the same, and will always be the same. Because each pearl has been round and white, we assume that every pearl is round and white, that every necklace is made from pearls. But what is a pearl? The form of the writing may evolve, the shape of the pearl may change, could become a bead, a chain, a rope, but it will always need to have a reader.

I write for the reader who I hope someday will read my words, invest his or her time to ponder what I’ve written; I write for the someday when the sum total of the time that my readers spend reading my words adds to a greater total than the time I’ve spent writing them. I write for the possible future that I hope exists despite the likely obscurity of oblivion that is inevitable, even for the stars. In the face of entropy, I write for those moments when a reader will read my words, when a connection will take place. Andy Warhol explained, “In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” I write for that fifteen minutes, though it may already have happened, or it may never happen. I write for the unknown, unknowable listeners who hear the tree of my writing in the forest, who hear my shouts in a cacophonous room, who see my words glowing in a shape in the night-time sky.

Part 2

I noted the following in my original 2013 introduction to this post:
Since publishing Ruminations on Writing Part 1, I have torn my file cabinets apart. I was looking for a specific journal entry that I remembered writing. I could not find it in my laptop, in my external hard drive, in my various half-filled composition books that date back to 1995. Finally, after nearly a week, I found loose steno pages in a hanging folder titled “Essays/Thoughts.” I don’t have the exact date this would have been composed, but Roland Smith visited Bradley Central somewhere around my fourth year teaching, which would have been around eight years ago. Without digging through school yearbooks (which I don’t have access to at home), I would estimate this entry as having been written in November 2004.

Each book I read inevitably brings me to the same conclusion: “I couldn’t have written that — it’s too good.” This disheartening sentiment serves as a real downer when trying to buoy myself into believing my writings are equal to the task of publication. While listening to young adult author Roland Smith discuss his writing process at an assembly yesterday, I had a realization. A novel (actually, most writing from short story to epic) is written not in an instant, but over an extended period of time. I am, at every instant, a newly realized being who is completely unique from the self of a moment ago. At times I have access to stores of words which will later fall behind the boxes in my mind to be come covered with slimy growth. Perhaps an image from a discussion I listened to on Extension 720 is rioting between my ears and later the same image is deflated and pallid. Simply through life I change moment by moment, and it is this dynamic aggregate of me who is the true author of my writings. Not just the self who exists in this moment, but the accumulation of selves working to construct the words which finally take form. Thus a novel is, in a sense, able to be greater than the man who writes it because that man experiences so much more than a single man’s experiences through the building of the novel. When I am feeling inadequate as I compare myself against a novel, I am actually looking at myself in this moment and comparing me against the aggregate author who is the sum of all his parts and thus vastly wiser than I am.

An Analysis of Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a post resurrected from andrewwinkel.com before it was hacked. It was one of the most popular posts with 1,000-2,000 page views per month. It also generated a number of indignant comments from readers horrified that I could so malign the purity of this love poem as well as comments from readers intrigued by an alternate take on a classic poem. To all of you who commented before, I apologize for losing your contributions.

As of this reposting, the students who were seventh graders when I originally wrote this are now juniors or seniors in college.

Edgar Allan Poe from the Library of Congress collection

I discussed the poem Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe with my seventh grade classes, and we had lively discussions about it. The conventional—and typical—interpretation of this poem is that it is a love poem inspired by Poe’s dead wife. My interpretation is different, however. I’ve tried to find another interpretation like mine, and failing, have decided to explain what I think.

Firstly, I want to point out that I am not going to write this as a research paper. I will have no sources other than the poem itself and my own thoughts. Additionally, I begin with the knowledge that Poe composed the poem after his wife’s death. Any specifics about his or her age, cause of death, etcetera, will not come into this explanation because I do not believe them relevant.

One of the most challenging features of Annabel Lee is something that I’ve intuited but never felt the need to articulate, namely:

A fiction writer is understood to take up the role of a narrator, which may differ from his or her own perspective. A poet, on the other hand, is presumed to simply be revealing his or her own biographical feelings in the poem. In short, a poem like Annabel Lee is doubly challenging because it contains both a fictional narrative and a fictional narrator.

Since Annabel Lee is in the public domain, I can begin with the text of the poem itself. Note that Poe actually indents the even lines of his poem, but WordPress enjoys stripping any spaces from the code, and I’m not willing to try to spend hours trying to figure out how to force it to add three extra spaces to every other line of this poem.

Annabel Lee
By Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingéd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

I want to take an alternate viewpoint of this poem and examine it from the premise that Poe was using an unreliable narrator. From this point on, when I refer to the poet, I will be referring to the fictional character who is recounting the events of the poem, not Edgar Allan Poe. I will refer to Poe by name when I mean Poe the craftsman who created this poem.

If the poet is unreliable, deciphering which pieces of the poem are factual, and which pieces are interpretations based on the poet’s flawed perspective is a balancing act. The unreliable narrator has a distorted perception of reality, and through that distortion, the reader must interpret what is real and what the poet believes.

The poem Annabel Lee gradually reveals stanza by stanza that the poet is not sane. Within each stanza the poet explains more of his distorted reality, allowing the reader to decipher that the madness was present all along. At the poem’s conclusion, the reader can look back over the poem to see that all of the unreliable hints left by the mad poet.

Stanza One

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,

The poet begins the poem with “It was many and many a year ago,” which is a close approximation of “Once upon a time,” or even, “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…” This prepares the reader for Never Never Land, a comparable fairy tale landscape, or the green, green grass of the past.

That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;

He describes Annabel Lee as a “maiden,” which is, by definition, a young girl, especially unmarried, or a virgin. That he does call her a maiden indicates that their relationship had not progressed to marriage, or he would likely have introduced her as his “wife.”

And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

The poet also explains that the maiden, “lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.” Since it is the poet who makes this declaration (and not the maiden; we don’t discover until Stanza Three why the maiden can’t speak for herself), there are two conclusions we can draw from his statement:

  • The maiden really did live “with no other thought that to love and be loved by” the poet;
  • The maiden did not have these thoughts, but the poet believed that she did.

Stanza One is the beginning of the poem, and the reader has not had enough exposure to the poet to evaluate his reliability. Readers who assume that the poet is recounting his own true feelings or experiences in the poem will not doubt that the poet is honestly portraying the state of affairs. In contrast, readers who begin to question the reliability of the poet after reading the remainder of the poem must question the accuracy of his assertions.

Stanza Two

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingéd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

The couplets introduce these concepts:

  1. The poet and Annabel Lee were children in this once upon a time place;
  2. the poet and Annabel Lee “‘loved with a love that was more than love'”;
  3. this love was so amazingly great that the angels in heaven were jealous of the lovers.

Most people read that the poet and Annabel Lee “loved with a love that was more than love” and assume simply that this line is hyperbole, or an exaggeration of the love the two shared. They do not even question the poet’s assertion, seemingly taking it for granted that a thing (or concept) can be greater than the thing (or concept) itself. But something by definition cannot be greater than itself. The formula 1 > 1 results in a logical error.

Add to this the very abstract and ultimately unknowable statement uttered in lines 11-12, when the poet declares that the angels of heaven are jealous of the love shared between Annabel Lee and the narrator. Such an assertion can be interpreted as either fact or opinion, as in:

  • The poet has knowledge of the heavens that gives him access to the motivations of divine beings, or
  • The poet’s opinion is that the angels of heaven were jealous of the love shared by the lovers.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and point out that my experience in life has left me slightly ignorant of the sublime. Indeed, most people I know (and even the most religious among them) are equally ignorant of the sublime. Therefore, the first point can be discounted.
This leaves us with the interpretation that the poet was expressing an opinion when he declared that the angels were jealous. Since people vary in the way they deal with grief, it is not unlikely to assume that the poet has decided to pin the blame for his love’s loss on the divine instruments, God’s angels. What has driven the poet to angels is unclear, especially since he may as well go all the way to the big guy. After all, God is the one who directs the angels much like a toddler with his toy cars. Indeed, by focusing his attention on the angels, he’s giving God a pass, and this purposeful omission appears to be the poet’s way to blame God without blaming God.

Stanza Three

Within this stanza the poet adds two pieces of information to his tale. First, he reinforces the angels’ culpability by saying, “This is the reason” though he doesn’t yet acknowledge the angels as divine hitmen:

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;

Second, the “highborn kinsmen” of Annabel Lee take her away and shut her up in a sepulchre by the sea:

So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

Probably the most telling element of this stanza is that the poet reveals through his explanation that he is not in any way responsible for Annabel Lee’s body. Her kinsmen are. This supports his earlier statement of Annabel Lee as a maiden. She is a minor, then, a dependent whose elders take care of her after her death. Keep in mind that his reliability is questionable, so the behavior of others in this case supports the statement that she was a maiden, and we can accept it now more readily.

Stanza Four

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me
Yes! that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

The poet’s accusation that the angels are divine hitman incapable of accepting such pure love on earth is a restatement of his assertion from Stanza Three; however, in Stanza Four he goes further by attempting to legitimize this accusation when he explains that since everyone knows it, it must be so. I’ve already explained my doubts about the poet’s access to sublime knowledge; I’m equally suspicious about his access to the knowledge of his fellow men, which means his “as all men know” argument is equally faulty. I interpret this as self-deception: he has convinced himself that angels killed Annabel Lee and tells himself that “all men know” this to be the case. We don’t have “all men” to substantiate the poet’s declaration; instead, we have the poet who is increasingly unreliable.

The cause of Annabel Lee’s death, according to the poet, is that “the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.” What makes this line interesting is that it could be the most truthful line in the entire poem. Annabel Lee could have died from exposure to cold air; she could have developed pneumonia; there are probably many possible methods of dying from exposure. What is telling about the poet is that he then takes this cold air killer and connects it with the divine, identifying it as the will of angels who seek to end Annabel’s life.

Stanza Five

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

The poet reveals his strong love, far stronger than the love experienced by others, which is why it can’t be split by either angels or demons.

It is a misapprehension of either innocence or madness to assume that what you yourself experience differs from every other person who has ever existed. It’s the perennial teenage argument, “You just don’t understand,” when the reality is that it is the teenager who just doesn’t understand, who speaks from ignorance and assumes everyone else is not equally ignorant, but more ignorant.

One part of aging is to get past the egocentric assumption that the rest of the world cannot connect to your experiences. The poet has never passed to true maturity, since the loss of Annabel Lee has left him emotionally crippled at the same level of emotional maturity as he was when he lost her. After all, the poet introduces the poem with the line, “It was many and many a year ago.” Meanwhile, he remains (all these years later) as certain as ever that no one can appreciate his lost love, that no one can understand, because no one has ever experienced such a loss.

Stanza Six

The final stanza of Annabel Lee is a knock-out punch. But Poe doesn’t just put it in one solid jab; he throws a rapid right-left combo before the main thrust. Observe:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

We accept this as believable. Certainly a lost love will visit her lover’s dreams as he mourns her death.

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

The creep factor should have set in with the words, “I feel the bright eyes.” I recognize only two possible interpretations for this line:

  • The poet is reaching out with his own fingertips to “feel the bright eyes / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee”; or
  • The poet can “feel” the admittedly dead Annabel Lee looking at him. This is the more likely of the two, since it indicates that the poet feels a connection to the dead Annabel Lee as she observes him despite the gulf between the two.

Here’s the final punch:

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

The poet reveals that he spends his nights within his dead love’s tomb at the side of her body. Poe waits, has the poet hold off on this admission until the conclusion of the poem because he wants his reader to look back over the rest of the poem and see it anew, see it in the light of a narrator willing to lay inside a sepulchre beside a dead body near the ocean. All previous stanzas are skewed after the poet admits he sleeps beside Annabel Lee even after her death.

In Conclusion

I believe Poe was really trying to create a disturbing poem that reveals gradually that the poet was unreliable and obsessed with a woman who may not have returned his love. The basic unreliability of the poet revealed in hints throughout the poem means that even as the poet claims Annabel Lee is his “bride,” a reader may not be able to believe that she was anything more than an obsession. We’ve all heard stories of Hollywood starlets beset by obsessive stalkers who need restraining orders; these maniacal lovers fill notebooks with fantasies, and live with the belief that the two are meant to be together for all time. I think Poe wanted to capture this monomania when he wrote Annabel Lee, portraying a creepy stalker willing to sneak into his dead love’s crypt because of his certainty that she wants to be with him even in death.

Originally posted April 25, 2012

“Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh

When Central High presented the play version of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, I really had no idea what to expect. I knew there was a book, and I had vague memories of a movie, but no experience with either.

Although really more of a middle school play that the director adapted for older actors, it was still an entertaining – and funny – production.

Afterward, I checked my kids’ bookshelf to locate a copy, thus proving again that my bibliophilia is really advantageous and not the hoarding my wife claims.

The book itself has a number of things going for it. With aspects both simple and complex, childish yet insightful, honest and deceptive, sympathetic and mean, hilarious and thought-provoking, it is a gaggle of contradictions, and therein lies its resonating strength.

It has aged well. Published in 1964, the lack of modern technology like cellphones or internet or color televisions is not a factor in the telling. Such things are absent but unnecessary to Fitzhugh’s story.

Other elements that are a product of their time – bridge clubs, a martini after work – these are easily accepted as concerns of people other than ourselves. Fantastical, perhaps, but probably popular in far off countries like New York City.

Capturing a Child’s Worldview

Harriet is eleven and is a compulsive journaler, recording her impressions about every situation and interaction. Not only does she chronicle her own inner dialogue with the manic intensity of a Natalie Goldberg devotee, she aspires to be a “spy” and learn other people’s secrets. She thinks of it as her job, and she garbs herself with spy gear and sets off on daily forays to eavesdrop. She watches a man who hordes cats, a family that owns a grocery store, a husband and wife whose existence focuses only on external affirmation, and – most criminally – a woman whose dumb waiter Harriet sneaks into as she pulleys herself up to the bedroom to eavesdrop on conversations.

Unlike the children in Stephen King’s IT, Fitzhugh’s children operate with worldviews that don’t quite make sense to adults. Harriet’s conception of spying is childishly innocent. She writes (in her characteristic all caps), “YOU CAN’T BE TOO OLD TO SPY EXCEPT IF YOU WERE FIFTY YOU MIGHT FALL OFF A FIRE ESCAPE, BUT YOU COULD SPY AROUND ON THE GROUND A LOT” (57). This reminded me of a trip to a grocery store or a feed store I took when I was six or so with my dad and a distant relative of my mom’s named Ronnie. As we drove in Ronnie’s big pickup truck along country roads, my stomach kept rumbling. Uncomfortable in the silence and very conscious of its growling, I told them, “I could never be a spy.”

“Why not?” my dad asked.

“Because my stomach growls too much.”

This is what I mean about a child’s perspective: an adult would never connect a rumbling tummy with being a failure as a spy. Harriet is believable exactly because she doesn’t interpret spying the way an adult would. If she did, if she had an adult’s understanding of espionage, of Tom Clancy or Ian Fleming novels, Harriet the Spy would have rung hollow.

As Harriet experiences difficulties at home and at school, she seeks to avoid her peers:

“Harriet was sick for three days. That is, she lay in bed for three days. Then her mother took her to see the kindly old family doctor. He used to be a kindly old family doctor who made house calls, but now he wouldn’t anymore. One day he had stamped his foot at Harriet’s mother and said, ‘I like my office and I’m going to stay in it. I pay so much for rent on this office that if I leave it for five minutes my child misses a year of school. I’m never coming out again.’ And from that moment on he didn’t. Harriet rather respected him for it, but his stethoscope was cold” (196).

This comparison between a stethoscope and Harriet’s respect for the authenticity and honesty of the doctor is another example of Fitzhugh’s ability to capture Harriet’s child-like worldview because the adult mind wouldn’t find these two concepts linked.

When Harriet’s friend Janie is introduced, the reader learns “Janie Gibbs was Harriet’s best friend besides Sport. She had a chemistry set and planned one day to blow up the world. Both Harriet and Sport had a great respect for Janie’s experiments, but they didn’t understand a word she said about them” (29). Janie’s aspirations don’t really make sense to an adult, who imagines in their fulfillment the destruction of everything and everyone. Her friends, however, are nonplussed, further recognition that the rules of the adult universe are not in effect in the friendships of sixth graders.

Harriet’s Journal Is Us

I try to avoid cover text if at all possible because cover text tends to get the book wrong, and Harriet the Spy is no exception. My copy explains, “Then one morning, Harriet’s life is turned upside down. Her classmates find her spy notebook and read it out loud! Harriet’s in big trouble. The other sixth-graders are stealing her tomato sandwiches, forming a spy-catcher club, and writing notes of their own—all about Harriet!” Exclamation! Shock! Surprise! Why book covers need to be written as though advertising monster truck shows is beyond me.

While it’s true that Harriet’s journal is read by her peers, and it’s true that Harriet’s life is turned upside down, it isn’t the notebook that sets off the cataclysm in Harriet’s life. Her classmates don’t even find the notebook until page 179 of a 298-page book. That means wholly two-thirds of the book goes by without this cover-text problem. Rather, the notebook is an additional link in a chain of events that starts to go out of control at the end of Part One when Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, leaves. Harriet’s world of predictable consistency is shattered; she goes through the kind of challenges that are recognizable to any of us on the outside looking at someone trying to cope with a vacuum in his or her life. She flails mentally, she reacts unpredictably, she hurts people she loves, she does things she knows are wrong or that she knows she shouldn’t do. “She wrote THEY PUT ME UP HERE IN THIS ROOM BECAUSE THEY THINK I’M A WITCH. Even as she did it she knew perfectly well that her parents thought nothing of the kind” (200). Harriet’s behavior is contradictory, even to herself. She makes a statement that she knows is untrue simply because she is feeling disagreeable and acts on her feelings.

For the reader, Harriet’s journal provides an insight into her personality and her struggles, but it also goes further by providing an insight into our own personalities. Harriet’s journal, for the purpose of this book, is really Harriet’s thoughts, which are unflattering, selfish, and mean – just like most of us much of the time. None of us are excoriated for our thoughts, our mental ephemera slipping through our consciousness daily, but if these thoughts were captured and shared, how proud would any of us be of what goes on in our heads?

The saying about how people behave when no one is looking comes to mind, especially after a conversation I had recently about people dumping their garbage in the country. Someone dumped a bunch of refuse on a country road rather than find a place to dispose of it, and this reminds me how often our own decisions are determined by our expectations of who is judging us, or more importantly, who isn’t.

The notebook and the drama of its contents force the reader to confront how his or her own thoughts are often nasty and unpleasant. We recognize that Harriet shouldn’t think some of the things that she does, but it’s only the hypocrites among us who judge her. For the rest, we read her thoughts with a reluctant recognition that the only difference between Harriet and ourselves is that Harriet has written down her thoughts, and those thoughts have been revealed to others.

Pinky Whitehead vs. Miss Whitehead

I’ve read it twice, and I still don’t see any reason to introduce confusion for the reader by having a child named Pinky Whitehead and a school dean named Miss Whitehead unless I’ve missed something subtle connecting the two. In this case, on page 31, we meet Pinky Whitehead on the first day of sixth grade. Harriet mentally recalls, “He lived on Eighty-eighth Street. He had a very beautiful mother, a father who worked on a magazine, and a baby sister three years old.”

After a full page of Pinky Whitehead, we arrive at, “Miss Angela Whitehead, the present dean, stood at the podium” (31-2). Harriet describes Miss Whitehead in her typical, ruthless manner: “MISS WHITEHEAD HAS BUCK TEETH, THIN HAIR, FEET LIKE SKIS, AND A VERY LONG HANGING STOMACH” (32).

To me, either there should be a reason for Pinky Whitehead and Miss Whitehead to share surnames, or there should be a moment’s recognition by Harriet about the improbability of two despicable people both with the same last name, especially encountered as they are in such close proximity to one another.

Quotable Moments

“Writer’s don’t care what they eat. They just care what you think of them” (49). This passage captures, almost as an aside, a facet of human nature that describes anyone who seeks affirmation from others. Some writers may be self-sustaining creators whose works are built for themselves, but at the heart of every desire to communicate with others is a desire to be understood. And most writers, by opening themselves through communication with others, are not interested in argument, in dispute; they are looking to open a dialogue or to persuade their readers. Either way, their goal is to find that affirmation or confirmation that their views have been understood or accepted. Fitzhugh may also be making a wry self-admission that the writing itself isn’t enough; it’s the reader and their responses which make the writing have value to the writer.

“She hated math. She hated math with every bone in her body. She spent so much time hating it that she never had time to do it. She didn’t understand it at all, not a word. She didn’t even understand anyone who did understand it. She always looked at them suspiciously. Did they have some part of the brain that she didn’t have? Was there a big hole missing in her head where all the math should be?” (139). I connected with Harriet in this passage. It reminded me of every math class after fifth grade. I hated math homework. I remember completing three or so problems on the nightly homework because the teacher gave us points for including our name and the date on the paper, then she would randomly grade three problems for a total of five points. I was generally guaranteed she would pick one of the first three problems, so if I did that much, I had a good chance of earning 60%. That’s not a passing grade, but if she was grading those problems for accuracy, anyway, I wasn’t likely to earn much higher as my computation skills were (are) terrible. Fortunately, the computer has given me a tool to make up for my math deficiencies by outsourcing the computation to a machine that only makes the mistakes I give it.

“She lay in the dark and stared at nothing. She didn’t blame her father for being angry. It was all so boring” (247). Again, Fitzhugh captures the inexplicable contradictions of the childish brain. I can’t tell you how many definitions for the word “boring” I’ve tried to interpret from middle schoolers who use it to describe anything they don’t want to do or anything they don’t agree with. This is exactly the way a sixth-grader would think. The situation, the conflict with her parents, isn’t “boring,” instead she’s inconvenienced, she’s annoyed, she wants avoidance, distraction, diversion, and somehow, these feelings get wrapped up into “boring,” which has become a giant negative-connotation soup for anything and everyone who doesn’t entertain her or do what she wants.

Fitzhugh’s Use of Adverbial Prepositional Phrases

Fitzhugh frequently employs the preposition “in” as part of an adverbial prepositional phrase to describe the manner of a character’s speech. This stylistic feature is something I find problematic in my young writers. Examples include, “She said in an angry way” or, “He said in a nervous way” or even more jarring to the ear (and brain), “She said in a laughing way.”

Because this practice is a matter of style, I’ve tried to explore the source of my aversion to this specific construction.

Adverbs themselves, fashioned as they often are from adjectives mingling with the polyamorous ly, are the bane of writers everywhere – at least, that is what we are led to believe by writers writing about writing. An honest writer won’t prohibit adverbs outright, but will certainly offer warnings against their use. Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style (my copy is the Fourth Edition, but there are many others published to the great satisfaction of the estates of both Strunk and White) offer the advice “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs” (71). (Aside: for an alternate perspective and an excoriation of Strunk and White’s rule, see The Blowing of Strunk and White’s Rules Off at Language Log; my interpretation here is that Pullum takes the advice to its most absurd extreme rather than recognizing what Strunk and White point out in the same paragraph, that “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color” [72].)

Stephen King, in On Writing, discusses his aversion to adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend” (117), he explains. This doesn’t mean we should always avoid the company of adverbs everywhere; rather, King recommends that we should invite them sparingly to our parties, and then with purpose. King then points out that writers should be on the lookout for adverbs used for dialogue attribution. He gives examples to help clarify what he means on page 119:

“Put it down,” she shouted.

“Put it down,” she shouted menacingly.

The former, he tells us, is always stronger than the latter.

One of several sources that discuss Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing can be found at Language Log, Avoiding Rape and Adverbs. Leonard similarly offers rule #4: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…”

I offer all of these points knowing that the specific stylistic construction I am referring to is not an adverb, but instead an adverbial prepositional phrase, and while none of these sources directly address the use of adverbial prepositional phrases, only adverbs, they do offer consistent repudiation of adverbs used in dialogue tags.

Which brings us to Fitzhugh’s writing. As I read, I kept stumbling over the preposition “in” used in adverbial prepositional phrases to modify dialogue tags. It happened so frequently that I decided to go back and identify each instance of these distracting prepositional phrases to better understand why they struck me as dissonant or inefficient.

There is a distinct formula and cadence to this style of adverbial prepositional phrase:

“Quotation” verbed the subject in a modifier(s) way/voice/manner/tone.

In the majority of instances, Fitzhugh begins the sentence with a quotation, follows the quote with the verb, comes next to the subject and finally, at the close of the sentence, indicates the manner of the speaking. Less frequently, she begins the sentence with a subject + action verb and then modifies the verb with the adverbial prepositional phrase.

Without using any software, I counted 24 instances of adverbial prepositional phrases in Harriet the Spy:

  • 18 used the pattern “in a modifier way.”
  • 3 used the pattern “in a modifier voice.”
  • 2 used the pattern “in a modifier manner.”
  • 1 used the pattern “in a modifier tone.”

So what is it about this construction?

In the first place, it requires more space to do the same job, so:

“I don’t know,” said Ole Golly in a musing way (22) could also be written by revising the participle musing into a verb: “I don’t know,” Ole Golly mused. In this example, the seven words are reduced to only three.


Janie looked at her in the strangest way (176) could be rewritten, Janie looked at her strangely, reducing the initial eight words to only five; however, the transformation appears to have changed the meaning for me, and I’m not convinced I prefer the revised version to the original.

Fitzhugh uses this pattern with frequency. There are pockets within the book where multiple adverbial prepositional phrases are located close to one another, so, for example, between 101 and 103 there are four; between pages 170 and 176 there are also four. One by itself in a novel may not be obvious or recognizable, but four within three or four pages becomes visible to the eye and ear.

The following are all the adverbial prepositional phrases I found during a second read of Harriet the Spy:

  1. ‘“I don’t know,’ said Ole Golly in a musing way” (22).
  2. “The maid was humming ‘Miss Am-er-i-ker, look at hewr, Miss Am-er-i-ker’ in a tuneless sort of way” (43).
  3. “‘Well,’ said Ole Golly in a friendly manner” (91).
  4. “…‘You’re stuck with me,’ said the cook in a grumpy way” (92).
  5. “‘NO,’ said Harriet in an exasperated way” (101).
  6. “‘I just wondered,’ said Mrs. Welsch in a bemused voice” (101).
  7. “‘Good Lord, you’re not half ready,’ he said in a very irritated way” (102).
  8. “Then in a rather stiff, formal way he said, ‘Good night, Harriet…” (103).
  9. “‘Who’s that?’ she said in a very unconcerned way” (112).
  10. “Harriet heard Ole Golly say, ‘Oh, no,’ in an astonished voice, then she slipped off the cart” (120).
  11. “‘Miss Golly . . .’ Mr. Welsch said this in a terrible voice as he headed for the door with Harriet in his arms” (122).
  12. “‘Mrs. Welsch—’ Mr. Waldenstein was smiling in a terribly ingratiating manner” (127).
  13. “He said this a warm, soft way, and then they all stood looking at Mrs. Welsch” (128).
  14. “‘Bridge,’ said Harriet in a disgusted way” (137).
  15. “She looked around in a delighted way” (153).
  16. “Harriet remembered it from last year as a long wait with your feet hurting while a terribly flustered Miss Dodge measured you in a sweaty way and, likely as not, stuck you full of pins” (155).
  17. “Her parents kissed her good night in a rather melancholy way and went out” (170).
  18. “Then, when she breathed in a very labored way and said, ‘Don’t mind me’ they really stared” (171).
  19. “Janie looked at her in the strangest way” (176).
  20. “She saw Janie looking at her in a terribly irritated way a few minutes later, but that might have been because Harriet had almost rolled into the lab table” (176).
  21. “And she got up and marched off in as dignified a way as possible under the circumstances” (183).
  22. “At any rate, suddenly she laughed in a rather spooky way, and as she did she backed away” (205).
  23. “He was telling everyone what to do in a very irritated way” (212).
  24. “Actually, what she said was, ‘You don’t have a father, do you, Rachel?’ in a fairly conversational tone” (242).

I am unable to conclude for certain whether Fitzhugh’s use of the adverbial prepositional phrase was purposeful or unintentional. Given the other qualities of her writing that I appreciate, I lean toward purposeful, as she not only captured of childhood’s nuances in her characters, but she could have intended to further reinforce those qualities by constructing adverbial prepositional phrases that mirror the kind of writing created by young writers. Or, it could simply be the case that this construction does not strike others with the same dissonance that it strikes me.


  • Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy. Delacorte Press, 2002.
  • King, Stephen. On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. Pocket Books, 2002.
  • Liberman, Mark, and Geoffrey K. Pullum. Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log. William, James & Co., 2006. (Note, I just linked to the actual Language Log entries rather than the pages of the book, but I read and noted these comments in the book first.)
  • Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Fourth ed., Allyn and Bacon, 2000.

Some Thoughts on “IT” by Stephen King

The following notes were recorded in my journal over the month of March, 2018. While there are no spoilers per se, there are details from King’s novel that are better encountered as King narrates them, rather than through my descriptions.

I’m on page 891 of IT, by Stephen King. Some thoughts:

Given its heft, it’s unsurprising to note some weaknesses in IT. First, King’s specificity and attention to detail — which sets him apart as a writer — is incongruous with his accounts of memories. For example, as Mike Hanlon recounts the Silver Dollar massacre in “Derry: The Fourth Interlude” (pgs. 879-894), he does so while drunk late at night in the library. This isn’t problematic, but his accounting of the remembrances of a 93-year-old former “campaigner” (I presume lumberjack) go to such detail that Mike explains the conversations at the bar while Claude Heroux murdered men at a poker table: “At the bar, conversation had turned to what sort of winter lay ahead. Vernon Stanchfield, a farmer from Palmyra, claimed it would be a mild one — fall rain uses up winter snow was his scripture…” (pg. 889). Mike includes the opinion of Alfie Naugler, another farmer, plus two more opinions expressed at a bar over “beer and bowls of hard-cooked eggs” (pg. 890).

In this part of the novel, Mike Hanlon relates the account of Egbert Thoroughgood from an interview about an event that took place seventy-five years before. Mike’s story to his friends reads like a Stephen King novel, and of course, that’s exactly what it is. But what it isn’t is believable in its specificity and detail. So does this matter? This isn’t a structural problem, per se, because a story event connecting violent and disturbing past events with Pennywise makes structural sense. Instead, I think it’s a conscious decision of King’s to commit to telling the story: he is so immersed and we the readers are so immersed that the unrealistic details of this memory-episode fail to register for many readers (except for pedants like me).

I know from personal experience that were I to relate an episode that took place in my past, only the broadest of brush strokes would be present in my memory: possibly the location, who was involved (but not secondary characters), the gist of the conversations. Very few exact conversations have etched themselves in my memory; most of these are short nuggets or pearls that lend themselves to memory as pithy or “truths.”

King does justify the level of detail his main characters are able to remember as being a symptom of the act of remembering. He explains that all of the kids forgot about It until Mike Hanlon’s call came in, and then the memories began to come back, slowly at first, then in greater details, and this process was much more thorough than real memories would have been. So King knows and is able to justify some of his memory episodes with this narrative explanation.

Another aspect of IT that is problematic to me is the characters as children. They are fully-formed by the youthful age of 11, with a density and worldliness that seems unbelievable for their years. They interact with one another in ways that belong to adults trying to imagine how fifth graders interact with one another. Just last night, at a scholastic bowl match, a former Bradley Central student who is now an 11th grader looked at the middle schoolers bouncing chaotically and said, “If I ever acted like that, I’m sorry.” Her mom and I both said, “This is every middle schooler.”

I think King wanted to get it right, but too many years had passed since his own fifth grade days. When he wrote these characters as fifth graders, he couldn’t help but be unaware of the differences in maturity that take place during those teenage years. It’s like presentism: judging past events through the lens of now. As an adult writing about children, he crafts adult characters inhabiting children’s bodies.

It could be argued that the convergence of these specific characters as exceptions to the norm is precisely the point of IT, that these kids were assembled like the Justice League to take on the primordial monster beneath Derry, so TAKE THAT, ANDY! It was ON PURPOSE! Maybe, but to me, anyway, this is one note that came across flat.

Neither of these issues detract from the strengths of King’s book, most especially the way it is woven together from past to future, an exquisite quilt of then and now. He creates a juxtaposition of the same characters from two timelines that march step by step toward paired climaxes.

As I write this, I’m in “Part 5: The Ritual of Chud,” and the action increases in intensity as the paired storylines approach the final breaking point. King has consistently moved between events with transitions that connect the children’s storyline with the adult’s storyline, but now that we are at the climax, he moves between scenes by crossing over with words, phrases, and dialogue.

“‘…Hello” ends Chapter 3 on page 925–without even an end quotation mark (Yes, it’s hard to quote that and capture the full effect when enclosing the quotation inside quotation marks…), and chapter four begins: “…there,’ Henry Bowers said.” King provided italicized notes for context like the headings on a letter (“Kansas Street/12:20 P.M.”), but leaves the flow uninterrupted by breaks.

Another thing King does well is to drop hints about the future. Not often, but with an awareness that he has the scope of the narrative in mind and knows those future events. So, for example, on page 929, he writes, “…things might have taken a different course: the five of them might not have been fugitives from the Derry police when that day’s light finally broke.” At that point in the narrative, King reveals an alternate timeline that didn’t happen, a safe path that the characters don’t get to experience. This builds the tension. He doesn’t do this often… just frequently enough to keep his readers on the hook.


King, Stephen. IT. Viking, 1986.

Limitations of Fiction: Connections

This journal entry was originally written March 27, 2018.

I was thinking this morning about the limitations of fiction. These aren’t limitations imposed on fiction, but limitations present in the human brain that is the creator of fiction, and thus implicit in the very bones of fiction.

Characters aren’t connected enough in fiction to reflect my experiences in life. This is true of both short fiction as well as longer works (and, as you will see in a moment, it is true in other mediums, especially movies). Very few people in life exist in a vacuum like the one that surrounds characters in fiction. A map of the relationships in my life would be a densely interconnected mesh of people, from friends to family to friends of family and family of friends. Adding complexity to the mesh is the evolution over time as it builds and decays, making new connections and eroding old connections into memories.

Fiction can’t represent this labyrinth of connections except symbolically through representative samples. In Avatar, the movie by James Cameron, Jake Sully travels to another planet because his single connection, a twin brother, is killed, opening an opportunity for Jake’s DNA match to be used to control his brother’s specially grown avatar. Sully has zero connections in his life beyond his murdered brother.

In IT, by Stephen King, Eddie has an coddling, oppressive wife. I can’t remember now what other connections King included — father, aunts, but even when King does better than most at populating the connections of his world, it remains infinitesimally small in comparison to the connections present in the lives of most people.

But fiction can’t, you argue, populate every connection because no one would want to wade through such detritus of information. I accept that this is true as a reader, but I further argue that it isn’t just true from the reading side of the equation; it is true on the writing side of the equation. It doesn’t matter that the reader wouldn’t read it because the constructor can’t build it, the author can’t imagine it — such connections are simply beyond the scope of human imagination.

Now you’re thinking, “Who cares? If the human mind can’t imagine it, and the human mind isn’t interested in reading about it anyway, who really cares?” And you would be correct — if a reader doesn’t notice. But when a reader (or viewer, in the case of a movie) is able to perceive the artificiality of the connections presented in the story, then the writer should care. King is able to cover up his shortcomings with the density of his distracting connections. He gives Eddie an entire pharmacy as an example of his hypochondria, and through this sleight of hand, the reader doesn’t notice that Eddie’s life is absent of contemporary friends, those people who will miss him when he fails to show up at Thanksgiving. Not all of us have King’s ability to find the idiosyncratic as decoys. So it is up to us, as writers, to recognize that we are not able to adequately imagine the connections a character should have in the world — if that character was in fact alive — and write in such a way to minimize the distraction of this truth from affecting our reader’s ability to enjoy the narrative.

With short fiction, there is the advantage of brevity, like a photo that capture s a moment while the viewer postulates a world that must exist beyond the borders of the print and which doesn’t matter for conveying the content of the print. But even short fiction runs the risk of being too streamlined, too elegant, too perfect. Life is never perfect, and while a brilliantly elegant story may be perfect, it is also only a caricature of life, a false representation, hardly more than a fable. Fables have their place: they are didactic and essential (I think I am mostly only capable of writing fables), but they aren’t capturing life, unless it is the job of the writer to share these moments from life that are contained lessons or instructions.

DIY Air-tight Sump Hole Cover (Revisited)

Since I deleted the original andrewwinkel.com site after my self-hosted website was hacked, I’ve had good intentions to resurrect some of the most popular posts that were lost. Yesterday, I received an email out of the blue from Lucie, who stumbled upon a breadcrumb of one of those posts, a reference to my “Do-it-yourself Sump Hole Cover.” So, Lucie, I’m actually achieving this because of you. Thanks!

There were actually two posts about the sump hole cover. In the first, I explained the background and steps that I followed to create the cover. In the second, I made modifications after the cover had been in use for a couple years. I’ve made some editorial revisions because, well, I write (or at least, in my imagination, I write) and that’s what writers do.

Finally, a special thanks goes to archive.org, where my original text remains preserved. This was much easier because of you!

DIY Air-tight Sump Hole Cover (originally published May 8, 2011)


The sump hole is original to the house which was constructed in 1958. The drainage tiles originally diverted downspout run-off into the sump hole, where it was pumped out. When we moved into the house, a 1/3 horsepower pedestal style pump failed twice, once during a power outage, and once when the float bent and caught, keeping the unit from kicking on. After dealing with inches of water in the basement a second time, I purchased a Basement Watchdog unit from Lowe’s. I discovered, when I installed the new unit, that the old sump pump had kept the water level high enough that the tiles were filled with water.  This meant that the tiles were always full of water: hundreds of gallons of water was always hanging out, and the difference between a flooded basement and an unflooded basement was only a few gallons. The new pump kept the water down to just inches. from the bottom of the hole. So this was the first advantage to the new pump.

Sump hole without cover

Now the downside, literally. With the water level so low, air was flowing through the tiles from outside the house (remember, the downspouts used to run into the tiles; although they don’t any more, they are only covered with grates to keep things, but not air, out). Over the last couple years after heavy rains the basement begins to smell. You can tell me: have your septic inspected; something is leaking. And you would be right. But here’s the problem: the town is installing a sewer system and every septic tank must be destroyed before the end of the summer. It would be a waste of money to dig up and fix a septic tank whose time has come. After reviewing a number of sites that discuss the advantages of their air-tight sump hole covers, I decided to make my own.

I chose to make a drain with a trap to allow the water to go down while preventing the air from coming up. Some covers I looked at on the internet used a ball and funnel type design, where water would lift the ball  as it drained, then the ball would create the seal. That seemed ingenious, except for one thing: all plumbing in houses uses traps to stop odors, so why not use the same concept here?

Here are some additional advantages to an air-tight sump hole cover: It’s supposed to stop Radon infiltration, it keeps moisture contained within the sump hole instead of spread throughout the basement, and it keeps the air that was blasting through the tiles from the outside from penetrating into the house.

Material List

  • 10 foot long 1″ x 4″ PVC trim board (cost around $17)
  • 1 PVC Trap (1 ½”)
  • 1 PVC Reducer (from 3″ to 1 ½”)
  • PVC Glue
  • Silicon Caulk
  • Assorted scrap 1 ½” PVC

Total Project Cost: Less than $50


First, let’s take a look at the original cover. It was constructed from assorted pieces of 2x treated lumber. It was not sealed and was constantly wet since water drained onto it. BUT, it kept my children from falling into it.

Original sump cover made from treated wood
  • I decided that like the original wood cover, the PVC cover should run from the north to the south (left to right in the picture). Any cut-outs needed to be set into a side of the trim board rather than cutting the board in two. Using the existing cover as a template I cut the PVC trim board to width and used a jigsaw to make rough openings for the sump pump.
  • I traced the PVC reducer and used a jigsaw to cut an opening for it. I actually meant to have it on the other side, but due to a mix-up in what is up and what is down, cut it on the opposite side I meant. Since the location of the drain was nothing more than a preference, I didn’t worry about it. If I had cut the hole for the sump pump itself, however, that would have been another story…
  • I edge-glued the trim boards and put the trap together with glue. I glued two pieces with the idea that I would seal the remaining edges with caulk so I could remove it as needed.
Underside of sump cover, including PVD drain with trap
  • I used caulk to line the perimeter of the sump hole as well as the edges where the two pieces would meet, then set both pieces in the sump hole.
  • I ran another bead of caulk around the perimeter, smoothing the edges to seal.
  • I cut additional pieces to stair-step and glue to form tight fit around the PVC from the sump pump.
  • I caulked the remaining gaps.
  • I then bought assorted PVC to re-route any drains (in this case, the furnace and the reverse-osmosis units) to run directly into the drain. The remaining PVC line that doesn’t make it to the drain in the photos is from the softener, which isn’t running at the moment. When I have it running it will also extend to the drain.
Finished sump cover
Finished sump cover detail

Final Thoughts

Since the cover was installed there has been no smell in the basement. The cover may also help the humidity, and if so, that will mean running the dehumidifier less, which will be a cost savings also.

Disclaimer: This page is not intended to replace the advice of a professional. It simply relates what I did. And what I did may be wrong. That’s one of the ways I learn, by trying things and discovering that I did something wrong. I’m a lot smarter now than I was five years ago, and I hope I’ll be even smarter five years from now.

DIY Sump Hole Cover Redux (Originally published on July 22, 2015)

Previously I explained how to build your own do-it-yourself air-tight sump hole cover using PVC, glue, and caulk. Since then, my sump cover met its match when it tried to swallow a ping-pong ball. The more I tried to remove the ping-pong ball from the inside of the 1 1/2″ PVC trap, the more the trap became blocked; the end result was I had to remove the entire sump hole cover to get the ping-pong ball out of the drain. This proved particularly troublesome since there was no convenient way to pull the cover off. In the end I was forced to drill a hole in the cover and use an L-shaped piece of metal inserted into the hole to give me pulling power to remove the cover; otherwise I couldn’t find any way to get the cover off.

Before re-attaching the cover I decided to make some minor improvements that were not incorporated in the initial design. Obviously the first modification needed to be a handle so the cover can be removed when necessary.

Three additional ping-pong balls had found their way into the sump hole while the cover was off (plus two Nerf balls). The drain needed some kind of cover or screen to prevent anything from blocking it.

One thing that had always bugged me about the original cover was that I could not see anything going on inside. How much water was sitting in the hole? It was always a mystery, and the only way to know what was going on in the covered hole was to listen to the water trickling in or the pumps running. A window to see into the sump hole would be an ideal addition to the design.

First Modification: Handle

I attached a handle to part of the cover. Rather than use the screws that came with the handle, I bolted it all the way through the cover. I caulked the bottom and top before tightening the screws and bolts.

Attach handle using bolts.

 Second Modification: Drain Cover

This choice was really a matter of convenience. I needed something to fill the drain, but I didn’t want a screen that could get blocked with lint or dust or dirt. I tried looking around the house for a ball, something larger than a ping-pong ball that would float and create a barrier to keep out ping-pong balls or other smaller objects, but nothing that I came across worked. As I was standing at my workbench, I noticed an empty seltzer bottle in the garbage can. I thought, why not? And I cut the bottom from it.

Remove bottom from plastic bottle.

Next, I used tin snips to cut triangles between the ridges of the base:

Use scissors or snips or a razor blade to remove triangles from the base of the bottle.

Finally, I set the bottle cut-side down in the drain. It fits; water will flow down over it and through the cut triangles without any risk of ping-pong balls getting in.

Set plastic bottle base cut-side down into drain.

Is it elegant? No. Is it going to win design awards? Does it look like HAL2000? Not really. But does it work? Yes.

Third Modification: Window

Inserting the window from the beginning would have been preferable to adding it after the pieces had all been glued in place. Ideally I would have cut the opening for the window, then routed a lip to recess the plastic. This was after-the-fact, however, so ideal wasn’t going to happen. I was going to have to resort to a plain, old jigsaw hole.

For the window I found a $4 piece of Lexan plastic at Menards.

Lexan plastic for sump window

I used a square to scribe a rectangle on the plastic:

Mark the rectangle to be removed.

Then I used a drill to give my jigsaw a place to start and cut out the rectangle:

Drill starter hole.
Use jigsaw to cut rectangle from plastic.
Finished hole

While there may be recommended tools to cut Lexan, I simply used an X-acto knife and a straight edge. After scoring the plastic a number of times, I bent it until it snapped. This is the step that could probably result in a painful injury, so for heaven’s sake, be careful! After cutting the plastic, I found that my hole was 1/8″ too short, and it was easier to use the jigsaw to remove an additional 1/8″ than try to re-cut the plastic.

Cut plastic ready to be inserted

I spread plastic wrap on the work area. After placing the cover face down, I set the cut Lexan into the opening, then applied the silicone caulk to the perimeter. Again, I’ll mention that ideally there would be a lip around the perimeter that would hold the plastic level to the surface of the sump cover; this method only holds the plastic in place with caulk, so it cannot support weight. Hopefully you aren’t standing on your sump cover anyway.

Set plastic into opening.
Caulk perimeter and let dry.

Once the caulk dried, I put a second layer of caulk around the plastic on the other side of the cover.

Set Cover

I cleaned the area around the sump hole and ran a fan on it for a couple hours to dry it out before setting the cover in place.

Prepare sump hole for the cover by cleaning and allowing drying time.

I ran a bead of caulk around the perimeter, but with the variations in the lip from age and deterioration, some sections did not allow for a good seal.

Apply a bead of caulk to perimeter of sump hole.

Something I failed to mention previously was that I realized after I installed the cover the first time that the sump hole was not level; water that ran onto the cover didn’t run straight to the drain; instead, it pooled on one side. I used this opportunity to make sure the cover sat in such a way that the water would be directed toward the drain. Running a second bead of caulk around the perimeter and on every seam insured a snug fit and a good seal.

Finish the cover by adding caulk between the pieces, to the perimeter, and along every seam.
Detail of the drain in use: no ping-pong balls are going in here!
Finished DIY air-tight sump hole cover


If you are fortunate enough to have a prefabricated sump hole unit, there may be covers available for cheap that will save you the stress and time of building your own. Most everything I found online was for round sump holes; many did not include drains, or were not air-tight. If you have a house like mine that was built in another era (mine is from the 1950s), building your own may be the best option. I suppose it’s possible this sump cover is not 100% air-tight, but it has to be pretty darn close. Plus, this is the only cover I see that incorporates a window to see into the sump hole.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories or feedback. Leave me a comment below!

Compulsory Disclaimer: This post does not take the place of professional advice; it simply describes what I did. I am in no way responsible for you, your choices, your experiences, and your problems. In other words: use at your own risk!

What is a miracle?

Simon Blackburn, in his book, Think, explains, “The prior probability that the miracle occurred is very, very small. The ‘basic rate’ is near zero. That is because miracles are the kind of thing that either never happen, or almost never happen” (183). He goes on to refer to “flying elephants, being taken into sexual slavery by Martians, or conversations with the living Elvis” (183). The issue with this reasoning isn’t the improbability of his examples; it’s the expectation that miracles rarely or never occur. His examples aren’t miracles, they’re fantasies. The universe is filled with what is, but what isn’t is infinitely more than what is (at least, within the finite scope of our finite existence). So instead of choosing the improbable and expecting such improbabilities to be examples of miracles, I say miracles are everywhere all the time. My existence itself is a miracle of circumstance, a chain of events any one of which would, by not having happened, remove me from the equation. The greater miracle isn’t what isn’t, it’s what is.

Lucille Clifton, in her poem “won’t you celebrate with me,” writes,

…come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50974/wont-you-celebrate-with-me
(For a better understanding of the power of this poem, watch the poet read her work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XM7q_DUk5wU

I found the above in a journal dated 8-16-17. I tacked the excerpt from Lucille Clifton to the end because it is, to me, the most succinct, powerful, and memorable passage that reinforces my point: we are all miracles.