Saturday, December 17, 2011

World Book Night

April 23, 2012, will be World Book Night. Until a few years ago, I had never heard of such a thing. But now I'm glad I did. World Book Night (WBN) started in the UK, and now it has arrived on our shores. The people who run this event have selected an array of 30 books. You can see the list here. If you sign up and/or are accepted to be part of WBN, you will select one of those 30 books, based on the fact that you loved it. The fine people of WBN will then arrange for you to receive 20 copies of that book, and on the night of 4/23/12 or thereabouts, you will go somewhere to distribute those books. Why? Because you love the book and you would like others to read it. In fact, you feel passionate about others reading that book.
     As soon as I read about this, I immediately wanted to do it. The catch, at least for me, is that you have to distribute the books to light or non-readers--that is people who do not necessarily gravitate toward books. The idea is, then, that the book distributors become missionaries of a kind, spreading the love of reading. The problem? As part of the application process, you have to propose the place you would go to distribute these books to light or non-readers, and I am having a hard time thinking where that might be.  I mean, we hear all the time about how nobody reads anymore and blah, blah, blah, but where do we go to find a bunch of those people all in one place.
 As soon as I started to try to figure this out, I ran into a myriad of assumptions. I talked to a friend of mine who runs therapy groups for women in the Chicago jail, and I thought that might be a good place. Not necessarily, she told me. Plenty of those women want to read; it's just that they don't have access to decent books. So . . . that's not necessarily the kind of place that WBN is looking for. Then I thought of PADS, the local organization that provides overnight housing and meals. But why would I assume that just because a person is homeless, s/he is a light or non-reader. And even if s/he is, would s/he then want to have to shlep a book around the streets? The high school? People are always saying that young people don't read anymore, but how weird does it seem to go to a well-endowed high school and hand out books? A more likely place would probably be a school or neighborhood on the West or South sides of Chicago, but I need to feel safe going there. I guess that most of the places I tend to go are full of readers.

     I'll be very curious to watch how this event develops and how people choose where to go to distribute and whether it's only me who find the question so complicated.


Thursday, December 8, 2011


I saw an interesting series of articles in the Guardian about the riots that occurred in England last summer. The pieces have titles like "Reading the Riots: Ask the Reason Why" and "Were the Riots about Race?" Not surprisingly, in the immediate aftermath, commentators and politicians were quick to attribute the massively destructive disturbances to race as well as to "common or garden looting or thieving." Now, however, after what sounds like a careful study by journalists in tandem with researchers from the London School of Economics, the understanding has deepened and complexified.
     Although some participants freely admitted taking advantage of the situation to accumulate "free stuff," only slightly more than half the crimes were "acquisitive." The researchers did not find evidence either that rival gangs were behind the rioting; in fact, they found a kind of unity and "morality" among the rioters. Nor, as had been assumed, did the majority have extensive criminal records. Nor should the events be thought of as race riots. Hostility toward police was a big motivator, especially because of their stop-and-search powers. As the overview article concluded . . .
Stop and search powers are used, in some forces, disproportionately against black people. There is a generation of young Muslims whose lives have been shaped by the war on terror. But what unites our interviewees is a sense of alienation. Barely half "felt part of British society". Race contributed to it, but more often it was poverty and a lack of hope. Among our respondents who were not in education or training, more than half were unemployed. Some of them even admitted they had used the riots to vandalise places where they'd been turned down for jobs.
 These ideas interest me, of course, because many of them are at the heart of my novel, Grand River and Joy. I appreciate the closer look into the dark heart of things. As the Guardian piece says, "our research is an attempt to explain, not to excuse."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


About 15 years ago, I wrote an essay about an experience I had on Halloween when among the trick or treaters at my front door was a man who asked me for money so he could take his kids out for hot dogs. I won't tell you how I responded to him, but the experience did lead to essay, and the piece was published in the Chicago Reader, a weekly alternative paper. I called the essay "What the Halloween Man Brought," but the Reader folks changed it to "What You Give and What You Get."
     The essay begins by telling the story of the man coming to my door, and then moves into my response right there at the moment as well as in the weeks that followed, as ruminating and perplexity are significant parts of my MO. Most of the essay is structured around the eight dimensions of charitable giving, as articulated by Maimonides, the twelfth-century Jewish scholar, in his Guide for the Perplexed. That's him right there.

Here is the list of eight dimensions: 
1. Giving reluctantly or with regret
2. Giving less than one should, but with grace.
3. Giving what one should, but only after being asked.
4. Giving before one is asked.
5. Giving without knowing who will receive it, though the recipient knows the identity of the giver.
6. Giving anonymously (the giver knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the giver).
7. Giving so that neither the giver nor receiver knows the identity of the other.
8. Helping another to become self-supporting.
For the past few years, my friend Tom, who teaches writing at College of DuPage has used this piece in his class. He likes it because it begins with an incident from real life and also sets out the process of reflecting on that incident and coming to write about it. Even better, it has a very visible and explicit structuring device (the eight dimensions). So it works well in his class (at least I think it does), and after the class has read and discussed the piece, Tom always has me come to his class to give a reading and engage in a discussion with the students. Every time I go to Tom's class, I have a great time, and come away very energized and impressed with the students. This year was no exception. I went a few days before Halloween, and I came equipped with a big plastic pumpkin full of candy.

As usual, the students were very lively, and their questions very thought-provoking, but they did not eat as much candy as I had hoped or expected.
     Anyway, the point of all this is that about a week ago, Tom emailed me an essay written by one of his students in response to my essay. The student is named Nathan Bassett, and his essay is completely wonderful and clever and funny, as he turned my whole thing on its head and called his "Eight Ways of Taking."
He structured his piece much like mine, including around the "eight ways":
1. Taking reluctantly or with regret.
2. Taking more than one should, but with grace.
3. Taking only what one needs.
4. Taking by guilting the giver into being a giver.
5. Being asked to take.
6. Taking what is lost or Ground Scoring.
7. Taking from an anonymous donator, benefactor, or spontaneous nudist.
8. Taking from another to become self supportive.
I'd love to find a way or a place to have the two pieces published together--to show what's possible and what can come of one small life incident, even all these years later. Ideas?

Friday, November 25, 2011


In my novel, I am working on a scene in which an act of magic occurs. I was going to call it a trick, but as soon as I wrote that here, I changed my mind because the word seems to diminish the act or experience or whatever it is. Whatever I call it, as I write and refine and shape this scene, I have been thinking about magic more, and more deeply, than I usually do.
     The thing I've been thinking has to do with the audience and the conflict I/we feel between wanting to know "how it's done"--to get behind the scenes and catch-out the "trick"--versus wanting magic to exist, to be a real thing that occurs in the world, to let go of our rational inquiring minds, to feel wonder, to submit.
I have seen magicians "do" things that seemed truly impossible--that defied laws of time/space/gravity. I have read discussions about the psychology of magic and the limits of human perceptions, including this definition of magic from the astounding Teller: “The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that — in our hearts — ought to.”
     The human mind is a mysterious thing--as is the human heart. We want to believe yet we don't want to be fooled. In writing a scene in which magic occurs, I don't have to contend with the laws of time/space/gravity in quite the way that a "real" magician does. After all, in the case of writing, it's all just dots on a page. But what could be more magical that that--creating a whole world built of dots on a page?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Blessing on the God/Muse Frustration

Last night on NPR, I heard the interview with Mark Kelly, husband of Gabrielle Giffords, about his wife's ongoing recovery. There is plenty to say about all of that, but my focus tonight is frustration, a discomfort that we are all familiar with.

Mark Kelly said that although his wife has made enormous strides since her traumatic brain injury last January, she gets frustrated with the slow progress and her limitations. Who can blame her? He also described a moment in the hospital when she first seemed to realize that she couldn't speak, and the terrible panic and agitation that overcame her. One can only imagine what that realization must have felt like.
     Here's the thing he said about frustration that struck me:
You know, she struggles. She gets frustrated. I have to remind her that that's a good thing.
You know, getting frustrated--from what I understand--is one of those things that's helped rebuild those connections in her brain, is that frustration. So we try to make sure that she's frustrated.
 Ah-ha, I thought, frustration as a motivator and a repairer. You're on the verge, says the frustrated brain, so hard at work. Go tear out your hair, but then get back to it. You're almost there. Don't abandon me now.

I wonder if it's always the hair they're tearing out because the hair is so close to the brain.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Some Colors

are just beyond words.
Oh you can say orange or red or purple. You can say brown. You can even get a little fancy and say fuchsia. But admit it, that does not even come close to what nature herself can pull off.

Several years ago, when I had a writing residency at Ragdale, an arts colony in Illinois, my friend Laura came to visit me one afternoon. It was early November, and I was working on my novel, Grand River and Joy. Ragdale sits on 55 acres of pristine prairie, and Laura and I went out to walk on some of those acres. We saw many beautiful sights along the way, including many beautiful leaf-colors.

I was telling Laura how hard it was, sometimes, to find the right words, to describe something--say, the color of a fall leaf. I told her that when I looked at the work of the visual artists in residence at Ragdale, I felt a little jealous, because they used color in a different way. They didn't have to find the words for it; they just put it out there. Of course, they might have to find the right color, or mix the right color, know color theory, and so on. But how does one find the words?

I still remember Laura holding a "red" leaf against her palm, so we could both ponder it. I don't remember what she said, but I remember that moment--one leaf against her palm. To illustrate the transformative magic of the creative process, here is how that experience showed up in my novel--toward the end of chapter 1.

The leaves would be clinging and falling and twirling along Outer Drive, the big boulevard that crossed Harry’s block, and adorning the grand houses, carpeting their lawns in colors so startling they had no names, unless you made them up—like raspberry parfait or Tropicana burnt orange, or translucent copper-pink.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cultural Diversity

To glean, in the strictest reading of the word, is to gather grain left behind by reapers. The Gleaners, above, is a painting by Jean-Francois Millet. The Gleaners and I is a documentary by Agnes Varda. As described in the New York Times in 2000, Varda "crisscrossed the French countryside with a hand-held digital video camera and a small production crew, in search of people who scavenge in potato fields, apple orchards and vineyards, as well as in urban markets and curbside trash depositories. Some are motivated by desperate need, others by disgust at the wastefulness all around them and others by an almost mystical desire to make works of art out of things -- castoff dolls, old refrigerators, windshield wipers -- that have been thrown away without a second thought."
     Yesterday, when I went for my walk, I took a trash bag with me, specifically to collect candy wrappers, as on the days following Halloween, this form of litter is particularly prominent. I do not put myself in the category of a gleaner in this sense, as I am not collecting for reuse but for appropriate disposal. Nonetheless, two women saw me pick something up, and one said, "You're picking up leaves. Why?" Which prompted me to explain, and them to exclaim, and they were visiting from New York, touring the Frank Lloyd Wright homes and so forth. I gave them some tips on where to eat and what to see in my town and in Chicago, and we parted ways.
     Now we come to the gleaning part of the story, and eventually to the cultural diversity. In my town, we have many ginko trees. I'm not going to get into a big research project about ginkos, but I do see from Wikipedia that they are an ancient form (around at the time of the dinosaurs), and the oldest ones are in Asia--China, Korea, and Japan. It does have an unusual and beautiful leaf.

Ginko trees come in male and female varieties. And in the fall, the female variety produces what the experts call a seed but what to me looks like a fruit.

That is an idealized portrait, I think. As they age and fall to the ground, which they do as autumn progresses and just before people step on them, they look more like this.

The odor of the mashed glop on the sidewalk is intensely musky, but that does not quite capture it. Some people say "stinko ginko." I wish I were better at describing odors, and right now, I wish I were better at describing that odor.
     About a month ago, my neighbor who has a large ginko tree on her side lawn told me that every fall, an Asian man knocks on her door and asks if he can collect the dropped ginko seeds. Of course, she always says yes because she is happy to have them gone before they all get smashed on her sidewalk and tracked into her house on people's shoe bottoms, perfuming her life.
     "What does he want them for?" I asked.
     "I don't know," she said. "They make some kind of food from it."
     Some blog reader will now tell me that they've known about this for years, and where have I been all my life, but that was the first I'd heard of it. Oh, I know that I could in one instant google to find out precisely what kind of food someone would make from those astonishingly fragrant seeds, and how they would go about it, and what fragrances would be wafting through the house as they did, and what the end result would be. But I'll just leave that task to someone else.
     In the meantime, twice since my neighbor told me about this (but never before that), while I was out walking, I saw an Asian woman (the same one twice), stooped down near a ginko tree, a small paper bag beside her, picking carefully through the grass and leaves, gleaning ginko seeds.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

On the Search for Lost Time

Last week, I had an emotional unraveling. I was going to call it a "meltdown," but then I reconsidered because that sounded a bit too glib, a bit too hip and happening. Not quite up to the task of describing this.
Maybe it was the dishabituation (see last week's post), an after-effect of having the blinders removed for a time. But I was sad, weepy, achy, frayed. "Where has the time gone?" was my lament. "Where have the years gone?" Everything was a mess. I had let everything go. My office was intolerable. My drawers were crammed with clothing and papers and memorabilia. I felt so ashamed.

Every thought brought more tears, tears overbrimming. For years, my MO had been to push through, work, ignore. For some reason, I could no longer do so. "Where have the years gone?" I asked again. "Where has the time gone?" "How have I come to this?"

If I were a chronically and/or clinically depressed person, I imagine that I would have been incapable of coming up with solutions--confiding my feelings to my husband, crying in his arms, cleaning out my drawers and rearranging my office, scaling back with a focus and energy I hadn't felt for a long time (again, the dishabituation?). If I were a chronically and/or clinically depressed person, I imagine that these feelings would not have dispersed so quickly. And I will not say that they have dispersed entirely. The memory hovers, of how difficult those few days were.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


"Habituation refers to a gradual reduction in the strength of a response due to repetitive stimulation. Looking, heart rate, and respiration may all decline, indicating a loss of interest. Once this has occurred, a new stimulus--some kind of change in the environment--causes responsiveness to return to a high level. This recovery is called dishabituation."
     This is a quote from one of Laura Berk's many child development books. Laura is a genius of the child development world, and I used to be her editor. Anyway, I've been thinking about her and habituation, but especially dishabituation.And here's why.
     Yesterday, I saw a woman pushing a dog in a wheelchair. No, it was not like the image below.

I have seen this sort of device before, and I do not know why it is referred to as a chair, as a chair seems to be something in which one sits. Maybe there is a technical name for that gizmo above, and I do not know it. When I googled "dog in wheelchair," however, images like the one above came up.
     No, the dog I saw was actually in the kind of wheelchair that humans use, and it was strapped in, with multiple straps, and these straps were truly needed, as the dog did seem to be in a semi-standing position. It was not a very high-quality chair either, so it could not have been particularly easy to push. The woman who was pushing the chair (and the dog) seemed to herself have trouble walking. She moved with a kind of rocking motion, as if she had some disability in the hip region and perhaps also in her ankles or feet. She had another dog on a leash walking beside her.
     Part of me wanted to greet her in some way as we approached each other--at least smile--to acknowledge the interesting sight. I wasn't sure I would actually want to say anything because, what would I say? "Nice dog"? Or "How did you come up with that?" I didn't want her to think I was making fun of her, because I have to confess that part of me felt it was a tad absurd. But just a tad. There was a large amount of devotion about the image as well.
     I did glance at her face, to see if I might see any receptivity there, in case I might decide to deliver at least a smile or a nod. But no. My impression (which I understand is entirely my own) was that she was self-conscious, fully aware that someone might want to make fun of her, and meant to keep to herself.
     Only a few blocks later, passing an apartment building I have passed likely thousands of times, I noticed for the first time that someone, years and years ago when this building was erected, had put some thought into the brickwork. Always before, it had just looked like a wall of bricks to me. Yesterday, however, I noticed a somewhat elaborate design. Not as elaborate or elegant as this.

Nor as marvelously skewed as this.

But still, each brick had a texture--horizontal ridges. And these ridges had been used in interesting ways--both vertically and horizontally to create a pattern in the wall that varied depending on location: around windows and doors, lower and higher.
     So I'm thinking that the woman pushing the dog in the wheelchair dishabituated my habituation, opening my eyes to a new detail in my world.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


It's not entirely true that I haven't posted in as long as it appears. I did write a post last week--about the Days of Awe--and when I came back here today to make a new post, I see that the Days of Awe post never made it onto the blog, or disappeared somehow into the ether with the Days of Awe themselves. But no complaining. No cursing technology. It's true my mind has been elsewhere and I have been remiss with the blog. Apologies to the universe and to any individuals within it who have missed my Wednesday posts. So here is a new one.

Today was an ambiguously rainy day. The kind where some people have umbrellas, and others seem to be doing fine without them. Some cars have the windshield wipers going, others have them on intermittent, and still others don't have them going at all. I was out for my usual midday walk, and I had my umbrella open for most of the time. It's true, I think, that the rain did pick up and trail off. During the last few blocks of the walk, the rain did not seem ambiguous, and I was glad to have my umbrella, which by the way, is a black one, but on the underside has a panel with blue sky and white clouds.

I like this umbrella a lot, but speaking of umbrellas reminds me of the wonderful little video I watched the other day about an umbrella and a woman. Please click on that link to have a lovely experience.
     Anyway, the thing that caught my attention on the walk was a man walking his dogs. They were some kind of skinny, leggy variety. I'm not a dog expert, so I can't say, and I don't want to spend a lot of time investigating, so for our purposes, I'll just say that they were greyhounds (even though I don't really think they were).

I'd seen the man walking ahead of me for quite some time (he didn't have an umbrella), but then I thought he got home, because he went up to a house, opened the door, and the dogs went inside. Just as he too was going inside, one of the dogs ran out of the house, and began to run away. The man came out to get it. He sounded very stern: "Ruben," he called, "Stop." Ruben did not stop. The man began to run after the dog. "Ruben," he shouted, "get back here." Ruben, I think, slowed down. Now the dog was "Ruby," and the man was no longer angry. He was sweet and playful, with that dog-caressing sound in his voice (you know what I mean). At this tone-change, Ruben/Ruby, who seemed to be considering the virtues of obedience, rejected the notion and ran away again.
     I was wondering, being a non-dog owner myself, whether the man had erred in switching from stern master to loving friend, because he seemed to make that switch several times, the stern voice getting the dog to stop, the switch, inspiring the dog to rebel. But the other thing I was thinking about was my husband's grandfather, whose name was Ruben and who was also called Ruby for short. Also that Ruben seems to be a very Jewish name, but that the skinny, leggy dog did not look Jewish at all (well it did have a big nose). I don't hear that name Ruben very often. And I thought my husband's grandfather was the only Ruben in the world who was also called Ruby.
     Live and learn, I suppose

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I think it was 2003 when I went to London with my family. On one of our Sundays, we went to Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. This is the place where anyone can come and try to attract an audience to listen to what they have to say. Those who want to take a stab at it bring something to stand on--a little step stool or some such--as it helps attract attention.
All kinds of people come, and they talk about all kinds of things. Some people dress up a little, to help attract attention. Some people are kind of marginal or nutty and talk about things like why we should all use olive oil. Other people make heavy-duty political arguments. It seems enormously democratic--the idea of having a voice if you want to use it. It actually reminds me a little of blogging. Each of us in our little space, saying what we like, hoping someone will listen.

My family and I were fascinated, and we stayed for a long time, listening to a lot of people. Some people seemed to be regulars, and have a regular audience. It's interesting to think about why some people get the bigger audiences. Same with bloggers. Some people put up a post and get hundreds of responses. Others get zero. Oh well.

As you might be able to imagine, in 2003, we heard lots of speakers dissing George W. Bush and America. One fellow, who seemed to be a regular and who attracted a good crowd, said that Bush was a demonic terrorist. Also, this speaker made several claims and generalizations about America or Americans. My family and I were standing in the crowd, and let me tell you, it was awkward and uncomfortable to feel lumped together with George Bush and US policy in this way.
     Near me were several African men. They had light scarring on their cheeks, which I recognized as African. Something about me must have been recognizable as American because one man reached over, gently placed his hand on my arm and said, "We know the difference between a country's policy and its people."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On the Occasion of Finally Understanding the Muse

The past few weeks, I have been waaaaaaay deep into revising my new novel--hoping that this is my last pass through the manuscript. If it is, off it then goes to the agent and from there, if the agent thinks it's ready, to an array of editors and a range of fates too numerous to mention. Once it leaves my hands, I have little if any control over it. But while it's in my hands, I am the lord and the master. Authors sometimes talk about the characters "taking over" and so forth (I know you've heard this), but Nabokov once said something along the lines of "No way. This is the one place in the world where I am fully in charge." No way anyone was going to boss him around.
     The thing is that with this kind of authority also comes responsibility--something wimpy types like myself may waffle over. It might sound good to be the decider, and I might not like the idea of others making decisions for me, but when I'm the decider, I have to decide. And stand by those decisions. Take responsibility. 
     Writing a novel, or creating anything, involves a practically infinite number of decisions--from the very small (where a comma will go, whether a verb will be in the past or present tense, what color a person's dress will be) to the medium size (how to describe a particular thought or emotion, to really get at its essence; how long to spend doing that; whether the character will say yes or no to the offer from the handsome stranger) to the large (will the character live or die?). And so on. This is where the Muse comes in. Or my new understanding of the concept.
The picture at the top of the post features the nine muses. Just above is a closeup of three of them. In many images of the muses, they are either very involved with each other (as in the top picture) or somewhat self-involved, as I think they are in this one. Maybe a better way to say it is that they have their own preoccupations. They are not necessarily thinking about ME.
     Sometimes when I am writing, the work flows in a way that I can only describe in mystical terms--as if guided by something outside me. Perhaps this is what people mean about characters taking over. But in my case, it's not a particular character but a whole rush of a scene or its meaning or its emotional core. When this is happening to me, it is not a matter of making decisions. Even the word "decisions" doesn't seem to fit. Too analytical. Too cold. The feeling is very warm and floaty. To me, this is the presence of the Muse. Someone or something both outside and inside and all around that is guiding the enterprise, lifting the weight and the agony of all those decisions from my shoulders. I do not need to wonder whether I have made the right choice. It is simply there before me. Oh, fickle Muse, why don't you visit more often?
    Muses come in many forms. I have talked about this on the blog before. Once I wrote about my mother--in pincurls, sitting at an old manual typewriter, a cigarette in an ashtray beside her--as my muse.

Every summer, Patry and I write about blueberries and bake blueberry pies for our muse(s). And one year, I came to think of the magnificent Sal as my muse. Now there's a muse who looks you right in the eye, even if she does wander off at crucial moments.