Category Archives: Quotable


Here now I’m telling about the most important person in this whole story and the best.  I’ve noticed how most of my fellow writers all seem to “hate” their mothers and make big Freudian or sociological philosophies around that, in fact using it as the straight theme of their fantasies, or at least saying as much—I often wonder if they’ve ever slept till four in the afternoon and woke up to see their mother darning their socks in a sad window light, or come back from revolutionary horrors of weekends to see her mending the rips in a bloody shirt with quiet eternal bowed head over needle—  And not with martyred pose of resentment, either, but actually seriously bemused over mending, the mending of torture and folly and all loss, mending the very days of your life with almost glad purposeful gravity—  And when it’s cold she puts on that shawl, and mends on, and on the stove potatoes are burbling forever—  Making some neurotics go mad to see such sanity in a room—  Making me mad sometimes because I’d been so foolish tearing shirts and losing shoes and losing and taring hope to tatters in that silly thing called wild—  “You’ve got to have an escape valve!”  Julien’d often yelled at me, “let out that steam or go mad!” tearing my shirt, only to have Mamère two days later sitting in her chair mending that very shirt just because it was a shirt and it was mine, her son’s—  Not to make me feel guilty but to fix the shirt—  Though it always made me feel guilty to hear her say:  “It was such a nice shirt, I paid $3.25 for it in Woolworth’s, why do you let those nuts tear at your shirt like that.  Ça pas d’bon sens.”  And if the shirt was beyond repair she’d always wash it and put it away “for patching” or to make a rag rug with.  In one of her rag rugs I recognized three decades of tortured life not only by myself but herself, my father, my sister.  She’d have sewn up the grave and used it if possible.  As for food, nothing went wasted:  an odd potato half eaten ends up delightfully tidbit fried by a piece of later meat, or a quarter of an onion finds its way into a jar of home-pickled onions, or old corners of roastbeef into a delicious homey burbling fricassee.  Even a torn old handkerchief is washed and mended and better to blow your nose in than ten thousand crinkly new Brooks Brothers Handkerchiefs with idle monogram.  Any stray toy I bought for her “doodad” shelf (little Mexican burros in plastic, or piggy banks or vaselets) remained on that shelf for years, duly dusted and arranged according to her taste esthetically.  A minor cigarette hole in old jeans is suddenly patched with pieces of 1940 jean.  Her sewing basket contains a wooden darner (like a small bowling duckpin) older than I am.  Her needles some of them come from Nashua 1910.  As the years go by her family write her increasingly loving letters realizing what they lost when they took her orphan money and spent it.  At the TV which I bought her with my pitiful 1950 money she stares believingly, only a battered old 1949 Motorola set.  She watches the commercials where the women primp or the men boast and doesnt even know I’m in the room.  It’s all a show for her eyes.  I have nightmares of her and I finding pastrami slabs in old junkyards of New jersey on a Saturday morning, or of the top drawer of her dresser open in the road of America showing silk bloomers, rosaries, tin cans full of buttons, rolls of ribbon, needle hassocks, powder pouffes, old berets and boxes of cotton saved from old medicine bottles.  Who could put down a woman like that?  Whenever I need something she has it somewhere:—an aspirin, an ice bag, a bandage, a can of cheap spaghetti in the cupboard (cheap but good).  Even a candle when the big civilized power blows out.  

For the bathtub, the toilet and the sink she has big cans of deterring powder and disinfectants.  She has a dry mop and twice a week is reaching under my bed for gobs of dust which are rapped out the window sill, “Tiens!  Your room is clean!”  Wrapped somewhere in moving carton is a big basket of clothespins to hang out the wash wherever she goes—I see her with basket of wet wash going out with clothespin in mouth, and when we have no yard, right in the kitchen!  Duck under the wash and get your beer in the icebox.  Like the mother of Hui Neng, I’d bet, enough to enlighten anybody with the actual true “Zen” of how to live in any time and just right.

Tao say, in more words than one, that a woman who takes care of her home has equalized Heaven and Earth.

Then on Saturday nights she’s ironing on the battered ironing board bought by her a lifetime ago, the cloth all brown with burns, the creaky wooden legs, but all the wash comes out ironed and white and to be folded away in perfect paper-lined cupboards for use.

At night when she sleeps I bow my head in shame.  And I know that in the morning when I wake up (maybe noon) she’ll already have walked to the store on her strong “peasant” legs and brought back all the food towering in bags with the lettuce at the top, my cigarettes at the top, the hotdogs and hamburgs and tomatos and grocery slips to “show me,” the pitiful nylon stockings on the bottom apologetically admitted to my sight—Ah me, and all the girls I’d known in America who dabbled at blue cheese and let it harden on the sill!  Who’d wanted taxis for their milk!  Who’d groaned on Sunday without roasts!  Who’d left me because I complained!

The trend nowadays is to say that mothers stand in the way of your sex life, as tho my sex life in the apartments of girls in New York or San Francisco had anything to do with my quiet Sunday nights reading or writing in the privacy of my clean homey bed room, when breezes riffle the curtain and cars shirsh by—  When the cat meows at the icebox and already there’s a can of Nine Lives for my baby, bought by Ma on Saturday morning (writing her lists) —  As tho sex was the be-all of my love for the woman.

–– Jack Kerouac from Desolation Angels p 334-336


When confronted with an alien way of organizing experience, however, we sense the frailty of our own categories, and everything threatens to come undone.  Things hold together only because they can be slotted into a classificatory scheme that remains unquestioned.  We classify a Pekinese and a Great Dane together as dogs without hesitating, even though the Pekinese might seem to have more in common with a cat and a Great Dane with a pony.  If we stopped to reflect on definitions of ‘dogness’ or on the other categories for sorting out life, we could never get on with the business of living.
Pigeon-holing is therefore an exercise in power.  A subject relegated to the trivium rather than the quadrivium, or to the ‘soft’ rather than the ‘hard’ sciences, may wither on the vine.  A misshelved book may disappear forever.  An enemy defined as less than human may be annihilated.  All social action flows through boundaries determined by classification schemes, whether or not they are elaborated as explicitly as library catalogues, organization charts, and university departments.  All animal life fits into the grid of an unconscious ontology.  Monsters like the ‘elephant man’ and the ‘wolf boy’ horrify and fascinate us because they violate our conceptual boundaries, and certain creatures make our skin crawl because they slip in between categories:  ‘slimy’ reptiles that swim in the sea and creep on the land, ‘nasty’ rodents that live in houses yet remain outside the bounds of domestication.  We insult someone by calling him a rat rather than a squirrel.  ‘Squirrel’ can be a term of endearment, as in Helmer’s epithet for Nora in A Doll’s House.  Yet squirrels are rodents, as dangerous and disease-ridden as rats.  They seem less threatening because they belong unambiguously to the out-of-doors.  It is the in-between animals, the neither-fish-nor-fowl, that have special powers and therefore ritual value:  thus the cassowaries in the mystery cults of New Guinea and the tomcats in the witches’ brews of the West.  Hair, fingernail parings, and feces also go into magic potions because they represent the ambiguous border areas of the body, where the organism spills over into the surrounding material world.  All borders are dangerous.  If left unguarded, they break down, our categories could collapse, and our world dissolve in chaos.
Setting up categories and policing them is therefore a serious business.  A philosopher who attempted to redraw the boundaries of the world of knowledge would be tampering with the taboo.  Even if he steered clear of sacred subjects, he could not avoid danger; for knowledge is inherently ambiguous.  Like reptiles and rats, it can slip from one category to another.  It has bite.  Thus Diderot and d’Alembert took enormous risks when they undid the order of knowledge and drew new lines between the known and unknown.

–– Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge as printed in The Great Cat Massacre (and Other Episodes in French Cultural History) by Robert Darnton p 192-193

(Diderot and d’Ambert edited the famous Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.  I would guess they would be very much impressed by the advent of the Internet.)  


One can also seek aid and comfort from specialists in the study of oral literature.  Milman Patry and Albert Lord have shown how folk epics as long as The Iliad are passed on faithfully from bard to bard among the illiterate peasants of Yugoslavia.  These ‘singers of tales’ do not possess the fabulous powers of memorization sometimes attributed to ‘primitive’ peoples.  They do not memorize very much at all.  Instead, they combine stock phrases, formulas, and narrative segments in patterns improvised according to the response of their audience.  Recordings of the same epic by the same singer demonstrate that each performance is unique.  Yet recordings made in 1950 do not differ in essentials from those made in 1934.  In each case, the singer proceeds as if he were walking down a well-known path.  He may branch off here to take a shortcut or pause there to enjoy a panorama, but he always remains on familiar ground—so familiar, in fact, that he will say that he repeated every step exactly as he has done before.  He does not conceive of repetition in the same way as a literate person, for he has no notion of words, lines, and verses.   Texts are not rigidly fixed for him as they are for readers of the printed page.  He creates his text as he goes, picking new routes through old themes.  He can even work in material derived from printed sources, for the epic as a whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts that modifications of detail barely disturb the general configuration.

–– Peasants Tell Tales as printed in The Great Cat Massacre (and Other Episodes in French Cultural History) by Robert Darnton p 19


Later, as Hewlett and Packard scaled up, they stayed true to the guiding principle of “first who”.  After World War II, even as revenues shrank with the end of their wartime contracts, they hired a whole batch of fabulous people streaming out of government labs, with nothing specific in mind for them to do.  Recall Packard’s Law, which we cited in chapter 3:  “No company can grow revenues consistently faster than its ability to get enough of the right people to implement that growth and still become a great company”.  Hewlett and Packard lived and breathed this concept and obtained a surplus of great people whenever the opportunity presented itself.

–– Good to Great by Jim Collins p 192


Inequality still runs rampant in most business corporations.  I’m referring now to hierarchical inequality which legitimizes and institutionalizes the principle of “We” vs “They”.   … The people at the top of the corporate hierarchy grant themselves privilege after privilege, flaunt those privileges before the men and women who do the real work, then wonder why employees are unmoved by management’s invocations to cut costs and boost profitability….  When I think of the millions of dollars spent by people at the top of the management hierarchy on efforts to motivate people who are continually put down by that hierarchy, I can only shake my head in wonder.

–– Plain Talk (1998) by Ken Iverson as quoted in Good to Great by Jim Collins p 136