Portrait of the Artist as a Snow Man

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I played hookie one morning to construct a temporary sculpture in the Boston Public Gardens.

The 2013 AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) brought more than eleven thousand warm bodies to Boston this past weekend, and one cold one.

The conference is a gargantuan affair: three days; over five hundred panels, readings, and soirees; three vast exhibition halls in which a persistent attendee with a long attention span could peruse table upon table which, lined up end-to-end, would stretch approximately a mile–stacked with poetry, fiction, nonfiction, everything at the edges and everything in between.

By Day Three, this is how I looked.

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Completely spaced out, wandering in the snow in search of anything but printed matter. Fortunately, there was a bowl of steaming clam chowder available in the hotel lobby a hundred yards away.

Boston, inspite or because of the two-day blizzard, was wonderful, from the Boston Baroque Ensemble to the mummies at the Museum of Fine Arts (in those few stolen hours between the five hundred panels, readings, and soirees). I met some very fine people. And I actually got a good idea on the plane flight home. Climbing aboard an airplane–alone– never fails to give me perspective that I don’t seem to be able to get anywhere else. Which is a shame, because driving is cheaper, and the neighborhood wine bar has more leg room.

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Newsflash: Reading is Relaxing!

Gbot sets out breakfast and an audience, about a year ago. Would I look this stress-free if I read to myself over breakfast?

Overheard at the coffeeshop on Saturday:

“So, have you read Harry Potter?”


“What book are you on?”

The conversation wouldn’t have been noteworthy, except that the two conversationalists’ chins barely skimmed the table top as they sipped their hot chocolate. They were four years old–Mbot and his friend Mbug. She’s a bright kid whose mom had told me she wouldn’t sit still to listen to picture books. I loaned her the first Harry Potter. They were on chapter five; she was riveted.

The same day, the news over at the Huffington Post was that reading a good book lowers stress levels. HuffPo editors and bloggers chimed in on their reasons how and why in Turn the Page on Stress. 

The timing was interesting, as a few weeks ago, I picked up a book I’d had on a side table for a month. I was too tired to read, and too tired to sleep. I lay down on the sofa, listening for a bot to call me back for one more hug, and opened the book. I knew that one reason I felt so weary was that I hadn’t gotten–or given myself–a chance to read more than half a New Yorker article in over a month–probably two.

The book wasn’t fiction: recommended by a friend, it was Edward Hallowell and Peter Jensen’s Superparenting for ADD. The title might reveal one of the reasons I’m so tired, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. A while back, Mbot was diagnosed with “very low level” Attention Deficit Disorder–a borderline case, a case that’s almost not a case, but I feel it’s something I needed to learn to manage more effectively than I was managing it. I dislike the label because so much ignorance surrounds it and it carries so many negative connotations. In learning more about ADD, I’m learning to change my own behavior, which helps him with his; the result is a happier bot and a happier household. Hallowell’s positive approach to the issue is delightful and his storytelling is instructive and amusing.

An hour after I started reading, I was thirty-eight pages in and feeling a much-missed feeling of lightness and optimism. I recognized I felt better partly because of the contents of the book, but partly due to the simple act of leaving my own drama to witness those of others. I was reminded, through narrative, that obstacles can be overcome for a happy conclusion, and that recognizing the truth and dealing with it is a source of power–and having control over a situation is a way to lower stress levels.

I am of course reminded often of the de-stressing powers of reading, but it is a constant source of amazement to me how thoroughly we can ignore things we know, or forget them. I am reminded of reading’s calming effect by Mbot himself. Every night at bedtime, and usually during the day, I read aloud, in addition to a few picture books, a chapter (usually more) of Harry Potter (we’re on book two), a chapter of Little House on the Prairie (we’re on book two), and a chapter of The Hardy Boys. (We jump around according to whatever’s on the library shelf). Mbot, who has shown little patience with learning the letters of the alphabet, and who is often pushing the boundaries of his environment, is completely absorbed by a long narrative. He often asks the meaning of unfamiliar words, but I am not sure how much he understands of the story arc. Yet he does understand there are characters to be concerned about, and that there is a story arc. He would sit listening until my voice gave out or I collapsed face down, drooling on the Heir of Slytherin.

On Saturday, in addition to coming across HuffPo’s article, I happened to read Flannery O’Connor‘s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in which she writes,

People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

When I came across O’Connor’s observation, I realized I had put off reading (to myself) for that month or those months not simply because I was too tired or didn’t have time–but because I lacked the courage to take a long look at things. I was resisting entering a drama–anyone else’s drama–because I didn’t have enough emotional energy for their’s, too: I am a slow reader, and invest a lot in whatever I’m reading. But in those thirty-eight pages of Hallowell’s book, I was introduced to nearly a dozen people’s dramas, and instead of feeling oppressed by them, I felt uplifted. Since that night, I’ve been making time to read (to myself!) every day, even if it is just for a few minutes in the car before heading inside. In fact, I’m back to my old habit of reading several books at once–like I said, if only a few pages at a time.

And so stress-relief is even closer than the new gym with two hours of child-care per day. It’s as close at hand as my bookshelves. Now all I need to do is remember that.

The Dursley’s Bathroom Decor

Could this be the Dursley’s bathroom? JK Rowling has kept it a mystery. But fans want to know. (uglyhousephotos.wordpress)

We have finished the first Harry Potter.

I’ve been reading it to Mbot (much to Gbot’s supreme boredom; we read picture books first, then his eyes usually roll back into his head as I intone the words “Dumledore,” “Hagrid,” and “stupid git,”), every night before bedtime. To alleviate scariness, I abridged final chapters. They even scare movie-going me, what with Ralph Fiennes outdoing himself in The English Patient to bring us something even “more gruesomer” (Mbot’s words) in He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

So tonight, because I can’t find the second or third books in the series (they are probably still in a box in the garage), we started the fourth (which, for some reason, I have two): HP and the Goblet of Fire. Started in the third chapter–that is, skipping the parts in which an old man is killed by a scary baby and a giant snake–we began where Harry tells Uncle Vernon that he’s going to the World Quidditch match. Half way through the scene, Mbot breaks in.

“What does the Dursley’s bathroom look like?”

I looked up from the text, stumped.

“It’s probably green,” I replied after a fat pause. “With a shaggy mustard-colored rug.”

“And slime coming out the sink,” added Mbot.

Absolutely right, I agreed.

I remembered why, as a kid myself, I preferred books with no pictures: I got to imagine it all. The pictures (like so many movies) just messed with the reality inside my head.

What do you think the Dursley’s bathroom looks like?

Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays, and Mbot Ate Mommy

This little guy, eat me? It beats the alternative…. (Mbot. Photo credit: Solveig Haugland)

The weekend out of town with old friends was as wonderful as I’d hoped, and I returned home (extremely tired, but that’s part of the game) to about what I expected: requests I’d made had been ignored but everyone was alive. Husbot reported that on Sunday morning, Gbot awoke early, as usual, and announced, “Mbot ate Mama.” Then he added sadly, “Mama was our friend.”

His explanation for my absence made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. And up until a couple of weeks ago I might have just left it at “oh, how cute.” But I have been reading a book called “Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays: Fantasy Play at Four” (The University of Chicago Press, 1988) It was written by Vivan Gussin Paley nearly twenty-five years ago, won the 1990 James N. Britton Award, and should be required reading for anyone who’s ever walked into Party City and purchased a candle in the shape of the number 4.

At the time she wrote this slim volume, Ms. Paley had been a preschool teacher for two decades. In order to understand the complex systems of play she witnessed daily among three- and four-year-olds, she began recording conversations and transcribing them each evening, documenting the children’s play and interaction, discerning patterns, connecting the play to events occurring in each child’s life, examining the interpersonal dynamics and excavating the “rules” of play. The book follows a group of four-year-olds through a school year, acting out such complications as a new baby in the family, parents working, the appearance of an older relative’s boyfriend.

“In fantasy play” writes Paley, “you sidestep that which cannot be controlled and devise scenes in which fears are resolved.”

Discovering this book was like unearthing the Rosetta Stone to Mbot’s play and conversation, or, for fans of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, like having a Babblefish on my shoulder: I suddenly and, it felt, magically, am beginning to understand the language he and Gbot use to describe the world they create daily–or rather create, change, destroy, and re-create–so richly inhabited by good guys and bad guys, Good Luke (Skywalker) and Bad Luke, Good Spiderman and Bad Cockroach Spiderman, Wonder Woman and Cinderella and Ree-punzel and dragons and four-headed monsters and bullet guns and laser beams and dy-no-mite.

What is all this violent talk and bam-bam-bam! with a Trio “gun”, I often wondered, when Mbot has trouble watching any movie–from Ratatouille to Babe–without running with a yelp into the kitchen while I fastforward through the parts where anyone is talking or acting in a hurtful way?

In part, here’s what this talk is: he is acting out his fears and overcoming them–just like Paley’s students do:

“A master of disguises, Fredrick will conjure up new dangers and, with a flick of his cape, be the instrument of rescue. In so doing it is he who is saved.”

He is taking control of his world. In Paley’s words, “Any unknown, it seems, can be made into a bad guy.”  And in play, “I pretend, therefore I am. I pretend, therefore I know.”

If Mbot ate me, Mbot’s the bad guy, and my absence in much less threatening than if I had left on purpose. And in the bots’ world, it is a fact–reinforced in everything from Burt Dow, Deep Water Man to Your Body Battles a Stomachache–that what has been eaten can be rescued, regurgitated, or resurrected. And my return Monday morning showed him he was right.

Food for Thought

(image via thehamiltonian.net)

Aren’t lives apples and stories oranges? What really goes on when you try to change one into the other?

– Joan Wickersham, “The Suicide Index”

I love these words, and I think a lot about their truth in relation to blogging. What is said, what is left unsaid; what is picked up and woven into a narrative; what is discarded because either it does not lend itself to brief essay form, or is too complicated, or too disturbing, or doesn’t fit the blog’s tone, or requires too much analysis?

I had come to think of lives as grapes, stories as wine, and blogs as grape juice. But the apples and oranges cliche–which is so unexpected in this context as to rise above cliche-dom–may be a truer description of the relation of the two. Food for thought.

Great Gender Expectations

Wrong is relative: If you’re two and wearing rented ski boots, I’m betting there’s just not much difference in the left and the right.

From the back seat:

Mbot: “I saw a girl that looked like Gbot.”

Me: “What made her look like Gbot, Bug?”

Mbot: “She had hair that was long and had curls like Gbot. (Giggle) She looked just like a boy!”

Just the day before, I’d been reading writer/teacher/blogger Kate Hopper’s new book, Use Your Words:  A Writing Guide for Mothers, in which the mother of two–one born dangerously early–dispenses practical, invaluable, and hardwon advice on the craft of writing and the art of balancing writing and mothering. She includes superb excerpts from her own writing and that of many (m)others–the bibliography reads like the guest list of my dream toddler group; I’d had no idea the genre outside the blogosphere was so rich.

But the one that came to mind after Mbot’s comment was “Pretty Baby,” in which memoirist Catherine Newman introduces her son, a boy whose favorite color is bright pink, and whose favorite outfit “involves a floral-printed t-shirt with fuchsia velour sleeves, and the pants…from the magenta-striped terry cloth that Ben picked out from Jo-Ann Fabrics.” The essay is the most articulate, funny, searing argument I’ve read for abolishing the expected gender-specific appearances and behaviors that have a stranglehold on the majority of our society–and abolishing them from Day One. Because Day One is when children start to learn. And they learn from us.

Mbot’s observation from the back seat is proof enough for me that I have taught him–however inadvertantly–that long, curly hair is for boys. And now it’s my responsibility to teach him tolerance: that we don’t laugh at girls who have long blond curls like a boy.

Idaho Vacation, Part 3: Han Solo Will Never Need Botox

This Lego action figurine does not come with interchangeable gray hair. http://www.squidoo.com

Due to more snow, our flight last night did not even take off from Twin Falls, eighty miles away–it was cancelled altogether. But while we’re here, we’re doing as the locals do.

Last week we went to Tuesday Science Story Hour at the Ketchum Children’s Library. Miss Ann, an ageless font of knowledge about the natural world, anchors a circle of usually over twenty preschoolers and mesmerizes all present with books, felt board demonstrations, fossils, more recent skeletons like that of a mouse, found in her neighbor’s attic, and a dehydrated chipmunk, courtesy of her neighbor’s cat. The last time we went, in August, Miss Ann brought a lizard of some kind, and meal worms for him to eat. Someone had made the mistake of feeding the lizard beforehand, though, and the meal worms lived to see another day.

This week, Miss Ann brought Jaja the hamster.

Everyone got to feel how fluffy Jaja was; I felt lucky to escape without Mbot insisting we take Jaja home with us.

Meanwhile, Gbot had other things to attend to. After circumnavigating the library at a run (trying to catch him between the shelves was like racing down the corridors of the Death Star in search of a way out), he discovered a side room in which an older kid, too old, apparently, for Miss Ann and Jaja, was examining a pop-up Star Wars book.

The older kid took great pleasure in describing, in appropriately hushed tones, each character and pop-up setting. Most of it was news to me because, although I’ve seen the first four episodes–the original as an eleven-year old in 1978 nine months after it opened–and have watched the original many times over, I intentionally missed the final two. I was just not interested in armies of computer-generated organisms fighting epic battles. I think I wanted to hold onto my memories of a young Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.

Then the big kid turned to the page with Han Solo. Gbot and I stared, fascinated.

Matthew Reinhart's "Star Wars Guide to the Galaxy"

I’m willing to bet we were fascinated for different reasons.

I was struck as though by a light saber by the fact that Han Solo hasn’t aged.

And at the same time, I was struck by the fact that I have.

It wasn’t about recognizing my own mortality–I got that when I became pregnant with Mbot and felt, as I never had before, how necessary I was for the life growing inside me, but how expendable I was, too, creating my own replacement. No, this moment with Han Solo had to do with how immortal he was. He hasn’t aged one day since 1977.

This week, I rediscovered fairy tales in the books my mother had saved from my own childhood, and so I was primed to consider how George Lucas is the twentieth-century Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. How Han Solo will live, brown-haired and wrinkle-free (alongside Harry Potter) for centuries beyond my allotted maybe-four-score-plus-maybe. How I had witnessed the birth of this fairy tale, and how much power these immortal stories hold, a literary web we take for granted that connects us and our children not just to each other but to our past.

I was able to get seats for us on a flight on Friday. We are crossing our fingers. Maybe one cool thing about the Millennium Falcon is that it can land in snow?

Look Out!

Burt Lancaster pours a drink in The Swimmer, based on a Cheever short story. http://www.thisrecording.com

Antibiotics and eye drops are helping, although my mother-in-law tells me that I still look terrible. I admit, I am not going to be ready for my close-up any time soon.

There is an upside to feeling like poop, though, and it is this: if you are fortunate to have someone looking after your midgets, you can actually lie down and read in the middle of the day without feeling like you should be taking the Christmas tree down. And so that’s what I did. I read Home Before Dark, nonfiction writer and novelist Susan Cheever‘s 1984 biographical memoir of her dad, the Pulitzer-winning, National Book Award-winning novelist and short story writer John Cheever (whose memory bears the distinction of being called to life in Seinfeld and Madmen episodes). I like to see how a complex and nearly lifelong relationship can be reduced to two hundred and fifty pages or less. I wonder, as I always do, about the mountains and mountains of facts and moments and characters and stories that were there, in the lives, but that were left out to make the story.

Intent on finding a copy of Cheever senior’s 1977 novel Falconer, I turned to my old friend, Amazon. And there I quickly learned that, fifteen years after publishing the chronicle of her father’s life–which dealt largely with his alcoholism and how it affected his work and relationships (and vice-versa)–his daughter published her own memoir. It’s called Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker.

Knock me over with a feather. Should I have had an inkling? In the story of her father, there was no hint that she shared his disease. And I think: What an extraordinary feat, to tell his story without letting her own get in the way. She was, for a long time, an editor at Newsweek, which no doubt strengthened a natural inclination to look outward instead of inward. But sometimes it’s not so easy to separate the two.

I appreciate the reminder to keep looking out, out, out, even if my eyes might be crusted shut with goop. Better that than crusted shut with egocentric self-indulgence. Antibiotics cannot get rid of that. Unless of course you are bacteria.

What did you look out and see today?

Twelve Over Forty: The Literary Superhero’s List of Olde Reads

One of the advantages of being a forty-four year old mother of weebots is that I know of a lot of good picture books that are as old as I am. And so, in the spirit of the latest overused literary marketing tool–displaying the talents of the young (Narrative’s “Fifteen below Thirty”, The New Yorker’s “Twenty under Forty”)–I’ve compiled a list of the exceptional old. I call it “Twelve Over Forty.”

I did not consult a panel and no surveys were done. My criteria were simple: either 1. as a child, I loved the book, 2. Mbot and/or Gbot loves the book and asks for it repeatedly, or 3. both of the above.

1. A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Originally a piece written for radio and recorded by Dylan Thomas in 1952, this lyrical tale was first published as a book two years later as part of a collection by New Directions. This edition, published in 1985 by Holiday House, is available online from Barnes and Noble, with unused copies running upwards of $20, which is worth it for the lush watercolor illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. I wasn’t introduced to this ’til my twenties, and fell immediately in love. I’ve been reading it to Mbot since he was born, and although I know he doesn’t understand much of it, he’s as mesmerized as I am by the pictures, the language, and the high adventure:

“Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slide and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared. ”

I am a sucker for the lyrical and the slyly humorous; this snowballs the reader with both.

2. Burt Dow, Deep Water Man

“One morning, the cock crowed ‘cockty-doodly,’ and Leela rattled her stove lids klinkey-klink, shouting, ‘Hit the deck, Burt, time to eat!’ And Burt came downstairs winking and blinking his sleepy eyelids and ate his breakfast.” So begins the day of Burt Dow, an old deep-water man, who goes out cod fishing and catches a bigger adventure than he’d planned on. Published in 1963, this was Robert McCloskey‘s last book, and it’s easily as good as his better known Newbery winners, Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in MaineIt’s unfashionably long, these days, but worth reading in installments.

The way Burt gets himself out of a whale’s tummy looks to me like a playful homage to Jackson Pollack, whose drip paintings became so influential in the decade before Burt Dow chugged on the scene in his sea-worn dory the Tidely Idley, with “a firm hand on the tiller, giggling gull flying along behind.”

3. I am a Bunny, by Ole Risom, illustrated by Richard Scarry.

This is one of those books that is so simple and seemingly unimpressive that you wonder why it pulls on you days and years after reading it, like the chorus of a good song. I loved it as a kid. Mbot loved it as a two year-old. Gbot loves it now. It has under 150 words–I didn’t have a chance to count them before it disappeared from the coffee table. But “I am a bunny. My name is Nicholas,” has the staying power of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

4. Richard Scarry’s The Great Pie Robbery

I don’t want this post to turn into a promo for Richard Scarry, but although I was weened on the Greatest Storybook Ever and Richard Scarry’s Busytown, both of which Mbot has loved, literally, to tatters, I didn’t discover The Great Pie Robbery until I was over forty. I’d say it’s among Mbot’s favorite five books, right up there with Your Body Battles a Stomachache by Vicky Cobb (see Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus.)

The key to raising literate children: starting them on books before they can escape?

5. Richard Scarry’s Busytown  is probably the top favorite in this household. According to Mbot this morning: “My best book in the whole wide world.” The pictures often tell a parallel but often more detailed much funnier story than the words–for example, there’s a pig that loses his hat, and although nothing is written about him, he can be found chasing it through several of Richard Scarry’s books.

6. Petunia

By Roger DuVoisin, Petunia enjoyed a fiftieth anniversary edition in 2000. The story about a silly goose who thinks carrying around a book will make her wise, and sets about ruining the barnyard animals’ lives with her false knowledge, has just enough repetition, craziness, and cleverness to captivate. A box firecrackers that almost blows up the animals makes it all the more attractive for the toddler set. Available on Amazon.

7. Mop Top

Don Freeman could put his shoes under my bed anytime. He brought us Corduroy, Dandelion, the excellent and lesser known Norman the Doorman, and the excellent and almost completely unknown Mop Top, published by Scholastic Books in 1955. Not until I’d opened the fifty pounds of books Mom had sent from Idaho and read this to Mbot did I realize that Mr. Freeman wasn’t only a great illustrator and storyteller, but a poet, too. His prose are rich with internal rhythm and rhyme–maybe one reason I remembered after all these years the little boy who didn’t want to get his hair cut. Read this aloud:  “‘I thought maybe you forgot,’ said roly-poly Mister Barberoli. ‘But you’re right on the dot. It’s exactly four!’ Then in one long leap, Moppy was up on the barber-chair seat ready to get his hair cut nice and neat.”

8. The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

By  DuBose Heyward, illustrated by Margerie Flack. 1939. Available on Amazon. I only remembered this book from my childhood as if from a dream, and so it was strange to read it to Mbot, because I remembered nothing but the feeling it had given me, a warm, soft, safe feeling. Now that I’m a mother, I appreciate it even more because it’s about a hardworking, kind, and resourceful mommy bunny who wins the coveted position of Easter Bunny and rises to the task–delivering Easter baskets all over the world in a single night, it turns out, is nothing compared to raising baby bunnies to be good citizens. In a magical turn at the end, she flies to the top of a snowy alp in a pair of golden shoes to deliver her last basket to a sick little boy. Since no one I know is familiar with this story, I find it as strange as it is wonderful that it’s available on Amazon and that the author and illustrator are Wikipediable.

9. Wynken, Blynken, and Nod 

“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night sailed off in a wooden shoe/Sailed on a river of crystal light, into a sea of dew….” So begin the nighttime adventures of the fishermen three. First published by Riverside Press in 1915, this poem by Eugene Field appears in countless anthologies and has been set to music. This  edition, illustrated by Johanna Westerman in blue-toned watercolor paintings, is so gorgeous that I want to frame the pages and hang them on my wall. Mbot and Gbot like to find the kitty cat in every picture. North-South books, 1995, available on Amazon.

10. Santa Mouse

This Christmas rodent from 1966 never became as famous as his contemporary, Rudolph, but he’s got lasting appeal. Author Michael Brown wrote a sequel, illustrated, like the original, by Elfieda DeWitt. Predictably, the sequel’s not nearly as good, although it could start a fun family tradition of planting small yellow-wrapped gifts in the Christmas tree.

Here we have an angel singing the praises of cheese. Which I can understand. “Now through the year, this little mouse/Had saved one special thing:/A piece of cheese!/The kind that makes the angels want to sing.”

That line alone establishes Michael Brown’s inclusion in the Literary Superhero’s library. Published by Sandy Creek and available through Amazon.

11. The Plant Sitter

Here’s another sleeper by the creators of a classic, this time Harry the Dirty Dog, by author/illustrator team Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham. Published by Scholastic Books in 1959, The Plant Sitter is perfect in every way, except that it’s available on Amazon, but not for under $50.

In my favorite illustration, our industrious young protagonist dreams that the plants he’s volunteered to take care of grow so big they twine together and knock down the walls of the house. His clients are calling, “Where are my plants? Where are my plants?” He awakens to his father yelling, “Wear are my pants? Where are my pants?”

12. Just So Stories  by Rudyard Kipling, illustrated by Nicolas. This edition, O Best Beloved, published by Doubleday in 1952, is available on Amazon. This month, Mbot’s favorite of the twelve short tales is “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin:” “Once upon a time, on an uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea, there lived a Parsee from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour. And the Parsee lived by the Red Sea with nothing but ahis hat and his knife and a cooking-stove of the kind that you must particularly never touch….”

Although peppered with words that are no longer socially acceptable, like “oriental,” this is Kipling at, in my opinion, his best. Displaying brevity, strong character sketches, conflict, humor, poetry, irony, and perfect narrative arc, each tale could be used to teach a novel-writing course. Best in short doses, because the word-to-picture ratio is high, and because, too, the language, while beautiful, can twist a forty-four year-old’s tongue and baffle a thirty-nine month-old brain. Maybe someday I will become an editor at a major publishing house and issue a 32-page picture book for each story. I’m not sure who I’d hire to illustrate it, but someone whose pictures were as luscious as the prose. The world would be a richer place.

There you have it: Twelve over forty. There are many notable books I have not included.  And now the obvious question: What are your favorite picture books over forty years old?

Anatomy of a Life

After turning around for ninety seconds to load the toaster this morning, I found both Midgets on the patio naked as freshly shelled peas. Gbot was pole-dancing on the uprights on the sandbox and Mbot was holding the magnifying glass to his own pito. Pito: Spanish, our family word for outdoor plumbing. I once made the mistake of using it to refer to Husbot’s. Don’t do it. Apparently the term is only to be used in reference to very small fixtures. I am off-topic, but not too far off, since my topic is anatomy.

Specifically, this: in spite of Mbot’s anatomical investigations, I am skeptical that a fascination in the Human Body in general is what makes him powerless to resist Your Body Battles a Stomachache (see yesterday’s post, Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus).

I threw out a few theories yesterday about his love for the book, and I’ll tell you why I’m so hung up on it: because of my mother. (The mother who dreamed about boarding a plane while doing the Charleston, see Passengers in Zone Four…). When I told my mother about the stomach book, she said, “He’s just like you! Do you remember The Human Body book?

The Human Body book.

Of course I remembered. It was a book that changed my life.

I discovered it by accident in the Auke Bay School library when I was eight. Its real title was The Body, and it was part of a series of very large books by Time’s Life Science Library. The cover was an alluring undersea green, with an alluring, eerily lit photo of a sculpture of a torso. And inside: words and pictures describing things to capture the imagination. Polypeptide. Vitreous humor. Duodenum.

There was one wonderful page, page 73, that was my favorite. It read: “When a man stands, his entire weight is carried by the bones of his legs down to his feet. But when he sits, the weight is carried on the two arches of bone (opposite) extending below the flaring wings of the pelvis….”

That page, especially, transfixed me. I returned to it again and again. And I knew I was in love with the Human Body. I concluded that I was going to be a doctor when I grew up.

Based solely on that book, my friend Shannon Klowunder, whose mother was a nurse, and I formed The Human Body Club. We memorized the text on page 73. We made flashcards and quizzed each other out on the playground while the other kids swung on the monkey bars: Subclavian vein. Superior vena cava.

I was also in The Bionic Man Club, with another friend, Christina Forchemer (Goals: 10 pushups every day, run across the playground without stopping). But I sensed deep down that The Bionic Man Club didn’t have a future. The Human Body Club was different. My obsession with The Body, which I renewed again and again–and in the following years, with other such books, including Isaac Asimov‘s The Human Body–was part of a larger goal. I came to define myself by it: I was a future surgeon. I felt fortunate and relieved to have my future all figured out.

I chose a college for its pre-med program. I took bio and chem. I took English and art history, too, and that’s when I ran into trouble. Because found I loved them. For the first time since the third grade, I discovered there were other paths. For the first time since I was eight, I was unsure about my future. I majored in art history with an English minor. I didn’t fulfill my science course pre-reqs. After graduating, I worked as an editor and ad copywriter. I enjoyed it, but I struggled financially. I feared I had failed myself by not continuing on to med school.

One afternoon when I was thirty, I was wandering around Georgetown and stumbled on a used book store in a narrow brick rowhouse rising from the cobblestones of P Street. It was called The Lantern, and it’s still there, a marvelous place–old ladies, old books, old, creaking stairs. On a whim, I decided to look for that old friend, The Body.

There it was, on a shelf at floor-level. The entire series, in fact, but I pulled out just the one. Now I recognized the sculpture on the front as a Rodin bronze. I sat in the afternoon light by the tall narrow windows and flipped to the page that had first fired my imagination, the page that had set me on my path over twenty years before.

I was astonished by what I saw.

The spread was beautiful. On the left, a full-page photograph of a pelvis and lumbar vertebrae shot in black and white against a black ground. On the right, a 3/4-page photo, again in black and white, of a spare architectural structure identified in the caption only as “Model of Space Frame,” whose supporting elements echo those of the pelvis. Below it, the text that Shannon and I had memorized was broken into brief lines and centered, like a poem. That’s what gave it away. Sitting there in the old bookstore, now as a student of art history, as a professed writer, I saw that all those years ago, I had misidentified my passion. It was not anatomy I had fallen in love with, but with the art and language of it. Alveoli, phalanges. All those beautiful words. Rodin. Those beautiful images.

Alan E. Nourse, villi-describer extraordinaire. Photo from Wikipedia

The author, Alan E. Nourse, was a poet (actually a novelist, columnist, and MD–he did it all) with a wit. Subtitle on white blood cells: “A Rally of Wrigglers.” On lungs: “Two Studies in Pink.” On poisons: “Finality in a Capsule.” He paints the villi, which I described unimaginatively as “fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine” as “a vast, velvety filter.” In 1975, The Body was probably the first great nonfiction book that had crossed my path.

And so I am curious about what, exactly, draws Mbot to fall asleep every night with the stomach book. The answer may not be obvious at all. I hope it doesn’t take him until he’s thirty to figure it out. It’s okay if, like my mother said, he’s like me. But only up to a point.

John and Bill Reiff at Twinsdays, 1991 (www.robinsontwins.org) copyright Charles Robinson 2011

Is there a book—or a bookstore—that changed your life?

Nourse, Alan E. and the editors of Life, The Body, Life Science Library, Time Inc., New York, 1964.

Sculpture, Rodin, Auguste. . c. 1900. Musée Rodin, Paris.