Funk & Wagnalls Will Outlive This Man

"Now when our ship had left the Ocean River rolling in her wake
and launched out into the open sea with its long swells to reach
the island of Aeaea—east where the Dawn forever young
has home and dancing-rings and the Sun his risings—
heading in we beached our craft on the sands,
the crews swung out on the low sloping shore
and there we fell asleep, awaiting Dawn's first light."
          —The Odyssey, XII, 1-9, Homer, Translation by Robert Fagles
When I was a kid, my mother bought an entire set of encyclopedias and a two-volume set of the Funk & Wagnalls New Comprehensive International Dictionary of the English Language, the Deluxe Reference Edition, from a smooth-talking door-to-door salesman. The purchase was an expression of love. These books were to launch my brother, my sister, and me on a course of learning and success. She signed up for the installment plan. Paid each month for years.

For an eight-year-old kid, the books were a blessing, particularly Funk & Wagnalls, dark red with embossed gold lettering and pages with gilded fore-edges. Each volume two inches thick, with sturdy binding. Well-constructed all around books.

Funk & Wagnalls were extremely practical. I used them every day as impervious walls for action figure battle stations, or as mountains G.I. Joe and Star Wars figures repelled. And when used as enemy forts, they’d crash down on Destro and Cobra Commander after missiles landed. The books withstood massive battles as Quick Kick, Chewbacca, Snake Eyes, Han Solo, and Gung-Ho joined forces to infiltrate a unified Storm Trooper/Cobra Viper/Cobra Trooper base and unraveled diabolical schemes.

As my play became more elaborate, more complex, and more brutal, I used red Crayola markers for blood and an X-Acto knife to create scars and bullet wounds. To compliment this advance in morbid creativity, my forts needed an upgrade. I introduced wood constructions as forts. Funk & Wagnalls stacked became my workbench. I’d put pieces of wood on them with the measured side of the wood hanging off the fore-edges. Then I’d cut away, sawdust peppering my bedroom carpet. When the forts were done, and as I set in motion military sieges, I left my old friends, Funk & Wagnalls, forgotten at the corner of my bedroom like ships at the horizon set adrift and abandoned.

When I got a bit older, and teachers assigned book reports at school, I used Funk & Wagnalls to inform my writing. And I wrote badly. I could swing a bat or catch a football just fine. And I could do well at the bench press. But in my reports, I’d use large words incorrectly. My subjects often failed to agree with my verbs. And my sentences ran on and on. It wasn’t until College that I learned how to use the words from A to PL in the first volume, and the words from PL to Z in the second.

I learned the difference between my stupidity and my ignorance, and words like duniewassal, finagle, rubbish, quorum, and irremissibility. Or somnolent, scissile, bawdy, predilection, and pudendum. I learned words simply because I liked the way they sounded and how they came to be, their etymology. The volumes carried me as I sailed against ruthless currents through Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake, and Sea Wolf. They kept me afloat as I read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Darwin, and as I plowed through the works of Sartre, Camus, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Lawrence, Woolf, and Yeats. They were my stalwart vessels as I set a course to Baldwin, Ellison, MLK, Hughes, and Malcolm X. Funk & Wagnalls helped me through arduous voyages, and we sailed to places “where the Dawn forever young has home and dancing-rings and the Sun his risings.”

After college, I parted with them, like the boy who parted with his giving tree in Silverstein’s book, and moved out with my girlfriend. Said goodbye to them. And I left them at my mother and Grandparent’s house, on the living room bookshelf collecting dust, their pages rarely seeing light again.

But just a few months ago, married with an eight-year-old son, a six-year-old daughter, a dog, and a cat, and a roof of my own, my mother returned Funk & Wagnells to me, still dark red, but timeworn and weathered. I welcomed them like two old memories, sat next to them with a glass of wine and flipped through their pages, reflecting on our shared history. The edges were in disrepair, the paper aged, and the covers dusty and cracked. I still want my kids to use them as I did, I thought. To discover them. But Funk & Wagnells were obsolete. Relics. Things were different.

Funk & Wagnells now sit at the top of my bookshelf like ships in a bottle, preserved. And soon, I will set out to sea again with them for one last trip, take them out through uncharted waters, to rediscover the written world. But unlike Odysseus's ship, these books will outlast me. Each flawed edge, slightly torn page, and area of faded gilding will tell my story.


One Way to Help Stop Violence Against Women

"We know one in five girl children are sexually assaulted."
               – Jessica Valenti, Choosing Comfort Over Truth
Woody Allen is in the news again. And with allegations of sexual assault, it's difficult to know the truth. Perpetrators lie. Rumors spread. TMZ articles get published. So as an exercise in reasonableness, I try to wait for things to play out. Yet again, however, I'm uncomfortable appreciating Allen's work. Sexual assault is pervasive, ugly, and unforgivable. And all too common. To separate the art from the man is an approach I've taken in the past. Having to do this with regularity though is tiresome. But this is not just about Allen. This is about 1 in 5. And the men who make that 1 in 5 a reality.

Jessica Valenti's article about Allen was a shot of bourbon at 7 o'clock in the morning. Too much too early. "We know one in five girl children are sexually assaulted." That line burned. Made my blood boil. I was at the San Diego Convention Center when I read it. I walked in the exhibit hall thinking I had too much to read that morning. Kept thinking, how many women in the hall were assaulted when they were young? How many mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, school teachers, principals, directors, leaders have been hurt by men? How many men in the hall were monsters? And how many of these monsters will have received my hello, smile, or handshake during the course of the day?

But to proceed in this way, to continue this line of thinking and questioning, was paralyzing. To make it through the day, three things had to happen: 1) I had to be a better man, 2) I had to assume that people were good and decent in order to be a better man, and 3) I had to sacrifice for people, "over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways."

For Example

On my way out of the exhibit hall, I found myself walking behind a young woman, mid-twenties, wearing a knee brace and hauling a large black fiberglass case full of heavy materials. The case was nearly as big as she was, about 4 and a half feet tall, and likely heavier than she was. Her Sisyphean bolder. She struggled, sighing and lunging with each step. And her limp was pronounced, awkward. She was clearly uncomfortable. Her entire body dipped with each effort forward, knees nearly buckling.

As she walked out the large exhibit hall doors to get to the lobby, a tall man in a tan jacket held the large door open. He clowned a smile and went on his way after she passed through. He let the door swing back to close. I rushed over and I caught the door, met up with her in the lobby.

"Let me help you," I said.

“It’s okay,” she said, a bit relieved at first and then a bit reticent. “I got it.”

"I could use the workout," I said. "It’s no problem."

She accepted my help reluctantly. A stranger, I made her uncomfortable. And rightly. Who the hell was I? And what did I want? "We know one in five girl children are sexually assaulted." By men mostly. But she was exhausted. And in pain. Vulnerable.

I made small talk to reassure her that I was harmless, that I was a man trying to be better. As I lugged that case to the elevator, I told her about my recent knee injury, to reassure her that I'd been injured too and vulnerable. That I'd been there. She wasn't alone.

As we walked down the enormous Convention Center lobby on the first floor, from the exhibit hall to the shipping center, I carried my own materials too, like a mule. But it was a weight I needed to bare.

My forehead perspired near the end of our trek. Not now, I thought. Not now. My sweat will make her uncomfortable. It'd gross her out. So I snuck in a quick swipe of my forehead with my sweater sleeve betting she'd not see. And I had to take a deep breath when we reached the shipping center, and let out a grunt, a guttural bray like that galling guy at the gym finishing a set of powerlifting. My body betrayed me.

We were cordial as I left her case at the counter. The shipping attendant took the case and sent it off for delivery. I didn’t ask where. I never asked for her name. And she didn’t ask for my name.

I wished the young woman good luck. She wished me the same. And after we said our goodbyes, I left quickly, never looking back. It seemed appropriate. She had her guard up. And I wanted to make clear to her that I wanted to be a better man and wanted nothing in return. No confirmation on a job well done. No further assistance. I didn’t want to make her nervous. And she was right to have her guard up. "We know one in five girl children are sexually assaulted."

Some Daunting Statistics

According to the World Health Organization, 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), nearly 1 in 5 women (18%) in the United States have been raped in their lifetime; 1 in 4 women have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner; and 1 in 6 women (16%) have been stalked during their lifetime.

This is an enormous problem.

And I don’t blame movies for this horror. I don’t blame magazines. I don’t blame video games. I don’t blame advertisements, guns, football, beauty pageants, the adult entertainment industry, bikinis, poverty, implants, spaghetti straps, short shorts, the education system, religion, biology, capitalism, or governments. And I certainly don't blame women. I blame us guys. I blame even us guys who think we are decent guys. Even me. We need to change the way we think. The way we act. The way we conduct ourselves in our public and private lives. On the web and at school. On the field. On the court. In the gym. In the office. In the bar. And in the bedroom.

Stopping Violence Against Women

Sure, we have complex brains full of greatness. And there's much of it we don’t understand. But there is a lot of junk in there. So guys, if a harmful impulse presents itself, bury it. If you have a condition, get help. If you’re not sure what you think or do is harmful, think harder. Think more. Even if it's just a smidgen of harm. Handle that. Then, and this is the most important thing, get out into the world and practice being decent.

It may require effort for some of you. Some Sacrifice. But you can do it. Train your brain to recognize opportunity and go out of your way to do this. Practice being decent. Dedicate time for this. Just as you do when you learn a new skill, a new sport or new computer code. Be kind. Be helpful. Courteous. Reprogram yourself. Just as you did when you learned to play the piano or to sink a jump shot or to build a swing set for your kids. Practice. Do this with regularity. Practice. You can do this. If you get tired, push yourself to do one last extra set of kindness. It's muscle memory. Practice.

I submit that if we express kindness and feel empathy toward men, women, and children, every day and work hard at it, we will become so good at it, we will begin to bring this 1 in 5 number down to 0.

I know this is possible because we all experience terrible thoughts every day and do nothing. Pulling off the highway at 65 MPH. Or punching someone in the face. Yelling at your children. But we can bury it. For self preservation. To follow the rule of law. So extend that ability to control yourself. Even if you're angry, stressed, or tired. Or if you’ve been wronged or are out of luck or tasted bigotry and discrimination. Or the fist of a father.

Preserve humanity. Start doing kind things for people simply because they are people. Make small sacrifices to be kind. Hold the door for a guy twice your size, even if you’re carrying your own stuff or having a deep conversation with a friend. Don't fret if your son wants to play with a girl's doll. Offer help and your support to everyone, but to children and women especially.

Take the shopping cart all the way back to the cart rack near the store entrance. Don’t leave it near the car parked next to you. Take a little break from your day-to-day self interests. Be patient. Help a person out. Take a moment out of your busy schedule, or your angry disposition, and congratulate someone. Compliment them. Find the good.

And don’t expect a status boost for these acts. Don’t take one if offered. And when you get home, remind the people you care about. Remind them that there is good in you and in the world. And that you're helping out.

So guys, when faced with an opportunity to be a dick, after a night out drinking with your girlfriend, and she's had too much to drink, you'll be poised instead to do the right thing. To be decent. You've had practice. You've done your reps. Help her to bed. Cover her up with a warm blanket and tuck her in. Let her sleep. And enjoy coffee and eggs with her in the morning.

The reward is 0 in 5. And future generations of guys will know better. Your sons will know better. They'll have watched you practice and will practice themselves.

Guys, 5 in 5 of us need to change.