Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pie Day

January 23 is National Pie Day, thanks to the National Pie Council.
A box of culled apples we bought for $5

National Pie Day is not to be confused with Pi Day, which is, of course, March 14 (3.14). Pi Day is a day on which many folks, especially science/math nerds (per my friend Pat), celebrate by eating pie. And we all know the equation for determining the area of a circle, such as the surface of a pie, is πr squared. And for the circumference of the circle, as in the pie pan itself? 2πr.

Pies are squared? Not for Pie Day here in Delaware. The pies were most definitely round. And while two pies are definitely better than one, there was no shortage of pies here on Pie Day because there were lots of pies.

In fact, there were 19 of them.

Piling up in the freezer
All day on National Pie Day, the Symphony handed out slices of fresh baked apple pie to anyone who walked through the door. Despite the bitter cold temperatures, lot of people came through that door. Attorneys, a magistrate, my mother, an organist, the mayor, someone in town just to pay his property taxes, a banker, the city manager, downtown shop owners, and the city attorney all stopped in. The youngest pie eater was just short of 3 years old, the oldest were well up in years. About half of the nineteen pies were consumed one slice at a time. The eight remaining at the end of the day went out into the world in various ways. Two went to high school wrestlers (courtesy of my friend Judy), three went to juvenile court, one went home with Buffy, who works at the Symphony, and one came home to our house (half of which I then gave to my friend Anne as a thank you for a wonderful favor).

The eighth pie went home with an elderly gentleman and his wife for a donation. He had a slice, she had a slice, they shared a third slice, and then he asked if he could buy one. No, said Warren, but he would let him take the pie for a donation.

I hope that man and his wife enjoyed every bite of the pie they carefully shepherded home.

19 pies. Yes, I made them singlehandedly in batches of four, doing everything from peeling and slicing the apples to rolling and filling the dough. As I finished each batch, I wrapped and froze the pies unbaked. The night before Pie Day, I baked pies all evening, filling the house with the scents of cinnamon and apples.
19 pies ready to go

What was I thinking?

Not entirely of the Symphony, although I made sure it was the beneficiary of my Pie Day observances. Warren helped immeasurably in making Pie Day happen, including calling a grocery for a box of culls and supporting my quest. I'm glad the pies pulled people into the office. But I didn't do it solely for the orchestra.

Not of my health, that's for sure. I'm in the middle of a relapse. I have not yet started treatment, and my energy and strength levels are at all time lows. That's why I made the pies in batches of four instead of eight or more: I couldn't make more than four at a time.

So what was I thinking?

Here's what, plain and simple: I wanted the community to eat my apple pies on National Pie Day. And I wanted to do it so that in the event that there are no more Pie Days for me, I will look back with great satisfaction on this one.

The poet Dylan Thomas wrote a haunting villanelle, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. The final two lines are often quoted:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

As I wander through the outlying lands of Cancerland, I give more and more thought to the ultimate end of my wanderings. I do not plan to rage, in the sense of being wildly angry, against the dying of the light when it comes to the cancer and medical intervention. I do not plan to battle and fight this terrible disease to its bitter end. I live with it, I am about to start a treatment that we all hope will make it quiet down again, but I'm not in a battle with cancer. There will come a day when I say to my oncologist "that's enough" and savor the days left to me. That's my plan, when that times comes.

The word "rage" can also mean a burning desire or passion. When it comes to my non-oncology/non-medical side of life, the day to day events that make up 24 hours, I am raging.  I have returned to volunteering at our monthly Legal Clinic, despite how awful I feel afterwards. And my quiet raging is what fueled my hands and spirit through the apple pie binge. Yes, it was exhausting, and yes, I collapsed on the couch when the last three pies exited the oven.

And yes, my heart was filled with joyous rage.

At the Symphony office

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Handing Down Treasures Through the Generations

My good friend Anne called to me as I walked by her office today. "Hey, I have to tell you something real quick about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."

I gave Anne a copy of Betty Smith's novel for Christmas when she mentioned earlier in the year that she had never read it. I am of the firm conviction that all readers (and by "readers," I mean avid, crazed without books, individuals who will read cereal boxes if nothing is at hand) should read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at least once in their life. (Confession: I've read it some two dozen plus times.)

Anne is a reader. I love Anne because she is bright and witty and attractive and reminds me so much of my daughter-in-law Alise at times that I get homesick for Alise (who is also a reader). Anne had to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

So this morning Anne told me her mother was pleased that Anne was reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because she had read it and it was a good book. Then Anne's mother said she had read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because her mother, Anne's grandmother, had read it and then given it to her daughter to read.

Anne's grandmother had only an 8th grade education but clearly did not let her lack of formal education keep her from expanding her horizons through reading. When Anne told me that about her grandmother, I immediately thought of Francie Nolan, the protagonist of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and of how Francie's struggles for an education despite not being able to attend high school must have resonated with Anne's grandmother.

I love the thought of Anne's family reading this book through three generations. It personifies Will Schwalbe's lyrical reflections in The End of Your Life Book Club: "I will never be able to read my mother's favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I'll know that some of what made her goes with them."

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

To Oz and Back

Oz has held me in its thrall since I was a child. The MGM movie (the Oz movie) lured me in, but by the time I was 10, I had discovered the books and read as many as I could find in our library.
L. Frank Baum

This fall, I read a 2009 biography of L. Frank Baum, the man who brought us Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and all of the other inhabitants of Oz. The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum was well researched and well written by Rebecca Loncraine, a Welsh writer. Perhaps it takes an outsider (outside of America, that is) to analyze, deconstruct, and interpret the life of the man who dreamed up Oz.

Baum was a complex man, and Loncraine deftly illuminates his strengths and shortcomings. As was the case with most people during that era, Baum lived closely with death, having seen several siblings and cousins die during their and his childhood. Perhaps because of these losses, he appeared to be deeply influenced by the Spiritualist movement in the late nineteenth century. Baum was violently racist and Loncraine does not overlook or excuse this. He was a dreamer, a mediocre storekeeper, a newspaper editor who called for the eradication of all Native American tribes as a final solution to the tensions between tribes and white expansion. He was a theatrical producer and actor, a bankrupt movie producer, a passionate husband, an adoring father.

And, if this biographer is correct, Baum initially resisted being saddled with the burden of being the author of the Oz books. While both delighted and overwhelmed by the success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum thought he was done with the whole story. To his dismay, he found himself hounded by children begging for more Oz stories.

Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, having grown tired of his fictional creation having taken over Doyle's life. Baum did not kill off Dorothy, but he tried to end the Oz series after six books. The powerful witch Glinda renders Oz invisible to save it from discovery by dirigibles and airplanes at the end of The Emerald City of Oz (1910). The final chapter of that book is "How the Story of Oz Came to an End," and contains a note from Dorothy that begins "you will never hear anything more about Oz." Baum tells his readers that while that is sad, it is not all bad, "for we have had enough of the history of the Land of Oz."

Like Doyle, who was forced to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life, Baum was forced to return to Oz by the incessant demand of his readers and the need for income. Three years later, The Patchwork Girl of Oz appeared, with Baum indicating that he was once again in contact with Oz via radio signals. After that, Baum produced an Oz book every year of his life, with the last two coming out posthumously.

In time, Baum took to describing himself as the Royal Historian of Oz rather than as the author of the Oz books. In his notes and papers, he expressed his strong conviction that he channeled the stories directly from Oz, not unlike the spiritualists who channeled the dead. Ironically, his publishers printed the first posthumous book with Baum's now traditional note to his readers, making no mention of his death. It is only in the final Baum Oz book, Glinda of Oz (1920), that the publishers reveal to the reader that Baum "went away to take his stories to the little child-souls who had lived here too long ago to read the Oz stories for themselves."

On the strength on Loncraine's biography, I spent a portion of the fall reading the 15 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum. (There are two other Oz works by Baum, one of which I read during this time, which are not included as part of the children's Oz books. There is good reason for that.) While I did not read them in chronological order, it is fitting that I read his final book last.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz is my favorite and, in my opinion, Baum's cleverest work. That was his return novel when he finally accepted that he could not escape Oz, and to his credit, Baum put his heart into the book.

In the end, Oz is one of those worlds, like Wonderland, like Middle Earth, like the Kingdom of Wisdom, that has always existed even before being reduced to writing. The magic of Frank Baum was that he captured it on paper.

After Baum's death, his publishers continued the tradition of an annual Oz book (always brought out at Christmas) using other authors, until the series wore itself out in 1939. I've never read any of those Oz books, but I have read two other Oz books written for children. One was Visitors From Oz, by polymath Martin Gardner, the other was Dorothy of Oz by Roger Baum, the great-grandson of L. Frank Baum. The Gardner book is rather pedestrian, but his keen knowledge of topology shines through when he (as the narrator) helps Dorothy and friends return to Oz through the use of a Klein bottle.

Roger Baum's book, the first of several Oz books he has penned, reaches back to Oz, the real Oz. He weaves elements of the MGM movie into the story, yet he stays true to the original story. In a mix of both, Roger Baum transports Dorothy from Kansas back to Oz:

Dorothy took Toto up carefully in her arms. She clicked the heels of the silver shoes three times as she had been taught and said, "Take me to Oz!" 

The rainbow became a blur. The prairie disappeared and they flew over the rainbow to Oz.

Roger Baum hints in his prologue that he was channeling his great-grandfather in writing this work. It shows.