Thursday, April 21, 2011


This is the picture of a religious fanatic.
     Soon my lady and I shall do our spring cleaning. That is, we shall vacuum the two bedrooms, hallway, living room, den, kitchen, and breakfast nook of our modest house, which covers a mere 2,000 square feet—less than half the size of a high-school basketball court. We shall also empty our five wastebaskets and the garbage can that is under the kitchen island. This will all take about one hour.
     We are conscientious housekeepers of regular habits, Gail and I. We do all this four times a year, once in each season, whether the house needs it or not. There are those, I’m told, who perform the rites of Rubbermaid and Electrolux more often than that, some as often as once a week or more, brandishing mops like maces, wielding Windex like holy water, and spreading Endust like incense. But we need not concern ourselves with religious fanatics here.
     It is a mystery to me why homemakers approach cleaning, spring or otherwise, with such resentment and awe. True, it takes an hour or so out of a day otherwise spent in more useful pursuits, like practicing one’s putting, but is four hours a year too much to sacrifice on the tidy altar of tradition?

A disturbing violation of the dust principle.
     The key to painless housekeeping is for the housecleaner to keep in mind certain timeless principles, the two most important of which are these:
     1) Dust is not dirt. Dust is dry and soft and harmless. It lies gently on the surfaces of life, like newfallen snow. Its depth and whiteness are testaments to the stability and serenity of the personalities within a household. The trackless dust on a piano or a vase speaks to us. “Ah, yes,” it says, “here live creatures who are reluctant to bustle and slow to mess, who touch only what they need to touch, leaving alone that which would not be disturbed.” Dust minds its own business; it is there because you have minded yours. Dust is beautiful in its inertness; it smells not, neither does it grow or change color. Dust is the settled stuff of eternal peace. Leave it alone.
     On the other hand:
     2) Dirt lives! Dirt grows and smells. Dirt insinuates its way into one’s life, often pungently, even when one is not looking at it. Dirt comes in colors like blue and green. Dirt often possesses a disgusting moistness, and it hides, ashamed and insidious, in hard-to-get-at places. Mold and fungus, green dog food and a dead mouse are dirt. Dirt lurks under washing machines, behind stoves, in laundry bins, and around other places where food and/or water are available.
     Avoid dirt. Do this with preventive housekeeping: namely, don’t let food or water in your house. Eat out. Use laundromats, public restrooms, and the shower at the gym. Above all, keep no indoor pets, which are the single biggest source of dirt and which in many cases can be considered nothing more than four-legged dirt themselves. I still rue the day I first let a cat drink from the bathroom sink, where a recurrent aquamarine fuzz has continued to reappear, alien-like, ever since.
Spiders are our friends.
     Having left the dust alone and averted the dirt, you will have little left to do, come the seasons for cleaning, and you can go out and practice your wedge play instead. But you may wish to keep up the spring-cleaning tradition, if only to resurrect certain ancient broom-handling skills and to dispose of the accumulated leaf fragments that have found their way into your rugs since December. As you proceed, keep in mind the other axioms of sensible housekeeping:
  • Spiders are our friends. Pay no attention to what is going on up there in the corners of your ceilings. No one else will. Besides, the entomologists assure us that those long-legged crawlers and their webs are the natural enemies of other creatures you don’t want to think about. If all this starts to make you squeamish, reread Charlotte’s Web.
  • A closet is not a room. Don’t clean your closets. No one sees your closets. Use your closets as repositories for junk raked from real rooms.
  • If it’s square, stack it. This applies to things like magazines, books, boxes, and mail. When we get forty or fifty copies of The New Yorker and Time magazine scattered around our rooms, even I get nervous from the clutter. Clutter, being the most visible form of slovenliness, is also the most disturbing. Fortunately, it is the easiest to cure. Simply walk around your rooms stacking everything in rectilinear piles. This is far simpler than throwing things out one at a time, and it creates an impression of neatness. If the stack gets too big, you might then throw the stack out. That takes just one trip. I don’t understand people who walk all the way to the wastebasket each week to throw out one copy of AARP magazine. Life (as your receiving AARP magazine should remind you) is too short for that.

Venetian blinds: an invitation to self-destruction.
  • If it’s dangerous, forget it. Never clean anything that requires you to stand on a chair or a ladder or a stool. Never clean anything that requires you to inhale fumes. Most of all, never clean venetian blinds, which are more lethal than razor blades. If I ever decide to commit suicide, I will make it appear to be an accident by slitting my wrists while cleaning venetian blinds. Only my closest friends, who know my feelings about the matter, will know what really happened.
  • Drawers are a housekeeper’s best friends. Always keep one large, centrally-located drawer available for nothing but oddments—junk that you can’t quite bring yourself to throw away. In this drawer you will deposit old pens that maybe have run out of ink, and maybe not; and free-floating, slightly bent paper clips; and 51-card decks; and folded snapshots with the foreheads cut off, of people you can’t identify; and postcards from long-lost friends; and two-year-old ticket stubs; and address books from before the days of computers. This drawer, in other words, will probably be the most interesting place in your entire house.
  • Be sure the bathroom is brown. Even better, make it brown speckled. We recently redid our bathroom with this in mind: brown-speckled tile, brown-speckled vanity top. Everything that happens in a bathroom is a form of cleansing, and yet the bathroom is the filthiest-looking room in your house. This is because your bathroom is white. Bathrooms are full of things like soap and medicine and washcloths. What real dirt would dare make its way into such a place? Yet the tub is grimy-seeming, the sink is smeared with dinge, and the toilet is not to be discussed. Don’t be concerned: this is not real dirt, even if it is blue and growing. If the rest of your house were white porcelain, then you’d see something really disgusting. The answer is to have a brown-speckled bathroom in the first place, and then forget about it.
  • Never clean when the sun is shining. You’ll just resent it. Instead, go outside and give your soul an airing.
Cows in the house: a spring-cleaning challenge.
And finally:
  • You can learn to live with anything. There are sects in India who live in temples overrun with rats, which they worship. In other places, cattle or pigs have the run of people’s homes. Our pioneer ancestors lived in cabins whose very floors were the earth itself. Surely there is no reason for us to be preoccupied with a cobweb in the corner, fingerprints on the freezer door, or motes on a vase. We are ourselves born of dust, say the wise men—and dust, I’m convinced, was never meant to dust.
 The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine in March, 1984. Check this video the next time a silly little spider in the house bothers you. I love the Finns, my ancestors.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Paean, Accolade, Tribute, and Encomium to Peter Mark Roget

Peter Mark Roget, author of Roget's Thesaurus

     I come to praise Peter Mark Roget.
     Roget’s International Thesaurus should be on every writer’s bookshelf, within easy reach. Be sure you have the right version of a thesaurus. Later I’ll explain which one that is. It’s not the kind of synonym dictionary which simply lists words alphabetically and piles synonyms next to them. The real Roget’s Thesaurus is much better than that. It doesn’t pile words, it offers them in bouquets.
     I’m not really sure how writers wrote at all decently before Roget’s Thesaurus was first published, in 1852. In some cases, it seems, writers simply made up the words they needed, as John Milton invented the word “pandemonium” for a “place full of devils,” and Shakespeare probably invented “boldfaced,” “coldblooded,” “eyesore,” and “enrapt,” among other words. (There are many words attributed to Shakespeare’s invention, but it’s difficult to know which ones he invented and which ones he simply put into print before anybody else we know of. But I do like to think he invented “droplet” and “newfangled.”)
     I come to laud Peter Mark Roget.
     Roget was born in 1779. He was a smart fellow. He entered university at 14 and became a medical doctor by age 19. He dedicated much of his life to medical education. He wrote some of the first papers about nitrous oxide—laughing gas—and its use as an anesthetic. He was an early expert on the subject of tuberculosis. He even ranged beyond medicine: He invented the log-log slide rule and tried for years to invent a calculator. He helped found the University of London. He gave a paper on the optical illusion that makes turning wheel spokes look static when viewed through vertical slits—an idea that was connected, many years later, to the development of motion pictures. He invented clever chess problems, with clever solutions, and a useful pocket chessboard.
     I come to pay tribute to Peter Mark Roget.
     Roget did not have an easy time of it. His father died when Roget was young. His mother was a little crazy. An uncle committed suicide by slitting his own throat while Roget tried to stop him. His daughter was a depressive whom Roget more or less tried to ignore. He was probably obsessive-compulsive himself. He liked to make lists, possibly as a way to deal with the chaos of his personal life. The best book about him is called The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus, by Joshua Kendall.
     I come to celebrate Peter Mark Roget.

The first page of Roget's original thesaurus. His first category was "existence."
     Around 1800, Roget began making lists of words. He grouped them by “verbal classification,” with categories and subcategories. The 19th Century was the Age of Classification (of animals, of fossils, of elements). Roget loved to classify. For example, he placed the word “praise” under the general category of “Affections,” the subcategory of “Morality,” the subsubcategory of “Moral Sentiments,” and the subsubsubcategory of “Approbation.” He divided that last subsubsubcategory into parts of speech having to do with approbation: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on. In outline form, it looked like this:

Class Eight: Affections
I. Morality
            C. Moral Sentiments
                        Section 966. Approbation
                                    Sections 966.9-966.14: Verbs

     All verbs and verb phrases having to do with “approbation” (i.e., approval) are listed there, from “approve” to “ring the praises of.” There are 124 different verbs and verb phrases grouped around “praise” in Roget’s Thesaurus. (In the Microsoft Word thesaurus, by contrast, there are just 14 boring synonyms.) Not only that, but in Roget’s system, you could find, nearby, all the nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and interjections related to the concept of praise, like “credential,” “estimable,” “in favor of,” and “bravo!”
     I come to say “Bravo!” to Peter Mark Roget.
     Roget made his word lists, he said, “to supply my own deficiencies.” Apparently he didn’t think he could come up with words easily enough without the list. He completed the first version of his list of words in 1805. He kept building and modifying the list for another 47
years before he felt it was useful enough to publish. (Forty-seven years. The 19th Century was a patient century.) The first publication of Roget’s Thesaurus was, as I said, in 1852. It was called The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. The word “thesaurus” is derived from the Greek for “treasure.”
     I come to offer accolades to Peter Mark Roget.

You should buy a version of Roget's Thesaurus that looks something like this, with the word "original" in the title.
     Roget’s Thesaurus has gone through scores of revisions and expansions since 1852. One of the most important revisions occurred in 1911 and was done by a famous lexicographer named C.O. Sylvester Mawson, who also revised Webster’s New International Dictionary. This year is the 100th Anniversary of Mawson’s revision. The edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus that I have on my desk is called the “Third,” but it’s really about the sixty-third. It contains eight large general classifications of words (Abstract Relations, Space, Physics, Matter, Sensation, Intellect, Volition, and Affections). Those large classifications are broken down into 1,040 subsubsubcategories of words (Number 996 is where “praise” can be found). The first subsubsubcategory in the book is “existence”; the last is “religious institutions.”
      Peter Mark Roget meets with my approval.
      Roget’s Thesaurus does something else besides offer large conceptual categories of words that belong together: it alternates between word groups that fit one category and word groups that fit in the opposite category. In other words, to oversimply a bit, antonyms follow synonyms. So after the “approbation” subsubsubcategory comes the “disapprobation” subsubsubcategory, with words like “disfavor” and “discountenance” and “deprecate”—more or less antonyms for “praise.”
      I feel no disapprobation whatsoever for Peter Mark Roget.
      Roget set out to “supply [his] own deficiencies.” Ever since his thesaurus was published, it has been supplying the deficiencies of all the rest of us who consider ourselves writers. You should throw away, or at least ignore, any "dictionaries" of synonyms you own. Ignore what you find on the internet. Instead, go out now and buy a hardcover copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus. I could not write without mine.
This is the "approbation" subsubsubclassification of Roget's Thesaurus.
     I beat the drum for Peter Mark Roget.
     And for his thesaurus. To find a word in Roget’s International Thesaurus, you must go through two steps. This is one step more than a dictionary of synonyms requires, but it’s worth it. First, in Roget, you look up the general idea you’re looking for in the back half of the book, where common words are listed alphabetically. (Often, I have only a vague general idea of the concept. The thesaurus is miraculously helpful in leading me to a more precise notion of my idea.) Let’s say you’re interested in the general concept of “saying good things about something” or “praising” it. So you look up “praise” in the alphabetical listing in the back of the thesaurus. There you will see some noun concepts for praise (approbation, flattery) and some verb concepts (laud, glorify). Let’s say you want synonyms that mean “praise” in the sense of “laud.” You see, next to “laud,” the number 966.12. You then look in the first half of the thesaurus—the meat part—for section 966.12, and voila!, there are a bunch of synonyms for “praise.” But, even better, there are hundreds and hundreds of other words—nouns (encomium, tribute), verbs (compliment, flatter), and interjections (hurrah! attaboy!)—right nearby. No synonym dictionary will do that for you. And next door (section 967) are all the words connected to disapprobation, from “censure” to “berate” to “God forbid!” This is all a wonderful way to find fresh and interesting ways—and, more important, precise ways—to say what you want. I repeat: I can’t write without it.
     God forbid writers stop using Roget’s Thesaurus. All hail this great book! Bully for you, Peter Mark Roget!

This is the wrong kind of thesaurus to buy, in my opinion. I recommend you do not buy a thesaurus that says "In A-Z Form" or "in dictionary form." Stick to Roget's original design for his thesaurus, which requires two steps to find synonyms. The extra step is worth it.