Monthly Archives: October 2013

On Civility


I saw a report on a news show recently about a grocery store located somewhere in the mid-West which was touted for the extreme politeness of its employees. People came from miles around to shop there because of the friendliness of the staff, and employees also traveled far to work there. Maybe I was missing something, but while the people in the store seemed friendly, they were no more courteous or friendly than the people I encounter as I go about my business here locally. At Food Lion or Rice’s or Barnes and Noble I’m always greeted warmly, asked how I can be helped and wished a good afternoon or evening as I leave. The staff at some of these places know my name and ask me about my family or my column. Around here, it doesn’t seem that much out of the ordinary. Most everyone I know is polite and considerate. To be sure, there is rudeness in the area, particularly on the highways, but by and large, we seem to have a tradition of civility.

I was thinking about the disconnect between my day-to-day experience and what seems to be the recent spate of people behaving badly—politicians, entertainers, sports figures, and ordinary citizens at various meetings and venues. Anger seems to be a common denominator to these demonstrations. Now, I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that behind the anger lurks frustration, anxiety or general unhappiness. It would seem that if we want to reduce the level of anger and have civil discussions and civil behavior, we need to attend to whatever is fueling the ire in these people.

I became aware of this tendency to confrontation while I was still teaching English. I had one class that seemed fixated on having a debate. I couldn’t quite understand this since there is not a lot to debate in Early American literature. I was also puzzled that they wanted to use such a demanding and complex form. “Why do you want to have a debate?” I asked. “Because debates are cool,” they answered.

After a few times of their asking for a debate it began to dawn on me that what they and I had very different ideas of what a debate was. I asked them for an example of what they meant by a debate. “You know,” they said, “Like on The Jerry Springer Show.” I wasn’t familiar with this bit of broadcast media so I promised to watch an episode.

Well, I was appalled. I have never seen such a collection of dysfunction coupled with exhibitionist urges in my life. And not only was there shouting over each other, there were threats, fisticuffs, and the throwing of chairs. If this was what my students thought of as debating, they had been sorely misinformed somewhere along the line. I told them that if they worked hard, we would have a real debate if we had time at the end of the year.

We came to a point about three weeks before the end of the year where we needed something to wrap up our study of the literature. I told them we would end with a debate. I divided them into teams, and we spent a week going over ideas in American literature, looking for topics that would lend themselves to debate. They caught on to the concept with propositions like “The literature of an era reflects the important ideas of that era,” and “The correlation between an author’s work and life is clear.” Then it was off to the library to research their topics for a week and to prepare their arguments. I went over a simplified form for debate and by the last week of school, they were ready to present. They did a magnificent job. They had well-reasoned, well-researched arguments and listened, rebutted, and summarized like champions. I felt as if they had learned a great deal and had shown it. At the end of the time I asked, “So how did you like debating?”

“It’s a lot of work,” they answered, “But we learned so much.”

In America, perhaps more than any other place, we have a peculiar tension between individualism and the community. Individualism made our country what it is today, but sometimes at the expense of the community. When we work together, we can accomplish great things. Victory in World War II, the interstate highway system and the Apollo moon landing program come to mind as great achievements of Americans bending their efforts toward a common goal. We seem to do so when there is a threat, and certainly we never seem to lack for those. As the Beatles sang, we need to “Come together, right now!”

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Transgression and Grace, or, Cutting Each Other Some Slack

Good advice for all of us!

Good advice for all of us!

I was thinking about rules the other day, for some reason, and I was minded of a quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great jurist, who declared, “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”

At an early age, we learn rules and consequences when we follow them and when we break them. I asked my daughter Amy, who is an ace fourth grade teacher if her students were big on following rules. Here is what she wrote:

Yes, unfortunately I am quite familiar with children who are big on following rules.

Mostly the kids get very upset if they think others aren’t following the rules. One example is the “calculator police” in my room. The kids haven’t really used calculators before this year, and get all upset if they think someone is using a calculator and they’re not supposed to be. We had to have a chat about how some people need the calculator and I’ve given them permission to use it. I said that fairness isn’t giving everyone the same thing: it’s giving everyone what they need to be successful!

They aren’t as bad about tattling as the younger grades are, but if they’re a little less mature, they do get upset when others don’t follow the rules!

Of course, rules and laws apply to us as we grow older and woe unto us if we disobey the rules and get caught. Traffic laws provide a nearly universal and daily example. Most drivers tend to driver a little faster than the speed limit, and most police tend to tolerate that as long as it’s not dangerous or what is called “too fast for road conditions.” There is an element of judgment in applying the law. When I got a speeding ticket a few years ago for going 40 in a 25-mph school zone (the lights weren’t flashing, honest), the judge dismissed the charge because of my good driving record. I had a social studies teacher back in the day who told us, “There is a reason for the law and reason within the law.” My experience in traffic court was a perfect example of this principle.

Baseball rules (of which there are many) are famously open to interpretation and can differ from day to day in their application. A young player who “shows up” an umpire by protesting strikes is likely to find himself not getting the close calls. There are consequences. Some people have asked why the game doesn’t use a Pitch-Trak to call balls and strikes. There are entirely too many variables, especially in close plays on the bases. There is a reason for the rule, and reason within the rules indeed.

Human relationships are perhaps the most important arena where grace and judgment must be used. We hurt each other, mess up, and generally make a hash of things. All this is going to happen and when it does, it can destroy a relationship–or we can offer each other grace, understanding, compassion and empathy and go on together. Holding grudges, as someone wisely said, hurts us more than it hurt the person we hold a grudge against.

I pray for each of us that we are familiar with the rules, and, more importantly, how to use them to build others and ourselves up and not to tear down and destroy.

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Friday’s Poem of the Week

Manassas Train Station

A while back, I wrote this for my friends in Write by the Rails. It seemed particularly appropriate the week my first novel was released. Here’s to you, my friends and compères:

Write by the Rails

a poem of appreciation

Here’s to you, my colleagues, my friends,
My companion toilers in silence and solitude,
In appreciation for a shared vision
A shared divine madness
For this most peculiar enterprise.
For times and ideas shared
For afternoons spent talking at tables
For nods of comprehension
And smiles of recognition
Stories shared, pasts remembered
Futures imagined
We who are so different
Who animate our singular kingdoms
Of the mind and heart
And yet who move in a great swell
Together forward.

-Dan Verner, April, 2013

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Digging to China

Digging a Hole

I saw a while back that Google Earth had added a new feature that allows users to dig a virtual hole from any spot on earth and see where they would come out on the other side. This reminded me of a popular belief when we were kids that if you dug a hole straight through the earth, you’d end up in China. Somehow, this benighted idea included everyone and everything being upside down on the other side of the earth. Now, I don’t think we were especially stupid or even in the magical stage of cognitive development, but a few minutes with a globe and recall of the facts of gravity would have shown us just how dumb these ideas were. And we weren’t little kids at the time. I remember being about ten years old and thinking this.

For the record, if we were to dig straight through the earth from this location, we’d end up in the ocean somewhere south-south-west of Australia. To come up in China, you’d have to start in Argentina. Not that we let facts get in our way.

One of our favorite places to play was a large vacant lot a couple of houses down from my house. We met there and played all kinds of games, mostly involving throwing things at each other. And of course at some point we decided to dig to China. This quest was made more difficult since none of us had a shovel and had no chance of borrowing one from a tool shed and carrying it down the street for several blocks. Kids couldn’t get away with anything in those days. If our parents didn’t see us, a neighbor would, and come out, take the shovel away and tell our parents we were up to no good. When we got home, our parents would grill us about why we had a shovel and what we were going to do with it. The conversation would go something like this:

Parent: Mrs. Smith said she saw you walking down the street with a shovel this afternoon.

Kid: (under breath) Well, she’s a nosy old bat, isn’t she?

Parent: Excuse me?

Kid: I said, it was just like that…

Parent: What were you going to do with a shovel?

Kid: Dig a hole.

Parent: Why?

Kid: (under breath) We wanted to dig down to China.

Parent: Where?

Kid: China.

Parent: Well, since you have so much energy, you can dig the weeds in the garden…

So, knowing how this would play out, we were reduced to using a couple of old serving spoons we had found for our excavation. We started digging in the rock hard clay soil characteristic of this area under a blazing sun and actually worked for a couple of hours. By that time we had a hole about a foot and a half in diameter and six inches deep. I thought it was quite an accomplishment for a couple of kids with spoons. By then it was time to eat, and somehow we never got back to our hole to China.

I’m sure there were other absurd beliefs that we cherished, but about the only other one I can recall is the idea that, given the right kind of cape, I could fly like Superman. I adopted the usual expedient of tying a bath towel around my neck and jumping off the front porch. I didn’t achieve anything near flight. I was discouraged from this feat until I saw (on the back of a carrot bag, strangely enough) an ad for a “real flying cape.” This was apparently before the days of truth in advertising. I sent off my quarter and a few weeks later received in the mail a cape made of thin plastic that would have been red if it had been thick enough. I gleefully tied it around my neck and climbed to the top of our shed in the back yard. Flight was just an instant away. I could fly to China! No need to put all that effort into digging! I took a deep breath and launched myself into the air and landed on my feet with a thud. It really hurt and although I was on the short side to begin with, I was even shorter after my jump. I threw the cape down in disgust and gave up on the idea of trying to fly that way.

Maybe we as kids had a kind of underlying interest in other cultures and took China as someplace exotic and different. We were fed a steady diet of adventure stories—tales about Admiral Byrd and Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager—and I believe we saw going to China as an adventure. I was thinking of digging to China the other day when it occurred to me that in this area we are surrounded by people from all over the world. So we don’t have to dig to China. China has come to us.


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Poem for a Monday: Wishes


Today, I’m wishing,

Not on a star, but just plain old

Wishing. And so,

I wish I had

A nimbus of hair like

Art Garfunkel,

The ability to

Touch hearts and minds

With words and music like

Gordon Lightfoot,

The style and intelligence 0f

Wendell Berry,

The courage and perseverance of

Nelson Mandela,

The eloquence and grace of

Martin Luther King, Jr.,

The gentle spirit and insight of

Maya Angelou,

The genius and quiet passion of

Emily Dickinson,

The strength and holiness of

Joan of Arc,

And the determination and fortitude of

Marie Curie,


As the saying goes,

“If wishes were horses,

Then beggars would ride,”

And I’d have enough mounts

To start a cavalry regiment.

–Dan Verner


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The Kindness of Strangers

Kindness of Strangers

(from No comment necessary.)

Waitress Nikki Pirog had seen the two women crying. The women — she presumed a mother and daughter — and a single gentleman were her only tables in a small and secluded section at the Daedalus restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She didn’t know what had happened until the man passed her his bill with a credit card and this note: “Do me a favor and bring me their check too. Someone just got diagnosed. Don’t tell them.”

“I combined the two checks, and he paid for both,” Pirog told CNN in an e-mail. “Neither of us really spoke of what took place, as he had obviously not wanted to make a big deal out of it. He wrote me a second note on his new bill thanking me for my help, and telling me to relay the message ‘Best Wishes’ to the ladies when they were ready to leave. When the ladies were ready for the check, I told them the man near them had taken care of it, and the mother was overwhelmed with emotion, which I have to admit almost got to me too.”

Pirog first posted a photo of the man’s note on Reddit. She was compelled to share it because “I’ve never really had anything this moving happen to me while at work,” she said. “People sometimes need to be reminded that there is good in the world.”

There’s something about restaurant customers’ acts of kindness that people just love to share online. Last month in North Carolina, a story about a stranger who left a touching note when paying for a family’s meal went viral.

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All About Cats

Cat at the Computer

I’m using material from a recent article about cat behaviors in the Washington Post by John Bradshaw for this post. Bradshaw offered some explanations for the sometimes winsome and sometimes frustrating behaviors that puzzle even the most dedicated cat lovers. He noted that  “Cats are the world’s most popular pets, outnumbering dogs by as many as three to one.” He attributes cats’ popularity in part to their “convenience.” They don’t need walking; they can be alone for days with water and some dry food; they don’t chew the furnishings like dogs (although they have been known to “mark” their territory in ways which upsets their owners. Indeed, the rub for many cat “staffs” (dogs have owners; cats have staff)  is that they can be your best friend at one moment (feeding time) and then wouldn’t cross the street to say hello the next.

Cats formed a unique partnership with humans between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago when granaries used by the inventors of agriculture in the Middle East attracted mice. The wildcats recognized a free lunch when they saw it, and moved in. They were more like  urban foxes, “born to be wild” and solitary, but willing to be around people in an arrangement that benefited both parties.

Early farmers also appreciated cats for qualities we still prize: soft and furry, they also showed a wonderful intelligence and an entertaining playfulness, even if that was on their own terms.

Cats are natural distrustful of each other, but can live together peaceably if they must share a food source. Even feral cats divide up available food, growing to colonies of several hundred in close proximity. In such situations, they evolved cooperative behaviors such as grooming each other (which for their humans means petting) and the raised tail which means they are receptive to being approached.  They also communicate by meowing, which has such a range of expression that their staff can tell what they are “saying.” I know when my cat Nacho wants to play or eat, or if she does not appreciate my attempts to play with her. And sometimes she tears around the house vocalizing in a way that can only be described as barking. My vet said she is a “dog in a cat suit,” which might explain this behavior. Cats also purr, which can be a sign of distress, as well as of contentment that  most people take it for. Animal behaviorist theorize that purring essentially means, “Please come here and settle down beside me.”

There’s no doubt that cats occupy a unique place in our lives. We have always had at least a couple in our household for the past 40 years, and we’re hopelessly smitten by them. It would be hard to imagine a day without a tabby or dilute tortie or any of dozens of breeds sleeping in the sun, playing with string, stalking a dust bunny or running at the sound of a can opener. For my money, there’s nothing like a cat for companionship, entertainment, protection (Siamese are particularly good at this), and, yes, convenience. Through millennia they have capered and stalked beside us on the long road to the present, and I pray they will continue on our journey together.

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Shed of the Year

I read with interest a story in the Washington Post Magazine about people who use sheds for purposes other than storing garden tools. They function as studies, pottery studios, and even potting sheds. The movement began in England, where such people are called “sheddies.” One group of gentlemen converted their shed into a pub. Now it does not surprise me that this movement started in England. Let me say quickly that I have the greatest admiration for all things English. I taught English literature in high school for about twenty years and found a beauty and complexity in the writings as well as other aspects of the culture. I could listen to an English accent all day. And don’t forget they gave us the Beatles, (Of course, they also tried to give us cricket, but we’ll overlook that for the moment.)

What I’m leading up to is that Britons probably have more eccentrics per capita than any other nation on earth. I know we have our odd ducks who try to contact extraterrestrials by wearing aluminum foil helmets, but it’s fairly well known that the English lead the pack in this regard.

William John Cavendish Scott Bentick, the fifth Duke of Portland, for example, was a very shy man, who didn’t like meeting people and banned them from his home. He then went further and decided to live underground. He built a series of subterranean rooms, including an underground ballroom was built and a billiard room so big it could house a dozen billiard tables. These rooms and various others were connected by 15 miles of tunnels. One tunnel, a mile and a quarter long, connected his coach house to the local railroad station. That way, he could travel in a blacked-out carriage to the station where his carriage was then loaded on to a railway truck. When he reached his London home in Cavendish Square his servants were sent away as he climbed from his coach and rushed into the privacy of his study.

A Lord Rokeby decided that he would like to spend all his life near or in water. He spent hours in the sea off the beaches of Kent, and his servants often had to drag him unconscious onto dry land. Later, he built a vast tank built with a glass top, had it filled with water and spent nearly all his life floating in the water. He grew the most enormous beard which hung down to his waist and spread out on the surface of the water. All his meals were taken in his pool, to the embarrassment of his family. His obsession with water was so great that he had drinking fountains installed wherever he could and drank great quantities every day. He lived to be 88, so he was a good advertisement for drinking (if not living in) water.

My favorite English eccentric, though, has to be Lord Cornbury, Queen Anne’s cousin. The Queen made him her representative as Governor of New York and Jersey in America. Cornbury took it all very seriously and decided that since he represented a woman, he would dress as a woman. At the opening of the New York Assembly in 1702 he wore a blue-silk gown and satin shoes and carried a fan. He took to wearing the most sumptuous decorated hooped gowns in silk, spending all his money on himself and leaving nothing for his wife. She had to resort to stealing to clothe herself. He was ordered to return to England in 1708 but continued to dress as a woman and managed to remain a favorite of the Queen. Maybe they borrowed each other’s clothes.

Another favorite eccentric of mine is a Belgian man who started dressing as a penguin after his wife told him he walked like a penguin. His house is filled with penguin artifacts, and he often visits penguins at zoos, buying fish for them to eat. At some point he decided he actually was a penguin and began eating raw fish himself.

Anyhow, I don’t think I’ll be writing this from my shed any time soon. It’s dirty and rusty and would need several upgrades (including electricity and A/C) to make it habitable. It’s a nice place to visit to get my garden tools, but I wouldn’t want to write there.



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A Well-Deserved Honor


Canadian short story writer Alice Munro has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, and I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more. For years, Munro has written engaging and beautifully styled accounts based on her life on the Canadian prairies. I was introduced to her work by her story “Boys and Girls,” which was a selection in the sophomore anthology we used when I taught English.

The story is available as a link and well worth anyone’s time to read it:  Congratulations, Alice Munro!


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Round Robin

Round Robin

Our friend Mark Cooke, trumpet player extraordinaire and financial advisor par excellence, asked me the other day if I had ever heard of a round robin letter, and if so, where the term came from. I recalled hearing the term but didn’t know much about it, and certainly didn’t know the history of the phrase. I was familiar with the round robin tournament, in which every player or teams plays every other player or team until something else happens. There’s also a single-elimination tournament (you lose, you go home) and the double elimination tournament (you lose twice, you go home). A church softball team I was on several years ago was involved in a double elimination tournament. We were not competitive or very good, but we managed to win the first game. We hope we would lose the next two games quickly because the day was hot and we were tired. We did. I know, we were a terrible example for the youth of America. But we lived to play another year.

Mark described his family’s experience with the round robin letter as starting about the time of the Korean War. One family member would write a letter about that branch of the family, kind of like the Christmas letters everyone loves to hate. (We do one at Christmas every year but limit ourselves to about a page each. Our daughters and Becky are excellent writers so maybe it’s not so bad. As for me, you can judge for yourself every week how that works out.) That family member sends the letter to another one, who adds a letter and sends it on to the next member of the family in the chain. When the letters get back to the original writer, he or she removes the original letter and puts in an update. And so the robin has gone ‘round and ‘round in Mark’s family for over fifty years. I found some other articles about round robins that indicated they were popular in World War II as a means of keeps far-flung families in touch with each other. I was describing this phenomenon to a young person who said (facetiously, I hope), “Why didn’t they just use Facebook?” I suspect social media would have put an end to round robins even if old age and death of the writers hadn’t. We all know what has happened to letter writing recently, and it’s a shame. The round robin is a charming reminder of an earlier era when mail was delivered twice or three times a day in some cities.

As for the name, apparently it dates from seventh century French usage. It was called ruban rond (round ribbon) and described the practice of signatories to petitions against authority (usually government officials petitioning the Crown) appending their names on a document in a non-hierarchical circle or ribbon pattern (and so disguising the order in which they have signed) in order that none could be identified as a ring leader.

The practice was adopted by sailors petitioning officers in the Royal Navy (first recorded 1731)

The term round-robin is recorded in English much earlier, although not with the above meaning. It first appears in 1546 meaning someone who is round and called Robin (oddly enough), and appears later applied to troublemakers: “These Wat Tylers and Round-Robins being driven or persuaded out of Whitehall abc” (1671). Wat Tyler was, of course, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381 and he led 50,000 peasants to London to demand an end to an oppressive poll tax. They were met by a large force of mounted knights and it was no contest between armored knights and largely unarmed peasants. Wat himself was killed. Apparently Round Robin was another dissenter about whom the details have been lost to history. It would be easier to take an insurrectionist named Wat Tyler seriously than one named Round Robin. Maybe Robin took his name from the practice of signing petitions in a circle.

In British usage, “round robin” applies specifically to Christmas letters. They seem to be the subject of more vehement vituperation than is usually accorded their American cousins. It’s my impression that the British roundly abhor anything that even mildly hints at bragging. Americans seem to regard sharing the family’s accomplishments as news that everyone is anxious to know.

So, maybe you, Faithful Readers, would like to bring back the custom of the round robin. They’re not nearly as amusing as passing a fruitcake around for decades, but they are much more informative.


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