He’s back….


I haven’t written on this blog for a week, and even before that I was petering out. Last time I wrote I’d set up an arrangement with Ruth Hagstrom, or more like a bet, or more like a reward system that works for nine-year-olds: Write 5 blogs in one week and get a beer, served cold on Ruth’s porch. Well, I started out strong and then withered. Why?


Reason #1: The other obligations of life and the college pushed writing aside. As part of my sabbatical from the college I need to create a series of video tutorials on the nuts and bolts of English, and then post them on YouTube. Lately this has been my obsession, to finish all 20 before the calendar turns to August, but each is taking longer than I imagined and further pushing aside everything else in life. Like writing.


Reason #2: My sense that the blog is finished. Sure, writing about camels in India is engaging but now that I’m back on my porch in Columbia, who cares? Who’s reading this thing anymore? No one, right, so what’s the point of posting another blog entry for just the air to read.


Reason #3: I’ve been back in America for 5 weeks. For 4 of those weeks I’ve been jolly and upbeat, without any resentment of America. Usually I crinkle my nose—at the confederate flags, at the overweight teen drinking a Big Gulp, at the Christian Republicans keeping medical coverage from sick people—but no, not this time: America is just another country, number 20, and I’m just settling back observing it. That worked for a while—and then the inevitable funk hit last week, and writing the blog seemed pointless and impossible, a happy diversion at a time when Grumpy Uncle had seized control of the shop.


But no longer. It’s Sunday morning in mid-July out here on the west coast, and I’m back at it, me just a cobbler at my workbench for ninety minutes.


And what got me back at the workbench?


Two women. The first is Katie Harford, my former student at Columbia College whom I ran into at yesterday’s Farmer’s Market. She has a blog, I have a blog—and both are lately in decline. So we made a bet for this week: 4 new entries by the time of next Saturday’s market and we’ll reward each other with… something. I think Katie said she’d devote an entire blog to me as a reward, but maybe it was only a sentence, or maybe that she’d use the letters J-I-M somewhere in there. Whatever, it’s enough of an incentive.


Woman #2: my sister-in-law Lainie. Yesterday I learned that Lainie is still reading this blog every day, is even wondering what happened about my bet with Ruth. Really? There’s a single human still out there who is reading this thing? Well well well, in that case I’ll fire away. That’s all I need is one reader, and so, out of gratitude and dire need, I wave to you, Lainie.


That’s a long preamble. Now what do I write about?


Item #1: Last Wednesday night I played basketball with 7 other guys. We were talking about what it feels like to bump into rock-hard Robert, about our aches at the end of the night from guarding him. Then Anush, who owns a couple of local pizza joints, pointed to Ed, a 300-pound former lineman, and said, “You bump into Ed and you’re bumping into a water bed.”


All of us erupted into big laughs, all of us men on a basketball court. The judge laughed, and the accountant, and the contractor and the plumber and the teacher and the physical therapist. Robert repeated the line over and over: “A water bed. That’s a good one, Anush, a water bed. I gotta remember that one.”


My point? My point is that we humans love figurative language. We love a good simile, this leap of the mind that connects two different objects—Ed’s massive body to a water bed—and then gives rise to a laugh. Isn’t that fascinating, that we humans find delight in these leaps of imagination, in this originality? And how amazing that this image could ignite at one time the brains of us 7 very different men. A shared humanity, that was part of our laughter, the surprising reminder that we’re somehow linked.


Item #2: This morning in bed I read a story in the New York Times that could very well win the award for the Worst Thing Imaginable. A mullah in Afghanistan—that is, a holy man—raped a 10-year-old girl in his mosque after she recited verses from the Koran. The rape was so violent that she nearly died of bleeding. The mullah said he thought she was older, even though she’s 40 pounds and pre-pubescent, and that she welcomed his advances. Horrible enough for you? Well, the father of the girl want her killed because she’s brought dishonor on her family.


What do you do with that information? How is it that the same mind of man that flashes with the light of “You bump into Ed and you’re bumping into a water bed” is also a mind with the darkest of caves. The writer Cormac McCarthy says that that’s how the world works, that in exchange for the beauty of a flower comes the atrocity of a holy man with a long beard raping a little girl, who will pay for this rape with her life. One for the other. The scales of the world.


Item #3: Lately I’ve become the Writing Guru. On Thursday I met with a man from Washington, D.C., who read my book Serendib and needed some advice on breaking through his writer’s block. And then yesterday I ran into a former student who asked for help with the agony of writing a paper for a nursing class that’s due next week. Both stories were nearly identical: two accomplished people with brains that are oriented toward the sciences. In other words, big left brains—that hemisphere that cares about spelling and grades, that side that loves outlines, that side that is quick to judge. I advised both to break up the writing process into parts, with the first part being a lot of free writing, of just getting words down on paper for a set amount of time, like 30 minutes. I suggested that a good place to start is with something concrete. I said to the man, “Start with your bed in that village in India. Write about that. Or eyes. Did anyone in your village have strange eyes? Or do you remember the fingertips of someone older in your village, or a poster on a wall, or the smell of something so fragrant that all of life went quiet for a moment?” That sort of thing.


The point that connects this item with #s 1 and 2: It’s a good thing to foster our imaginations. It’s a good and happy thing to compare a big body to a water bed, whether in a flash on a basketball court or in a more methodical way in a blog at the start of the day. Otherwise our neurons freeze up. Otherwise our blood and breath freeze up—on the smallest of scales, of a man from Washington who aches to tell his stories but is frozen into inaction, and on the biggest of scales, of holy men in a circle in Afghanistan who nod very seriously over the death sentence of a little girl.






Okay, Lainie. Okay, Katie. This ends blog #1 of this new week, of July 20 that may as well be January 1st, this turning over of a new page on the calendar.




  1. Susan

    Here’s a third reader.

  2. Kristi Robinson

    You have more than one reader. 😉

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      Kristi, I toss you in the air and put you on my shoulders and run with you through the bazaars of the world. This makes two! That’s all I need–Kristi and Lainie–to sustain me forever.

      In your honor, and as always in honor of Buster Posey, I post another fresh new blog… this instant!


  3. Lainie

    I am humbled and honored to be a factor in your blogging…write away!

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      All hail, Lainie Breiner!

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