Sunday, February 28, 2016

Coming Down the Other Side

I don't know how old I'll be when I die, but I'm pretty sure I'm not going to last until I'm 104.

I have most likely crested the hill long since.

Signs of my descent:

I find that I talk to myself with startling frequency, and, worse, I am getting lax about doing it when other people are around. People are starting to notice. So far it's nothing revealing. "I think I'll have a slice of pizza," as I poke around in the fridge, forgetting Jack has just walked in, home from school. But what if some of my crazier thoughts start falling out of my brain and coming out of my mouth?

I am forgetting things more often. I had to teach a class the other day without my reading glasses. I asked the class not to pay attention to me as I read an excerpt from a book, holding it in my hand stretched out as far as possible. And then I had to turn around and drive all the way back to campus to retrieve my phone that I'd left on the desk in the front of the room. I realized it after I'd gotten almost all the way to my other job, twenty minutes from campus.

I have realized that no one truly knows what the heck they are doing, including and especially myself. At least not the whole of it. And sometimes not even the bits and pieces. I've realized there aren't any actual grownups anywhere who have it all figured out.

This is simultaneously freeing and unsettling.

I'm feeling good about the freeing part, though.

On the way down, I've discovered I give fewer and fewer effs. I don't even really care anymore that I have to wear reading glasses. Except when I don't have them. And even then, I discover I'm okay with long arms and good lighting.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


I've mentioned this before. I don't know if I experience synchronicity more than usual or if I just tend to notice it a lot. Here are three of my recent favorites:

The time a friend dropped by with a present - a copy of Eric Carle's classic Pancakes, Pancakes! - at the exact moment I was cooking a, wait for it, pancake!

The time I bought a fabulous handbag woven from river grass at the gift shop of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, and the next day I saw someone post in a Facebook forum that she was looking for a new purse, something unusual. The forum has members from all over the world, but I clicked on her name anyway just to see if she lived anywhere near Charlotte, NC, so I could recommend the river grass bags. What were the chances? She actually lived in Charlotte!

The time I was teaching a new class of inmates at the jail and there were two guys who went by Tony and one by Anthony. I reminisced about the old Prince spaghetti ad where the mom yells out of the window in an old apartment in the North End of Boston for her son Anthony, who comes running home because he knows it's Wednesday and Wednesday is Prince spaghetti day. Later that day, a high school friend happened to post about Prince spaghetti day on Facebook and a bunch of us reminisced together.

That was a pretty run of the mill synchronicity for me.

Then it got a little spooky.

The very next day news broke in the Boston Globe that the actress who played Anthony's mother in that Prince spaghetti ad had passed away. Dead.

A synchronicity trifecta.

We are all connected, people.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Twelve Days Going On Forever

At least that's what it feels like.

Twelve days of--how can I say it delicately?--respiratory ailment. With no end in sight. Ugh.

Foggy head, failing voice, awful fatigue, plentiful phlegm.

(I may be fighting to function, but at least my facility for alliteration hasn't faded!)

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Keeping My Eye on the Ball

When I was growing up, we had a really crappy black and white television. Really. It was so bad that twice our house was broken into and twice the thieves left the television behind.

I remember sometimes a football game would be on, and I would watch the fuzzy screen and wonder how anyone could tell where the ball actually was at any given time.

Somehow I failed to become a fan.

I realized the other day just how much I don't pay attention to football when a team called the Texans was playing Kansas City on a big screen while we were having lunch at Culvers.

"The Texans?" I said. "What city are they in?"

"Houston," said Roger.

"Houston? Isn't that the Oilers?"

When I googled, I discovered the Oilers moved to Tennessee all the way back in 1999 and became the Titans. That's the same year Jack was born. He's almost 17.

I got sucked into following (though not actually watching) the playoffs this year because both the Patriots and the Panthers had a shot at making it to the Super Bowl and my Facebook feed was on fire!

The final four: the Patriots, the Broncos, the Panthers, the Cardinals. The Patriots didn't make it. Neither did the Cardinals.

"The Cardinals?" I thought. "Aren't they a baseball team?"

A little more googling.

"Ah, no. I'm confusing them with the Orioles."

I'll be rooting for the Panthers tomorrow. Hope they hit a lot of home runs!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Transcendent Synchronicity; or, Life in a Small World

On Wednesday, as I dutifully got organized for class Thursday morning, I made sure I had ready access to the link for Kathryn Schulz's classic TED Talk, On Being Wrong. I show it to my students every semester before launching them into their research project. I highly recommend it as an invitation to open ourselves up to wider views, risk, and possibility.

After I was set for class, I settled in to read several articles that comprised a minor firestorm in the literary world a few months ago about Henry David Thoreau and particularly Walden; or, Life in the Woods in preparation for a discussion with friends on Thursday evening. I'd glanced at the articles before, but wanted to wait until I'd read Walden before reading them in depth.

I started with the article that set off the firestorm. "Pond Scum" it was called, published in The New Yorker in October. An inauspicious title.

While I agreed with some of the author's points --

I'd long known, for example, how difficult Thoreau was, even for people who counted him a friend. I'd known that his mother baked cookies for him while he lived "on his own" in his cabin in the woods, but that he hadn't included them in his accounting of his experience. I'd witnessed for myself various contradictions in his views (like eschewing materialism but loving the bustling enterprise of downtown Concord). I too believe that "the mature position, and the one at the heart of the American democracy, seeks a balance between the individual and the society."

-- I found myself becoming increasingly agitated with the author's arguments against him.

"That is not the way I read him! You are missing important context! What do you mean he lacks humor? I wrote LOL in the margins of his writing more than once!"

I even shouted, out loud to myself, there alone in my room, probably multiple times,

"You are wrong!!"

When I got to the end of the evisceration, I wondered who wrote it.

And there I saw her name.

Kathryn Schulz.

The very same On Being Wrong Kathryn Schulz.

So glad she's open to the possibility that she is.


PS: If you read "Pond Scum," I also recommend you read these articles as well: "In Defense of Thoreau" in The Atlantic and "Everybody Hates Henry" in The New Republic, which wisely asks "Literary saint or arrogant fraud--why do we need Thoreau to be one or the other?"

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Going to Pot

One of the things you have to get used to if you work at a jail is waiting for someone in a remote control center to unlock doors and open sliders for you. I find it's a good exercise in patience. Inner zen and all that.

I've also discovered it's a good exercise in humility.

Here's why: The restroom is on the other side of an often closed slider, which means that when I use the restroom, people in the remote control center know it. They know when I'm done with the restroom and need to get back to the other side of the slider. Sometimes it opens before I even have a chance to press the button, which means they've had their eyes on the video monitor, waiting for me.

For the first few years I didn't think much of it. The people in the control center were strangers to me.

Then one day I met a deputy newly assigned to the main hall where I call inmates out to meet with them.

"I already know you," she said, "But I don't know your name or what exactly you do."

I told her then asked, "You already know me?"

"I've worked in the control center so I've seen you around."

"Oh," I said, my face reddening a little. "So, um, then you know how often I use the restroom?"

I drink a lot.

She laughed, "I might!"

"Oh," I said, laughing along because what else could I do? "Nice to meet you?"

Sunday, January 17, 2016

With a Sister Like This

I wrapped up my year of actually finishing books I start and reporting on them with a novel about Louisa May Alcott's sister May.

I've long loved Louisa. She was imaginative. Gutsy. Subversive.

And imperfect.

I always knew she was imperfect. Of course she was imperfect. No matter how cool people are, they are never perfect.

I wasn't prepared, though, for what I discovered a couple of weeks ago and then confirmed this week.

While reading the novel, I learned that May Alcott had some of her drawings of literary and patriotic scenes around town published in a book called Concord Sketches. It's very rare; not many were printed. Louisa wrote the introduction, which was apparently not flattering to May at all.

I had to see it for myself. Louisa's introduction. May's drawings.

A quick search for images of the book itself on the Internet failed me. Then I discovered there existed a copy of the actual book just miles from me, deep in the heart of Special Collections at the BYU library.

I went there this past week to see it for myself.

And confirmed the worst.


Louisa totally thrashed May!

"These sketches," she wrote, "from a student's portfolio [May was teaching art by this time. Ouch!], claim no merit as works of art [Ouch!!], but are only valuable as souvenirs [Ouch!!!], which owe their chief charm to the associations that surround them, rather than to any success in the execution of a labor of love [Ouch!!!!], prompted by the natural desire to do honor to one's birthplace."

Maybe Louisa wrote what she wrote as a joke and never meant for it to be published? Maybe she didn't think the book would ever make it to print? The introduction did not include an attribution. Maybe Louisa didn't write it at all?

I can wish.

Because with a sister like this, who needs critics?

Disillusioned as I am, though, I won't stop loving Louisa. If we stopped loving everyone who isn't perfect, we'd have to stop loving everyone. Plus, this happened nearly 150 years ago. Time adds a mythic patina to legends like Louisa.

But still.

Poor May.