Author Archives: Julie Larios

Like Cats and Dogs

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In 2012 – yikes, seven years ago, already? –  I wrote a blog post for the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ faculty blog, Write At Your Own Risk. I wrote that post the day after the 2012 elections, ruminating about how hopeful I was feeling, and trying to evaluate the lessons I’d learned about friends, family, community and politics. You might say the people in the country then  (and the political pundits) had been fighting like cats and dogs. In that 2012 blog, I said, “As with many lessons we learn on the path to responsible behavior as neighbors and citizens, it comes in the form of a poem for children.” The poem I had in mind was Eugene Field’s wonderful “The Duel” (commonly called “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.”)

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I’ll offer that poem up to you now because it’s been on my mind again lately, Maybe it’s a poem that wiggles its way into my subconscious every year there’s a national election? Maybe it’s bubbling up again because my nephew and I had a conversation about our diverging political opinions that made me lose sleep.

Maybe the poem will bubble up into your minds over the next few months, too. Similarities between ourselves and our gingham-and-calico counterparts abound.

As a writer whose audience consists of children, I’m going to reread All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  Learning to share, learning to be generous, learning to offer a helping hand to people less fortunate than ourselves, learning to take turns, learning not to be bullies.  Lots of lessons to re-learn amidst the meows and the bow-wow-wows.

THE DUEL

The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
‘T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!
)

The gingham dog went “Bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “Mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I ‘m only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!
)

The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, “Oh, dear! what shall we do!”
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don’t fancy I exaggerate—
I got my news from the Chinese plate!
)

Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.
)

–Eugene Field

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It’s Poetry Friday, by the way. Click here to head over to Linda Baie’s blog, TeacherDance, to see what people are posting.

 

 

And How! Etc.

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Pleased as punch….

Inspired by Julie Paschkis (one of my Books Around the Table co-conspirators) questioning how the phrase “And how!” might have come into existence, I spent a wonderful afternoon looking at websites which trace the origin of strange phrases in English.  If one person says to another, “Pistachio ice cream is the best ice cream on the planet!” and the other responds “And how!” you have to scratch your head and wonder about that (well, you don’t have to, but if you’re a writer with any curiosity about your language, you probably do.) How on earth did “And how!” come to mean “Absolutely! Amen to that!” Nothing on the surface of the phrase – definitions or etymologies of individual words, for example – explains it. So I scratched my head and began to explore.

There’s no doubt anymore, thanks to the internet, that if I wonder about something, many other people have wondered about it, too.  I googled “origins” and “phrases” and “English”  and in less time than it takes to blink (7/10ths of one second, to be precise) I had 68,500,000 hits. Granted, not all the hits would tell me about the curious origins of English phrases, but even if I only looked at a millionth of them, I would have a nice 68 to spend my day on.

Websites from Bored Panda to the Oxford Royale Academy (that’s quite a spread, yes?) have posted articles about phrase origins. Ever scratched your head and wondered about the following?

  • “Pleased as punch….” The word “punch” used to be capitalized, as far back as the 1600’s, because it came from the Punch and Judy puppet shows, where two puppets fought it out in front of a delighted audience. Punch was a mean cuss, always playing tricks on Judy or banging on her head with a stick, and he always took pleasure doing it. I found the long literary history of the phrase (back to Charles !! of England, who – in 1662 – ordered a command performance of the puppet show from an Italian puppeteer known by the alias Pollicinella) at a site called Idiomation: Historically Speaking. Punch and Judy were also the origin of the words “punch line” and “slapstick.” If you head over there after this, be sure to read about the woman who researches and writes the entries – her own history is impressive.
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  • “Go haywire…” I love this phrase, maybe because I know how it feels to do it? Here’s what Mental Floss says about it in their list of 16 curious phrases: “What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the ‘messed up’ sense of the word.”
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I definitely go more haywire than this….

  • “The whole shebang….” Another favorite phrase of mine. Mental Floss is less sure of the origin of this, but says, “The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.” That sounds right to me, especially given how many Irish were coming to America before and during the Civil War.
  • The Whole Shebang

    The whole shebang of a shebeen in Ballybeg House, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

  • “Minding your P’s and Q’s…” Speaking of drinking establishments, P’s and Q’s refer to pints and quarts, which barmaids had to keep track of serving so that the bills would be correct. To mind your p’s and q’s means to get things right, to be careful and do what you should be doing.  You can find it in the list of curious phrases over at Owlcation, a site of “engineers, product and community advocates, moderators, and editors that are passionate about writing and online know-how. In addition to our official team, we are a tight-knit community of thousands of writers and enthusiasts.” If you visit, you’ll see articles as diverse as “The Many Uses of Cow Dung” and “The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture.”
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  • “Mad as a hatter….”   You might think you know the origin of this one. But according to Grammarly, “No, you didn’t already know this one, because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Carroll’s book was published. In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The ‘Mad Hatter Disease’ was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear ‘mad.'”
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  • I’m going to end here and say toodle-oo. If you want to know where “toodle-oo” came from, you’ll be astounded by the length of the article about it over at The Phrase Finder.
  • Toodle-oo

 

 

 

A Summer Frame of Mind

Well, we’ve had a rainy summer so far, with temperatures below normal – that’s okay with me. I’m a cool-weather type, preferring a swim in ice-cold Puget Sound to a swim in tropical waters, and preferring a rocky log-strewn beach to palm trees and white sand. This preference bewilders and disappoints my kids, I think, since they’re sure (and have told me) that the Mayan Riviera is closer to paradise.

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Certainly each heart beats faster for whatever speaks directly to it, and the lush Yucatan calls to many souls. I will join my sweet kids from time to time when they spend an afternoon snorkeling alongside sea turtles. Meanwhile, my heart beats pretty fast when I  lean down and pick up an agate on a Whidbey Island beach. (And it doesn’t have to be either/or, does it? The Pacific Northwest vs. the Tropics? I only meant to explain why I don’t mind a little July rain!)

Cama Beach

When I’m in a summer frame of mind, I resist most things of a scholarly nature. Or, better said, I resist large thoughts that challenge my brain. Little bits and pieces of things satisfy me from late June through to the end of August. I tinker, I play. Long walks are left to autumn, and the reading of War and Peace left to winter.

In that spirit, I offer those of you reading Books Around the Table today some recent bits and pieces that delighted m. One is specifically about writing, though all are about writing, since writing is basically about wonder. Links are included.

1. Did you know that a large cloud of ladybugs is called a bloom? And that some blooms are so large they show up on radar screens? What a world! Read more about it over at Atlas Obscura, which is fast becoming one of my favorite websites. For poets, that website provides so much inspiration.

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2. Do you have certain obsessions? I mean the kind of obsessions that you often can’t explain? I love old flashlights. Collect them, who knows why. Love the names of marbles, keep a list of those. Always intrigued by pairs of dice. Or photos of people I don’t know having picnics. Collect old cameras in general but especially old Brownie cameras or cameras that fold in and out. Can’t get enough of true crime documentaries – well sometimes I fill up, but I’m puzzled about being so attracted to these. Another obsession? I would love to have every wall in my house papered with architectural plans.  So I’m cheered by this article from the New York Times about authors’ obsessions.

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Family Picnic

3. Isn’t there always room for something about the moon? Summer, autumn, winter, spring.  Always. Always. So here, thanks again to the New York Times (what would I do without you?)  is something a little moonish.

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4. Finally, a summer poem. Always room for a poem, too, right? Thanks to Poetry Magazine, March 2010. And thanks to Carlo Betocchi – 1899-1986 –  a surveyor and engineer who built bridges and canals…and poems. He might have been obsessed with magnolia trees. Or with the wind.

Summer

Translated by Geoffrey Brock
And it grows, the vain
summer,
even for us with our
bright green sins:
behold the dry guest,
the wind,
as it stirs up quarrels
among magnolia boughs
and plays its serene
tune on
the prows of all the leaves—
and then is gone,
leaving the leaves
still there,
the tree still green, but breaking
the heart of the air.

magnolia tree

Words We Don’t Have Words For

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Just when I’ve decided I’m a Luddite, allergic to new technology, and just when I’m thinking it would be nice to be unplugged and unconnected and off every grid imaginable, and just when I believe that if I had a magic wand I would eliminate my iPad and my Internet connection (and eliminate cell phones – please, somebody, give me an old-fashioned phone I can dial number-by-number, how I loved the sound of that dial) – just when all the above happens, I’m left stunned and delighted by something wonderful that comes to me via the aforementioned Evil Internet. Usually it’s something I would have missed entirely if I were off the grid.

Here is the latest: A Glossary of Happiness.

A glossary of happiness? Yes, it exists. Last week the New Yorker emailed me a link to an article about a psychologist named Tim Lomas who has been compiling an “online lexicography of untranslatable words” dealing with happiness. Lomas, a lecturer in applied positive psychology at the University of East London, put together 216 words from 49 languages. Each word on his list fits the bill – we lack a suitable single word which translates it into English. Since he published the list, the number of words has grown to over 400.

What takes Lomas’s list into deeper territory is the theory that the words which different cultures come up with speak to ““things that they value, or their traditions, or their aesthetic ideals, or their ways of constructing happiness, or the things that they recognize as being important and worth noting.”

I’m not sure we often think of happiness as something that is “constructed.” But in a culture where many people teach their children that being happy involves status, winning, and wealth, it’s worth wondering why we don’t have a word like “gumusservi” which is Turkish for moonlight shining across water, or like “boketto,” a Japanese word for someone who is gazing vacantly – somewhat stupefied – into the sky.

If you’re interested in other links to untranslatable words try  this list at Mental Floss (which offers you “iktsaurpok,” an Inuit word for “the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet”)  and at Rocket Languages (including “sobremesa,” the time spent after a meal when you sit contentedly and talk with friends around the table.) Also, these books looks great:

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Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders

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Other-Wordly by Yee-Lum Mak

Words do matter. As writers, we know that the right words, in the right order, make for great writing, writing that stirs up emotional reactions from our readers. Lomas thinks it’s possible that if we share this glossary of happiness, we might come up with ways to articulate states of being and feelings that – put simply – make us happier. “If you just put them out there and people are aware of them, then—almost like linguistic natural selection—people will find ones that appeal to them, and they might start using them.”

“Linguistic natural selection” – I love the sound of that. I’m going to go exploring for words. And maybe I should invent a word for the happiness I felt when I dialed a telephone number and heard the sound of the dial returning to its resting place – if you’re old enough, you know that sound. I don’t have a word for it.  Not yet.

 

The Trouble with Joy

My husband and I recently sold our 2400 sf house (too big for us, too vertical, too modern, too too-too.) And now we’re considering making an offer on a 1000 sf house in an older part of town. People lived small in 1905, the year it was built. If we get it, it will be less than half the size of the house we just sold, and downsizing to that degree would be daunting. I own a lot of stuff and love most of it. I don’t mean big furniture stuff. I mean stuff like this little ruler, stuff some people call clutter:

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Of course, loving rulers can lead to stuff like this, too many rulers, all mine. I’m like a crow collecting things, only now the nest is getting smaller. Three-cornered rulers. Rulers marked in centimeters. School rulers. Big, little, chunky, skinny rulers. Love them.

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The same goes for flashlights:

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Which leads to this:

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A sensible voice in my head chants “Declutter, simplify.” The voice has been amplified recently by helping empty out my late mother’s house. She was 92 and had accumulated a lot of meaningful things, things which Marie Kondo, of Tidying Up with Marie Condo fame, would say, “sparked joy” in her. According to Kondo, if it sparks joy, it’s fair to keep it. Do I have that right?

I watched just two episodes of that show, trying to complete the job at my mom’s house cheerfully as well as prepare for the soon-to-be-job of moving into a smaller house. “Does it spark joy?” I kept asking myself, repeating it like a mantra.

And, of course, almost everything I own sparks joy. If it didn’t spark joy, I wouldn’t own it. I could probably put together one box of items that I’m ready to give away – a wooden spoon or two, some old sneakers, afew tape cassettes (though not all: Perry Como sings Christmas carols, love that.) So there’s not much I’m ready to part with. Not enough to fit all my things into a 1000sf house. “It’s darling,” I said when I went to the Open House, but I’m not sure how darling it will be when I have to get rid of so many items that spark joy. I guess the key to doing it is to determine the degree of joy something sparks…?

Well, on a scale of one to ten, rocks and good fortune-cookie fortunes spark 10 units of joy:

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And on the same scale, old pitchers spark 10:

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Ditto marbles and other round things, like paper globes and glass spheres:

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And what about all my books, and, oh – old cameras! Definitely 10’s on the joy scale.

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Plus photos of perfect strangers, all of whom seem to have interesting stories in their past, especially the one of a woman who resembles Eleanor Roosevelt riding a donkey.

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A few photographs don’t take up much room, do they? But I have several shoe boxes full. Declutter? Wait! Do they spark joy? Every single one of them does. Just look at that farmer, and at those two men in their Depression-era caps (Are they out of work? Can they feed their families? There’s a story there….) and the man by the door of his grocery-store-filling-station, or the young man in the striped jacket sitting on the hood of his car so nonchalantly, the moms and kids playing in the water…..

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What about old binoculars?

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Old ink bottles?

Everything is sparking a 10. So I’m in a bind if we buy that 1000 sf house.

Now the question occurs: How do we get rid of the things we are too fond of? In writing workshops, I often heard students say (and maybe I’ve even said it a few times) “Kill your darlings.” If you’re over-fond of something in your story, if you’re too attached, that might mean something’s wrong, something needs reviewing and revising.  Revision is perhaps the closest writers come to decluttering. Killing your darlings is not bad advice. Now if I could just do it.

But I’m in love with words, objects, images. I collect them. I use them (yes, quite a few are functional!) and quite a few inspire me in my writing. But no excuses – I just love stuff. And I think the writing advice I listened to most was “Follow your eccentricities.” Which I’m doing when I buy flashlights or when I write poetry. It conflicts with “Kill your darlings,” doesn’t it?

My mother collected the programs of every single play she went to, from about 1960 to 2018. She went to a lot of plays each year, and now I’m looking at a big box full of programs. I will probably throw them out or, if possible, offer them to drama departments or theaters. Mom couldn’t toss them, because she loved what they represented. They were a record of her life, and I know some of those plays inspired her, changed her, mystified her, challenged her, made her laugh. She wanted to get the programs out and look at them every once in awhile. She wanted to review her life.

What do we keep, what do we give away? And what do we just toss because we don’t need it and who is going to want it? Ouch, that one hurts.

It’s never about needing the things that spark joy, is it? It’s about beauty and where you find it. But what if too many things in the world around you are beautiful? What do you do then? What if you own too many of them and you’re moving into a 1000sf house? Oi.

If you’ve got an answer for me, if you can tolerate Marie Kondo, if you know how to tidy up, or if you’ve figured out how to kill your darlings, how to own only what you need, how to get rid of what you’re over-fond of, if you’ve learned how to toss stuff out, to avoid excess, let me know – put it in the comments!

What Is It About Maps?

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I love the map you see above, especially its label: “Upside Down World Map.”  As if our standard north-up/south-down maps are right-side-up.? According to whom? If I’m a bird, what perspective do I have? What if I’m walking on the moon? But I suppose standardizing the orientation of maps makes sense. They stabilize us as we spin through space, and as we spin through the spaces of our daily lives.

Many of you know already how much I love maps. I published an essay in the Horn Book about maps in children’s books (“Harbours That Please Me Like Sonnets: On the Pleasure of Literary Maps “) and I led a workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts about making maps to reflect the location of our stories’ characters.

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s Map of Treasure Island

For the last few days, I’ve been looking at a lot of maps while 1) flying from Seattle to Vancouver to London to Rome and 2) walking around Florence.

On the flight to London, in a brand new Boeing 777,  passengers had available to them state-of-the-art seat-back touch-screens with every imaginable permutation of where the jet was headed as it crossed Canada, Greenland, parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, Scotland and England. Not just the old, tired dotted line showing the progress of the plane. No, there were videos of sunsets and sunrises and Google Earth zoom-ins and zoom-outs, all of it with an inspirational glow, something golden on the edge of every horizon.

Forget the in-flight movies! I was glued to those maps, exploring every angle of this beautiful blue planet as I flew above it.

At Heathrow, maps on a smaller scale: airport maps, terminal and gate maps. Where to enter, where to exit, where to pick up bags, how to get to connecting flights. The omnipresent and omni-useful YOU ARE HERE dots which always save my sanity.

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In Rome, there was a map as my husband and I walked into the Pincio, the park above the Piazza del Popolo, We headed for the old water clock and the view across the city to the dome of the Vatican.

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In Florence (just arrived yesterday) we were given a map of how to get from the train station to the Piazza Santo Spiritu, onto which the windows of our little apartment open. Today, a map to the Mercato Centrale and the bus route up to Fiesole.

If you’re a writer, you probably care about maps. You think about the lay of the land, you think about settings. How do your characters move through the spaces they inhabit? Maybe you’ve made a map of their houses or their rooms? If not, try making one. Try making a map of their route to school or their route home from their local library. Don’t forget to add a compass – with it you’ll know where the sun rises and where it sets – does your hero wake up to sunshine? You’ll think about the flora of a given season – what is flowering in the yard, what is the look out the window at dusk if that window faces west?

Daphne Kalmar, one of my former students (who has become a good friend) once made a map of a story she was writing about three characters: a dragonfly, a fly, and a bee. The map was completely blacked out – it had only the “points of smell” that her characters might map out: honey, flower blossoms, garbage, dung….now that was a memorable map!

All this is by way of telling you to check out a recent article in The Smithsonian (has there ever been an issue of that magazine that didn’t inspire a poem?) about a man who is mapping river basins (among other things) around the world. Read it and be inspired to make a map of your own. Next time you’re at a school, spending time with kids, show them your map and ask them to make maps themselves of someplace familiar, or of a setting for one of their own stories.  They (and you) might be inspired to write more stories about characters spinning through the daily spaces of their lives.

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River Basin Map of Washington (Grasshopper Geography)

This, That and the Other

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Darwin, the Novelist? Read on!

No philosophizing this week, and no organized writing advice, since my writing advice usually turns into something akin to instructions for an origami swan: “Relax. Go to a cafe. Listen. Overhear. Read. Play with your dog. Take a walk. Write.” (Steps 1-8, fold here, fold there, then…it’s a swan!)  It’s like my best advice to parents with their first newborn: “Sleep when the baby sleeps and you’ll be okay.” Streamlined and optimistic.

Writing Advice

So instead of advice, I’m offering up three links to things that have interested me over the last month. They range a bit far and wide, but winter is not a bad season for the farness-and-wideness of things, is it?

*****

Best Thing I Read This Month: Charles Darwin, Natural Novelist by Adam Gopnik

This New Yorker article, written by one of my favorite essayists, Adam Gopnik, about the literary techniques of Charles Darwin. (if you have trouble with the link, the URL is https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/10/23/rewriting-nature )

Not many people explore how Darwin employed novelistic techniques to overcome resistance to his ideas. “He realized that he had to write a completely new kind of story, in a tone that made it seem arrived at; he had to present dynamite as brick, and build a house, only to explode the old foundations. Long-felt speculation had to be presented as close-watched observation, and a general idea about life had to be presented as a sequence of ideas about dogs.”

The reference to dogs is about Darwin’s opening information about the breeding of dogs, a topic that offered his readers a way to understand the concept of change; he used a scale of time and a subject they could easily understand, as opposed to starting point blank with the idea of evolution over millions of years. Start small, start with something clear and plain, draw people in, then go big and challenge their assumptions. Not a bad plan for a cunning novelist.

Gopnik goes on to say, “Darwin really was one of the great natural English prose stylists. He wasn’t a “poet” in that vaguely humane sense of someone who has a nice way with an image; he was a man who knew how to cast his thesis into a succession of incidents, so that action and argument become one. And, as with all good writing, the traces of a lifetime’s struggles for sense and sanity remain on the page. Reading Darwin as a writer shows us a craftsman of enormous resource and a lot of quiet mischief.”

Best moment in the essay, in my opinion: “Of course, the theory of evolution by natural selection would have been true even if it had been scratched in Morse code on the head of a needle. But it would not then be Darwinism: a “view of life,” in its author’s words, not an ideology. (An ideology has axioms and algorithms; a view of life has approaches and approximations.)”

That’s a classic Gopnik line, the theory of evolution scratched in Morse code on the head of a needle. Gad, I love the way he writes.

End result: I’ve put some Darwin on hold at the library. I’ll read it and see where it takes me. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about the writing of poetry being, at heart, the act of cultivating a nice way with an image. I’m thinking about approximation vs. axiom, and about the writer’s desire for sense and sanity, which makes me proud to be a writer (as long as we’re proud of what we do, we can keep going, right?)

Maybe by heading so many directions, I’m procrastinating. Or maybe I’m following a mysterious set of footprints into the forest, and where I end up will be my next poem or my next book….?

*****

 Best Poem I Read This Month – Tulips by A.E. Stallings

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Tulip Fields in the Skagit Valley of Northwest Washington

While snowed-in by what became lovingly known in the neighborhood as “Snowmageddon,” I read a lot of poetry, but this favorite was an easy pick, because I’m longing for tulips.

Tulips

The tulips make me want to paint,
Something about the way they drop
Their petals on the tabletop
And do not wilt so much as faint,
Something about their burnt-out hearts,
Something about their pallid stems
Wearing decay like diadems,
Parading finishes like starts,
Something about the way they twist
As if to catch the last applause,
And drink the moment through long straws,
And how, tomorrow, they’ll be missed.
The way they’re somehow getting clearer,
The tulips make me want to see
The tulips make the other me
(The backwards one who’s in the mirror,
The one who can’t tell left from right),
Glance now over the wrong shoulder
To watch them get a little older
And give themselves up to the light.
From Olives (Northwestern University Press, 2012).
This poem first appeared in Poetry (June 2009).
*****
Best Source of Inspiration for Poetry This Month – The Smithsonian Magazine
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Who can resist an article about the fur of flying squirrels turning fluorescent pink under ultraviolet lights? Also, information about the vocalization of songbirds. About the art of facial recognition. About space dust on fire. About how “flames have forged our world.”
I’ve written poems about every one of these strange phenomena, all of them inspired by articles in The Smithsonian Magazine, especially articles about science. I’m convinced science is where it’s at for poetry – the imagination engaged not with magical realism but with the marvelous real.
Hope you have some wonderful end-of-winter wanderings. I can feel optimism seeping in. Tulips are coming.

The Art of Naming Things

werners nomenclature of colors

My fellow Books-Around-the-Table blogger Julie Paschkis recommended a book to me yesterday titled Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours – the subtitle is Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts –  published by Smithsonian Books. The press’s website (visit it if you have a minute after reading this post – wonderful!) describes the book, first published in 1814, as “a taxonomic guide to the colors of the natural world that has been cherished by artists and scientists for more than two centuries,” adding that it is “a charming artifact from the golden age of natural history and global exploration.”

Now, it might sound like Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours would be of little use to a poet who writes picture books. For an illustrator, yes, the connection is clearer. But Julie Paschkis recommended it to me because we both love words, and Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours is about words as much as it is about colors.

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Julie Paschkis’s word-filled “Apple-Babble” ( see Julie’s artwork at  https://juliepaprika.com )

Here is a description from the Smithsonian Books website:

In the late eighteenth century, mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner devised a standardized color scheme that allowed him to describe even the subtlest of chromatic differences with consistent terminology. His scheme was then adapted by an Edinburgh flower painter, Patrick Syme, who used the actual minerals described by Werner to create the color charts in the book, enhancing them with examples from flora and fauna.

In the pre-photographic age, almost all visual details had to be captured via the written word, and scientific observers could not afford ambiguity in their descriptions. Werner’s handbook became an invaluable resource for naturalists and anthropologists, including Charles Darwin, who used it to identify colors in nature during his seminal voyage on the HMS Beagle. Werner’s terminology lent both precision and lyricism to Darwin’s pioneering writings, enabling his readers to envision a world they would never see.

“Envisioning a world they would never see” – with that, the connection to poetry takes a small step forward. Both poems and stories work to share specific moments (or narrative arcs) that resonate with but don’t reproduce their readers’ experiences. Imagination is the key, and precision in our descriptions gets the reader there.

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A sample from the book – Werner named the color, then gave us three categories (animal, vegetable and mineral, where we might find it.

I also keep going back to the press’s description of the book as “a taxonomic guide.” I’ve been interested in taxonomy for a long time – it’s the art of classifying things according to their similarities. Biological taxonomy involves things like domain, kingdom, genus, species, phylum, class, family, and order. It’s hierarchical – that is, it goes from broad to narrow.

Here is a biological taxonomic chart…

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…and here is a botanical taxonomical chart from the father of all taxonomy, Linnaeus, who used Latin to name the plants, a system we still use for precision’s sake in a world of many languages:

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A taxonomy of color – which is not hierarchical – would look more circular,  like this:

color taxonomy

If you’ve ever been to a paint store and gathered paint chips, you know what kind of imagination and effort goes into the naming of specific shades!

Just as interesting to me is that word in the title: “nomenclature.” The art of naming things. It has an almost Biblical ring to it, straight out of the Book of Genesis. Werner’s desire to name things is innate to human beings – after all, we can talk very little about things that go unnamed. A child just learning to speak is given nouns – named objects – to play around with. My own kids spent a lot of time with A-Z books and Richard Scarry’s Busy World and Best Word books (is the power of naming things the reason behind a certain inhabitant of the White House claiming he knows “lots of words…the best words”?) More important than giving us power, knowing the names of things allows us to reach that level of “precision and lyricism” that Smithsonian Press believes Werner inspired in Darwin.

So, Reader, I ordered  Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. The book has two ideas that have everything to do with being a writer:

1) “Taxonomy” – classifying things according to their similarities. That’s what metaphors do, no? Metaphorical thinking helps us understand how one thing resembles another and is involved in our ability to empathize.

2) “Nomenclature” – the precise naming of things because we “can’t afford ambiguity” in our descriptions.

Besides, it’s late January and a book about color will brighten up my day. I can’t wait for it to arrive! Thanks, Julie Paschkis!

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” Sea of Words” by Julie Paschkis

[**As Bonny suggested in the comments below, the perfect companion book for this is Julie Paschkis’s own picture book, VIVID. See pictures from it here. ]

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A Little Gingerbread

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My daughter (visiting for a few days from Boston) and my husband, sister, brother and I went last Saturday to Bellingham’s annual Gingerbread House display in our port’s Alaska Ferry Building.   Some of the “houses” (also pyramids, robots, tree trunks, animals, volcanoes) were a great success (see the photo above, with Oz’s yellow brick road, Dorothy’s house coming down from the twister, a field of red poppies, and the Emerald City in the corner – what a lot of work that must have taken!) Some were just plain cute, and a few were what you might call a hot mess. Better said: For some of the projects, grand ambitions ruled the day, not grand abilities (but more power to them for forging ahead.)  Let’s also admit that from time to time the aesthetic approach of “If a little is good, a lot is better” took a kid with free access to marshmallows and Skittles way over the top.

In any case, the gingerbread projects – about 50 every year – are ambitious, hilarious, fascinating, and full of heart. A few are even mysterious. And all are a delight to see. You can spy a Christmas tree made of green Cheerios, cedar shingles made of Wheat Chex, ladders made of pretzle sticks, a path made from a piece of cooked bacon, and at the end of the viewing – joy! – you get to vote for your favorite project for the People’s Choice Award.  I think the robot pictured below might have won that award.

Here are the photos my daughter took to share with my grandson back in Boston. There is no deeper meaning to this post, no words of wisdom. It’s just good to remember that the kids we write for,  and the families they are a part of, have lives filled with humor, wonder, creativity and community. We’re lucky to have our books be part of all that.

Enough said. Enjoy the gingerbread.

AND FROM MY HOUSE TO YOUR HOUSE, HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

[THIS R2-D2 STANDS ABOUT 30″ TALL AND ITS HEAD MOVES!!!]

 

Sixty-Six Years of the Best

For the last sixty-six years, the New York Times Book Review editors have been announcing their choice of the 10 Best Illustrated Books of the year. I encourage you to follow this link to the 2018 list:

If you love picture books, if you share the ones you love with your friends and colleagues, and if you are a student of the history of illustration, then the NYTimes’ Best Illustrated lists 1952-2018 include almost all your favorite illustrators – just look at some of the many:


Maurice Sendak, Alice and Martin Provensen, Marie Hall Ets, Ludwig Bemelmans, Roger Duvoisin, Walter Lorraine, H.A. Rey, Laurent de Brunhoff, Leo Lionni, Edward Sorel, Bruno Munari, Ed Emberley, Edward Ardizzone, Ben Shahn, Tomi Ungerer, Arnold and Anita, Lobel, Edward Gorey, Brian Wildsmith, Alexander Calder, Jacob Lawrence, Remy Charlip, Mitsumasa Anno, Edward Koren, James Marshall, John Burningham, Rosemary Wells, Petra Mathers, Lane Smith, Peter Sis, Leo and Diane Dillon, William Joyce, Maira Kalman, David Shannon, Jerry Pinkney, David Wisniewski, Ted Lewin, Chris Raschka, David Diaz, Richard Eglieski, Gennady Spirin, Douglas Florian, Kevin Henkes, Kadir Nelson, Jon Klassen, Susan Marie Swanson, Ian Falconer…AND (sound of trumpets please) our own Julie Paschkis!!

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Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams (written by Janet Wong, illustrated by Julie Paschkis) named to the NY Times/NY Public Library Best Illustrated  Books in 2000. 

In the comments area below, I hope you’ll share your reactions to this year’s list (as well as to individual books on it, and/or books you think should have been named to it.)

You can see a more complete list here [this link has been corrected from a previously incorrect link] of  books named to the Best list between 1952 to 2016: https://www.librarything.com/bookaward/New+York+Times+Best+Illustrated+Children%27s+Book

For the 2016 list, go to https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/03/books/review/best-illustrated-books-of-2016.html

For the 2017 list, follow this link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/books/review/best-illustrated-childrens-2017.html

And don’t miss the wonderful look at the 2018 illustrators’ studios, processes, and thoughts about their books here: https://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2018/11/02/books/childrens-illustrators-studios.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article