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.


Sunday, January 10, 2016


I have written before about how Jack picks one of the littlest trees on the lot every Christmas. He has a good heart, that boy.

I can't remember why, but we didn't do that this past June. The old tree was left tucked away in the back corner of the yard.

Fast forward to the night before the night before Christmas. I was working late, making up for time I missed while I was out of town for five days. Just as I was heading home, I got a text from Jack, "Can you pick me up at Chloe's?" He had been hanging out all evening with his friends decorating Christmas cookies.

We pulled into the garage and got out of the car. Jack breathed in, "Something smells funny." We shrugged and headed into the house. 

"Wait!" Jack said, "I think I know what that smell is! Come see if I'm right!"

Back in the garage, Jack said, "He did it! He was talking about doing it and he actually did it!"

There, hanging from the ceiling, was last year's Christmas tree. While we were out, Roger had spray painted it green.

"We haven't gotten around to getting a tree yet and it's sort of late now," he said. "So I figured I'd give this a try."

We have long deferred to Jack on matters of the tree (it is his childhood after all). He thought it was hilarious. I did, too. So the next day Roger brought it into the house and decorated it, adding one new ornament he picked up at the hardware store.

It turned out to be a fine tree for the holiday, but I'm not quite sure what will happen if we put it in our Celestial Cauldron and burn it come Summer Solstice. 

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Coming in for a Landing and Launching Again

Of course just as I ended my year-long project that involved finishing a book each week for 52 weeks, my nephew wrote about getting through more than 100 in a year and I saw a post about someone who read 164 books in 2015.

Isn't that the way it goes?

I wanted this project to be about more than reading, though. I wanted it to be about thinking and writing and seeing how all of it both reflected our world and shaped my life over the course of the year.

So many threads wove through the books I chose and also wove through real life, sometimes in simple or unexpected ways.

Like how this passage from A House in Corfu was exquisitely refracted through the stories of Syrian refugees being welcomed on the island of Lesbos: ". . . my father, stretchered up the path by strong young men, spoke in a way that was as typical of him as the efforts by the doctor to help him had been of a Greek to a suffering stranger."

And how Margo Jefferson (Negroland) reluctantly realized that she was probably most like Amy March in Little Women and how May Alcott (Little Woman in Blue) resented the way her sister Louisa had portrayed her as Amy.

And how we ended up spending a week exploring in the Pacific Northwest as a direct result of reading The Curve of Time.

What was the book that I can't stop thinking about?

I am actually very surprised. Frankenstein. Sure it's one of the more recent books I read, but it illuminated so many of my ongoing explorations in earlier books (addiction, race, gender, criminal justice, disconnection, marginalization and, importantly, love) by offering such a powerful metaphor for thinking through both how people respond to being thought of as "monsters" by becoming monsters and how becoming monsters is not inevitable.

We have more power and responsibility than we realize when it comes to how we see one another (and ourselves) and how we react to the way we are seen. We need to realize it!

This is something I work on personally. It is something I think about in my work. It is something I think about as I watch such destructive judgment and fear play out in our communities, our nations, our world.

Frankenstein. Go figure.

And on a lighter note, I was very pleased at how often pots bursting with colorful geraniums appeared in the books I read. I don't think that is a coincidence and I am now, non-gardener that I am, obsessed with planting geraniums in pots for our front steps in a few months.

So that was 2015. For 2016?

Because I have a tendency to be far too earnest, I'm going to shove myself into shallower water and write something funny every week. Funny is an excellent challenge, both in life and in writing, and I'm going to experiment with various types of funny and various types of writing funny. Because I can. Be funny, I mean.

I think (she says with great earnestness) that a focus on the funny will be good medicine in the coming year. Especially this particular coming year.