Saturday, April 4, 2020

Topsy-Turvy Jo

There are so many lovely covers to the book Little Women. Here’s one, though not the copy I am reading, an image of which I cannot find online. Today I learned (or re-learned, if I once knew it) that May Alcott, Louisa’s little sister, illustrated the first edition. May was the real Amy. Her name was Abigail May Alcott, and, Wikipedia tells me, she was known as Abba or Abby until she chose to be known as May, and that’s how she is listed on this title page of the first edition, with her illustration opposite. So “Amy” is not just an anagram of “May” but echoes the two nicknames!

I loved this article about the real Amy—“What Greta Gerwig Got Right: Rethinking Amy March in Light of May Alcott Nieriker,” by Kelly Blewett in the Los Angeles Review of Books—re-seeing her in light of Greta Gerwig’s movie adaptation as well as a new book by Jane Smiley, The March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women. Both authors recognize May Alcott as a modern woman and a feminist of her own times.

Clearly, a lot of us are re-reading and re-thinking Little Women right now. I am turning to it as a kind of “comfort food” during this time of crisis. Imagine my astonishment at discovering May Alcott’s illustration of Beth greeting her father on his return—wearing his scarf like a coronavirus mask!

And there are various other surprises, among them the number of nicknames. I had remembered Topsy-Turvy Jo, and, for Theodore Laurence, the boy next door, Laurie, of course, and Teddy, but I had forgotten Toodles as one of his nicknames!

A somewhat unnerving surprise was the common use of the word “trump” in a slang sense, with the entirely positive connotation it has from cards, where the trump beats everything! “Three cheers for dear Father! Brooke was a trump to telegraph right off, and let us know he was better.”

We live in a topsy-turvy world right now, changed forever. When we come through this hard time, and I hope we will, let it be for the better. I know we’ve been made vulnerable by the current president, a “trump” with entirely negative connotations, who  must be voted out, my dears, so let us be strong and kind and do what needs to be done. There! That shows the influence of listening to Marmee and spending time with some admirable “little women.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Pertinence of Little Women

As a comfort during this strange and difficult time, I am re-reading Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, first read in childhood. I recalled the March family hunkered at home during the Civil War, their father off serving as a chaplain for the army, but little did I know quite how much their situation would resonate now!

When I picked up my book this morning, opening to where my bookmark had fallen inplace the night before, the little women and their mother had received news of the illness of Mr. March. Illness in war is common, and our big flu pandemic of 1918 happened in war, and here we are again. So Marmee, as her daughters call her, packs a trunk and heads off to tend him, leaving the little women on their own, in the care of Hannah the cook, and with the protection of the neighbor, Mr. Laurence, and his grandson, Laurie.

The next morning, they wake to the completely changed circumstances. “’I feel as if there had been an earthquake,’ said Jo…” Indeed! And not only does the disruption current in our lives feel as devastating as that, but there has just been another earthquake—in Idaho!

And for those of you who are stress eating (or stress baking), look at the pertinence and needed humor of this! “’I think anxiety is very interesting,’ said Amy, eating sugar pensively.” I laughed a little, while maintaining my compassion for those whose anxiety is hard to manage, and probably not with sugar, and definitely not straight from the shared sugar bowl!

I am reading a hard copy of Little Women, a paperback I got for my son when he became enamored of the movie (with Winona Ryder) one Christmas season. (I don’t think he read it, though, as the binding was very tight, until, alas, I broke it, but now I am not straining to read in the gutter, so to speak.) And I was eager to re-read this novel after seeing the new film version this Christmas season, directed by Greta Gerwig. But you can easily find e-book versions at the library, along with Little Men and Jo’s Boys, so I might try those as our “shelter in place” continues.

So many wonderful details from the book are coming back so vividly from my first reading! Others I had forgotten: for instance, that the sisters had girlfriends in the neighborhood who attended their little plays. And that they went on a picnic with Laurie’s British friends and played croquet. That is, there’s not as much “social distancing” in Little Women as I had remembered.

Ah, but I know what’s coming next in the plot: Beth’s visit to a house with illness in it. Again, the pertinence of Little Women.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

My First E-Book

I read my first e-book, The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, for my book club. I had recently read/re-read The Handmaid’s Tale, in hard copy, borrowed from the library, in preparation. It was high time I tried checking out an e-book, and now it’s the only way to check out a book, but I did it with some fumbling and trepidation. For the past couple of weeks, there are so many new sign-ins and passwords. I had to change my Facebook password, due to a recent surge of hacking. While some kinds of phone calls have stopped, I’m now being notified, in the voice of A.I., of lots of cash prizes I’ve won. The hackers and scammers have already discovered new opportunities and pounced on new vulnerable prey. That potential for doing harm and being harmed constant in humans is part of the plot of Testaments.

It was fascinating to re-encounter certain characters from The Handmaid’s Tale and meet the new ones. I appreciated the connections in structure between the two novels—testimony, academic lecture. And I heard the feminism, in waves, the sad wisdom, and both the awareness and lack of awareness in the young:

The Founders and the older Aunts had edges to them. They’d been moulded in an age before Gilead, they’d had struggles we had been spared, and these struggles had ground off the softness that might once have been there. But we hadn’t been forced to undergo such ordeals. We’d been protected, we hadn’t needed to deal with the harshness of the world at large. We were the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by the forbears. We were constantly reminded of this and told to be grateful for the absence of an unknown quantity. I’m afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia’s generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness abut them that we lacked.

I appreciated the complexity of some of the characters, the gray areas in the thinking. Like the “grey market” (not black market) for desired commodities. While this novel lays out a parallel history to our own, and an alternate present and presumed future, it could not have anticipated the current coronavirus crisis. Yet there is fever, there is fake news. And the ending made me cry.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Sleeping in Place

As we shelter in place, I see that many of my friends and online acquaintances are having trouble sleeping. And some are dealing with surges of depression and anxiety. My heart goes out to everyone in this. I go through periods of change in my sleep patterns, and, yes, I am in one now. My usual solution when I find myself awake in bed, and sense I am unlikely to go back to sleep, is to accept this and get up and go downstairs to read on the couch, where I fall asleep reading.

The new twist is that I may doze while reading on the couch, well before bedtime, and 1) just stay there or 2) go up to bed, find myself awake, and come back. This morning my husband greeted me with a kiss (ack! too close! social distancing! but we know we've already been too close and can't do anything about it now!) and the comment, "You are becoming one with that couch."

I arrange myself in various ways to 1) avoid a crick in the neck in the morning 2) have the bookmark fall into the right spot when I fall asleep and the book closes. Today I finished Rebecca Solnit's Recollections of My Nonexistence, which I wrote about yesterday. (Was it yesterday? I know I am not alone these days in losing track of what day it is.) I'm sure I'll share more about it, but this seemed particularly pertinent this morning:

So much of the work of writing happens when you are seemingly not working, made by that part of yourself you may not know and do not control, and when the work shows up like that your job is to get out of the way.

She describes my own experience of writing, and this also relates in a weird, funny way to my work-at-home situation. Generally, I worked in the morning at my library job and worked in the afternoon at home and on into the evening with my freelance writing and editing. There were clear distinctions in my day. Now it all folds together, alternating with physical tasks. I've structured things so I can keep track of actual hours for my "job job," and yesterday I worked too many hours, so today my "job is to get out of the way" for a bit!

Solnit was talking about the kind of writing that comes out quickly after a long time percolating:

The essay poured out with ease or rather tumbled out seemingly of its own accord. When this happens it means that the thoughts have long been gestating and writing is only a birth of what was already taking form out of sight.

OK, she used a birth metaphor, and I used an old-fashioned way of making coffee, but we understand each other, yes? This is a more rambling blog entry, I see. I have probably gotten way too far out of the way. Time to wake up and....

A big thank you to Bill Kemp, librarian at the McLean County Museum of History, for the photo of Abe Lincoln social distancing on a bench in front of the phrase "In this together." And a big thank you to the sidewalk chalkers!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Recollections of Reading

I am in the middle of Recollections of My Nonexistence, by Rebecca Solnit, a memoir. Recently I got myself paperback versions of her Hope in the Dark, to uplift me, and Men Explain Things To Me, to update myself on all that. I am staying calm, so far, in Recollections of My Nonexistence, despite the bad behavior of some men over time, in her life, in my life, and in history. Sigh…

I’m reading the hard copy, sheltered in place at home, and now I realize my library has an e-version, so go for it! Right now I am enjoying her reflections on reading in general—how it is not so much escape as immersion in other lives and a way to develop empathy. 

Here is her description of reading as an experience, a kind of transformation:

There is something astonishing about reading, about that suspension of your own time and place to travel into others’. It’s a way of disappearing from where you are—not quite entering the author’s mind but engaging with it so that something arises between your mind and hers. You translate words into your own images, faces, places, light and shade and sound and emotion. A world arises in your head that you have built at the author’s behest, and when you’re present in that world you’re absent from your own.

So if you feel absent from your own (former) life now, you might choose a book to be present in for a time. Solnit has made me want to read Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather, “in which the ambitious, amorous, extraordinarily talented heroine is not punished” as women are so often in books by men, or by women overly influenced by patriarchy. 

Fortunately, Song of the Lark is available in e-book form at my library, too!

Monday, March 23, 2020


What a haunting and mysterious novel this is, Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. I read a hard copy with this cover—foggy and mysterious—and you can find the ebook with the blue cover below. I love how sometimes it is OK to judge a book by its cover!

Warlight is set right after World War II, in 1945, with war’s effects all around. Two children—Nathaniel and Rachel—are left behind by their parents with very interesting guardians, caretakers, visitors…but why? What are their parents doing? What does it mean when their mother, Rose, returns? Why has her life changed so dramatically at times? How will the children cope—and survive? At the start, Nathaniel, the son, is the 14-year-old narrator, putting together the puzzle pieces as best he can. At times, the point of view switches to third-person limited omniscient, to move us gently into another perspective, in a kind of, well, warlight atmosphere. Or is it still Nathaniel, once removed, as he does grow up in the novel…?

This is one of those books of great beauty. On the one hand, it can have a simple narrative style, suited to the point-of-view character; on the other hand, it’s the quiet, poetic mastery of Michael Ondaatje. I connected to it in a strangely personal way, despite it being historical fiction, and that reinforced my sense that good literature is so often the perfect blend of personal and universal. Here’s my example. I connected to this description of Rose, remembered through Marsh Felon, a man in her past who knew her as a child and now yearns for her as a woman:

He wants her in his world. He knows nothing about her adult life, that she was, for instance, hesitant and shy longer than was perhaps usual, till she stepped towards what she desired with a determination from which none could prise her away—a habit she will always have, that pattern of hesitancy at first and then complete involvement—just as later on, in the coming years, nothing will draw her away from Felon, no logic of her husband, not even the responsibility of her two children.

I connect particularly with “hesitant and shy longer than was perhaps usual” and then with the determination, and “that pattern of hesitancy at first and then complete involvement,” though I couldn’t give up my responsibility to my own two children, as she did. Or did she? And look at how that voice sort of hovers in the fog and warlight. Who exactly is seeing this, interpreting Rose? Felon doesn’t know about her adult life, it says, yet he’s the one wanting her, remembering her, seeing her again. That’s the foggy thing about the point of view.

And here’s the great universal question that stuck out for me: “Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?” I have asked that question many times.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Hunker at Home

Relatives and friends of mine live in areas with official “shelter in place” status, so I am worried about them—and about us all!—and respectful of their strictures. Here in central Illinois, it is more of a “hunker at home” situation, for now, though the first local case of Covid-19 was announced this afternoon, so it is among us. Governor J.B. Pritzker just held a press conference to update everyone, and said he is considering the “shelter in place” option every day. 

I was so impressed with him and with Dr. Ngoke Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Health, for their earnest concern, their sharing of info, and their willingness to answer questions from reporters—in a virtual format. The only disconcerting part was watching what looked like more than ten people then exit the room, much closer than 3-6 feet apart, none of them in gloves, all touching the same door/door handle. Sigh….

For now, I am working at home on various things—writing and/or library related—and alternating these tasks with household tasks and reading, all to keep the body moving and the worry away. But Worry is not so good at “social distancing.” It sometimes gets in my face and my brain and my chest, a little pinch there when I try to sleep at night, so I get up and read myself back to sleep. It’s hard to stay focused, I lose track of the time and what day it is, and I feel so cold in the house—which always happens at this time of year, the transition to spring, before it truly warms up.

My local friends and my online friends are stressed, anxious, scared, worried about jobs as well as health, worried about kids and parents. We are all going through this together, and I see so much kindness. Sadly, I see judgmental comments, too, and hear about mean comments. Goodness, we need to be patient with each other as well as the situation! And I also appreciate the humor—dark humor, gentle humor, wacky humor. And the wine. I didn’t hoard it. So it will run out. Maybe before I do!

But I did go out walking, on the last sunny day we had. It was Election Day, and I voted. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and I didn’t do anything particularly Irish. I did wear green gloves at the polling place. I walked the local rails-to-trails hiking/biking path, and was pleased to see so many people out. We kept our distance, but most of us greeted each other with a nod or a smile. (Except that guy coughing in the shelter. We all stayed away from him. A young man, fiddling with his phone.) And I walked the labyrinth behind the cancer center, no one else there. I let my mind go where it would, and it went everywhere, and back. Just like the labyrinth.

Hang in there, everybody! Hunker at home. My heart goes out to you!

Friday, February 28, 2020

Poets on Prozac

This book gripped me: Poets on Prozac, edited by Richard M. Berlin, a set of essays by various poets on Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process. I checked it out of the library because it's what came up when I searched for work by Denise Duhamel, who judged the 2019 Patricia Dobler Award. She's a poet I have admired for many years when I encountered her work in journals, and now I have also acquired some of her recent books of poetry, all as "homework" for when I get to meet her in April at a reading, as this year I actually won the contest! I have entered in previous years and also recommended this contest to other eligible writers--women over forty who have not yet published a full-length book of poems. Chapbooks are OK. If you qualify, consider this another recommendation!

I learned a lot about many things and was delighted to find in this book two of our Escape Into Life poets, Ren Powell and Martha Silano, as well as Chase Twichell, whose book The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, co-edited with Robin Behn, sits on a shelf above my computer, ready to grab when I need a creative push. I used it when I was teaching, and I use it now.

I always love to read about a poet's process, and Poets on Prozac*, has the added interest of how mental illness, whether temporary or permanent, chronic or intermittent, and the treatment or medication for it affects the writing. Excerpts and whole poems are provided in this context, and the authors include mental health professionals who write poems.

*Not everyone was on Prozac, but it was so interesting to see the lists of what people had tried, looking for the right dosage, combination, relief from pain and anxiety. It was hard to put this book down, so I read it with intense concentration, and now, as in Andy and the Lion,  by James Daugherty, it will have to go back to the library!

Wednesday, February 26, 2020


I can neither spell it nor pronounce it without help, but I can eat it! With help. I got a box of 4 paczki in time for the real Fat Tuesday, yesterday, to comfort my sick husband, whose appetite was returning (!), and today I learned about Fat Thursday (last week), a Polish/Polish Chicago tradition. Sadly, I missed timing this post to either of the correct days, even though "Fat Tuesday" is one of the "Eight Days a Week" of this actual blog! We got Bavarian cream paczki, but now I want to try all the flavors mentioned in the WTTW article. Recently, I learned of the many flavors of Kit Kat bars & confections in Japan in an essay in this book, so I want to try those, too. I also heard a nice NPR story on paczki yesterday, and read all the pronunciations on our box from the local grocery-store bakery. Attempting to spell paczki just now, I got Ed Paschke, the Chicago artist of Polish descent, who may well be named, somehow, for the sweet, yes? As Paschke seems like one of the pronunciations on the box, along with Pooch-key. Sigh... It's Wednesday, the Hump of the Week.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Venus Flytrap

Between volleyball matches, at last weekend's intercity tournament and this weekend's invitational tournament, I continued to read Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver, and finished it this morning. I was sensing that one of the characters, Mary Treat, who wrote letters to Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, must be a real person, and she was! A naturalist who has plants and ants named after her! I liked her a lot. In the novel, she lets a Venus flytrap gnaw on her finger.

It was a lovely, busy, birthday week for me. The Poetry is Normal open mic at the library resumed for 2020. Our overall theme this year is life itself, its major events, starting with Birth, and, delightfully, our first date coincided with my actual birthday. People read poems on and mostly-on theme, by themselves or others. I gave away candy and books. Our next theme is Childhood, in April, National Poetry Month.

A lovely child named Dusty is born into grief in Unsheltered and is almost ready to walk right into joy at the end.

And look at this beautiful photo, by Noah Elhardt, of the kind of plant, a sundew, that Mary Treat observed and drew. Watch out. It's eating some damselflies.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Love & Volleyball

Sadly, Russia is the main reader of my blog this weekend. I'm pretty sure that means bots, trolls, attempted election tampering coming up. Because why else would Russia be interested in my poetry/what I am reading blog? I am now reading Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver. So I'm feeling a little unsheltered, thanks to empathy (and Russia). On p. 12 I found this: "Marriages tend to harden like arteries, and she and Iano were more than thirty years into this one. This evening he would come in the door like a blast of warm weather, give her a kiss in the kitchen before changing out of his office clothes, and they'd have no chance to talk before dinner."

It's Valentine's weekend. My husband and I have been married "more than thirty years" (although we tend to forget our anniversary). Yesterday, actual Valentine's Day, he came through the garage-to-kitchen door with a blast of cold weather, gave me a kiss and a volleyball summary, and went to change out of his coach clothes before our lack of dinner, as he had eaten in the coaches' hospitality room, and I had eaten a late lunch after visiting the endodontist, who took a picture of my successful root canal of a year ago. This is our life.

Today, I went to see part of the intercity volleyball tournament--a fantastic setter, both excellent and lackluster playing, a loss by my husband's team. Before his girls played, we watched a couple matches side by side--his team asking, "Coach, who's this?" "Wife," we both replied. (They don't know I'm in the stands for their home games.) When it was time to get ready he reached into his bag for his roster and pulled out my chapbook Spiritual Midwifery. (The cover is based on one of his paintings.)

"Your second poem always makes me cry," he said. The title poem, it's about a baby who died before it's about a baby who lived. "The last time, I couldn't make it past that poem."

"You carry my book in your volleyball bag?"

"Something to read," he said. We both teared up a little in the stands, the ref blowing her whistle. This is our life.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Just Mercy

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, is such a good book. My sister told me about this book a few years ago, when everyone on her campus read it and brought the author there to speak. It's heartbreaking and makes me want to be an activist for prison reform and against capital punishment, but I imagine there are lawyers and activists like Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, who are way more qualified and already well into it. So I'll just keep working in smaller ways at the local level toward the kind of community awareness that is needed.

I have not yet seen the movie based on this book, but I have seen the preview! And am eager to see the film and how they've adapted the material, which spans many years and many cases. Such patience! So many complications in the legal and criminal justice system, all clogged up further by racism. And yet the book itself is so clear, moves swiftly, breaks the heart, mends it with compassion.

Our columnist Basel Al-Aswad, whose birthday is today (!), wrote about this book at Escape Into Life. And my book group is reading it and will discuss it later this month.

And we have many valentines for you over at EIL--love poems and bug poems! Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Dutch House

My friend Kim recommended the book The Dutch House to me--by Ann Patchett--and I just finished it.  I was struck, on p. 287, by the phrase "she could have been anyone's mother, but she was mine." I recognized it! I had written it, I thought, though in the present tense, in a poem, a poem my own mother loves. It was one of those odd, slightly scary moments--a mix of fear of plagiarism and the delightful shock of recognition of an emotional or psychological truth.

My poem, "Local Patterns," was published way back in 2011 in Soundzine, an online magazine, that appears not to exist anymore. The link I had for it connects to a danger message. Then it was published as the "L" poem in my chapbook ABCs of Women's Work, published by Red Bird in 2015. The Dutch House was published in 2019, so this is 1) coincidence and/or 2) nothing I need to fear! Which is not to say that I think Ann Patchett somehow read my poem and echoed me. No, it's a strange little frisson that wiggles through me. And then to realize we have somehow echoed each other is a comfort, in various ways.

I love this book--the quiet mystery, the intricate family relationships, the love and compassion.

And here is my poem:

Local Patterns

A man and a woman walk miles together
on sand, luminous shell.

What made them last?
What made them wash up whole?

In winter, a train pauses beside golden weeds, nothing
blooming, patchy snow.

Nobody needs to get anywhere fast. 
Who told us to strive?

Broken open in the spring
a seedpod reveals

the local patterns of the wind.
A scientist draws that picture with a stylus

on a pad, and now we know
what that picture looks like.

On a shelf over my desk is a photograph
of my mother before I knew her,

looking back over her dark shoulder,
smiling, the corner creased.

She could be anyone’s mother,
but she is mine.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Red, White & Bwuuhaha!

Well, that was fun! If you need a break from impeachment proceedings, caucus debacles, 2020 election anxiety, and general worry about the dire state that American democracy is in, you can read about a romance/sex scandal in a parallel American political universe: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. It is very funny, very sexy, and I learned a lot. For instance, I learned on p. 288 of my paperback copy (pictured here) that the King James Bible "exists...because the Church of England was so displeased with James for flaunting his relationship with [George] Villiers that he had the translation commissioned to appease them." That's James I, and the King James Bible is my favorite translation still, now all the more so with this tidbit of info...gotten from a novel, so is it trustworthy? I hope so, 'cause it's a good one. Who gnu, as I like to ask. McQuiston knew, and lots of historians, and Wikipedia knows, acknowledging that "James's sexuality is a matter of dispute." Who cares? We got a good Bible out of it!

I saw part of the Friday debate via YouTube and New York Times video after attending local junior high volleyball. (ABC doesn't come in on my TV most of the time.) So I know that Amy got after Pete for chatting up people on the campaign about needing a break from Senate impeachment proceedings. See casual comment above that starts my blog. Mea culpa. I like Amy, and I have her hat. I like Pete, too! I really want all the current candidates to be somehow part of the next administration! What Would Lincoln Do? What Would Obama Do? That, I think. Invite everyone to the table. (Speaking of the King James Bible, that's also what Jesus would do.) But Amy is right that it's serious business, those Senate proceedings, and what responsible legislators do do! (Oops, I said "do do.")

And, speaking (earlier) of Waiting for Godot on Groundhog's Day, and in Sarajevo, I saw our local production of Waiting for Godot last night. There was a full moon onstage and in the actual sky, perfect night to see it. Members of the audience who are suffering from 2020 election anxiety felt it resonating in that way! An endless, devastating waiting...for what, for what?!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

I Know That I Know Nothing

In the middle of the night I woke up and finished Sontag, by Benjamin Moser. It was really good, but slow going, as it is a fat book. Sort of like a beautiful hike in thick snow.* Susan Sontag was a fascinating woman, that's for sure, full of inconsistencies. I even read the notes, finding this gem, a comment by photographer Lisette Model on Sontag's book On Photography: "It is a book by a woman who knows everything and understands nothing."

*Sontag might not like my comparison, as she was "against metaphor" (in her book Against Metaphor) but, as I learned in Moser's book, sometimes not even able to recognize metaphors in other people's writing--one of the odd inconsistencies!

This morning I know nothing and understand nothing about the results of the Iowa caucuses and what went wrong in reporting them. That is, I know what's been reported but not the full truth, nor the actual results. It seems we will find out later today on this Fat (Book) Tuesday!

Here is John Weir's Susan Sontag story, "Hiding the Body," in World Literature Today.

Susan Sontag did understand masks. There was Susan Sontag and "Susan Sontag," the persona-public figure. Art was her salvation.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Waiting for Godot on Groundhog's Day

Can you imagine that? Waiting for Godot, forever, over and over again, on Groundhog's Day, the way Bill Murray has to repeat his day until he gets it right? Hey, has Bill Murray ever done the play Waiting for Godot? I do not know and don't have time to Google it before church, on Candlemas Day, which, according to this CNN article, is the origin of Groundhog's Day! The article also tells us that the groundhog in Pennsylvania predicts an early spring. It's sunny here in Illinois, so I guess we get six more weeks of winter. (And I guess we'll find out whether some people would like to repeat this Super Bowl Sunday until they get it right, but then they will have to watch all those political commercials over and over...)

OK, what I wanted to tell you was how, once again, I am reading a book at exactly the right time. This week I will go see Waiting for Godot at Heartland Theatre, and this morning, in Sontag, I am reading about Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo. Susan Sontag directed a production of Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, during terrifying wartime conditions in Sarajevo in 1993, to help bring attention to the situation, where genocide was going on--"ethnic cleansing"--and the world was ignoring it, despite the Holocaust of World War II which we were never to forget. She did wake up the world and was appreciated for it; the plaza in front of Bosnia's National Theatre was named Susan Sontag Square in her honor. And she brought Annie Leibovitz there, to take pictures for Vanity Fair, which brought even more attention to Sarajevo. Then Sontag went home and continued to be annoying.

To make it a perfect Random Coinciday in the blog, my Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair has just arrived, my last issue, as any money formerly spent on renewals or subscriptions now goes to political candidates. Heads up, political candidates, all my "subscriptions" to you have also run out. But I'll be voting on March 17 and November 3, you can count on it! Which brings me back to Beckett. Or, rather, back to Benjamin Moser, author of Sontag, who says, "If a condition of the modern artist--of the modern person--is awareness that Godot will not be turning up, that does not mean that that person is not needed, cannot make some difference." That person--actor, director, reader, writer, voter--can! However invisible (see book cover) or meaningless we sometimes feel or seem.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Mutual UFO Network

It turns out the Mutual UFO Network is a real organization, but I'm talking about The Mutual UFO Network, a marvelous book of short stories by Lee Martin. In the title story, the narrator's father sells a sort of "fake news" to people who believe in UFOs. "In my own home, my parents operated a mail-order business called The Mutual UFO Network. My father transferred computer-generated images to videotape and created illusions of spaceships streaking across the night sky." He then sold his wares to people "who wanted proof that what they'd suspected all along was indeed true: there were visitors from other planets, and they were indeed watching us." I wonder what the real organization thinks about the book! Also, I see from the Wikipedia article that the founder of MUFON lived in Illinois, and so did Lee Martin for a time. Coincidence?

This is a beautiful book. The characters in it are deep and complicated, flawed and lovable anyway. They suffer, they hurt, they love, they misbehave, and then, amazingly, so many of them are so decent, so compassionate, so capable of change. These are stories about people who yearn for reparation, transformation, some way to do the right thing after, sometimes, doing the wrong thing. I read this at exactly the right time, as I am watching people obstinately doing the wrong thing when they could do the right thing. This book gives me hope. Yes, it's fiction, but it's realistic, not escapist or genre fiction, where things may turn out all right but not necessarily in a believable way, more in a formulaic way. Nothing formulaic here, just wonderfully organic meanderings (not manipulative twists) and (motivated) turns. I follow Lee Martin's blog, and you can, too. It's listed on the right of my blog here. He teaches at Ohio State University, and his blog gives generous and practical writing advice.

And I'm still reading Sontag, where AIDS has struck, in the early 1980s, and, true to form, Susan Sontag doesn't want her story about AIDS to be thought of as a story about AIDS. And she's not aware of new information about children of alcoholics, either, in a book by Janet B. Woititz, who sees adult children of alcoholics as stuck between "Always tell the truth" and "I don't want to know." As Sontag author Benjamin Moser summarizes, "She called the conflict between demanding the truth and not wanting to know it 'the greatest paradox.'" AKA denial.

What I see in Lee Martin and in many of his characters is deep acceptance. In the characters, it may come after a period of denial. Denial, or meth, or alcohol, or sex may blunt the suffering for a while, take the edge off, but the suffering is there underneath, raw and waiting. Martin as a writer has acceptance and character, and he allows his main characters to experience acceptance, which leads them to action. His characters acquire nobility. By being human.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Reading Sontag

I am reading Sontag, by Benjamin Moser. I'm reading slowly and steadily, aware that it will lead me to re-read On Photography, which is actually on my bookshelf, and Against Interpretation, which is not. Unless it is on a small bookshelf elsewhere in the house. I remember reading parts of it years ago, maybe in college? Maybe in my parents' house? Anyway, it's interesting to be looking at the decades of her life, some of which overlap my own, from the context of now, in the "hindsight is 2020" mode of the year 2020, as we begin it. Capitalist consumerism has indeed taken over and led to excesses of all sorts, down to the situation that puts us in the middle of impeachment proceedings, and the strange argument that a sitting president can do anything he wants to win an election. Uh oh. This just turned into a ran...dom coinciday! (And a Thor's Day in the blog.)

The image above is the book cover, its front and its spine. The cover portrait is a photo by Richard Avedon. Benjamin Moser understands Sontag by reading her journals, private, as well as her published works. Reading it gives me pause, as happens whenever I read a biography. I've kept a journal for thirty years. Do I ever want anyone to read it? Don't I keep it primarily to hold myself together? To vent? To keep track of things for personal reference? I think so. Whenever Moser mentions that Sontag barely mentioned her son David in her journals, I worry if anything I say about my kids, or omit, would cause them pain. When he notes that major political/historical events are occurring, and she's writing about herself, her personal woes, I think, yes, this is a personal diary! The other things can be discussed in public forums. Sigh...  And then I immerse myself again, grateful to see the intellectual and critical ideas of the age laid out so clearly.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but reading Sharon Olds's Arias has released something in me, and I've been writing a lot of new poems! Olds writes about anything--troubled family relationships, her mother who beat her, sex, death, childbirth, the intense love of one's children, scattering ashes, how California got made tectonically, etc.--so she probably gives me "permission" to write about anything, too! Or sing (in the shower, arias) about anything!! And I have to say I like the coincidence of how the black-and-white book cover matches that of Hope in the Dark!

Other random coincidii:

In the novel I just read, Right After the Weather, the main character has lost a couple fingers in a woodworking accident. In the French television series we are watching on Netflix, the main character has lost a couple fingers during a trauma of her past. The TV series is called Zone Blanche, for a "dead zone" of cell service, which is translated as Black Spot. Instead of White Zone or Blank Zone or Dead Zone.

Because of the eerie, supernatural power of the forest, it was reminding us of a series set in South America, Green Frontier, on Netflix. Maybe these are indeed versions of the same thing?And I just noticed the profiles up the river... Were they there all along as we watched the show? Ack! It may seem like I am escaping the news about impeachment and gun rallies. Could be. This afternoon I am escaping via junior high volleyball.

And Sontag, by Benjamin Moser, a really fat book. On a Fat Tuesday in the blog.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Right After the Weather

I finished reading Falter, by Bill McKibben, and learned a lot! I learned more about cryonics and the desire of the super-rich to live forever than I had heretofore picked up via popular culture and Fututama. I enjoyed McKibben's use of the hookworm as a metaphor for a disease that has struck the rich: "We need to diagnose the intellectual and spiritual hookworm that has entered their bodies and attached itself to their brains." That hookworm turns out to be Ayn Rand! I was amazed at how many people in high places are hooked on Ayn Rand. I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as an adolescent, on the recommendation of my uncle, and now I understand him a little better. Sadly, he's dead, and Rand's influence seems not to have helped him live a better, longer life. (Cigarettes.) I guess I thought she was mostly an adolescent fixation, and people outgrew her, like I did. I guess not.

After Falter-ing, I'll need to read Dark Money, by Jane Mayer, but I don't really want to know more about dark money than Falter taught me, alas. And I discovered that I had already read the futurist and A.I. materials that might come next after these ideas. Instead, though, I turned to a novel for relief...though it grappled with difficult stuff to learn about being human, too: Right After the Weather, by Carol Anshaw. I was attracted to it because its main character is a set designer in Chicago! It was a good read.

Speaking of the weather, bitter winter has arrived! So has the first poem of the new year, which has a little snow in it. And a boombox. And Cole Porter. And that reminds me that I want to hear Harry Connick, Jr. sing the songs of Cole Porter on his new album, True Love. And to read Sontag, by Benjamin Moser, a new biography that awaits me at the library. So much to read, such a nice soft corner of the couch to read it in!

Saturday, January 11, 2020


I am reading Falter, by Bill McKibben, at exactly the right time: right after Hope in the Dark and Men Explain Things to Me, both by Rebecca Solnit, who mentions him, as they are active together in trying to save the world...and, I hope, in time to save the world.

McKibben's subtitle, Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, is an important question, and might mean there isn't time, but, like Solnit, he approaches the complexity of climate change with great hope and as a realist, not an optimist or a pessimist. So I hope to learn a lot.

I am reading it on a Slattern Day (in the blog), after doing a lot of housework these past few days, post-holiday. My daughter and her boyfriend left last weekend, and my son left on Tuesday, and I took down the Christmas tree the very next day. A bit of a sentimental slattern, I should confess that this was the same Christmas tree that was up and decorated since the previous Christmas. It was my hope in the dark all last year. No doubt I will do a bit more housework yet today, rousing myself from rest and reading, because it's still there to do. It has occurred to me that I should wear kneepads for cleaning the toilets. TMI?

I just finished reading No Crybabies Allowed, a delightful memoir of the first 12 years of her life by Terri Ryburn. I'm in a writing group with Terri and went to her book release reading on December 29 at Ryburn Place, her shop in the restored Sprague Super Service, along the 1926 configuration of Route 66. She also wrote a book about Route 66! Her memoir is in vignette style, and I have heard her read or tell excerpts from it before, and she is a stand-up comedian, so there's a lot of humor here, and poignancy. This volume ends in Oregon with a sneak preview of Volume 2. You can get it at her shop or on Amazon.

My fingerprints are faltering. My work with paper, plastic sleeves, booktape, and glue-dissolving cleansers--plus, probably, age and dryness--is apparently rubbing them off. This poses a wee bit of a problem as we set up my new phone to recognize my faltering fingerprint! My son tells me my brother has the same problem because he is a lawyer, and lawyers handle lots of paper. Who gnu?!

Monday, January 6, 2020

What I Meant to Write Yesterday

A clipping* from a Hilton Als review in The New Yorker has been sitting on my computer desk for a long time. It’s a theatre review titled “Frozen” about a revival of The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill. It’s from the May 7, 2018 issue, but it hasn’t been sitting by my desk that long—only since my mom passed several issues along to me to read before recycling. I was struck by Als’s reverence for one young actor’s fine acting.

Als describes the kind of acting I like to see, I hope do, and, when I teach or direct, try to encourage or inspire…or at least explain. Sometimes I try to describe it via difference, or, to put it in a dramatic conflict form, as Acting vs Performing. Some actors are mainly performers—maybe with great skill and panache—but still “acting,” not acting, still performing. They may prefer performing to acting, it may feel more fun and/or more secure; it may seem to get them more jobs, since it’s a way of calling attention to themselves, and sometimes audiences don’t really see the difference. But many audience members do, and some directors do, and other actors, and critics like this one. Here, praising Austin Butler, Hilton Als beautifully explains the acting vs performing thing:

Most performers want to be seen at any cost, but actors—at least those as good as Butler—are both determined and relaxed in their ambition to do justice to the playwright’s text while contributing to the life of the story. Butler, making his Broadway debut... illustrates, the moment he takes the stage, the difference between the two. …[H]e conveys, through economy of movement and facial expression, what many of his cast-mates try to show by shouting and grandstanding: his character’s inner life.

I loved the little moment during the Golden Globes last night when Fleabag writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge made fun of herself while praising her director even though she was the writer and thought a scene was meant to go a certain way. How lovely that she could try a little harder and see another way of making it work!

Here is Hilton Als again on the issue, still in the context of The Iceman Cometh:

It’s always a pity when an actor cynically sticks to what he knows will work and leaves it at that. It’s an ungenerous impulse not to try harder than one has to, and it pinches the spectator’s heart. But Butler is the opposite of cynical. He wants to do right by O’Neill, his director, and his fellow-players. And, no matter how much they bray around him, he stands his ground, reacting to what may be pure in them, as performers, with his own purity, the wellspring of his work, which is that of a potentially great artist.

Real acting gets real respect.

*And now I can recycle the clipping!

Sunday, January 5, 2020


It was fun to watch the Golden Globes tonight, and/or to cringe and wince at them. My favorite moments were:

1)      Ellen getting the Carol Burnett award, and Kate McKinnon introducing her!
2)      The Splenda/Stevia commercial. It’s funny, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said that…re: growing my own.

Segue to…recreational marijuana is now legal in my state, Illinois, as of January 1. Hmmm…

Now I really want to see Jojo Rabbit and Fleabag. And 1917. For the World War I centennial in 2018, I curated a film series of World War I movies at the library, and helped us stock many WWI films, old and new, so I feel ready for it, though it will be devastating. 
And especially troubling in the current context of WWIII predictions and worries. Let’s hang in there, my fellow humans. Let’s help save the world.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Two Popes

OMG, The Two Popes. I loved this movie. I watched it on the verge of tears, via Netflix, with my husband and son, a sort of surprise. We saw it on the evening we said goodbye to my daughter and her boyfriend, who return to Oregon tomorrow and their jobs on Monday. It’s been a lovely holiday. 

I joke about almost all movies I’ve seen lately, saying, “It’s a Christmas movie!” and I had to say the same about Little Women in the theatre this holiday season and just now about The Two Popes thanks to 1) the subject matter and 2) the fabulous red and white costumes of the Cardinals.

Why I loved The Two Popes: it’s funny, it’s deep, it’s well acted, it’s about the essential stuff: love, compassion, error, forgiveness, authenticity, the ability to change. And the two popes, who are real. It’s stylish, down to the credits. The music is terrific. The switches from color to black and white. Ratzinger/Anthony Hopkins reminds me of my dad.

I’m not Catholic. My husband is. He loved it and predicts Best Picture for this film. We’ve also seen The Irishman and Marriage Story. I’ve seen Little Women and Knives Out and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I haven’t seen Joker or Parasite or Judy or Just Mercy. Eventually I will. I love movies. I love to see the nominees before the awards come out. For many, many years, I did no such thing. Babies!*

My husband is Catholic, and Cuban. Today he received his Ancestry dot com results. I had given him an early Christmas gift and (forgotten 30th) anniversary (December 16) gift, and the results arrived via email today. It was exciting to see his ancestry map. Mine (seen earlier) was pretty much what I expected, mostly European/Eastern European, mostly Irish and Hungarian.

His was also as expected, though surprisingly rich. Mostly Spanish, as he knew his grandfather was from Spain, with Portugal in there, too. And half Indigenous American peoples (via Mexico) and French, based on his Cuban grandmother, descended from indigenous people and a Frenchman. I was the one who predicted Africa, and this appears to be true. So we are as mixed as we thought! Somehow it all fits in with The Two Popes.

*This baby is my grandniece, Lincoln, with her new Lincoln rubber duckie, a Christmas gift from me. Her mommy says she loves it and cries when he floats away.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

20 in 2020?

2019 was a slow year for writing and sending out poems. Some years I aim for 100 rejections which requires more than 100 submissions. This year I only sent out 21 submission packets, so I only achieved 8 rejections, with 5 acceptances, 3 publications already out, 2 publications pending, and 8 packets awaiting response. So if I aim for 20 in 2020, which sounds good, meaning either 20 submissions or 20 rejections, it seems reasonable, based on 2019. But who knows? 2020 promises to be a busy year in other ways, especially since I am still a precinct committeeperson, and on the ballot again on March 17, 2020, St. Patrick’s Day, with a big election coming in November. Let’s all hope for the best on that one!

Happy New Year from me and from Escape IntoLife…via Via Basel and Matthew Murrey!