Wednesday, June 21, 2017

10,000 Hours

Happy first day of summer! I walked to work and back, just missing a midday sprinkle of rain. Here's what's blooming: Prairie Blue Eyes (lavender lilies), big yellow daisies, purple coneflower, the last of the white anemone, the beginning of the white hosta, the end of the blue & purple spiderwort, and a jillion orange day lilies. I've eaten a few early raspberries. There's work to be done (and hedgehogs to be folded), but I thought I'd fill you in on my recent reading.

I'm participating in the Adult Summer Reading program at the library, which asks us to read around in various genres. I'm reading a novel now, but I've already read my biography and nonfiction. I read The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by Daniel Mark Epstein, who also wrote the charming Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, about the near-miss, across-the-street relationship of the President and the Poet who loved him.

I also read The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols, a 5-time Jeopardy champion, as it turns out! My mom will be impressed. (She'd also be impressed by India Cooper, another 5-time champion and an actor I knew in Chicago!!) In The Death of Expertise, Nichols lays out the sad situation in straightforward language and with a common sense approach that also reveals that he's en expert. He sees a great loss of critical thinking among people today, including the college-educated, in part because college has become a consumer product rather than a place to acquire knowledge and learn how to think. This goes side by side with contempt for intellectuals and the "elite," which Nichols tracks for us in popular culture and politics. This book 1) made me sad 2) articulated what I have also observed in America today. Nichols warns that American democracy is in grave danger, reminding us that our democracy is a republic, one in which we elect representatives who should be, er, experts!

Reading the book reminded me of the concept of getting better and better at something by doing it a lot, specifically for 10,000 hours. I realized I am old enough to have developed some expertise in more than one area. I have done 10,000 hours of acting (in a 10+ year "career") and more than 10,000 hours of writing & editing, not to mention reading. I hope I don't spending 10,000 hours making book hedgehogs. (By the way, here is an instruction sheet on how to make the folds for a book hedgehog.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Book Hedgehogs

I've been busy. And not just making book hedgehogs. I've also been reading books, not just folding their pages into adorable animals. I've been helping our daughter pack and move to Chicago. I've been working, writing, rehearsing for a gala, attending the gala, editing, walking to work again, enjoying the fabulous weather, and, yes, swimming! Swimming with ducks. Ducks like the pool in the early morning. Or they did. Now they're onto us. Humans who swim in the early morning...

Now that I know how to make book hedgehogs, I know what to do with all the books I need to get rid of but can't quite part with, not yet. That's not quite true, I suppose, as these book hedgehogs were made from paperbacks soon to be recycled at the library. One was A Shropshire Lad, by A.E. Housman. and since you can get that easily via Project Gutenberg, I have stuck some blue eyes and backyard grasses into this one.

Hmm, he looks a little like a possum.

Here he is in the woodpile.

Speaking of recycling, I filled a giant recycling bin with my past life, part of a big spring cleaning project that made me confront the big chunks of what I had forgotten. Now I have remembered, briefly, and recycled those same portions of my existence. I do not think I will be teaching again in a college setting, so goodbye to grade books and syllabi! When the time comes, goodbye to book hedgehogs, as well.

What will happen to my blog now? My most viewed post, with 117,498 hits, is Hedgehog Hodgepodge, featuring the popular real-life creature. Now this...

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Beartown

I wanted to read Beartown, by Fredrik Backman, because I liked A Man Called Ove, and as a kind of research* for a play I'll be directing next season at Heartland Theatre, For the Loyal, by Lee Blessing. Written in response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, For the Loyal is about a scandal that threatens a football program. Beartown is about a scandal that threatens a hockey program that means a lot to a small town in the forest. Both works keep asking us, "What should we do? What is the right thing to do here?" Backman's book is wonderful in how it keeps turning assumptions right around and opening up new ways of thinking about something and new possibilities of behavior.

*I'll be doing other research, too, which has begun with the documentary Happy Valley, about the effect of the crimes and scandal on the community of State College, PA, known as "Happy Valley" before things got so unhappy there. It is a careful, compassionate, and devastating exploration--with hope in it.

But this bit from the middle of Beartown, pertinent to its own plot, could apply to the state of things in the USA right now, where we seem to be headed for another Civil War, as uncivil as the last one.

Fredrik Backman in Beartown:

Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The word becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn't through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.

So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that's easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe--comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy. There are many ways of doing that....

This rings very true, and I'm watching it happen all around me. I'm sad about it. I keep expecting us all to grow up, but we linger in an easier immaturity, I fear, or in "the inability to tolerate ambiguity," as my dad used to put it. I grew up being warned about this, but here it is, still.


I do tolerate ambiguity. I'm an artist, a thinker, a reader, a witness to the complicated lives lived all around me. But I see people of hope and goodwill still choosing to oversimplify situations that are complicated, looking for easy solutions, wishing for good to defeat evil the way it happens in our fantasies, our myths, our hopes...and maybe forgetting that one side thinks it is good and the other evil, and vice versa, if we oversimplify. There are interesting, creative, reasonable solutions, but they take attention and effort, cooperation and compromise, and often do not "permit life to go on as normal." Fortunately, I live in Normal. Where unusual things keep happening...

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Poetry as Food

It's Poem in Your Pocket Day, but I forgot to wear pockets. I did find my envelope of tiny poems for your pocket yesterday, while cleaning up my office and listening to Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. I wrote about that listening experience over at Escape Into Life, in the EIL Blog, including a poem about Lincoln, which is too long and too online to stick in your pocket, but you can go there via this easy link, if you like!


That poem was published in Feast: Poetry & Recipes for a Full Seating at Dinner (an anthology of food poems and, yes, recipes, published by Black Lawrence Press in 2015). It was included in the cocktail section, because Lincoln is toasting Robert Burns, and I also made up a cocktail, with help from the bartender at the Marriott, called the Lilacs in the Courtyard Cosmo. Walt Whitman's elegy to Lincoln is "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," but "courtyard" is, here, alliterative and more likely--drinks in the hotel courtyard! In any case, both poem (Whitman's) and drink (mine) are blue. I'm rambling. (So you know it's me.)

Then today the Food issue of Poetry East arrived! It's glorious. It is also set up as a full-course dinner, but a particular "perfect meal," as chosen by chef Mary Jo McMillin, of Mary Jo's Cuisine (a restaurant in Oxford, Ohio) and Mary Jo's Kitchen (her blog), with recipes provided. Mary Jo is the widow of James Reiss, a poet, to whom this issue is dedicated. He has a wonderful poem in the same issue, a funny poem called "Mary Had," with "little lamb / hunks" in it, and lamb is indeed the main course of the "perfect meal." The perfect meal is perfectly photographed by the Poetry East editors, who apparently got to eat the perfect meal in February of this year! There is also gorgeous art about food all through the issue. You can get a copy here. If you read this issue, you will be hungry and yet satiated. And you will enjoy "Fat Hamlet," which is about "grief bacon," as in "Kummerspeck--in German, excess weight gained from emotional overeating; literally 'grief bacon'"

My poem in this issue is "Glazed," in the dessert section, about a honey-sweet day in April, previously published in Crab Creek Review and reprinted for the PE food anthology. Many thanks to all for the food and the work and the love and the yumminess. Hmm, I should have posted this on Fat Tuesday, but it hadn't happened yet. But this had! So it's a Random Coinciday in the blog. On Poem in Your Pocket Day in the USA.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Lab Girl

I love this book! I knew I would when I heard an NPR interview with the author, Hope Jahren. The book came to the library, and I waited patiently for it to come back! Now it has, I've read it, and it's just come out in paperback, and my book group is going to read it, and all kinds of yay! This is a book about trees, about plants, about love and being a scientist, and about an interesting guy named Bill

Just read it.

I read it at the perfect time, while working on the play Photograph 51, about another "lab girl," Rosalind Franklin. Both of them had to deal with some men who didn't know how to respect women scientists as equals. I was surprised that it still goes on today, and I expect to hear more about that at a discussion by Dr. Cynthia Moore after the 2:00 Saturday matinee at Heartland Theatre on April 22.

This year I am keeping a reading journal in a notebook that looks like a library card. So far in 2017, I have read 33 books. Because I love to read. Some of them were plays and books of poetry. Some were novels, some short story collections, and several were nonfiction, including this wonderful memoir, Lab Girl.

Here are some sentences I wrote down in my reading journal:

"Tiny but determined, I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing it's more than people want to see."

"Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life."

I could stop there...but I can't.

"It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not."

This comforted and bolstered me so much because 1) I have kept a diary since I was 10 and 2) I'm now keeping this reading journal.

"There is nothing in the world more perfect than a slide rule." We have one as a prop in the play!

And, to reveal myself as I record what I value: "A vine becomes whatever it needs to be and does whatever it must to make real its fabulous pretensions."

I love that. I feel a strange affinity to vines. "Vines are not sinister; they are just hopelessly ambitious. They are the hardest-working plants on Earth." I'll leave you thinking about that!