Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book #17: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Reading something by Neil Gaiman this week wasn't even a question after hearing him interviewed by Radio West's Doug Fabrizio in Park City last Saturday night (click here to listen to that conversation).

My nephew's wife Becca and I discussed which book I should read in the car on the way up, and I settled on The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (A close second was American Gods, which I also plan to read sooner of later.)

I stayed up until midnight last night to finish it, curled up under warm blankets, listening to the rain outside. Perfect conditions. I couldn't turn out the light until I was done.

Basically, Gaiman sounds like he's telling a perfectly normal stories, but then impossible--often horrifying--things happen in them. And then he continues on as though everything is still perfectly normal. In this book, a grown man heads home for his father's funeral and remembers a strange thing that happened when he was seven, something he'd forgotten about entirely.

An important truth he discovers at the heart of it all:
 
Lettie shrugged, "Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don't. I don't. People are much more complicated than that. It's true of everybody."

This is also true of novels (at least good ones), not just people, I think. An engaging story on the surface, but dive in and you find there's more to it.

I was never quite sure, though, if I was reading way more into this one than there actually was. It could just be that an oral report one of my students gave a few days ago on depression and suicide prevention was still ringing in my ears. But, no, I don't think so. I think Gaiman plumbed the depths of that particular ocean brilliantly.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Let's Go Fishing

This post was inspired by a discussion I had with some friends on the topic of economic inequality. We did not all agree with one another, but I'm not convinced we are as far apart from one another as it often seems.

Below I've extended a familiar metaphor to illustrate what I mean.

This is just a starting point. I am not making any particular assumptions about the roles of the market, private charity, or the government in addressing each point. I'm only claiming that each point in and of itself is something most, if not all, of us buy into.

And just look at how many points there are!

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Here’s the starting point:  “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” (The gendered language, which is ironic in the context of a blog post about equality, must be a topic for another day.)

We know people need fish to survive.

We want people to have the opportunity to fish so they can provide fish for themselves and their families. Simply giving people fish isn’t a viable long-term option.

We agree that we need to teach people how to fish, and we mostly agree on the idea of pooling our resources to do this.

We mostly agree that it is okay—even good, but at least okay—to give people fish while they are learning how to fish.

We understand that sometimes we’re not very good at teaching people how to fish. We also understand that sometimes people have a hard time learning how to fish.

We recognize that sometimes people don’t believe they can learn how to fish or that they can have an opportunity to fish like everyone else.

We understand that there are people who will never be able to fish, some who used to fish but can’t anymore, and some who can’t fish temporarily.

But we get frustrated with people who refuse to learn how to fish when they seem perfectly capable of learning or who refuse to fish when they already know how. We don’t like it when people take advantage.

It’s hard, though, to tell which people are which. And what’s truly going on underneath what we can see. How do we truly judge?

We recognize that we ourselves might not be able to fish one day. It could come sooner than we think. We may not be expecting it; we may not have had a chance to prepare for it. And if it ever does happen to us, we’d rather not feel shamed for it.

However we slice it, all of the people who aren’t fishing for themselves—many of whom have children—can end up without fish and risk going hungry. When it comes right down to it, all but the most cold-hearted among us believe children shouldn’t go hungry even if it means their parents get fish they might not deserve. Because we actually don’t like the idea of anyone starving.

Some people have to make difficult choices when it comes to balancing the time they should spend fishing with the time they should spend taking care of their children. Sometimes those choices seem impossible.

We generally support the idea of people having equal opportunity to fish, but we know we fall short of that ideal.

We love the idea of having lots of options for places to fish as well as kinds of fish to catch. Some people have access to many fishing holes that are well stocked with fish. Some people have very few options, only poor options, or sometimes no options at all.

Most of us support the idea of helping people gain access to a fishing hole and the equipment they need to fish. Because what good is knowing how to fish if there isn’t anywhere to fish or anything to fish with?

Some of us want to use our own initiative to create more options for people, and we want to be as free as possible to do that. But wherever people go to fish, we also want the water to be clean and we don’t want the fish they are catching to make them sick. And in times of drought, we don’t want the fishing holes to dry up if we can help it.

We know that we need to renew and expand our supply of fish, especially as our population grows, so we don’t put everyone at risk if there are not enough fish to go around, or worse, no fish left at all.

We understand and accept that once people are fishing—even in the very same pond—some will catch more fish than others and for the most part that’s okay. It’s just the way it goes. Sometimes it’s due to skill or experience. Sometimes it’s due to luck. Sometimes it’s due to people being able to use the smaller fish they catch to catch bigger fish. And for many it might be better or worse the next day or the next.

Many of us empathize with people who spend all day fishing and don’t catch enough to live on. We especially empathize with people who spend all day, every day, day after day fishing and fishing but failing to catch enough.

And we empathize with people who are on their way home with their catch and lose it through no fault of their own—maybe they are mugged by a bear?—leaving them empty handed. Better yet, we want to protect people from having their fish stolen in the first place.

We see that some people are inclined to share their catch with others. Sometimes that is enough. But when we look closely enough, we see it too often isn't. 

We also see that inevitably there are people who take advantage of another person's generosity. None of us like that.

We understand that people don’t like being forced to share, especially when they’re worried about having enough fish for themselves.

If people hire other people to catch their fish for them, we want the people they hire to be able to take home a reasonable share of fish.

We--including even some of us who are in a position to do this--are not okay with people who claim most of the fish for themselves.

We recognize a relationship between societal instability and some people having fish while others don't. We understand that kind of societal instability can lead to violence in extreme cases.

We value human existence.

We know people need fish to survive.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book #16: Only the Lover Sings

My reading choice this week reveals another layer of my pathology when it comes to books, this time specifically in acquiring them. I ordered Only the Lover Sings after hearing about it during some podcast interview or another. It clearly struck a chord for me, but I didn't read it straightaway and now I have no memory of exactly why or in what context it came to my attention.

Josef Pieper was a German Catholic philosopher who passed away about 20 years ago. This is a slim volume of speeches and essays he wrote, primarily in the 1950s.

After reading it, I now have my suspicions about why I bought it, but they are many and varied. Which means I'm glad I read it. The essays explored several ideas I've been contemplating, including contemplation itself. Also among them: Working to survive in relation to pursuits that exist for their own sake, the rhetoric of silence, creativity, connectedness, the need for us to truly see what exists--from a perspective rooted in love--if we want the journey of humanity to progress, to transcend. And, ironically, memory.

The challenge in writing a short post about a collection of essays that address a wide range of things is figuring out what to home in on. I took pages and pages of notes, far more than I want to put here.

So I've decided I'll simply share this recent experience, which came to my mind more than once as I read:

When I woke up the morning after we returned from last week's lovely soul- and family-nurturing trip, Roger kissed me. I had been thinking about papers I needed to grade for one job and hours I needed to put in at my other job, especially to make up for the time I'd missed. I started to whine about having to return to "real life."

He kissed me again.

"This is real life," he said. "This is real life."

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Friends Who Came Along

For the first time ever, Jack and I had the same week off school for spring break. Roger and I stole him away from his friends and took him north on an adventure to Seattle and Vancouver Island.

When we stopped at a hotel the first night, Jack pulled out a VW van he'd made out of Lego and put it on the nightstand. He'd filled it with mini-figures, proxies for his friends. He said it was his way of taking them with us.

As we traveled, he pulled out the van to take pictures. Sometimes he even took all of his friends out so they could get a better view.

Here are some of the highlights:

Arriving at the Space Needle
Catching the view of downtown Seattle from the Space Needle
Watching a tug boat navigating the locks between Puget Sound and Lake Union
Stretching legs at the Boeing Factory. So sad we couldn't take a camera inside.
Exploring the tulip fields near Mt. Vernon, WA
Exploring tidal pools in Sydney, BC
Navigating the stepping stones across a pond in Buschart Gardens
Enjoying the surprise inlet at the bottom of the Japanese garden (Buschart)
Hiking along the shore in Victoria, BC

And a PS that we found entertaining: There are more old VW vans per capita driving around on Vancouver Island than I have ever seen in one place. Seriously, we must have crossed paths with 50 of them! Jack and his friends fit right in.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Book #15: The Guest Cat

Whenever Roger and I go on vacation, we have a tradition of finding an independent bookstore and buying at least one gem there. We found this one at Ivy's Bookshop in Victoria, BC. Such a welcoming place!

While we were browsing, multiple customers dropped by to chat with the women who worked there, including an older gentleman, who regaled them with tales of Norway in a thick Norwegian accent. Happy, happy.

Roger has long been drawn to Japanese fiction, so he gets full credit for discovering The Guest Cat. The clerk who rang us up said that they discovered it and decided to stock it after a customer special ordered it, then ordered more copies to give as gifts.

The story, written by a Japanese poet more than a decade ago, then translated into English last year, is a simple one about a couple who live in the guest quarters of a large walled estate with a meticulous garden. They unexpectedly connect both with their wealthy, elderly landlords and with a neighbor's cat, more fully than they ever imagined they would.

This was where I started the book. (It may have been a bit windy and chilly, but I had a hood and a pair of gloves.)

French Beach, Vancouver Island

And this was the serendipitous gift of reading this particular book while traveling through such a beautiful part of the world: it gave me the eye of a poet--a poet who knows how to see the smallest details that make up the sense of a thing, like a person or a cat or a place.

I dipped into the book enough for it to cast its spell. So I may not have gotten much read that afternoon at the beach. Or on the ferry rides the next day. Or as we drove through Snoqualmie Pass.

I finished it on the way home as we barreled by 18-wheelers and monotonous sagebrush in southern Idaho. By the end of the story, the couple had to leave the walled estate with the meticulous garden. Both their elderly landlords and the cat were gone. But their hearts had opened to possibility.

Things don't last. Like afternoons on the beach and ferry rides. But if we open our eyes, we can store the smallest details in our souls, and if we open our hearts, we will go on to find new wonders.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Book #14: Forever, Interrupted

I've been wanting to read this debut novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid ever since it was released because her mom, Mindy, was a classmate of mine growing up in Massachusetts.

Now Taylor's third novel is coming out in July, and a movie of Forever, Interrupted is actually in development with Dakota Johnson cast as the main character, Elsie!

(I am still not adjusted to the fact that people my age have children who are doing grownup things like having children, finishing medical school, and publishing novels.)

I read it this week because road trip. It's a great vacation read, the right mix of sad and happy. Full of love, loss, and healing.

Plus, I totally bonded with Elsie when I read this line: "I ordered a caprese salad and a Diet Coke." A perfect meal, imo.

I also totally bonded with Elsie's mother-in-law Susan when I read this line: "I remember one night I was lying there, Ben between us, and I thought, This is my family. This is my life. And I was so happy in that moment. I had my two guys. And they loved me and I belonged to them."

Because that is my life, too, the three of us. Roger, Jack, and me.

What I can't even touch in my imagination, though, is the line that follows: "And now, I lie in that same bed and they are both gone. I don't think I have even begun to scratch the surface of what that has done to me."

Nope, not going there. Losing both a husband and a son? Nope.

Glad it's just a story.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book #13: The Bromeliad Trilogy

I've appreciated Terry Pratchett for a long time. I have a lot of friends and family members who love Terry Pratchett. And in fact, I've sold a lot of Terry Pratchett books. But until now I've never actually read a Terry Pratchett book. I know. It seems inconceivable. Sorry.

When he passed away recently, I asked Roger if we had any of Pratchett's books. This is the one he produced from our bookshelves, primarily because he knew that growing up I had loved stories about tiny people living in a human world (The Borrowers, The Littles).

This trilogy was written for a young adult audience. As with the best of that genre, it's full of sophisticated philosophical themes I understand he explores in many (all?) of his books.

So it wasn't just about resourceful tiny people living in a human world, but in this case it was also very much about the journey of figuring out what the "world" actually is.

"Are you trying to tell me you came from Outside?" he said.
"That's right."
"But that's impossible!"
"Is it?" Masklin looked worried.
"There's nothing Outside!"
"There isn't? Sorry," said Masklin. "But we seem to have come in from it anyway. Is this a problem?"

The trilogy reminded me of a quote I recently came across from Robert Persig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and shared immediately with my college writing students (I'm always pushing them to stretch the boundaries of their thinking): "We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world."

Can we always be certain of what we think we are certain of? For me, I will keep grabbing more handfuls of sand.