Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

Sometime last year I discovered the writer Sarah Manguso. Some call her a poet-philosopher, others one of the sharper literary voices out there. For me, being a fan of quotations and quotable zingers, especially from writers who have a gift for turning a phrase and that special talent to surprise you, I enjoyed it. Here are a few examples from 300 Arguments, which is admittedly all I’ve read of hers… so far.

It’s an odd (not in a bad way) little book of Twitter-length thoughts. Her own site defines this book as “genre-defying work of aphoristic nonfiction” which pretty well covers it. Here are some that appealed to me:

  • Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.
  • When someone insults you, it will infuriate him if you pretend to misunderstand the insult as a compliment.
  • I made so many mistakes on purpose just to get them out of the way.
  • There are truly two kinds of people: you and everyone else.
  • It’s impossible to fail if one doesn’t know how the end should look. And it’s impossible to succeed. But it’s possible to enjoy.
  • Vocation and ambition are different, but ambition doesn’t know the difference.

This Canvas Called Life

Yesterday’s stroll down memory lane continues to stir up more thoughts about my past than expected. I wonder why we sometimes dwell on a period of our life remembered fondly, and for some, wistful to experience them again. So what’s the value in recalling these younger, impactful times when few responsibilities allowing doors to experiences and experiments?

Why did these dredged-up memories of my twenties stick with me so long after looking at these photos? Was I subconsciously yearning for living like that again, or the fabled time machine fallacy of “Wish I could go back then knowing what I know now?” Connecting to the people and places back then, that’s no longer me (nor them), since our lives since changed into different people and newer places. We should cherish such memories, since these are the layers of paint we applied to the canvas called life throughout our years. Each overlapping layer—our experiences and errors—build up to what our lives are now.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

We all probably have that Uncle or someone at family get-togethers who tells the same old stories from his past. I remember at one such gathering finally asking him, “So what cool stuff’s happened to you since then?” To which his reply showed how tightly he held and refuse to let go of the past: “Oh, you know, the same-old, same-old.”

Philosopher and author Nassim Taleb wrote about the “narrative fallacy,” that tendency for some to pull unrelated events from the past, spun into stories and inserted into conversations, often unconnected to the conversation. For these people, it’s another chance to brag about one’s feats, salve for their souls they must think need constant reminders of those glory days.

So does that mean telling stories from our past is bad? Out of context, or for the benefit of the teller and not their listeners, probably not the best idea. Sharing and learning from those who’ve walked this Earth longer than we have is a valued tradition. But when it’s all someone can talk about, probably not good to dwell too much on the past, or see them as their “best of times” with later years merely clock-watching until it’s over.

We grow to fit the time we live in and enjoy and appreciate it because of these continually applied layers. Each succeeding layer influences the next, changing in color and tone, through the years. We should never stop creating our life’s artwork, even though we don’t know how majestic or colorful each added layer will be, but we know they will reflect who and what we are.

Vivid memories of my youth simply reveal a life embraced and explored. These people and places back then are ones to cherish, not wish to be back there with them. Each layer on our canvas are ones to be thankful for, and perhaps occasionally enjoy fond memories. Quickly, though, we return to finding the right paints for the wet layer we’re brushing on today. Each day we should be ever grateful to what’s underneath, once again standing at our easels, on yet another day with brush and palette in hands.


Winter, that season for renewal and remembrance, never fails each year to reveal something long forgotten, or at least, seldom remembered.

Yesterday, in a bold act of taking on a long overdue to-do, I sorted the box of family photos. These memory triggers waited in quiet patience all these years for me to get around to sorting (tada!) and inserting into new photo albums (still to come).

While the sorting went well, it was an interesting afternoon of smiles and bittersweet memories. Not unexpected, it stirred long-asleep memories stored, but not forgotten. We’re often asked if we have any regrets in life and have to admit I have few. But reminded by this wander down memory lane, I regret losing touch with special people met along my winding and varied path in life. Past girlfriends, especially those who broke my heart, have in the past caused a dusting off of “what if…” thoughts, yet long ago forgiven. Other people I simply fell out-of-touch through the inconvenience of distance.

One girl in particular, whom I have thought about often over the years, brought back wonderful memories of a grand summer spent together. It never seems that long ago, the memories still fresh. But the math made me realize that summer is now 42 years gone. Wow. An enormous amount of water under the bridge, as they say.

Other photos of my youth, my kids when babies and toddlers, places lived or visited, houses lived in, were all sweet, soft textures of a varied life. The timing of this intentional to-do effort relates to one of my books in progress: “Decades,” essay-stories spun around significant events from each decade looking back. Before I continued revising, or embarked on new ones, I wanted to see what evidence exists to help verify the telling.

In sorting and reminiscing on the photos, however, I discovered unfortunate gaps. While I remember events well (or so I think!), Lack of photos will make it more challenging to write accurately for some of them. Yesterday I noticed details in some the photos I’m not sure I would have remembered correctly. The passing years have ways of altering memories, making some things grander, and other things minimized. I’ll have to do some hard thinking and perhaps intentional, targeted journaling to see if I can scrape off the rust from those memories I’d like to include in the book.

The funniest reaction I had yesterday were from photos in my twenties. The visual “facts” went contra to my retained memory. Back then, I’d always worried I was too heavy, too chubby. Looking back at those, my immediate thought was “Damn, I was skinny.” Vanity: enabler when young, but lost baggage now.

One Down, One To Go

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay 

Yesterday was my first of two COVID-19 vaccinations. Who knew getting needle-stabbed would be so eagerly anticipated, a celebrated milestone of this ongoing pandemic reality show?

Connecting this surreal experience to anything similar in my past was challenging. Between the calm, purposefully distanced elders in line contrasted with the high-energy, helpful county health workers moving us through the lines, I couldn’t help think about this slice of American hope, one courtesy of socialism.

With too many Americans falsely considering any form of socialism as the devil’s work, yesterday was an excellent example of why our democratic socialism works: public county health department and public workers delivering publicly provided free COVID-19 vaccinations to a public regardless of race, creed, color, or economic status. Maybe doubters will finally realize our lives depend on democratic socialism in too many ways to count here, and it’s a welcomed benefit of American life.

As I sat in my chair at the back of an elementary school’s cafeteria, safety distanced from others to wait out my 15-minute “what if” moment, I had time to think about the significance of this experience.

In our now-lost former normal times, elementary kids would be in this room, either during an indoor activity, or since it was around noon eating lunch and learning essential social skills: coping with others, trading lunch food (really Mom, PB&J again??), or hanging out with goofy friends.

That sad thought morphed into a sad empathy, realizing in my six decades on this planet, unlike some, I’d never had to endure bread lines familiar to my parent’s generation, or waiting in lines for food stamp, or water bottles after a natural disaster. Yet here I sat, dutifully waiting, complying, and patiently distancing while the monkey mind wondered if I’d die in the next 8 minutes from shot side effects.

I’m no stranger to shots or needles, at least the modern version of me. But at the end of my 10th decade, my lack of any shot or needle injection experience would soon change. Raised in a household with a religious exemption to such things, the only previous shots were the first-born ones like smallpox.

Before my memorable summer #10 would begin, the Navy transferred my father to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Navy didn’t allow our family’s religious exemption when transferred overseas, so I had some catching up to do. Every Saturday for eight weeks my Mom would drive me to the Navy clinic for shots: not just one, but one in EACH arm, for the next eight Saturdays. Yup, 16 shots in all.

Happy Navy family arriving…

As a boy raised not to cry but to “take it like a man,” those were testing Saturdays. Most, as I recall, weren’t that bad, but the Saturday I got the yellow fever shot (long needle) I recall seriously betraying my manly training. Despite the dread each week as Saturday approached, offset by Mom’s buying me an ice cream after (first life lesson that such rewards really don’t make up for the event), I survived and didn’t catch any nasty bugs during my two-years at Guantanamo.

Now my waiting clock resets, and the countdown begins toward shot #2. Its reward is the promise of ~90% risk-free, earned by my immune system kicked into learning-crazy mode from the pseudo invaders. It’s a science miracle this vaccine developed so quickly, but there’s still much work on it ahead. I’m in the camp that expects our future fall regimen will be a one-two protective punch from a flu, then a COVID shot for the foreseeable future.

I can now add yesterday to my short-list of “where were you…” events such as JFK’s assassination, the moon landing, and 9/11. But getting this vaccination, while brimming with hope, comes with a nagging fear that many will either refuse it, or worse, think they’re immune now and shed the masking/distancing.

I’ll keep the same personal protocols going, at least for now, and probably permanently adopt wearing a mask in high-density public situations. The shot gives me a new, glorious feeling that it will now significantly lower my risk against the worst. And that’s well worth a couple stabs in the arm.

Journal Bits – March 5

Occasionally I'll share unedited recent bits from my daily journal. These make nice fillers on days I'm not ready to post something I'm working on. Hope you enjoy and get some inspiration, value, or perhaps a chuckle from them.

Good talk this morning about writer’s block [w.b.]. My takeaway was that my denial this affliction does not exist for me, based on my definition of it not knowing what to write or can’t produce words on the page, had a hidden loophole I wasn’t seeing. I have [or have had, not lately!] the w.b. form of unable to just start writing. This is, in essence, a habit issue as it is a “how much do you want this?” issue. In the past I’ve waited on the right structure, a good time to do it, the right organization of the writing area, etc., as my procrastinative muse. Is that the truth of this? Are these valid reasons or is something going on hidden in my subconscious? I’m past the “can I be published” and “I should have more work to my name by now” regrets, but there may be more darkness to this lurking somewhere.

Embracing an attitude of common sense plus wait and see seems to be the program these days for most of my body’s aches, pains, and weirdness. Some issues react faster than others to this “get out of the way” approach, but all tend to improve or least lessen with this approach.

Looks like travel this year is camping, and based on heavy TV population these days, likely not going to state parks or formal campgrounds. Would like to find a cabin to rent, maybe even update NY and invite boys up for the weekend. Sticking closer to home this year until vaccinated and others state behaving sanely makes sense.

Glimmers of how I yearn for days to be consistent in lighting up corners of my thinking and awareness. Fore-front is the realization that only my lack of a habitual effort to daily take up pen, pencil, or keyboard block the path ahead. It isn’t organization, or waiting until task a, b, or c is complete: it’s me stopping and writing, regardless of peripheral or collateral distractions, influences, or demands. As I’ve often heard inside my head, “If it’s important to you to write, you’ll make it your top priority.” Humbleness is finally understanding that the what (sit down & write) tops the how (nice studio, chair, desk, etc., etc.). While all this seems d’oh obvious, apparently it’s eluded my importance radar for a long time. Perhaps no longer.


Drove the housemate to the airport at 3:00 a.m. Tuesday, grateful it was less than 30 minutes away, unlike the 90-minute one-way airport runs from where I lived in Ohio. Up this early often jumpstarts a productive day, unless the inevitable napisodes later on interrupt the flow.

Driving back home in the pitch-black darkness, on a mostly deserted Interstate highway, I was thinking how much I love early, pre-dawn mornings: the quiet, the solitude, the chance to be alone with thoughts, and the comforting sense in these hours before daybreak that this new day brings possibilities and fresh starts.

Certainly this bizarre behavior and infatuation with rising so early, some might think, is merely an artifact of getting older. My younger self remembers witnessing very few sunrises, unless I’d already been up all night (ahem… college days, people, college days).

During my 2019 solo RV travels, making coffee and fixing breakfast early as the dawn broke, was close to a religious experience for me. Such starts felt like homage to the universe for allowing me to travel and roam. In the mountains, by a beach, or in a flat, viewless forested campground, many of my days back then began with this ritual. I’d usually follow with some morning pages journaling, then take a brief, brisk walk as nature’s light slowly revealed the world from the confusion of darkness into sunshine and clarity.

Now such moments consist of coffee and thoughts, sunrises slowly illuminating the world I contemplate outside my breakfast room, while wondering what this fresh day will bring.

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