Tuesday, March 31, 2009

It's Not Much. . .

. . .but it's the least I can do.

What, you might ask.

I have pondered what I can do in this uncertain economy. And I have lit upon a not very original strategy--I can buy locally as much as possible. And, the emphasis here is on BUY and LOCAL.

With money tight, and jobs shaky, it is natural to pull back, to stop spending completely. But that may be just the wrong thing to do.

I think of all the people whose services I use who will suffer if I stop buying. So, we still go out to eat--the servers need our tips.

I still get my occasional pedicure--the women who perform this wonderful service have small children and need to earn their modest incomes.


I get my haircut with the same regularity as always--the hairstylist still has her mortgage to pay.

And I am even trying to expand my support of local businesses. Tomorrow, our dog--who is sadly in need of some grooming--has a fur cut appointment. I have always bathed her, popping her in the tub, and then drying her with fur flying everywhere. This time, I contacted a locally owned small pet store that does dog grooming, and got Tipper a "beauty appointment." The dog washers have to live, too.

And when a local business man and his son walked around with paper flyers advertising help with yard work and home maintenance, I called. They will come later this week, and help gather up last fall's leaves, and trim dead branches from fir trees in the backyard.

These are small efforts, I realize, but each of the people I patronize in turn will have a bit more money with which to make their normal purchases. And bit by bit, we may all have an impact!
Anyone else have ideas how we can take incremental steps in this economic crisis? Anyone doing anything that makes you feel you are helping just a bit?


UPDATE: behold, the clean dog!

Note the suspicious look in Tipper's eyes. She hates it when I get the camera out. I don't know what she thinks I will do with the photos of her, but she is clearly on her guard.

The scarf around her neck, featuring Easter eggs, was temporary. It is now discarded.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Were I not a subscriber to the Daily Almanac, that Garrison Keillor brings, I would not have known of the convergence of birthdays today.

A more unlikely pair you cannot find, I think. Yet Flannery O'Connor and Gloria Steinem share a birthday today. And each has been a heroine to me.

I suspect many people who know me well would say I am a feminist. Yes, I am. But I am not a strident one. I never burned my bra, for example. If pressed to define what kind of feminist I am, I may just offer my life--upon graduating from college, and getting married, and starting a family--I never stopped working. I worked the year my son was born--he was born at the end of January, I took February off and then resumed teaching. When my daughter was born, I worked the day before she was born, took three months off and then returned to working.

So I guess I would say that I am a feminist in terms of life choices--not marching, not philosophizing, just being.

Gloria Steinem was/is a feminist heroine for me. She is a very attractive woman--belying the old myth that all feminists must be ugly (take that, Rush!). In fact, early in her career she was a Playboy bunny. That particular detail always horrified and amused me. She was/is whip smart. As the founder of Ms Magazine, she may have had as much influence on current populist feminism as any one person.

On the other end of the spectrum of this shared birthday is Flannery O'Connor. As a lit major in college, I came upon her darkly grim and humorous stories. I knew little of her life then, but in graduate school I did a lengthy paper on her and learned a bit. Flannery was painfully unattractive. And she suffered from lupus that would eventually rob her of mobility, and cause her premature death. She lived a somewhat solitary life, staying on the family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. After her father's death, it was just Flannery and her mother plus a menagerie that included peacocks.

With all of her writing done in the first half of the 20th century, her stories anticipated the kind of disassociation that characterizes literature of the 20th century. One of the most famous of her short stories "A Good Man is Hard to Find" has the kind of grim ending that we have almost come to expect with current movies--example No Country for Old Men.

Yet through all this dark view of humanity, Flannery was a fiercely devout Catholic, and you can find glimpses of the possibility of redemption everywhere in her fiction. Her body of writings is not extensive, since she died in 1964 at age 39. Yet she influenced many of today's writers.

Two of my heroines--born on the same day.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In A Wooded Glen

For the past several days, I have been away from home attending a national advisory committee meeting. This is the same group for which I traveled to California last fall, and to New Orleans a year plus ago.

Since we meet twice a year, we try to meet once in a location where we have helped with disaster response and recovery, and once in a location near our national church headquarters. This meeting was in a wooded glen, actually at Wooded Glen, a lovely retreat facility near Louisville, Kentucky where the PCUSA headquarters are located.

The winding road that you drive along to reach the lodge is still there. This is the road that I carefully inched my way down last year in the fog.

Since I remembered this time to bring a camera along, I can show you what the place looks like.


The view from my room window in the early morning.

The beginning of a lovely spring sunset.

A line-up of rocking chairs, just waiting for those meetings to end.

A pair of Canada geese on a small lake.

The checkerboard sets at the lodge!

The fireplace at the lodge.

I tend not to sleep particularly well when I am away from home. So I awoke one morning at 5 a.m., and listened to the marvelous sounds of the woods around me. I watched a quarter moon and its reflection dance off a small lake, and gazed at stars I rarely see with all the light pollution in central PA.

Another view of the small lake.

I also heard an early morning bird that sounded like a poor-will's widow--but not quite. I am not adept on bird calls, so it may have to remain a mystery.

As I drove away from the wooded glen, there was a glorious sunrise--the sky all washed with peachy pink glow, and a line of clouds around the perimeter of the sky made the entire sky glow. No fog to drive through this time. As lovely as the place is, I am now (gratefully) safely home.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hamlet Has Gone to the Dogs

Since I promised (did I?) a review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, here goes.

Take Shakespeare's play Hamlet, add a hefty dose of dog breeding and dog training and what do you have? The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

No kidding.

I wasn't that far into the book when I thought to myself--wait a minute, I know this story. Except for the main character's name being Edgar, instead of Hamlet, the parallels between this novel and Shakespeare's play are practically endless.

Let's do character names first. There is Edgar, the protagonist, his father Gar (presumably short for EdGAR) and his mother Trudy. In Hamlet, there is Hamlet, his father the Ghost (who you are told was old King Hamlet) and his mother Gertrude. There is Gar's brother Claude who has been away from the family homestead--the dog breeding place. In the play, there is the king's brother Claudius.

Of course, you remember Ophelia, the faithful long-suffering young woman who loved Hamlet beyond all reason. In the novel, that character is an extraordinary dog named Almondine. Two final characters linking are Dr. Papineau from the novel. He is a kindly, somewhat loquacious doctor. The mirror character from Hamlet is Polonius, a garrulous wind-bag of an old man who happens to be Ophelia's father. And there is also a mirror character in Papineau's son, Glen, who--like Polonius' son Laertes, tries to avenge his father's death.

With a tumbling host of dogs in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle there are plenty enough bit characters to fill up linkages to the various characters in Hamlet. One particular dog stands out--Forte. Forte is a legendary dog, mostly out of the time frame of the story. It just dawned on me, as I was doing these comparisons, that Forte is the mirror for Fortinbras, an important off-stage character for most of the play Hamlet.

Now to some plot elements. Where Hamlet begins with the father already dead, and haunting the castle at Elsinore, the novel begins with the story of Edgar's birth. Early on, the reader is informed that Edgar is born mute. I saw this detail as a wonderful twist on Hamlet's loquaciousness. Hamlet has more soliloquy lines than ANY other Shakespeare character.

When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Edgar and his mother naturally grieve. Edgar prefers to sleep in the barn close to the dogs, and one evening in a pouring rain, he sees a shape in the rain. The figure is of his father, who signs to him "remember me" and indicates that he may not have died a natural death. Oh, so like Hamlet. There, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father, learns from the ghost that he was poisoned by his brother Claudius.

In Hamlet, Claudius is motivated by desire to take over the kingdom, and the queen. So too in Edgar Sawtelle. Claude eventually moves in, taking over the dog breeding business, and proposing to Trudy.

Hamlet tries to get Claudius to confess his guilt by presenting a play that features the recreation of the poison scene. He enlists the aid of a troupe of players who are visiting the castle. When they enact the death scene, Claudius rises, pale, and flees the room. The parallel scene in the novel involves the dogs that Edgar has been training. In a rather elaborate scene, he sets up to have one dog carry a glass syringe, the presumed mechanism for Claude delivering the poison to Gar, and present it to another dog. Eventually, Edgar has one dog trot over to Claude to tag him with the syringe. Claude gets very angry, his reaction setting off a pivotal scene.

A pivotal scene in Hamlet is when he confronts his mother in her bedroom, accusing her for taking up with Claudius. When Hamlet sees movement in a curtain, he rushes at it, stabbing with his sword. Out falls Polonius. The parallel scene in Edgar Sawtelle is when Edgar is with his mother in the barn, and thinks he sees a figure--perhaps thinking it his father--he lunges at it, while holding a bailing hook. He inadvertently hits Dr. Papineau, who suddenly appears, killing him.

Edgar flees, taking 3 of the dogs with him. He eventually encounters Forte, who is a kind of stray dog. I will skip the details of this escape interlude, so as not to spoil the plot, for those of you who plan to read the novel, and also to keep this post from getting much longer than it already is. One final word on Forte--just as in Hamlet, when Fortinbras appears to mop up the stage littered with bodies, so also Forte appears at the end of the novel. Enough said.

After writing this review of sorts, I did a quick Internet search and note that I am not the only one to have noted the similarities to Hamlet. I do want to aver, however, that I did NOT read them before I wrote my comparison.

What I found frustrating about Edgar Sawtelle is NOT that it is a reworking of a Shakespeare play--after all there have been many reworking of his plays. For example, West Side Story is Romeo and Julie, and A Thousand Acres is King Lear. My objection is that this reworking is somewhat inartful (is that a word?). If you want a good reworking of a Shakespearean theme, you will do far better reading A Thousand Acres.

My other primary criticism is that Edgar Sawtelle is a plot-driven, rather than a character driven novel. It is as though the author puts his characters in difficult situations, and says--OK, now what? A character driven novel, on the other hand, allows the events to grow out of who the character is.

When an author writes a plot driven novel, I get to the point, as a reader, where I feel like saying--LEAVE HIM ALONE. And that's eventually where I got to with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

Would I recommend the book? (You can't see it, but my hand, held out flat, is wavering back and forth.)
The two illustrations:
German shepherd dog--the dogs in Edgar Sawtelle are their own breed, but there are references to the dogs having some markings similar to German shepherds.

The painting is by Eugene Delacroix, and it features the famous graveyard scene where the skull of Yorick is unearthed which allows Hamlet to say "Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well." This is not a scene that is repeated in the novel.

Friday, March 13, 2009

In the Pink

Have you ever contemplated how colors can mean different things? The same colors--depending on context or culture--can have radically different meanings. Someone in a black mood is clearly not happy, whereas a business in the black is. If a person has a red letter day, that's good, but a business in the red is in trouble.

In the west, brides wear white; in some eastern cultures, they wear red. Eastern cultures reserve white for mourning, where western cultures use black for mourning.

Well, Friday March 13 is PINK FRIDAY. In solidarity with teachers in California, who will receive preliminary pink slips on Friday, my husband's employer--the PA State Education Association (which I belong to as a teacher) is urging people to wear pink.

So when we have our Friday night "date," my husband and I will both be wearing pink.

Think pink--remember all the wonderful teachers in California who will be saddened by a slip of pink paper.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Reading Miss Oprah

It's safe to say that reading is one of the passions of my life. I love to read. Make that--I LOVE TO READ. I am ALWAYS in the middle of at least one book. And I love to find and read "terrific reads"--I've even written about a few of those on this blog.

As an English lit major, I had better love reading. Out of curiosity, I began recording all the books I have read--as well as I can recall them. I try to write them down as I read them. Going back to my English lit days, I have read about 450 books. That means I have been averaging about 10 books a year. Hmmmm--I must have missed some on that list, as I know I read more than 10 books a year.

Painting: Young Girl Reading by Fragonard
Now that I have a Kindle (which I got as a Christmas present), I can read several books at once without making the book pile next to my bed too high. I have downloaded 6 books on my Kindle, and have finished one of those.

I haven't recommended a book as a terrific read for quite some time. The last book that I did recommend was Water for Elephants, which I finished in September, 2007. A few books that I read since then came close: Purple Hibiscus by the young Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was very good. I also enjoyed Monica Ali's Brick Lane--but each of these fell short of "terrific read" because of a few flaws--example Brick Lane's fizzled ending.

So, what do I mean--Reading Miss Oprah. When it comes to picking books, I tend to eschew someone else's list: The NY Times bestseller list, or
Oprah's list. Pfffftttt--if I am not inclined, I won't read the book. But, this time, I did buy one that has the big OPRAH sticker on the front: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I am still midway in the book, so I won't know if I like this one or not for a bit.

Right before starting into Edgar, I read This Republic of Suffering. I found that work to be a marvelous piece of careful research. Written by Drew Faust Gilpin who is president of Harvard, the book details how the Civil War changed our view of death. Prior to the Civil War, death was a family affair--people died at home, surrounded by loving family. They were prepared for burial by family, and were lovingly laid in graves near their homes. The Civil War changed all that. Soldiers died under horrific circumstance, far from home, in absolute anonymity. Sometimes families did not even know if their sons, fathers, lovers, or brothers had died. The men died in battle, and lay on the abandoned fields of fighting for weeks and months after combat had ceased. Their corpses were left to the elements, and to scavengers--both human and animal. Rarely was a body shipped home. As a result of these radical changes in the manner of death, we never recovered that idyllic view of death that dominated pre-Civil War.

While the book is a terrific read (in my "book"), I recommend it only if the subject matter appeals to you.

So, now you can see why I needed to read Miss Oprah--after This Republic of Suffering, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, about a mute boy whose father dies under mysterious circumstances, seems like a light read!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Teach Your Children Well

A number of years ago, Crosby, Stills & Nash came to town for a concert. My husband and I got tickets, and headed off to hear them. While I still love the close harmony of this vintage group, the concert was a bit of a disappointment for me. Why, you might ask? Because they didn't sing one number that I just love: Teach Your Children Well. (I did, however, manage to buy a T-shirt with that logo and words on it at the concert.)

My daughter knows how much I love this song--a kind of anthem for someone who is both a parent, and a teacher! She made a gift for me for some occasion--birthday, I think--in which she rounded up various photos of me with her and her brother, and then she typed the words to Teach Your Children Well, and framed the whole combination. It still hangs on the wall in my office where I can look at it daily.

Teach your children well. . .

And feed them on your dreams
The ones they pick
The ones you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.

Two recent news stories got me thinking about these words. In a prior post a while back, I wrote how my husband and I taught youth Sunday School quite a few years ago. While our favorite means of engaging the kids was food, we did teach about other topics. One topic that came up was illness--and how Christ responded to people who are sick. Perhaps as a natural segue we began talking about AIDS, and sex education. After that lesson, one of the parents called us up absolutely irate that we would dare to broach that topic in church.

If I recall correctly, my husband got the call. He patiently, for a time, listened and queried the parent. The parent insisted schools should not touch the topic of sex education nor should the church. (Huh?) Besides, she said--her son was too young to learn about such things. Mind--he was in 6th grade at the time and had an older sister. I suspect he was already hearing a great deal about the topic. It came as no surprise to my husband and me that this young man and his girlfriend ended up getting pregnant just as their high school years were ending.

So, why am I writing about him. Well, a local news story of a day ago brought this news:

"Two ---- County men pleaded guilty to killing four whitetail deer out of season and firing in a safety zone too close to homes. Each paid fines of $2,340 and will have their hunting licenses suspended. . .The men were accused of shooting a pair of bucks on two separate occasions. Game Commission officers said the shots were fired as close as 75 feet from homes.

The illegal nighttime hunting, known as jacklighting, involves shining a spotlight at a deer so it freezes, making it a target. The game commission officer said dealing with jacklighting incidents takes up the bulk of law enforcement by wildlife officers. 'It's thrill killing,' he said. "
By now you are wondering the connection--well, this is the same young man. The one whose mother thought he was too young to learn about sex education, the one who got his high school girlfriend pregnant, is now the one who is a kind of scofflaw. Does it all fit together? Maybe I am being too harsh--but methinks someone did NOT teach this child well.

Second story--from the New York Times: entitled When Grandma Can't Be Bothered, this story broke my heart. First, let me say that I have not yet had the opportunity to be a volunteering grandparent, but I will most certainly volunteer, should the opportunity arise. Second, what I found heartbreaking about this story is that children need all the love they can get, and grandparents are a wonderful source of that love.

A study some time ago pointed out the benefits to children of available caring grandparents. These children thrive. They are taught well.
Well, I am done with this little reverie--now humming "Teach Your Children Well."

Monday, March 02, 2009

Calling the Names

A brief editorial note (though when I teach literature, I always say--never trust the poet to explain what she means)--I too frequently have conversations where I am saying something and--poof--just like that, the specific reference I wanted to make LEAVES my brain. It slips past my tongue without being said, and my brain refuses to re-supply it to my tongue. Until hours later--when I blurt it out.

Herewith such a conversation--of sort--in poetic form. An original poem for you, dear readers.



I call out the names in random fashion
Black & Decker
Truman Capote
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. . .
They have no connection to present reality
But short hours ago, they did.

We were strolling past some stores
Noting now vacant store fronts
And murmured--that's where. . .was--
But in that moment the name fled.

And then I wanted to remark
About an actor who had done a marvelous job
Portraying that writer
You know, the one who wrote
In Cold Blood
But the name refused to surface.

I read a recent article
That caught my attention
An explanation of Alzheimers
Prions are implicated
As in Jakob-Creutzfeldt
And you said--oh, that's like mad cow disease
But I knew that wasn't it.
But what? No name.

Then at midnight
The names arrive
And I call them out
Black & Decker
Truman Capote
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. . .

But you are asleep
So tomorrow I will
Call the names
Without repeating the conversations
And you will understand.

© KGMom 2009