May Reading List – I Still Haven’t Read Lonesome Dove…

This is the monthly reading list I send out to email subscribers. If you like what you see, you can subscribe here or through one of the banners on this site. 

Thanks for reading, 

— Charlie

Spring is here, and I’m blogging again. My goal is one post per week, and so far I’m on track. My self-imposed deadline is on Friday. It’s a nice way to unwind with some thought-for-the-day writing for myself. I spend my work week writing to help my clients‘ websites stand out–it feels good to do the same for my own site.

In April, I wrote about:
Writing rough drafts by hand
Net 30 payments
and Writing tips from Sex and the City

I know I said I was gonna take on Lonesome Dove next, but I’ve decided to make it a summer read after going on a Hemingway tear inspired by the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary. So far, I’ve only seen the first episode–he’s just become a literary success and hasn’t transformed into Hemingway the caricature yet. Looking forward to the next two parts.

In this month’s reading list, I also have a book on how to have good ideas on a regular basis, a punctuation guide that will make you laugh out loud, and Hemingway’s burger recipe.

Light Years by James Salter – I don’t know how I made it this far as a student of American literature without encountering James Salter. He’s been called the author who “freezes time” and has a reputation for writing the best sex scenes in American letters.

A Farewell to Arms (the Hemingway Library Edition)  by Ernest Hemingway – I’m rereading this one for the first time since college. This new edition includes all 47 alternative endings, complete with strikethrough and markups by the author.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway – As I watch the PBS documentary, I’m revisiting some of my favorites: “Big Two-hearted River,” “Hills like White Elephants,” “Indian Camp,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Hemingway on Writing

Hemingway’s burger recipe

One True Podcast – a podcast by the Hemingway Society.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves – A guide to punctuation that’s as funny as it is useful.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young – A book about the process of coming up with good ideas on command, written by a 1930s adman. This slim volume popularized the practice of walking away from a problem to let your unconscious mind solve it.

I was recently gifted a subscription to Monocle by my buddy Dan.

Subscribe to The Hustle if you haven’t already.

Matt Ruby on the freedom of low overhead and other life lessons.

Time, Tarkovsky, and the Pandemic.”

Five (very) short stories by Lydia Davis.

How climate change impacts Japanese poetry.

Don’t be a cog.

Some history of the origin of keyboard layouts from The AtlanticWikipediaForbes, and the Smithsonian.

These videos from Vooza are hilarious.


 

April Reading List – Farsickness

This is the monthly reading list I send out to email subscribers. If you like what you see, you can subscribe here or through one of the banners on this site. 

Thanks for reading, 

— Charlie

The German word fernweh means homesickness for a place you haven’t beenliterally “farsickness.” This week I’ve got some fernweh going on as I read about two places that have always fascinated me from afar–Appalaicha and Afghanistan.

I’m also feeling plain old home-sick as I watch this tearjerker of a book promo in which my dad and I talk about our collaboration and his life story.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
A charmingly plotless autobiographical novel that reads something like Huck Finn meets Ulysses. If you’re new to McCarthy, this is not the place to start. If you’re already into him, this is a palate cleanse with a lower body count than his other books. I’ve also been listening to the Reading Cormac McCarthy podcast and his conversation with Werner Herzog. The second episode of the Reading podcast has some fascinating context about Appalaicha and the Tennessee Valley Authority. I’ve also been brushing up on McCarthy’s punctuation rules.

Boys in Zinc by Svetlana Alexyavich (Zinky Boys in the U.S.)
An oral history of the Soviet/Afghan war by the Nobel Laureate whose chronicle of Chernobyl became the HBO series. This is one of the most disturbing accounts of war I’ve ever read. As my buddy, Dan, who recommended it said: it’s like the Vietnam War if America had no budget and an endless supply of vodka. Reading the accounts of disabled veterans, I can understand why my dad feels so grateful to have come home to America and why he worries about what became of wounded veterans on the other side who didn’t have the benefit of our healthcare system or our appreciative culture.

The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Phillip Kapleau
A foundational text of Western Buddhism. I’m rereading it for maybe the tenth time.

After Ikkyu By Jim Harrison
Zen poems with a Big Sky Country twist. Inspiration as I get back in the habit of writing a haiku every morning.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon
A guide to screenwriting that deliberately breaks with the stuffy, over-serious tradition of screenwriting theory. It helps that the authors are screenwriters and not story theorists like so many who pedal screenwriting advice.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout –
An illustrated guide to marketing from the early 1990s. Many of the examples are dated, but the principles hold up. This is a must-read for anyone interested in copywriting. It’s also a prime source of vintage Trump-bashing. The authors use the Donald as a recurring example of how not to build a brand.

This week, we lost literary immortal Larry McMurty. My next read is going to be Lonesome Dove. But in the meantime, I’ve been checking out his blog.

Writer Emergency cards come in handy when you get stuck.

William Faulkner’s writing advice helps too.

In one of my favorite newsletters, comic Matt Ruby dispenses travel wisdom.

And this podcast talks about long-distance hiking in your own backyard.

The cinematography of There Will Be Blood.

Ryan Holiday on  100 very short rules for a better life and how to learn anything.

Peter Matthiessen on Zen meditation.


 

Writing by Hand — like Jim Harrison

For the third writer in this writing-by-hand series, I’m taking a look at another legal pad legend, Jim Harrison.

Like Matthiessen and Hemingway, Harrison was as well known for his off-the-page adventures as for his work. His appetite for French food and game birds was a frequent subject.

He hunted, he fly-fished, he showed Anthony Bourdain around Montana and was pals with Jack Nicholson. He chose screenwriting as a day job over teaching and lived in Montana, Michigan, and Arizona instead of New York. He was the kind of novelist we desperately need more of.

Harrison’s work earned him the ultimate back-handed compliment for an American writer: to be more popular in France than he is in the States. I once visited a suburban bookstore in Alsace where they have a huge black and white photo of Jim Harrison behind the counter, smoking a cigarette and regarding the camera with the permanent wink of his missing eye.

Jim Harrison wrote for the senses. Whether he’s describing a meal or a bottle of red wine or a strip club or a vast horizon or a lost love, to read him is to have your appetites aroused.

Naturally, Harrison wrote in a tactile and direct, unpretentious way that suited his style: by hand, on legal pads, with intensity.

In some cases, the legal pad draft was the only draft. Harrison rarely rewrote. He jotted the draft of Legends of the Fall in just 9 days, but he claims to have worked on the story in his head for a decade.

A feature in Esquire describes his process, which he practiced into his last days.

On the wall behind Harrison is a giant bulletin board with Buddhist and Taoist maxims. On his desk sits two boxes of American Spirits, one empty and the other unopened. Stacks of yellow legal pads sit in front of him. Nothing is on the wall in front of his desk. When he writes, he stares into the void.

Jim Harrison archive legal pad pages
Jim Harrison’s papers. Image: Brick, a Literary Journal

Why They Call it “The Forgotten War” – Make Peace or Die Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from Make Peace or Die, a Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares. In it, my father relates his memories of recovery from his wound in a Navy Hospital and talks about why we call Korea “The Forgotten War.”

BETHESDA

1951–1952

“When I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
“Why are you here with all your watches ended?
From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line.
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
“When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”

—“Sick Leave,” Siegfried Sassoon

People talk about the “Forgotten War” as if future generations of students and textbook authors didn’t do their job. But the fact is few at home were thinking about Korea even when we were in it. The year 1951 was a year of wonderful distraction in America: I Love Lucy premiered and The Catcher in the Rye was published. There was a new Chevy on the market. There was no home front. The Greatest Generation, who had put their lives and comfort on hold to fight the last war, were buying suburban homes with G.I. loans and starting families in the most comfortable era in American history. Unemployment was 3.3 percent. There was no antiwar movement like there would be in the next war. Then, as now, few Americans could find Korea on the map. Today, most Americans don’t know that there’s never been an official armistice and that the Korean War is technically still going on as of this writing.

The complacency and indifference at home became clear to me on one of my first trips out of the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I’d been given a pass to spend the night away. Mary and I stayed at the Tidewater Inn in beautiful Southern Virginia. In the bar at the Inn, some locals noticed my sling and cast and assumed I was the gentleman whose boating accident they’d read about in the local paper. I had to ask them to repeat the question. I suddenly didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t imagine pleasure boating mishaps any more than they could picture the circumstances of my wound. Before dinner, the house band played “Dixie” and everybody stood. I remained seated and breathed hard. Despite Mary holding my trembling right hand, I felt completely alone. I thought about Cowart and Ables, Rocky and Ivens, and longed to be with them, if not joining their ranks in death, at least back in the dirt cracking sick jokes and feeling like my work mattered. That feeling would return for a very long time. It’s only recently, looking back with the perspective that comes from a lifetime of dwelling on the personal cost of “the game,” as my slain Uncle Charlie called it, that I no longer wish to be back there with them but wish they could be here with me instead.

I was rated 40 percent disabled for my semi-useless arm according to a Veterans Administration chart that compensates one leg

at one rate, two legs at another, and another for loss of sight or for one or both of “the brains” or a “three-piece set.”

MASH field hospital korean war batalion aid station
Navy Doctors and Corpsmen perform emergency surgery on wounded Marines in a Battalion Aid Station field hospital during the Korean War (Photo/ Department of Defense.)

My therapy started when the seepage stopped. For a while, the closest thing I had to exercise was putting my arm in a warm whirlpool for hours. That wasn’t pleasant, but not totally unpleasant. Eventually, my prognosis turned around and there were no more jokes about waiting for the arm to fall off. The Navy doctors were able to fuse the two bones in my forearm, the radius and ulna, into a one-bone forearm, resulting in an arm that can no longer pronate (twist). Progress was slow. Finger exercises were frustrating. For a while, I was motivated by the relief of knowing I could keep the limb. The reconstruction left my arm much more fragile than if I had both bones. With each fracture came the dread that I may be starting from square one with therapy. The bullet damaged the ulnar nerve, leaving me with a permanent “funny bone” feeling and an arm that’s sensitive and somewhat painful when touched from the elbow down. Since then, I have worn my watch on my right wrist. Protecting the arm and holding it close and in front like it’s in a sling has twisted my spine slightly over time. So today I use a walking stick when I feel I’m listing too far over. The official report describes it like this:

“Malunion left forearm, incomplete paralysis of musculospiral nerve, limitation of flexion, limitation of extension hand, limited loss of pronation and supination.”

While I was still in the hospital, my father insisted that I get the opinion of a civilian specialist to see if there was anything more that could be done. The specialist told me it was a miracle the Navy docs had been able to save my arm. I was grateful for that, but what bothered me at the time was that I couldn’t hold Michael properly. On one of my early trips home, I was walking around our tiny apartment with him. I tripped trying to close a door with my foot. Rather than drop Michael, I fell on my arm. The docs set my broken arm, and the healing started over.

One brilliant thing military hospitals do is put every patient in contact and close quarters with fellow wounded, many of whom are maimed in ways that make you thankful for your own condition. As much as my hydrotherapy tickled, I could never compare my discomfort to the tortured grit of fellows with missing limbs trying to run, walk, or swim again. So what if I couldn’t hold Michael properly? Some other Marines couldn’t ever have kids. I saw one badly disfigured lieutenant hold a mirror to inspect the results of multiple plastic surgeries, the way you would in a barber’s chair. With despair in his voice, he pleaded with the doctors, “This is all you can do for me?”

John C. Fryer, whom I met in therapy, had lost a leg along with most of his hands to a Chinese grenade.

He had asked the man who found him, a Mexican American private, to leave him and save himself. The Latino kid pulled a crucifix out from around his neck. “I will never leave you,” he vowed.

Before the war, Fryer had been a fisherman in Alaska, ironically America’s most dangerous job. When he returned from a long trip, a buddy met him on the dock and said, “Hey, John, let’s go to war.”

“What war?” Fryer asked.

While we were in Bethesda, I asked Fryer what he would do if that buddy had asked him to go back to war, knowing exactly what would happen. Without hesitation, he said he would go.

The first time Fryer was up and walking on his prosthetic leg, Mary and I had him over for dinner. When Mary saw him off his crutches she exclaimed, “John, you’re so tall!”

He smiled and stood even taller.

Fryer had dreamed of being a forest ranger after the war. I’ve always hoped he made that happen with one leg.

***

The last thing I heard Bob Aylmer say, when Gunther Dohse and I rescued him from that rice paddy, was, “I’m okay.” Bob was okay in the end. We met again on the same medical transport flight back to DC. He was a mess, bandages everywhere, but alive. The night we landed, a young girl named Helen had called the Navy asking about Aylmer. She was his high school sweetheart, and they were engaged to be married. She was told she couldn’t see him that night but could visit the next day. She and her parents went to the hospital for a bedside reunion. Bob told her that his eye just needed resting and that he’d soon be patched up, good as new. Then he asked Helen for a moment alone with her parents. Aylmer leveled with them about his true condition. In despair over his prognosis, he said that Helen better move on and find somebody else to marry.

Helen soon got the truth from a local paper announcing Bob’s return after losing an eye in Korea. She was furious.

“You’re not marrying my parents,” she told him, “you’re marrying me. Anything you can say to them, you can say to me. I can handle it, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Bob didn’t have any family of his own besides a stepmother who came to the hospital once or twice and never returned, too upset by the sight of him. Helen, on the other hand, was back at his bedside the next day, and the day after that, and every day for many months until he was well enough to be discharged, half-blind and unable to walk without pain.

During my time with Bob at Bethesda, I watched men less wounded than him give up to lives of disability checks and self-pity. They didn’t have Helen, though. Thanks in no small part to her love, Bob always had enough encouragement to go around.

“Lieutenant Daly,”—for the rest of his days I would try to get him to drop that “Lieutenant” routine—“maybe you can’t move those fingers. So what? I saw you hold your baby, that’s pretty good. How about I lend you my glass eye so you can roll it around and exercise those fingers?”

His unending drive to rebuild his body shamed and inspired me never to moan about my arm.

A decade passed. In 1962, I was working in the White House when the guard at the Northwest Gate called my office and asked if I knew a man named Bob Aylmer. “He says you saved his life.”

“That’s not true. He saved his own, but send him in.”

We caught up. He was working full time in the State Department and walking the halls, as a messenger, in spite of his shattered knee.

“Lieutenant, I got married.” “That’s great, who’d you marry?”

“Who do you think I married?”

Besides being the center of Navy medicine, Bethesda was my hometown. At Sunday family dinners, it could feel like I had never left. But there were times when their worry and pity was all too transparent. A tough moment came when my dad visited the hospital. His own memories must have been welling up as he watched a nurse change the dressing on my arm. At my family’s home one afternoon, I was napping on the couch following a big lunch. Ann, the ever-doting, much-beloved sister, watched me sleep. She remembers feeling overjoyed her brother was home safe. She went to plant a kiss on my forehead, and the next thing she knew, my fist swung past her head. I was waking up in Korea.

On May 31, 1952, First Lieutenant Charles U. Daly was retired from the United States Marine Corps, as confirmed by these excerpts from the Marine Commandant’s letter:

Your disability is permanently related at 40 percent.

I regret that physical conditions necessitate your separation from the active list and wish you many years of happiness and prosperity.

It was time for me to try living a normal life.


Make Peace or Die: A life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares is available through Amazon and Indiebound, or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. 

An early draft was featured on Jocko Podcast episode 196

Writing by Hand – like Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen is my favorite kind of writer–the kind who wrote as he lived, prolifically.

He worked as a commercial fisherman, a conservationist, a CIA officer, a Zen teacher, an advocate for fist-peoples, and co-founder of The Paris Review.

He authored more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction and hundreds of articles.

He wrote by hand, carrying legal pads with him into the field.

In a comment on his obituary in Audobon, one reader describes his writing and notetaking process, which he revealed to her at a chance encounter on a trip to Kenya.

We crossed paths in Nairobi in 1986. I studied his face, with lines like a map, rich in river tributaries and dirt roads. His blue eyes arrested my journey. Over lunch, I asked how he gathered research in the field.

“I’ll share this with you,” he began. “ I take two yellow legal pads, side by side, in a large notebook. ” He holds his hands open as if releasing a rescued bird. “On the right hand side, I make notes by day. Quick, abbreviated, except for the quotes. All in long hand. At night I flesh out my impressions on the left hand side, adding things I learn elsewhere. When the research in the field is done, I type from the left hand side, adding more.”

Legal pads give you a place to be all over the place

When I’m doing research for client work, I draw a vertical line down the length of the legal pad page, making a gutter on the right-hand third of the page. This is where I put “to-do” items and notes for the outline that will come out of my notes.

This gutter is a catch-all. It allows me to capture random, unrelated thoughts that might be useful for what I’m writing but have nothing to do with the notes on the lefthand side of the page.

A legal pad, divided this way, gives me a place to be all over the place. Like Matthiessen’s “rescued bird,” this method gives me the spontaneity of a mindmap with the order of a bulleted outline.

There’s something about yellow paper

The whole point of yellow legal pads is to be mentally stimulating, that’s why they’re yellow. But there’s more to it than the color. The tear-off pages, the cardboard back strike the perfect balance between sturdiness and expandability.

A legal pad is pleasant to write on, but it’s less precious than a leather-bound notebook.

I find they help me get bad ideas out of my system without having to think about the cost of the page itself. There’s no pressure to have the quality of your ideas match the quality of the medium because it’s the same junk paper you’d use for to-do lists and notes.

Legal pads are unassuming. Students use them, so do accountants and lawyers and scientists.

A yellow pad doesn’t scream “serious writer at work.” I would imagine this worked to Matthiessen’s advantage as a world traveler whose ability to observe and document depended on blending in.

Legal pads are cheap and abundant

I bet if Peter Matthiessen needed to find a fresh legal pad in the Congo or Nepal, he probably could have. Legal pads are everywhere and are the same everywhere.

I write on Rhodia Nº19 Bloc notes. They have smooth paper. They’re made in France. At €‌6.10 for 80 sheets, they’re expensive as legal pads go. But seven bucks is a bargain, considering I’m buying the space to have ideas and hone my work before I type it up. And the return on investment over 80 pages is substantial. Plus, there’s an emotional appeal. Like a nice watch… your phone has the time, but that’s not the point.

But if you’re happy with paper that isn’t French, legal pads are crazy cheap. At Staples, a 12-pack of 50-sheet pads will set you back $23.

When I lived in Korea, I bought my pads at their equivalent of the Dollar Store for like $1 each.

Peter Matthiessen’s workshop had an Analog Desk

From what I was able to find, it looks like Matthiessen was also a believer in separate desks for typing and writing. His “workshop” consisted of an L-shaped desk with a word processor on the short end and legal pads spread out on the long end with notes stuck to the wall. As seen in this 1989 Esquire feature.

Not everyone has room for a setup like this. But even if you work at a tray table, it can help to partition writing and typing as distinct phases of the writing process.


Need something written for your business? You can hire me and my legal pad. My waiting list is now open.