Wednesday, April 30, 2008


This is an interesting word, meme. I had to look it up; it means "an idea gene." My first reaction is to wonder whether ideas can't be disseminated across the world wide web except in some kind of unconscious, genetic way. At any rate, I got tagged by Harriet the Spy at Spynotes to complete a meme. (I can't do it without including a poem, though!)
Here are the meme rules:
1. link to the person who tagged you
2. post the rules
3. write six things about yourself
4. tag six people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs.
5. Let them know they've been tagged by leaving a comment on their sites.
6. Let your tagger know when your entry is up.
Okay, so here are six things you wouldn't necessarily know about me from reading this blog.

1. I think that people generally fall into one of two very broad categories: people who see the world in terms of plot, and people who see the world as a puzzle or game. I come down very strongly on the side of plot. While I admire people who can work out games and puzzles (many of my friends and relations, including my son, are mathematically minded), it is not one of my interests or skills. So that's why I like this poem but could never have written it:

Anagrammer by Peter Pereira

If you believe in the magic of language,
then Elvis really Lives
And Princess Diana foretold I end as car spin.

If you believe the letters themselves
contain a power within them,
then you understand
what makes outside tedious,
how desperation becomes a rope ends it.

The circular logic that allows senator to become treason,
and treason to become atoners.

That eleven plus two is twelve plus one,
and an admirer is also married.

That if you could just re-arrange things the right way
you'd find your true life,
the right path, the answer to your questions:
you'd understand how the Titanic
turns into that ice tin,
and debit card becomes bad credit.

How listen is the same as silent,
and not one letter separates stained from sainted.

I don't mind watching other people re-arrange things to find patterns; it's kind of like when we were in college and I told my friends that they could speak mathematics at breakfast, but then I wanted them to speak English with me at lunch and supper.

2. I do like some games. My favorite card game is Rage. It has an element of skill, but also an element of luck, so my mathematical friends can't figure it out to the extent that it's no more fun to play it. I also like to play croquet. When we lived in the suburbs of Washington, DC we tried the competitive kind, with tall wickets and manicured lawns. But we prefer the backyard kind. One year my brother and sister-in-law gave us a glow-in-the-dark croquet set so we wouldn't have to shine the car headlights on the yard to finish those late evening games.

3. My favorite vacation is to go to the beach. Almost any beach will do, but I prefer the warm ones with sand. Every other summer a group of my friends from college (including the math major I married) rent some houses at the beach and spend a week together making sand castles with our kids. Yes, it's true, this is what academics do for fun: they dig ditches--you have to start a good sand castle with a moat. One year we made Minas Tirith and then watched the ocean destroy it.

4. I play the violin in the Knox County Symphony. I've played the violin most of my life, except for eleven years after my first child was born, when I thought I was too busy. Now I play once a week during the academic year. I play second fiddle. Also I took piano lessons for twelve years, played the trombone in marching band, and learned alto clarinet and cello while in high school because that got me out of study halls. I sing alto, but while I have a very good sense of pitch, my voice itself isn't lovely. So at heart, I'm an instrumentalist.

5. My parents both taught college. My mother taught speech pathology and my father taught speech and theater. He directed plays, and as a kid, I could take my friends to see plays at the college. It was almost as good as having a swimming pool; I went to see Once Upon a Mattress for eight nights in a row when I was 14 or 15. One time I asked a friend to see The Man of La Mancha with me, and her parents said no, because there's a rape scene. And one time my parents wouldn't let me go to a play. I think I was under the age of 12, and the play was Marat/Sade. As a result, I've always wanted to see it.

6. I stopped biting my fingernails at the ripe old age of 42. I had to; my teeth, which look great but are mostly reconstructions of former teeth, just weren't up to it anymore.

Now I tag anyone else who would like to spread this meme. I'd especially like to hear from:

Pages Turned

Kitchen Witch





Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Yesterday everyone was so tired that some of us were sick, but everyone feels better today. Ron and I went to bed at the same time as the kids, and the phone kept ringing. One of the calls was an amazing offer from someone who had formerly spurned one of us. It made me think of this poem:

Happiness by Jane Kenyan

There's just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

I love that image of the mother passed out (my perpetual pose when Kinsey, the friend of Eleanor's from the very Christian family, passes my car after school), and then the revelation that her wineglass is also weary!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Christopher Moore

The peak of Christopher Moore's career was when he wrote Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal and Fluke: Or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings. His previous novels, despite their amusing titles (Island of the Sequined Love Nun, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove), just lead up to those two. (But take note: they are prerequisites for full enjoyment of The Stupidist Angel, which is just about worth doing a little bit of background work to enjoy.) I liked A Dirty Job, which was almost as clever as Lamb and Fluke, but I didn't much care for You Suck. That may be because I'm so tired of vampire stories; everyone's trying to top The Vampire Lestat, and it not only can't be done, it's not worth doing.

Our former housemate Miriam, a former Missouri synod Lutheran and preacher's kid, sent us a hardback copy of Lamb when it first came out with this instruction written on the flyleaf: "If you observe Lent that is when I recommend you read this." We read it as soon as we got it, of course, and chortled happily all the way through at the way it's told:

Then he put his hand on my head and I suddenly felt better, stronger.
"Don't try your Son of God mumbo jumbo on me, you're still a wuss."
"If it be so, so be it. So it shall be written."
Well it is now, Josh. It's written now. (It's strange, the word "wuss" is the same in my ancient Aramaic tongue as it is in this language. Like the word waited for me these two thousand years so I could write it down here. Strange.)

Most of the novel is a description of how the Messiah (Joshua, or Josh) and his best friend Levi who was called Biff spent the thirty years between the nativity story and the telling of the parables. And as a bonus, at the end of the novel, you find out what the H. stands for in Jesus H. Christ.

The first half of Fluke seems like a fairly normal mystery story in which the characters try to find out why one of the whales they have been watching has "Bite Me" written on its tail. They start to find out on p. 119, part two of the novel, which begins a story so unlikely that I can't even outline it here for fear of spoiling your pleasure. Suffice it to say that Christopher Moore is no Jack McDevitt--if he outlines a plot that is too incredible to flesh out, he'll do it anyway. The results are hilarious and reveal the secrets of the universe.

That is, if you think the secrets of the universe can be revealed in a moment of revelation like in the movie Independence Day when the President says "there's no Area 51. There's no recovered spaceship." and the defense minister says "Uh...excuse me, Mr. President. That's not entirely accurate."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Against Reading

I'm hardly ever against reading, except when it comes to plays. If there is a play that's better read than performed, then probably we should invent a new genre category for it and call it by any other name.

Last night was the final performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Eleanor's high school. She played Snout, who is also Wall. So I was prejudiced in favor of enjoying the group of players, but they were as funny as any group of players I've ever seen. Wall had very active eyebrows and played the part, well, broadly. Snug/Lion fell off of the end of the bench a lot. Peter Quince, a very short guy, threatened the much larger Bottom with his walking cane, Starveling/Moonshine was pointedly skeptical about how much use she was as a character, and Flute/Thisby was played to perfection by a pretty 14-year-old boy, slight of stature, whose voice was actually in the process of changing during the weekend of performances.

In a departure from the tradition of children's/adolescent theater in which A Midsummer Night's Dream is done so frequently because there's less for parents to object to than in other Shakespeare plays, this production had Puck dressed and voiced as a satyr, reminiscent of Stanley Tucci's movie role. Puck took obvious delight in causing mischief, and his prancing presence always livened up the stage. While Oberon and Theseus were a little stiff, as adolescent boys are apt to be in the part, Titania and her fairies were lively and noisy. Even the lovers, who have some speeches that can be deadly dull, livened up their performances with physical humor and convincing stage fights.

It was the least tedious high school play I've seen in a long time, and seeing it reminded me of how much more fun it is to see a play than to read it.

Friday, April 25, 2008


We could not have gotten through the past fourteen years at my house without the book Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. One of the most valuable things she does for parents is remind them that when their child gets overstimulated, often they do too. Occasionally my friend Amy, a former child psychologist turned elementary school teacher, would remind me to reread part of that book--and she was right; it always helped.

I've been reading a book that isn't half so good: Mellow Out, They Say. If I Only Could, by Michael M. Piechowski. Sometimes it helps me to look at a new book on the subject, just as a way of reminding myself that the members of my family need to put positive names on the way we can't help being--we're enthusiastic people! Yeah, enthusiasm; that's a good word.

Which brings me to Beth Ann Fennelly's poem "I Need to be More French. Or Japanese." I love this poem excessively; I've read it out loud to everyone who will listen, and now I will type it here for you all, now:

I Need To Be More French. Or Japanese.

Then I wouldn't prefer the California wine,
its big sugar, big fruit rolling down my tongue,
a cornucopia spilled across a tacky tablecloth.
I'd prefer the French, its smoke and rot.
Said Cezanne: Le mond--c'est terrible!
Which means, The world--it bites the big weenie.
People sound smarter in French.
The Japanese prefer the crescent moon to the full,
prefer the rose before it blooms.
Oh, I have been to the temples of Kyoto,
I have stood on the Pont Neuf, and my eyes,
they drank it in, but my taste buds
shuffled along in the beer line at Wrigley Field.
It was the day they gave out foam fingers.
I hereby pledge to wear more gray, less yellow
of the beaks of baby mockingbirds,
that huge yellow yawping open on wobbly necks,
trusting something yummy will be dropped inside,
soon. I hereby pledge to be reserved.
When the French designer learned
I didn't like her mockups for my book cover,
she sniffed, They're not for everyone. They're
subtle. What area code is 662 anyway? I said,
Mississippi, sweetheart. Bet you couldn't find it
with a map. Okay: I didn't really. But so what
if I'm subtle as May in Mississippi, my nose
in the wine-bowl of this magnolia bloom, so what
if I'm mellow as the punch-drunk bee.
If I were Japanese I'd write about magnolias
in March, how tonal, each bud long as a pencil,
sheathed in celadon suede, jutting from a cluster
of glossy leaves. I'd end the poem before anything
bloomed, end with rain swelling the buds
and the sheaths bursting, then falling to the grass
like a fairy's castoff slippers, like candy wrappers,
like spent firecrackers. Yes, my poem
would end there, spent firecrackers.
If I were French, I'd capture post-peak, in July,
the petals floppy, creased brown with age,
the stamens naked, stripped of yellow filaments.
The bees lazy now, bungling the ballet, thinking
for the first time about October. If I were French,
I'd prefer this, end with the red-tipped filaments
scattered on the scorched brown grass,
and my poem would incite the sophisticated,
the French and the Japanese readers--
because the filaments look like matchsticks,
and it's matchsticks, we all know, that start the fire.

The redbud trees outside my window have caught fire, clashing with the cardinal sitting in the branches. The forsythias are more green than yellow. The Bradford pear may have reached its peak of bloom this morning, right before the rain comes and begins the process of knocking the blossoms off.

I do not pledge to wear more gray. I like my roses to look like what Thoroughly Modern Millie says when she orders two dozen (!) roses for her boss Trevor Grayden to send to her friend Miss Dorothy--"on the fat side."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Problems with Execution

I've read a couple of wildly unrelated books lately that are better in their ideas than in their execution.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu, promises some kind of relationship between three exiles from three different African countries and what happens in the run-down neighborhood of one of them, Logan Circle in Washington, DC. As it turn out, though, reading the novel reminds me of watching a movie called Strangers in Paradise years ago (when I lived in the suburbs of Washington DC, in fact). Pretty much all that happens in Strangers in Paradise is that the characters smoke cigarettes and stare moodily out the window. Same for the main character of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears--he walks moodily around Logan Circle, he sits moodily in his failing convenience store, he wraps Christmas presents moodily in his small apartment. The events of the plot fall flat, unendowed with any larger meaning. If this is a new style of literary writing, it's even less interesting than the New-Yorker-approved minimalism of past decades.

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart, is a YA novel designed to appeal to gifted children, starting as it does with a newspaper ad asking "are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" I have to agree with Walker that the best part of the story is at the beginning, when the children have to undergo testing to see if they will be offered the "special opportunities." In fact, the author blurb on the back cover says that the idea for writing the book "appeared in the form of a chess riddle."

The frustrating thing about this book is that even though the children are supposed to be gifted and the mission they're sent on is important and mysterious, they don't end up doing anything very smart. I got quite impatient with how long it took them to figure out clues, after all the build-up about their intellectual superiority. There is one mildly clever surprise at the end, about why one of the characters acts the way she does, but that's not enough to make 485 pages of mediocre adventure seem like it was worth the trip.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New Pleasures

Last month we took off over the weekend of the kids' spring break and had a fancy dinner and stayed in a hotel. Walker wanted oysters. Ron had to point out the steamed shellfish on the menu and we all had to agree to share the raw oysters as an appetizer before he could be dissuaded from ordering raw oysters as his dinner. A good thing, as it turned out. Although he said he liked the flavor of the one raw oyster he put in his mouth, Walker didn't swallow it. (He did eat all the steamed shellfish happily, as usual.) Ron and Eleanor each tried a raw oyster. Ron ate several. I thought I could just sit there and not be noticed, but it was decided that I needed to try a raw oyster. I sat there thinking of the poem by Roy Blount, Jr.:

I like to eat an uncooked oyster.
Nothing's slicker, nothing's moister.
Nothing's easier on your gorge
Or, when the time comes, to disgorge.
But not to let it too long rest
Within your mouth is always best.
For if your mind dwells on an oyster...
Nothing's slicker, nothing's moister.
I prefer my oyster fried.
Then I'm sure my oyster's died.

Anyway, I put the thing in my mouth and swallowed it. It wasn't too bad. And I'd tried something new.

Just as potent as the pleasure of traveling to a new place and trying a new food is the pleasure of an entirely new book by an author you already like, especially when the author is also fond of the same kind of books you are. With her first book, The Penderwicks, Jeanne Birdsall set out consciously to imitate the pleasures of books by E. Nesbit and Edward Eager. In her new book, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, she also mentions Eva Ibbotson, Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series (a BIG favorite at our house*), and a character from Narnia. In addition, she has one of those odd pleasures in store for parents--the pleasure of hearing the words of a story you've read to your child a hundred million times...I couldn't believe how readily the "Scuppers the Sailor Dog" song came back to me when I heard Mr. Penderwick read it to Batty.

Mr. Penderwick's Latin phrases will not be a mystery to any child who's read the Harry Potter series (we have a new game with books--try reversing initial letters to see if you can make words and phrases that make sense, like A Wrinkle in Time becomes A Tinkle in Wrime, Where the Wild Things Are becomes Where the Tiled Wings Are, and any Harry Potter book becomes Perry Hotter and the...). Mr. Penderwick's date with Marianne Dashwood probably will be a mystery for most child readers, at least until the mystery is revealed towards the end of the book. Just a little Toy Story-like pleasure for older readers.

One of my favorite parts of The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is how you can tell that a particular woman would be a bad match for Mr. Penderwick--she not only wears a rabbit coat, but she also has "rabbit fur around the tops of her boots." Shades of Cruella DeVille!

Another favorite part for me is when you see the kitchen of the woman who turn out to be a good match for Mr. Penderwick:

Jane entertained herself by looking around the kitchen. It was nothing like the kitchen at home. It was warm and cozy like home, true, but it was also messy--delightfully so, thought Jane--and it didn't look as though lots of cooking went on there. There was a laptop computer on the counter with duck stickers on it, the spice cabinet was full of Ben's toy trucks, and Jane couldn't spot a cookbook anywhere. This is the kitchen of a Thinker, she decided, and promised herself that she'd never bother with cooking, either.

I have several quite intellectual friends who are good cooks and who enjoy cooking, but I'm not one of them. From now on, I'm going to think of my kitchen as "the kitchen of a Thinker." I can make some good tea sandwiches, and I have a caviar dish with room for ice, so probably I can use it to serve up oysters raw and properly chilled.

*If you want to read the Swallows and Amazons books in order, check out this link:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sweet Potato Queens

I love the idea of the Sweet Potato Queens. They think that if you want to be Queen of something, like a St. Patrick's Day parade, you should get yourself a crown and something to ride on. But the Sweet Potato Queens are baby boomers, and so their wishes include inexplicable stuff like majorette boots and a "full viking kitchen" (just imagine my mental picture when my eyes first passed over THAT phrase).

Odd wishes aside, though, the author of the Sweet Potato Queens books, Jill Conner Browne, is a good storyteller. She recycles tried and true themes, such as that a woman who is accused of a sexual transgression by her man should go on the offensive, a theme first sounded in literature by the Wife of Bath. In true southern style, many of her stories involve food, and she includes recipes. I actually keep a copy of her first book, The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love, in my kitchen so I can find the recipe for "death chicken" when I get a hankerin' for it.

I recommend her first four books highly: The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love, God Save the Sweet Potato Queens, The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook (And Financial Planner), and The Sweet Potato Queens' Field Guide to Men. I do NOT recommend any of her novels. I also would urge you to pass over The Sweet Potato Queens' Wedding Planner and Divorce Guide and The Sweet Potato Queens' Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit. This last title is her most recent, and like the wedding planner, it seems to me to be an attempt to cash in on her previous success. There is one good line in the book about raising children, and it is this: "If worry burned calories, there would be no fat parents, that's for sure."

The only use I have for the book on raising children is if you know anyone who justifies leaving a baby to cry himself to sleep by citing child rearing "experts" or beating on a child by citing the Bible, she has some dandy (and quite logical) things to say on p. 92 (crying) and p. 224 (beating).

Here's a little of the flavor of Jill's story-telling, from her first book:

One time one of the Queens, Tammy, and I were out for our early-morning walk around the track at the Y where we work out. Tammy was in a major funk about something, and I'd been practically tap-dancing around the track, trying in vain to perk her up. I was pulling out all my best stuff, and nothing was working. And then I glanced off to the right, behind Tammy, into the parking lot of the hotel at the other end of the track. Under the brilliant beam of the streetlight stood...a nekkid man. Now I say nekkid because that's what he was. There's a profound difference between naked and nekkid. Naked is proud, noble, graceful, without shame or the need for it. Nekkid is, on the other hand...well, it's nekkid.
And so I said to Tammy, "There's a nekkid man." We paused momentarily while she turned to look.
She nodded in agreement. "There certainly is."
He was just strolling along, not a care in the world, not a stitch on. He made no effort whatsoever to conceal his parts, although I saw nothing worthy of so ostentatious a public display. About this time he looked our way. Tammy said cheerily, "Hi!"
"Hi!" he said. "How are ya'll this mornin'?"
"Oh, much better now, thank you," she replied, the absolute soul of politeness. The nekkid man seemed to appreciate her gracious attitude.
You see, in this very small verbal exchange, Tammy upheld not only the sacred doctrine of Southern hospitality but the very highest standard of the Sweet Potato Queens. She spoke kindly to the man, regardless of his race, creed, color, religion, social status, or appearance, which was nekkid. I was proud to call her my friend.

The audiobook version of The SPQ's Book of Love is read by the author in a well-enunciated voice and (surprisingly) not too much of a southern accent for general audiences. It's a great mood-lifter for when you're driving around and need a laugh. Like my audiobook of David Sedaris' Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, however, you don't want to be driving the kids around while listening to most of this stuff.

Monday, April 21, 2008

How to Unwind Without Ever Stopping

Over the weekend, Walker, Eleanor and I read Neal Shusterman's Unwind, and enjoyed it thoroughly. We were passing it around during a busy weekend consisting of set-building for Eleanor, soccer games for Walker, and lots of chauffeuring and spectating. Lest you think the chauffeuring a routine matter, let me assure you that one of the soccer games, yesterday's, was two hours away by car. We drove so far I could see progress in the blooming trees. Our Bradford Pears are just beginning to bloom, that white unfolding that still has the tight shape of balls, and by the time we got to the soccer field, the Bradford Pear blossoms were blowing across the street and the green of the leaves was beginning to replace the white blooms. So we didn't have a lot of time for reading, except in transit. Sunday morning we did spend a few hours at home, and Ron finished The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, so it's now the next book on my pile. He says it's even better than the first one.

At any rate, reading Unwind is like watching one of those movies that carries you along for an hour and a half of pure pleasure, and then you get out of the movie theater and start thinking "Wait. If she did that, how could this have happened?" Sometimes it's best not to think too much about a story, even if it is thought-provoking. The premise of Unwind certainly is, and it's revealed bit by bit as the story goes along. The story has three main characters, and they're all "unwinds," which means that they're scheduled to be taken apart to provide spare body parts for others. Connor is 16, doesn't make good grades, and gets into fights, which causes his parents to schedule him for unwinding. Risa is 15 and a ward of the state but doesn't show enough promise as a concert pianist to earn her continued support. Lev is 13 and a "tithe," which means he's the tenth child and his religious parents slated him for unwinding from the moment of his birth. It's not until page 114 that we learn anything about what happened to cause such a future:

She thinks about the days before the Heartland War, when unwanted babies could just be unwanted pregnancies, quickly made to go away. Did the women who made that other choice feel the way she felt now? Relieved and freed from an unwelcome and often unfair responsibility...yet vaguely regretful?
In her days at the state home, when she was assigned to take care of the infants, she would often ponder such things. The infant wing had been massive and overflowing with identical cribs, each containing a baby that nobody had wanted, wards of a state that could barely feed them, much less nurture them.
"You can't change laws without first changing human nature," one of the nurses often said as she looked out over the crowd of crying infants. Her name was Greta. Whenever she said something like that, there was always another nurse within earshot who was far more accepting of the system and would counter with, "You can't change human nature without first changing the law." Nurse Greta wouldn't argue; she'd just grunt and walk away.
Which was worse, Risa often wondered--to have tens of thousands of babies that no one wanted, or to silently make them go away before they were even born?

Finally, on p. 223, we learn more about how this future came about:

"There were dark days leading up to the war. Everything that we think defines right and wrong was being turned upside down. On one side, people were murdering abortion doctors to protect the right to life, while on the other side people were getting pregnant just to sell their fetal tissue. And everyone was selecting their leaders not by their ability to lead, but by where they stood on this single issue.... And then came the Bill of Life....I was right there in the room when they came up with the idea that a pregnancy could be terminated retroactively once a child reaches the age of reason," says the Admiral. "At first it was a joke--no one intended it to be taken seriously. But that same year the Nobel Prize went to a scientist who perfected neurografting--the technique that allows every part of the donor to be used in transplant....With the war getting worse," says the Admiral, "we brokered a peace by bringing both sides to the table. Then we proposed the idea of unwinding, which would terminate unwanteds without actually ending their lives. We thought it would shock both sides into seeing reason--that they would stare at each other across the table and someone would blink. But nobody blinked. The choice to terminate without ending life--it satisfied the needs of both sides. The Bill of Life was signed, the Unwind Accord went into effect, and the war was over. Everyone was so happy to end the war, no one cared about the consequences....Of course, if more people had been organ donors, unwinding never would have happened...but people like to keep what's theirs, even after they're dead. It didn't take long for ethics to be crushed by greed."

By the end of the novel, Connor, Risa, and Lev succeed in ending the practice of unwinding. How that happens is well told; it's only some of the awakenings they have along the way that will strike you as unlikely, at least after you finish reading.

Sometimes the things that strike you as unlikely really are. If you haven't heard about this controversy, check out this reproductive "art project":

Friday, April 18, 2008


The last time we took our kids to Washington, D.C. there was a PETA demonstration in front of the Natural History Museum. One of the people gave Eleanor a flyer, and she gleefully deconstructed its propaganda for the rest of the trip. One of the things she noticed is that the lobster pictured in their vegetarianism section is red. It's already been cooked!

I have loved eating lobster for as far back as I can remember. My family would go to a fancy restaurant in St. Louis and I would order a lobster, and my brother would insist that I turn its face away from him while I ate its insides. Nothing makes me feel more carnivorous than tearing the flesh out of someone's exoskeleton and putting it in my mouth.

My son has also loved eating lobster since he was about two years old. We'd go to Red Lobster, pick one out of the tank, and then split it. He eats his without butter. Over the years, he's become fairly expert at cracking the claws and extracting the meat, and he's added a side order of King crab legs to our shared lobster.

Despite having lived in Rhode Island for a winter, I've never eaten lobster except at a restaurant, and I've never tried to cook one. Like many modern Americans, I'm a little reluctant to kill an animal myself and then eat it. The closest I've ever come is helping to boil some crabs we caught in South Carolina. It's not easy to put them in the pot and hear them trying to get out.

Over the years, I've read about lobsters, trying to decide how cruel it is to boil them alive. Trevor Corson's The Secret Life of Lobsters, while it goes into intricate detail about their nervous systems and how they use their antennules, doesn't end up revealing whether they feel pain in a way humans can understand.

Perhaps that's just our failure of imagination. As David Foster Wallace points out in his essay "Consider the Lobster," the question for lobster eaters is "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?" That is, as he says, an uncomfortable question. "It's not just that lobsters get boiled alive, it's that you do it yourself--or at least it's done specifically for you, on-site. (Morality-wise, let's concede that this cuts both ways. Lobster-eating is at least not abetted by the system of corporate factory farms that produces most beef, pork, and chicken. Because, if nothing else, of the way they're marketed and packaged for sale, we eat these latter meats without having to consider that they were once conscious, sentient creatures to whom horrible things were done.)" Wallace's imaginary picture of a beef festival where "trucks pull up and the live cattle get driven down the ramp and slaughtered right there" is an exaggerated comparison pre-empted by Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where Arthur Dent is so unsophisticated as to be taken aback when a cow who has been bred to be happy about being eaten offers him some of her flesh for his own, personal dinner.

And all the uncomfortableness about eating lobster is further complicated if you've read Neal Stephenson's Zodiac, as I have. The hero of Zodiac is an environmental activist (a friend calls him "the granola James Bond") concerned with finding a source of some serious pollution in the Charles River and Boston harbor. He knows that they're badly polluted because he's been getting tainted lobsters and taking them to be tested. The description of what he finds in one lobster is almost enough to put a person off eating them (warning: do not read on if you're squeamish):

I could smell... an oily, foul odor, mixed in with the marine stench of the lobsters. I recognized it. Some of the lobsters I'd gotten off Gallagher's boat had smelled that way. In fact that was the reason they'd given them to me. Big enough to sell, but they stank too bad. They had come from the entrance to the Inner Harbor....She was about halfway through dissecting one of Gallagher's big stinky lobsters. She'd removed the legs and tail and pried back the shell around the body to expose the liver....There was hardly any liver left. It had necrosed--a fancy word for died. Rotted away, inside the body, leaving just a puddle of black stuff. Surrounded by blobs of yellowy material, vesicles or sacs of something that I'd never seen inside a lobster before. Some kind of toxin that the liver had desperately tried to remove from the lobster's system, killing itself in the process.

Since Zodiac is a novel, the pollution is something that the hero can clean up, in the end. But if, like me, you like to eat Lobster (or catfish), the image of your dinner coping with pollution can be hard to get out of your head. But not impossible. Walker has a soccer game two hours away on Sunday, and we'll stop for dinner in the big city on the way back. If he gets to choose, we'll be going to Red Lobster.

For the flavor of David Foster Wallace's footnotes (rendered here in parentheses), see the comic posted by Bookslut:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Topical satire

Topical satire is the stuff that no one gets 20 years after the event. Like the Richard Nixon impression on the fourth season of The Simpsons that my kids didn't react to (Bart taped a long nose to his butt, mooned someone, and said "I am not a butt." For those of you who didn't react, the original word in that sentence was "crook."

I love topical satire. I love it enough to dig up the history so I can get the jokes. Then I will try to explain both the history and the joke to anyone who will listen, which is a time-honored way of spoiling a joke. Don't ask me why I do this. It's my life's work. I wrote a 584-page dissertation on it.

You can't include this stuff in a list of great poems. Although it bothered me (enough to write this today), I left out one of my favorite poets, a late-eighteenth-century satirist whose real name was John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, but who wrote under the cheeky penname of Peter Pindar. There is actually a Peter Pindar poem included in the Norton Intro. to Poetry, and a fairly typical one, as it makes fun of the king. But it's not as fun as most of his other poems. So I left it off.

The fun ones are pretty much only available in my dissertation and in "The Age of Johnson, Vol. 8," which includes my article entitled "Self-Praise and the Ironic Personal Panegyric of Peter Pindar." Why? Because no one reads this stuff anymore, and if you want to do it, you have to dig up the originals at the Library of Congress and the Folger Library. The good parts version is that the King of England at the time, George III, the one we Americans revolted against (and the subject of the movie "The Madness of King George"), was an object of fun to those at home and abroad who thought he was middle-class and boring for being faithful to his wife, being earnest about his religion, and taking an interest in farming methods. One of the peers of his realm, the Earl of Rochester, was the primary reason that he became such an object of fun to his subjects.

One of my favorite Pindar poems is Instructions to a Celebrated Laureat, which attacks the poet laureat's praise of George III by pretending to offer even more "heroic" stories of the king and illustrating his "noble" character more effusively than had been done before. So he starts out by saying "How canst thou seriously declare/ That George the Third/ With Cressy's Edward can compare,' Or Harry?" Instead, "George is a clever King, I needs must own,/ And cuts a jolly figure on the throne." Pindar writes a sample birth-day ode to show how the thing should be done, and his is based on what the King had actually done on his most recent birthday, visited Whitebread's brewery with the Queen: "Clearly we must, must, must see Whitbread brew;/Rich as us, Charly; richer than a Jew." While Pindar describes the king's actions at the brewery as "noble," he depicts them as undignified:

And now his curious Majesty did stoop
To count the nails on every hoop;
And lo! no single thing came in his way,
That, full of deep research, he did not say,
"What's this? hae, hae? what's that? what's this? what's that?"

Pindar pretends that the King has to take notes, and he reproduces them in the poem:

To remember to forget to ask
Old Whitbread to my house one day.
Not to forget to take of Beer the Cask,
The Brewer offer'd me, away.---
Now having pencil'd his Remarks so shrewd,
Sharp as the Point indeed of a new Pin;
His majesty his watch most sagely view'd.

Yes, it's very broad satire. That's why I like it, okay? I'm neither a fan nor a practitioner of the subtle, dry kind of humor. In fact, my favorite Pindar poem is entitled The Lousiad. In proper epic style, it tells the story of the time George III found a louse that "got into [his] house." At any rate, the dry little epigraph available in the Norton Intro. to Poetry just isn't good enough to give you the full flavor of this very minor, but entertaining poet. While The Simpsons does include a bit of topical and political humor, the real modern-day successors to poets like Peter Pindar are the writers for Saturday Night Live and South Park. Do you know any others that I would enjoy???

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Famous Poems

Lemming says people are sending her poems this month and that they're poems that she already knows, old chestnuts. Of course, she admits that she has some background as an English major, so I assume that she knows more poems than other people. Certainly I think I know more poems than many people, so it's never easy for me to figure out if everyone I know agrees on which poems are most famous. A friend from grad school, a good poet in her own right, was raised on the poems of Robert Service ("The Cremation of Sam McGee"). And I was surprised once, years ago, to find out that two of my closest friends, people who went to the same liberal arts college that I did (Hendrix College, in Conway, Arkansas), didn't know Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," which is one of my top favorite poems of all time.

Here is a very short list of some of the most-beloved and well-known poems of all time (from my 1986 edition of the Norton Introduction to Poetry). These are poems that every educated person should know:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, How Do I Love Thee?
Howard Nemerov, The Vacuum
Byron, She Walks in Beauty
Shakespeare, Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds, That Time of Year, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?
Thomas Wyatt, They Flee from Me
Sylvia Plath, Daddy, Black Rook in Rainy Weather
Emily Dickinson, A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, After Great Pain, Because I Could Not Stop for Death, My Life Had Stood--A Loaded Gun
Robert Browning, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, My Last Duchess
William Wordsworth, She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways, Nuns Fret Not, Tintern Abbey
Tom Wayman, Picketing Supermarkets
John Donne, The Flea, Batter my Heart, The Sun Rising, Death Be Not Proud
Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
Robert Herrick, Delight in Disorder, To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
William Carlos Williams, The Red Wheelbarrow
e.e. cummings, anyone lived in a pretty how town
Robert Burns, A Red, Red Rose
Randall Jarrell, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Philip Larkin, Church Going
T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Edwin Arlington Robinson, Miniver Cheevy
John Crowe Ransom, Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter, The Equilibrists
Edwin Arlington Robinson, Richard Cory
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to the West Wind, Ozymandias
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Break, Break, Break, Ulysses
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall, The Windhover
Christopher Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn
Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck
Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est
Richard Lovelace, To Amarantha, that She Would Dishevel Her Hair
Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress
Ben Jonson, Come, My Celia
William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, Leda and the Swan, Sailing to Byzantium, Among School Children
William Blake, The Lamb, The Tiger
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan
Robert Frost, Birches, Design, Fire and Ice, The Road Not Taken, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain, Hap
A.E. Housman, To an Athlete Dying Young, Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff
Langston Hughes, Theme for English B
Edna St. Vincent Millay, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro
Marianne Moore, Poetry
Wallace Stevens, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Sunday Morning, The Idea of Order at Key West
Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Fern Hill
Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed
Richard Wilbur, Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

And here is W.H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," which refers to a famous Brueghel painting hanging in that Brussels museum, entitled "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus."

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure, the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

If you have been sailing on past any of the poems on my list, it's time to stop and take a deep, deep breath. And then find one of these poems and read it; most of them are available on line.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Disappointing Books

It's tax morning in America. Who else out there feels grumpy? I don't have any particular reason for feeling this way. Some minor reasons, perhaps--Eleanor is in the final two weeks of rehearsals for A Midsummer Night's Dream (she's in the group of players, the Wall, which is funny because she's tall), and that further complicates our after-school round of homework, animal care, and soccer practice. She and I, who need a lot of sleep, are a little low on sleep after Avenue Q on Sunday night and math homework/symphony rehearsal last night. Ron is dealing with work all day and night--a student's e-mail address was used for spamming, so now all Kenyon e-mail is liable to be put on the spam list at the places we try to send it. The contractor's father went to the ER yesterday and the plumber's mother is sick, so the hole in our wall remains unattended. It's supposed to warm up today, so instead of blowing cold air into the bedroom, the hole will most likely start admitting insect hordes.

On top of all this, I read a book that disappointed me. Not just one that I didn't like,* but one that didn't live up to my expectations for it. After Marilynne Robinson wrote Housekeeping, a truly wonderful novel, she came to the University of Maryland, College Park, where I was a graduate student, to give what was billed as a reading. When I went with a group of fellow grad students, we were all deeply disappointed that she talked about some kind of political cause for an hour, and didn't say a word about her book, except that she wasn't going to talk about it. And then, years later, she wrote Gilead, which I thought was pretentious and boring.

Another kind of literary disappointment actually comes from an author thinking of a idea so wonderful that there's really no way to carry it all out. Phillip Pullman did this, with the third book about Lyra, The Amber Spyglass. He's so busy making sure all the loose ends are tidied up that there's no real narrative pull, at least for me, and that's a shame, because The Golden Compass is such a great book. Jack McDevitt has practically made a career out of thinking of fantastic and fascinating ideas that can't live up to the kind of promise they make, like in his book Ancient Shores.

Then there's the kind of disappointment that comes from enjoying a first book by an author and actually having that enjoyment diminished by a second book about the same characters. This is the disappointment I got from reading Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. The original story of Stargirl is charming and quirky and encouraging for kids (or adults) who need some extra courage to be themselves in a conformist world. Stargirl is a mysterious figure, to some extent, and that's part of her charm. You don't know exactly what motivates her, but you know she has a good heart and plays well with others. One of my favorite parts of Stargirl is when she cheers for the opposing sports team because she's afraid they'll feel bad when they're losing.

Love, Stargirl tells me more than I wanted to know about Stargirl's motives. It makes her human, which is not what her name promises. I wanted someone to look up to, a girl from the stars. The second book about her drags her down to earth and through the mud with the rest of us. It also makes her less plausible, because when she's more human, it seems even less likely that she can continue to do the interesting things she does, like claim a truly obnoxious child ten years younger than herself as a best friend. The only thing about the book that doesn't make me grumpy is that I got it out of the library and can go and chuck it back in today. It's an even bigger disappointment to find that you've actually spent money on a disappointing book.

*Recent examples of books I didn't like are Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips and The Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane by Polly Horvath--but maybe I didn't like Gods Behaving Badly because I think Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief and Anne Ursu's The Shadow Thieves are better. Also I liked Polly Horvath's Everything on a Waffle, so I had high expectations for any book by her.

Monday, April 14, 2008

It sucks to be me

Last week wasn't a good one for Walker. He got the part of Toodles in Peter Pan when he was hoping for Peter or John (who get to sing more and fly), he had some kind of guy-crisis about his running speed at soccer practice, and he got graded down in math class, not for anything to do with the math, which he's brilliant at and enjoys, but because of not putting some of his papers in his math notebook. We took him and Eleanor and a bunch of her friends to see Avenue Q last night and we bought Walker a t-shirt that says "It sucks to be me."

What I always hope about keeping Walker in public school is that it won't entirely crush his spirit. There are only so many things parents can do to keep this from happening. (This morning as he was getting ready for school he said "mom, are there really places where adults curse more than kids?") I don't want him to end up like the main character of Paul Schmidtberger's Design Flaws of the Human Condition, Ken: "as Ken worked his way through the rest of high school, he consciously squished down the ebullience that had gotten him into such hot water in the first place. The problem, though, is that ebullience doesn't put up all that much of a fight. After you squish it down, it doesn't bounce right back to its regular size like the pieces of spongy white bread that Ken liked to compact down to the size of a molar. Apparently, ebullience is less technologically advanced than white bread because after you squeeze a person's spirit away for a while, it just stays squeezed away."

I identify with Ken, who is an adjunct professor of English and works two other jobs to keep from being underemployed. His feelings about student evaluations, for one thing, are similar to mine and, I think, any other adjunct professor's:

Suddenly administrators were falling over themselves to draw up these ghastly forms for students to fill in where they could anonymously say whatever they pleased.
"I think Professor Connelly's course was ok except I don't agree with multiple-choice quizzes on account of how they don't encourage creativity."
"I didn't like it when the red pony died."
"Professor Connelly should definitely not wear his summer khaki suit anymore. Olive is not for everyone and it's doing him no favors."
"Too much homework!"
"My stomach hurts."
The responses were simply amazing. And what was even more amazing was how seriously the administrators took this exercise. Students could snore through an entire semester and wake up just in time to drop a depth charge on the teacher--"I think Professor Connelly is mostly nice except when he starts acting like a major A-hole"--and somebody in the administration would actually take it seriously.

But, of course, Ken has the typical adjunct experience, which is that he reaches one student during the semester, and that makes his life feel worthwhile. While reading a stack of final papers defining happiness, he gets to this one:

And then one student said that happiness is what happens when you go to bed on the hottest night of the summer, a night so hot you can't even wear a tee-shirt and you sleep on top of the sheets instead of under them, although try to sleep is probably more accurate. And then at some point late, late, late at night, say just a bit before dawn, the heat finally breaks and the night turns cool and when you briefly wake up, you notice that you're almost chilly, and in your groggy, half-consciousness, you reach over and pull the sheet around you and just that flimsy sheet makes it warm enough and you drift back off into a deep sleep. And it's that reaching, that gesture, that reflex we have to pull what's warm--whether it's something or someone--toward us, that feeling we get when we do that, that feeling of being safe in the world and ready for sleep, that's happiness.

Design Flaws of the Human Condition is also a funny book, and focuses as much on Ken's friend Iris as it does on Ken. In the end, they get even with those who have hurt them in complicated and highly satisfying ways--which reminds me of a friend I met in college who used to cook up elaborate schemes to get back at boyfriends who had dropped her. But the revenge isn't just meanness. It's an attempt to even the score, to remedy some of the design flaws, those problems with being human that it's hard for anyone to anticipate and to survive uncrushed.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The True Meaning of Smekday

I enjoyed every part of this book by Adam Rex, including the illustrations and comics, which is highly unusual, as those who know me will attest. I also enjoyed the way it is told. The book begins with a middle school student writing an assigned essay about "the true meaning of Smekday" which has to be at least five pages long and, if it wins, might be included in a national time capsule. That essay comprises pages 3-29, and ends with the explanation, from a member of the alien race (called the "Boov") who calls himself "J.Lo," that the name of earth is now

"Smekland. As to tribute to our glorious leader, Captain Smek.'
'Wait.' I shook my head. 'Whoa. You can't just rename the planet.'
'Peoples who discover places gets to name it.'
'But it's called Earth. It's always been called Earth.'
J.Lo smiled condescendingly. I wanted to hit him.
'You humans live too much in the pasttime. We did land onto Smekland a long time ago.'
'You landed last Christmas!'
'Ah-ah. Not 'Christmas.' 'Smekday."

The essay gets a C+ because "when the judges from the National Time Capsule Committee read our stories, they'll be looking for what Smekday means to us, not to the aliens." (Don't you love it when a teacher gives a grade based on what she/he thinks another's expectations will be further on down the road?)

The second section is much longer, and that's part of why it wins the prize and is included in the time capsule. It comprises pp. 33-150 and tells the story of how the human, named Gratuity, and the Boov, J.Lo, become friends and allies. It's a truism about SF that it's always hard to imagine aliens without human characteristics, so I found this one pretty original. Here's one description of how J.Lo reacts when he's upset: "J.Lo composed himself for a moment, but I noticed his eyes were starting to look wet. Which might have meant he was about to cry, but it bears mentioning that his face was also slowly turning yellow, so I don't know."

The last section is the longest, and Gratuity says she's writing it only for her journal, which no one will read until after she's dead and the time capsule is uncovered. It tells the story of how she and the Boov have to work together to save Earth, or Smekland, from a second alien menace, the Gorg. This section has most of the comics, and my favorite tells about the development of the Boov on their planet. Here's a section of the text from the comic:

400 years ago--Art is replaced by entertainment.
350 years ago--Entertainment is replaced by Talking About Entertainment.
325 years ago--Talking now almost always occurs over vast distances--on phones or by computer. Face-to-face communicatioon is carried out mostly by t-shirt. (One of the t-shirts pictured says "I suggest you talk to my hand.")

At the end, Gratuity explains why, even though she saved the world, she won't talk about it: "For the rest of my life, even if I live to be a hundred and ten (an appended newspaper article reveals that she lived to be a hundred and thirteen), I will never again do anything as fantastic and important as what I did when I was eleven. I could win an Oscar and fix the ozone layer. I could cure all known diseases and I'll still feel like my Uncle Roy, who used to be a star quarterback but now just sells hot tubs."

There's all the interesting machinery you could wish for in a SF novel, including a car modified to hover, lots of alien weaponry, and cloning machines. And I also like it because cats help save the planet.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Good Book with a Bad Title

Part of not judging a book by its cover, for me, is not judging it by its title, either. If I did that, I never would have read Neil Gaiman's new short story collection M Is For Magic. Maybe the title is supposed to attract the young adult audience. At any rate, I checked it out of the library and my daughter and I read it, and we liked three of the stories so much that we kept talking about them and got it back out of the library before deciding we need to buy the book. It's not the kind of book I feel the need to own in hardback (unlike the new Penderwick), so it will languish in my Amazon shopping cart for a while.

The story we talked about the most is "How to Talk to Girls at Parties." In it, a guy who doesn't feel very comfortable talking to girls goes to a party he hasn't been invited to and meets all kinds of girls who have conversations with him like this one:

"I said, 'What's your name? I'm Enn.'
'Wain's Wain,' she said, or something that sounded like it. 'I'm a second.'
'That's uh, That's a different name.'
She fixed me with huge, liquid eyes. 'It indicates that my progenitor was also Wain, and that I am obliged to report back to her. I may not breed.'
'Ah. Well. Bit early for that anyway, isn't it?'"

You've got to suspect that this story might have arisen out of Gaiman's inability to resist the temptation to tell a story just to disprove the conventional wisdom that the friend spouts early on: "They're just girls," said Vic. "They don't come from another planet."

Our other favorites from this collection are "Chivalry" and "The Price." The Price is the story of a brave black cat, and I can't tell you any more about it without spoiling the story for you, so go read it. Chivalry is the story of Mrs. Whitaker, who found the Holy Grail under a fur coat at the Oxfam Shop, and what she does with it.

We also like the story Sunbird, but mostly as a curiosity. It is three kinds of strange, and it reminds me of Steve Martin's story (in Cruel Shoes) about how wonderful it is to see the cathedral at Chartres before it's knocked down by a wrecking ball--operated by the teller of the story.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sex Ed

I just read a new book from the library, The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. Our library puts stickers in the front of books that say "read it and rate it," and there are blanks for your "grade." I never do this, because I've had enough of evaluations that consist of only five categories (ABCDF). But on this book, someone has written in a note rather than marking a grade: "The author says this is a work of 'fiction.' Not true. I know every one of these people and there are few happy endings." So I began the book curious to see if I knew any characters like these. Luckily for me, I don't, or at least I'm not aware of it.

But wait--one of my daughter's friends, Kinsey, an extremely nice and polite girl from some kind of very Christian family, asked my daughter a list of questions last year before she could be allowed to come over to our house. The questions included whether my husband or I ever got drunk and passed out, and whether my daughter ever heard "any noises" from our bedroom at night after we had gone to bed. (!!)

We talk about sex with our kids whenever it comes up (the last time was when we were watching the movie of The Cider House Rules and Tobey's character suddenly and unexpectedly makes love with Charlize's character--we all noted that they probably didn't stop to think about birth control, even though they both really, really knew better. In mother-mode, I had to say "see, this is why you've got to think about it before your emotions take over."

I'm not sure that I'm entirely in favor of required sex ed in public schools (there are so many other time-wasting classes, like "technology skills.") But clearly, some kids need it, because they're not getting it at home. Our high school requires everyone to take a "health" class. This makes my daughter laugh and quote the health teacher in the movie Mean Girls--"Don't have sex. You'll die."

The sex ed teacher in the book is required to teach an abstinence education course, complete with information that is, at best, disingenuous. Her breaking point comes when her 10-year-old-daughter's soccer coach, a very Christian man--like Kinsey's family--leads the team in prayer on the field. She thinks:

"In a way, she was grateful to Maggie's coach for making the situation so clear. Until she'd seen those girls, those beautiful young athletes, sitting on the grass in the sunshine, being coerced by adults they trusted into praying to the God of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Republican Party--the God of War and Abstinence and Shame and Willful Ignorance, the God Who Loved Everyone Except the Homosexuals, Who Sent Good People to Hell if They Didn't Believe in Him, and Let Murderers and Child Rapists into Heaven if They Did, the God Who Made Women as an Afterthought, and Then Cursed Them with the Pain of Childbirth, the God Who Would Have Never Let Girls Play Soccer in the First Place if It Had Been up to Him--until then, she'd allowed herself to succumb to the comforting fiction that her quarrel with the Bible Thumpers was confined to the classroom, to a political dispute about what got taught or didn't get taught to other people's children. But now she understood that she'd been fooling herself. This wasn't just professional; it was personal. They'd already messed with her job, and now they were coming for her kids."

Maybe I should be taking this more personally than I already do, as a member of NARAL since my teens. On April 3, Maud Newton has a post entitled "Because when you can't get information about abortion, unwanted pregnancy rates drop!" The situation she was alerting people to has been rectified, but since I didn't even know about it before it was fixed, I suspect it can't be the only attempt by well-meaning and probably very nice Christian people to spread ignorance. As I've said before, I'm not in favor of willful ignorance. Maybe I need to do something like what I tell my students to do when we read the Laramie Project--find out how many of their friends and acquaintances are gay. Maybe I need to find out how many of my friends and acquaintances are the kind of Christian that tries to keep things from children.

You know, I don't exactly keep it from my children that their father and I have sex. But they definitely weren't as aware of it (I don't think they listened for it!) before Kinsey asked the question.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Free at Last

I think my animal phase is coming to an end. For a while there, I wanted a life like Jeanne Marie Laskas' in Fifty Acres and A Poodle, or Bob Tarte's in Enslaved by Ducks, full of personalities and incidents and drama. As if our four cats and our daughter's rabbit weren't enough, we let our son pick out guinea pigs (you can't keep just one--she might be lonely), and then, encouraged by Ron's interest in parrot ownership, I wanted a bird like Tarte's Ollie, who "simply took it for granted that when he squawked, we would cater to his whim. It didn't matter if he was stranded on top of the highest oak or merely wanted another spaghetti noodle to nibble on, then fling at us. He gave the order, we obeyed--and were typically punished anyway." After doing a lot of research into different kinds of parrots, we reluctantly concluded that the only kind of bird we could be committed enough to own is a parakeet. So we got a lovely white parakeet from a newspaper ad, and then a green one from a pet shop to keep her company. Our hunter cat Sabrina got the first one in a highly dramatic accident, so after the solemn burial we got another white parakeet from a pet store. One of Walker's original two guinea pigs died, apparently of natural causes although at the relatively young age of 3, so we got another one on loan, Sandy, from another pet-lover who'd gotten Sandy as a companion for her guinea pig whose companion had died....

Now we have cats of 7, 8, and 9 years of age, a 5-year-old bunny, two 3-year-old guinea pigs, and two 2-year-old parakeets. We're getting a bathroom built onto our house, this being the house that when we picked it out, I said to Ron that we'd need another bathroom if we ever had children (although when I said that I pictured moving, rather than building. My mother once asked me when I had last cleaned an apartment oven, and I remember looking at her and saying, "mom, I don't clean. I move.")

This morning when I was thinking about the book Fifty Acres and a Poodle, I went downstairs, where most of the books are, to look for it. For the first time in my life, I couldn't find a book that I'm pretty sure I own. I got Growing Girls from the library, and I remember liking it so much that I found the one that preceded it, The Exact Same Moon, and then I ordered Fifty Acres and a Poodle from Amazon. What with some storm drain problems in the last few years, along with a leaking upstairs shower, a florescent light that we can't seem to fix, and preparations for moving bookshelves out of the way to accommodate construction and plumbing, it's harder to find books in our downstairs library than it used to be.

Yesterday when Ron and I had our half-hour planning session between running kids and ourselves, I said "guess what time the contractor's coming in the morning" and he heard "guess what pet is coming in the morning." After our laugh, I realized that I'm less likely to let myself be enamored of (and subsequently enslaved by) anyone new. I've cut my hair short. I'm throwing out old clothing. I want to drag fewer 20-pound bags of food and bedding and litter into the house. Somehow without noticing I must have turned my face away a little from the excitement of a burgeoning household and started looking for a new oven; you know, one that will just sit there quietly and stay clean.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

April poems

April is National Poetry Month, and I've been helping a librarian put together a display of poems about April. It's a month of potential. It is April that "with his shoures soote/The droughte of March hath perced to the roote" (Chaucer, General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales). It is, of course, "the cruelest month, breeding/lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain" (Eliot, The Waste Land). But "Oh, to be in England, Now that April's there" (Browning, Home Thoughts From Abroad). It is a month remarkable for its changeability:
The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.
Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time
April is also a metaphor for renewal, rebirth, even love: "thy body to me is april/in whose armpits is the approach of spring" (e.e. cummings, my love).

If you sign up at
you can get a poem sent to you every day for the rest of this month.

Monday, April 7, 2008


The Knox County Symphony is playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2 with a faculty pianist this spring, and although I'm convinced I've heard this music as background in some kind of big-screen movie, I can't find it on IMDB except in Shine, and I don't think that's what I'm associating with it. Do any of you musical readers know what movie I'm thinking of?

Our bass player brought in two pages of the String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings last week. It is absolutely hilarious. You can see the second page at

Child Heroes

Walker spent much of the weekend at tryouts for Peter Pan and then callbacks. They had him sing for John at first on the callback day, but the musical director kept calling him up to sing with the Peters, too. At worst, he'll get to be a lost boy. I think they're a bit reluctant to cast a 12-year-old as the lead of the annual community theater musical, especially one requiring deep enough pockets to rent "flying" equipment.

It was kind of a shame, I thought, that there were only three boys singing for Peter in the callbacks, and the other two were too old; their voices were deeper already. Obviously, someone was trying to hear males for the role, but I think it's probably going to be a Mary Martin-type show, given the number of girls who sang better and were older than twelve (one was 20, but a very small person). I did have a small revelation, sitting in the back row of the theater listening to Walker sing. We're always on him at home not to sing at the table, and not to sing right in our faces. That's because he has an increasingly powerful voice!

At any rate, it got me thinking about child heroes, and how often in YA fantasy literature, the adults are reluctant to entrust the fate of the world to one so young. (The first examples that come to my mind are: Lyra in The Golden Compass, the four children in Narnia, Artemis Fowl, Gregor the Overlander, Percy Jackson in The Lightning Thief, Lina and Doon in The City of Ember, Molly Moon, Roald Dahl's Matilda, Ethan in Summerland).

Deeba in China Mieville's Un Lun Dun is a child hero in a book that turns a lot of conventions on their heads in a thoroughly delightful manner. For the first 134 pages, it seems to be a traditional child hero tale--the "chosen one" is recognized by animals in our world and is subsequently transported to another world she has been chosen to save. But she is frightened and ultimately beaten, and goes back to her world, where she stays. Okay, maybe you guessed it from the title--the other world is a parallel universe--an Un-London--and the child who can actually save it is the Un-chosen one, Deeba, who no one has made much of a fuss over.

That's just the first delightful twist to this story. There are a lot of good word jokes that eventually degenerate into puns and actual characters (called "utterlings"). The chosen one from the first part of the book is referred to in Un Lun Dun as the "shwazzy" which we eventually learn is a version of the term "vous avez choisi." London's Royal Meteorological Society, abbreviated as RMETS, is referred to in Un Lun Dun as Armets, a magical society of "weatherwitches." And the mysterious thing that solved London's smog problem in 1952 is Un Lun Dun's magical talisman against the magically malignant smog that threatens their entire existence, the Klinneract.

There are wonderful and original details in this story, like a character who is a ghost (called a wraith), some very scary giraffes, and an army of animate umbrellas, plus a flying bus and a suspension bridge that moves around to evade people looking for it.

This is a book for book-lovers, but not too inaccessible for kids (like Summerland, you'll enjoy it more, the more other books you've read).

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Our house/my mind is a dump

I am a person who parts with empty cardboard boxes with great reluctance. I still have some of my maternity clothes, plus a bag of baby clothes with the left arm slit or missing because Ron said we should keep it "in case" something else happened like our 14-month-old daughter falling off a two-step Little Tikes slide and breaking her wrist on the grass. Last night, Ron finally persuaded me to at least store some of the old taco sauce jars that I use for drinking glasses downstairs (often a stop on the long way to the trash). This morning my son filled up our trash cans with stacks of papers and old pieces of toys after the cat dropped a mouse from her jaws inside our house, and it ran into Walker's room. In the process of finding it and taking it outside (still alive), we got a bit of cleaning done in that room.

Generally, our household is not a place where papers, catalogs, magazines, or books ever get thrown away. The whole idea of a commonplace book, for me, is to have a place to keep all the ideas that I'm interested in and want to make a part of myself. When you live with them long enough, they become commonplace ideas.

So instead of spring cleaning, I'm thinking of one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens:

The Man on the Dump

Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho. . . The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor's poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia, the tiger chest, for tea.

The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says
That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs
More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut--how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these thing except on the dump.

Now, the in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,
Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox),
Between that disgust and this, between the things
That are on the dump (azaleas and so on),
One feels the purifying change. One rejects
The trash.

That's the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That's the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) and you see
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky.

One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That's what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow's voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher's honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest, is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Laughing and Screaming

We don't watch horror movies at my house. I was explaining this to my fourteen-year-old this fall sometime around Halloween, because she was in the "but everyone else does it" mood. I told her that she could watch them, but she'd have to do it with her friends at their houses, because her brother and her father and I don't want to see (or hear) that stuff.

Sometimes in the evening Ron and I go downstairs to watch an R-rated movie we don't think our kids need to see. This fall we did that with the DVD of Tristram Shandy. It's a pretty awful movie, and I don't recommend it, but it did make me laugh every time it went back to Tristram's mother screaming while trying to give birth to him. Even though we were downstairs and the kids were upstairs, Eleanor evidently heard bursts of screaming accompanied by my laughter. After the faceoff about horror movies, she was incredulous that we'd chosen to watch one and sit down there and laugh at it! I had to try to explain the plot of Tristram Shandy, which is a pretty interesting thing to try to do (as he says himself, it's not the kind of book where you should be "reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart").

At any rate, I was thinking of Tristram Shandy today for a number of reasons, chief among them that I just read Douglas Coupland's new book The Gum Thief. As I meandered amid Coupland's several narrators and his book-within-a-book (a not-funny-enough conscious ripoff of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), I found myself thinking how much better Sterne did this sort of thing. Coupland does not seem to me to be consciously imitating Sterne's style, but his character Roger certainly has some major hobby horses.

Tristram explains hobby horses at some length and piecemeal (as he explains everything). Here is one of his attempts: "For my hobby-horse, if you recollect a little, is no way a vicious beast; he has scarce one hair or lineament of the ass about him----'Tis the sporting little filly-folly which carries you out for the present hour----a maggot, a butterfly, a picture, a fiddle-stick----an uncle Toby's siege----or any any thing, which a man makes a shift to get a stride on, to canter it away from the cares and solicitudes of life----'Tis as useful a beast as is in the whole creation----nor do I really see how the world could do without it----"

Roger says "I draw lines everywhere. It's what makes people think I'm Mister Difficult. For example, people in the ATM machine lineup who stand too far away from the dispenser forfeit their right to be next in line. You know the people I mean--the ones who stay fifty feet away so they don't look like they're trying to see your PIN number. Come on. I look at these people and I think, Man, you must feel truly guilty about something to make you broadcast your sense of guilt to the world with your freakish lineup philosophy. And so I simply stand in front of them and go next. That teaches them.
What else? I also believe that if someone comes up behind you on the freeway and flashes their lights to get you to move into the slow lane, they deserve whatever punishment you dole out to them. I promptly slow down and drive at the same speed as the car beside me so that I can punish Speed Racer for his impertinence."

I have liked Coupland's books before. As you can probably tell, I'm an easy mark for writers who make me laugh. But this latest book ends up being more irritating than funny. I'd rather go back to Tristram Shandy, who does finally admit that his whole story, in the end, is about a COCK and a BULL.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Co-authored Books

Raise your hand if you would even consider reading a co-authored book. Anyone?

Generally, I won't either. They're so often examples of even more self-indulgent writing than we already get from famous authors who no longer accept editing. Sometimes you can even see the seams, if you're interested enough to dip into the book.

Okay, but I just read a co-authored book that made me laugh all the way through. It's by Jennifer Crusie, of chicklit fame, and Bob Mayer, who I hadn't read before (from the book jacket, it looks entirely possible to me that he writes those men's guilty pleasures-type books--he's a "former Green Beret"). It's entitled (unpromisingly, I thought) Agnes and the Hitman. Agnes is a cook, a cookbook author, and a newspaper columnist. Here, for your pleasure, is Agnes' newspaper column for one day; I found it the funniest piece of the whole novel:

"It's His Fault You're Fat"
Heartache often drives us to consume things we wouldn't otherwise, such as an entire pint of Caramel Pecan Perfection high-fat ice cream, covered in ganache, the crack cocaine of frozen dairy. Twelve hundred calories per pint, six hundred and eighty of which are fat calories, but it only dulls the pain for the moment, there's that carb fog while you're standing at the sink shoving it in your face, and then it's over and you feel...used. Like a cheap pickup the Dove people seduced and abandoned in your kitchen, leaving you with sticky hands and an empty cup and a still-broken heart, except now you're mad at Dove, too.

So, a nice little piece of mind candy, or perhaps mind ice cream.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


When I was in college, I saw the play Rashomon, which tells the same story from four different perspectives. Recently I saw the movies Vantage Point and Atonement, and they show the same events from different characters' perspectives. This has been much more common in the novel, as it's less jarring. One of the first novels I read that did this almost as well as Faulkner does it in The Sound and the Fury is Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. It not only tells the same events from different perspectives, but it moves the characters through time and adds events while letting each character (members of a family) have his or her say. The mother gets her turn first, both because she tells about events before the children were born and because otherwise you might see her as the children do. (One of the things this novel conveys is how little we can know of our parents as people.)

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant has one of the best beginnings I've ever read:

You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say, the way we started extra children after the first child fell so ill. Cody, that was, the older boy. Not Ezra here beside her bed but Cody the trouble-maker--a difficult baby, born late in her life. They had decided on no more. Then he developed croup. This was in 1931, when croup was something serious. She'd been frantic. Over his crib she had draped a flannel sheet, and she set out skillets, saucepans, buckets full of water that she'd heated on the stove. She lifted the flannel sheet to catch the steam. The baby's breathing was choked and rough, like something pulled through tightly packed gravel. His skin was blazing and his hair was plastered stiffly to his temples. Toward morning, he slept. Pearl's head sagged in the rocking chair and she slept too, fingers still gripping the ivory metal crib rail. Beck was away on business--came home when the worst was over, Cody toddling around again with nothing more than a runny nose and a loose, unalarming cough that Beck didn't even notice. "I want more children," Pearl told him. He acted surprised, though pleased. He reminded her that she hadn't felt she could face another delivery. But "I want some extra," she said, for it had struck her during the croup: if Cody died, what would she have left?
...."I don't know why I thought just one little boy would suffice," said Pearl.
But it wasn't as simple as she had supposed. The second child was Ezra, so sweet and clumsy it could break your heart. She was more endangered than ever. It would have been best to stop at Cody. She still hadn't learned, though. After Ezra came Jenny, the girl--such fun to dress, to fix her hair in different styles. Girls were a kind of luxury, Pearl felt. But she couldn't give Jenny up, either. What she had now was not one loss to fear but three. Still, she thought, it had seemed a good idea once upon a time: spare children, like spare tires, or those extra lisle stockings they used to package free with each pair.

As a mother, I sometimes worry that my love for my children will be overtaken by the intensity of my fears for them. But I've internalized so many of the lines from this book that when I tune up to that pitch, I remind myself to be more like Pearl's daughter, who is "learning to make it through life on a slant. She was trying to lose her intensity." It's a part of my continuing effort to not turn out exactly like my own mother, a person generally acknowledged to be (as I am, as my daughter is) a formidable person.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fools and Circuses

I had a dream right before I woke up (and told it before breakfast) that a former college student we were very fond of, Jeremiah Budzik, and a friend from graduate school, Kiki Theodoropolis, were coming to our local campus to star in a production of Murder on the Orient Express. The interesting thing about the dream is that I'd aged these people, who we haven't seen in years (including making Jeremiah, who was at least 22 years old the last time I saw him, considerably taller). It occurred to me that my brain had played an April Fool's joke on myself. So immediately I climbed out of bed and went to the kids' rooms to tell them it had snowed and there was no school. This worked for the two seconds before I started grinning.

A good book for April Fool's Day is World War Z, by Max Brooks. It tells about the battle against the zombie threat (a virus, evidently, spread by bites) with (I've lifted this summary from Amazon): "a series of first-person accounts 'as told to the author' by various characters around the world. A Chinese doctor encounters one of the earliest zombie cases at a time when the Chinese government is ruthlessly suppressing any information about the outbreak that will soon spread across the globe. The tale then follows the outbreak via testimony of smugglers, intelligence officials, military personnel and many others who struggle to defeat the zombie menace. Despite its implausible premise and choppy delivery, the novel is surprisingly hard to put down. The subtle, and not so subtle, jabs at various contemporary politicians and policies are an added bonus."

And now for something completely different... I want to talk about two books with circuses in them, because one of them is due back at the library today. The first is Water for Elephants, a book I haven't actually read but have listened to several times as an audiobook. It's a wonderful story, and the passages told from the point of view of the old man make it possible to imagine what few people can manage to imagine: they make a young person feel what it is to be old. In addition, of course, the author manages to make an elephant a character in the story.

The book that is due today is Peter Hoeg's new novel The Quiet Girl (he's the guy who wrote Smilla's Sense of Snow). This is one of the oddest books I've read in a long time, and I'm not sure that I recommend it. It has some of the most wonderful, memorable passages I've ever read, though. I was completely captivated by observations like: "children woke up at six-thirty in the morning and shifted directly into fourth gear. Fourteen hours later they rushed straight into sleep at more than a hundred miles an hour without decelerating." I also like the following passage, which does more to explain AA to me than anything else ever has:

"To whom shall I pray?" he asked. "Who says there's someone out there? Who says the universe isn't just one big hurdy-gurdy?"
"Maybe it's not necessary to pray to anyone. The early desert mothers said that God is without form, color, or content. Perhaps prayer isn't a matter of praying to anyone. Perhaps it's an active way of giving up. Maybe that's precisely what you need: to give up, without going under."

The main character of The Quiet Girl is a clown who plays the violin in the Cirque de Soleil. His observations often center on music, like this one: "There are many people who believe they have bought a ticket to Gilbert and Sullivan in this life. And only when it's almost too late do they discover that existence is a piece of doomsday music by Schnittke instead." He also muses on the meaning of the circus itself: "The circus is a piece of the Middle Ages that has survived on the fringes of the modern world. Artists are outdated, like foxes that have adapted themselves to the city and garbage cans. But not simply as lonely wanderers, also as a brotherhood, a brotherhood of half-wild animals. Outside the system of grants and awards. Outside ARTE cultural subsidies. Outside Customs and Tax Administration control. With very few rules, one of which is: You always support one another in life's hide-and-seek with the public authorities."

One of the reasons this novel is so odd is that it tries to do so much, and I think that's why it's successful for me only in passages:

"Even with children one is often alone," she said. "Even in a family. Children change very quickly. There's no stability. One is constantly reminded that in a little while they will be gone. I've been away for a month this time. When I come home in three weeks, they will have changed; it will be as though I'm seeing them for the first time. As if they are strangers. In everyday life too. Perhaps it's true that love is eternal. But its appearance changes all the time."

On April Fool's day, let's be open to the truth in laughter. (But let's not pick it apart, like the book I saw on the comedy books table at Barnes and Noble this weekend, entitled Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes.)