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!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Home From Away


I’ve been away from the blog for a while, but I’m back, at least for today. I was doing other things and not quite in the blogging mood. Some of the things:

1)      Democratic precinct work building up to the April 4 election.
2)      Assistant directing the play Photograph 51 at Heartland Theatre.
3)      Library work + freelance writing & editing work.
4)      Writing a poem a day in April for National Poetry Month.

Well, the election has happened, the play is up and running, I’m still working, and it’s still April, so I’m still writing a poem a day, but the blogging mood seems to have bloomed with the tulips, violets, dandelions, and bleeding heart. So here I am.

Our local politics have gone viral. Yesterday, my husband was reading his Daily Kos and said, “Isn’t that the lady who was in our front yard?” Yes, indeed, that was Chemberly Cummings, who had brought a campaign sign for our yard and was elected on April 4. She is the first African American to be elected to the Town of Normal town council. This is the new Normal!

Daily Kos and others had picked up the story from the Huffington Post, which had also done an earlier story on Cheri Bustos holding a workshop for motivated people like Jodie Slothower, to help them learn how to run for public office. I’m so proud of all our locals who stepped up to serve the public! The mayoral race was too close to call. Official results will come out today, and there may still be a recount. A reminder that every vote really does count.

While I was not blogging, I was also not sending out very much poetry, but that engine is beginning to rev up, too. I participated in a wonderful poetry reading for the museum of Americana at the McLean County Museum of History with fellow poets Justin Hamm and Tim Hunt. On April 20, we have the next open mic reading at the Normal Public Library, with an Earth Day/Arbor Day set of themes: earth, trees, weather. It’s from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the library cafĂ©. Local poets and poetry lovers, come on over!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Do What You Do


I’m through with you,

You winter flu…

I seldom get sick, but this time I did. The winter crud, the winter plague, whatever it was, I got it. I wasn’t sorry to miss some of the ongoing Trump disaster, but I was sorry to miss a local rally for Planned Parenthood and the annual Roosevelt Dinner for the Democratic Party. Sigh… But I kept my spirits up (and down) with favorite movies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tootsie, Saving Mr. Banks, Mary Poppins, Cloud Atlas, Hot Fuzz. Yes, a weird array.

And now it’s almost Valentine’s Day…which I will be celebrating with another rally, Stand Up for Social Justice, while my husband celebrates by coaching volleyball.

My daughter has written a Valentine column in The VidetteThere is a new Valentine feature at Escape Into Life.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Math Challenged

I often joke that I am "math challenged,"...because I am. Now I am delighted to read and to be in the new issue of Snakeskin, an online poetry magazine in the United Kingdom. It is the Maths and Numbers issue, guest edited by Jessy Randall, poet and librarian.

Jessy also maintains Library Shenanigans, all about...library shenanigans! And she writes poetry comics as well as poems!

My poem, "We Matter," is about math, science, sociology, and counting.

Speaking about libraries, yesterday I participated in an online class on Librarians vs Fake News. You can, too, here at Gail Borden Library. I live streamed the panel discussion and Q&A, but you can still watch it there on YouTube and also see a great list of fact-checking sources.

Speaking of maths and numbers, yay for Hidden Figures at the SAG Awards!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Women's March

What a thrill it has been to watch live video of the Women's March on Washington, D.C. today. And live video and photos of the sister marches all over the country and the world, even in Antarctica! I saw joyous, strong, peaceful protests everywhere I looked. At noon I was silent, and during a part of the march, I "marched" a 2-mile trek on the local hiking trail, as it is 60 degrees and sunny here in globally warmed central Illinois today, smiling at my fellows humans and dogs. So many friends and strangers were marching in so many cities. Thank you all. And thank you, Shepard Fairey, for these peaceful, hopeful protest posters. And now I'm off to see Hidden Figures, another form of peaceful protest. (I think Hollywood listened.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Public Library

I've been reading the short stories and the italicized interstices of Public Library and Other Stories, by Ali Smith. She's the delightfully random writer of The Accidental, about a woman who walks into a house. Ali Smith is in love with words, books, libraries, coincidence, connection, and the imagination. Between the stories, she tells us about the assault on libraries in the United Kingdom, and here is a BBC News article with the current statistics on that. Many libraries were closed, many people lost their jobs (and were replaced by volunteers) and many people lamented the loss of libraries they loved.

In the context of Brexit and post-truth America, I was struck by what writer Sophie Mayer told Smith: "I believe libraries are essential for informed and participatory democracy, and that there is therefore an ideological war on them via cuts and closures, depriving individuals and communities of their right to knowledge and becoming on their own terms." This coincides right now with the fears and worries about the end of democracy in America due to the lack of an informed citizenry.

Smith also includes comments by Richard Popple that coincide with our current concerns for our most vulnerable populations here in the USA. Popple says, "Libraries are, at heart, helpful and kind providers. It is hard for those who perhaps don't feel the need to visit their local libraries to understand what a vital service they provide for communities and individuals who do--and those who do are often the most vulnerable." I feel so lucky both communities in my twin-city home are talking about new libraries, and have already renovated and expanded to fit the changing times and needs, ever since I first used the library and since I first worked in one in my college summers. I hope we never head toward cuts like those in the UK, but these days any bad thing seems possible.

Back to Sophie Mayer, whose list of weapons used by Buffy the Vampire Slayer includes a library card. "Libraries save the world, a lot, but outside the narrative mode of heroism: though contemplative action, anonymously and collectively. For me, the public library is the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space, a community of consent...." I love that, "a community of consent" as a truly participatory democracy. And isn't there a Librarian Superhero yet?! 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Baklava for Breakfast

It's true that during the holidays, I once had baklava for breakfast. Pistachio baklava from Mid-East Pastry Delight! By chance, that was the day a poet friend asked on Facebook what was the last thing you ate, as that would be the name of your new dog. My new imaginary dog is named Baklava!!

The holidays were a lovely, warm, game-playing, yummy-eating time for family wamily! Yay! Followed (or accompanied) by bitter cold and resumed terror in the world and in American politics. Sigh...

Sometimes I escaped, as I am wont to do, by reading. I read a bunch of nonfiction and a bunch of fiction, and in 2017 I have started a hard-copy reading log in a notebook that looks like a giant yellow library card. (I have socks to match.)

A fascinating coincidence: Harriet Jacobs. I read about her in Trainwreck, by Sady Doyle, and it would seem to me that she is a model for Cora in The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead! They both hid in an attic, as did Anne Frank.

Another coincidence: Rosalind Franklin. I love her because I love the double helix of DNA, and she was an x-ray photographer whose work helped establish the shape and structure of DNA. This winter I'll be working as assistant director on the play Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler, about the pertinent photograph and the scientist herself, and I am currently reading Hark! A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton, which contains this fabulous cartoon about Rosalind Franklin that sort of encapsulates the play. (Likewise, thanks to Kate Beaton, I don't need to watch the rest of The Borgias television series. But do come see the play Photograph 51 at Heartland Theatre, in April. It is very well written and Franklin's character is a delight. I hope Ziegler and Beaton have talked!) I had already read Step Aside, Pops, another set of Beaton history, literature, & mythology cartoons, because it was available first at the library. And I devoured Swing Time, by Zadie Smith, a favorite writer of mine.

Once I emerge from reading hibernation, I'll be working on behalf of local politics as a Democratic precinct committeeman (person). Because that was one thing I could do after the horror, the horror of the recent election.... And here is my imaginary dog, Baklava.