When I think of my childhood, two themes immediately rise to the top: movement and books.
We moved a lot when I was growing up. In the beginning it was because my dad was in the military; later, just because we were following (or looking for) jobs. From when I was born in a military hospital in Germany until I entered middle school, we moved nearly every year. I was used to putting all my stuff into boxes, then taking it all out of boxes again in a new house, in a new town, with a new school. Each move brought a different bedroom, a different neighborhood, a different teacher, different friends. My family was strong and constant, but the rest of the world swirled and shifted around us.
I was a quiet kid, shy and introverted. It’s not easy always being the new kid. Walking into a classroom full of strange faces and being the only kid that wasn’t there yesterday is tough. Amidst all that change and transition, though, I found a warm and reliable refuge: books. Ah, books.
Every school I attended had a library. Thank God. A room that’s full of shelves that are full of books that are full of stories. Stories that are diverse and unique and extraordinary and varied – but are beautifully the same no matter where you read them. Whether I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in Spokane, or Montana, or Kansas, Narnia was always in the same place. I could go there whenever I wanted, from wherever I was. Stories always know where true north lies in our interior geography.
I remember vividly when my mom presented me with my very first chapter book to read on my own: The Beast in Mrs. Rooney’s Room by Patricia Reilly Giff, part of the Polk Street School series. I was in First Grade, living in Montana, and I threw myself on my bed and devoured it in one sitting. Not long after that, the boxes came out. We were moving again. We’d only been there a year and a half but I had close friends and a school I loved and I did not want to go.
Kids, though, rarely get choices. Away we went. My first day at the new school, I was sad and lonely. No one invited me to sit with them at lunch (in fact, another vivid memory: they scooted away from me when I sat down). And then we went to the library. All those books lined up, waiting. And right there on the shelf were the Polk Street School books. Those same crazy kids having goofy misadventures in Mrs. Rooney’s room. They were right there waiting for me. My spinning compass fell still.
Stillness is underrated. Life is loud, and for a lot of kids the chaos that surrounds them isn’t all that great. Fighting parents, jeering bullies, police sirens, moving boxes, absent fathers. In a rushed and hectic world, books stand still. They, in fact, require stillness. Stories ground you in stillness right where you sit, but at the same time take you safely away to other worlds.
Books are faraway places that we can hold in our hands; they are distant adventures, yet they’re right there in our hearts.
As teachers, as librarians, as parents, we get to share so much with children. Knowledge. Humor. Wisdom, maybe. And we get to share books with them. Stories. Books that may grow to mean a great deal to them. Books that might answer questions they’ve been holding too long in their hearts, or make them ask questions they never have before. Books that may make them feel things that are utterly new and yet achingly familiar. Books that make them think, books that make them feel. Or maybe books that do nothing but make them laugh…and is there absolutely anything wrong with that? Is there really too much kid laughter in the world?
It’s a wonderful gift, being able to share books with kids.
I am so sorry about your dog, Lupe. Here…try this book, Love that Dog. I think you’ll love it.
I know sometimes you feel trapped and alone, Jason. Why don’t you read The One and Only Ivan…I hope it’ll mean as much to you as it does to me.
Michael, you sure seem kind of down today. Know what I think you need? A little Captain Underpants therapy.
A new student arrived at my school this year. She was quiet, she was unsure, she was very far from the home she’d known.
In her first day at the library, I was showing her around a little bit, her uncertain eyes scanning the library shelves. Then her breath caught. She reached up and softly, lovingly touched the spine of a book.
“Oh,” she whispered. “Charlotte’s Web! I read this at my old school. I love it. You have it here, too?”
And then, for the first time since she’d arrived, she smiled.
I knew, exactly and personally, how she felt.
That book was not just a story about a pig and spider. It was a little piece of home – a little piece of home that she will be able to find wherever she goes. If she moves again, and again, and finds herself again and again in a new home and a new town like I did, she’ll always be able to walk into whatever new school she arrives at and find that book on the library shelves. It’ll always be there for her. An old friend. And there’s nothing a new kid needs more than an old friend. That’s the truth.
And now, in addition to being a teacher-librarian, I have the privilege of being a writer. A writer of a book for kids, a book that will actually find a home on library shelves in different schools, in different towns, in different states. And that feels amazing. Because in so many ways, I’m still that new kid, that quiet kid looking for a piece of home on those library shelves. And now, in some places, my book will be there.
And somewhere, maybe, some new kid on their first day at a scary new school might see my book and smile and say, “Hey. I read that book at my old school. They have it here, too.”
And that kid will know what I learned as a kid, and what I bet everyone reading this knows:
Books are not just things. They are worlds that we can always come home to.
Dan Gemeinhart is an elementary teacher-librarian. He lives with his wife and three young daughters in Cashmere, WA. The Honest Truth, his debut middle grade novel, comes out this month from Scholastic Press. You can connect with him on Facebook, on his website (www.dangemeinhart.com), and on Twitter (@dangemeinhart).
Forget about your house of cards
And I’ll do mine
And fall under the table, get swept under
—Radiohead, “House of Cards”
Note: Major spoilers follow for the third season of House of Cards.
Watching the season finale of House of Cards, I found myself reflecting on the curious career of director James Foley, who has helmed many of the show’s most memorable episodes. Foley is the quintessential journeyman, a filmmaker responsible for one movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, that I’ll probably revisit at least once a decade for the rest of my life, and a lot of weird, inexplicable filler, from The Corruptor to Perfect Stranger. It’s a messy body of work that still earned him a coveted entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which David Thomson writes: “You could put together a montage of scenes by Foley that might convince anyone that he was—and is—a very hot director.” And that’s equally true of House of Cards, which would allow you to cut together enough striking scenes and images to convince you that it was the hottest show on television. I’ve noted before that I’ve never seen a series in which every technical element was brought to such a consistent pitch of intensity: the cinematography, art direction, sound design, editing, and music are among the best I’ve ever seen. Foley’s handling of the finale is masterful. And yet it’s only a sad coda to a deeply disappointing, often outright frustrating show, which in its most recent season pulled off the neat trick of being both totally implausible and grindingly boring.
And it didn’t have to be this way. As infuriating as House of Cards often was, there was an undeniable charge, in the very last shot of the second season, when Underwood walked into the Oval Office and rapped his hand against the desk. We seemed primed to embark on a spectacular run of stories, with a scheming, murderous, Machiavellian psychopath positioned to move onto a grander stage. What we got, instead, was an Underwood who seemed oddly hapless and neutered. He’s still a hypocrite, but with no coherent plans for domination, and hardly any sense of what he wants to accomplish with the power he sought for so long. If the show were actively working to subvert our expectations, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case: for most of the season, it seemed as adrift as its protagonist, who starts off with poor approval ratings, a nonexistent mandate, and no ability to advance his agenda, whatever the hell it might be. In the abstract, I can understand the narrative reasoning: you want to open with your hero at a low point to give him somewhere to go. But if you can imagine, instead, a scenario in which Underwood starts out as popular and powerful, only to fight ruthlessly in secret against a scandal, old or new, that threatens to undermine it all, you start to glimpse the kind of drama that might have been possible.
And what’s really dispiriting is that all the right pieces were in place, only to be systematically squandered. In Petrov, a thinly veiled surrogate for Putin, the show gave Underwood his first truly formidable antagonist, but instead of a global game of chess being played between two superb manipulators, we’re treated to the sight of Underwood rolling over time and time again. The one really shrewd plot point—in which Petrov extorts Underwood into forcing Claire to resign as UN ambassador—would have been much more effective if Claire had been any good at her job, which she manifestly isn’t. The interminable subplot about the America Works bill would have been fine if it had all been a blind for Underwood to consolidate his power, but it’s not: he just wants to give people jobs, and his attempts at extraconstitutional maneuvering seem like a means to an end, when they should have been the end in themselves. We keep waiting for Underwood, our ultimate villain, to do something evil, inspired, or even interesting, but he never does. And the show’s one great act of evil, in the form of Rachel’s fate, feels like a cynical cheat, because the show hasn’t done the hard work, as Breaking Bad repeatedly did, of earning the right to coldly dispose of one of its few sympathetic characters. (As it stands, there’s a touch of misogyny here, in which an appealing female player is reintroduced and killed simply to further the journey of a white male antihero in a supporting role.)
Yet House of Cards remains fascinating to think about, if not to watch, because so many talented people—David Fincher, Eric Roth, Tony Gilroy—have allowed it to drift off the rails. I’ve spoken at length before, most notably in Salon, about the dangers inherent in delivering a television series a full season at a time: without the intense scrutiny and feedback that comes from airing week to week, a show is likely to grow complacent, or to push deeper into a narrative dead end. In Vox, Todd VanDerWerff argues that this season can best be understood as a reaction to the show’s critics, a failed attempt to make a hard turn into a character drama, which only proves that it isn’t enough to plot a course correction once per season. And there’s a larger blindness here, perhaps one enabled by the show’s superficial gorgeousness. Is what Frank Underwood does interesting because he’s Underwood, or is he interesting because he does interesting things? I’d argue that it’s the latter, and that the echo chamber the Netflix model creates has lulled the show into thinking that we’ll follow its protagonist anywhere, when it has yet to honestly earn that level of trust. (In a way, it feels like a reflection of its leading man: Kevin Spacey may be the most intelligent actor alive when it comes to the small decisions he makes from moment to moment, but he’s been frequently misguided in his choice of star parts.) House of Cards is still a fun show to dissect; if I were teaching a course on television, it’s the first case study I’d assign. But that doesn’t mean I need to give it any more of my time.
1. Every Monday, shortly after his HBO show Last Week Tonight airs, there’s a new John Oliver video to share. He takes on some monstrous hypocrite who epitomizes the worst of capitalism, inveighs against said hypocrite for 10 or 15 cathartic minutes, and the next day, like clockwork, a like-minded audience cheers across the Internet.
Websites need content, people need an excuse to abuse the word “ether” a little more, and we all get to have our indignation vindicated. The topic is almost irrelevant.
But this week it played like a parody of the whole phenomenon.
The NCAA released its bracket for the men’s basketball tournament on Sunday night, and Oliver took the opportunity to go out back and beat a dead horse a little further into the ground. He blasted the NCAA. He tore into the NCAA. He took it on, he destroyed it, and he exposed the shameful system right there in the open. John Oliver was Shirley F--king Jackson and the NCAA won The Lottery this week.
Monday morning, it was everywhere. Like clockwork.
2. Monday night, 49ers linebacker Chris Borland announced that he was retiring from football. He wants to protect his health while he still has the chance.
“From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced,” he told ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, “I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
This comes on the heels of other retirements across the league over the past two weeks. Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds walked away at 27 years old. Jake Locker spent most of his career as a punch line, quarterbacking the Titans, but it was still surprising to see a former top-10 pick quit the game after just four years. And Patrick Willis, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the 49ers, was the most incredible news of all. He left the game at 30.
At the time, the 49ers didn’t seem panicked.
But on the heels of the 24-year-old Borland’s retirement, the panic stretches well beyond San Francisco. This is one of the best young players in football, coming off one of the best seasons of any rookie in the league. He had the chance to fill Willis’s shoes and start at middle linebacker for a team that just two season ago was only a play away from the Super Bowl.
Back in 2014, Borland was the college linebacker at the combine who said, “I feel like I’m the toughest guy here … we’ve got a lot of tough guys here, but I’ve played through things.”
Now, after exceeding every expectation on the field, he has taken a look at his own experience and the research and mounting evidence, and has decided that the benefits of playing pro football aren’t worth the cost.
“I feel largely the same,” he told ESPN, “as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me it’s wanting to be proactive. I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late. … There are a lot of unknowns. I can’t claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”
This is big news. It feels like a watershed moment.
I’m just not sure it really is.
3. We’ve known the truth about football for a while now. We all knew that concussions have tragic, awful consequences for players as they get older. Mike Webster’s son had to taser his father to sleep. There are dozens of horror stories like that — enough to convince you there are many more that never make it to the news.
This is ugly, and that’s before you consider the pain that players live with or the long-term effects of the pain pills they ingest. Then you think about the behavioral changes connected to all this trauma, and maybe it helps explain how certain players turn angrier and more violent off the field. That’s a problem that deserves its own column, but for now, just read Dan Le Batard from this fall. All of it is part of pro football. We’ve known this for a while, and pro football seems to be doing just fine.
What feels different in 2015 is that active players seem to know too.
For the people paying attention, it feels good to know that players aren’t blind to everything that’s ugly about this sport. Maybe it’s even encouraging.
But it changes nothing. It would be easy to write something like, “Chris Borland is the face of the NFL’s future.” But anyone paying attention knows that probably isn’t true.
A handful of players abruptly retiring will just become one more thing we all ignore when the season starts. Maybe it will be talked about in San Francisco, but the rest of the league will move on. St. Louis just signed Nick Fairley to play alongside Chris Long, Robert Quinn, and Aaron Donald. In five months, we’ll all be talking about quarterbacks getting suplexed on every down against the Rams.
4. The TV contracts are signed, and media outlets need content. Nobody is going to walk away from the NFL. There’s too much money involved across the board. If football is on television, fans will keep watching it, in record numbers, and the networks will keep paying record fees for the right to show it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above jumping in the middle of the “football is dying” take tornado. Every few months, there’s a story that makes the end seem that much closer. I’ve written so many different columns about the NFL’s downfall, it’s impossible to keep track. One year, there’s the concussion settlement. Or it’s the Junior Seau autopsy. Or maybe the Frontline documentary. Just a few months ago, it was the growing stupidity of the games themselves, and the Dez catch that will upset me until the end of time. I’ve been writing some variation of the same “NFL crisis” column for the past five years.
But you want to talk about the NFL’s ugly future? Look at the past year. A player was caught beating his fiancée on tape, a superstar was accused of child abuse, and the commissioner’s integrity was questioned by a federal judge. The FBI raided locker rooms over prescription pills. A tight end is facing murder charges in the deaths of three people. The ugly future is here.
Meanwhile, the Super Bowl just had its highest rating in history. On any given week during the season the three highest-rated shows on television belonged to some form of football. You or I may have an existential crisis when watching this sport, but football is doing fine.
5. There were two ironies in watching the Oliver video blow up the Internet on Monday. The first is that every single sports website that posted that video will now spend the rest of March capitalizing on as much March Madness content as possible. (Grantland didn’t post the video, but we’ll be no different, even though we write about the NCAA’s evils at least five times a year.) The second irony is that any serious sports fan who cares enough to spend 10 minutes watching Oliver tear down the NCAA will definitely spend this entire weekend watching the NCAA tournament.
But at least something like NCAA ethering will eventually shame that organization into reform. No amount of scathing takedowns or media triumphs will ever change the fundamental realities of football as a business.
I guess it would be disingenuous to pretend that Chris Borland will change football’s bottom line. Every year there’s a new story that’s supposed to shock the sport into reform, and it never happens. Eventually, beating a dead horse gets exhausting. But the takes will come regardless, and especially this week.
There will be treacly columns defending Borland’s decision, as if anyone with a brain is criticizing him. Then someone notable really will question him, and we’ll have to listen for two days while that person becomes the big target who gets tarred and feathered. Through it all, others will use Borland as an ominous sign for football’s future, a clear indication that football is headed in the wrong direction, destined to become as marginalized as boxing or horse racing. And the same people who love John Oliver videos will love all of that content, and share it, and tweet it … and then we’ll all be watching the NCAA tournament this weekend, just like we’ll all watch the NFL next year.
There’s a smug pessimism that infects how I and a lot of the Internet generation views everything, and none of it ever makes a difference. We watch people like Oliver and Jon Stewart eviscerate easy targets, and feel smart when we laugh about how doomed we all are. We see a few lifelong football reporters defending the NFL, and they immediately become a punch line. The older I get, the more naive this feels. Nobody is solving anything, we’re just really good at complaining about the problems. Eventually it all snowballs into this haze of cynicism that feels smart, but actually makes us all look dumb.
In the NFL’s case, maybe the antidote to this is just honesty.
Football will have a real crisis if doctors ever develop a test that can successfully diagnose CTE before symptoms arise. If 75 percent of the league tests positive for brain damage, suddenly the conversation gets a lot more complicated. At the very least, Congress continuing to approve a tax exemption would be even more reprehensible than it already is.
Until then, all of this is just noise next to billion in TV contracts, and Borland’s real legacy probably won’t be what you want it to be. He’s not proof that that this sport will collapse on itself one day. In the end, he’ll probably be proof that even players themselves are replaceable. No matter who walks away, there will always be plenty more who decide the risks are worth it.
Borland can leave, he can take a stand, he can look at the problems in the NFL and decide this sport is more trouble than it’s worth. But the game will keep going just fine without him. He’ll miss football more than football will ever miss him.
His choice was really no different from the choice anyone has. All we learned Monday is that Chris Borland is stronger than the rest of us.
I say, “I’m from Brooklyn” like there’s a grenade exploding from my mouth.
I walk different after saying it. My step is a little harder, my shoulders more square, nose held higher in the air. It’s a momentary self-assuredness that follows me for a spell.
I feel it rise into my jaw when I see her approach across the water as I’m crossing the Williamsburg Bridge; when the train doors close on First Avenue and the L snakes under the East River.
The thing is, the Brooklyn I’m from isn’t the Brooklyn of today. It’s not that funky Brooklyn that I keep in my back pocket in case somebody tries it. (You don’t wanna mess with a girl from 1980s Bushwick.)
My Brooklyn is the Brooklyn of the Domino sugar factory and rubble and crack. Nostalgia can be a confusing thing. It isn’t always for the neat and pristine. It’s sometimes a longing for something you know wasn’t always pretty, but was always home.
When people speak of the old Brooklyn, when they refer to it in articles & essays, the Brooklyn before the organic markets and food co-ops, before there was a trash can on every corner and community gardens, they talk about it like it was all bad, like all there was was poverty and crack and single moms (because you know we’re the bane of existence, right?), violence and high school dropouts.
When I discovered my seven year old self in a picture in an exhibit by Meryl Meisler, I hesitated before reaching out to her. I was far too familiar with the images of my old neighborhood from way back when. Yes, there was drugs; yes, there were addicts and there was violence and the blaring sirens from the fire trucks were so common that they became white noise; but you know what? There was also love, there were people who thrived in that and loved in that and raised families in that. What I loved about Meryl’s work was that that’s what she focused on. There’s no images of the crack vials in the gutter or the mother pulling hard on her pipe while her child looks on. There’s none of that. Why? Because there was more than that and that’s what Meryl documented.
So when people talk about gentrification like it’s something that saved the neighborhood, that saved my people, it’s real reminiscent of the defense of colonization and the idea that the white man came to the new world to civilize the savages. There’s something insidious about that mindset. It’s called Columbusing.
When I think of Brooklyn, the first word that comes to mind is home. But my home isn’t today’s Brooklyn. Those quaint cafés and yoga studios were not built for me. My Brooklyn isn’t the Brooklyn where a townhouse just hit the market with an asking price of million dollars.
There’s something about losing our homes that’s particularly grating. Humans have a natural pull to where we’re from, like umbilical cords that keep us linked to a maternal figure, a patria, something greater than ourselves; a place of where we felt safe & welcome, where we could be our full selves. To have that taken away and be made to feel like strangers in our own land is jarring and painful in so many ways.
I miss the sense of community of the old neighborhood. I miss the intrinsic Latino flavor that signaled that I was home as soon as I stepped off the L train on Myrtle Avenue. The piragüero on the corner who knew me by name and always asked for my mother. The borinqueña waving in the wind from every other window. The bodeguero Miguel who gave us credit when the food stamps ran out. And our Boricua neighbor from next door who gave us a tembleque during the holidays and mom gave her tamales.
We all need to feel like we belong somewhere, & that’s what Bushwick gave me, especially after I left for boarding school at 13 and found myself rootless in the world. Nostalgia is strange like that. Sometimes it’s a longing for the gritty and profane.
My mind goes to that woman who came to the Bushwick Open Studios Exhibit I co-curated with Meryl Meisler (Defying Devastation: Bushwick Then & Now) and read my work on gentrification. She shifted uncomfortably as she read, breathing heavily, her leg started shaking and she folded her arms over her chest, folding and unfolding several times. “But Nyssa’s white,” she told me, as if I hadn’t notice this fact about Nyssa, the owner of The Living Gallery. “What’s your point?” “Well, you’re talking about us.” “Is that all you got from the piece?” She rolled her eyes, shrugged and walked away.
She didn’t want to understand where I was coming from, or at least I didn’t see her making any attempt to. I heard the defensiveness in her voice, the “us versus you” in her tone. It didn’t matter that the exhibit was an attempt at a dialogue about gentrification and how we can possibly connect those who have been here for a long time and those who are fresh arrivals, new to the city and this neighborhood that has so much history, so much life, where so much existed before even this woman was born. I wanted to tell her that before she came to this earth, I’d had my first kiss less than a mile away in the hallway of 365 Palmetto Street. Across the street and three blocks down was where I started to come out of my shell and saw that maybe I did have a knack for this writing thing. And a block over from there was where I practiced for months before hopping on a plane to Turkey in April of 1989 to represent the US at the NATO Children of the World Festival. The irony does not escape me that a group of brown and black kids from Bushwick were chosen to represent the US at this festival all those years ago.
These days, when I go back to Bushwick what I remember isn’t what is. The corriente that ran through the neighborhood is gone. There’s no Jerry Rivera blasting from passing cars. La doña who never left her spot at the window of her second floor apartment on Grove Street, is gone. She took her PR curtain flag with her. The cuchifrito spot on the corner is gone too; there’s a cappuccino spot there now. When I went in to order a café, the barrista said, “You mean coffee?” “No,” I said, “I mean café.” I almost slapped him when he charged me for an eight ounce cup. The café wasn’t even good.
I read on Twitter that on her desk writer Tayari Jones has “a tiny jar containing a few spoonfuls of earth from Lorain, Ohio. This is how much I love Toni Morrison.” I thought of that junk yard next to our building at 383 Palmetto Street, and that backyard where I’d climb up the plum tree. In those connected yards was where I started telling myself stories. There are the roots to this writing life I created for myself. In that junk yard, among the debris, the lumber with rusted nails sticking out at all angles, the piles of car tires and license plates, the feral cats that nested beneath all that rubble, there I started telling myself stories, I started imagining a different life, I imagined myself the female Indiana Jones and that I was a dancer like Leroy and Coco in Fame.
If I could, I’d have a tiny jar containing spoonfuls of that soil. The soil from back then. The soil that fed mami’s garden those two years that she planted her tomatoes and peppers and eggplant, before she brought her plants inside because there she could protect them, outside she could not.
That soil didn’t need anyone to save it. That soil is what did the saving. That soil is what molded and saved this girl, who is now writing this essay at her desk, living this life that she started imagining way back in the Brooklyn people denigrate.
The other day at a reading in Greenpoint, an audience member asked, “Where are you from and how does that shape your work?” I said, “I’m from Brooklyn,” like I had a grenade exploding in my mouth. I survived boarding school and Columbia University and those people that said I couldn’t and I shouldn’t because I’m brown and woman and poor, I survived all that because I’m from Brooklyn. Nearly 40 years old and that’s still true.
Thank you, Brooklyn. Como tú, no hay y nunca habra otra.
I’ve been reading Lolly Willowes, a 1926 novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner set at the turn of the 20th century. The story reminds me a lot of the pastoral 19th century novels I’ve been reading: country life radically contrasted with the city, the smallness of family dramas, the quiet resistance of women in their domestic spheres.
When she moves to London with her brother and sister-in-law, main character Laura (called Lolly by her nieces) is seized by a restlessness every autumn. She finds herself roving and anxious until winter fully arrives and she bleakly resigns to it, and:
She fortified herself against the dismalness of this reaction by various small self-indulgences. Out of these she had contrived for herself a sort of mental fur coat. Roasted chestnuts could be bought and taken home for bedroom eating. Second-hand book-shops were never so enticing; and the combination of east winds and London water made it allowable to experiment in the most expensive soaps. Coming back from her expeditions, westward from the city with the sunset in her eyes, or eastward from a waning Kew, she would pause for a sumptuous and furtive tea, eating marrons glacés with a silver fork in the reflecting warm glitter of a smart pastry-cook’s. These things were exciting enough to be pleasurable, for she kept them secret.
There are so many things I love about this passage. The idea of a “mental fur coat” constructed of small soothing sensory pleasures. The gorgeous description of the pastry-cook’s. The whole familiar motion of going to and fro in a busy city, running errands and picking up provisions, then stopping for a brief respite with one of the purveyors of treats that pop up in cities for exactly that reason. I haven’t yet finished the book, but it seems that these little indulgences are specific to her life in the city; when in the countryside and surrounded by the wild beautiful natural landscape, she doesn’t seem to need them. I know we’re meant to see Laura’s city life as unsatisfactory and stifling. Yet this pretty little passage absolutely glows with pleasure; if Laura eats chestnuts in her bedroom to distract and comfort herself from an unhappy season, I’m not convinced that we’re meant to see that as a bad thing.
The passage reminded me of a section of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, a book which is peppered with little scenes of snacks and oysters and fine simple lunches that he remembers from his time in France. For example, “Miss Stein Instructs” starts out with Hemingway pleased by working in Paris in the winter:
The fireplace drew well in the room and it was warm and pleasant to work. I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in their paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry. I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working. Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of a story or toward the end of a day’s work. When I was threw working for the day I put the notebook, or the paper, away in the drawer of the table and put any mandarines that were left in my pocket. They would freeze if they were left in the room at night.
This passage picks up several threads that run through the book’s first few chapters: that writing is work; that the little privations of being a young couple without much money were more stimulating than frustrating in retrospect; that both the writing and the privations were soothed by small sensory indulgences such as roast chestnuts and nips of kirsch. Or endless café lattes and shots of rum, with half-carafes of white wine and oysters and pickles for a reward. Food is an essential element of Hemingway’s writing process throughout this book.
Pleasure in eating is not mere window-dressing: in scenes like this, it can be a step on the journey toward a plot’s progress or a catalyst to bring characters toward a greater sense of self-possession or self-knowledge; it can also forge or break social bonds, or signify a character’s relationship to the world around them. Laura’s sumptuous and furtive teas are one of the first little rebellions she makes against her controlling family; they not only give her a little buffer against her seasonal disaffection, they also give her the experience of making choices alone and for her own enjoyment. Hemingway’s eating sustains him physically and psychologically for the mental labor of his writing, which he does for both love and money: his detailed recollections of eating during his writing sessions in cafés and the top-floor room may cause your mouth to water but they also convey the exchange of capital. Coal for the fire and oranges for the pocket are the expenses he has to tally against his writer’s income. These pleasures, like Laura’s secret pleasures, are all the more poignant for being small.
And above all there is something very relateable and human about these scenes of eating. The roasted chestnuts tell us some specific things about what Laura and Hemingway want, but they necessarily appeal to what every reader must want: to be warm, to be fed, to enjoy. Our shared appetites for small comforts bring us into a kind of quiet intimacy with the writer and this writing.
We hit the white out just beyond the Virgil ditch.
A south wind blasting eight-foot drifts
Like a fireship exploding the armadas
Of January. A page of erased zeroes.
Today, it might get to 20, no melt but plenty
Of blowing to disguise what’s road
And what’s the verge, how to be stuck
Last week in such weather a semi
Jackknifed, then another, another, another
Swallowing cars, a multitude following
Faithfully as pilgrims to the disaster
Of the stampede. Finally, there were forty
Or more vehicles crushed and miles of traffic
Detained while the Jaws of Life were deployed.
Three dead including a man whose dog
Was thought to be a fatality but survived
To lick the hands of the first responders.
People we used to call firemen or cops
Rearticulated like weather once called storms
Now polar vortices. Naming something doesn’t change
Effect. We still stall where we thought
The road curved and it didn’t.
We’re still as lost.
The white out still blinds us.
IMAGE: “Whiteout conditions in Arlington Heights, Illinois (2011)” by Bill Zars, Staff Photographer, The Daily Herald (Illinois)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joan Colby has published widely in journals such as Poetry, Atlanta Review, South Dakota Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, the new renaissance, Grand Street, Epoch, and Prairie Schooner. Awards include two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards, Rhino Poetry Award, the new renaissance Award for Poetry, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Literature. She was a finalist in the GSU Poetry Contest (2007), Nimrod International Pablo Neruda Prize (2009, 2012), and received honorable mentions in the North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Contest (2008, 2010). One of her poems is a winner of the 2014 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest. She is the editor of Illinois Racing News, and lives on a small horse farm in Northern Illinois. She has published 14 books, including Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press), which received the 2013 FutureCycle Prize, Properties of Matter (Aldrich Press, Kelsay Books), Bittersweet (Main Street Rag Press), and The Wingback Chair (FutureCycle Press). Colby is also an associate editor of Kentucky Review and FutureCycle Press. Visit her at joancolby.com.
By Jim Warner You read a poor Tagalog translation of handwritten prayers on your mother’s dresser. Your cousin has mistaken aswang for multo. Even you–whose native tongue died in his mouth years ago–knows the difference. Aswang is an evil spirit. A Filipino vampire. A dog. Something wicked. Your cousin has been looking to redefine herself […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
People often toss around the idea that the internet is “not real life,” as though this thing — made by people to allow those people to share and interact with other people — is just the playtime before more serious business. The real business.
Here are some things that happen on the internet:
Here are some other things that happen on the internet:
All of these things really happen between real people. (Really.) They are therefore, by definition, happening “in real life.” When you claim that the internet is “not real life,” you diminish all of these very real experiences. For the positive ones, that just sad; for the negative ones, it’s dangerous.
Humans are connecting. Interacting. Learning. Supporting themselves. Ordering pad thai.* Sometimes, these things happen over a series of tubes, sometimes over a cup of coffee. Claiming one is more real than the other is disrespectful to the people having those experiences. To us. When you say the internet is “not real,” you diminish the deep bond of the couple that live on opposite sides of the world and met on a message board — their relationship is less-than. You diminish the man furthering his education and professional development with online courses — his efforts are less-than. You diminish the woman receiving rape threats on Twitter — those threats are less-than — and you diminish the culpability of the very real person who made those threats. It’s not a real threat. It’s just the internet.
If you want to support that conception of the internet, go right ahead. But first ask: do that couple, that man, or that woman feel a lesser degree of love? Of accomplishment? Of fear?
We could pontificate about the attributes of “realness” until the conversation comes to an abrupt end when we all get sucked into our own navels, or we could just decide that any place where human relationships, education, and livelihoods blossom is a real place. We can do that because not only did we make the internet, we made the language we use to talk about it. We define. We decide. That power-slash-responsibility is not one I’m about to abdicate. “It’s just the internet…” Okay, except we are the internet. It’s “just” us.
It is possible that all of life is just an illusion; a false front erected by an evil demon, as Descartes once mused before concluding otherwise. Maybe the internet itself is an evil demon; that would certainly explain the popularity of child porn rings and Farmville. But until I have proof of that, I’m going to behave as thought it is, y’know, real. That’s the only experience I have, and I refuse to call it less than that. Last I checked, the opposite of “real” is “fake.”
Without people, there’s no internet, not the way we know it. There’s just a bunch of servers, sitting in a room somewhere, wondering when the people are going to come along to upload cat GIFs.
TL;DR: Are you alive? Is something happening? Then it’s happening IRL. Full stop.**
*Yes, I order a lot of take out on the internet. You tell me you wouldn’t do the same, if your city had a bakery that would bring you hot, fresh cookies and a glass of milk when you asked them to via the internet.
**Holy crap, pontificating about the internet really sends my punctuation usage to a whole ‘nother level of excess.
Ten episodes from the dawning days of Google Maps.
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
The world is your kaleidoscope, and the varying combinations of colors
which at every succeeding moment are the exquisitely adjusted
pictures of your ever-moving thoughts.
- James Allen
Why do two colors, put one next to the other, sing?
Can one really explain this? No.
- Pablo Picasso
The purest and most thoughtful minds
are those which love color the most.
- John Ruskin
Our days are a kaleidoscope.
Every instant a change takes place in the contents.
New harmonies, new contrasts, new combinations of every sort…
The most familiar people stand each moment in some
new relation to each other, to their work, to surrounding objects.
– Harry Ward Beecher
All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.
- Marc Chagall
There’s a time for everyone, If they only learn,
that the twisting kaleidoscope moves us all in turn.
- Sir Elton John
A Toy Kaleidoscope
Tumbling bits of glass
- K. Earle
Steve McCurry Retrospective
Villa Riale di Monza
October 30 – April 6, 2015
Finding the Sublime
112 rue Saint-François 74120
December 16, 2014 – April 4, 2015
Bait Al Zubair Museum
December 16, 2014 – February 28, 2015