Reflections on “The Truth”

“Something has to be true to be real, but it doesn’t have to be real to be true.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle, as told to Leonard S. Marcus in The Wand in the Word, pg. 109.


Suddenly everyone is obsessed with “the Truth.” Whether it’s the talking heads with their demands for Truth and their accusations of lies, or the internet companies who sit in judgement about which pieces of information shared on their platform are True and which fail to meet their standards of Truth, everyone points to a single word, Truth, while ignoring that the very concept of Truth is contentious, nebulous, abstract, and as a consequence of all these, dangerous.

The great risk of this crisis of Truth is the damage it will do to free speech and public discourse.

The modern crisis of Truth stems from a variety of issues including the ubiquity of information available through internet sites and social media services, the rapidity with which information can be generated and shared, the ease with which historical information may be dredged and resurrected, and the dynamic nature of language which allows for multiple interpretations of the same event or idea using different word choices that results in highly disparate versions of the exact same event or idea.

When something bothers me, I write to try and make sense of it and myself. I think of this kind of writing as journal writing or reflections or meditations. This set of connected meditations is my own exploration of Truth. Although I have been working on it off-and-on over the past few months, I expect my reflections will continue to evolve as I consider the topic further and respond to new, unexpected information or scenarios. During the writing, a structure took shape that included the definition of Truth, problems with identifying Truth, and conclusions about how my own reflections have changed my perspective on the Truth and the way I interact with the world. I made the stylistic choice to capitalize the words True and Truth as the topic of Truth is the focus of this essay. Despite being motivated by the sort of partisan distortions I recognized from those agencies who perceive themselves as authorities in Truth, I made every effort to avoid partisan examples as I believe doing so would only serve as a distraction from my main goal: to explore my reactions to this idea we call “The Truth.”

The Truth Is Only a Problem When We Disagree

People don’t question the Truth when they agree. Instead, as people move further from agreeing with one another, the idea of the Truth becomes increasingly important. The Truth provides a justification for why one person’s arguments can supersede another’s. So this concept, this idea that we call Truth, is only recognizable through contrast.

This may not seem particularly insightful except, when you think about it, if people are only aware of this concept, Truth, when they disagree, then they aren’t actually reflecting on the concept of the Truth: rather, they are focused on whatever ideas are disputed. This means any understanding about Truth as a concept is actually distorted by people’s natural tendency to find their own assumptions and conclusions as “correct” or “accurate” or “right” while those that don’t match are “incorrect,” or “inaccurate” or “wrong.” Since we only become aware of Truth through disagreement, it makes sense that people will associate Truth with whatever they believe — whether it’s actually True or not. People do not ask, “What do I mean by ‘the Truth’?” or “What do you mean by ‘The Truth’?” Instead, they ask, “What is the Truth?” and never consider that without reconciling the first two questions, it may be impossible to answer the third.

There Is No Universally Agreed Upon Definition for Truth

On the one hand, we believe the Truth is easy to recognize when we encounter it, but in reality, any definition for the Truth will invite debate. As I interpret it, Truth is the recognition that an individual piece of information meets believable standards of accuracy that are greater than the disbelief about that information’s accuracy. 

But not everyone will find this definition of Truth satisfactory. There are as many definitions for Truth as there are people, and further, it is even possible that from one moment to the next, each of us could find alternate interpretations for what we consider the Truth. While many definitions for the Truth are vague or fuzzy or based on how a person feels, the most dangerous definition of Truth is the belief in an objective Truth that supersedes every and any alternate interpretation of information, especially because that objective Truth typically happens to be our own Truth.

By this I am not arguing that there is no objective Truth in the universe; instead, I’m arguing that knowing it is outside human capacity and fits more firmly into the realm of whatever flavor of deity suits you. Thus objective Truth is beyond our pay grade; we should avoid it lest we overextend ourselves and fall victim to our own hubris. “But,” you think as you read these words, “how can you tell me you know what the Truth is? Aren’t you being a hypocrite?” No. The reason I’m not being a hypocrite is because I am telling you what I think, not what to think.

Problems with the Truth: My Opinion Is Still Just an Opinion

It is amazing, when you think about it, how many of the things we believe are Truths are really just opinions. The previous sentence, for example, is an opinion. It puts forward a proposition or assertion that is arguable. Maybe it’s accurate, maybe it’s not. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. This entire reflection is an opinion. Maybe you will agree that it makes sense; you might even agree that I’ve captured the Truth, or perhaps you will shake your head and question how anyone can reach such conclusions.

The distinction between Truth and opinion is difficult because so much of our understanding of the world is predicated on belief. In fact, every time I speak, write, or think, my assertions are predicated on my own understanding which is limited by my available knowledge, remembered experiences, or personal conclusions. The verbs that we could use are all recognizably about this understanding: think, believe, know, conclude, understand, realize, feel. Although I might say, “I was born on February 20th, 1999,” it is implied that “I think I was born on February 20th, 1999.” When I profess, “My car is gray” or “Rain is falling,” I am actually acknowledging “I understand my car is gray” and “I know rain is falling.” As I write, each sentence, each topic, each assumption is predicated on my thoughts and beliefs so that each sentence could technically begin, “I believe…” or “I think…” or “In my opinion…” 

Sometimes we include words like “I think” to help personalize our writing, to remind our readers that our assertions are our own and based on our available knowledge, remembered experience, or personal conclusions. You may believe that an assertion like “I was born on February 20th, 1999” is irrefutable. However, it is possible that the date is not factually accurate. While the likelihood that a person’s birthdate is not actually the date that person recognizes is infinitesimally small, the fact remains there is a possibility; it is not impossible, and in fact, I can think of one person who I know who celebrates a different birthdate than their actual literal birthday. Further, the specific date is predicated on use of the calendar for the United States and many other countries, but not all countries, so the defined birth date is based on a shared understanding of the naming for dates.

Truth requires a foundation built upon these shared assumptions, otherwise it cannot recognizably be the Truth.

Problems with the Truth: Details, Devilish Details

Human beings are fundamentally imperfect (despite everything we imagine about ourselves); therefore, our communication is fundamentally imperfect which leads to inaccuracies, omissions, and additions — and these are only some of the distortions that appear unconsciously; they don’t take into account willful or purposeful distortions of information meant to mislead or obfuscate. 

Think back to any recent ephemeral conversation that you’ve had. No transcript for this conversation exists (except for our highly subjective and notoriously imperfect memories), but if one did exist, and if we could go back to analyze the words you and every other participant spoke in this conversation, and if we examined the accuracy of those comments or contributions, what percentage would actually be the Truth? For most of us, the answer, we believe, is all of them. But is that so?

Missy and I had an argument once after she told a co-worker that our son Alex got a scholarship that covered all but some amount of his tuition. At the time, I interjected, “Actually it was some other amount.” She later told me that it didn’t matter for the purposes of that conversation what the specific amount of the scholarship actually was. Her co-worker didn’t need to have the clarification made because the purpose of that conversation was to talk about the scholarship, not the dollar amount. In my mind, it was more important to call attention to the accuracy of the facts, which I think we can agree would have been the Truth of the situation. But for her communication, that Truth was secondary or ancillary to the main idea of the conversation.

While I was the mayor of Clifton, one of Missy’s former co-workers called her in a panic because a pipe had burst and water was spraying all over her basement. She asked Missy to ask me to contact the village maintenance director to turn off the water at her house as soon as possible. When I called him, I did not explain the back story — that my wife was actually the one who was called. I just told him that the resident contacted me with an emergency and asked him to go to her house and shut off the water immediately. In this case, I chose expediency over accuracy with the end goal to get him to her house as quickly as possible over understanding the details that were actually irrelevant to the emergency.

How often do we share information that is, say, 90% accurate because the remaining 10%, those details, are superfluous to the point we are trying to make? Or how often do we have to roll details up into a summary because the relation of the information needs to be shortened or the attention span of our audience is flagging? Every day we make decisions about what to include and what to omit from our relation of information.

From this, it is clear to me, at least, that accuracy — which I equate with Truth — is not always a priority in relating information. And this is True for the majority of our verbal communications with others.

Problems with the Truth: The Truth is Actually Hard Work

Once upon a time we had institutions that acted as gatekeepers of Truth. Newspapers, publishing houses, media networks, corporations, organizations; these bodies existed to disseminate information. Maybe they did a good job telling us the Truth, and maybe they didn’t, but by their very existence serving as sources of information they created a perception that certain institutions and organizations could be trusted as keepers of the Truth. And these gatekeepers put enormous resources into the Truth. It wasn’t easy to spread information. Publishing a book took the combined energy of a team of people like editors and typesetters and marketers, not just an author. Publishing a newspaper took another team of people from the printers to the paper carriers each of whom brought specialization and unique knowledge to make sure information could be disseminated as efficiently as technology allowed. These teams collaborated to create a product that — if it didn’t actually have higher standards of Truth — was perceived as having a standard of Truth that would make the product trustworthy and reliable.

Now we find ourselves in a world where anyone with access to the internet can say anything to the world that he or she wishes. While it has always been True that anyone can say anything, the reach of such statements has never been so wide as it is in the modern world with social media accounts, blogs, podcasts, and any other technological service that permits immediate global dissemination of and access to information. Producing information in the modern world on the internet is not the same as producing information in the pre-internet world of books, magazines, and newspapers. 

Coming out of the pre-internet world with its gatekeepers and its teams controlling information, we consumers expect that the information we are encountering today will be similarly vetted, researched, double-checked, or even triple-checked. But today’s information is closer to ephemeral conversations than it is to the kinds of products that were generated through the combined efforts of a team. Although tweets or posts today are not strictly ephemeral (because, as we all know, the internet doesn’t forget), they do come from a place that is not rigorous, that is not researched, and that is not double and triple-checked. Much of today’s information has more in common with the expectations for ephemeral conversations than with the Truth-type information that we expect from gatekeeper organizations.

Problems with the Truth: Understanding Is Not Static

In addition, the quantity of information being generated is greater than at any time in history. I am thankful that there is no record of my twelve-year-old thoughts for the world to access and remind me about. I’ve learned a lot since I was twelve and I expect to learn a lot by the time I’m seventy. We humans grow over our lives by continuing to refine our knowledge about the universe. Inevitably the person we will be is going to eclipse the person we are now. But the content we have created cannot similarly evolve; it remains static and unchanging, fixed forever like a picture of that moment when we wore our least favorite shirt ever and our hair was an embarrassing bowl cut and the camera caught us looking cross-eyed. It’s not always our proudest moment. 

We as a culture continue to treat all information as equal, both the evolved and the unevolved. By this I mean we ignore the reality that people grow and change. Worse, we continue to imagine that information from today’s present will somehow never be eclipsed by those progressions of self that are inevitable as each of us passes through time, acquiring new insights and information, refining our perspectives, and changing into new individuals. I think of this as “The Pinnacle Fallacy,” which means imagining this moment as the pinnacle of your existence while ignoring that in one year or ten years or twenty-five years, you will have moved on to a new pinnacle. In other words, you aren’t a static creature in this ever-changing cosmos just because your perception, that ubiquitous you, feels unchanged from present moment to present moment.

Problems with the Truth: Misapprehension

Errors are not only the province of the individual who evolves through time. The gatekeepers themselves, historical truth-tellers, are not immune to errors. My father-in-law was, as an Iroquois County Sheriff’s Deputy, involved in a car chase that ended with his vehicle in a field. He rammed and disabled a fleeing vehicle. The event was recounted in two separate newspapers. His version differed from both published accounts. That means there were three different versions of the events of that chase. In one newspaper, the fleeing car rammed his squad car. In another, he rammed the tail end of the fleeing car. In his version, he rammed the front of the fleeing car. (And as an aside, none of these are likely the Truth because I can’t remember which version was told by the newspapers and which was told by him since it was twenty years ago… the only thing that sticks with me was the discrepancies between the written versions in the Watseka newspaper and the Kankakee newspaper compared to his verbal account.) 

For the purposes of the Truth, as it is held aloft and demanded from those who claim there must be a single objective Truth, which of these three accounts gets to be that Truth? I have the most faith in his version as he was involved rather than the newspaper accounts which were interpreted second-hand. And my own limited experience with reporters and news stories has been that there is typically some nuance or fact or piece of the story that differs  in their relation of events from my experience participating even if it’s only the spelling of my last name (and if you can explain to me why it is that news reporters can’t spell Winkel correctly, I’d appreciate it).

Problems with the Truth: Loading Language

The sheer number of word choices available to speakers and writers in English offers anyone with a large enough vocabulary the opportunity to twist the Truth. There was a joke once about a political figure; probably this has been told about figures from every party who can’t get a break from the newspapers. It goes something like this: Did you hear about Andy? He was in a boat on the lake and he got out and walked across the water. The next day the newspaper headline read, “Andy Can’t Swim.” What’s always tickled me about that joke — told even as poorly as I’ve done here — is the way it plays on the Bible story of Christ walking on the water and twists that miracle to describe a failure. It reinforces what all of us should remember: information can always be manipulated.

For example, verbs are lovely tools to distort information and load language, and this is something writing teachers push when they babble and cajol about “strong verbs.”

Look at this statement:

Alton walked to work today.

As a Truth statement, there is very little to question about the propositions in this statement. It is a relatively neutral statement in that I have no assumptions about either Alton or his work.

Let’s see how our perception changes when we adjust the verb:

Alton trudged to work today. Now Alton’s action, which remains the movement from point A to point B, has suddenly become a labor of despondency. Alton either hates his job or hates his life or hates something because he is a trudger. We don’t trudge without reason. 

Alton marched to work today. Now Alton has an entirely different personality. He is marching, which is proud, determined. Maybe he is going to ask for a raise. Maybe he is determined to confront his boss, or to solve a problem. We don’t know what, but the verb changes our expectations for Alton and his work day.

Since the verbs all convey the same basic directional movement of a person from point A to point B, the difference in the manner that they describe can be arguably a matter of interpretation. This sort of verbal manipulation introduces a subtle distortion, and it may be done consciously or unconsciously. In an example like this, the distortion does not appear to be problematic. Imagine, however, a concerted, repeated distortion of this type over a series of sentences or further, a series of news articles. In such a case, the individual word choice may not be arguable, while the accumulated consequence of the distortions creates a result that could very well transform the information being related.

This type of distortion can always be created through word choices and is not limited to verbs. Adjectives, adverbs, the placement of prepositional phrases, the arrangement of clauses; each of these has the potential to distort in a subtle manner the interpretation of assertions. We might refer to these distortions as having either positive or negative connotations, but the end result is that it is possible for facts that are otherwise True to be manipulated and distorted away from the Truth.

Problems with the Truth: Cherrypicking

It’s not possible to know everything. With the glut of information available today, it’s not even likely that any of us can access all of the information that could contribute positively to our understanding of a particular situation, event, concept, etc. So cherry-picking is an inevitable consequence of the enormous amount of information and our much smaller attention/time.

There is also the more egregious and purposeful cherrypicking which takes place when a person with an agenda willfully selects from the available information to present only those pieces of evidence that support a particular Truth while omitting or ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

And, there is unintentional cherrypicking which can take place when a person fails to recognize evidence to the contrary because of his or her personal scotomas, those unintentional blind spots that we all have and fail to recognize.

Cherrypicking distorts the Truth by presenting only those pieces of information that confirm the Truth that one wishes to establish. If I declare that sunsets are always pink and then provide only evidence of pink sunsets, my evidence appears to support my assertion, and without contradictory evidence, it appears that I have established a Truth. With cherrypicking, it is only possible to be refuted when someone questions or investigates the evidence as provided. In a world as complex as our own, this is increasingly difficult because investigating the truth is time-consuming and most of us don’t have the free time to do it. We are also increasingly dependent on people, organizations, and institutions to provide these sorts of investigations for us, but the problem now is that our investigators, like Truth gatekeepers, are frequently less interested in the Truth and more interested in framing a narrative that matches their agendas. 

So more information has not led to a better understanding of the Truth; instead it has muddied the Truth and created even greater doubtfulness.

Problems with the Truth: The Truth Has Layers

Our universe is a web of causality where one result can have multiple causes or one cause can have multiple results. The more I encounter, the more confident I am that this complexity means the truth is rarely on the surface. Surface Truth, in comparison to Deep Truth, is usually more palatable, more easily understandable, and more believable. Deep Truth is more problematic because it is also True, but recognizing it or acknowledging it would usually open up some sort of challenge or discomfort or conflict, so it is shrugged aside in favor of Surface Truth.

Let’s say that you take a new job. The Deep Truth is that you’ve been disgruntled at your current job for a long time, you’ve had problems with your boss who is an asshole and who keeps demanding more from you without any kind of credit for the effort you are putting into your work, and you have been increasingly aware that the environment which, when you started, seemed enthusiastic and energizing, has become toxic and frustrating. But when people ask why you are leaving, you explain that you were able to get better pay and benefits, plus the new job is closer to home. All of these are your Surface Truths because they are all reasons and they are all True, but if you were pressed, in your heart of hearts, to acknowledge the most influential reasons why you took the new job, out of all the justifications, you would have to acknowledge the additional Truth that your soon to be former workplace had become a nightmare and for your health and sanity, you felt compelled to leave. You don’t share that, however, because burning bridges has never been your way, and you’d like to keep some avenues from that job open, even if there’s never going to be any chance that you will revisit your life there.

Some people are naturally more aware of layers of Truth than others, and the consequence of this is that such people will always have Surface Truths to camouflage their Deep Truths. There’s never any reason to admit to a Deep Truth when a Surface Truth will do. It’s the Truth equivalent of “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Conclusion: Science Is Not the Truth

Recently, “science” has become synonymous with the inarguable objective Truth of the expert. Treating science in this way is dangerous because it completely misrepresents what science actually is. Science is a process, not a solution. It is a process of consensus that requires evidence, experimentation, debate, and reproducibility. And even when science has risen to the level of consensus, most scientific ideas are only good enough to last until they are disproven and replaced with new ideas. That’s why it is so difficult for a scientific idea to rise to the level of a “law.” Science cannot be truly science if there is no debate or argument and it certainly can’t be the Truth. But that is exactly what is happening with social media platforms and web search services that throttle or filter any results that don’t match the current consensus of science. There are absolutely risks from purposeful, intentional misrepresentation of ideas; I understand that there is a danger in sharing information that has the potential to spread harm. But my focus here is Truth and the recognition of Truth and anyone who moves their justifications from “I am following the advice of scientific experts” to “I am following the science” has just moved from a True statement to an un-True statement. The first statement gives me the opportunity to explore the credentials of the scientific experts, look at their records, their successes, and then make a decision about the value of their advice; the second statement offers no such confirmation. Increasingly our leaders have distorted the word “science” to represent the inarguable justification of their decisions while failing or refusing to acknowledge that within the scientific community there exists a minority of alternate viewpoints.

Conclusion: Haste Makes Waste

Currently, information shared on the internet has the potential to generate revenue through advertising, and advertising revenue is calculated through some kind of formula based on site visits and ad interest. Before the internet gave us the ability to share content digitally, newspapers published stories daily. As with digital news, print news organizations generated revenue from advertising, but another profit stream for newspapers or news magazines included the sales of physical copies. A big news story would result in an increase in newspaper or magazine sales. 

A “scoop” was when one news organization published a story before another news organization, and since most markets included at least two competing news organizations, a “scoop” would increase physical paper sales. As this “scoop” incentive to publish information before your competitor has always been a motivator for news organizations, internet news likewise survives on publishing news as rapidly as possible. But the side-effect of this is predictable because in a world where rapidly shared information of any value is more important than patiently verified information, the rapidly shared (and potentially inaccurate) information takes priority. NPR, for example, has sometimes included a disclaimer when reporting news stories that are breaking:

This is a developing story. Some things reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlet, and reporters who were at the scene. We will update as the situation develops.

Unfortunately, I see very few organizations that recognize that the Truth of a situation evolves as more information becomes available. Instead, most prefer to present news that is controversial or alarming and that will increase advertising revenue rather than publish cautious, deliberate, conscientious reporting.

Evidence that this hasty reporting is problematic can be seen when an author or organization retroactively edits a news story to match current information. I’m not talking about superficial edits like adding an apostrophe. I’m talking about the kinds of edits that reframe a news story so the news organization appears to have been more accurate than what it actually was, or on a different side of an issue than what it originally presented. 

Orwell described the retroactive editing of information in 1984. As readers, we recognize the irony when this type of deceit is being perpetrated by “The Ministry of Truth.” It is all the more disturbing to note that the exact same dishonesty recognizable in Orwell is being practiced by individuals and organizations under pretense of Truth.

Conclusion: Certainty is Dangerous

As Dickens closed A Tale of Two Cities, his rabid revolutionaries slavered over the guillotine justice that they wished upon their enemies, and Dickens reflected that before the hungry blade fell silent, the revolutionaries would also feel its bite.

So certain where they in their justice that it never occurred to them that the tool of justice could be turned upon them.

As I have reflected, there are dangers from elevating any one Truth above its alternatives through any means that involves censoring or control of opposing viewpoints. That risk is that any endorsement of censorship must also include an invitation for you, too, to be censored. As certain as you are that your Truth is the Truth, others who disagree and can present convincing arguments to the contrary, or who control your means of communicating information, can control your message. They can filter you or cancel you just the same way you have celebrated the filtering or canceling of others. Therefore you should never celebrate the censorship of ideas or information unless you are willing to accept the censorship of your own ideas if some other authority in the world proves capable of having the means to censor you.

I am not advocating here the idea that you can never be confident that you understand the Truth. I am advocating the idea that you should never equate your certainty in the Truth with virtue. Being somehow aware of the Truth does not give you the moral high ground over others because in this universe of infinite complexity, you can expect to be incorrect at some future time.

I am also advocating that people realize: the more certain you are that you are in possession of the Truth, the less certain I am that you are in possession of the Truth. I have an immediate reaction to anyone who steps in front of me and says, “The Truth is X and only a fool doesn’t know this,” and increasingly, this is the tactic used by people who are sharing information. They cloak themselves in condescension, they acknowledge none of the alternate viewpoints and dismiss everyone else with either smug disdain or outright insults.

Your perceived infallibility is a symptom of your perceived ubiquity; both are fallacies, distortions of perspective brought about from an inability to be anything other than what you are. Christ said, in one of his most profound and universal admonitions, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

When controlling the Truth, the Thought Police imagine that they are making the world a safer place; they are restricting dangerous falsehoods from spreading, they are regulating facts to only those that are “approved,” they are imposing a narrative that is, so they believe, the True narrative. But the consequence of this control is the complete destruction of any Truth because without access to all information, I and others like me cannot trust the information that I do have access to. Better to have access to all the Truths and all lies than to only have access to approved Truths which may only be lies.

When the available information is unfiltered, determining the Truth rests with me and my own agency; when the available information is filtered — even ostensibly to protect me — my agency has been replaced by the control of another whose agenda (altruistic, of course; such control is only ever described as altruism by those who are protecting me) has the clear potential to be corrupted and abused, to mislead me and remove my own ability to think critically and independently. Inevitably, inexorably, there can be no other conclusion when the Thought Police are policing thought except for a complete breakdown of trust of all information. Rather than any information having value, none will.

 In Naked Lunch, William Burroughs explained, “You see control can never be a means to any practical end. … Control can never be a means to anything but more control … like Junk.” And Burroughs isn’t referring to garbage or unnecessary objects when he points to junk; he’s referring to dope, to heroin, because like a drug, control is addicting, and any control can only have, as its goal, more control. That line struck me when I read it twenty-five years ago, and it comes back to me with regularity any time control raises its head as a solution to any problem. In our modern American quest for Truth, I believe “Control can never be a means to anything but more control.”

Digression: Lies

Any discussion on Truth requires at least some mention about lies. Like Truth, the taxonomy of lies becomes increasingly difficult as we scrutinize what, exactly, lies are. My focus in this reflection has has been to think about the Truth, problems with the Truth, and some conclusions about how to identify the Truth. It was not my intention to get sidetracked into what could be a very time-consuming trip dissecting lies, so I will digress here for a moment as lies are inextricably linked to Truth.

When people disagree, it is not unusual for one or both of the parties to point to information from the other party and label it as “a lie.”

My friend John and I were talking a few years ago and I said, “I’ve always thought it was impressive that you played the role of Demetrius after Tom got strep throat the day of our high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Upon hearing this, John immediately said, “I’m complimented that you remember it that way, but it was actually Sean who played Demetrius after Tom got strep throat.”

Looking at the information, it appears that both of us remember that Tom got strep throat while both of us believe that a different actor took his place. I remember John and John remembers Sean. As it is only possible for one of these options to be correct, one of us is accurate and the other of us is inaccurate.

A note in a yearbook explains that it was Sean who took over the role of Demetrius along with his own role as Tom Snout which means my memory, and my statement, was inaccurate; it was not the Truth. But was it a lie?

To answer this, we need to look at what we mean when we call something a lie. The denotation of the word “lie” is an intentionally false statement. There are three components to a lie:

First, it is an assertion.

Second, it is false.

Third, it is deliberate.

My statement, that John was the one who took Tom’s place, only matches two of these three components. First, I made it as a statement. Second, it is false. Third, it was not deliberate but was the result of some sort of memory error. I recalled that John did this, but in fact, as John reminded, it wasn’t him. If all three of these components are necessary for my statement to be a lie, then it is not a lie.

Interestingly, the word lie doesn’t always require these three components when it is used to describe someone else’s assertion. Rather, of the three components (assertion/false/deliberate), the first two are clearly recognizable and the third is a matter of interpretation, therefore any one can choose to interpret any piece of information that is a false assertion to be a lie because there’s no way for me to verify whether the assertion was deliberate or not. In this instance, John did not declare that I was lying, though in an alternate example — especially one that is polarized and political — it would be easy to imagine that John could call me a liar because I was in error. 

Further, we know that a lie is a deliberate false assertion, and if we choose to lie, we usually do so with the intent of cloaking our lies as Truths. I can’t think of a reason why a person would lie and broadcast that fact: “I am lying when I tell you John took over for Tom when he got strep throat.”

The consequence of this observation is the recognition that labeling information as “a lie” is what we do to other people’s information. If we do choose to lie, by its nature, the lie is intended to be cloaked or hidden so that its lack of Truthfulness isn’t recognizable. We don’t want our lies identified as lies; we want them identified as Truths.

As with Truth, lies are only visible through contrast. There is a difference between labeling something as Truth and labeling it as lies: We will acknowledge our own Truth and others’ Truth, but we only acknowledge others’ lies. I can’t stress this enough: because the label of lie or liar is only applied to others, the three conditions of a lie (assertion/false/deliberate) are actually reduced to only two conditions (assertion/false) because the third (deliberate) is unknowable by the person doing the labeling. As that person has no way to know whether the information was presented deliberately, that condition has lost any real substance in the modern definition of either lie or liar. Thus by this new and misleading definition, being wrong and lying are the same thing.

A liar is one who tells lies. In modern English, I can think of no equivalent for one who speaks the Truth. Once upon a time the word “soothsayer” was applied to someone who could foretell the future, but even that term was related to prophecy, not honesty. While there are many adjectives that describe honesty, this lack of a noun in English (or at least, lack of my knowledge of any in English) tells me that the default expectation is that a person is a Truth-teller and the exception is that the person is a liar.

But as noted above, that person, the liar, may actually not meet all three of the criteria of a lie because even if you don’t believe you are a liar, your statements may be labeled as lies. 

Conclusion: We Should Not Allow the Knaves to Erode Truth and Discourse

My default is, I believe, the Truth. I don’t purposely lie, at least, in any way that I am aware of. I was raised to respect honesty, and I believe I’ve raised my children with similar expectations. Not everyone shares this value. There are different triggers that justify lies. One person may excuse dishonesty because the other person “deserved it.” Another may think that whatever benefit is received from the dishonesty makes the lie worth it. Regardless of the motivation, purposeful deceit impacts discourse when it lures people to believe that it is the Truth. And some people in the world who have different values than I do have no reservations about lying. Lies are their currency, the company they keep, and the ocean that they swim in. 

There is a type of logic puzzle called “Knights and Knaves” where the Knights can only tell the Truth and the Knaves can only lie. Only in word problems do such creatures exist, and the Knaves of the real world are all the more difficult to identify because they tell both Truths and lies. 

These real-world Knaves find justification for lying when they believe that the ends justify the means, and I fear it is this value system that will undermine free and open discourse. In our real-world version of Knights and Knaves, Knights tell the Truth generally and only lie when certain conditions come up that push them to do so: self-preservation, avoiding stress or conflict, minimizing damage, etc. Knaves, on the other hand, have a goal that includes the dissemination of mis-information, and have a value system that makes no distinction between either the Truth or lies; instead, they only see value in information that suits their goals. 

To help explain, let’s posit a community with a controversial and expensive park project on the docket for the local authorities to consider. The Knights on either side of the project, either pro or con, will share their own opinions and understanding on the project and attempt to convince one another through traditional discourse; the Knights would not lie in the traditional sense. 

The Knaves on either side look only at their endgame: “We want the park to be funded and built” or “We want the park to be dropped from the budget” and then they assault the world with any information that they can to push for their goal. Not only any information, but as much information as they can to disrupt the traditional discourse of the Knights. The more Knights that the Knaves can convince, the more effective their campaign.

The Park Knaves can cherry-pick stories that bolster the credibility and integrity of the local authorities; they can share excerpts from opinions of famous experts on the value of parks and recreation (while omitting any information from those same experts that would otherwise undermine their goal); they can offer rosy projections or forecasts that imagine the beatification of anyone who steps foot on the lush grass and experiences Nirvana; and although I certainly can’t imagine the breadth of their lies, they will lie frequently and repeatedly to distort the information out there in favor of their endgame: getting the park approved. 

The Anti-Park Knaves, meanwhile, will find news information to malign the local leaders — even baseless accusations are newsworthy because they cast a shadow and doubt; they will scour the past for anything to assassinate the characters of any proponent of the park; they will find experts who dispute the need for the park; they will offer their own dismal projections or forecasts that prove what a quagmire the park will become financially; and, like the Park Knaves whose methods I can’t imagine, the Anti-Park Knaves will use lies, the more frequent the more useful, and they will have no qualms about this because their endgame is to stop the park by any means necessary.

The differences in information presented by the Knights and the Knaves in this situation don’t seem all that different. They might even share some of the same information, but where the Knights default is to tell the Truth, the Knaves default is to spread mis-information, especially knowing that more information is, to our limited time and attention, a persuasive feature in establishing Truth.

I don’t offer here any solution for our real-world Knaves because I don’t know what solution there can be. As I reflect on Truth, I’m operating from a perspective where I value Truth and honesty, but how can you combat a full-frontal assault on Truth and honesty by people who do not share your values? 

At my second-most cynical, I worry that the values motivating the Knaves — values of “the ends justifies the means”  — are replacing the traditional Knights’ values that generally prioritize honesty and integrity. The result of this erosion is information entropy in which all information is manipulation and there is no Truth.

At my most cynical, I worry that this has always been the case and I’ve been too blinded by my own worldview to realize that the values that I thought were present in others were nothing but my expectations about myself transferred to the rest of the world.

Conclusion: Embracing Refutation Is Uncomfortable but Essential

The Truth is somewhere between an assertion and its refutation. When I assert that it is raining outside and you refute that statement by saying the sun is shining, the Truth will be at either one end or somewhere between these opposing viewpoints. Just because I say something is True and you refute it with an alternate assertion doesn’t mean that one of us is correct; both of us may be incorrect; alternatively, both of us may be correct: the world is complex enough that two people can see the same thing and have different interpretations of it (just look at any Democrat and Republican who witness the exact same press conference and one sees a choir of angels while the other sees hell’s pandemonium). 

But refutation, as a contrast, provides a necessary alternative to reinforce the Truth or un-Truth of an assertion. 

Real refutation requires at least some familiarity with the assertion; it requires some understanding, and should be relevant. It is a presentation of opposing information and it allows the reader or listener or viewer to draw conclusions for him or herself. 

But recently, refutation appears to be unpopular. It has been replaced as a strategy by people who use outright dismissal, insults, or censorship.

A dismissal is not a refutation. “Your point isn’t even worth my time,” may feel like the kind of condescending logic that your middle school crush used to turn you down when you asked him or her to go out, but it is not a convincing rhetorical strategy to point out the problems with your assertion. 

Those who insult take condescension one step further. They are so condescending that rather than simply dismiss your assertion as meaningless, they instead turn it into an opportunity to vilify you, as though painting you into an ogre justifies their assertion. If you don’t believe or agree, you are a $&*@#! son of a !$?#@. The greater the disagreement, the more vile the insulting descriptions — though recently, it seems that the nuclear option is the only option, and anyone who doesn’t agree deserves to chew on their very own nuclear winter.

Censorship makes use of control to stop an alternate viewpoint, and even when censorship is arguable, the use of this strategy to silence opposition leaves open the possibility that the opposing viewpoint could be squelched because of alternate motivations than simply being un-True. Power, authority, profit, control, all of these are possible justifications to silence an alternate viewpoint that have nothing to do with being right or wrong, thus anytime censorship is used it invariably undermines itself because it removes the agency from those who would otherwise have been able to use the refutation to draw their own conclusions.

Afterword: Embrace Openness and Uncertainty

With the internet, information began to shift from top down news sources to bottom up fact gathering. It’s a different experience. Where previously there was the “sage on the stage” version of Truth, the expert who could provide the information and context, such clarity was replaced by the chaos of countless contradictory accounts or opinions. Aggregating the Truth became much more difficult. In Phillip K. Dick’s short story, “Minority Report,” there are precogs who predict crime before it happens. Dick chooses three precogs so there can be consensus. But the future isn’t actually fixed or at least, precogs don’t always predict the same things, so when one of the three precogs sees a different future, it’s called a “minority report” because a majority predict one outcome and the other predicts some alternate, contrasting outcome. This is similar to assembling a news story. Many facts can be sifted through and assembled, but even done with the best intentions, there can be a minority report alternative that could exist that, through its very existence, throws the credibility of the released version into question.

We are experiencing a shift from centralized authority of information to de-centralized information and the reality is that there is no way to process all of the information to assemble the Truth. 

We’ve fooled ourselves and accepted through faith that gatekeepers like media companies, publishing houses, news outlets were able to do this and tell us what is True, but now we realize that assembling Truth requires selecting from a great many accounts. Constructing a news story requires framing the story in a certain way, and sometimes that requires omitting some details or adding others. And the omission of an account can transform the Truth just as certainly as the inclusion of an account can. The critical thinker can’t help but question the veracity of everything. The Truth is that there is no absolute, irrefutable Truth. We are living in a post-Truth world.

Our great modern crisis is that there is no expert who can wrest order from the chaos of information and anything that can is inevitably Big Brother: and to give him power (even in the pursuit of Truth) is to abandon ourselves.

This means we need a new understanding of Truth, one that is not carved in stone tablets and presented from an authority figure who can, unquestioned, dictate it to the masses. It’s going to be a Truth built like science around a consensus between individuals, agencies, and experts whose voices have spoken to us personally, have convinced us personally. Truth can never be State sanctioned, it must be personally sanctioned.  This crisis means that my own Truth may not match those of my friends or family or community, which has always been an invisible fact since it was understood that we don’t bring up politics or religion in polite conversation. And the consequence is that there will always be alternate Truths, minority Truths that I may dislike or disagree with but I can’t control my Truths could be controlled next. Since there is no standard of Truth that can be universally applied, the censorship of anything I disagree with means I agree to be censored by some other agent of power who doesn’t agree with me, and that is a position I am unwilling to take.

This isn’t really a change to the world; it’s how the world has always been, but we just never realized it. The way information has been distributed has changed and now we must figure out how and it has created a fundamental revision in our expectations for information.

Pandora’s box is open. People think censorship will somehow restore the box, pack all of those dangerous visions, distorted Truths, the nightmare of misinformation back and latch it closed, making us safe and protected. The end result of that control can only be absolute silence and an inability to think critically; in short, we can give up our humanity.

Instead we must live in a new era, an era of vigilant skepticism, an era of constant doubt, an era in which we are all the new scientists: ever uncertain and ever open-minded.

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.”

What you don’t know > What you know: “Compared to those with knowledge and understanding, your ignorance is proof that you are wrong.” This does require some explanation. Most recently I’ve noticed this used in response to legal cases in the news, and when someone either supports or rejects the ruling, an opponent will ask, “When did you pass the bar exam?” or “When did you become a lawyer?” Basically, the idea here is that because you can’t know everything, you can’t know anything … at least, when you disagree. Education doesn’t actually protect you from this argument because by this logic, even if you are educated, or have experience, you still don’t have as much as some other expert who automatically trumps you with his different interpretation. Most recently, I found this argument used to push against a commenter who supported a judge’s ruling in a case. So the critic, who discounted the judge’s ruling, asked the person who supported the ruling, “When did you pass the bar exam?” These same critics, who appear to place so much faith in the bar exam as a measure of value, then discounted the judge’s ruling because they didn’t agree with her application of law. She obviously didn’t fully understand the law or else she would have ruled differently. This does show why our legal system includes an appeal process and why, at the final level of appeals, a decision must be reached by majority: because people, even experts, don’t always agree.

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.

Updated 2022/02/16 to include “What you don’t know > What you know.”

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 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 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 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, 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!