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Taking Down the Tree

January 6, 2016

Our revels now are ended. It seems that our actors were all spirits and are melted into air, Eleanor at the airport, and Walker at the door to his room in Russian House, quite suddenly, on Sunday afternoon. IMG_0024

Ron and I came home to a quiet house and bewildered cats, who thought that a warm body in every bed was going to be a great way to spend the winter. We ordered a pizza and watched a movie Eleanor had recommended, as a way to avoid sadly cleaning up the holiday leftovers and picking up the holiday mess right away.

IMG_0025And then on Monday morning we went to work and last evening I had a friend over to watch the end of season five of Supernatural, and now it’s morning again and the tea cart has some odds and ends left over and there are cat toys all over the floor and it’s Epiphany– time to undecorated the Christmas Tree. We used to take down the tree and clean up the house for New Year’s Day, but since we moved to Ohio and took the kids to an Episcopal church, we adopted the custom of celebrating the twelve days of Christmas as a way to delay the sadness of declaring the holidays over.

Jane Kenyon conveys this sadness in “Taking Down the Tree.”

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light, Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.

Taking down the outside Christmas lights, I fill up the bird feeder, getting us all prepared for extravagant darkness and cold.

I remember getting a demonstration at lunchtime one day while Eleanor was here of why the conversations at meals had gotten so logical and grave when she went off to college. We were discussing Daesh, and someone said it wasn’t a country and someone else said that was part of the point, that we didn’t formally recognize it as any kind of organization and while all this talk was going on, Eleanor made a quick hand gesture and asked “who dis?” which broke everybody up and took the conversation in a new direction.

Now that both kids are gone, the conversations get a little bit predictable, like the people who don’t tell jokes anymore but just refer to them by number. By suppertime, we’ll have cleaned out most of the leftovers and vacuumed up most of the needles from the carpet. We long for epiphany, but all we can see is more darkness ahead.

Textbombing

January 5, 2016

Walker started it, with his sidesplittingly funny first sentences for the children’s books category in Lie-brary. This past vacation he decided that first sentences weren’t enough, and so he began a form of parody we decided to call “textbombing” for entire children’s books. The first one was a Scooby Doo level two reader in which he turned the chase scenes into exercise pictures for Scooby and the gang, with the “monster” their physical trainer.

Eleanor and her friend Danielle continued the fun, taking one of Walker’s beloved Bug’s Life books, Cake Mountain, and turning it into a story about Satanic ritual.

Then Walker and I collaborated on a level one reader about Ant Man, turning it into a story about a man who has anger issues and hates robots.

The last textbombed book of the holiday season was a Thomas the Tank Engine level one reader that I turned into a story about how scary Thomas is. Since the parody is mine, I can share it with you.

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Isn’t this a great new art form? For the next few birthdays and special occasions, I think my family members will be creating thoughtful, home-made gifts for each other.

Did you have time to try out new hobbies during the holiday season?

Alexander Hamilton

January 4, 2016

I found a copy of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton at a bookstore in Columbus; it had a red circle on the cover that said “The Inspiration for the Hit Broadway Musical Hamilton.” So, like many other fans of the musical, I had to read it, even though biography is not one of my usual genres.

Fans of the musical will recognize several moments and turns of phrase, in addition to brushing up on their Revolutionary War history. I had largely forgotten, for instance, that “the British were unhinged by the colonists’ unorthodox fighting style and shocking failure to abide by gentlemanly rules of engagement” –that we won independence largely because of guerilla warfare. This, despite the lyrics of songs like “Stay Alive,” with Washington’s lines “Don’t engage, strike by night. Remain relentless ‘til their troops take flight” and “Yorktown,” where Hamilton sings “take the bullets out your gun…. we move undercover and we move as one.”

The biography is anything but dull, commenting in one section about Hamilton’s notes on his reading–which during his early days as an artillery captain was comprised of “a considerable amount of philosophy, including Bacon, Hobbes, Montaigne, and Cicero…. histories of Greece, Prussia, and France…. Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce…. the First Philippic of Demosthenes…. a six-volume set of Plutarch’s Lives”–to say that “it would come as no surprise that he would someday emerge as a first-rate constitutional scholar, an unsurpassed treasury secretary, and the protagonist of the first great sex scandal in American political history.”

I was amazed to find that Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica, while part of the racy circle that included the Prince Regent of England and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the playwright, compared the company of these “chill, gloomy Englishmen” unfavorably to the society of Washington and Hamilton. Reading the biography, it’s easy to understand Angelica’s adoration of her brother-in-law: “Hamilton’s appetite for information was bottomless.” Even his habitual antagonist Thomas Jefferson “never underestimated Hamilton’s superlative talents.” As Angelica sings in the musical, “so this is what it feels like to match wits with someone at your level!” Chernow convincingly shows that both Eliza and Alexander loved Angelica and missed her when she was in England with her husband, John Church.

The biography shows that Hamilton started out as a cautious rebel with a fear of anarchy. At the height of his powers, it shows him as a genius who created a financial system that no one else could possibly have imagined in such detail. Even Jefferson’s treasury secretary said that Hamilton “had done such an outstanding job as the first treasury secretary that he had turned the post into a sinecure for all future occupants.” It also shows how Hamilton acted as an abolitionist at every opportunity throughout his life and how publicity, during Hamilton’s lifetime and right after, affected his legacy:
“Slaveholding presidents from the south occupied the presidency for approximately fifty of the seventy-two years following Washington’s first inauguration. Many of these slaveholding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth.”

Chernow shows how Jefferson’s antagonism and better grasp of the power of publicity tarnished Hamilton’s fame and led him to responses that damaged his own reputation even farther: “Now something compulsive and uncontrollable appeared in his public behavior. A captive of his emotions, he revealed an irrepressible need to respond to attacks. Whenever he tried to suppress these emotions, they burst out and overwhelmed him.” This makes him seem very modern, I think, because he does not have the patience to be politic and play the careful game one often has to play in order to get ahead.

In addition, Chernow shows that “after Alexander Hamilton left the Treasury Department, he lost the strong, restraining hand of George Washington and the invaluable sense of tact and proportion that went with it. First as aide-de-camp and then as treasury secretary, Hamilton had been forced, as Washington’s representative, to take on some of his decorum. Now that he was no longer subordinate to Washington, Hamilton was even quicker to perceive threats, issue challenges, and take a high-handed tone in controversies. Some vital layer of inhibition disappeared.”

Stories of Aaron Burr’s friendship with Hamilton and his defense of him when James Monroe was threatening to challenge him to a duel, when only Burr “had the grace and decency to plead for fairness toward Hamilton” oddly foreshadow their ultimate confrontation. Fans of the musical who are also fans of the novel Tristram Shandy will be doubly chagrined to find that “while reading the scene in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in which the tenderhearted Uncle Toby picks up a fly and delicately places it outside a window instead of killing it, Burr is said to have remarked, ‘Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.’”

It was an enjoyable biography, especially read at night in bed during the holiday season, accompanied by the sounds of adult children coming and going. I had impetus to finish, because I promised that Eleanor could read it next and so I had to get through all of it before our revels were ended.

Uprooted

December 29, 2015

I got a little bogged down in the Temeraire novels after the first five, and so I didn’t rush to read Naomi Novik’s new fantasy novel Uprooted as soon as it came out. Eleanor gave it to me for Christmas, and I started reading it late one afternoon, paused to go watch the new Star Wars movie again, and finished it the next morning. It’s the kind of book I don’t necessarily want to read all in one sitting, because I like having a wonderful world in my head and wondering how it’s all going to come out.

Except that she’s a witch, I identified with the heroine of Uprooted, Agnieszka, because she attracts dirt like I do. My mother used to shake her head and say sadly, “Jeannie, dirt just falls on you.” She tells stories about dressing my younger brother and my cousin on holidays, and then dressing me last, hoping that there would be some clean places left by the time we got where we were going. Similarly, Agnieszka says:
“my mother despaired of me by the time I was twelve and let me run around in castoffs from my older brothers, except for feast days, when I was obliged to change only twenty minutes before we left the house, and then sit on the bench before our door until we walked to church. It was still even odds whether I’d make it to the village green without catching on some branch, or spattering myself with mud.”

The description of Agnieszka’s teacher trying to get her to do magic the right way almost brought tears to my eyes, so much did it remind me of the few times my mother tried to teach me to cook: “he tried to teach me as best he could, and to advise me in my blundering through….it offended his sense of the proper order of things that my slapdash workings did work, and he scowled as much when I was doing well as when I had made some evident mistake….How is that even working? he burst out, as he sometimes did when pressed past his limits by the obvious dreadfulness of my magic.”

Unlike me and my mother, however, Agnieszka and her teacher—the Dragon, as she first calls him, or Sarkan, as she comes to know him—learn to work together, her improvising and him providing the precision that makes their combined magic powerful.

The book is quite intricately plotted, with the history of Agnieszka’s village, the defenders of her kingdom, the places she played as a child and her best friend from childhood all acquiring importance as the story unfolds. It is a story within a previous story, too, which adds to the significance of the childhood friend’s, Kasia’s, observation that
“strange things always happened to you. You’d go into the forest and come back with fruit out of season, or flowers no one else had ever seen. When we were little, you always used to tell me stories the pines told you, until one day your brother sneered at you for playing make-believe, and you stopped. Even the way your clothes were always such a mess—you couldn’t get so dirty if you tried, and I knew you weren’t trying, you were never trying. I saw a branch reach out and snag your skirt once, really just reach out—“

Agnieszka looks through the books in the Dragon’s library and finds one that looks like a journal with spells that are more like lists of ingredients and suit her better than the elaborate and exact ones he has been trying to teach her. She finds out that the journal was written by “Jaga” (who turns out to be a Baba Yaga figure, although that is entirely outside the world of this story).

Some of the best parts are when Agnieszka finds out the actual facts behind the epic stories she has heard:
“That was when I realized that I already knew the story. I had heard it sung. Ludmila and the Enchanter, only in the song, the brave countess disguised herself as an old peasant woman and cooked and cleaned for the wizard who had stolen her husband’s heart, until she found it in his house locked inside a box, and she stole it back and saved him. My eyes prickled with hot tears. No one was enchanted beyond saving in the songs. The hero always saved them. There was no ugly moment in a dark cellar where the countess wept and cried out protest while three wizards put the count to death, and then made court politics out of it.”

A part I particularly liked was when Sarkan pulled out a book and Agnieszka wouldn’t touch it, causing him to say “yes, I know….It’s a necromantic text; it’s hideous.”

Oh, and the title–it keeps getting more and more relevant.

There is so much to like about this book that I don’t want to tell you much more about it and spoil your fun–the fun is immersing yourself in the world and letting it take you where it will, trusting that your heroine will choose the right path and you’ll be glad you followed her story to its magnificently happy end.

Homecoming

December 25, 2015

It is the year 2050. Eleanor and Walker are bringing their families home for Christmas via interplanetary shuttle to Cloud City on Venus, where their parents live in a comfortable low gravity retirement community. The kids love being able to bounce around their grandparents’ house, chasing the cats. At dinner, everyone lifts a glass and says “Schnucks!” before passing the cornbread dressing.

My picture of a good homecoming at Christmastime has always meant several generations crammed into one house, like in the Walton’s Christmas movie (“Homecoming”), the kind that makes a person miss the kind of Christmas they used to have with their parents in the good old days of years gone by, those years when we saw our siblings so often we could afford to quarrel with them.

Arriving home for Christmas, when I was very young, began with the crunch of our Missouri tires on my grandmother’s Arkansas gravel drive. Not once in my years of arriving did she fail to appear, hurrying down the steps from her front porch, hands dusting off on her apron, before we could get ourselves out of the car. She had made cookies and cakes and ham and turkey and the house smelled of it all. One year Santa brought me a Mary Poppins doll. I slept with my grandmother on the double bed in her spare room, made up with hot pink sheets that she always declared were “too loud” to sleep on.

For a good many years, my grandmother and my aunt and cousin came from Arkansas to our house in Missouri. We would play the piano and sing. My mother would have one entire counter filled with tins of cookies and fudge that she would bring out after supper. The tree was hung with birds and pears, and we would use my parents’ Waterford crystal glasses for Christmas dinner, the ones that only the two of them would wash by hand afterwards, in the kitchen where my cousin’s dog stayed when they came. On the day they left for Arkansas, we would go to St. Louis and out to dinner or to a play, so we wouldn’t have to be sad, left amidst the discarded wrapping paper.

Our first Christmas away from home, home came to us. We had an apartment in Rhode Island and one room had red carpet, so we taped a Christmas tree cut out of wrapping paper to the wall and put our presents in front of it. My parents and brother brought us fudge and sweaters and books to sustain us through the long New England winter, and made Arkansas cornbread dressing so it would smell like home.

We had Christmases with babies tucked up in a crib in the corner of my old bedroom or my brother’s and older children sleeping on cots or in the basement. Everybody had a stocking and there was room for them all on the long mantelpiece, along with the candlesticks with Chinese characters that my father always said probably read “I’ll sell this for too much to a stupid barbarian” in some obscure dialect. My father would make a fire in the fireplace on Christmas morning, and my mother and brother would taste the spices for the cornbread dressing, conferring.

There were a few Christmas mornings at the other grandparents’ house, where no matter how early you got up, it wasn’t too early, and there was often snow and birds to feed and stories about fishing on Arkansas lakes while we ate fried crappie.

We made a couple of quieter Christmases at our own house, with stockings for my parents and us and children and cats. There was one Christmas eve when an entire Playmobile spacehab had to be put together, and one when Eleanor asked her grandmother to tell her what Santa looked like, since she and grandfather were sleeping on the fold-out couch right in the living room in front of the fireplace. Walker was allowed to wake everyone up when it was 7 am, and he was always right on the dot.

We spent a few Christmases in Chicago and at my brother’s house, with a dog and a two-story-high Christmas tree and big-city museums and plays at some point in the trip. There was a final Christmas with my father, when we took him to see White Christmas, featuring the song he sang most often, “Blue Skies.”

This year I had an early homecoming with my mother, texting me in from the airport as her own mother would have liked to, I think, and then waving from her rehab room window as I pulled up in the parking lot.

We will have a small Christmas this year, with a new cat since the last time we hung our stockings here, and grown-up children beginning their own process of homecoming.

So, my grown-up children, here is what I know about homecoming: no matter how far you have to go to get there, home will always be the place where the people who love you best do some of the things you’ve always liked in an effort to erase the passage of time and make each Christmas the one you’ve always looked forward to most.

(This is my contribution to a family writing assignment; we all wrote about “homecoming” and read the results to each other on Christmas night.)

White Cat, Red Glove, Black Heart

December 21, 2015

A few years ago I read White Cat, a well-plotted and mostly self-contained YA story by Holly Black. In preparation for meeting her at ICFA this March, I’ve been reading everything by her that I hadn’t already read, and that turned out to include the two sequels to White Cat, Red Glove and Black Heart.

I started Red Glove in the airport on the way to see my mother. Cassel Sharpe is still at boarding school, still taking bets to make his pocket money, and still in love with Lila.

In Red Glove, Cassel is tracking down the killer of his brother Philip. I particularly like the description of Cassel’s mom’s entrance at Philip’s showing at the funeral parlor:
“The funeral director comes in with another mountain of flowers, Mom trailing him. She’s crying, mascara bleeding down her face theatrically as she points to the spot where he’s allowed to put the arrangement. Then, seeing Philip’s body for about the tenth time, she lets out a small shriek and half-collapses into a chair, sobbing into her handkerchief. A small group of women rushes over to comfort her….Mom’s putting on a show, but that doesn’t mean she’s not actually sad. It’s just that she isn’t letting her grief get in the way of her performance.”
Cassel seems very adult here, and also as he deals with the effects of Lila having been “worked” to believe she loves him:
“I want to reach out for her hand, but I don’t. It’s not fair. She’d have to take it.”

I started the last book, Black Heart, in the airport on the way back. These are excellent airplane books except that they’re such fast reads that if the flight had been longer than an hour, I’d have needed another book.

Cassel’s granddad, the “death worker,” continues to take care of him when he needs it, and gives him more fatherly advice, including that “first love’s the sweetest, but it doesn’t last.” When Cassel asks “not ever?” his granddad goes on to say that “when we fall that first time, we’re not really in love with the girl. We’ve in love with being in love. We’ve got no idea what she’s really about—or what she’s capable of. We’re in love with our idea of her and of who we become around her.” Cassel thinks about Lila, and decides that “when she came back, I had to see her the way she was—complicated, angry, and a lot more like me than I’d ever guessed. I might not know what Lila is capable of, but I know her.” His conclusion is that “love changes us, but we change how we love too.” This is the good part of any Holly Black novel, that even when her characters are running around saving the world and themselves from outlandish monsters, they derive their strength from getting to know themselves and their friends better, forming them into a group of allies they can trust at their back.

I love the way that, occasionally, what Cassel does at school echoes how he is feeling, like the day he says “I make it through my afternoon classes and try not to think about the morning ones I missed. About how close I am to getting chucked out of Wallingford. About how little I care. I try not to think about Lila.
At track practice I run in circles.”

With two crime families and one FBI unit all trying to attract his services and possibly trap him into various kinds of untenable situations, Cassel triumphs by using his powers in a way no one expects. With one clever plan he solves the problems, stays independent, and retains a good chance of getting the girl.

It’s a clever ending, for a very clever series of tales.

Hospital

December 15, 2015

After the hospital, my mother transferred to an assisted living facility that has a rehab wing with daily physical and occupational therapy for whatever injury has landed the person there. I visited for four days over this past weekend and learned the slow routines of the place.

Even on the busiest days, most of the patients spend the afternoons in their recliners, watching TV. Since I was there, I operated a CD player I’d brought for my mother and we listened to Hamilton, Spamalot, and the King’s College Choir singing Christmas Carols. I also brought her some books—whatever was available in the very thin Dover editions, because she can hold those in her one good hand. I decorated her room for Christmas/winter with a red snowflake blanket, some glittery snowflakes pinned to her bulletin board, and a gardenia plant in a red pot. The woman across the hall had a small Christmas tree in her room and a big wreath on her door, which were pretty, but I know my mom would rather look forward to spring than feel too thoroughly moved in to such a place.

She did let me go out and buy her some pillows. The ones that had been on her bed were hard and flat and in a very waterproof covering. I brought her some button-up-the-front short-sleeved shirts and one sweater from the Goodwill, since those are easiest for her to get on, and I got her some extra underwear, so the friend who has been coming in to get her laundry doesn’t have to worry about coming so often, especially since she won’t be in town during the week of Christmas.

For most meals, I wheeled her down the hallway to the dining room and got handed a plate of whatever they were having. It wasn’t bad, but as mom says, they could do a little more to make the plate look attractive to people with little appetite; many days the contents of the plate were entirely light brown/white (meatloaf with noodle salad and mashed potatoes, for instance). On the last day I spent there, a staff member came in and informed mom that she had to walk down to the dining room, which she did, with the help of a cane, a belt around her waist held by the staff member, and the wheelchair following along behind, in case she got tired. So they’re pushing her to do more, little by little.

The dining room seats twelve, and there was a rotating cast of about ten people during the four days of my visit. One day at lunch I met a man in a wheelchair who told me in great detail how he had been intending to burn some leaves, and he poured gasoline over them, tossed a lighted piece of paper into the pile, and “BOOM! I blew myself up!” he said. “Or rather down,” he then said, gesturing to the wheelchair. “Landed on my hip and busted it up.” My laughter was too loud for the very quiet room, and nobody else thought it was that funny, considering it had landed him there in the rehab unit, where clearly some of the residents would be as happy to go out feet first as go out on their own feet after the weeks of work it will take to get back to where they had been before falling or blowing themselves down or whatever.

Marianne Boruch’s poem “Hospital” captures some of the way a joke goes quiet sometimes in the face of a truth too big to be said out loud.

Hospital

It seems so—
I don’t know. It seems
as if the end of the world
has never happened in here.
No smoke, no
dizzy flaring except
those candles you can light
in the chapel for a quarter.
They last maybe an hour
before burning out.
And in this room
where we wait, I see
them pass, the surgical folk—
nurses, doctors, the guy who hangs up
the blood drop—ready for lunch,
their scrubs still starched into wrinkles,
a cheerful green or pale blue,
and the end of a joke, something
about a man who thought he could be—
what? I lose it
in their brief laughter.

Unlike some hospital staff, the people who work on the rehab wing are almost all impossibly kind and patient, no matter how querulous the person gets in the middle of the night or how brusque the request for information, medicine, or ice cream, all of which they offer as often as possible.

The staff at my mother’s orthopedist’s office got me a note stating that she cannot use the plane ticket we bought her to come to my house for Christmas, so maybe I can get a refund and use it to buy a ticket to come back to see her for her birthday in early January. Eleanor has a ticket to come home on Dec. 23. Walker has the annual collegiate chess tournament to host, starting on Dec. 26. We will be at my house, my brother will be at his in-laws’, and my mother will be mostly alone in her room on Christmas Day.

She asked me not to feel guilty, saying “It’s just a day.” She’ll open the gift bags I left for her to find more books and a chocolate Santa, a shawl to pull over the injured arm when she gets cold, and a silk scarf from the Metropolitan Museum of Art so she’ll have something beautiful that feels good against her skin.

It won’t be the end of the world; it will be just a day. She’ll get help taking her gifts out of the bags, talk on the phone with us, and eat some of the homemade toffee cookies I brought her. But it will be in a place where the end of the world has already happened.

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