Friday, September 28, 2012


I woke up groggy-eyed this morning. There is a subversive activity going on that I think the public needs to be warned about. Maybe I should contact Homeland Security for this action is a true saboteur. I should be taking long walks, getting eight hours of sleep each night, doing FaceBook, answering emails, doing my exercises. Instead, what am I doing ? Reading.

The books are seductive. I think I’ll just peek into one, an innocent thing to do. And there they are neatly lined up. “Come in,” the words seem to say. “I’ve only a few minutes,” I reply. “Not a problem. You can stop at any time,” they coo. But I can’t stop. Just one more page, one more chapter, just these few last pages, and hours—days slip away.

I’ve tried to make hard, fast rules: No reading before 1:00 in the afternoon. (My mornings are set aside for writing.) No starting a new book after 10:00p.m. If there are more than 10 pages, and it’s after 11:00pm, I must close the book and turn off the light. But I’m a weak taskmaster. If I can’t get to sleep within 5 minutes, I’m allowed to turn on the light and finish the book. I can always find an excuse to read.

My LIST OF BOOKS TO READ is a mess. Can’t really call it a list for it’s a collection of Post-it notes and scraps of paper all stuck into a plastic file. Periodically I go through, putting titles on my “hold” list at the Public Library, but it never diminishes the mess. The “list” has a life of its own. I’ve kept track of books read that goes back to the 1960s. Don’t know why I have it, but it gives me comfort to write the title and author down. Then at the end of the year, I have a total of books read. Useless information, but I continue with the list.

I have vivid memories of reading certain books. I can see in my mind’s eye the illustrations for Mary Poppins. I loved that book. When I finished it, I couldn’t part with it, and carried it around for days. My mother sometimes worried that I always had my nose in a book. “You’ll ruin your eyes,” she said. But she never stopped me. (When I was pregnant with my second child, Mother came to visit me. I had a stack of books to return to the library: Headhunters in the Solomon Islands among them. Mother was horrified. “You shouldn’t read these books,” she said. “You’ll mark the baby!) My father was delighted by my reading for he had always been a reader. He was working his way through The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire when he toddled off to his first day of school.

At twelve, my grandmother sent me her copy of Tale of Two Cities. She seemed to know I was a reader and often sent me books from their library. They were always cheap editions, well worn, and I treasured them. Oliver Twist opened the world of Dickens for me. I often had the feeling, as I read, that something profound was happening. I couldn’t explain it, didn’t even try to fully understand it, I merely reveled in the experience.

I lived in the country, at a lake when I was in high school, which meant I was driven to school each day. The driver, Sonny, was a young man my parents hired to drive my sister and me to and from school, along with Bruce who lived at Painter’s Creek. Sonny always picked Mary and Bruce up right after school, but I always had after school activities: debate, speech, a play, friends, and so had to find other ways to get home. My neighbors, Mr. R who owned an automotive shop and Dr. B a dentist, were more than willing to give me a ride, but I had to find some place to wait until they were ready to make the trip home. The library. It was a Carnegie Free Library, built in the traditional style, with pillars and steps leading to the large double door. Two librarians, Minnie and Mattie, ran the library. I will never forget them. Two grey haired spinster ladies who loved books and delighted in helping people find good books. Often, Mattie would call out a “Psst,” then wiggle her finger, enticing me to follow her into the stacks. She’d pull out a book and hand it to me. “I think you’ll like this one,” she’d say. She was never wrong.

I love it when someone makes a good recommendation. Daughter Mary sent me The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society book. I never would have found it on my own. One of the student acupuncturists at Bastyr University recommended Scandinavian mystery writers. I felt like I’d found the mother lode.

I’m always sad when I finish an author’s most recent book. I then start waiting for the next book. It felt like centuries passed while waiting for another Tony Hillerman, and when I read of his death my heart broke. No more Sgt. Jim Chee. Oh no!

Recently, I saw the book Far From the Madding Crowd on my bookshelf. I had loved it as a girl, but couldn’t remember why. I reread it and in the last chapter had that thrill go through me again, the one that feels profound and mysterious.

Up until a few years ago, I read every Robert B. Parker book. (I’ve done that with a lot of old mystery writers—read each book from the earliest right up to the last.) Learned how to write dialogue reading those books. Cormac McCarthy taught me about “voice” in his All the Pretty Horses. I not only read it twice, but also listened to the audiotapes. And I’ll read it again. I so loved Alison McGhee’s first novel “Shadow Baby” that I had to own it. Thank heavens for Pegasus—my used bookstore. 

I’ve got mixed feelings about reviews and always check to see if the writer is male or female. We are so acculturated that we are never truly objective, and yet I’m curious about what they (who are professional readers) have to say. And then I remember one Sunday morning. My husband and I were reading the Sunday New York Times when Dick put down his paper and said wearily, “Too much is written about what is written.”

Nancy Pearl, Seattle’s former Librarian, has written a wonderful book titled Book Lust I know just how she feels.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Being Sixteen

I was just sixteen, sitting in a back booth at Bartel’s CafĂ© in Chippew Falls, Wisconsin, sharing a cigarette and a coke with my best friend Joyce. We were dressed in the latest fashion; wool skirt, cardigan on backwards and buttoned, strand of pearls, and dirty saddleshoes. She’d swiped the cigarette from her father, something she did on a regular basis. I think he knew, but always pretended he didn’t. I didn’t really like smoking, always choked, but it was the thing to do when you were sixteen.

Joyce and I were talking about life. “I don’t like those ups and downs,” Joyce said. She’d just had her heart broken by a senior who didn’t even know she existed. I knew all about those ups and downs, had a crush on a different boy each week. Dating was something you did, never seriously. That was too dangerous. We went out in a bunch, boys and girls together. It was the depression and none of the boys had cars. I lived out at the lake, and so my dates’ fathers drove them to pick me up and then drove me home again. Talk about chaperons! I was well protected from sixteen year old grubby pawing.

But back to talking about life. Joyce carefully drew a straight line on a cocktail napkin. “That’s the way life should be. Safe and smooth.”

“But, Joyce,” I said. “If you don’t have the valleys, you can’t have mountains.” Now how did I know that at sixteen? But I did. That moment is etched in my memory. I remember it well, can vividly see the wooden paneling in the booth, see Joyce sitting across from me, her dark eyes so serious and sad. I was filled with feelings I could hardly explain, for I think I could foretell how some of those valleys would be. I was scared, but excited. Life was going to be some adventure, I was sure of that, and perhaps I’d better not think too much about it before hand. Just jump in and live.

I wish I’d have had the wisdom, the savvy to be able to say it the way David Mitchell has his teenage protagonist speak in his book blackswangreen (or Black Swan Green). I remind myself this was written by an adult, but he captured the voice of the boy perfectly. “The world’s a headmaster who works on your faults. I don’t mean in a mystical or a Jesus way. More how you’ll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step! Everything that’s wrong with us, is we’re too selfish or too Yessir, Nosir, Three bags full sir or anything, that’s a hidden step. Either you suffer the consequences of not noticing your fault forever, or, one day, you do notice it, and fix it. Joke is, once you get it into your brain about that hidden step and think, Hey, life isn’t such a shithouse after all again, then BUMP! Down you go, a whole new flight of hidden steps. There are always more.” 

But David Mitchell hadn’t written his book when we were young. And so, just like his protagonist, we lived our lives bump after bump after  bump. Joyce was true to her plan. Her life was one that was flat, predictable, smooth, safe. She died too young, an alcoholic, an unpublished writer, a bitter woman. I visited her the year before her death. She met me at the Eau Claire airport where I'd flown in to meet her. We sat in a paneled booth and talked about our lives. Mine had definitely gone up and down. She sipped her rye whiskey. “I sometimes wonder if I did it right,” she said.

“We can all wonder that,” I said. How magical is this business of being alive. And who ever truly figures it all out. I think Mitchell’s teenage protagonist is closest.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Deer Stones

I think I first wanted to go to Mongolia when I was in the fourth grade. I distinctly remember the pictures in the “National Geographic” magazine. Even in black and white photos, I could tell that those gentle rolling hills were green in the summertime. I loved the funny hats and the boots with curved up toes. And I was caught up in the magic of Genghis Khan and his empire. So when I finally made arrangements to go to Mongolia, it was a dream that had been long in the making.

I flew into Beijing and made my way to the Mongolia Air desk. No one was there. Him-m-m, I thought, that’s strange. I had a connection in a few hours. I noticed four young people nearby seated on a pile of hiking gear. They had been there all day for they too had connections. I finally went to the nearby China Air desk. “Oh,” the clerk said, “they often don’t fly. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

The young people and I decided, in typical American fashion, to be proactive. We piled into a taxi and went to Mongolia Air headquarters. The receptionist was kind. Perhaps they would fly tomorrow. So the young hikers and I went out to dinner. They were on their way to the western part of Mongolia to join a climbing group. That is they would if they could ever get there.

I decided to take advantage of my forced stay and found a charming old hotel in a nearby village. The next morning, I took a taxi to the airport. Mongolia Air was open and ready for business. There was no explanation for the previous day. It was enough that they would operate today.

I flew into Delangadgad Airport and there met my guide and four women to make up our party.

There’s much to tell, but the Deer Stones were a high point for me as they captured the magic and mystery I had always felt about Mongolia.

The stones are located in a broad, short-grass valley rimmed by the mountains of north-central Mongolia called Ushkin Uver, Lung Mountain, for the peaks resemble a sheep’s lung. There, in the middle of nowhere stand a group of monoliths, the Deer Stones. They’re about eight feet tall, probably 3,000 years old, erected by unknown people, and no one knows what they mean. They’re covered with strange hybrid hoofed mammals with antlers and duck-bill snouts. Each stone also has many circles, probably representing the sun. They’re “fenced” in by a ring of small stones that surround the area. (I saw a lot of these stone “fences” and wondered at the psychological power they seemed to hold, for I never crossed one.)

As far as the eye could see was nothing but sand, rock and sky.

And then two boys came riding up on ponies.
They rode over to Baatar (our guide). “What are you doing with our stones?” they asked. Baatar promised we would not damage anything. The boys waited until we were finished with our picture taking. Only as we got back into our jeep, did they ride away.

Where had they come from? How had they known we were there? Over and over I was presented with this mystery. We often passed a gathering of people. I know some had cell phones, but they’ve been doing this for centuries, gathering at some barren spot to exchange gossip, barter, refresh friendships.

Whenever we stopped, kids rode up on ponies and camels. I asked Baatar what they said. He smiled. It was a Mongolian version of “what’s up?”

I hope no one ever figures out what the Deer Stones are. I love the idea that in the middle of the Gobi desert, are some beautiful stones tying a mysterious past to our today. I’m so grateful that I was able to stand in their midst, in awe and wonder of a people who had lived here long ago and who’d left a calling card for me. We passed this way they seem to say. Welcome and good travels.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Learning and Knowing

           Learning. It’s all about making new distinctions.
           When my grandson Dallas was three, everything with four legs and a tail was a cow. He was very clear about that. I was visiting and had brought a picture book about a dog named Spot. On every page, with great confidence, he pointed to the dog and said, “Cow.”
“No,” I’d say. “That’s a dog.”
He’d look at me patiently. “It’s a cow.” He knew.
On the last page of the book was a picture of a big black dog. “Woof, woof,” I said.
He smiled. “It’s a cow.”
Later that afternoon, I took him for a walk. Suddenly, a big black dog off leash lumbered up and stood nose to nose with Dallas. The dog barked, "Woof!”  Dallas’s whole body trembled. He looked up at me and said, “Dog.” A new distinction.
Learning is about our perceptions as well. We take our perceptions and make sense out of them. We know what we know. When granddaughter Megan was four, she knew all about factories. “That’s where they make the horses,” she told me. I had not a clue where that had come from and try as I did, I couldn’t change her mind. Later that day, her father took us all for a ride. And there, out in the country, was a tall smokestack, an abandoned factory building, and all around it were horses. Megan gave me a knowing look. “See, Grammy. The horses.”
I loved my years of working one on one with students. Miracles happened every day. And some times I had to be the bearer of bad news. Laura was a first grader and refused to learn her number facts. I finally asked her straight out if she was every going to learn them. She leaned toward me, smiled, and whispered. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Maxwell. Next year I’ll be in the second grade and I won’t have to do this anymore.” I felt like the wicked witch of the West.
And there was Evan. He knew right from left. No big deal. Right was the side where the windows were.
Carrie was a mystery when she came to my learning center. Her problem was comprehension, and her performance was all over the map. One afternoon, I read a paragraph to her and then asked a question. (The answer was a brown puppy.) She screwed up her pretty little face, then made another facial contortion. She held her chin in her hands and frowned ferociously. 
“Carrie,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m thinking.”
Oh no. Some adult had no doubt told her to “think.” Carrie had no clue what that meant, but she knew what it looked like.
“Carrie,” I said. “Don’t think. When I asked you that question, did you see something in your mind’s eye?” I pointed to her head.
She nodded. “A little brown dog.”
I now knew what to do about Carrie’s “comprehension” problem.
I have dozens of these stories, and some are very strange, but I’ve made my point. My ten years experience one on one with students was a goldmine. I learned so much. And I had to toss out most of the notions I had about teaching. I think my biggest lesson was the realization that when we get all grown up, we think we know, and we forget that it’s all smoke and mirrors.