Don’t Quote Me

“Much of the work of natural selection over the millions of years has been to find ‘decisive’ or ‘single-minded’ molecules whose ‘preference’ for their favoured shape is much stronger than their tendency to coil into any other shape.” 

– From Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins


Quotation marks are meant to denote something that someone said or wrote. They indicate that these are the exact words used. They do not add meaning. If the quotation marks enclose something that is not a direct quote, then they are out of place and should not be used. Often people enclose a word or words in quotation marks because they don’t quite know what they mean to say and hope that the reader will somehow fill the vacuum and supply the meaning. In other words, quotation marks are a lazy way of avoiding saying what you mean. In this case, Dawkins fails to explain how the molecule in question is selected. In other words, the sentence fails at its one and only job.

Casting a Spell

Always try to begin a piece by casting a spell. When you tell a story to a little child, you may begin, “Once upon a time….” to induce the magic. With an adult for an audience, you may need a bit more. Here is what I mean by that: 


            I am sitting here now looking out on my back yard and my driveway and my neighborhood of plain brick houses with flags of white steam nearly still in the air above the chimneys. There are more than two feet of snow covering everything, and the towering evergreens are freighted with it, creaking under it, bending low. The temperature is well below zero. Icicles, some of them four feet long, hang from my roof and from the vines that cover my brick house. The sky is a ceramic winter blue that looks artificial, because it’s so cold that there’s almost no moisture in the air. There are no clouds.


            The Mexican guys from the garden store delivered firewood the other day, and now there are logs burning in the grate. Veal stock is cooking on the stove in a great white pot, veal knuckles cut and quartered and even a cow’s hoof in pieces, and the aroma of it fills the house, along with the faint scent of the banana bread that Debbie made yesterday.


           The holidays are over. My daughter Elena is at the library with C.C., her ten-month-old daughter. Elena recently earned her doctorate. Her husband Simon is at home with their four-year-old son Emmett. I took care of the kids this morning while Elena worked on a scholarly book she’s writing and while Simon built beautiful things out of wood in the basement. Then I came back home to read and write.


        The sun is low in the southwest, nearly its lowest point for the year. It bears down on the rooftops and seems to set the houses afire. The light is turning yellow, and long shadows fall across the white snow where a rabbit, half buried, nibbles on a twig. The peregrine falcon that lives in our neighborhood circles some blocks away, and I watch her now as she crosses from south to north, her black body tracing a catenary arc across the blue canvas. I saw her take a pigeon down to the yard next door one day. Peregrine falcons stake out a large territory, so I known it’s her and not another. They’re the fastest animals on earth. She can hit seventy miles an hour in cruising flight, and when she commences her stoop to catch a pigeon in flight, she’ll dive from half a mile up, reaching 200 miles an hour as she hits her prey and breaks its back. She was ripping apart the pigeon’s breast when I opened the window to try to take a photograph, and she lifted off on slow wings, with the limp body in her talons trailing gray feathers. She has no predators, but there’s plenty of prey. Ours is a college town of city pigeons. This world is hers.


        I do not know by what right I continue to walk this earth. I wonder about it all the time. It’s three in the afternoon, and I can continue writing, or I can get up and do something else instead. I could go to a movie or play chess or plan a vacation or call my friends on the phone just to talk to someone. But I have a deep sense that writing is what has kept me here, kept me safe from electron bombardment and dissaray and alien abduction and insanity. Writing is what allows me now to sit on this side of the glass looking out at the snow instead of having things turned the other way around. I don’t know if I chose writing or if writing chose me, but in all the work I sensed nothing heroic. I love to do it–have to do it–and pursuing that path put me here in this spot at this moment. It feels as if it was not my doing. I was just lucky. Very lucky.

32. Persevering (héng). Duration

No blame. Perseverance furthers.


        The falcon disappears behind the houses. A stately American Airlines ship, creamed with yellow light, heaves into view from the northeast and lowers toward the sun, leaving a trail of ice crystals behind it. It’s engines are howling a ceramic ringing song. The falcon reappears, circling back north, watching, taking it all in. What is she doing up there? She can’t eat all day long, yet I see her at all times of the day.


        Just before evening, the crows all gather in a big naked elm with a mange of snow on its flank, and they laugh and jabber with one another. The crows are the really smart ones. They don’t hunt. They listen and watch and wait for others to hunt and then eat what they leave. In this neck of the woods, they eat the squirrels that are run over by cars and the garbage that the squirrels ferret out of the cans and spill in the alleyways. And they laugh at the falcon, so sharp and sleek. The falcon is up there for everyone to see. She doesn’t have to hide. She’s so fast that it doesn’t matter if you see her or if you don’t, she’ll get you either way. The crows. I like the crows. They sit there and take it all in. And then they laugh.