Friday, February 29, 2008

How to Like It

If I can make it through today, February will be over. I'm struggling to keep any kind of positive attitude, especially since it's snowing again. The schools finally got tired of delaying or canceling and have decided to ignore the weather today. I can't go anywhere when the roads are bad, so I'm rereading one of my favorite poems by Stephen Dobyns. It's about the restless feeling that I get this time of year--the urge to go somewhere new, especially somewhere with new weather. It's a spring break road trip longing.

How To Like It

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let's pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let's dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Lke in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn't been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let's go down to the diner and sniff
people's legs. Let's stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man's mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let's go to sleep. Let's lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he'll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he'll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let's just go back inside.
Let's not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing? The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let's go make a sandwich.
Let's make the tallest sandwich anyone's ever seen.
And that's what they do and that's where the man's
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept--
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


I'm underemployed right now. I have a PhD in English and a 1/6 time administrative job (like one course over two semesters) at a college a few miles away. I've been awarded the title of "Senior Lecturer" at another college about 50 miles away where I teach classes twice a week when I can. I've been through years of interviews and visiting positions and academic politics. At this point, I don't really see myself as a Don Quixote figure. So I'm trying to figure out why I persist.

The first time I left a visiting position, the people in the English department succeeded in making me feel like the kid at the end of Araby:

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

Eventually I learned to do what Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown recommends: "Have the courage to fail big and stick around." When I teach a class now, I carry books and papers in my messenger bag that says "May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one."

I'm not through hanging around the increasingly specialized world of academia pretending I have business there; it's a subversive activity, but some of us generalists have got to keep doing it. So honk if you still love Mangan's sister!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fully grown tomcat on the keys

My three cats are bored. They have almost given up on finding the door into summer. Like the cat in the Heinlein story, they spend most of the winter convinced that at least one of our doors "must lead into summer weather." But by the end of February, they get bored of waiting to go outside and start picking on each other and the upholstery.

Yesterday, Sammy was sitting on the back of a picked-over easy chair next to my desk. I was using my laptop computer on the desk, which is unusual because for months I've been using it on the bed as I recovered from my knee replacement. I wasn't paying any attention to Sammy. He's a nervous cat, and it's not entirely my fault. He was raised by a feral mother and has the uncanny ability, described in Fritz Leiber's story Space Time for Springers, of being able to be in one room and then instantaneously materialize in a different room, usually half-way up the curtains. I must confess that occasionally I make a sudden movement or noise just to see Sammy levitate. But I was ignoring him, as I said, and typing on the computer in the middle of a quiet house. All of the sudden, there was a cat explosion. My screen changed to a darker color, with a white box that appeared and then disappeared, leaving me with a screen I'd never seen before, and a "c" key that had come entirely off the keyboard. As I sat there, I realized that the moment before the explosion, I'd seen black out of the corner of my eye. Chester had come up behind Sammy and detonated him. I also realized that my left wrist was bleeding slightly. There were no cats in the room. The house was silent.

Those of you who are not cat people are thinking "why does she put up with such animals?" All I can say, amid my chagrin at being told that I will have to send my laptop away to get the keyboard repaired, is what Heinlein already said best:

Cats have no sense of humor, they have terribly inflated egos, and they are very touchy. If somebody asked me why it was worth anyone's time to cater to them I would be forced to answer that there is no logical reason. I would rather explain to someone who detests sharp cheeses why he "ought to like" Limburger. Nevertheless, I fully sympathize with the mandarin who cut off a priceless embroidered sleeve because a kitten was sleeping on it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sheltering Children

My sister-in-law probably wouldn't say that my children are sheltered, but I would. I think all parents shelter their children as much as they can for as long as they can. One of the ways in which my children have been sheltered is that we don't watch tv news much. As Barbara Kingsolver says in her essay "The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don't Let Him In" (in Small Wonder), "people very rarely get killed at our house, and I'm trying to keep it that way." I never even saw any of the 9/11 coverage; it upset my kindergartener, who was home with chicken pox. We do have a rule about movies: sex is okay, but not violence. They can watch Love Actually but not Die Hard.

Is it hypocritical of me to say that I don't believe in willful ignorance and then try to keep my children ignorant of some things? I don't think so. The younger one is almost 12, and the older one is 14 and a half. "As long as I can" is running out. Continuing to shelter them much will just turn into the kind of pointless exercise that this poem by Billy Collins describes:

The History Teacher

Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

Since we're all going to shelter our children to some extent, if we can, I think we should show them what we fight wars to defend--the things we love--before they see too much of what we fight wars to destroy.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Things We Don't Understand

I don't think that the Faust stories are about things we should not understand. I would open the box every time, like Pandora. One thing that perplexes me mightily is people who say they don't want to know the sex of their baby before it's born. Especially when your lab technician knows something like that, why would you deliberately choose to keep yourself in the dark? I am not in favor of willful ignorance. At any rate, I think the Faust stories are about things that we understand imperfectly. We think we know what we're doing, but the danger lies in the fact that we haven't completely understood what we're dealing with.

I just read a science fiction novel entitled Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, in which aliens came to Earth, had something like a roadside picnic, and then went back into space, leaving a zone full of mysterious and lethal objects lying around for humans to explore. The humans don't understand the purpose of these objects. They're like ants crawling over discarded plastic cups full of soda, except that this soda might be like acid to these ants. One of the effects of human forays into the zone is mutation, and another is the reanimation of dead flesh, called a moulage.

I have excluded zombie fiction (and it's a growing genre, have you noticed?) from my exploration of necromancy, because a zombie is not a person brought back to life. A zombie is merely a body brought back to life. Big difference.

But the moulage in Roadside Picnic isn't exactly a zombie. It's reanimated, but no more scary than the mutated child. In fact, towards the end of the novel, the child "stood there with her hairy paws on the table and then in a perfectly childlike way, she leaned against the moulage and put her head on his shoulder. Noonan went on chatting but thought, as he looked at those two horrors born of the Zone: My God, what else? What else has to be done to us before we understand?"

That Dr. Faustus is less satisfied than before after bringing Helen of Troy back to life is the climax of that story. It's the point where he begins to realize that he understands very little about what he has been doing. There are those who argue that we should understand everything about what we're doing before we proceed. Literature is loaded with examples of the dangers of proceeding when we understand too little, but also full of examples of the courage of those who try "to sail beyond the sunset" anyway.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Saturday sports schedule

We have a Baby Blues cartoon among the many cartoons taped to our kitchen cabinet. It has a panel labeled "Before kids" in which the woman is handing a man a cup and he's thinking "At last! The weekend is here!" The other panel, labeled "Since kids" has the woman saying "Okay, here's the schedule" and the man thinking "Oh no! The weekend is here!" I wouldn't have gotten the joke some years ago, but I sure get it now. Our weekends are planned around sports schedules. Eleanor, who is fourteen and a half today, is too old for any recreational sports for most of the year, but she can play soccer in the winter if we arrange a carpool to get her and her friends to the indoor soccer field an hour away from our house. Walker, who is eleven, would play all soccer all the time if he could, but right now he's limited to an indoor soccer skills program at the local YMCA, 10 minutes away from our house. Our Saturdays will start to fill up with his traveling soccer schedule again in late March. The end of season tournament is scheduled for Ron's birthday, so I guess we'll have to fit in some celebration around Walker's tournament games in Columbus (at least an hour away from our house).

The Saturday sports schedule makes me think of this poem by Philip Larkin, called Afternoons:

Summer is fading;
The leaves fall in ones and twos
From trees bordering
The new recreation ground.
In the hollows of afternoons
Young mothers assemble
At swing and sandpit
Setting free their children.

Behind them, at intervals,
Stand husbands in skilled trades,
An estateful of washing,
And the albums, lettered
Our Wedding, lying
Near the television:
Before them, the wind
Is ruining their courting-places

That are still courting-places
(But the lovers are all in school),
And their children, so intent on
Finding more unripe acorns,
Expect to be taken home.
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

My children expect to be taken home from so many things that I actually bought myself a chauffeur's hat this fall, and wore it regularly. I taught them that the correct response to "Where to, sir?" or "Where to, ma'am?" is "Home, James."

There are days when I feel pushed to the side of my own life. But like everything else about parenting, I figure that if we're patient, it will change. Perhaps my beauty, what there was of it, will still be thickened. But my skin is thickened too, so I won't mind so much.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Rape and Torture

One of my favorite parts of Pope's The Rape of the Lock is the torture scene. This is, no doubt, news to those of you who know me well enough to know that I can't watch a movie if I think it has a torture scene in it. I fast forwarded through that part of the latest James Bond. I can hardly even watch the funny torture scene in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or the "War Stories" episode from the Firefly tv series.

At any rate, it takes some thought, some familiarity with 18th-century English, and sometimes a dictionary to even decipher what is happening in Pope's torture scene. The head sprite, or sylph, is giving the other sylphs a speech about what will happen if they don't fulfill their mission as little guardian fairies. He says anyone who fails will be tortured by being

stop'd in Vials, or transfixt with Pins;
Or plung'd in Lakes of bitter Washes lie,
Or wedg'd whole Ages in a Bodkin's Eye:
Gums and Pomatums shall his Flight restrain,
While clog'd he beats his silken Wings in vain;
Or Alom-Stypticks with contracting Pow'r
Shrink his thin Essence like a rivell'd Flower.
Or, as Ixion fix'd, the Wretch shall feel
The giddy Motion of the whirling Mill,
Midst Fumes of burning Chocolate shall glow,
And tremble at the Sea that froaths below! (II, 126-136)

Can you picture it? The erring sylph might be stoppered up in a vial, like a genie in a bottle. Or he might be pinned like a butterfly on display. He might be put into a lake of eyedrops. He might be wedged into the eye of a needle. He might have hair gel put on him so his wings are gummed up and he can't fly. He might have all the juice sucked out of him by a styptick, what men used to dry up their cuts from shaving. All of that could happen while a human was getting dressed and fixed up to go out. But the ultimate punishment, the most fearsome torture, is to be held over a cup of hot chocolate! My students always think they have to work too hard to get the comedy here, but I think that working through the impenetrable language actually makes the joke better.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Book of Nightmares

Last night, later than I meant to stay up after the spectacular lunar eclipse, I finished reading Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. Once I got to the last 100 pages, I had to finish the book lest I find myself trying to finish the story all night in my dreams. It is a book designed to give a woman nightmares, second only to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Why is Atwood's first as a book of nightmares? Because it happens here. It's the picture of what an American theocracy could look like: a fertile woman is "a national resource" and she must "be a worthy vessel." The first-person narrator says "we are for breeding purposes" and "we are two-legged wombs." This is the world as some pro-lifers would like to see it.

Hosseini's book takes place in Afghanistan, a place that I started reading about in the 1980's when newspaper columnists began pointing out the many parallels between the treatment of the handmaids in Atwood's novel and the treatment of Afghan women under Taliban rule. And what have I done to improve their lot? Not enough. Reading about women in the middle east always makes me think of Germans who managed to block out their bits of knowledge that something wasn't right about what was happening to the Jews. Ignorance is no shield against such evil.

It particularly offends me that those who should be standing up and pointing out the evil (here I think of Buckaroo Banzai pointing his finger and shouting "Evil! Pure and simple! From the 8th Dimension!") are instead doing a mealy-mouthed multicultural dance around the issue. Whatever possessed the archbishop of Canterbury (pun intended) to speak out in favor of any law based on religion? What an unworthy successor to Thomas More.

Sharia law is bad, mmkay? Let us count the first ten ways:

Of course, a good antidote to A Thousand Splendid Suns is Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The American project

I saw a wonderful performance of The Laramie Project at Kenyon in January. It made good use of a very small space, and the space for the audience was also limited, so I wasn't able to convince my friends who are less ardently in support of gay rights to come and see it. But my kids came, and they were rapt. It's a talky play, so this was quite an achievement for the students who directed, acted, and put up the entire production.

Now, I've seen this play before, several times. Early on, after the events of October, 1998 (Matthew Shepard's murder), the performance had a searching quality. The focus was on how such a thing could happen. The words of the Roman Catholic Priest, Father Roger Schmit, were the most important part of the play: "What did we as a society do to teach you that?"

At Otterbein College in the winter of 2002, I saw a very good performance of the play which put the spotlight (literally) on personal responsibility for hate. The most memorable part of that performance was when the character of Zubaida, in her muslim headscarf, was suddenly revealed in a seat on one edge of the audience, concluding her speech with "We are like this. We ARE like this. WE are LIKE this."

In the years since the play was first performed and discussed, Americans have learned more about the biological basis for homosexuality, passed one hate crime law (May 2007), pointed out to each other that churches who teach homophobia use biblical passages out of context (particularly Leviticus), and seen Fred Phelps go from protesting at the funerals of Americans who were homosexual to protesting at the funerals of American soldiers who died in Iraq.

The most memorable moment of the January performance at Kenyon was (as noted in the student newspaper) when the student playing Fred Phelps stands on a ladder trying to shout his messages of hate over an increasing number of voices singing "Amazing Grace." It seems to me that interpretive options for the performance of The Laramie Project have narrowed in the years since the play's first performance. What we're left with today is what all Americans have learned since 2001: "the magnitude with which some people hate" and the importance of taking some kind of stand against it (even if it's only taking your kids to see this play).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Ron used to enjoy the wide-eyed looks he got when he asked preschoolers if Colonel Hathi knew Dumbo or if Freddy the pig knew Charlotte.
The night I was in labor with Eleanor, I spent midnight to four reading a fictional account of what happened to Heathcliff during his "lost" years. That kind of book seems to be much more prevalent now, especially with novels by the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen--there seems to be a kind of mania to modernize their characters, sort of like my rant about Jo March. In science fiction, current authors can use places other writers created and take their own characters on adventures there.
I'm not really sure if I approve of this kind of literary parasitism. I do read them, but almost always from the library. My newest pile of library books includes The Heroines by Eileen Favorite. This one is brand new, published January 2008. In it, a 13-year-old girl and her mother run a bed and breakfast where heroines like Scarlett O'Hara, Emma Bovary, Cathy Earnshaw, and Madame Bovary come to stay. The mother hides her books in the attic so the heroines won't find out how their story ends. As it turns out, she has learned the hard way that it's not wise to meddle in the outcome of a heroine's story. I won't tell you the ending, except to say that it's almost every 13-year-old-girl's dream.
What I don't like about these kinds of books is the reductionist quality, and sometimes the anachronisms, especially of character. What I find fascinating, though, is that bookland turns out to be a place where people I know are having conversations with each other. I never wanted what Holden Caulfield wants--to call an author up and have a conversation with him--as much as I wanted to call a character up and make friends. Or just be able to walk around his neighborhood.
Once I got the neighborhood experience on a tour of Universal Studios in Los Angeles. We rode a trolley around the town square of Hill Valley, from Back to the Future. I found it a wonderful but somewhat disorienting experience.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Repairing or Buying New Redux

The comments about why we don't get things repaired much anymore made me think more about why. Ron and I often talk about the current reluctance to pay people a decent wage for jobs other people don't want to do.
We've seen this up close and personal with daycare providers. The Nanny Diaries shows some of the emotional side of it, too. (Jobs we don't pay enough for certainly include K-12 teaching, but there's some emotional satisfaction in that, at least for a while.)
I read about it in this year's common book at Otterbein, Under the Feet of Jesus. I didn't like the book much, but it does a nice job of conveying the emotions of immigrant migrant workers to Americans who might not have thought about how such people feel.
And should we extend this argument to people? The doctor who spent three hours to put in my new, shiny knee is getting paid a lot more than the physical therapists who have been working with me for ten weeks to repair the effects of years of neglect and misuse of the muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc. around the knee.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Sandy Mack once told me that he thought there was a Shakespeare play for every era. I think the play for this era is Othello. It's got passion without thought.
There are good movie versions of the play, Oliver Parker's with Kenneth Branagh and Janet Suzman's, and there are wonderful movies based on it or involving issues from it, like O and Stage Beauty. But I have never seen a performance that highlighted one of my favorite speeches in the play, one spoken by Othello after the extent of Iago's treachery has become clear to him:
I have seen the day
That with this little arm and this good sword
I have made my way through more impediments
Than twenty times your stop. But O vain boast!
Who can control his fate? 'Tis not so now.
Be not afraid, though you do see me weaponed.
Here is my journey's end, here is my butt,
And very seamark of my utmost sail.
Do you go back dismayed? 'Tis a lost fear.
Man but a rush against Othello's breast,
And he retires.
Finally the guy realizes that he has been missing something in the way he sees the world, that the way to conquer "impediments" is not always to obliterate them.
It reminds me of the scene in the movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur, Zaphod and Trillian find the point of view gun, a big gun that forces the targeted person to see the shooter's point of view, and they turn it on Trillian, who says in a tone of deep disgust "It won't work on me. I'm already a woman."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Literary Detective Wanted in Little Women

I've been thinking about Jane Eyre (see the comment on yesterday's post). And that got me thinking about Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, a novel in which everyone cares as much about literature as I do (and in the sequels they play croquet, too). Fforde's main character, Thursday Next, is a Literary Detective, and in her world, Jane Eyre ends with Jane going off to India with St. John Rivers. Thursday changes the ending by going through a prose portal into the novel and standing underneath Jane's window to say "'Jane, Jane, Jane!' in a hoarse whisper the way that Rochester did." Then Jane comes back to the now blind Rochester and they marry. ("Reader, I married him.")
What I want is for a Literary Detective to go into Little Women. I have always been dissatisfied with the ending, from the point that Jo refuses Laurie's love. As a child, I found it completely stupid and inexplicable. As an adult, I see some of the strictures on Jo as a woman of her time, but it doesn't change my emotional reaction, which is that Jo and Laurie deserve to find joy together, and not as staid adults of their time. I want to see Jo having fun in Laurie's world, rather than have to be decorous (as only Amy is capable of being in her new maturity after Beth's death). I want to see Laurie and Jo with a house full of boys. I don't want to see Jo fooling herself into thinking that she's in love with an old man who can't possibly love her the way Laurie does.
So far I haven't thought of a definitive moment that will change the ending of the novel, as Thursday's whisper under Jane's window does. Some people may argue that Jo doesn't feel the right "chemistry" with Laurie, but I'm not a believer in chemistry as a basis for love. Most of the successful marriages I know are based on friendship, not just on shared goals or hero-worship, which seems to be the basis of Jo's attraction to that old story-spoiler, Mr. Baer.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's day quotations

These are some of my favorite quotations about love. Why they're heavy on the eighteenth century and must begin and end with Oscar Wilde is not a mystery to those who know me well!

"Men always want to be a woman's first love - What (women) like is to be a man's last romance." - Oscar Wilde

"For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation." - Rainer Maria Rilke

"Everyone admits that love is wonderful and necessary, yet no one agrees on just what it is." - Diane Ackerman

"In men desire begets love, and in women love begets desire." -Jonathan Swift

"Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures." -Samuel Johnson

"To live is like to love - all reason is against it, and all healthy instinct for it." - Samuel Butler

"Who, being loved, is poor?" - Oscar Wilde

"What will survive of us is love." -Philip Larkin

"Nothing in this world is single, all things by laws divine in one spirit mix and mingle; why not I with thine?" - Percy Bysshe Shelley

"Remember tonight, for it is the beginning of always." - Dante Alighieri

"The most powerful symptom of love is a tenderness which becomes at times almost insupportable." - Victor Hugo

"A happy marriage has in it all the pleasures of friendships, all the enjoyment of sense and reason - and indeed all the sweets of life." - Joseph Addison

"When a man says he had pleasure with a woman he does not mean conversation." -Samuel Johnson

"Love is the irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired." -Mark Twain

"Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin; but twenty years of marriage makes her something like a public building." -Oscar Wilde

I cleaned the bathrooms for my family for Valentine's day. Now that's love.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Repairing or Buying New

A few summers ago, when my children were young and I had more time than money, I put new webbing on a folding outdoor chair. How many people do you know who have done that? Do you know anyone who has repaired a window screen or a vacuum cleaner? When the dryer breaks, is it cheaper and easier to just buy a new one?
Walker Percy saw this coming. In his novel Love in the Ruins he describes a world in which "the refrigerator doesn't work. Nothing works. All my household motors are silent: air-conditioner, vacuum, dishwasher, dryer, automobile. Appliances and automobiles are more splendid than ever, but when they break down nobody will fix them. My car broke down at the A&P three weeks ago and nobody would come fix it so I abandoned it....Don't tell me the U.S.A. went down the drain because of Leftism, Knotheadism, apostasy, pornography, polarization, etcetera etcetera. All these things may have happened, but what finally tore it was that things stopped working and nobody wanted to be a repairman."
When I first read this, in 1980, it sounded right to me. Twenty-eight years later, it seems to me that it has come way too close to being true.
How did you dispose of your last computer?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


It is snowing here today. When it snows, I always murmur Wallace Stevens to myself, the end of 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
It's the perfect way of describing our sense of expectation and dullness, the white cloak that snow draws over the world, and underneath it we see less and less until complete darkness sets in and we can't tell if the snow is still falling or not. It's an endless, quiet, present.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Never Trust a Leprechaun

Ron has been reading Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber to the kids each night before bed, and a few nights ago, they started whooping and yelling as he read. "You can't trust a leprechaun!" they yelled, "don't be so stupid!" The main character of the story, Corwin, had just gotten his horse stolen by a small man in a green suit, and he pursued him into a mountain and proceeded to sit down and have several drinks amid "hordes of meter-high people, red-faced and green clad, [who] were dancing to the music or quaffing what appeared to be mugs of ale." At one point Corwin even says "I knew the stories from another place, far, so far from awaken in the morning, naked, in some field, all traces of this spot vanished...I knew, yet..."
Why is it that characters in stories never think these tales apply to them? Out of curiosity, after my kids' Rocky Horror Picture Show-like outburst, I looked at the fairy tale books they'd grown up with. Both kids agree that the stories they thought of immediately came from a little set of easy-to-read picture books entitled Leprechaun Tales that their grandparents brought them when they were very young. They have also read in Fairy Tales of Ireland (de Valera), English Fairy Tales (Jacobs), Grimm's, Andersen's, and eleven of the Lang fairy books of various colors. From these, the kids derived their ideas about the dangers of trusting fairies, little people, the Sidhe, etc. These are the rules, as Eleanor and Walker understand them:
Never trust a leprechaun. They always try to do the same things:
1. They party every night and if you disrupt the party, they'll lure you into a horrible trap.
2. You always have to be suspicious because they have magic powers and you don't know what kind.
3. Their time runs differently, so it could be 20 or 100 years before you emerge from their world.
4. They don't like humans and always try to trick them, usually with music, food, and drink.
5. They're possessive, especially of their land, flowers, and gold.
There are some truths we learn young, although few of us are able to put our knowledge to good use. As Corwin has some magic powers of his own, he and his horse escape from the leprechauns unscathed.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

February Tenth

I was trying to find my favorite love poem for February tenth, but it's hard to find just one and say okay, this is it, my favorite. This has always been one of my favorites:

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Saturday, February 9, 2008


Whine, whine, whine. If you haven't figured it out already, this is not my favorite time of year. When we lived in Maryland and had many literary friends who lived close by, we would have a tea and poetry reading this time of year, to dispel some of our gloom. At the close of the poetry reading, when things got silly, we would always read a selection from Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes. Here is one of my favorites, about the kind of winter I always wish for:
The Year Winter Lasted Nine Minutes
Well, we were all set for a long winter. We got the wood out; we got the animals barned up. It was the last of November and we felt winter coming and suddenly we saw the storm start to hit, and it was fierce. We rushed inside and got the fire goin', and Ma started some broth. Then about nine minutes later, it was spring. Dangdest thing I ever saw. There we were, standin' outside in our mufflers an' sheepskin coats, seein' the birds chirpin' and the flowers bloomin' and it was about ninety degrees. Then, we all looked at each other for about two weeks.

Friday, February 8, 2008


It often takes half an hour for everyone at our house to tell about their dreams in the morning, especially because we observe my mother's rule and don't tell a dream before breakfast unless we want it to come true. Eleanor has vivid and extraordinary dreams, so almost every morning she comes out of her bedroom and says "last night I had the strangest dream" (and Ron and I can rarely resist breaking into song and continuing "...I ever had before...").
At any rate, with such extensive interest in dreams at our house, we have had the opportunity to test an idea I read in fiction years ago and found intuitively true:
Pay attention to your dreams: when you go on a trip, in your dreams you will still be home. Then after you've come home you'll dream of where you were. It's a kind of jet lag of the consciousness." (Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver, p. 9)
With all the telling of dreams in the morning at our house, we've actually found this to be true.
Further on in the novel, a character says "people dream about what they do when they're awake." But even though one of Eleanor's friends keeps showing her a book that purports to tell what different objects in dreams symbolize, it's impossible for us to figure out what some of the crazy dreams that are told after breakfast could possibly have to do with the events of our lives, especially in February.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Armchairs and travelers

I was reading through the new Lemony Snicket collection of sayings (entitled Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid) and found several to snicker at, but only one that really addressed an enduring issue in my life. Here it is:
There are some who say that sitting at home reading is the equivalent of travel, because the experiences described in the book are more or less the same as the experiences one might have on a voyage, and there are those who say that there is no substitute for venturing out into the world. My own opinion is that it is best to travel extensively but to read the entire time, hardly glancing up to look out of the window of the airplane, train, or hired camel.
This definitely brought back childhood memories of being nagged about having my "nose in a book" while my family was traveling, usually by car. I didn't see the point of looking out the window the whole time. Still don't. But now that I'm driving my own kids around, I do see things that they miss--those shafts of light streaming down through a hole in the clouds, or a fawn leaping across the road.
This summer I faced the reading/travel quandary head on. The new Harry Potter book came out during the first week of our long-awaited vacation in Hawaii. Since Amazon wouldn't promise delivery to our hotel on the day (only the continental US), I reserved a copy for us and another for Allen's family at the Barnes and Noble in Ala Moana mall on Oahu. Ron and Allen took my nieces in the rented convertible to pick it up, and when they brought it back, the kids alternated reading it, some of it on Waikiki beach under an umbrella. Then Ron got it (by this time, we'd gone to the big island). Finally I claimed it for the airplane ride home. Although I wasn't in on some of the book discussion during vacation, I felt like I didn't miss anything and I got to be entertained en route, which is still my preference.
Maybe looking out a car or airplane window has an occasional reward, like knowing where you are (certainly it takes me more effort to establish where I am than it does other people), but I really can't see much of a downside to reading the whole time I'm getting somewhere and back, as long as I'm not the driver. And the more inept I seem to others, the less I have to drive, and the more time I have to read.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


The first poem I ever memorized, besides nursery rhymes and kid poems ("roses are red...") is Yeats' "That the Night Come":
She lived in storm and strife,
Her soul had such desire
For what proud death may bring
That it could not endure
The common good of life,
But lived as 'twere a king
That packed his marriage day
With banneret and pennon,
Trumpet and kettledrum,
And the outrageous cannon,
To bundle time away
That the night come.
This is still one of my sentimental favorites, and particularly good for February, a month in which the only excitement I can usually hope for is a big snowstorm that will force me to stay inside and go stir crazy. I can't say why it's been a part of my mental wallpaper for so long. I was not the kind of child who wore black and longed for death. I'm pretty sure I didn't fully understand why the king was impatient for night and his marriage bed. I think I liked the feeling of the poem, the impatience with the everyday.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


When I see a movie based on a book, like Harry Potter or even Wuthering Heights (I just saw the Juliette Binoche/Ralph Fiennes one, and it is a little jarring to see Voldemort as Heathcliff), I often see things that the book doesn't spell out, and that's nice. So much of Cathy and Heathcliff's love is non-verbal. And it's fun to see the magical objects in Hogworts, the Burrow, and Diagon Alley. My imagination doesn't always flesh out every detail I read, so I like seeing how other people imagine the events in these books. That's also why I will occasionally read a horror book, like The Vampire Lestat (which I loved) but will never see the movie. I'm quite content with my limited imagination where things like monsters are concerned. I'm not quite the ideal audience for Alfred Hitchcock, who said that the monster you don't see can be much scarier than any monster he could put on the screen. On the other hand, I am an ideal audience for most movies and plays, because my suspension of disbelief is so great. If the story becomes real to me, I am almost entirely uncritical of special effects and the like. But I get an uneasy feeling in almost any kind of amusement park. Yes, I had a good time at Disneyland when we went to California, and I wouldn't want it to be less sanitized and packaged than it is; that's part of the fun. But at some level, it's slightly disturbing for most adults, or it should be.

Think about what Jonathan Swift says in "A Digression Concerning Madness" towards the end of A Tale of a Tub: "For, if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either to the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well deceived. And first, with relation to the mind or understanding, 'tis manifest what mighty advantages fiction has over truth; and the reason is just at our elbow, because imagination can build nobler scenes, and produce more wonderful revolutions than fortune or nature will be at expense to furnish. Nor is mankind so much to blame in his choice thus determining him, if we consider that the debate merely lies between things past and things conceived; and so the question is only this--whether things that have place in the imagination, may not as properly be said to exist, as those that are seated in the memory, which may be justly held in the affirmative, and very much to the advantage of the former, since this is acknowledged to be the womb of things, and the other allowed to be no more than the grave. Again, if we take this definition of happiness, and examine it with reference to the senses, it will be acknowledged wonderfully adapt. How fading and insipid do all objects accost us, that are not conveyed in the vehicle of delusion? How shrunk is everything, as it appears in the glass of nature? So that if it were not for the assistance of artificial mediums, false lights, refracted angles, varnish, and tinsel, there would be a mighty level in the felicity and enjoyments of mortal men.

After that first flush of reality, when you emerge from a book or a movie or even Disneyland, and you find that your own life has less exciting car chases and no soundtrack (unless you already have your earbuds in), usually you start to shake off some of what you've just been shown so you can reassert what you actually think about good and evil or love and death. As my daughter says, Peter Jackson's pictures of what many of the characters in The Lord of the Rings look like have supplanted her own, but his balrog has failed. Her picture of the balrog is too different from the movie version. And that shows her a different road from the one that leads to madness.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Two Endings I Love

The two endings of books that always bring tears to my eyes are the ending of Charlotte's Web and the ending of The Lord of the Rings. The tears must be partly because the book is over, but they're also because the ending is so satisfying, so right, le fin just.

Here is the ending of Charlotte's Web:
"It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."
Humor, affection, and just the right elegiac tone. It always makes me want to be more like Charlotte--a better friend, and a kinder writer.

Here is the ending of The Lord of the Rings:
"And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said."
Everything that Sam longed for and held onto on Mount Doom was there waiting for him, and he had preserved it and created some of it and now he can enjoy all of it. My particular favorite part, of course, is that he named his daughter after the flower of Lorien, the most beautiful name of all.

Tell me if there can be any endings as good as these two out there, anywhere.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Would you rather...?

We got a new game today, and were playing it on our drive home from the bookstore. It's called "Would you rather...? and is kind of like a game that teenage girls play late at night when they're sleeping over. One of the questions was about whether you'd rather have three questions answered or be able to resurrect someone. The kids and I, better at snap judgments, immediately went for the three questions, but Ron was hesitating over resurrection. "Oh come on," I said, "necromancy never pays; literature shows us this over and over."
"Oh yeah," Ron said, "The Monkey's Paw."
And then we went on to the next question. Some things are just clear, once you remember all the stuff you've read about them.
So since I have some time on my hands, I've decided to gather other truths we learn from literature.