Sunday, May 1, 2016

Inch One Hundred Sixteen: The Reading List

I just tossed out the reading list.

Well, "list" is perhaps too tame a description of what I just tossed. My list was a small, spiral-bound notebook in which I had listed title after title, some crossed out if I had read the book. Stuffed into the loose leaves of the notebook were 50 or more pieces of paper with more titles on them, pages ripped from the Daedalus Books catalogue with titles circled, and even a line or two of notebook paper torn from a friend's letter.

It was too much. I was drowning in good intentions, good recommendations, good reviews.


Even if I live to be 100, which I most assuredly will not, I will never ever read all the books I hear of, read of, learn of, am told about. For every one I read, three more titles will sprout in its place.

Even a benevolent Hydra is still a Hydra. And I am not Hercules.

Finally realizing that is what lead me to my bold decision to take the notebook, pull out every note stuffed into it, rip out every page I had written on (100 titles? 500 titles?), and chuck it all in the recycling bin.

Recycling pickup is on Tuesday.

Like Jacob Marley, I have been dragging a heavy coil wrapped tight around my waist. Only instead of of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and heavy purses wrought in steel," my chain is one of unread books.

It was a ponderous chain!

Rest assured, this is not a renunciation of reading. I cannot live without my books. Friends will continue to thrust volumes into my hands and I will continue to view the library as my personal smorgasbord. I will happily read on into oblivion. Rather, this is a renunciation of collecting titles, of squirreling away each and every bright possibility with the best of intentions and then putting each and every successive possibility on top until I had a stratum that would rival any geologic layers.

So I've let it go. I have opened my hands, literally and figuratively. I have loosened my grip. Accompanied by a soft clank of covers and the faint scent of best intentions, I have stepped free of the coil I had forged myself, link by link.

I'm as light as a feather.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Inch One Hundred Fifteen: The Newbery Surprise

Back in 2011, I made a point to read every Newbery Medal book from the first in 1922 through 2011. The Newbery Medal is given annually by the American Library Association to the "most distinctive contribution to American children's literature" for the prior year. You can read about my Newbery adventures here and here

Even since then, I have made a point of reading the Newbery Medal book for each year, in part to follow the trends in children's literature and in part because I am geeky enough to take pride in the fact that I have read every Newbery Medal book. 

In 2014, the Newbery committee chose a Kate DiCamillo work, Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventure, the first time a semi-graphic novel had been awarded the Newbery Medal. Why I give points to the committee for recognizing that graphic novels are literature too, I was heartily disappointed in the novel itself. I never bought into the premise of a squirrel with super powers. The committee redeemed itself last year with Crossover, but I was watching and waiting for the 2016 announcement. 

When I saw a description of this year's choice—an easy reader picture book—I groaned. A picture book? Really? Out of all of the possibilities, a picture book won the Newbery? What on earth was the Newbery committee thinking? 

What was the Newbery committee thinking? Quite a bit, it turns out. 

I just read the 2016 Newbery medal book: Last Stop on Market Street, words by Matt de la Peña, pictures by Christian Robinson, who picked up a Caldecott Honor award for his illustrations. (The Caldecott is awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.) It is the first time a picture book has won the Newbery; the first time a Hispanic author has won the Newbery.

Yes, it is a picture book. Yes, it is only 28 pages long.

But, man, does it pack a wallop.

CJ is a little boy taking a bus ride with his nana (his grandmother). The author does not say, but I suspect Nana is raising CJ, a pattern every family court in this country recognizes. CJ is a fountain of questions. Why don't we have a car? Why is the neighborhood at the last stop so run down and dirty? Nana answers him simply and clearly each time, pointing out all the good in the world that he benefits from, seeing the rainbow in the poor neighborhood.

The destination is a soup kitchen at which CJ and Nana volunteer. The diners are all ages and all colors, some disabled. Kudos to the author and artist for showing us that our poor, like our country, are a diverse population. Further accolades to Robinson and de la Peña for making Nana and CJ African-American. In the vast seas of mostly white children's literature, here are real characters of color.

The premise of the story is a bus ride, but the story is about kindness and generosity. It is about seeing from the heart. It is about being grateful for the world. 

I absolutely loved it.

Congratulations, Newbery committee. You got it right. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Inch One Hundred Fourteen: That Shakespeare

Google would remind us today that it is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. It may or may not also be his birthday; we are uncertain of what day in April Shakespeare was born, knowing only that he was baptized on April 26 and that in his era baptisms closely followed births given the high infant mortality rate.

In any event, I did not need Google to remind me. As I have often stated before in this forum, I am an ardent admirer of the Bard.

April is National Poetry Month and I have been celebrating it by posting a poem a day on my Facebook page. I did this last year as well. It gives me pleasure to come up with 30 poems and throw them out there in the vast social media world. Today's Facebook post was easy. Who else but Shakespeare? I posted my all-time favorite soliloquy, the one from Macbeth (my all-time favorite work by Shakespeare) when Macbeth learns that the queen, his wife, is dead:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

There are many interpretations of this soliloquy, which comes late in the play. Macbeth's kingdom, gained through murder and intrigue, is collapsing around him. His wife, the queen, has gone mad from her participation in the bloodshed. While Macbeth is fighting to remain king, the queen kills herself offstage. Macbeth asks "Wherefore was that cry?"and is told the queen is dead.

Here are two very different interpretations by two great Shakespearean actors. The first is a 1979 production with Ian McKellen. His Macbeth is numb, exhausted, and beyond caring:

And here is Patrick Stewart, giving an equally powerful performance, as a Macbeth grieving the loss of his beloved queen while realizing the futility of life:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Inch One Hundred Thirteen: Spring Walk

I walked to work today, a feat worth mentioning because I have been buried deep in Truancy Season, that time of year when some of my colleagues and I are in the schools for days on end, holding attendance mediations. Given that we cover all four districts in our county, Truancy Season requires having a car and the means to get to schools. Chemo two days a week and three weeks in a row also requires me to drive to work more than I want, so I can get to my treatment.

There's a lot of car time, and I am not a car person.

We are not yet out of Truancy Season, but Ohio forces school districts to administer standardized tests in April. We cannot pull staff or students for mediations during the testing weeks. As a result, there has been a brief respite, and after finishing chemo earlier this week, I was able to walk today.

The morning walk to the office was cold; despite warmer weather earlier in March, much of April has been chill. Warren and I each scraped windshields more than once this week to be able to drive to our respective offices. I noticed as I walked along today that violets were crumpled up in protective positions against the cold and that tulips refused to lift their heads.

Turning onto Lincoln Avenue, I heard a woodpecker high above me. Where is the woodpecker?Whose woodpecker is it? It took me a few minutes to locate it high in a leafless tree, silhouetted against the morning sun. I stood and listened before walking on.

Those sound like odd questions and perhaps they are, out of context. But what flashed through my mind when I heard the distinctive tap was the final chess match scene from the 1993 movie Searching For Bobby Fischer, which is not about Bobby Fischer so much as it about a young chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin. At a crucial point in the championship match, Josh's opponent misplays his pieces. Josh's coach, watching on closed-circuit television, says out loud "that was a mistake." Josh's father asks "What was a mistake? Who made the mistake?" (The comment comes around 4:36 in the clip below.)

Whatever geeky thread connected that scene to the woodpecker in my mind, I do not know. But once made, the connection stayed. Where is the woodpecker?Whose woodpecker is it? 

Today was a long day; the Thursday after chemo always is, due not only to the chemo but also to the fact that Thursday afternoon is when I co-facilitate a juvenile class that runs until 5:30. The class was long but good. When I finally exited the courthouse, I was exhausted but not so much that I couldn't appreciate the warm temperature and the bright sun of late afternoon.

There were no woodpeckers out when I walked back home, but the violets had opened up. There were tulips at the house just before Fountain Street, yellow ones streaked with red, all standing straight and true in the warmth. The day had done a 180 on me.

I will be back in my car tomorrow, not because Truancy Season is kicking back in (that will be at the end of next week), but because I have more errands to run tomorrow than I wish to contemplate. More and more, I feel like Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, scraped thin.

With the change in weather and the upcoming conclusion of the 2015-2016 Truancy Season, I am hoping for a little more energy, a little less scraped feeling. I am probably dreaming. I know it is unlikely that I will ever regain lost ground. So I may as well make the best of it, savor the spring violets defying the cold, listen for the woodpecker high in the tree.

Where is the woodpecker?Whose woodpecker is it? 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Inch One Hundred Twelve: Of Pies and Poetry

On the left is a standard 9" pan; on the right is one of my 6" pans
The Academy of American Poets long ago declared the month of April National Poetry Month. As I noted in my last post, I am posting a poem a day on my Facebook page in honor of the month.

On the 4th day of National Poetry Month, I posted one of my own. My 60th birthday, a milestone I never anticipated reaching, had been the day before. We don't make a big deal about birthdays in this household. Oh, don't get me wrong—they're nice enough, we don't ignore them—but we don't go hog wild over them either. Presents, if any, tend to be small and modest. Celebrations tend to be minimal.

This year was not out of line with the usual. We went over to the house of our good friends, Mel and Mark, for a birthday brunch that Mel and Warren had planned. It was great. The rest of the day was spent doing small things around the house. That was good too.

I did get a birthday present this year. Two days before my birthday, Warren and I were out of town on a business trip and spent some time walking around the city of Medina, which boasts a restored and revitalized downtown. The local hardware store is still in business and we popped in to explore. In the basement were home goods: cookware, bakeware, utensils. And right there in front of us were pie pans: little patty pans, standard size pans, and (be still my heart) 6" pans.

I have wanted 6" pans for the last few months, ever since the aforementioned friend Mark brought over two small pies, a pecan and a sweet potato, each baked in a 6" pan. I was so taken with the little pans that I ended up writing several poems about them. So when I saw the same size pan in the hardware store, my eyes lit up. Warren, seeing the look on my face, bought two of them for my birthday. The night before the brunch, I gave the pans a test run, baking two small apple pies. These accompanied us to brunch the next morning.

At brunch, I read one of my pie poems. Mark, who is my partner in the Death and Dying Poetry Club, and his wife listened with enthusiasm, despite having read the pie poems before. Warren, who unfortunately is poetry adverse, politely suffered through the reading without too much squirming. 

Here, in honor of National Poetry Month and pies everywhere, is my poem,  Pie amour fu (crazy pie love):

Pie amour fu

It was the small pie pans I marveled at
Not patty pans
More half grown than that.

They had belonged to your grandmother
Or your aunts perhaps
A whole lineage of piemakers.
I would ponder that later.

But their size!
I want to cradle them in my arms
Croon to them
Dance a pie dance with them turning round and round
Then tuck them into a little bed whispering “sweet dreams” and “sleep tight.”

I want to bake a thousand small pies
And pass them out to strangers on the street.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Inch One Hundred Eleven: A Half Dozen

Random bits that have dropped into my life this week:

1. I recently received a University of Chicago Alumni Association email entitled: Let's try something new!

What could that be, you ask? Well, apparently that means coming to Alumni Weekend, June 2 to 5.

Sorry, Chicago, I have a prior appointment in Seattle from June 1-4 for the AFCC conference, followed by nine days in Portland with my sons, my daughter-in-law, Ramona, and others in our families.

I'll be co-presenting a workshop at the conference. (Alise is my co-presenter.) That's enough new for me.

2. Roaming through the new books shelves at the library, I ran across one entitled No Baggage : A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering. Written by Clara Benson, it is a memoir about lots of things, including traveling for three weeks from Istanbul, Turkey to London, England, with, truly, no baggage except the clothes on her back and the few items she packed into a very small purse. The "no baggage" rule also included making no reservations anywhere, but just arriving (in Istanbul, for starters) and hoping for the best. (There's a lot more to her memoir than that, but the no baggage piece is the part I am writing about here.) 

I met my friend Mel for coffee when I was about two-thirds through the work and told her I was intrigued with the idea for when I head to Seattle and Portland. Well, I wouldn't go totally without baggage, but if I could get it down to one tiny bag, I would be thrilled. My myeloma has impacted me enough that I have to check a bag whenever I fly because I don't have the strength to hoist a loaded bag into a baggage compartment if I am traveling by myself. Traveling wayyyyyyyyyyyy lighter would take care of that issue.

Mel, who went to Europe for three weeks last year, had her baggage lost en route for 10 of the 21 days. She bought one light top, a pair of shorts, two pairs of underwear, and a lightweight wrap for cooler nights. She also had her personal travel bag (toothbrush, toothpaste) so she was okay on that front. Mel did confide that she got "awfully tired" of her limited selection, so when her husband Mark joined her part of the way through the trip with a gift of a large piece of woven cloth from friends in Belgium, she improvised a skirt with it. 

"Do it, April, do it!"

I may just do it. Or some variation of "it."

3. My son Ben has had boxes and boxes of books and things in our attic; these are books, CDs, and stuff from high school (and before) through his first year of college. Ben had hoped to come back this summer for a visit and sort through them, but it looks like other events will likely keep him and his family west coast bound this year. So I went through ALL of the boxes, compiled a list of what was in each one (lots), and asked Ben for his input. He said to get rid of about 99.99% of everything, saving only ten titles and a few other items. Among his reasoning was this: "I'm sick of carting around old things that I don't look at ever." So boxes are going to Goodwill, Half Price Books, maybe a video games dealer, definitely a card shop (we are talking thousands of baseball cards, folks). And looking at his boxes getting ready to leave the house permanently, I am adding items of my own: the CDs I never listen to, more of my books, things like that. 

The handful of items Ben wanted, including the ten titles? Those shipped to Portland yesterday.

4. As I sort through things, my mind runs back to Christopher Milne, son of A. A. Milne and the "real" Christopher Robin of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories and poems. Milne wrote an autobiography, The Enchanted Places, in 1974, and in it he commented upon his decision to donate the original Pooh bear and the other Pooh characters to his editor, who gave them to the New York Public Library. Milne wrote about Pooh fan reaction to his decision:

So, if I am asked "Aren't you sad that the animals are not in their glass case with you today?" I must answer "Not really" and hope that this doesn't seem too unkind. I like to have around me the things I like today, not the things I once liked many years ago. I don't want a house to be a museum. When I grew out of my old First Eleven blazer, it was thrown away, not lovingly preserved to remind me of the proud day I won it with a score of 13 not out. Every child has his Pooh, but one would think it odd if every man still kept his Pooh to remind him of his childhood. But my Pooh is different, you say: he is the Pooh. No, this only makes him different to you, not different to me. My toys were and are to me no more than yours were and are are to you. I do not love them more because they are known to children in Australia or Japan. Fame has nothing to do with love.
I wouldn't like a glass case that said: "Here is fame", and I don't need a glass case to remind me : "Here was love".
I don't need a house full of stuff, some of it long set aside (even in the case of my things), to remind me of love and life.

5. Yesterday Warren and I went north to pick up a set of his crotales. On the way back, we stopped for a brief walk through downtown Medina, then swung over to Akron to pick up son David and bring him back to Delaware (he'd just completed a road trip to Maine), then back into town in time for First Friday. 40 years ago, I could drive nonstop from Portland, Oregon to Delaware, Ohio in 48 hours if there were two other drivers in the car. Yesterday, the less than six hours (none more than two and a half hours at a time) of driving took a toll on me. Like the books and other items I am shedding, I look back at that person and wonder who she was.

6. April is National Poetry Month in this country, and that means I will post a poem a day on my Facebook page. I started at about 5:00 a.m. on Friday with this Nike ad featuring the poetry of Pablo Neruda:

My sister-in-law Margaret commented: "Huh. Nike, Neruda, and . . . the prelude to Das Rheingold? Even the postmodern mind boggles a bit. Or maybe not."

As I reminded Margaret in response, this is advertising and in advertising nothing should ever boggle the mind. Ever. 

The same rule goes for poetry. Happy Poetry Month! 


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Inch One Hundred Ten: Another Look at Laura

There is a new Laura Ingalls Wilder book out just this month: The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I read it last week.

Warren asked me after I had finished what I thought. As I suspect is so often the case, he asks a question hoping for a short answer or amusing anecdote, and instead unleashes a torrent of words.

What did I think? I think the book added little to my understanding of who Laura Ingalls Wilder was. I think it could have been condensed into a good, solid, scholarly article with a handful of representational letters. And I think it darkened the image of the little, smiling, white-haired "Laura Ingalls Wilder, American author."

Well, that's what I thought of the book.

William Anderson, a biographer of Laura, edited this collection. To his credit, he makes clear in the introduction that there are large gaps in the body of extant LIW letters. Almost none of Laura's letters to her family, especially her mother and her older sister Mary, exist, most of them thrown out in the 1920s when the family home in De Smet, South Dakota, was cleared out after Ma and Mary died. More disappeared after sisters Grace and Carrie died. Rose Wilder Lane, Laura's problematic daughter and only child, destroyed large numbers of letters from her mother. In fairness to Anderson, he worked with as much as he had available, but too much material, especially the letters that would show the personal side of Laura, is gone.

So what do I know about Laura after reading her letters? She was a tireless correspondent with her reading public and until she was well into her 80s (she lived to be 90), Laura pushed herself to answer personally every note that came her way. Even after her publishers took over answering the correspondence that came directly to their offices, she continued to answer those that ended up in her mailbox in Mansfield, Missouri. Given that she received hundreds of letters annually from children and adults reading the Little House books, her tenacity is admirable.

The collection also makes clear much more than any critical works published to date how much Rose collaborated with Laura on the Little House books, especially By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter. Rose was an accomplished author of the times (the 1930s)) and brought a critical eye and a sense of narrative flow to Laura's writing. But make no mistake: the letters show that when it came to understanding both the story itself and what readers wanted, Laura reigned supreme. Rose has been characterized as a woman who was ashamed and resentful of her poverty laced childhood, ashamed and resentful of her parents for their humble backgrounds, and always sure in her conviction that she was superior in all ways to almost everyone else in the world. When she tried to put her attitude into the books and degrade the settlers of De Smet, Laura fought back tartly and precisely. Didn't Rose understand, she wrote, that the only way to survive the horrific winter was to hunker down into a stoic survival mode? Daily life was not the potboiler existence that was a feature of Rose's writing and Laura was not about to show the townspeople in unrealistic and unfair ways. Life that winter really was a matter of grinding wheat every day to survive. Laura also understood that the fictional Laura had to mature and that the story line had to mature with her, despite Rose's insistence that Laura continue to write only to young children.

In the end, of course, Laura was right. Her readers matured along with her storyline, a premise that J. K. Rowling understood well when she wrote the Harry Potter books decades later. The Little House books have never gone out of print, while much of the interest today in Rose Wilder Lane's books is to analyze how much she stole from her mother's history.

You cannot read even this small collection of Laura's letters without being aware of her politics, which were both conservative and harsh. Laura disliked Franklin Roosevelt and disliked the relief programs of the Great Depression. Better that children starve than give their lazy parents a helping hand (yes, she really did feel that way). She conveniently overlooks the great social welfare program of her youth, the Homestead Act, that allowed her parents finally to get settled and financially secure. As to her father, the immortal Pa Ingalls of the Little House series, she could be judgmental in assessing him: he was a dreamer, a ne'er do well until she was grown, and too quick to reach out and help his fellow man. Laura makes Pa larger than life in her books, but her real feelings were much more complicated. In those regards, she is not kind, she is not generous, she is not nice.

I am not sorry I read the letters, but it is not a book I will add to my personal library. Unlike other letter collections that I have read (E. B. White, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, to name but a few), collections that left me with a fuller sense of the man or woman behind the name, the LIW collections puts distance between me and the author.

I own the entire Little House series, well worn paperbacks with the Garth Williams illustrations, and they are still occasionally go to books when I need comfort reading (skipping the wildly inaccurate for the era of the stories and wildly bigoted for our era portrayal of Native Americans, which is why I will probably never buy the series for Ramona). As for Laura Ingalls Wilder the person, though, I will let her go. The author and the story are not the same, and I don't need the one to read the other.