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Results 1 - 25 of 48
1. Round Buildings, Square Buildings, Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written about this book before:

roundbuildingsRound Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings that Wiggle Like a Fish by Philip M. Isaacson. Twelve years ago, this children’s book was my introduction to the study of architecture. I’ve never looked at buildings the same way since.

“Isaacson takes the reader on a leisurely, respectful tour of buildings around the world: churches, houses, museums, lighthouses, all kinds of structures, from the humble to the magnificent. In simple, straightforward prose he discusses various architectural concepts such as the impact of building materials, the interplay of light and color, and the significance of roof shape. His stunning photographs turn even the roughest earthen hut into a work of art. His lyrical text helps us see in the pictures what we might otherwise have missed:

‘These buildings are part of the Shaker Village at Sabbathday, Maine. On an afternoon in late winter they are warm and creamy, but in December, shadows thrown at them make them look haunted. A building only a few yards away fades into the land on a hazy morning.’”

—Originally posted March 11, 2006: “The Poetry of Walls.”

Round Buildings, Square Buildings was edited by my first boss in publishing, the great Stephanie Spinner. It was near completion by the time I came on board; I don’t think I did much more than look over galleys and jacket copy, and probably put through the request for Mr. Isaacson’s author copies. It’s one of those books I sat at my desk reading, unable to believe my good fortune: This is my job now; I’m getting paid to read.

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Before Round Buildings I hadn’t done much real seeing of architecture. There were buildings I loved: the sandstone administration building (formerly a convent) of my first college, Loretto Heights, with its red tower soft-edged against a blue sky, and inside, a gorgeous mosaic floor—tiny tiles set into place by wagon-training nuns, so the story went. But even there, I was drawn more to story than to form. Most of the buildings that captured my imagination, pre-Isaacson, lived in books: Green Gables, the House o’ Dreams, Jane’s Lantern Hill house with its “lashings of magic.” The Muskoka cabin. (No one does houses better than Montgomery.) Plumfield. Juniper’s cottage. Miss Suzy’s tree-house with its acorn cups. Vicky Austin’s grandfather’s house-in-a-converted-stable with the stalls full of books. A great many English houses in a great many English novels.

But most of the time, my eye was drawn more to nature than to man’s edifices. I had next to no vocabulary for understanding architecture. Isaacson changed that in a paragraph with his description of the creamy walls of the Taj Mahal changing colors as the sun moved across them—the very passage I read with Beanie and Rose this morning. He writes about harmony and you find yourself looking for it everywhere you go. He made me see my world differently—just as John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic changed how I looked at just about everything else: power lines, rain gutters, a sculpture garden, the line at the DMV. The way Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain changed the way I see faces.

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Clicking through these old posts, I see I’ve made a connection between these three books before. They’re transformative, all three.

Funny also to see in the old Stilgoe post I linked above, “Way Leads on to Way,” that I’d been reading Fifty Famous Stories Retold* to Beanie that year—in March, 2008, when she was seven years old. And now here’s Rilla seven, and I’m reading it to her. (Today’s tale: Androclus and the Lion. It drew cheers, and a narration with gusto. Because LION.) I have to laugh: way doesn’t just lead on to way; sometimes it leads right back full circle. I didn’t choose Round Buildings for the older girls and Fifty Famous Stories for the seven-year-old at the same time—again—on purpose; I guess it’s just that I’ve been doing this long enough now that I know what works for us, and these things have worked time and again. It did strike me this morning, reading the Isaacson, that the Stilgoe might be a satisfying read for Jane and Rose right about now.

*free on Kindle

**Also wonderful: Isaacson’s sequel, A Short Walk Around the Pyramids and Through the World of Art

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2. Two Gardeners: A Rabbit Trail

A book arrived yesterday that made me giddy. Scott saw me squealing over it and wanted to know what all the excitement was about. I tried to think how best to explain it to him.

“Okay, imagine that John Lennon and Elvis Presley were pen-pals. Say they had a lively correspondence, letters flying back and forth for years and years. Now imagine that this book is a collection of those letters.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Who are they really?”

I sighed happily. Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence.”

Scott: “Um…?” But he knows me well. “Gardening?”

“Yes. Only my two favorite gardening writers EVER.”

“Like you had to tell me that.”

Everything about this book makes me smile. Editor Emily Herring Wilson’s introduction begins,

Gardeners are often good letter writers, and whether they write to describe what’s blooming today or to remember a flower from childhood, their letters are efforts to preserve memory. After they have put away tools in the shed, they write letters as a way to go on working in the garden. Because it is impossible to achieve the kind of perfection they dream of, they try to come to terms with their dreams by talking back and forth about their successes and failures….

Katharine S. White was, of course, the esteemed New Yorker editor whose occasional gardening columns are collected in the first horticultural tome ever to win my heart: Onward and Upward in the Garden. I had only to read her opening essay, the famous 1958 column that both celebrates and gently mocks gardening catalogs, critiquing them like works of literature, to know that here was a kindred spirit. Evidently Miss Elizabeth Lawrence, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic Southern garden writer (whose Gardening for Love I quoted the other day), felt the same spark of recognition. In May of 1958, Elizabeth wrote Katharine White a letter to say how much she’d enjoyed the New Yorker column, adding,

I asked [my friend] Mrs. Lamm if you were Mrs. E. B. White, and she said you were. So please tell Mr. E. B. that he has three generations of devoted readers in this family. My mother’s favorites were the one about leaving the mirror in the apartment vestibule, and the one about homemade bread. My niece adores Charlotte’s Web.

The mirror and bread essays (“Removal” and “Fro-Joy”) can be found in E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat, and if you know me at all, you know this sort of interwoven rabbit-trailing fills me with utter glee.

That first letter from Elizabeth to Katharine is fun, folksy, and smart, full of suggestions for other garden catalogs Mrs. White might enjoy. Several of her recommendations became fodder for subsequent ‘Onward and Upward’ columns. For nearly twenty years, until Katharine’s death in 1977, the two women wrote back and forth. So far, I have only read the first two of these letters. There must be hundreds of them in this book. I’m positively aflutter over the idea of such riches.

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3. “The wonder of all wandering…”

Today we read a chapter from H.E. Marshall’s English Literature for Boys and Girls:

But of one of the great treasures of old Irish literature we will talk. This is the Leabhar Na h-Uidhre, or Book of the Dun Cow. It is called so because the stories in it were first written down by St. Ciaran in a book made from the skin of a favorite cow of a dun color. That book has long been lost, and this copy of it was made in the eleventh century…

In the Book of the Dun Cow, and in another old book called the Book of Leinster, there is written the great Irish legend called the Tain Bo Chuailgne  or the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

This is a very old tale of the time soon after the birth of Christ. In the book we are told how this story had been written down long, long ago in a book called the Great Book Written on Skins.

That last bit cracked us up and we had to spend a while proclaiming the title in sonorous tones.

We enjoyed the story of the Book of the Dun Cow even more than the story in the Book of the Dun Cow, if you see what I mean. Marshall drops in intriguing details and doesn’t explain them: “But a learned man carried away that book to the East.” Who? Why? Where?

We’d have liked to hear more of Mary A. Hutton’s poem, “The Tain,” of which only a snippet was included—the Brown Bull’s death:

“He lay down
Against the hill, and his great heart broke there,
And sent a stream of blood down all the slope;
And thus, when all the war and Tain had ended,
In his own land, ‘midst his own hills, he died.”

Later we decided it was time for Rilla to meet The King of Ireland’s Son, and Padraic Colum’s rollicking, lilting prose swept us off on a grand adventure. Oh, such chills when the Eagle looks at the King’s Son with the “black films of death” covering her eyes!

Hmm, this is all sounding rather gruesome, but I guess I’m just calling out the gruesome bits. We were laughing ourselves silly at certain parts of the morning’s reading. And Colum weaves in such irresistible poetry:

His hound at his heel,
His hawk on his wrist;
A brave steed to carry him whither he list,
And the green ground under him,

and

I put the fastenings on my boat
For a year and for a day,
And I went where the rowans grow,
And where the moorhens lay;

And I went over the stepping-stones
And dipped my feet in the ford,
And came at last to the Swineherd’s house,–
The Youth without a Sword.

A swallow sang upon his porch
“Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee,”
“The wonder of all wandering,
The wonder of the sea;”
A swallow soon to leave ground sang
“Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee.”

I’m using Pinterest to create a little scrapbook of our Ireland rabbit trail—it suddenly made sense to me last night how that’s a perfect platform for collecting all the books, pictures, and websites we tend to explore in the pursuit of a particular interest.

Here’s a clip of some Irish

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4. Last Minute Novel Revisions

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I am working on a novel revision for an editor and I expect to turn it in by Monday. But today, as I was reading through one last time to polish everything up–oh, my gosh!–there’s still so much work to do.

Last Minute Revisions

At this point, it’s not major structural changes or big plot changes. Instead, I am looking to tighten every scene and make as many connections as possible. And I am polishing language and voice.

Here are some thing that I’m working on:

Connections. I noticed that K gave A something. Now, K is a minor character, and while I like K, the connection here was weak. Instead, I wondered how the story would work if C gave A that same thing. Much nicer! It brought back in a sub-plot/theme with C that I thought would never work into this part of the story.

Conflict and Tension. Yes, the mainstay of fiction is conflict and tension and you’d think I would have that right by now. Instead, I realized that I was relying on the external conflict and ignoring the internal conflict. What I needed was conflict to be within my main character, while at the same time, she is facing external problems. I had to go back paragraph by paragraph and make sure that the internal conflict was present, was related to the external problem and that it grew over the course of the story.

Pacing. I separated one long chapter into two chapters, making sure the ending of the first chapter was a cliff-hanger and the beginning of the next chapter had a good hook.

Verbs. Yes, verbs. As we all know by now, strong verbs make for good story language and a strong voice. And I was doing pretty well. But I noticed in this chapter that I was slacking off some. For example, I replaced “They stared” with “They gaped”, and later with “They gawked.” Subtle differences, yes, but important.

Characterization. I am confident that A is a strong character. But what about B, C, D, E, F, G? As I read through, I am looking for places to characterize them better.

When is a Novel Revision Finished?

Um, never. I think I could endlessly revise a novel and my friends will attest to that. But at some point, I’ve done all I can do without more feedback. With this final pass through, I’ll be at that point. It will be time to send the novel out into the world for someone to read and evaluate. Does that mean I am finished with revisions on this particular novel? Doubtful. Bu until some fresh eyes catch weak areas, I can’t see anything else to do. Soon, very soon, it will be on its way.

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5. Middle Ages Rabbit Trail

In no particular order, some books and links we’ve been enjoying this week:

Adam of the Road. Newbery-winning middle-grade novel by Elizabeth Janet Gray. We’re only on chapter three so I haven’t much to share about it yet, but it’s delightful so far. Young Adam’s father is Roger the minstrel, and Roger has been off at a respected minstrel school in France while Adam’s attending school at St. Alban’s. And now Roger’s coming back, and I’m guessing from the title that Adam’s hopes will be fulfilled and he’ll be accompaning his father on a journey. Loads of good rich detail here, including, in today’s chapter…

Sumer Is Icumen In,” a very old English round which I remember learning in a college poetry class. We had to memorize it in Middle English. (I can also still recite the opening of The Canterbury Tales, thanks to Prof. Kraus.) The modern English translation of “the bullock sterteth, the bucke verteth” had, naturally, my nine- and twelve-year-old daughters in hysterics. Scatological humor has no statute of limitations.

I only knew it as a poem, not a musical round, so of course we had to turn to YouTube for help. Here’s a pretty rendition, and here’s a sound file with sheet music for two parts.

Beanie reread the St. Alban chapter of Our Island Story to refresh her memory of that tale, since the book opens on the feast of St. Alban in the town of St. Albans. On a walk, Adam and his friend Perkin pass the crumbling remains of the old Roman buildings from centuries past, and we found pictures of these at Wikipedia.

We’ve been reading bits of Gombrich’s A Little History of the World as well as sections of The Rule of St. Benedict. I looked all over for our copy of The Sailor Who Captured the Sea, a lavishly illustrated picture book that tells the story of the Book of Kells, but it hasn’t turned up yet. (We read it a few months back, though. It’s around somewhere.) Sister Wendy’s The Story of Painting has a nice section on the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

We keep returning to this Society for Creative Anachronism Flickr pool for illuminated manuscripts. I am repeatedly astonished by the lovely things people can make. Beanie shares my fascination and is eager to try some of the tutorials at the Gutenberg School for Scribes, another SCA gem.

I had the pleasure of seeing this scroll (scroll down, no pun intended) up close in real life at our visit to Sandra Dodd’s house in Albuquerque last month. It’s a marvel. (I am still kicking myself for forgetting to take pictures during that visit. It was a good lesson for me—I kept my camera close at hand for the whole rest of the trip!)

Yesterday, by chance, Rilla pulled Barbara Cooney’s picture book Chanticleer and the Fox off the shelf, based of course on the Chaucer tale. We meant to read that (again) today but we got distracted by our old timeline, the one Jane and I began in New York in the year 2000 and which graced our wall for the four years we lived in Virginia, filling up with colorful entries. It has been in a roll on top of a cabinet the whole time we’ve lived here in California because I couldn’t find wall space for it. Too many bookcases! But today it occurred to me that it would fit in the living room/dining room if we stretched it

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6. Time and again: Burton, Fukuoka, and taking a break

Last week, the Déja Vu blog of Lapham's Quarterly ("Bringing an historical perspective to today's news") made a connection between a new study showing that the mind needs periods of rest in order to process and retain all the information we shove into it throughout the day and Robert Burton's own lament about the overwhelming number of books published in "our Frankfurt Marts, our domestic Marts" (of the early 17th century). There is too much information for one brain to absorb, and it seems that we've been feeling that way for a long while.

Meanwhile, Harry Ayres, writing in the Financial Times (for a no-comment comment on the unlikelihood of the FT praising Masanobu Fukuoka, see Anna Lappé's twitter feed) finds a way into The One-Straw Revolution, and it's not through organic food:

I was struck by one sentence in particular. Somewhere in the middle of this charming, eccentric book, one of the founding texts of natural, non-interventionist farming, Fukuoka asserts that “the one-acre farmer of long ago spent January, February and March hunting rabbits in the hills”. Later on, he says that while cleaning his village shrine he found dozens of haikus, composed by local people, on hanging plaques; but “there is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song”.

Farmers, once upon a time, had leisure time! They wrote poetry, at least they did in Japan. And that leisure was characterized, not by catching up on RSS feeds or figuring out how to apply for farm subsidies, but by wholesome pursuits that allowed for a fair amount of wool-gathering. Ayres's column brings out the features that make The One-Straw Revolution an inspiration to so many: its holistic (sometimes didactic) approach to creating the good life. 

(This all puts us in mind of the way, whenever we spoke on the phone to Larry Korn, who co-translated and edited The One-Straw Revolution, and who has made a career out of Fukuoka's methods of gardening, we had to slow down our New York patter, breathe deep, and listen to his calm—and calming—voice. Thank you Larry-sensei!)

The whole of The Summer Book takes place in what we would consider downtime and involves a little girl finding ways to amuse herself. David Nice, a music critic, has published our favorite recent appreciation of the book. It might be our favorite because he quotes some great, funny, passages, it might be because he truly praises the translation, or it might be because he writes the following:

Somehow I imagined it would be a bit of a soft option, gentle whimsy after the bright and black of Linn Ullmann's A Blessed Child, another masterpiece based on the author's childhood and times.... I was wrong.

And by extension, you are wrong too, if you fear that The Summer Book is sentimental.

Here, for slow viewing, and with a soundtrack of crashing waves and birdsong, is footage of the island where Tove Jansson and her partner spent their summers: Add a Comment
7. World Cup fever, NYRB style (with Yuri Olesha)

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Yuri Olesha's Envy, the funniest novel you'll ever read about the quest for the perfect means of mass producing sausage, has as its dramatic center a soccer match between the USSR and Germany. In the passage below, Volodya is the shlub of a narrator's rival, and Goetske is the flamboyant star of the opposing team. The playing styles of the two men are contrasted, each, perhaps, reflecting the spirit of his home country.


Volodya would catch the ball in midflight, when it seemed mathematically impossible. The entire audience, the entire living slope of the stands seemed to get steeper; each spectator was halfway to his feet, impelled by a terrible, impatient desire to see, at last, the most interesting thing—the scoring of a goal. The referees were sticking whistles into their lips as they walked, ready to whistle for a goal...Volodya wasn’t catching the ball, he was ripping it from its line of flight, like someone who has violated the laws of physics and was hit by the stunning action of thwarted forces. He would fly up with the ball, spinning around, literally screwing himself up on it. He would grab the ball with his entire body—knees, belly, and chin—throwing his weight at the speed of the ball, the way someone throws a rag down to put out a flame. The usurped speed of the ball would throw Volodya two meters to the side, and he would fall like a firecracker. The opposing forwards would run at him, but ultimately the ball would end up high above the fray.
    Volodya stayed inside the goal. He couldn’t just stand there, though. He walked the line of the goal from post to post, trying to tamp down the surge of energy from his battle with the ball. Everything was roaring inside him. He swung his arms, shook himself, kicked up a clump of earth with his toe. Elegant before the start of the game, he now consisted of rags, a black body, and the leather of his huge, fingerless gloves. The breaks didn’t last long. Once again the Germans’ attack would roll toward Moscow’s goal. Volodya passionately desired victory for his team and worried about each of his players. He thought that only he knew how you should play against Goetske, what his weak points were, how to defend against his attacks. He was also interested in what opinion the famous German was forming about the Soviet game. When he himself clapped and shouted “hurray” to each of his backs, he felt like shouting to Goetske then: “Look how we’re playing! Do you think we’re playing well?”
    As a soccer player, Volodya was Goetske’s exact opposite. Volodya was a professional athlete; the other was a professional player. What was important to Volodya was the overall progress of the game, the overall victory, the outcome; Goetske was anxious merely to demonstrate his art. He was an old hand who was not there to support the team’s honor; he treasured only his own success; he was not a permanent member of any sports organization because he had compromised himself by moving from club to club for money. He was barred from participating in play-off matches. He was invited only for friendly games, exhibition games, and trips to other countries. He combined art and luck. His presence made a team dangerous. He despised the other players—both his side and his opponents. He knew he could kick a goal against any team. The rest didn’t matter to him. He was a hack.

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8. Picture of the Day: The Vet's Daughter, cover art by Louise Bourgeois

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Louise Bourgeois, detail of Untitled (Legs and Bones), 1993; courtesy Gallerie Karsten Greve, Cologne; photograph by Beth Phillips

Louise Bourgeois: 1911–2010

"We sit in Louise's web, a wonderfully tatty parlor, watching the paint peel, waiting nervously. There is a round coffee table with a dozen bottles of liquor on it. Esrafily pours and says: 'Louder! Like we're having a party. If she thinks she's missing a party, she'll come down.'' Cloud taunts us: ''Man, she's gonna lay waste. I call this place the smack-down shack, 'cause it ends in tears, man.'

"Then she appears, and it's hard to imagine this small, opalescent woman in a pink tunic, black slip over black leggings and tiny black Nikes smacking anybody down."

From "Always on Sunday," a profile of the artist and her circle that appeared in The New York Times in 2002

"My Life in Pictures": Bourgeois comments on photographs of herself from age 2 to 85, also in the Times.

And for Barbara Comyns admirers, we hear that her novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths will soon be republished in America (it's available in the UK from Virago). More details to come.

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9. Monday Multimedia: Two Ways of Writing About War

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Just before Halloween, the New York Institute for the Humanities sponsored a panel discussion about Vasily Grossman and Curzio Malaparte, two writers who worked as war correspondents on opposite sides of the Eastern Front during WWII. When it was Chris Hedges turn to speak, it became clear that he believed the most significant divide between the two writers to be not geographical or narrowly political, but primarily moral. The panelists were too polite to duke out the merits of realistic writing versus the fantastic mode or the value of giving voice to war's victims (Grossman) rather than focusing on those in power (Malaparte) right then and there. Too bad, we would have liked to hear panelist and Malaparte translator Walter Murch come to Malaparte's defense.

Last month, the radio program On The Media gave Hedges an opportunity to discuss war writing, Grossman's bravery and what he terms Malaparte's "war pornography" in more depth. It takes a minute, but an audio player should load right on this very page.

By the way, it's worth listening to this entire episode of On The Media, which took "The Future of the Book Industry" as its theme.


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10. Book Giveaways

Today I'm pleased to announce the winners of America's White Table by Margot Raven, illustrated by Mike Benny. I'm also pleased to announce another free book giveaway as well.

Our first winner is Marcia from North Carolina, who responded:

I'm so excited! I teach on a military base and many of my students' parents are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. I see the strength and determination of these wonderful families on a daily basis. My students understand, first hand, the sacrifices that are being made to protect our country. I am sure they will enjoy this book and the tribute it pays to all of their families. Thanks so much!
Our second winner is Judi from Colorado, who writes:
I'm so happy to win the book. Thank you. I teach 8th graders, and we are currently doing a unit on the 1940's in my Language Arts class. I read aloud picture books at the start of class many times to provide background knowledge for the students. This book will create a lot of discussion about how families are affected by war, especially if a family member is in the armed services. Thank you again.
And our last lucky reader, Mary Ann from Iowa:
Last year during Catholic Schools Week, one of the themes for a day was Salute to our Nation. We had about 40 local veterans come in and have coffee and doughnuts after a school-wide assembly. The assembly was centered around the flag and how the flag should be honored. The kids learned flag etiquette and why we honor the flag and veterans. We sang patriotic songs and Taps was played and explained why it was played. After the refreshments the vets went into individual classrooms if they wanted to and visited the students, answered questions, and shared stories. It was the best day and so moving. We had many in tears, And the veterans were so impressed and grateful. I hope to repeat it again this year and I'd like to do something a little different. That's where the book comes in. Not sure just how yet! Thank you again!

We saw an overwhelming response for this book! I suppose its theme and artistry really spoke to many of us.

So keeping in the "holiday" spirit, I'm pleased to offer another giveaway, this time two copies of A Calendar Of Festivals: Celebrations From Around The World. This terrific collection from Barefoot Books features eight stories from different cultures, including information about each holiday's origin. A nice reference throughout the year. (The paperback edition varies slightly in its cover from the edition shown here).

To enter, simply email me with Festivals in the subject line. Those who were entered into the drawing for

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11. Ylinked

Another week full of drafts and snippets, words squeezing into the teasing interstices of busy days. Most of what I jotted down had to do with the subjects that got their hooks into us: a chronicle of paths wandered, links explored.

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During our Balboa Park day last week, Jane strolled through the Timken Museum of Art. One piece she found particularly compelling was Benjamin West’s Fidelia and Speranza, painted in 1771. West was a friend of Benjamin Franklin (his portrait of Franklin’s famous moment with the key and the kite is a hoot). Jane was struck by the image of the girl (Fidelia) holding a chalice with a serpent looking out from it. A little digging informed us that the sisters are figures from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Faith and Hope, who reside in the House of Holiness to which Una (Truth) guides the Red Cross Knight.

XII
Thus as they gan of sundry things devise,
Loe two most goodly virgins came in place,
Ylinked arme in arme in lovely wise,
With countenance demure, and modest grace,
They numbred even steps and equall pace:
Of which the eldest, that Fidelia hight,
Like sunny beames threw from her christall face,
That could have dazd the rash beholders sight,
And round about her head did shine like heavens light.


XIII
She was araied all in lilly white,
And in her right hand bore a cup of gold,
With wine and water fild up to the hight,
In which a Serpent did himselfe enfold,
That horrour made to all that did behold;
But she no whit did chaunge her constant mood:
And in her other hand she fast did hold
A booke, that was both signd and seald with blood:
Wherin darke things were writ, hard to be understood.


XIV
Her younger sister, that Speranza hight,
Was clad in blew, that her beseemed well;
Not all so chearefull seemed she of sight,
As was her sister; whether dread did dwell,
Or anguish in her hart, is hard to tell:
Upon her arme a silver anchor lay,
Whereon she leaned ever, as befell:
And ever up to heaven, as she did pray,
Her stedfast eyes were bent, ne swarved other way.

Well, that led to a lot of Spenser-related digging. We can’t undertake to read much of Faerie Queene right now; we dove into The Odyssey this month and I think one epic poem at a time is enough!

Tropical-FlowersThe week’s other big research project (for various children) had to do with Tamagotchis—the craze has resurfaced here, after a year of dead batteries. Growth charts, game strategies, daily logs: it’s like living in a research lab. One of the sites that turned up on our search was this critical analysis of Tamagotchi use, which I found quite interesting, especially this bit:

I was reminded of Professor Ken Goldberg’s Tele-garden, a web-based project where users can plant and water seeds in a small garden through the use of a remote robotic system. In a presentation on the project, Professor Goldberg mentioned a shift from the Paleolithic Hunter/Gatherer state of the World Wide Web (brief forays into the world of technology for the purpose of apprehending some piece of information) and the Neolithic Husbandry model supported by the project (where users must devote sustained interest and effort to foster growth).

The Tamagotchi is indicative of a similar shift in video game modeling. The majority of video games (especially popular video games) hinge on a model of conquest and succession – temporally limited tasks with set goals attainable through skill and reflexes. Key examples range from Pac Man and Galaxians to Super Mario Brothers and Mortal Kombat. Player/users identify with the “main character” of a simple narrative – “destroy or be destroyed”. Having completed a set amount of destruction, the player/user rests for a moment before taking on a progressively difficult level.

Notable exceptions exist. The most popular of these is the Maxis line of Sim- products, including SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimEarth, SimAnt, and others. Here we see the stirrings of the “Neolithic shift”. The user is responsible for the growth and maintenance of a town (or world, or ant colony, or whatever) and the ultimate goal is to simply “flourish”.

What do you think? Do you prefer Hunter/Gatherer internet experiences, or Neolithic Husbandry?

Speaking of hunting, I fell into a research project of my own last night, as you know if you’re my friend on Facebook or Twitter (which seems to be a synthesis of the hunter/gatherer and husbandry models, if you ask me). For fifteen years I have wondered which version of the Te Deum was the one referred to by Sheldon Vanauken in A Severe Mercy. Vanauken writes:

St. Ebbe’s sang the Te Deum to a setting that made a triumphant proclamation of the line: “Thou art the King of Glory, O-O-O-O-O Christ!”—the O’s ascending to the mighty ‘Christ!’

St. Ebbe’s is the Anglican church in Oxford the Vanaukens attended around 1950. Between YouTube and ChoralWiki, I have investigated, well, scores of scores (ba dum bum), looking for that particular setting of the Te Deum. A commenter at the MusicaSacra forum suggested it might be Benjamin Britten’s Festival Te Deum: that’s the only score I’ve found that has ascending O-O-Os, so perhaps he is right.

Here it is on YouTube, performed at the University of Utah. I must say I’m partial to the setting in C major by Charles Villiers Stanford. The Elgar is lovely and stirring too.

But most lovely and stirring of all is this piece a Twitter responder reminded me of: not the Te Deum, but rather the Non Nobis. I remember how I was moved to tears by this music (and this scene) when I saw Branagh’s Henry V several years back. I meant to buy the soundtrack (score by Patrick Doyle) but forgot all about it. How is that possible? This—this is unforgettable.

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12. “The Fairy Tales of Science”

What we read today (an excerpt; “the astronomer” is a boy named Dick, who is stargazing with his sister, Dorothea):

“Got it,” he said. “Just over the top of the hill. Come and see it.”

Dorothea joined him. He pointed out the bright Aldebaran and the other stars of Taurus, and offered her the telescope.

“I can see a lot better without,” said Dorothea.

“How many of the Pleiades can you see?”

“Six,” said Dorothea.

“There are lots more than that,” said Dick. “But it’s awfully hard to see them when the telescope won’t keep still. How far away does it say the Pleiades are?”

Dorothea went back to the fire and found the place in the book.

“The light from the group known as the Pleiades (referred to by Tennyson in ‘Locksley Hall’)…”

“Oh, hang Tennyson!”

“The light from the group known as the Pleiades reaches our planet in rather more than three hundred years after it leaves them.”

“Light goes at one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second,” said the voice of the astronomer in the darkness.

But Dorothea was also doing some calculations.

“Shakespeare died 1616.”

“What?”

“Well, if the light takes more than three hundred years to get here, it may have started while Shakespeare was alive, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, perhaps. Sir Walter Raleigh may have seen it start…”

“But of course he didn’t,” said the astronomer indignantly. “the light of the stars he saw had started three hundred years before that…”

“Battle of Bannockburn, 1314. Bows and arrows.” Dorothea was off again.

But Dick was no longer listening. One hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second. Sixty times as far as that in a minute. Sixty times sixty times as far as that in an hour. Twenty-four hours in a day. Three hundred and sixty-five days in a year. Not counting leap years. And then three hundred years of it. Those little stars that seemed to speckles a not too dreadfully distant blue ceiling were farther away than he could make himself think, try as he might. Those little stars must be enormous. The whole earth must be a tiny pebble in comparison. A spinning pebble, and he, on it, the astronomer, looking at flaming gigantic worlds so far away that they seemed no more than  sparkling grains of dust. He felt for a moment less than nothing, and then, suddenly, size did not seem to matter. Distant and huge the stars might be, but he, standing here with chattering teeth on the dark hill-side, could see them and name them and even foretell what next they were going to do. “The January Sky.” And there they were, Taurus, Aldebaran, the Pleiades, obedient as slaves…He felt an odd wish to shout at them in triumph, but remembered in time that this would not be scientific.

—from Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome,
one of the Swallows & Amazons books

Where it took us:

* We read the opening of “Locksley Hall,” a long and complex poem which I enjoyed thinking my way through later in the day. With the kids, I read and discussed the first several stanzas, all of us lingering especially over:

Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

* Of course after that we had to see the Pleiades. Discovered Google Sky. Oh. My. Goodness. Truly, we live in an amazing age.

* Spent a long time playing with Google Sky, looking up many constellations including all those mentioned in the Winter Holiday chapter. Rose told me the story of Orion being chased by the serpent, and we read the legend of the Pleiades, those seven sisters, daughters of Atlas. Beanie fetched D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths because both she and Rose wanted to read me several relevant passages.

* Hunted up our copy of Rey’s Find the Constellations and read about the different magnitudes of stars, among other things.

* Rose found Sirius, the Dog Star, her favorite star, says she, because she loves Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novel, Dogsbody, so.

“Here about the beach I wandered,” Tennyson’s poem continues, nourishing a youth sublime / With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time…”

Yeah, that’s the ticket.

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13. A Poem by Hungarian Writer Tibor Déry

Dokumentum

In getting together our edition of Tibor Déry's (that's Déry Tibor to you Magyarphiles) novel Niki we came across some poems of his, published in the short-lived Dokumentum, a journal he helped edit. After dropping some not-so-subtle hints to poet and translator George Szirtes (who has written the introduction to Niki) that it would be wonderful to read the poetry in English, he graciously had a go at translating one or two. We should mention that the poems would not have been found had they not been digitized by the New York Public Library.



Dery Verseibol

MY GOLDFISH

born into sunlight
they swam around her silent
one spring night they entered my heart

the well of resurrection!
their golden ferries glittered through my breast
look at them dancing!
years march on monotonous in the garden greenhouse
here and there a face leans towards me
and sheds its tears

feed my goldfish
the wind moans outside
day’s leaden back casts its shadow across us
days pass
who will unearth time’s infinite gifts from my body?

in the dust of the street…
there sprawl the lost nights
gilded wooden statues of beggars march along the boulevard
everywhere darkness
the stars above them: the purple-scaled highway of my fish

George Szirtes webpage and blog


Niki Dery Niki: The Story of a Dog
Tibor Déry

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14. I Bet the Snails Smelled Worse

I already put this Blue Yonder post in my Google Shared Items, but I know from my stat counter that only about a dozen of you will click through, and this post is waaaay too funny to be missed: Purple Daze.

“I want you to know that my house stinks. It stinks really badly. It stinks like a man from Tyre.”

We took our own little purple dye rabbit trail once, but I wasn’t ambitious enough to promise a tie-dyeing session of our own. (This is possibly a case of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot. Goodness knows I wrote enough natural dyes in the Martha books. Matter of fact, the part where Auld Mary uses stale urine as a color fixative was one of the favorite parts of the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate attorney, who, along with the heir to the estate, had to approve all my manuscripts before they went to press.)

Anyway, my hat is off to intrepid homeschooling mom Stefani for following through on her stinky, stinky promise. Those are some gorgeous shirts, by the way.

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15. From the Archives: The Rabbit-Trailer’s Soundtrack

Originally posted March 28, 2005

B000000pg301_scmzzzzzzz_Yesterday my kids pulled out a CD we used to listen to all the time: the soundtrack to Snoopy: The Musical. This was a play I loved as a teenager, when it was performed by some friends at a different high school. I had a crackly tape recording of a dress rehearsal which my sisters and I listened to ad nauseum. We had, after all, outgrown the soundtrack to Annie by then, and I had yet to discover the melodramatic satisfaction that is Les Miz.

So when Jane was five or six and I, for no particular reason, found myself humming one of the dear old Snoopy songs, I hunted around online and found a recording. Ah, the bliss of Google! My tiny girls loved the album, as I knew they would. A singing dog! A boy named Linus! A squeaky-voiced Sally belting out tongue-twisters!

Later, as the girls grew, they connected to Snoopy on different terms. One of our favorite songs on the album, “Clouds,” is like a theme song for homeschoolers. Charlie Brown and the gang are lying around looking at the sky, and someone asks Charlie Brown what he sees in the clouds.

“I see a—” he begins, but Sally cuts him off to sing that she sees: “A mermaid riding on a unicorn.” Peppermint Patty sees “an angel blowing on a big long horn.” Linus, ever my favorite, is a visionary. “I see Goliath, half a mile tall, waving at me….what do you see?”

Poor Charlie Brown. How can he get an answer in edgewise? Lucy sees a team of fifty milk-white horses; Patty sees a dinosaur; Linus sees Prometheus, waving; Snoopy, grandiose as always, sees the Civil War. The entire Civil War.

You could spend a year rabbit-trailing your way through this song. The Peanuts kids know their history, I’ll give ‘em that. (Although they seem to hit a bit of a roadblock when it comes to a certain American poet/storyteller, as evinced by their poor classroom performance in the hilarous song “Edgar Allen Poe,” elsewhere on the album.) When these kids gaze at the clouds, they see Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the Fall of Rome, and even all twelve apostles, waving at Linus.

Linus: “The Pyramid of Khufu!”

Sally: “You too?”

All but Charlie Brown: “Seven Wonders of the World…”

For our family, this is a song of reciprocal delights. Some of these cloud-tableaux are historical events the girls already knew about, and the idea of Snoopy beholding an entire war sculpted in cumulus is irresistibly funny. Some events are things my kids first encountered in the song. When, years later, we read about the Rubicon in A Child’s History of the World, there were gasps of delighted recognition from everyone including the then-two-year-old. Click, another connection is made.

So I was happy to hear the Peanuts gang belting away once more yesterday afternoon. It has been a couple of years since last they regaled us with their splendid visions. The girls have encountered more of the world, more of the past, and so they have more to connect with in the lyrics of Charlie Brown’s imaginative friends.

As for Charles, alas. The gang, having at long last exhausted the gamut of grand happenings to see in the heavens, demand of Charlie, “Well, what do you see?”

Says Charlie, glumly (and you probably remember the punchline from the Sunday funnies when you were a kid): “I was going to say a horsie and a ducky, but I changed my mind.”

(Cue hysterical laughter from little girls. Every. Single. Time.)

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16. Old Weird America 101

Product Envy those University of Minnesota students who have the opportunity to take a class titled "The Old Weird America" from the man who coined a term that has come to define everything from aesthetic categories in music and art to that feeling you get when driving past burnt-out barns along the highway.

That's right, next fall, Greil Marcus will be teaching "Topics in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature: The Old, Weird America":

"This course examines commonplace, authorless songs as elemental, founding documents of American identity. These songs can be heard as a form of speech that, with a deep foundation, is always in a flux; especially in the work of Bob Dylan across the last fifty years. Reading includes novels (Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days; and Lee Smith's The Devil's Dream, criticism (Constance Rourke's classic American Humor ), Bob Dylan's autobiography Chronicles, as well as music and film excerpts."

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17. World domination, one translation at a time

Allsimenon_library_2 The site Well-Mannered Frivolity points us to Unesco's magnificently named Index Translationum, which attempts to catalog all books in translation everywhere (or at least among its hundred-odd member states), a Borghesian task.

Our own Georges Simenon comes in at #16 on the list of most translated writers, with 1,959 translated books to his name. He's right after Isaac Asimov and just before Pope John Paul II. The index is worth looking at, and the Translationum database could proove be a very useful resource, indeed.

As Ms. Well-Mannered Frivolity comments, "Authors who write prolifically have a distinct advantage here," which explains why Barbara Cartland outranks the New Testament.

The photograph above shows M. Simenon (for once without his pipe) adding another volume to his "all-Simenon" bookshelf.

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18. Conversations and Connections

In our CM days, I used to keep rough daily lists of the books we read, lessons we did, games we played, “big ideas” we discussed, connections we made. The latter two categories were my favorite things to record, and I still keep notes about those. Sometimes here, sometimes in my notebook, sometimes at the old daily notes blog. I love to look back and marvel at all the places my children have taken me, figuratively speaking.

Today Wonderboy had speech therapy, and as the rest of us waited in the car we got into a lively discussion about perseverance and self-motivation. I’d mentioned a blog post I’d read that said kids don’t possess innate fortitude and need their parents to provide external motivation for pushing through challenging tasks, the parents providing backbone the kids themselves don’t have yet. Jane said, “But Mom! Remember in Eight Cousins when Aunt Clara wants Rose to wear a corset? And Uncle Alec gets mad and says that the custom of putting even babies in stiffened waists makes them grow up with weak backs?” Her mind had made a leap because of the backbone metaphor, and it was great to see how she analyzed the comparison and expanded upon it. “If someone is being your backbone for you, I don’t see where perseverance comes in.” Which is interesting, because that’s the same thing I’d thought when I read the post, but I hadn’t told her that. Sticking at a task because someone is making you would seem to require more obedience than perseverance.

We talked about external motivation vs. internal motivation, and people who succeeded at difficult endeavors through their own determination and persistence. She gave me a short history of Andrew Johnson, about whose pre-presidential life I knew nothing until today. It seems he was well past ten before he learned to read, and not until age 18 did he learn to write and cipher.

Me: How do you know all this?

Jane: From So You Want to Be President, of course.

That was one of Scott’s daddy-book picks a few years ago. He gives each kid a picture book for Christmas and birthdays. I should do a series of posts about those, one of these days. He finds the most interesting books.

In the parking lot outside speech, we saw what looked remarkably like a pair of Eastern bluebirds. They can’t have been, not in San Diego. We looked up blue birds (not bluebirds) in our Western Birds field guide back at home, but nothing we found looked right. So there’s a mystery we need to solve.

Rose wanted me to read the origin story of comic-book hero Adam Strange. Seems he was an archaeologist who discovered a hidden city of the Incas, including a vast treasure which had been intended for the ransom of the Inca emporer, Atahualpa, who was captured (and eventually killed) by Pizarro. Just as Adam Strange is about to be clobbered by the secret city’s protectors, he happens into a stray space-ray that teleports him to a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. Much sci-fi superhero action ensues. The girls had some wry commentary on certain gaping plot-holes, but they are great fans of Adam Strange nonetheless.

Jane asked me to do some of the puzzles in her Mensa Mind Puzzle book with her. This is a big fat book of brainteasers my father gave her. She adores it with the intensity of an Alpha Centauri space-ray. We sat on the couch together and worked on a couple of pages’ worth of puzzles. We’re both good at the number/logic ones and the word puzzles, but when it comes to the visual pattern solving games, I’m sunk. She’s very quick at those. My brain goes all fuzzy. We talked about Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory and visual/spatial intelligence vs. logic/mathematics intelligence vs. linguistic intelligence, and others.

Scott sent us this link, and we watched, and gasped, and realized, and laughed.

Toward the end of the afternoon, things fell apart a little. Squabbles broke out; I got tired. Beanie thought it would be nice to lie down together while she read me riddles from The Book of Think. She was right.

When Scott came home from work, he had all the kids out in the backyard running wind sprints. They were writing down their times and when they came in, the girls made a chart. Scott put on some David Bowie and I heard him quizzing the baby: “Who’s this?”

“Bow Ee!” She’s at that age where every syllable is its own word.

“That’s my girl.”

Now the little ones are asleep and Scott is reading Harry Potter to Rose. When last I saw Jane, she was crocheting while listening to something on her Walkman. Beanie is reading Adam Strange. I need to go sweep the kitchen floor.

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19. Afloat vs. Afloat

A guide to telling apart two books with the same title.

Maupassant_afloat 9780241143445l

Guy de Maupassant on Afloat:

This diary has no interesting story to tell, no tales of derringdo.Last spring I went on a short cruise along the Mediterranean coast and every day, in my spare time, I jotted down things I’d seen and thought. In fact what I saw was water, sun, cloud, and rocks and that’s all. I had only simple thoughts, the kind you have when you’re being carried drowsily along on the cradle of the waves.

Jennifer McCartney in coversation about Afloat:

Q: Does it aggravate you when people ask you how someone as young as you are can create a novel with so much emotional depth and complexity, or do you look upon it as a compliment?

A: I think some people are confused not so much by the emotional depth, but with the concept of how someone so young can have anything to write about in terms of life experience, and that’s fine. I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in six American states, in Scotland and England, and held over twenty-five jobs. That emotional depth comes from having a lot of different experiences, but that’s not a necessity for writing, really. A lot of Canadian and U.K. writers publish in their twenties . . . I’d like to think Afloat stands alone as a novel, regardless of my age. Most readers won’t know it was written when I was twenty-four.

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20. Where the Day Took Us

This morning Jane was showing me her coin collection, which contains a number of interesting specimens thanks to our world-traveling pal Keri. She has coins from Vietnam, India, Singapore, China, Korea, Japan, and a bunch of other places. We couldn’t figure out where a few of them came from, so we started Googling and figured out which ones came from Korea and which came from China.

The third coin described in this post is one of the Korean coins she was trying to figure out, with a spear of rice on one face. Another coin had writing on it that looked like Greek to Jane, so she took it to Rose for help translating the letters. Rho, iota, eta, they thought—and then a character neither of them recognized, and they brought it to me, and I looked at the other side of the coin and saw EIRE, so I knew it was from Ireland. Not Greek letters after all.

It took a bit of hunting, but we tracked that one down online too and read some interesting things about Irish coins. The one Jane has is a penny, but it seems so big compared to our U.S. pennies, almost the size of a quarter. It has a hen with chicks on it, and there’s a bit of history about some of these hen-and-chick pennies missing one of the chicks. Jane’s has all the chicks.

We saw that there are books with pictures of all the world coins in them, and Jane checked the library to see if there were any copies in our system. There are, and one was in a branch nearby. So after Wonderboy’s speech therapy session, we swung by the library and Jane got her book. Rose got the new Gail Carson Levine, and Beanie emerged from the stacks clutching an Edward Eager novel. I just finished reading Half Magic to her yesterday, or was it the day before? Oh, we had such a good time with that book. Jane was the one who hunted up Knight’s Castle for her, and Beanie nearly crushed her ribs with gratitude.

On the way out of the library, I picked up a cheap Miss Marple collection from the sale rack. In the courtyard outside, there is a mighty old tree, fat-trunked, low-branched, limbs spread wide to beckon small girls with new books. All three girls clambered up and commenced a-reading, while Rilla and Wonderboy (oh gosh, I really do need to come up with a new blog name for him: he’s getting too big for this) hunted bugs at the base of the tree. I sat on the grass, enjoying the peaceful moment. An elderly woman pushed her walker toward us and paused for a chat. “I’ve been watching you since you came out of the library,” she said. She approved of the tree-climbing and the book-reading. “I’m happy to see a mother bring her children to the library. If you read,” she told Jane, “you can do anything you want in life.” She inspected our haul and listened to the whole coin-identification story. She noticed the boy’s hearing aids and we compared notes; she just started wearing them herself. Then her cell phone rang, and she said her daughter had arrived to pick her up, and she bid each child a cordial farewell and departed. “I hope,” she called back to me, “that you have a very nice life.”

Oh, I do, I do.

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21. Way Leads on to Way

The other day I posted a link to this article about Harvard professor John R. Stilgoe. The article made me want to read his book, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. I’m only a chapter in, and already I can tell this is going to be one of those books I have to post a lot about as I’m reading it. It’s transformative.

Some quotes:

[Regarding his courses at Harvard]

“…I refuse to provide a schedule of topics. Undergraduate and graduate students alike love schedules, love knowing the order of subjects and the satisfaction of ticking off one line after another, class after class, week after week. Confronted by a professor who explains that schedules produce a desire, sometimes an obsession, to “get through the material,” they grow uneasy. They like to get through the material.”

I’ve seen this in myself, and in my kids, during our forays into structured learning. Not right away, but after a few weeks on a scheduled plan. And because avoiding the going-through- the-motions kind of false “learning” (it isn’t really learning at all) is a major part of my educational philosophy (life philosophy really), I have always been quick to shelve the plan when I see this happening. We spend a whole lot more time in low tide here than in high tide.

“I explain that the lack of a topic schedule encourages all of us to explore a bit, to answer questions that arise in class or office hours, to follow leads we discover while studying something else. Each of the courses, I explain patiently, really concerns exploration, and exploration happens best by accident, by letting way lead on to way, not by following a schedule down a track.

“My students resist the lack of topic structure because they are the children of structured learning and structured entertainment. Over and over I explain that if they are afraid of a course on exploring, they may never have the confidence to go exploring on their own.”

(snip)

“Learning to look around sparks curiosity, encourages serendipity. Amazing connections get made that way; questions are raised—and sometimes answered—that never would be otherwise. Any explorer sees things that reward not just a bit of scrutiny but a bit of thought, sometimes a lot of thought over years. Put the things in spatial context or arrange them in time, and they acquire value immediately.”

This is what the unschoolers are talking about. It’s exactly what I’ve enthused about when I write about the connections my kids have made—I get so excited about it; it amazes me to see what they put together in their minds, and where the subsequent discussion takes us. It’s how I learn best, and live best, too.

In a post a while back I quoted Sandra Dodd on connections:

“Learning comes from connecting something new to what you’ve already thought or known.”

She has a connections page on her website (well worth your time to explore, as is her entire site). At the top is a quote from Heraclitus, circa 500 B.C.:

A wonderful harmony arises from joining together the seemingly unconnected.

Yesterday, perched in that tree outside the library, Beanie looked at a sign on a church across the street and said, “Mom! The Black Douglas!”

The sign said “E. Douglas.” It reminded her of the story of The Black Douglas (a Scottish hero) that we read in James Baldwin’s book Fifty Famous Stories Retold. She giggled and said the sign should say “B. Douglas.”

The Baldwin book is a great one for connections. When we see rocks poking up from beneath the waves out at sea, Bean calls out, “The Inchcape Rock!” We have a whole long-running family joke spinning off King Alfred and the cakes he burned while daydreaming military strategy. The joke kind of blurs into my kids’ very, very favorite Gunther children quote, uttered by a young Margaret at dinner one night: “Mommy, my burnt corn is cold!”

(One of the many reasons I adore Alice. She’s my kind of cook.)

Last weekend the girls were watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Tom was conducting an orchestra in the Hollywood Bowl (and beating down an eager Jerry who wanted to help). Jane wanted to know what the music was. I thought it sounded like Strauss, but I wasn’t sure, so I (what else) Googled it. Sure enough: it’s the overture from Die Fledermaus. We looked it up on Wikipedia and read about the opera, and we watched the overture on YouTube. Which led to viewing other songs, mostly sung by the famous coloratura Edita Gruberova, who is famous for her Adele in Fledermaus and who also played the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, which (if you want another Alice connection) is the song my cell phone plays when she calls me because it always reminds me of her daughter Theresa singing the aria around the house. And from there way led on to many other ways, and these connections will keep popping up in years to come, linking to something else.

Oh, I just remembered writing about this years ago, how I love that we call it “linking” when a topic on one web page connects to a page somewhere else.

“Way leads on to way,” of course, is a quote from “The Road Less Traveled.” But unlike Frost’s traveller, who, “knowing how way leads on to way,” doubts life will ever bring him back to this crossroads in the wood where he has chosen to take the less traveled path, the paths unfolding before our connections can and will be revisited and explored endlessly, in different ways, all through our lives. And like the paths in the wood, where wind and light and leaves and wildlife are always altering the landscape so that the path changes from hour to hour, our mental landmarks are changed and built upon and nuanced every time we revisit them.

Another funny connection: I had read much of the first chapter of Outside Lies Magic to Jane yesterday—it’s one of those books you just can’t keep to yourself—including the parts quoted above about Stilgoe’s students being uncomfortable working without a clearly defined linear schedule. This morning I asked Beanie to do a job for me, and I was explaining it step by step— overexplaining, evidently, because Jane laughed and said, “Gosh, Mom, it’s like you think she’s a Harvard student.” Heh.

“Exploration,” says John Stilgoe,

“is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.”

Yes: it is so, so much fun, and that is why I write these posts all chattery with excitement over this or that connection the kids made today. (Or that I made myself!) I know I get carried away, but that’s the point, isn’t it, that way leading on to way has carried me away? And yet—and yet—I think we are at once ‘carried away’ and made more fully present in the now, more rooted, by these relationships between ideas about things past and future. The joy of connection makes me want to celebrate this moment, this brief encounter with wild-haired child and broad-trunked tree, bus going by, sign on church wall, Scottish warlord creeping over the tower wall and startling the English soldier’s wife who has just put her babe in arms to sleep by crooning that the Black Douglas won’t get him. Child, laughing, shouting “Dinna ye be sae sure aboot that!” across the courtyard outside the library. How can I not celebrate this freedom?

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22. “Every Face I Look at Seems Beautiful to Me”

I’ve been thinking through some things in emails (and offline) lately, and I wanted to bring some of those thoughts over here. It has to do with patience, a good kind and a bad kind, and their relationship to happiness and learning, especially unschooling.

My children think I’m a pretty swell mom, but they know all too well that I have my faults. If you asked them, they would say (if they weren’t too loyal to rat on me) that my greatest fault is impatience. They’d be right, at least as far as my relationship with the kids is concerned. Impatience comes from frustration, (or does it lead to frustration?), and I think we all know that what spills over from an impatient person’s frustration is scolding, or nagging, or sharp words. Impatience is what you feel when people aren’t doing what you want them to do: it’s a frustrated desire for control.

When Jane was two years old, in the hospital fighting leukemia, people used to constantly compliment me for my patience. Other parents, nurses, doctors—I heard it from many people and it always puzzled me. I didn’t feel ‘patient,’ not in any virtuous sense. What I felt was a keen awareness that my days with this child might possibly be numbered, and I didn’t want to lose a single one of them to a bad mood. I wanted to savor every moment with my baby girl, in case I didn’t have many moments left to savor. So I gladly, gratefully, spent hours playing playdough with her, or giving her i.v. pole rides in the hallways, or holding her for hours while she slept. You don’t need ‘patience’ to live through moments like that.

And through the years, I’ve held on to that sense of ’savor this moment because it is precious’ with my kids. But I cannot deny that as the years passed, and as more children joined the party, impatience elbowed its way into my heart, my words, my actions. I can almost pinpoint the moment I changed, or at least the moment impatience boiled over into sharpness. Rose was three years old, and Beanie was a baby; we were at a lake beach near our home in Virginia, and I got stuck. Stuck trying to leave the beach, with an unhappy, sandy Bean crying on my hip and a bag slipping off my shoulder, and an intractible Rose straining to pull away from me, her heels digging into the wet sand, wavelets lapping at our ankles. We needed to leave. Jane was already halfway to the parking lot (and too young to be there alone). I couldn’t put the baby down without getting her wet (again), and I was out of diapers. Rose refused to budge. I felt helpless, completely held hostage by a stubborn toddler. I had to scoop her up under one arm like a football and carry her, screaming and squirming, back to the car.

I say “had to,” but I’m sure I had other options. It didn’t seem like it at the time. We were there with friends—the dad friend would, in later years, recall that episode with glee, the day he “saw Lissa lose it.” Why I didn’t holler to him to stop grinning and pick up Rose, I don’t remember. I am quite certain that either of the mom friends who were present would have been happy to help. They probably offered to, but what I remember about the moment is that sense of helplessness and frustration.

Moms of small children can run into that feeling often. What it is, really, is a feeling of being out of control. Loss of control is scary. I dealt with it well when the loss of control was due to illness, something out of any human being’s power to alter. But ah, it’s when a person, or people, especially small people who are “supposed” to obey their mama, are flouting my attempts to control—that’s when impatience comes in.

People who try to control other people often find themselves feeling impatient, or worse. The reason mothers (to single out one kind of person) scold or fuss or nag or criticize their children is because they are trying to bring a situation back under control—that is, to make things go the way the mom wants them to go.

When I had three or four children each wanting to go a different direction, that’s when I got impatient. That’s when I became a mom who scolds. That’s when I stopped savoring every moment, only selected moments.

That’s when I started to wonder what had happened to the patient mommy I used to be. I used to be so patient—I would think that all the time, forgetting that in the days when people remarked upon my patience, I hadn’t felt like patience came into the equation at all.

I think when we talk about patience in terms of a quality we don’t feel like we possess (”I used to be so patient”), we are talking about a kind of patience that isn’t really a virtue at all. That kind of patience is about enduring the present moment until a better one comes along. It’s a gritting-one’s-teeth-and-getting-through-it state of mind.

It’s how many of us endured countless hours of our lives in school. The kids who didn’t patiently endure were the ones labeled troublemakers. Patient endurance is how most people get through hours in line at the DMV, or (to poke my own self here) the interminable waits in doctor’s offices. There is no moment-savoring going on in that kind of patience. In fact, often ‘being patient’ really just means ‘being quiet and not making a fuss’ while resentment or irritation is churning underneath.

I think the reason people tend to be less patient with their children is because they can in fact exert some external control over the children—as opposed to the doctors who keep us waiting, or the complicated beaucratic systems directing the flow of traffic at the DMV.

But “exerting control” by nagging, scolding, lecturing, ordering in a drill-sergeant’s bark—these are actions that, sooner or later, will do harm to a relationship. Nobody likes being nagged, scolded, or lectured ‘for their own good.’ I sure don’t like it, I know that much. It’s a complete violation of the Golden Rule, isn’t it? Treating children the way we’d like to be treated if we were in their shoes means finding other ways of dealing with those out-of-control moments.

I think for me, the shift back toward a better way began when I drove the kids from Virginia to California by myself. Rilla was six months old, Wonderboy three. Scott had already started his job out here, and he would have flown back to drive with us but I talked him out of it. If he came along, we’d be on the clock; he could only take so much time off work. If I drove alone, we could amble, stopping as often and as long as the kids needed to—which turned out to be very, very often. I had to abandon myself to the flow of the trip: letting go of the desire to control every move we made. We wound up having a wonderful time, the six of us, and I think a big part of the reason is because that 2700-mile journey was about taking each moment as it came. They were moments worth savoring, and savor them I did.

There is another kind of patience, a good kind. It’s the quality that allows a mother with ten places to put every minute to sit in the driveway drawing chalk figures for her toddler, or blow bubbles until the whole bottle is gone, or take half an hour to walk down the block, admiring every dandelion and ant that catches her little one’s eye. It’s the patience that plays a game of Monopoly with an eight-year-old until every last dollar is in someone’s pile, the kind that listens with interest to a detailed recounting of the latest phone-book-sized Teen Titans collection. That kind of patience isn’t about enduring the present moment until a better one comes along. It’s about enjoying the present moment for exactly what it is, with gusto and gratitude.

There’s “patience in suffering,” too, of course, and while perhaps that kind isn’t about enjoying the present (painful or sorrowful) moment, it too involves a willingness to accept the present moment for what it is. People who are patient in suffering tend to be people overflowing with gratitude for all the other things in their lives besides suffering. This is a very great virtue, and I think it grows out of the peaceful sense of appreciation for what is, now, as opposed to a longing for something different, something better: it’s the good kind of patience all grown up.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all this in conjunction with unschooling, which is a whole way of living that embraces the present moment, rejoices in what is good about it. Unschooling says: this day, this encounter, this connection of ideas, this moment between us—this is very, very good. Unschooling begins with a dismissal of the kind of experiences that a child must “patiently endure” in order to be “educated,” but it is more than that, more than a rejection of one way of being. Unschoolers see everything in the whole wide world as interesting, connected, something they can learn about. (Scroll halfway down at the link and you’ll see why I linked that page in particular, though the whole site speaks to the point.) Instead of patiently (or impatiently) enduring the long wait at the DMV, an unschooler looks around, notices things, thinks about them.

Of course I’m not saying that unschoolers are the only people who approach life this way. Harvard professor John Stilgoe, the author of that book I’m still reading: he gets it. He sees what’s interesting in power lines and telephone poles and manhole covers. He has made these things interesting to me. Reading that book is making visible—even beautiful—all sorts of things that were ugly or invisible to me before. The other day I looked out my windshield sideways down a street and saw, for the first time in my life, how the rows of of drooping wires made a spiderweb against the sky: lacy, delicate, lovely.

It reminded me of Philip Isaacson’s book Round Buildings, Square Buildings, Buildings that Wiggle like a Fish, which showed me ways of looking at buildings that made every building interesting to me, made me see the artistry and history of the Brooklyn Bridge, the white clapboard church, the green glass skyscraper.

I’ll never forget reading, in college, Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and how one of her students said that after taking Betty’s drawing class and working on portraits, every face she looked at seemed beautiful to her. The drawing lessons taught her to really look at people, and when she did, she saw beauty everywhere.

I know I’m going all over the place here, but in my mind these things are all connected: this way of really looking, really seeing, noticing what is interesting and important and even beautiful about things many people whisk by without noticing. And what I can do for my children is refuse to fill up their lives with things they must patiently endure until a better moment comes. I can savor the moments as they happen, and give them the time and space to find what’s interesting and beautiful in every face the world shows them.

As I was writing that last sentence, Beanie appeared in front of me with a big smile and a present: a bracelet made of safety pins linked together, each pin shining with green and blue beads. “It’s for you, Mommy,” she breathed, so proud and excited. “Jane showed me how.” How patiently (the good kind of patience) she must have worked to slide all those beads in place.

I never noticed before what a work of art a safety pin is!

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23. One Shot World Tour

Canadian_flag_2Thanks to Betsy Bird, we learnt that the One Shot World Tour was stopping in Canada today. So here we are to say a few words about Stephen Leacock, and to try to convince you that, even though he looked like this,


(photo by 4BlueEyes)

180pxstephen_leacock_2

his writing remains fresh and hilarious.

Stephen Leacock is famous in Canada, a sort of Canadian Mark Twain. There's a Leacock Museum, a Leacock Medal for Humour, a Leacock website at the National Museum of Canada, etc. He was so well known that his niece was able to sell a book of memories about him. What is it about Canada that breeds wit, even in a trained economist such as Leacock? There's no point in trying to figure it all out, instead let's just read what Leacock had to say about his writing (including the book we publish—with an introduction by Daniel Handler—Nonsense Novels) in a preface to one of his most successful books, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town:

I have written two books, one called Literary Lapses and the other Nonsense Novels. Each of these is published by John Lane (London and New York), and either of them can be obtained, absurd though it sounds, for the mere sum of three shillings and sixpence. Any reader of this preface, for example, ridiculous though it appears, could walk into a bookstore and buy both of these books for seven shillings. Yet these works are of so humorous a character that for many years it was found impossible to
print them. The compositors fell back from their task suffocated with laughter and gasping for air. Nothing but the intervention of the linotype machine—or rather, of the kind of men who operate it—made it possible to print these books. Even now people have to be very careful in circulating them, and the books should never be put into
the hands of persons not in robust health.

Many of my friends are under the impression that I write these humorous nothings in idle moments when the wearied brain is unable to perform the serious labours of the economist. My own experience is exactly the other way. The writing of solid, instructive stuff fortified by facts and figures is easy enough. There is no trouble in
writing a scientific treatise on the folk-lore of Central China, or a statistical enquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward Island. But to write something out of one's own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between. Personally, I would sooner
have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Nonsense Novels, true to its title, is a collection of silly stories, each one sending up a different literary genre. On our website (or here), you can download a pdf of the rags-to-riches story "A Hero in Homespun," which we describe as "a heartwarming tale of a country lad with big dreams who moves to New York City and ends up burning it to the ground." Even better is Leacock's satire of the passionate heroine of the Russian novel, "Sorrows of a Super Soul" Here is the heroine's first encounter with her future love:

How beautiful he looked! Not tall like Alexis Alexovitch, ah, no! but so short and wide and round—shaped like the beautiful cabbage that died last week. He wore a velvet jacket and he carried a camp stool and an easel on his back, and in his face was a curved pipe with a long stem, and his face was not red and rough like the face of Alexis, but mild and beautiful and with a smile that played on it like moonlight over putty.

Do I love him? I cannot tell. Not yet. Love is a gentle plant. You cannot force its growth.

As he passed I leaned from the window and threw a rosebud at him. But he did not see it.

Then I threw a cake of soap and a toothbrush at him. But I missed him, and he passed on.

Daniel Handler's introduction to the book—really more of a nonsense novel of his own—is also available for download. And it should also be mentioned that the artist who pays homage to Leacock on the cover of the book is another famous Canadian, Bruce McCall.

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24. One Shot World Tour

Canadian_flag_2Thanks to Betsy Bird, we learnt that the One Shot World Tour was stopping in Canada today. So here we are to say a few words about Stephen Leacock, and to try to convince you that, even though he looked like this,


(photo by 4BlueEyes)

180pxstephen_leacock_2

his writing remains fresh and hilarious.

Stephen Leacock is famous in Canada, a sort of Canadian Mark Twain. There's a Leacock Museum, a Leacock Medal for Humour, a Leacock website at the National Museum of Canada, etc. He was so well known that his niece was able to sell a book of memories about him. What is it about Canada that breeds wit, even in a trained economist such as Leacock? There's no point in trying to figure it all out, instead let's just read what Leacock had to say about his writing (including the book we publish???with an introduction by Daniel Handler???Nonsense Novels) in a preface to one of his most successful books, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town:

I have written two books, one called Literary Lapses and the other Nonsense Novels. Each of these is published by John Lane (London and New York), and either of them can be obtained, absurd though it sounds, for the mere sum of three shillings and sixpence. Any reader of this preface, for example, ridiculous though it appears, could walk into a bookstore and buy both of these books for seven shillings. Yet these works are of so humorous a character that for many years it was found impossible to
print them. The compositors fell back from their task suffocated with laughter and gasping for air. Nothing but the intervention of the linotype machine???or rather, of the kind of men who operate it???made it possible to print these books. Even now people have to be very careful in circulating them, and the books should never be put into
the hands of persons not in robust health.

Many of my friends are under the impression that I write these humorous nothings in idle moments when the wearied brain is unable to perform the serious labours of the economist. My own experience is exactly the other way. The writing of solid, instructive stuff fortified by facts and figures is easy enough. There is no trouble in
writing a scientific treatise on the folk-lore of Central China, or a statistical enquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward Island. But to write something out of one's own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between. Personally, I would sooner
have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Nonsense Novels, true to its title, is a collection of silly stories, each one sending up a different literary genre. On our website (or here), you can download a pdf of the rags-to-riches story "A Hero in Homespun," which we describe as "a heartwarming tale of a country lad with big dreams who moves to New York City and ends up burning it to the ground." Even better is Leacock's satire of the passionate heroine of the Russian novel, "Sorrows of a Super Soul" Here is the heroine's first encounter with her future love:

How beautiful he looked! Not tall like Alexis Alexovitch, ah, no! but so short and wide and round???shaped like the beautiful cabbage that died last week. He wore a velvet jacket and he carried a camp stool and an easel on his back, and in his face was a curved pipe with a long stem, and his face was not red and rough like the face of Alexis, but mild and beautiful and with a smile that played on it like moonlight over putty.

Do I love him? I cannot tell. Not yet. Love is a gentle plant. You cannot force its growth.

As he passed I leaned from the window and threw a rosebud at him. But he did not see it.

Then I threw a cake of soap and a toothbrush at him. But I missed him, and he passed on.

Daniel Handler's introduction to the book???really more of a nonsense novel of his own???is also available for download. And it should also be mentioned that the artist who pays homage to Leacock on the cover of the book is another famous Canadian, Bruce McCall.

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25. Hey! Listen to This!

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, wrote a second book called Hey! Listen to This. It’s a collection of stories for reading aloud to young children. I read it many years ago and don’t remember anything about what stories are in the book; what I do remember, have never forgotten, is his story about the book’s title. He said his kids teased him about saying those words more than any other: “Hey, listen to this!”—and then he’d read aloud something that had fired his enthusiasm in a book, newspaper, magazine he was reading.

I laughed out loud the first time I read that anecdote, because that’s exactly what Scott and I did to each other all the time. We were practically newlyweds then, but it’s a habit that hasn’t changed over the years. At any given moment, someone, somewhere in my house, is likely to call out, “Hey, check this out” or “Whoa! You’ve gotta hear this!” and read a passage aloud for anyone in the vicinity.

Our bedsides are piled with books and articles one of us read and thought someone else would enjoy too. I suppose the flurry of links we email back and forth is an extension of that pile. Once upon a time, I was the one strewing reading material in Jane’s path. These days she strews just as much, or more, back into mine. Muse magazine has been the jumping-off point for a thousand heady discussions. I’m still working my way through the Redwall books she loves so dearly, not to mention the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series. She has more time to read than I do, so I get the fun of restocking her pile on practically a daily basis.

I’ve been reading Edward Eager’s Knight’s Castle to Beanie. It’s the sequel to Half Magic, and if you don’t know these books, you are so lucky because all the fun is still in front of you. Eager was (like me) a huge fan of Edith Nesbit’s children’s books. He set out to write books in the same rich and rollicking spirit, and he succeeded beautifully. Half Magic is the story of four siblings who find a magic charm that grants wishes. Sort of. It’s an old charm and only grants wishes at half strength, resulting in much mishap, hilarity, and confusion. For example, the youngest girl wishes her cat could talk, and the poor beast winds up able to speak a garbled, nonsensical half-version of English. The cat’s outraged utterances have become regular contributions to discussion around here. “Idgwits! Foos!”

The young heroes of Knight’s Castle, much to my children’s delight, are the children of the Half Magic kids. Jane tells me that the next book in the series, and I can’t remember if it’s Magic by the Lake or The Time Garden, but I’m thinking the former, is another story about the four Half Magic children, and then the fourth book is about their kids again. I’m told that the most delicious part is that the second generation of children actually get to meet their parents as children, though I don’t think they let their young future parents in on the secret.

One of my favorite things about Eager’s writing is his fondness for referencing other authors, other books. Nesbit in particular (the Half Magic and Knight’s Castle kids alike are great fans), but also Sir Walter Scott, Jane Porter, and many others. It’s as if Eager is always crying out, “Hey, listen to this!” and gushing about the books that set his imagination on fire.

Yesterday when I was reading to Beanie, Rose got sucked in. She’s read Half Magic herself but not the rest of the series, and she had thought she’d prefer to read them on her own but the snippet she overheard yesterday proved too bewitching, and she decided she wanted to hear the book out loud after all. She asked if I would catch her up, so we started over at the beginning and read all afternoon, and that’s why dinner was late.

In chapter two the children (two sets of cousins) are taken to see Ivanhoe, much to the delight of young Robert, who, we’re told, is in a yeomanry phase. Back at home, a massive Ivanhoe reenactment is set up by all four of the kids. The descriptions of Scott’s colorful characters had Rose and Bean clamoring to watch the same movie. (”In Technicolor, just like in the book!” says Bean.) Jane thinks it’s cool that Ivanhoe, the novel, makes an appearance in so many of her favorite books. It’s a plot point in one of the Betsy-Tacy high-school books, I forget which; I always loved the bit about how Betsy narrates the plot to two friends who forgot to read the assigned book over the summer, and they get perfect marks on the summaries they’re made to write on the first day of school, but Betsy herself, a devoted fan of the book, waxes on in such detail that she runs out of time while still describing the opening episode—and is severely rebuked by her teacher, who takes her paper as evidence that she never read more than the first chapter. Ouch, dear Betsy, I feel your pain.

When I was researching the fourth Charlotte book (I think it was the fourth), I found a Boston newspaper article from the year in which that book takes place excitedly announcing the arrival on U.S. shores of Sir Walter Scott’s latest novel, Ivanhoe. Naturally, I couldn’t resist including that event in the book, so Charlotte’s family enjoys it as their own read-aloud.

We were just talking yesterday about yet another children’s book that references Ivanhoe, but I forget what it was and Jane isn’t up yet. Probably there are many, but she was talking about one in particular.

I think Edward Eager would have gotten a kick out of knowing that Jeanne Birdsall set out to write her delightful novel The Penderwicks “in the spirit of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit.” The Penderwick children are also great devourers and quoters of books.

As I’m writing this, iChat is pinging me to let me know that Scott, making his early-morning internet rounds on the other computer, is saying “check this out” about something interesting he’s come across. Whatever it is, it’ll probably show up later in one of my del.icio.us link autoposts, the 21st-century version of “Hey! Listen to this!”

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