Monthly Archives: May 2014

My Mostly Companion

 

Henry was old for a dog. Nearly 18. He was blind, deaf, arthritic and had grown painfully thin. About a month ago he stopped the small frisking about he did when I brought him in from the outside. And I had told myself it would be time to put him to sleep when he stopped doing that—the last sign of any real joy I saw from him.

But still I hesitated. After all, there was life in him. He liked to eat. He enjoyed standing by the open front door and sniffing the wind. He could still get around—although mostly it had turned into wandering around in an anxious, aimless way.

It was time, really. Not necessarily past time. Henry might have lived along in this fashion for an uncertain number of months. But any “good” days were gone. So it became a matter of when I was ready. Not him.

Today was the day I was ready. My daughters and I took him to the vet and at about 10:30 this morning, he was put to sleep. It was a peaceful death. The room was set up with a cozy blanket. Soft music played. After explaining how things would go, the vet gave Henry a tranquilizing shot.

Henry continued with his anxious wandering for about five more minutes, then at my urging came to the blanket and sunk into a quiet state. Henry was never easy to pet. He was a shiba inu and like many shiba inus he was aloof. He didn’t particularly like being petted. Usually if you approached him you could sense him tolerating your touch until he could move away and shake it off. It wasn’t really until he was around ten that Henry would actively seek out affection. And then, never from strangers.

Shiba inus are beautiful dogs. Most people compare them to foxes with their sharp ears and noses and coats of lush red fur. And they are closer to their wild nature than most dogs. Something in them remains independent and fierce. Henry would duck away if a stranger tried to pet him. That lush fur always just out of reach.

But this morning, Henry fell into his tranquilized sleep and we could pet him to our heart’s content. We cried, laughed and remembered. Then the vet returned and gave Henry his final shot. It worked quickly. In less than a minute, Henry took several sharp breaths. Something about the deep breaths made his mouth turn up and I realized how long it had been since I’d seen Henry smile. It made me feel more certain that I was doing the right thing. Then the vet announced that Henry’s heart had stopped. And we said our last goodbyes.

Now the house feels empty. Eighteen years is a long time. As a writer, home alone much of my day, you were my mostly companion, Henry. The rhythm of our days changed over the years from the days of three and four walks as you were bursting with young energy to the recent days of long, long naps. But they were days we shared.

I always knew you were in the house—barking at the crows who dared to use our roof, joyfully greeting the workmen you seemed to have a natural affinity for, nosing about for some goody in the kitchen, snapping at some fly, officiously investigating odd sounds, paroling the back yard, graciously allowing yourself to be petted, sleeping in my office as I wrote…

You were a good dog, Henry. You were an especially good Henry. And I’ll miss you.

On Delight, Despair and…Musical Chairs

cat_musical_chairs

Two things happened this week which made me pause amid the busy-ness of every day life (painting a bedroom, reorganizing the linen cupboard.)  The first was my grandson’s birthday. He is  seven wonderful years old – a whirlwind, a dreamer,a talker  – and his imagination never stops. He’s learning to play the piano and recently performed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the one-handed  version on piano) by heart in front of a live audience of adoring parents and grandparents at a pizza parlor in Eugene, Oregon. We’ll have a little family party in Seattle for him this weekend when he comes up with his parents, and we have two presents this time around that he’ll get with the usual books and art supplies and stickers – one is a Superman robot with helicopter blades attached to his head (he flies up and down – not forward, not backward, apparently – and spins via remote control – not fancy, but fancy enough for a seven-year-old) and another is the same thing only the figure is Batman. Great stuff, if I do say so. I mean, who wouldn’t want helicopter blades that could make them levitate? Of such imaginings, delight is made.

The second thing that happened was a posting on Facebook by my good friend Leda Schubert that quoted Tomi Ungerer (“A talent without despair is hardly useful”) and asked for comments. I replied that I might revise that to read, “hardly interesting,” believing as I do that quite a lot of fascinating art comes from melancholy, dissatisfaction, darkness (think Maurice Sendak.) Within hours, a different person replied by saying, “Sorry but, blah blah blah. What is your comment? I am not interested in talent or despair.

Not interested in talent? Not interested in despair? Whoa. That threw me for a loop.  You can be interested in happiness, that’s fine with me – who isn’t? But to the exclusion of sorrow? And why not interested in talent? I suspect that the comment was not meant to be as flip as it sounded.

I also suspect sometimes that I have a dark edge that bumps up against the sweet world of children’s books and their authors -  a very kind and happy bunch of people, I’ve learned. I like their influence on me, and I thank them for keeping me slightly more balanced than I used to be when I was just writing poetry for adults (no shortage of despair in some of that.) But I do wonder from time to time about the energy it takes to approach the world “without a cry, without a prayer, / with no betrayal of despair” as Tennessee Williams put it. It exhausts me, the idea of trying to do that. Is that what the commenter on Leda’s post meant when he said he’s “not interested in despair.” Maybe he thinks it’s exhausting, and doesn’t want to go there. Or does he just not want anyone to mention it? Or was he just kidding, and I missed the humor of it?

Seems to me that not being interested in sorrow would eliminate about 51% (maybe more – 99%? -  let’s just say a great deal) of all the music, visual art, dance, film, theater and literature that is produced out of discomfort, melancholy, grief, or any of  the million small heartaches that move us to create – a longing for home, a dream gone up in smoke, missing someone, running out of hope. Those things happen in life, and to express disinterest feels very odd to me. “All you have to do,” I replied again on Leda’s Facebook page, “is listen to a sad fiddle tune or a good Rhythm and Blues song to know how interesting despair can be and how intricately it is linked to creativity.”

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's "Children's Games."

Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s  “Children’s Games.”

The intersection of the Happy Birthday moment and the Not Interested in Talent or Despair moment came yesterday when I read a poem  by Josephine Jacobsen, a Canadian poet whose work I’m looking into for one of my Undersung essays over at Numero Cinq. She wrote the following poem about children playing musical chairs at a birthday party. It has delight, it has sorrow – neither one eclipses the other. The two together deepen each other, don’t they?

Seems to me that the lesson to remember is this, so basic that it’s got to be true:  Don’t worry about those two crayons in the Crayola box – Delight and Despair. Use them liberally. Both – light and dark – make your work interesting.

Hope you all enjoy Jacobsen’s poem as I did – the terza rima form seems perfect for something that looks at a children’s game. It has a nursery rhyme feel to it, but packs a punch.  I bet both melancholy and delight played a role in her writing it.  We see the children running, we hear their eager cries, we worry about that dark slope, and we know that “somewhere hidden” there is “the shape of bliss.”

The Birthday Party  by Josephine Jacobsen

The sounds are the sea, breaking out of sight,
and down the green slope the children’s voices
that celebrate the fact of being eight.

One too few chairs are for desperate forces:
when the music hushes, the children drop
into their arms, except for one caught by choices.

In a circle gallops the shrinking crop
to leave a single sitter in hubris
when the adult finger tells them: stop.

There is a treasure, somewhere easy to miss.
In the blooms? by the pineapple-palms’ bark?
somewhere, hidden, the shape of bliss.

Onto the pitted sand comes highwater mark.
Waves older than eight begin a retreat;
they will come, the children gone, the slope dark.

One of the gifts was a year, complete.
There will be others: those not eight
will come to be eight, bar a dire defeat.

On the green grass there is a delicate
change; there is a change in the sun
though certainly it is not truly late,

and still caught up in the scary fun,
like a muddle of flowers blown around.
For treasure, for triumph, the children run

and the wind carries the steady pound,
and salty weight that falls, and dies,
and falls. The wind carries the sound

of the children’s light high clear cries.

Musical-Chairs-300x225

By the way, today is Poetry Friday.  Head over to Violet Nesdoly’s blog to see her round-up of what people around the KidLitOSphere have posted.

And by the way again, if you didn’t have time to check out the link to Ode to Joy above, take time to do it now. It’s the Flash Mob in Spain version – all delight. ———————————————————–

Generosity

I suppose it is well known that our children’s book community is generous. But last week topped it all.

This story begins April Fool’s Day, 1992, on my first trip to meet the editors in New York. I had an appointment with Lucia Monfried, editor of Dutton Children’s books. She met me at the elevator, holding the dummy I’d mailed to her for What Shall I Dream?

wsidcover785

“We’d love to publish your text,” she said.

A generous offer, for sure, but I’d hoped she’d be interested in my illustrations as well. We walked to her office and she leafed through my portfolio. She stopped at a piece for a board book idea. She liked that, too, and eventually bought two board books and the aforementioned text. What a day.

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But like Julie P. wrote in last week’s BATT post, many hands go into making the cookies. I should back up here to note the generosity that got me to that editor’s desk: primarily the generosity of Keith Baker, Seattle author and illustrator, who taught a most wonderful class in Children’s Book Illustration at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle. That’s where I learned to make dummy books and put together a portfolio.

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I wouldn’t have been ready for New York without the unending encouragement and discernment of our critique group, as well. I had met Julie Paschkis and Margaret Chodos-Irvine in Keith’s class. In those first years I attended all the SCBWI presentations I could find — and the generosity of the authors and illustrators who offered ideas and shared their skills also played a role.

Editor Monfried selected illustrator Judith Byron Schachner of Swarthmore, PA for What Shall I Dream?  This was before Judy made her big hit with the hilarious Skippy Jon Jones picture book series.

What Shall I Dream? came out in 1996. The illustrations were beautiful and full of humor and wonder.

wsidcover.795

Fast forward to present times. Judy Schachner and I are facebook friends. Lately she has been posting images from her many books. One day that included art from What Shall I Dream?  I commented how much I loved it.

This week a fat yellow envelope arrived, full of original art from What Shall I Dream?  Way more than I could have dreamed. How amazing to see in person the heart and thought and skill that went into these vivid watercolors.

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jbsoriginal1.789 jbsoriginal2.790   kvasnosky 1jbsoriginal5.793

I love the pencil sketch on tissue paper that she sent along, too, of the cover in its planning stages.

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Mostly I am struck by her wonderful generosity. Thank you, Judy. I will treasure this gift.

Lake Forest Menagerie

Recently I made a wooden menagerie for the children’s section of the Lake Forest Park Library, a branch of the King County Library System.

paschkis lake forest park

Public art is something new for me and it was an honor, opportunity and pleasure to work on this project.

Last year I illustrated Who Put the Cookies in the Cookie Jar? by George Shannon. In the book George celebrates all of the people who make cookies possible  including the farmers, the bakers, the truckers, the cookie sheet manufacturers and more.

Cookie Jar front cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought of the book while I was working on this project. Many hands helped bake these cookies.

IMG_0186Bruce Schauer, David Scott-Risner and Deirdre Miller of the King County Library System chose me for this project: to create a piece of public art that went above the bookshelves in the children’s section of the library.  I knew right away that I wanted to make a parade of wooden animals. David sent me measurements of the space which is roughly 40 feet long by 4 feet high.

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I made a tiny sketch – one inch equaled one foot. Some of the animals in the sketch are real and some are imaginary, because children’s books lead you into both of those realms.Paschkis menagerie sketch

Kinkos enlarged the drawings which I then redrew at scale. I taped up the drawings in the library to see if they fit. Yes, phew.

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Then I drew the animals on big sheets of plywood at Pioneer Woodworks. Wally Meyers cut them out, beveled the edges and added dowels as needed.

Wally Meyer

AND he let me complete the project in the basement of his woodshop because my studio is too small for a menagerie.

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Linda at Maple Leaf Hardware gave me technical advice about gesso, paint and varnish.Linda

Ralph mixed the 17 cans of paint. The people at Maple Leaf Ace are so friendly and helpful; this business could happily exist in a picture book.Ralph

I painted the animals in layers: 2 layers gesso, 2 layers color,  layers of details, and then 3 layers of varnish.

paschkis lion underpainting

paschkis lion

paschkis cat

T. Michael Gardiner and Ben from Art Tech picked up the pieces and put French cleats on the back of them. Roger Waterhouse and Ben installed them at the library.

Roger and Ben

paschkis menagerie

paschkis horseAfter the project was up I began to wonder if I should have done something else – baked different cookies entirely. That is not part of Who Put the Cookies in the Cookie Jar? But it seems to be part of my process for all projects big and small. But now these cookies are baked, and it is time to enjoy them.

Paschkis party cookie jar

The book ends with a party and the Lake Forest Park menagerie will start with one. Denise Bugallo and Kalee Shearer are the wonderful librarians at Lake Forest Park. There will be an opening celebration at the library on May 17th. I hope that you can come if you are in the Seattle area.

lake forest invitation

Another Look at Steig

The Steig Album-cover

When I was visiting my parents recently, I pulled The Steig Album off their bookshelves. My father bought this book when he was a student at Alfred University in upstate New York. He said Steig was popular with his colleagues in the 50s.

What surprised me most about the images in this book was how different the majority of them are to the work we know from his later children’s books, some of which Julie Paschkis mentioned in her post Ode To Steig.

steig sylvester

His earlier work was darker, often presenting a sardonic look at human nature, like these drawings from “About People.”

W Steig-Spiteful little man.

W Steig-Woman desiring to attract friendship.

His depiction of relationships is accurate and insightful, but hardly flattering, like his section, “Till Death Do Us Part: Some Ballet Notes on Marriage.”

W Steig - Darling – Hold me tight.

W Steig - When you and I were young, Maggie.

W Steig - You live your life and I'll live mine.

W Steig - Impasse

W Steig - Reconciliation.

You get the feeling from this book that Steig understands every aspect and conundrum of human existence –

W Steig - About People: Ennui

W Steig - Embarrassment

– and had little patience with us.

W Steig - Persistent Faces: Hero Worshipper

But the humor was always there.

Steig’s many drawings of children indicate his keen eye for capturing moments of  juvenile inquisitiveness and camaraderie.  These cartoons appeared in The New Yorker in the 40s.

W Stein-Worm

W Steig-Espionage and–  counter-espionage.

W Steig-"Toity more years we'll be toity-seven."

He underscored the pain, frustration, and anxieties of childhood as well, as in these pieces from the section, “The Agony In The Kindergarten.”

W Steig - Mother knows whats best for you, dear.

W Steig - Well Speak up, what is it?

W Steig - We don't play with that sort of children.

W Steig - "Willie!"

Steig didn’t begin to write children’s books until he was 61. His first children’s book was published in 1968. Somewhere in his first six decades, I think he softened a little.

My daughters loved the Dr. De Soto books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Abel’s Island. Another of our family favorites was The Flying Latke, by Arthur Yorinks. Steig created the background illustrations for this wacky holiday book, and played a cameo role as the newscaster in the story. The book came out in 1999. He was ninety-two.

The Flying Latke news page

Long live William Steig.

William Steig as "The Newscaster"