The Little Prince

A classic children’s book full of ageless wisdom.

The Little PrinceYesterday, I read The Little Prince a novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. According to Wikipedia,

The novella is both the most-read and most-translated book in the French language, and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. Translated into more than 250 languages and dialects (as well as braille), selling nearly two million copies annually with sales totaling over 140 million copies worldwide, it has become one of the best-selling books ever published.

Odd that I should live 53 years before managing to squeeze such a famous 98-page read into my busy schedule.

On the surface, this children’s book, which includes simple watercolor illustrations by the author, tells the story of an aviator who has crash-landed in the Sahara Desert. He’s working hard to repair his plane when he meets a small prince who has travelled to earth (and a few other places) from a tiny asteroid. What follows are stories from the little prince’s travels, each of which has an important message that isn’t just for children.

The Fox

Chapter XXI made the biggest impact on me. In that Chapter, the little prince meets a fox who explains to him, in the course of their conversation, the meaning of the word tame:

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

Later, the fox adds:

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

Can you think of a more beautiful way to describe the bond between two people who have come to love and depend upon each other?

There’s more to the story than that, but I’ll let you discover it on your own. I’ll just say this: the end of the story of the fox made me cry when I read it yesterday and it made me cry again today. There’s so much truth in the words. I’m filled with sadness at the knowledge that so few people understand this simple wisdom and how it applies in their lives.

You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

Matters of Consequence

Underlying most of the book is the idea of what’s really important in life. Saint-Exupéry refers to this as “matters of consequence.”

In the little prince’s travels, he meets a businessman who is busy counting and doing sums. He’s too busy to relight his cigarette and almost too busy to answer the prince’s questions between counting and adding. He tells the prince that he can’t stop, that he has so much to do, that he is concerned with matters of consequence. Those matters turn out to be counting the stars, which he has claimed ownership of, despite the fact that he’s not even sure, at first, what they’re called. The prince has questions about this:

“And what good does it do you to own the stars?”

“It does me the good of making me rich.”

“And what good does it do you to be rich?”

“It makes it possible for me to buy more stars, if any are discovered.”

Later, the prince asks the man what he does with the stars.

“I administer them,” replied the businessman. “I count them and recount them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence.”

The little prince was still not satisfied.

“If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take it away with me. If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me. But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven…”

“No. But I can put them in the bank.”

It’s that what it’s all about for too many people? Slaving their life away in pursuit of the almighty dollar, neglecting what’s really important in life? All so they can accumulate what they believe is wealth and keep it safe from others?

Later, the little prince is angry with the pilot because the pilot has failed to answer a question the prince thinks is important. He sums up his meeting with the businessman and what it means to him:

“I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man — he is a mushroom!”

In my life, I’ve spent far too much time with mushrooms. Indeed, I think I was a mushroom for a time myself.

Read the Book

If you’re more interested in morals and philosophy than what’s on reality TV, celebrity gossip shows, or the business press, do yourself a favor and read the book.

Read it slowly and savor the lessons revealed in the little prince’s travels. I’m sure you’ll take away a lot more than what I’ve shared here — I know I did.

Art History Book Mystery Partially Solved

So that’s why they sent me a copy!

Last spring, as I was finishing my packing and preparing to leave my Wickenburg home for good, a box arrived in the mail from Pearson Education. I’d been writing for Pearson’s Peachpit imprint since 1995 and assumed the box contained copies of my latest book about Mac OS X, translated into other languages. Of course, all my other books had already been packed and I was bummed that I couldn’t pack this latecomer with the others.

The Mystery

Art HistoryBut when I opened the box, I was very surprised to see that it wasn’t a translation of one of my books. It was an absolutely beautiful 1240-page hardcover book about art by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothern titled simply, Art History (Fifth Edition). A quick look on Amazon.com showed me that the book would cost nearly $200 to buy. That wasn’t difficult to believe. The book was beautiful.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have only a passing interest in art history. But paging through this book while trying to figure out why it had been sent to me, I realized that I was holding the definitive guide to the history of art — a book that covered art history as far back as prehistoric times. It was chock full of gorgeous full-color photos. Everything the average person could want to know about the history of art worldwide was in this amazing textbook.

But why the heck had it been sent to me?

I didn’t know the authors and I didn’t write textbooks. I had never voiced an interest in art history to anyone I knew. There was no note with the book. Nothing at all to explain why I’d gotten it. I wound up assuming that someone at Peachpit had sent it to me as a gift — I’d been getting quite a few little gifts from friends who sympathized with my divorce ordeal.

I packed the book carefully in one of the last boxes I sealed up. It would look nice on the coffee table in my next home. And maybe — just maybe — I’d have time to read some of it when I settled down again.

A Partial Solution

This morning, I got two email messages, each referring to permission to use one of my photos.

One message was from a woman named Evi, who I vaguely remembered from the past. In this new message, she told me she needed to “re-clear the rights to use the below picture” for a new edition of Stokstad’s Art, A Brief History. I scrolled down and saw one of my photos of the Grand Canyon.

Lookout Studio
I shot this image of Lookout Studio after dawn one day in October 2008, most likely while I was on one of Flying M Air’s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventures (which I stopped offering when I permanently moved out of Arizona).

It was very important, Evi told me, that my rights be extended to Pearson, the US publisher. The other message was from Pearson and included a permission form. (Pearson has forms for everything.)

Art Brief HistoryI looked up the book on Amazon.com and found a 640-page paperback book titled Art: A Brief History (5th Edition). Although I’d never seen the book before, it did get the wheels turning in my head. I did another Amazon search on the author’s name and found the book discussed at the beginning of this blog post — the book I’d received out of the blue at least nine months ago.

And then I remembered a bit more about my email exchange with Evi. It had been about two years ago. Her company had bought — actually paid — for the rights to use the photo. Somewhere along the line, I must have also requested a copy of the book. Months later, I got the check from the UK-based company drawn on a US bank, cashed it, and promptly forgot all about it.

Is it possible that they used my photo in such a big, beautiful book? Or did they use it in the shorter paperback she mentioned in her email message?

But the dates didn’t jive. The paperback book was published in December 2011. Surely it hadn’t been that long since all this transpired.

And if it was in that 640-page paperback book, then why had they sent me the 1240-page hardcover book?

Without asking for details — which I really don’t think is worth the bother; after all, this poor woman has thousands of pictures to get permissions for — the only way to know is to look through the book they sent me to see if my photo is in there. Of course, that box is still packed and still in storage. I likely won’t unpack it until later this summer, at the very earliest.

Permission Granted

I’ll definitely be giving them permission to use my photo again. And I won’t charge them a fee this time. I’m hoping that the photo did appear in the bigger book and that I get a copy of the smaller book once it’s revised.

Needless to say, I’m tickled that my work appeared in such wonderful volumes. Photography is just a hobby for me; to have my work recognized and used — with permission — in such a way really makes me happy.

Lessons from the Goldfinch

A long and winding, beautifully written book with numerous disturbing story lines.

The GoldfinchMy friend Barbara, an avid reader, recommended The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt to her Facebook friends, including me. I’d been looking for something modern and mainstream to read since binging and burning out (and subsequently dropping) the Arthur C. Clark (and ghostwriter) Rama series books. (Clarke’s original Rendezvous with Rama is a short masterpiece of science fiction; the long, drawn out books in the series that came afterward were some ghostwriter’s attempt to fill too many pages with unnecessary personal drama reminiscent of today’s reality TV shows that, quite frankly, annoyed and bored me. I was in the middle of the third book when I decided I’d had enough.)

On a whim, I looked it up on my library’s website, discovered they had an ebook version, and put it on hold. When it became available two weeks later, I checked it out and began reading on my iPad.

I soon realized two things about the book:

First, it was beautifully written. The author used words to expertly paint pictures of New York, Las Vegas, and other backdrops for the story that put me right in those places. Keep in mind that I’ve spent a lot of time in both places and I can assure you that she nailed every aspect of her descriptions. From grabbing a taxi in New York to wandering the streets of ghost housing developments in the desert outskirts of Vegas, she put the reader there expertly. She also managed to convey the moods of not only her first person narrator but the places and situations he was in. I realized almost immediately that I’d been stuck in a rut reading garbage fiction. This book was like a breath of fresh air for my brain.

Here’s a paragraph from near the beginning of the book to give you an idea of what I mean:

If the day had gone as planned, it would have faded into the sky unmarked, swallowed without a trace along with the rest of my eighth-grade year. What would I remember of it now? Little or nothing. But of course the texture of that morning is clearer than the present, down to the drenched, wet feel of the air. It had rained in the night, a terrible storm, shops were flooded and a couple of subway stations closed; and the two of us were standing on the squelching carpet outside our apartment building while her favorite doorman, Goldie, who adored her, walked backwards down Fifty-Seventh with his arm up, whistling for a taxi. Cars whooshed by in sheets of dirty spray; rain-swollen clouds tumbled high above the skyscrapers, blowing and shifting to patches of clear blue sky, and down below, on the street, beneath the exhaust fumes, the wind felt damp and soft like spring.

Holy cow. Are you there with me? I can see the yellow of the cabs speeding by, all with their “hired” lights on, while the doorman, in his cap and long coat, steps out onto the avenue, arm held high with his whistle blowing wildly in his mouth, trying hard to get a taxi while mother and son wait under the arched awning in front of the building. I can hear the car horns and other doorman whistles, see wisps of steam rising from the manhole covers, smell the pungent odor of flooded storm drains. All the while, pedestrians rush by under umbrellas, collars turned up against the driving rain as they splash through small puddles on the sidewalk in hopelessly wet shoes.

So much of the book is like this for me.

Second, it was extremely long. I didn’t realize how long it was in real pages until today when I looked it up on Amazon just to get that piece of information: 755 pages. Wow! And my library loan gave me just two weeks to get through it!

The story follows the narrator through the tragic loss of his mother and the morally questionable acquisition of a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, The Goldfinch. Throughout the story, Theo describes the events of his life, from being shuffled from one home to another, left on his own to discover drugs with a friend to his troubled adult life. I don’t want say more because I don’t want to spoil any of the plot lines for readers. Amazon’s description, which was obviously written by some publishing house marketer who didn’t bother to read the book, is a bit misleading.

Simply stated: the story is dark and although I never actually disliked the first person narrator, I kept thinking over and over how stupid he was being to screw up his life the way he was. As one reviewer who found the book too sad to finish put it, “Just when I think it will get better something else bad happens.” A note on Amazon says that 172 reviewers made a similar statement. I would have, too.

But it was the beauty of the writing and my hope for a happy ending that pulled me through the book. Reading in bed before dawn or curled up on the sofa on a foggy afternoon, I paged through it, marveling at the quality of the prose while lamenting the main character’s often self-inflicted misfortunes. Although friendship was a major theme throughout the book, Theo’s friend was not a good influence and I had a lot of trouble getting past that until the third part of the book.

I was rewarded at the end with two passages that I bookmarked because they had special meaning to me. Both occur near the end of the book, in the narrator’s lengthy summation of his story and what he learned from what he’d been through.

Theo talks a bit about the goldfinch in the painting, a small bird fastened to its perch with a length of chain. He talks about the bird not being afraid of its surroundings despite its tiny size. About it not being timid and not being hopeless and refusing to pull back from the world. And then he says:

And, increasingly, I find myself fixing on that refusal to pull back. Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence — of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do — is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of the newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me — and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death. […]

And — maybe it’s ridiculous to go on in this vein, although it doesn’t matter since no one’s ever going to see this — but does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end — and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?

Not exactly the kind of quote that makes you feel good about life. But in my own life, it has a lot of meaning.

Although I can’t complain about most of my life — I’ve worked hard and played hard and enjoyed life within my limited means — the events of the past two years or so have taken a serious toll on me. They’ve made me see life from Theo’s point of view. Life’s a real struggle sometimes, especially when difficult, unexpected situations are thrown in your path. A marriage gone sour for reasons you can’t comprehend. A formerly loving spouse lying, cheating, and committing a never-ending series of hurtful acts against you. Stranger-than-fiction situations triggering PTSD-driven responses that cause a chain reaction of apparently unsurmountable problems.

This is the catastrophe Theo is talking about, complete with broken hearts and no appeals or do-overs. Unlike Theo, however, I didn’t bring the catastrophe on myself — it was thrust upon me by others. I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with it until recently.

I struggle now to move forward with as much of the joy as I can muster. My friends and family tell me I’m doing an amazing job, that I’m a strong woman and will get through my temporary setbacks. I know they’re right. I have plenty of good days among the bad. But I also know the feeling of utter despair that Theo shares throughout the book.

The other passage I bookmarked reminded me a bit about what’s driven me my entire life.

In the book, Theo does self-destructive things: drugs, theft, fraudulent transactions. He knows these things are wrong, but he does them, sometimes justifying them in his own mind to make them more acceptable. Sometimes he’s just too weak or lacks the willpower to stop. In this lengthly passage, he questions the “norms” and what people are expected to do with their lives.

I look at the blanked-out faces of the other passengers — – hoisting their briefcases, their backpacks, shuffling to disembark — and I think of what Hobie said: beauty alters the grain of reality. And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, the beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.

Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all the right ones? Or, no to take it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet– for me, anyway — all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?

A great sorrow, and one that I’m only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

Because — isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture — ? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mr. Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted — ? What if the heart, for all its unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self immolation, disaster? Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical checkups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or — like Boris — is it better to throw yourself headfirst and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you blew out and out and out.

A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.

I was raised to believe that people follow a predestined path: grow up, go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire, have grandkids, die. Somewhere along the line, “get a job” turned into “have a career” and that career was supposed to be in an office working 9 to 5 for a paycheck.

But something about me made me question that path when I was in the “go to school” phase. You see, rather than getting that office job with good career opportunities, I realized I wanted to be a writer. To say I was discouraged is an understatement, but I toed the line like the relatively obedient kid I was. It wasn’t until years later, when I’d invested quite a bit of time in the “have a career” phase that I realized how unhappy I was.

You see, I didn’t follow my heart. I followed someone else’s “life formula” and that formula just wasn’t working for me. I got off the path I was on and started fresh on a new path. And I haven’t regretted it one damn bit. The only thing I regret is not getting on that path in the first place and wasting 8 years of my life doing something I really didn’t want to do.

My situation really isn’t anything like Theo’s in the book. Theo’s path was self-destructive, mine was constructive. But the point this passage reinforces is that we need to follow what our heart tells us is right, even if it doesn’t conform to what’s “normal” or what’s expected of us. I’m fortunate in that my heart usually steers me onto a path that I do want, one that’s good for me and others around me.

It just saddens me that people close to me have ignored their heart in favor of the easy life formula that’s considered “normal.” I know they will eventually regret taking the path they took — if they don’t already regret it.

Anyway, that’s my takeaway from this book. I recommend it if you like well-written prose and you don’t mind a dark story with a brighter ending.

One last thing. In prepping to write this, I Googled The Goldfinch. I wanted to see what the painting looked like. I was disappointed. What do you think?