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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Stories and the realities they create

Particularly in times of fear and confusion, we want stories; pointless violence like the bombs at the Boston Marathon makes us want stories that will explain why--even while many of us feel that any explanation the bombers could give would not be, literally or figuratively, a reason.  (I'll admit that I had problems with language in that last sentence:  which was a reason, which an explanation?  Let's just say that the explanation that made sense to the bombers would not seem reasonable to us.)  One of Obama's gifts as president, when he isn't being hamstrung by a Congress that has neither reasons nor explanations for their failure to pass gun control legislation, is to be storyteller-in-chief.  It's his job to create the narratives that go some small distance toward restoring order and confidence:  to tell the bombers that they will be caught, to tell the victims that they will run again, to assert the triumph of goodness and hope and will.

But even while we're hungry for this narrative we're also often disgusted with what that media offers us for stories.  Novel Prize-winner Daniel Kahnemann notes that the prevalence of stories about bird flu or child abductions--stories that make us frightened--set up what he calls "availability cascades."  That is, by over-emphasizing some threats, the media nudge us to take actions that are not really in our best interests.  Michael Cohen, writing in The Guardian, pointed to a crucial disconnection between locking down Boston for a day and Congress's failure to pass laws restricting the sale of guns without more thorough background checks:

"The same day of the marathon bombing in Boston, 11 Americans were murdered by guns. The pregnant Breshauna Jackson was killed in Dallas, allegedly by her boyfriend. In Richmond, California, James Tucker III was shot and killed while riding his bicycle – assailants unknown. Nigel Hardy, a 13-year-old boy in Palmdale, California, who was being bullied in school, took his own life. He used the gun that his father kept at home. And in Brooklyn, New York, an off-duty police officer used her department-issued Glock 9mm handgun to kill herself, her boyfriend and her one-year old child.

"At the same time that investigators were in the midst of a high-profile manhunt for the marathon bombers that ended on Friday evening, 38 more Americans – with little fanfare – died from gun violence. One was a 22-year old resident of Boston. They are a tiny percentage of the 3,531 Americans killed by guns in the past four months – a total that surpasses the number of Americans who died on 9/11 and is one fewer than the number of US soldiers who lost their lives in combat operations in Iraq. Yet, none of this daily violence was considered urgent enough to motivate Congress to impose a mild, commonsense restriction on gun purchasers."  (You can find a link to Cohen's essay below.)


 Here's my own recent favourite from last week.  CBC has been reporting 11 cases of a new bird flu in China, even though human-to-human transmission hasn't yet occurred.  At the same time, the media doesn't tell us that, world wide, approximately 2,740 people die in automobile accidents every day--for a total of over a million a year.  Our media and our leaders have clearly figured out that prompting us to be fearful helps their ratings or their election chances, but they're not quite willing to share the stories that might undermine our entire way of life, whether those stories are about guns or cars. Yet the stories they tell profoundly shape the way we feel about our lives and our world, perhaps because a sense of physical security is a cornerstone of our sense of well-being.

Stories make powerful explanations.  We can watch the fascinating narrative arc while at the same time waiting for the denoument that ties causes to effects.  They explain our world.  Yet at the same time, our confidence in stories as agents of explanation is perhaps misplaced. You've done it:  a friend or a family member does something that you find upsetting, puzzling, or hurtful.  So you make a story about it, linking it to other events or comments, only to find it's the wrong story.  It wasn't an insult; it was embarrassment.  They weren't avoiding you; they were trying to give you space. 

For my exam period entertainment, I've been reading a book of essays by Tony Judt called The Memory Chalet.  The essays arose from his middle-of-the-night conversations with his memory while he was in the later stages of ALS.  Unable to write or type, he would use a chalet that was part of fond childhood memories to help him construct fairly brief essays--he calls them feuilletons--that he would laboriously speak to his emanuenses in the morning.  In one of these, he admits that he thought he knew America:

"For West Europeans raised in the 1950s, "America" was Bing Crosby, Hopalong Cassidy, and overvalued dollars flowing copiously from the plain pants pockets of midwestern tourists.  By the 1970s the image had shifted away from the cowboy West to the Manhattan Canyons of Lieutenant Kojak.  My generation enthusiastically replaced Bing with Elvis, and Elvis with Motown and the Beach Boys; but we had not the slightest idea what Memphis or Detroit--or southern California for that matter--actually looked like" (158).

Similarly, Judt certainly had an illustrious career as an historian both in England and in the United States, but it wasn't until he had a midlife crisis that prompted him to learn Czech that he realized how partial his understanding of European history--one that ignored Eastern Europe--had been.  (I think I'll learn a language for my next midlife crisis.  It sounds at least more useful than a car or an affair.)

Judt's experience is not exactly a surprise.  Anyone who deals with ideas knows that any coherent narrative that maintains enough interest to grab a reader's attention is going to be problematic.  Historian Hayden White calls this the Content of the Form, a book of groundbreaking essays on history and historiography.  White argues that our expectation of a narrative arc determines what events we think are appropriate for history.  Good historical stories have heroes and villains, battles and triumphs or defeats.  The slow attempt, recorded by the French Annales school, to figure out how thickly to plant wheat and how heavily to lay on the cow manure in order to maximize one's crop doesn't make for captivating reading. But that struggle probably influences our contemporary lives more than, say, the Battle of Agincourt.

Yet I've discovered of late that even stories about institutions inadvertently create an inaccurate portrait.  This has happened of late at U of R.  The stories about IPAC finances have put the university's attempts to develop carbon capture and storage capacity on the front pages of the Leader Post and on the CBC news.  Ditto the story about how Engineering solved a $1.3 million shortfall.  At the same time, however, there were some quieter stories happening elsewhere that suggested that members of the university were quietly working to sustain the environment and develop links with the community.  For example, the university has community gardening projects, called "The Edible Campus,"  that make a profound difference in the community.  Last year, the gardens behind the library, outside the Language Institute, and at FNUC donated 1,500 pounds of fresh food to Carmichael Outreach.  At the same time, "Fruit for Thought," a student-led effort that evolved out of Katherine Arbuthnott's Psychology of the Environment class, harvested 30 trees and gathered 3,000 pounds of fruit, some of which went to the Regina Food Bank.  These two organizations have been rewarded for their efforts:  the Community Gardens received a Farm Credit Corporation Regina Spirit Fund Award, and Fruit for Thought was given a SaskPower Waste Minimization Award.  The Edible Campus (which includes these two projects) was given a Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development in Saskatchewan Award for "contributing to creating and sustaining awareness of sustainable food practices in Saskatchewan."

On another front, RPIRG and members of the Faculty of Arts have been instrumental in the creation of the Public Pastures-Public Interest group which spearheaded the very productive Pastures Forum that I wrote about on November 30.  This effort has caught the attention of Margaret Atwood, who, along with her husband, Graeme Gibson, will be visiting the community pastures between June 24 and June 27 "to draw attention to the global significance of conservation programming and bird habitat at risk on federal community pastures now being transferred to Saskatchewan."  She will be tweeting about the experience to her 392,000 followers, attempting to raise awareness about these lands that are at risk.  And, apropros of the U of R's investment in Carbon Capture and Storage Technology, these pastures capture 2.5 times the carbon of any storage technology under development.  And they're already there, already playing an important role in protecting species, in rural ecosystems and in rural economy by providing work for pasture managers and managed grazing for ranchers.  

So what do we do about the fact that we are inclined to tell and trumpet the stories of IPAC and the Faculty of Engineering, when there are other, quieter stories of success and dedication?  Is it that we can't help following the big money?  Does money control more than we think?  Does it decide which stories are important?

Last Saturday night, the Saskatchewan Book Awards had its gala celebrating its twenty years and recognizing writers and publishers across the province.  Each of the writers who won awards had stories to tell about the people and the communities that supported them, about the curiosity that drove them, about the rewards (rarely financial) of the work they do.  For each of those stories, there were four or five others that any of the nominees might have told.  In turn, what we celebrated on Saturday night is the enormous and exciting variety of stories that sustain a culture. 


 You can find Cohen's essay in The Guardian here: http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/21/boston-marathon-bombs-us-gun-law

Here's the link to the Public Pastures website: http://pfrapastureposts.wordpress.com/about/who-we-are/ 

 Here's a link to my earlier post, "Time and the Land" about the Pastures Forum: http://blueduets.blogspot.ca/2012/11/time-and-land.html

 Here is a link to the SBA web page, which will help you follow the upcoming readings: http://www.bookawards.sk.ca/index.php
There will be a reading over lunch at the Legislate Library on May 8.  Just in case it's an incentive, the library provides lunch.  Candace Savage will be one of the speakers.  I'll post updates on FB to keep you informed.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Rant about (problematic) truth

I get in these moods--maybe it's because it was another cold day, though the sun was shining so there was no earthly reason (I hear my mother's voice in that last expression) for it to be so bloody cold; maybe it's because I broke another knitting needle and must laboriously pick up the stitches, which will make my stockinette uneven, so I'll have to tink; (that's "knit" backwards); maybe it's just because.  Whatever "because" is, I've gotten to the point where seeing the glass half full, finding the silver lining, is too exhausting.  To use an expression of my brother-in-law, Bill, "Sure is stupid out."

Stupid today came in two sizes, small and large.  I began the day with the small size when my husband Bill alerted me to the article on the CBC website about the use of money donated by Wascana Energy to fund a research chair with a focus on heavy oil recovery processes to cover a deficit incurred in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  We are assured that the Faculty is now getting the appropriate oversight so this won't happen again.  To quote my mother, that's like closing the barn door after the horses are already out.  I have two almost visceral reactions to this news.  Note that I've been very careful in my minimal description of the story on the CBC website.  There's nothing careful about my reactions, however.  First, faculty members who are trying to defend their academic freedom which appears to be under negotiation in this round of bargaining have been told that the Faculty of Engineering doesn't share our passion.  They are much more interested in patents.  Yet what have we been told much of that $1.3 million was used for?  Let me quote the CBC story:  "The university provided some detail and acknowledged that more than $500,000 was spent by the faculty of engineering on legal fees 'for patent and intellectual property work.'"  Let me see if I have this straight.

I doubt there are very many academics who don't recognize how precious their academic freedom is.  The long tradition of this concept essentially acknowledges two things.  One is that someone needs a protected place from which to challenge those moments when powerful individuals or a society make decisions that are not in a culture's best interests.  The second is that the academy, which has as its central raison d'etre an attempt to strain or lurch or fly closer and closer to the truth, is the logical place for such protection to reside.  Our culture's well-being resides in our right and responsibility to declare the truth as we see it.  That truth doesn't belong to any single being:  it is the result of a long, messy, hilarious, and often acrimonious conversation about what matters, who matters, what we value, and what the facts--as far as we can discern them--are.  But when we mute some of the perspectives that might contribute to that conversation, the future suffers.  We know this right now, in Canada, because Canadians and scientists around the world are concerned about the muzzling of Canadian researchers.  We are playing with the planet's future, but we have decided to play with only a fractions of the facts at our disposal?  I don't think that, in my lifetime, I have seen an historical moment when academic freedom has been more crucial.  At the same time, we are being told that the University requires limits to that freedom.

But it is "all right" (I put those words in quotations marks because I don't know what was said behind closed doors; I only know the apparent outcome)  for a dean to use trust funds intended to create a research chair in order to pay legal bills to sort out issues of patents and intellectual property.  In order words--remember, these are my visceral reactions--profit is fine but critique is not.  This is how I felt about my institution this morning.  Doubtless I've missed some of the facts and doubtless there are all kinds of reasons that we don't know all the facts.  In the words of one of my mantras, there's always another story and the story is almost always more complicated than you can imagine.  But this is how I was forced to see the academy, and the academy's values, this morning.

The large size of stupid came on tonight's news, where we were told that the Canadian Government is going to create a website that illustrates how we are being environmentally responsible in our development of the oil sands.  These triggered off memories of various other ads about what the Canadian government is doing for the environment.  Someone out there thinks words, whether they are backed by facts or not, make something true. Who's going to do the fact-checking for this industry-funded website? 

On days when I'm in this mood, triggered by things large and small, I think that the human race is really fairly stupid, that we lurch around in the dark and only just miss exterminating ourselves by accident.  (Cold War anyone?  What on earth was that all about?  The economic costs of responding to climate change?  How much do you think it cost to clean up after Katrina and Sandy?  And you can't possibly put a dollar value on the suffering.)  We lumber around, spin on our heels, look behind us, and notice that something is a little better.  Child mortality and hunger is down.  AIDS is being controlled, though not quickly enough, particularly in Africa.  Human rights have expanded a little more, yet our intolerance has become more and more deadly, more and more explosive.  We  pat ourselves on the back and take collective credit or give some credit to governments.  But I feel that we have less and less leadership that is concerned with our well-being, and more government by ideology and special interest group. (The U.S. failure to pass a bill widening background checks on guns comes to mind here--another big version of stupid.)   I think that if someone tells me one more time that "the market" is the best solution to homelessness and food bank use, I'll....  I don't honestly know what I'll do.  I'm tempted to hit them with a Python-esque rubber chicken.  And then to turn away in despair.  Because what other reaction can I have to valuing of profit over an attempt to acknowledge, responsibly, and with a million caveats, what is true?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The roots and routes writers follow

The University of Michigan, where I took my B.A. and M.A., had an excellent journalism school.  I took a couple classes during both degrees, thinking vaguely that this might be a route to becoming a writer.  Yet even that sentence is too decided:  I'm not sure I thought about becoming anything.  My best evidence for that is my reaction to Robert Finnigan, the graduate chair at the University of Manitoba, telling me (with his army boots firmly planted on the corner of his desk) there would be no jobs for me when I finished my Ph.D. He was doing his due diligence, and I appreciated that.  At the same time, I airily responded that it didn't matter:  studying literature was what I loved doing.  As someone who struggled with depression, simply figuring out what gave me meaningful, enduring pleasure was perhaps more important than finding a job.  My first husband was playing trumpet in the Winnipeg Symphony, and we managed to live frugally yet well off his small salary.

This may be one of those ramifying essays that follows one branch to its tip, finds itself stymied, and goes back to the trunk, travels up it for a ways before discovering yet another interesting detour.  Let me start this again:  I took journalism classes  at Michigan.  In my second year as an M.A. student, I took a small seminar class that was probably called something like "Writing Nonfiction."  It was 1975, and the anthology, The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe, that is probably the seed (let's do stay with plant metaphors) that grew into Creative Nonfiction, had only been out two years.  It attempted to understand what writers like Wolfe himself, Barry Lopez, John McPhee, and Joan Didion were doing with the essay that was different.  In complete contrast to their more literary approach to the essay, my prof told us that the best work he'd ever gotten in this class explained how to hang a door.  I can't even begin to parse the sexism and lack of imagination in such a prototype.  I wanted to write about Solzhenitsyn, who had just immigrated to the United States, and who, in so doing I thought, had brought his writing career to an abrupt end.   (It turns out I was right.)  I had been reading Russian literature in Russian for four years, and knew this body of work quite well; I had also taken multiple courses in Russian history.  I wanted to play, I would now say to my prof, the public intellectual.  He immediately challenged any expertise that I would have for such a project and suggested--rather forcefully if I remember--that I write about the Influenza Epidemic in 1918.  I dutifully went off and did lots of research, learning that in cities like New York, employers were creative enough to stagger their employees' start times so that the subways and buses wouldn't be too crowded.  Spitting in public was a crime.  Thousands died anyway.  I'm sure I wrote a dutiful report on the epidemic.  I also tried writing about quilts, but the prof was unenthusiastic.  My struggles in this class to find the intersection of my own terrain--the things that fascinated me--and the approved terrain of my prof, ended my engagement with nonfiction.  Perhaps I was simply too young to have a body of thought and knowledge and experience to write respectable nonfiction.  Perhaps my prof's approach was ultimately discouraging.  We'll never know, which is probably a good thing.

In spite of the fact that I used The New Journalism in creative writing classes I taught at Winnipeg Education Centre (an off-campus program at the University of Manitoba whose students wanted to become inner city teachers and social workers), in spite of the fact that I read Joan Didion's White Album with delight or that I was willing to read through a very long essay in Harper's that described the labour involved in wood-firing pottery and the contingencies that made their marks on the pots themselves, creative nonfiction was off my radar for quite a number of years.  Then the collision of several forces brought me back.

One was practical:  I was asked to edit a Canadian edition of a wonderful American textbook:  Barbara Fine Clouse's Patterns for a Purpose.  I read Ignatieff, Thomas King, June Callwood, Gabor Mate, Wayne Grady, Mark Kingwell:  in short, I discovered the remarkable range of Canadian creative nonfiction.

The second colliding force was the research I needed to do to begin writing Soul Weather.  Never mind that I had to be on top of what was happening with climate change and contemporary ceramics.  I also needed a better fix on the young people I would be writing about, something that went beyond what I saw in the classroom.  I read The Ego Boom, I read Days of Destruction; Days of Revolt, I read lots on the Occupy movement, I read autobiographies about anorexia.  I read Jack Layton's Homelessness and Bill McKibben's Eaarth.  I wanted to understand the present moment, and I realized that fiction wasn't telling me a lot about this.  I'm not quite sure what that says.  Do novels tell us about life at middle age because the novelists we typically read--those who have made it far enough in their career to make it onto our radar--are mostly over 35?  Certainly a lot of Canadian fiction at the present moment is historical.  I don't know how to understand that either.

The third force was my work on Virginia Woolf.  Normally, one reads her essays two or three at a time, but in order to understand what she was thinking about literature's form and force, I started with volume 1 and read straight through to volume 6.  Never mind being gobsmacked by the role she played as one of the important public intellectuals of her time or the endless inventiveness of her essays and the gorgeousness--always trimmed to appropriate dimensions--of her prose.  One gets a profound lesson in what the essay can do.

The fourth was publishing Blue Duets and being told by my publisher that I needed to keep a blog; in this climate, one needs to have an online presence to market books.  I had no idea what a blog might be, even after visiting some that were recommended.  But the publicist simply said that readers would want to know about my life.  Okay, I knew about public diaries.  I've read Nin's and Woolf's and Max Frisch's.  I could do this.  Yet after the initial readings and the brief tour was over, there wasn't much to say about bad roads or enthusiastic (and in one case nonexistent) crowds.  So I think my public autobiography turned into an autobiography of my mind.  I began to write about all those things I would have loved to wax eloquent about  in my classes, but knew I shouldn't--beauty, craftsmanship, art, the power of reading, the historical moment, our relationship to nature and the delight we take from it, climate change.

Two members of my community played roles that might surprise them.  One day Medrie Purdham generously said that she thought I was a wonderful essayist.  Essays?  Was that was I was doing--writing essays?  How had these little squibs of thought become essays?  Then Brenda Schmidt in her blog recommended Philip Lopate's remarkable  The Art of the Personal Essay and later Lopate's To Show and to Tell.  Lopate's advice made sense to me; some of it reflected what I was already doing.  His anthology gave me new models and ways of thinking about this elastic form.

And then there are my readers.  Many of you kindly and helpfully comment on what you have read, showing me two things.  One was simply those moments when I seemed to touch you.  The other was how the essay is part of the cultural conversation we are longing to have and that doesn't quite happen on Facebook.  I'll begin this spring by spending two weeks with Don McKay and 8 other fine poets at Sage Hill working on my ekphrastic poems.  Then I'll travel to Paris with Veronica, where she'll take more photographs.  Once home, I will settle down to the book on Woolf's aesthetics, hoping to get a draft finished by late August, just in time to plan a new class.  (This will be my last year of teaching, and I'm creating two new classes!)  But I thought I'd work slowly on an essay on minimalism, a topic I've returned to here several times.  I'd like to weave the aesthetic and architectural interest in minimalism into a personal narrative, to conclude that at this moment of my life and at this historical moment, minimalism beckons.  As I get older, I want to jettison things.  And as we look at the unsustainability of our economy and environment, I suspect we need to revisit minimalist values.  Certainly, I can see this in the academy where two trends--the expansive nineties and the corporatization of the academy--are not meeting the need for fiscal restraint in a context which is generating a lot of anger and angst.  What I love about writing nonfiction is the way craftsmanship is perhaps more important than inspiration or wild creativity.  Have you noticed how overblown plots are these days?  Nonfiction beautifully sidesteps that.  And simply creating clear sentences that echo the shape of my thought is profoundly satisfying in troubling times.  This academic year, simply sitting down to write a blog post has helped me keep my sanity.  One clear, fitting word after another is good discipline.

But here's the thing I'd like to close with in a way that is perhaps more "closed" than I normally like to be.  This moment in my writing life is the result of a series of accidents and of some generous (and ungenerous) moments.  It's easy enough to tell writers, or anyone who invites creativity into their life, to be deaf to criticism.  First, creative people tend to be rather vulnerable.  Second, sometimes criticism is just what we need.  Perhaps it's more useful to tell them to be open to accident and to the delight it brings them.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rebellion and the minimalism of pain

I've decided not to go out today.  I'm skipping the gym, and am trying to pretend that it isn't the 7th of April and that we didn't get more snow last night.  I'm sitting in my blue-grey-green workroom with my back to the south windows, trying to pretend it isn't snowing, except I can hear that the world is a little quieter--except for the sound of tires on wet pavement.  The word you are all using is "relentless."  This weather is straight out of Doris Lessing's The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, from her Canopus in Argos:  Archives series.   Planet Eight has a temperate climate where, under the guidance of the Canopeans, the mixed races develop a peaceful culture.  This is brutally interrupted when "interstellar rearrangements" bring about an ice age.  They attempt to hang on while the Canopeans prepare another home for them. But disaster strikes the new planet, and the the ice age will not slow.  At the end, they become mere being and join in a single consciousness that preserves the lore, wisdom, knowledge, joy, and struggle of everyone on the planet.  Will we all be freeze-dried into mere being before May?

I have another motive for my rebellion.  A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of intense marking, I realized I hadn't been sick since I returned from the Woolf conference last June.  Couldn't I come down with a minor cold or a quick bit of stomach flu?  I wanted a day in bed with cats and without responsibilities.  Our uncanny bodies often have a way of fulfilling such perverse wishes:  last Sunday, after a day of grading, I found that someone had been twisting a red hot corkscrew just under my left shoulder blade.  Rather than gaining the oblivion of a sleepy sick day, I was perfectly capable of marking and indeed had trouble sleeping.  Two massages and an awful lot of muscle relaxant later, I'm just a bit better:  I don't want to scream.

When I was writing about minimalism, Katherine Arbuthnott talked about the minimalism of pain, something she knows a good deal about.  So I decided on a kind of minimal day today, absolutely in line with my desire to go nowhere.  I learned a new provisional cast-on and started a blue raw silk sweater that will look springy when it's done.  I finally finished reading Blithedale Romance, which has been totally charming (and is relatively brief--225 pages), but which seemed to open out into extra pages behind every one of Zenobia's secrets.  (One of the oddities of the academic year is that just as you are bringing the winter term to a frantic close, you are asked to plan your fall classes and order books--hence my reading of Hawthorne's novel, which will introduce students to the way the novel has some roots in the romance--mediaeval, not Harlequin.  Tonight I'll begin Great Expectations as a sample of the Bildungsroman.)  I managed, accidentally on purpose, to take my second dose of muscle relaxants an hour early, and so settled down for nearly two hours of sleep with Sheba curled up on my belly, keeping watch.  Bill must have caught on to my desire for a sick day, because when he got back from his workout he came upstairs with a glass of ice water and watched me drink it, as he always does when I'm sick.  Then he suggested we had plenty of leftovers for dinner. 

When you spend a day in bed, you can manage to do quite a lot because you're only doing what is necessary.  Wayne Grady wrote a lovely essay "On Walking," in his book Bringing Back the Dodo.  It's a peripatetic piece that tells us about different kinds of walking--from Thoreau's sauntering to Bill Bryson's hiking the Appalachian Trail, about how our knees and backs aren't quite suited to walking, and about the differences between city and country walking.  But the essay's still point--literally and figuratively--is that walking slows down time because it has a human pace that allows us to notice the world around us.  In this weather, it demands we notice the world around us, watching for puddles and slick spots.  Is it too paradoxical to say that the minimalism of pain and a day in bed similarly slow time down to reflective dimensions?  I not only thought about how I'll teach the layers of Blithedale Romance, and learned a new cast on; I found memories that hadn't bubbled up in my mind for years.  None of these was particularly significant:  for some reason, I recalled the narrow shallow cupboards with beautifully carved wooden doors that every room in Stockwell Hall had for our toothbrushes and toothpaste, our Cleopatra eyeliner, our wash cloths and towels. Sheba seemed to be channeling my first cat, so I thought for a while about Bugsy's own brand of devilish sweetness.  Perhaps because I was reading Hawthorne, I thought about my long bus ride from central Boston to Brandeis, where I worked for a year.  I thought about the book on Japanese sand gardens I'd borrowed from the Brandeis University library.  Ordinary as the memories were, they affirm something of one's humanity that might get lost in frantic grading and unending winters and the ways we cope now with being overwhelmed. 

Tonight at dinner, we listened to recordings Art Tatum made in Hollywood in the early 1950s:  his fingers on the keys sparkle, perhaps with California sunshine.  Even though Tatum was a child prodigy who could play by ear by the time he was three, he was also nearly blind.  Long considered one of the jazz piano greats for his spectacular ornament and his subtle chord progressions, by the time he made these classic recordings he had been outmoded by bebop.  After that, I put on "Ella and Louis Again," for the remarkable musical partnership and the witty lyrics. Their first song began "Don't cry.  Oh honey, please don't be that way.  Clouds in the sky will bring the violets of May.  Tears are in vain.  O honey, please don't be that way."   Do you know how much weather there is on this album?  Not only rainy springs (which I suspect we'd be grateful for at this point), but "Autumn in New York." Then Ella tells Louis she "can't remember a worse December.  Just watch those icicles form."  Bill put on the Tatum for the sparkling cheer.  I added Ella and Louis because to a young woman watching the civil rights movement in the sixties (and who knows exactly where she was when the news came that Martin Luther King had been killed), this great jazz is never without an undertone of struggle.  So it gives you a kind of balanced perspective:  heartbreak and joy, whimsy and realism, great songs brought alive by musicians who playfully ignored the score.  But I didn't expect to get more complaints about weather.