Archive for May, 2009

Snippet scholarship: Being at ease

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Snippet scholarship: A note to the likeminded

I consider myself a snippet scholar.

While not a perception I particularly desire or encourage, I confess being a snippet scholar can often be thought pejorative. Snippet scholarship could be construed as my being a connoisseur of television sound bites or street-side church signs or as the way of one born to think as a Jeopardy! contestant.

What I speak of is not exactly an attraction to trivia; it is more of a resistance to lengthy expositions. I once heard a teaching colleague describe an administrator as one who “When you ask a question, you get a pageant for a reply.” I do not easily suffer pageantry in conversation or exposition; I want to get through explanatory prose as quickly as possible.

My discovery of my own predilection for what I call snippet scholarship arrived late in life when I became consciously aware of a lifelong attraction to so-called “handbooks.” In fact, I might better describe my leaning as more of a handbook scholarship than a snippet scholarship.

On my living room bookshelves as I write, an “accidental sample”–as the data buffs might say—reveals about 40 such volumes, not including dictionaries (such as a Dictionary of Symbolism), or grammar and style tomes on the order of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and the less sparse volumes produced by Theodore M. Bernstein, such as The Careful Writer. My quick count runs a gamut from Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace, subtitled, A Vocabulary of Faith, to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, subtitled, The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History. And this count does not include the row of dictionaries and writing guides that adorn my desk.

One must understand: I do not simply refer to these books, I read them. The latest of my snippet guide devourings is something of a best-seller, ’isms and ’ologies: The 453 Basic Tenets You’ve Only Pretended to Understand, by Arthur Goldwag, who says his book “can serve as an intellectual and social shorthand.” A few months ago I finished reading (in its entirety) Nathan P. Feldmeth’s Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 terms clearly and concisely defined.

It would be easy for me to lay my snippet penchant at the feet of a college professor of psycholinguistics who habitually encouraged students to read—actually read with care and in detail—dictionaries. (I confess to being one of a handful of students who took his admonitions to heart and developed a habit of perusing—in the true sense of that word—dictionary entries.)

However, I have to go further back to account for my snippet tendencies. I have always been a slow reader. My wife, for instance, can devour a Dick Francis novel in a couple of hours that would probably take me a couple of weeks to complete.

I went through high school in the days before CliffsNotes, Spark Notes, and most of the other “shortcuts” that secondary school teachers disdain. Had I access to them, I would have been a grateful champion of their snippet approach. Instead, I had access to Classics Illustrated Comic Books (to get the best flavor of this treasure trove, I recommend one visit this site: and its links.)

By the way, my high school teachers held these graphic adaptations of the classics in disdain as well, and that inculcated guilt in my consciousness that took a long time to shake. Even after learning in college that most literature students were more familiar with Masterplots than with original editions, I always felt I was somehow cheating by taking the “shortcuts.”

It has taken decades for me to be at ease with my snippet tendencies. One cannot imagine how vindicated I have felt with the invention of the hyperlink and the ascendancy of Google as a way of scholarship; alas, many of my colleagues and many of my son’s high school teachers have nothing but disdain for Google. Be at ease, they will learn.

I am now a proud snippet scholar. Perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to blogging, as you also must be! Be at ease, my snippet friends.

Cowboy Contemplative: Heaven or Home?

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Cowboy Contemplative: Singing our way home

[in memory of Mom]

Years ago a popular country song recorded by Tanya Tucker extolled the bliss of Texas. The song was “Texas When I Die,” and was written by a Tennessean (born in Arkansas), Ed Bruce (along with a couple of collaborators). Bruce actually cut a much better version of the song than Tucker’s, but her version moved further up the charts.

It begins with this repeated quatrain:

“When I die, I may not go to heaven;

I don’t know if they let cowboys in.

If they don’t, then bury me in Texas

‘cause Texas is as close as I’ve been.”

I have no connection whatsoever to Texas, so when I heard and fell in love with Bruce’s song, I toyed with the lyrics and made it my own.

“When I die, I may not go to heaven;

I don’t know if they let cowboys in.

If they don’t, then bury me in Brooklyn

‘cause Brooklyn is as close as I’ve been.”

New York actually gets dissed in Bruce’s lyrics, as does Detroit, Milwaukee, and—one could extrapolate—also Hell, while San Antone and Willie Nelson and Texas beer are given a treatment close to apotheosis. But no matter, for me Brooklyn—with or without Schaeffer or Rheingold beers—is sweeter than San Antone or Houston or Big D.

One could, of course, plug in one’s own place of heavenly memories: “. . . then bury me in Boston/‘cause Beantown is as close as I’ve been.” Or, for less urban devotees, how about, “. . . then bury me in Springfield /‘cause Main Street is as close as I’ve been.”

For me, it was living in Brooklyn, believe it not, that drew me as a teenager to the thrall of country and western music. At the time, a New Jersey radio station, WAAT, beamed Don Larkin’s “Hometown Frolic” into the region with its theme song, the Gene Autry standard, “I’m Back in the Saddle Again.” (Nora Ephron and Tom Hanks proved that song a favorite even to the Sleepless in Seattle!) If confronted with the quasi-Biblical query, “Can anything good come out of Jersey?” I would have quickly and confidently responded, “country music.”

So while my high school buddies in Brooklyn were losing themselves in Alan Freed and the rhythm and blues music that evolved into rock ‘n’ roll, I was steeping myself in Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Hank Thompson, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Slim Whitman, and cowboy favorites such as Autry, Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, Roy Rogers, and Rogers’ original compatriots, the Sons of the Pioneers. My adolescent fantasy of singing on the “Grand Ole Opry” ranked second only to playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and I learned about five chords on the guitar and about 500 country and western songs.

At that time, the only thing truly cowboy about that line-up of singers I mention is that several of them wore cowboy hats and occasionally appeared in chaps and spurs. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that “cowboy” is an attitude and a mindset more than a way of life or vocation; like me, most of the singers I mentioned above probably weren’t comfortable around horses, steers, or ranch waste; nevertheless, they extolled the way of the cowboy.

I think what cowboy singers promoted and what appealed to me as a boy was what I now can identify as the life of a “cowboy contemplative.” My heroes didn’t respond to life with Clint Eastwood macho aided by a big six-shooter; they backed off, rode alone, extolled the trail, preferred the dogies to the barroom, and sang quiet ballads.

Even when they did have to turn to the gun, they acted and then, like Alan Ladd’s “Shane” or the legendary Lone Ranger, rode into the distance to be alone with themselves—and perhaps, with God—and to sing a song (I just know the Lone Ranger sang when he was alone).

And they may well have asked the question repeated in Bruce’s “Texas When I Die,” which wonders if cowboys get to heaven (they do, as surely as ragamuffins enter God’s kingdom) and asserts those dying cowboys are ready to accept the next best thing: home.

Though she was neither a cowgirl nor a singer but surely a psalm-loving contemplative, it’s no wonder my mother always said of those who’d recently died, “They’ve gone home.”


Writer’s Note: Ed Bruce, the writer of “Texas When I Die,” and the writer and original singer of “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” in the twilight of his career has cut two successful gospel albums—“Changed” and “Sing About Jesus”—and, as noted on his official Web site, has become an ambassador of God’s life-changing love in Jesus Christ.

P.S. If you’ve read this far and would like to know more about my own cowboy contemplative life, you can click a link on this blog for “Poetry by ARA” to find my poem entitled, “One of Their Kind.” Or, just click here.


Listen to hear Ed Bruce’s recording