The Autodidact: Nature/Ecology/Conservation

Like many other people my age, I received a fairly narrow education in high school. I compounded the damage done by willingly narrowing down my fields of interest even further once I got to college, and by necessity, still more when I was in graduate school. It follows that now, as a retired professor of English entering my seventh decade on this planet, I can discourse endlessly about William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and the fact that the former gave the latter a gift of a Border Terrier dog named Pepper (honest!), but until recently, I couldn’t tell you a thing about how trees grow and what happens in a forest.

Had I become aware of this lacuna in my education earlier in my life, it probably would not have bothered me. Many people, perhaps most people, live with their own ignorance staring them in the face. I was no different; if I was ignorant in one topic, I had other areas of knowledge to compensate for it, right? Perhaps what is remarkable isn’t so much my ignorance, but rather my decision to remedy it, although this scenario must be repeated endlessly among human beings, in adults and children alike. One day, seemingly out of the blue, we decide we want to know more about something, and so we take it up, read about it, perhaps compulsively, until we educate ourselves out of our own ignorance.

The event which sparked my self-education is simple to identify: my husband and I bought a forest. Describing it in this way, however, makes me cringe with distaste. I hate using the term “bought,” which denotes a mere cash transaction. It’s better, I think, to say that I acquired a forest, becoming its guardian and its careful observer. By acquiring it and walking in it hundreds of times, I fell in love with it. And like any new lover, I wanted to know everything about it I could; so, when I wasn’t in the forest, or doing the endless quotidian tasks that make up the greater part of a person’s life, I set out on my journey to learn as much as I could absorb at this late date about trees, ecology, and conservation.

One of the first books I read was Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, which is pretty much the Lyrical Ballads (for you Wordsworth lovers) of ecology writing. The idea of a Land Ethic was new to me, but I could see that it was as important, in its way, as the idea of negative capability was to Keats. I took two full pages of handwritten notes from Leopold’s book, which I won’t go into here, as it deserves its own blog post. For now, I’ll just say that several generations of conservationists and ecologists have been influenced by Leopold’s book; I was late to the party, as usual, and had never even heard of it–evidence of my flimsy natural science/ecology education.

Leopold’s book is important, but I have also been touched by a book I picked, at random, from the shelf of my local library: The Biography of a Tree, by James P. Jackson. It is just what it says it is: the life story of a white oak tree, from acorn to seedling, then on to forest giant and finally as a dead trunk rotting on the forest floor. This may not sound interesting, but Jackson pulls it off beautifully. The writing is careful and precise, while at the same time evocative. Jackson’s work, however, seems to be virtually unknown. (To prove this, I’ll just point out that his Amazon best-seller rating is even lower than that of my own two novels, and that’s saying something.) He seems never to have written anything else. In this age of instant contact, I found myself wanting to email him, or to follow him on Twitter to thank him for his painstaking work–but there’s no digital trace of him at all.

Alas, it is a sad and lonely business being a writer–as many of my readers know from first-hand experience. Pouring one’s heart and soul into a labor that will go unacknowledged is a risky business, and a thankless one, but at the same time it is a vitally important one. Can we take some slight solace in the fact that once published, a work may go unread for decades (The Biography of a Tree was published in 1979), only to spring to life, on cue, in a new reader’s hands, inspiring new thoughts, emotions, and passions decades after it was forgotten by an inhospitable public? Reading Jackson’s work, I realized that a writer’s life resembles that of the seventeen-year cicada, a recurring character in his book, a forest denizen that burrows itself below the soil for almost two decades, only to emerge into the sun for a mere month or two of life in the sunshine. The majority of its life is invisible, almost dormant–but it can accomplish so much during those short days it spends above the ground. Jackson’s book is the same: it may be inert and ineffective while it sits on the shelf of libraries, but once in the hands of an interested reader, what power it has! What influence! And though my appreciation of James P. Jackson comes too late to do him any good, at least it has done me worlds of good to have read, and appreciated, his work.

Now we wait to see what the United States has become, and what it will become.

Almost everyone I know is holding their breath as these last hours of the election draw to a close.

This is not a time for writing.

Please send some good thoughts our way, across the continents and the oceans. We need all the help we can get.

Covid-19 and The Iliad

I’ll be honest: for a moment I thought about entitling this post “Reflections on Re-reading the Iliad,” but aside from sounding very dull, I will admit that I’m not sure I ever did read that pillar of Western Literature in college. Of course, like most other people, I’d heard of it. I’m old enough to have gotten my first and greatest dose of mythology–Greek, Roman, and a small bit of Norse myths–from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology almost fifty years ago, back when I was in high school.

To be honest, I’ve always wondered why American schools even bother to teach mythology. For a long time, I thought it was just to provide an introduction to the basis of Western culture, but then I realized, with a shock, that mythology in high-school English curricula actually had no point; rather, it was an oversight, a leftover from previous educational imperatives. Our insistence on teaching mythology to bored high school students, in other words, is something like having an appendix in our guts: there is no real purpose for it. While it once did have a function, it now simply dangles there with any reason for existing.

Here’s my version of why we have mythology in high school. It certainly isn’t for them to become acquainted with stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. After all, these stories are brimming with violence and sex, and are totally unsuitable for young learners. How do you explain the rape of Leda by Zeus–in the shape of a swan, no less–to high school students? Yet this is where the Trojan War, and the Iliad, really begins, as William Butler Yeats reminds us in his masterful poem “Leda and the Swan.” No, the reason we teach such things is because they were once vehicles for learning Latin and Greek. All language learners know that it’s no fun simply to do exercise after exercise when you’re trying to acquire a second language; you want to get to stories and dialogues, no matter how puerile or simplistic. (Incidentally, the language-learning computer platform Duolingo has figured this out and now provides an entire block of lessons with short stories to keep its learners interested. It’s worked for me.) Since a truly educated person, from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century, needed to know at least some Latin and less Greek (as the poet Ben Jonson rated Shakespeare’s knowledge), schools were obsessed with drumming classical languages into recalcitrant students’ heads. What better way to get them to learn than to present them with violent, prurient tales of heroes and heroines? For generations, apparently, the scheme worked. But gradually the need and desire to showcase one’s Latin and Greek knowledge wore off, and these languages ceased to be taught in schools.

But the mythology remained. And thank goodness it did.

A few years ago, a friend of mine and I decided to read the then newly published translation of the The Iliad by Caroline Alexander. We never got past the first few books then, but Covidtimes provided us a new opportunity, and we started over. I began by being less than impressed with the story, but I have to admit that now I am pretty much hooked. The world that it presents is violent and nasty, but there are some moments of real beauty, too.

Yet what has really caught my attention is that the world of the Iliad is totally random. Things happen for no reason, or for reasons well beyond the control of the humans involved. You may think you’re winning a battle, but then a god shows up, sometimes disguised as a human, sometimes in a fog, and things go to hell in a handbasket quickly, and suddenly you’re terrified and hiding by your ships wondering if you should push off for home. Events kaleidoscope by and you can’t do anything about them, because even if you do take action, often it has the opposite effect you intend.

In other words, life as represented in The Iliad is something like life in a pandemic. Covid seems to hit randomly, and to hurt randomly. We don’t know why some people are barely affected by the virus while others are struck down, killed or incapacitated by it. We don’t know how long the pandemic will last. We don’t know what steps the government will take to protect us from it. We are like the characters in the Iliad, taking action in good faith but knowing in our bones that anything can happen.

Nowhere is this brought out more poignantly than in a relatively insignificant scene in Book 8, which takes place in the middle of a raging battle. The Trojan Paris shoots an arrow at the Greek Nestor, which hits the seasoned warrior’s horse in the head, “where a horse’s forelock / grows on the skull, and where is most fatal” (lines 84-85). Then something truly odd happens; the narrative perspective changes and instead of watching sweeping actions–men swinging swords and throwing spears, horses stamping over bodies, chariots careening and crashing about–suddenly we are watching a single arrow as it plunges into a horse’s head. We watch, transfixed, as the arrow skewers the poor horse, who in his death agony “flung the horses with him into panic as he writhed around the arrow point” (line 87). We go from big action (battle), to smaller actions (arrow shooting), to an even smaller action (the arrow penetrating the horse’s brain). The center of focus has contracted to the tiny tip of an arrow, and we, like the horse itself, are flung around this arrow, orbiting it just as the earth orbits the sun. We have changed our perspective, from large heroic actions taken by men, to a single arrow around which a horse rotates. It’s as if we’re inhabiting a kaleidoscope, living on the inside of it, subject to its twists and turns at any moment. The effect on the reader is disorienting, just as it is meant to be, because it reinforces the sense that events in the story are random, uncontrollable, and largely unpredictable, while at the same time suggesting that mere perspective determines our allegiance and our ideology.

This is why I find reading The Iliad right now so very meaningful. This is a poem that was written ages before the Enlightenment values of logic, continuity, causality–in short, Reason–had been adopted in Western culture. These values are being tested right now in our daily lives, and reading this ancient epic reinforces the sense that values come and go, that worldviews shift and change, and that our sense of primacy is, and should be, rather fragile. If there is anything that Covid-19 has taught us, it is that, at least in the short run, we are all at the mercy of the gods, whoever and whatever those gods may be, and we must, like Odysseus, Agamemnon, Hector, and Achilles, simply get along as best we can in the face of a world we cannot control, even if we desperately want to believe we can.

As it happens, recent research suggests that the appendix does, in fact, have a function: to protect and nurture healthy bacteria until they are needed in the gut. Perhaps teaching mythology serves a similar purpose; perhaps, appendix-like, it preserves and protects various ideas, attitudes, and perspectives that, while outmoded and seemingly unnecessary in modern life, can provide us some kind of insight in difficult times. At any rate, reading The Iliad has certainly given me food for thought these past few weeks.

On the Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I have something to say about the death of RBG.

There is an old Jewish tale that says the fate of the world rests on 30 just and honest human beings. Without these people, everything that we know and love will collapse. And here’s the kicker: No one knows who these people are–not even the 30 just and honest people themselves. And consequently, we must all act as if we ourselves are one of those 30 just people, whose very existence makes it possible to repair the world (“tikkun olam”) — just in case we turn out to be one of those very necessary people.

Clearly we lost one of the 30 on Friday afternoon, when RBG died. Now we must all step up to the plate, because it may be that we ourselves are called on to replace her and be one of the 30 just men and women in the world whose very existence holds evil at bay.

It’s time to get to work, everyone. Live your ideals and your beliefs every day. Be like RBG.

Something Different

I am very close to finishing up Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a novel which too few people today have ever read or even care about, and I will have something to say about that soon. But for now, I thought I’d post a short story I’ve written, whose title is…

The Decay of Memory

I

 The first and only time Terri Goodkind went to Vienna, she fell ill with a harrowing fever that kept her a prisoner in her boutique hotel room, shivering and sweating on a bed that was much too big for her aching body, and getting to know each crack in the salmon-colored walls far too well.

“If I’d known I was going to get this sick,” she would tell her children when she got home, wearied and depressed, “I’d have picked a nicer hotel.”

The trip had been a crazy idea, the kind of thing a middle-aged woman does when she realizes she’s getting older and may be running out of time to do the things she’s always dreamt of doing. The things that are commonly relegated to one’s “bucket list,” although Terri had always hated that term, saying, “Why put everything together into a bucket just to reach in and pull something out at random? If it’s important to you, you should do it intentionally, purposefully, as if it really means something.”

With Rob gone after years of illness and her 30-year marriage a piece of personal history, Terri found herself ready to travel but unwilling to visit either of her two children—both of whom would welcome her, certainly, but would do so out of a sense of obligation, perhaps even pity. Instead, she bought a ticket to Vienna one Saturday evening in January after watching a travel program about the city’s delights.

Vienna was one of the cities she’d missed when she had traveled through Europe after college with her cousin and Rob, back in the early 1980s. They had done the American equivalent of the Grand Tour but had somehow managed to leave out Vienna. When she asked her cousin why they’d skipped it, he couldn’t quite remember, but told her it was probably because they just didn’t want to leave Italy. They’d been having so much fun there, he said.

“We had a good time in Italy?” she had asked him over the phone, surprised. She remembered very little about their time there.

“Sure,” Alex replied. “Don’t you remember the beaches, the parties—the grappa?”

“Oh, right,” said Terri, and laughed. But after she’d hung up the phone, she wondered whether she had enjoyed her Italian experience as much as Alex had, or rather, as much as Alex thought he had. Had they really danced their way through Bacchanalian parties in Vomero with other college students? She wished she could ask Rob, but even if he were still alive, it had been a very long time since he’d had any grasp of any memories from their early years together.

During the flight across the Atlantic, Terri had congratulated herself on her resilience, her new-found independence, and her ability to get on with the business of living. She sustained her energetic optimism through two connecting flights—the last one delayed—a struggle with an awkward carry-on bag, and the silent and tense Uber ride to her tiny hotel, which was nestled in a non-descript part of Vienna. She could have believed she was anywhere, she thought, as she entered the lobby. While it didn’t look quite like New York City or even San Francisco, it bore no resemblance to the Vienna of her imagination.

She was tired by the time she reached her room, which was one of a half-dozen units that opened onto a central courtyard. Across the courtyard, she could see the hotel’s kitchen, as well as a few workers struggling to carry large pans from which steam floated in lazy, curling wisps. She would eat dinner there, Terri decided, rolling her suitcase into the alcove by the bathroom and sitting on the corner of the bed.

She looked at her surroundings. Four walls painted a shade of reddish-yellow, meant to be trendy but achieving only a sickly ambience. A rickety side table with a large, wine-red chair next to it. Wall sconce lighting above the bed. A spare but clean bathroom, with the shower, toilet, and sink tightly compressed into an efficient use of space never found in the United States. Threadbare but freshly vacuumed rugs, with foot traffic patterns clearly visible across the lavender and lime pile.

Terri resisted the urge to curl up on the bed. She was tired, but she knew the rule: to avoid jet lag, don’t succumb to the desire to sleep upon arrival. Push yourself to get out, walk, tour a museum or two, just keep moving as long as possible. Go to bed at 6 pm if necessary, but do all you can to reset your internal clock. And so, instead of lying down, she splashed cold water over her face and brushed her hair, even though she yearned for a long, hot shower.  She forced herself to put on her coat and walked back through the courtyard, where the tantalizing scent of fried onions, garlic, and something else—was it coriander?—floated through the wintry air. It wasn’t lunchtime yet, but the restaurant must have been preparing dishes ahead of time.

Terri made her way to the lobby, where she hesitated only a few seconds in warmth before pulling open the entry door and stepping outside onto the sidewalk. Her hotel looked like a normal apartment entrance; there was no real indication, except for the three stars on a plaque by the doorway, that it was indeed a hotel. It was colder than she thought it would be, and she fumbled with her zipper, pulling it all the way up to her neck.

Walking through streets she shared with businessmen and businesswomen, Terri admitted to herself that catching up on sleep was not the only reason she longed, despite her best judgment, to return to her room. Now that she was in Vienna, she realized what a crazy idea it had been for her to come here like this. Why hadn’t anyone stopped her?

It was more than crazy, she decided, the chill of the air seeping through her jacket and making her irritable. It was nothing short of cockamamie. She smiled, despite her growing sense of dismay. “Cockamamie”—that was a term her Brooklyn grandmother had used in the early 1960s, before Brooklyn had become a haven for millennials in search of success. During Terri’s childhood, Brooklyn had been an ethnic neighborhood, inhabited by Jewish and Italian families, by young men and women who would say, when asked where they were from, “New York,” ashamed of being a product of a lower-class neighborhood composed of people whose one unifying characteristic was the desire to escape to Manhattan as soon as possible. That Brooklyn, Terri knew and understood. It was the Brooklyn of six generations of Goodkinds like herself—although the name had originally been Gutkennt, Americanized, like so many other surnames, into a pair of syllables that denoted two unarguably benevolent adjectives—“good” and “kind.” Though she never told anyone this, fearful as she was of being ridiculed for sentimentality, Terri had tried throughout her life be both good and kind, but it had become increasingly difficult these last few years as she jostled her way through her fifties, burdened with Rob’s illness. The earlier decades, she thought, stepping around an older couple who were holding each other’s gloved hands as they shuffled down the sidewalk, had been easy enough, but now she was running out of her reserve of both goodness and kindness, and, most of all, out of patience. Perhaps she had been born with a certain supply of patience, just as all women were allotted, even before birth, a certain number of eggs, and when that stock was used up, she would be neither good nor kind any longer; she would enter a kind of ethical menopause, bereft not only of fertility, but of her rationed amount of shits to give as well.

Terri shook her head, trying to dispel these disconcerting thoughts. Snow flurries flitted through the air. She had not anticipated this kind of weather when she had planned the trip two months ago at her kitchen table in Virginia. Shoving her bare hands deep into her coat pockets, willing herself not to shiver, she walked through the streets, looking for a likely place to have lunch. It was only ten in the morning, however, and she knew it would be at least an hour before any restaurant would be open. A park opened on her left, across the street, and she made her way to it, entering through a set of magnificent gates that looked like they belonged in a palace.

“Cockamamie.” She thought about the strange word, wondered about its origins, and then remembered another word from her youth: “Nincompoop.” As her thoughts flitted from one ridiculous term to the other, Terri thought about how strangely satisfying words could be. In coming to Vienna, she had done something worthy of a nincompoop. Her Vienna trip, meant to heal the wounds left by lingering grief and emotional exhaustion, was nincompoopish. That wasn’t right, though. Nincompoopy? What was the adjectival form of “nincompoop”? Her teacher’s brain whirred but found no answer. Besides, all that  mattered was that she was a nincompoop for following through on this cockamamie idea of taking a vacation after Rob’s death.

But, she thought, as she sat down on a frigid park bench, was that really all that mattered? Like a nagging pain, her thoughts went on, stupidly, because she was too tired to corral them. She remembered that “nincompoop,” that outrageous-sounding word beloved by outspoken Yiddische bubbies and by small children alike, was actually a portmanteau—a word formed from a foreign expression. It derived from the Latin legal term non compos mentis, which translated as “not in control of one’s mind.” In other words, “insane.” Funny how a language takes its shape, Terri mused, then felt her stomach seize up a moment later, when she considered whether she herself was indeed non compos mentis.

After all, this half-planned trip to Vienna did appear to be the brain-child of someone who was slightly unhinged. That was another odd word, making it sound as if the lid of her brain was liable to fly off, unattached, loosing upon the world strange fancies and impressions that had escaped the stern censors of everyday life. Certainly there had been that incident at the doctor’s office last September, just after Rob’s death, when she wouldn’t allow the nurse to take her blood pressure, saying only, “I just don’t feel like it today” with a stiff smile as an explanation. On that day, Terri had learned that when a nurse spends more than five minutes typing notes into her tablet, it could result in the doctor’s earnest offer of a referral to a mental health professional.  She had declined back then, heartily sick of doctors and treatment plans, but now, sitting by herself on a bench in a park on the outskirts of Vienna, Terri wondered whether she should have taken him up on it.

Somewhere a church bell tolled twelve, and she realized it was noon. Where had the time gone? Restaurants should be open for lunch now, Terri realized, and she stood up, dusting a shallow layer of snow from her lap. She left the park, crossing the street again, and found a restaurant on the corner of the wide boulevard she had followed to the park. Once inside, she had to put her hand on the maître d’s podium to steady herself. The dark interior, combined with her growing sense of fatigue, was making her feel more than a little dizzy and disoriented.

She ordered a light meal and indulged in a glass of a local white wine. But after just a few mouthfuls, she set her fork and knife down on the table, no longer hungry. The wine, too, had lost its appeal, but Terri downed the last bit of it with a sense of determination. It was when she was handing her credit card to the obliging but somber-faced waiter that Terri first recognized the symptoms of what would turn out to be a debilitating illness.

II

Later that afternoon, when she woke up with her head pounding and her body damp from sweat, Terri admitted to herself that her malaise was not merely the result of exhaustion nor, indeed, even a normal cold. Her limbs ached terribly, as if she’d just played the most intense game of tug-of-war in her life, and she could not remember showering or putting on her nightgown and getting into bed. Yet her hair was damp, and she could see a bath towel draped over her open suitcase. She settled back beneath the comforter and fell back asleep, unable to make the effort to dig through her toiletry kit for aspirin or any other tablets to soothe her head.

For the next three days, Terri suffered.  

She lay, sometimes asleep, sometimes in a torpid state of semi-consciousness, shivering and sweating in turns, burying herself under the covers and huddling against inadequate pillows, only to fling them away from her, unable to bear even one more second of claustrophobic warmth. And all the while her head throbbed with an insistent and painful reminder that she was, indeed, still alive. Sometime in the early afternoon of her second day in Vienna, Terri got up and filled a large glass of water from the bathroom faucet and downed it quickly, before her stomach could rebel. She could feel the cool liquid make its way down her esophagus and into the very top of her stomach.

By now she was certain she had a fever, and probably a high one. But she never traveled with a thermometer, and indeed, hardly ever used one at home. Why bother? A person knew when she was sick, muttered Terri to herself. What kind of nincompoop doesn’t know when they’ve got a fever? She shuffled back to her bed, hoping that the sheets weren’t too damp with her sweat.

The pain in her head troubled her a great deal. It pounded, a furious and rhythmic sensation that felt like a hammer walloping at her from inside her skull. She had seen definite marks of illness when she’d looked at the bathroom mirror: unruly hair, flushed forehead, bright, watery eyes with no depth to them, like a still pond in winter that was just on the verge of freezing. But what did it matter? She was sick, she knew that well enough. What did anything matter in such a state?

Perhaps nihilism is an inevitable result of illness, especially when one falls ill far from home. Terri gave in completely to a lethargic, almost pleasant emptiness that second day of her trip. Death, a slow winding-down of life, a sweaty dissolution into nothingness, seemed the certain end to this experience, and, rather than fearing it, Terri accepted it. But what she could not feel for herself she did feel for others. She thought of other travelers who had died while abroad. She knew no one personally who had died in this way, but there was, of course, John Keats.

And once he came into her mind, he refused to leave it. She remembered, not bits of Endymion or Hyperion, nor loose-flowing lines of poetry about Grecian urns and unsated desire, words that might have soothed her and lulled her into a healing sleep, but instead her trip to Rome ten years earlier, when she had made Rob go with her to the Spanish Steps to see where the young poet had died. Rob had protested when she had leaned well over Keats’s narrow bed to catch a glimpse of the last thing he had ever seen: a patch of blue sky from the open window.

But now, teasing it over in her wearied mind, Terri doubted whether that had indeed been the last thing Keats had seen. Her own eyes open, staring first at the ceiling and then across the bed to the salmon-colored wall, she noted a network of small cracks in the plaster. “Why salmon?” she thought, listlessly at first, and then with some degree of hostility. It was such a silly color for a hotel room, which called, not for a bold or eccentric fashion statement but rather a bland neutrality that would welcome travelers with non-descript and comfortable banality.

Those cracks, too, bothered her, running as they did in hairline trails that, taken together, suggested objects such as a rabbit or a chair, only to slip off their identities, as a woman might shrug off her coat after changing her mind about going outdoors and deciding that she would, after all, stay inside a bit longer. Terri found the situation annoying and frustrating, not least because she suspected the entire thing was the result of a sick and fevered imagination.

By evening on that second day, Terri had gotten out of her bed only to go to the toilet and to fill her glass with water several times. She had at last found some tablets to take, and, too tired and sick to think about dinner, she had eaten a couple of stale crackers she’d saved from the airline meal the day before. Convinced that she would not sleep that night, Terri lay down again, resigned to tossing and turning throughout the long spring night, but she fell into a deep sleep composed of night sweats, nihilism, and poignant sorrow for Keats.

In the morning, Terri was feeling just well enough to shower. She dressed slowly, still unsteady on her feet, and avoided looking in the mirror. She waited for the hotel restaurant to open, intent on having a cup of sweet, hot tea to fortify her. She had not eaten since her Viennese lunch two days earlier, and though she felt weak enough to collapse into a spectacular and dramatic heap on her bed, she forced herself across the courtyard to the small hotel restaurant.

She was the first person to arrive for breakfast, and she had her choice of the best Kaiser rolls, sliced meats, boiled eggs, and creamy cheeses. Yet Terri could take no more than two bites of her buttered roll before she pushed it away, disgusted. The tea was good, though, and realizing she needed sustenance, she took another cup and loaded it with sugar. Today, she told herself as she left the table and made her way back to her room, she would feel better and get out to see some of Vienna. Walking might be impossible, but she could catch a tour bus that stopped nearby and see the city from the comfort of a double-decker.

She decided to rest a bit before exerting herself, however, and the next thing she knew, it was late afternoon. Terri realized that she would not be seeing Vienna that day, either. Three days into her seven-day trip to the center of the Hapsburg Empire, she had seen nothing but snow-dusted city streets, a dingy café, and her hotel room. At this rate, she thought, her most vivid memory of the trip would be of those cracks on the wall, which almost but not quite coalesced into the figure of a stout woman carrying a basket, only to rebel at the last instant and become an outsized cartoon elephant balanced on an improbably small ball.

And so she resigned herself to another day of rest and recuperation—except that there was no real recuperation. She wasn’t feeling any better. And although she wasn’t really feeling any worse, she didn’t like the fact that she was getting used to feeling badly. That thought scared her a bit. Was this how Rob felt when his memory started failing—thankful for what he had left, and asking for nothing more than a slow, ponderous slide into decay? Wasn’t it a good sign that she was frightened by this evidence that her nihilistic despair was receding far enough for her to begin to care about what happened to her?

That evening, she went back across the courtyard to get a bowl of soup for dinner, and, on her way back to her room, she picked up a trade paperback from the rack in the lobby. Still feeling exhausted but utterly tired of sleeping, Terri propped herself up with her pillows and read the book, a biography of an English actress she had admired. She read deep into the night. Sometimes she would drift off, waking when the book toppled from her hands onto her chin or her chest; at other times, she would stare, perplexed, as the words on the page separated into individual letters and scrambled across the page like a colony of angry and confused ants. Once, startled by this strange diacritical activity, Terri tossed the book aside, as if she had discovered real insects on the page, a linguistic hive skittering through the book.

III

At the Schonbrunn Palace the next afternoon, still feverish but heavily dosed with aspirin and just well enough to force herself into doing some sight-seeing, Terri surveyed the sad remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The rooms were smaller and less opulent than those of Versailles, but they were built and fashioned from identical material: the bodies and souls of men and women who had lived, labored, and suffered under Imperial rule.

Terri shivered against the cool draft blowing through the Grand Ballroom, and wished that the brightly-colored enameled woodstoves had been stoked and lit. They were ingenious contraptions, designed to be loaded from the back side, so that servants could tend to the fires without ever being seen by the people whom they served.

How convenient for Franz Joseph, Empress Sissy, and the rest of the Hapsburgs, thought Terri, as her fever-dried lips broke into a sardonic smile. Never to set eyes on the miserable creatures who wasted their lives in abject service. It was a brilliant idea, a fine concept—an image that should have been included in Yeats’s portrayal of Byzantium, where gilded mechanical birds, so much easier to care for than real ones, sang for the pleasure of withered Emperors. And in many ways, Terri thought, as her steps echoed through the room (for the Schonbrunn Palace was not a popular tourist destination in the middle of March), there was a Byzantine feel to Vienna that she had not expected. She tried to dredge up an interest in the lives and histories of the people and dynasties that had lived here, but she could not draw anything from her fevered brain save an overpowering sensation of revulsion. She was disgusted by late-Empire decadence, by what she was coming to see as the Viennese insistence on excess and its monstrous, insatiable appetite for power, beauty, and ornate, crushing adornment.

It was hypocritical, of course, for an American to feel this way. She realized this as she was drinking her tea in the Palace tearoom. She had no right to call any other culture out on its decadence or corruption—she who hailed from a nation consumed by excess, whose rapacity was pushing it to a level never yet seen in history. She had no right to condemn the Hapsburgs, she told herself.

A man sat down at the end of her table, and Terri peeked at him over the rim of her teacup. He was well dressed, his dark-gray suit perfectly pressed, his shirt a starched and blinding white. The only concession he’d made to creative fashion was his tie, a loosely knotted slash of green silk, complemented by the shock of blond hair that fell across his forehead and bobbed slightly as he worked his fork over and through the slice of apfelstrudel he had ordered. Teri couldn’t see his eyes, didn’t dare to look at him that long, but she guessed they’d be bright blue, or perhaps green.  She continued her internal conversation as she placed her empty cup on the counter and left the store, wondering whether this man might have a Hapsburg ancestor or two in his family tree.

It felt good to leave the Palace and walk outside in the brisk March air. The sun had come out, and, still feverish, Terri welcomed the cool breeze on her aching head. She knew she was being unfair to the man at her table—he might not have been a descendant of Emperor Franz Josef, might not even have been Austrian, for that matter. But she was still very sick and far from the comforts of home, and she was in no mood to be charitable. The smell of decay, the odor from waning civilizations and empires, was strong in her nostrils, as if she had inhaled some unseen smoke from those enormous porcelain stoves that drifted through the Palace rooms for years after they had last been lit and had somehow gotten lodged in her sinuses, the way cigarette smoke remains in your hair long after you’ve left a bar or dance club. Nothing could remove that stale odor, Terri knew, except water and shampoo. What would it take to get rid of the pervasive scent of cultural decadence, that aroma of mingled delight and decay, that encompassed both the best and the worst of human culture?

What a stupid, overdramatic question, Terri decided, once she was back in her hotel room, laying, utterly exhausted, on her bed. She greeted the cracked plaster of the walls and ceiling as if it were an old friend, smiling at it as she allowed her head to sink into the pillow. This feeling of inertia, which comes after intense exertion, was delicious. Was it this sensation that marathon runners felt after the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line had subsided? This glorious sense of virtue rewarded, this muscular exhaustion that came from exerting one’s will over all obstacles–the biggest being the human inclination towards laziness–in order to achieve one’s goal? Terri considered the question for a moment, resolved to ask her triathlete son about it, then shut her weary, aching eyes and fell fast asleep.

Feverish dreams assailed her almost at once, flitting through her embattled consciousness like dragonflies hovering over a pond on a summer’s day. Mostly images of the day: the bus ride to the Palace, the long, wearying walk up the path to get into the museum, the empty halls, the sharp click of her shoes on the marble tiles of the Grand Ballroom, which, dreamlike, turned into the tapping of a conductor’s baton and was still audible even through an orchestra’s rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz.

How she longed to see the beautiful dresses and starched military uniforms of the dancers! Was this dream a cultural memory, a buried recollection of a time when such opulence could exist without guilt? Did beauty—for waltzes and music, yes, and even palaces and intricate woodstoves were indeed beautiful—did beauty always have to come with remorse and shame? In her dream, as the couples whirled by, blissfully unconscious of the difficult question they posed, Terri contemplated it and could not find her way to an answer.

Waking in the darkness of her room, Terri heard waiters talking and the clink of dishes being cleared from across the courtyard. She realized at once that she had missed dinner. No matter—she wasn’t hungry, anyway. She could not really believe that she would ever be hungry again. Some hot tea would have been nice, however, and might have settled the gnawing, uncomfortable feeling in her stomach.

She lay in the dark, trying to remember what it was she had planned to do this evening. Was there a concert? An opera, perhaps? A night-time ride on the Ferris wheel made famous by Orson Welles in The Third Man? It didn’t matter, Terri told herself, shutting her eyes against the dark: she was going nowhere tonight.

But why couldn’t she remember what it was she had originally planned? Was it just the fever, or could it be that she was no longer able to rely on her own memory? Had she used it up, perhaps, serving as Rob’s memory, too, for these past five years? The thought terrified her at first, but after a few minutes, she shrugged. Everyone suffered some memory decline, she realized. In fact, memories themselves decayed, growing less sharp, less precise, over time. What was she wearing when she first met Rob, anyway? What was their first argument about? And, for that matter, what color were Rob’s eyes?

Terri stopped, panicked. She held her breath for one, two, three seconds. What color were Rob’s eyes? She tried to pull up a happy memory of him, a moment from ten years before, when they had been drinking coffee in their backyard. They had laughed at some joke and then looked at each other. But Terri couldn’t get Rob to look at her in her memory of that moment. He was like the man in the Schonbrunn Palace tea shop, looking down at his coffee mug—or was it a slice of cake?—completely absorbed by it, unable or unwilling to lift his head and meet her gaze. Terri felt another wave of panic grip her stomach. She sat up and turned on the light.

Time, and history itself, moved in cycles. She was surely at a low point in her own time cycle, Terri realized. It wasn’t so much that she was sad or depressed; it was just that she had nothing to look forward to, no landmarks to head towards. She was languishing, like a drifting sailboat, in an endless bay of despair.

She had left Virginia for a vacation from that bay, for a chance to re-set her life, to restock it with new memories, but it turned out that decay had not only followed her; it had lain in wait here in Vienna, hidden like a lion ready to pounce on an unwary gazelle. Her illness, which had stripped her of both stamina and will, had left her no blindfolds, no distractions. What started as a tourist outing had turned into a harsh look at European dissipation, at the decadence of a Viennese court that prefigured the opulence, at the self-indulgence of her own country. But even more damaging, it had also anticipated the decay of her memory, of herself, of her very person.

Panicking, Terri grabbed her phone and dialed the airline. She would leave the next day. Her trip to Vienna was over. She would be drinking no Viennese coffee, ordering no sacher torte that she could not stomach, scheduling no visits to ornate buildings that housed priceless books or dancing white horses. She had finished with Vienna, just as she had finished with Rob and the life they had made together. Going home, she decided, was the only honest thing left for her to do.

IV

Was it a delicious sense of irony, or simply the relief of ending this trip, fraught as it was with suffering, that made Terri laugh out loud when, buckled into her seat and awaiting take-off the next afternoon, she heard “The Blue Danube” piped through the jet’s sound system? Terri didn’t allow herself to think about it. She watched, satisfied, as Vienna—the Staatsoper, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Kirche am Steinhof—grew smaller beneath the plane’s wings, fading like old memories as she ascended through the thick white clouds, making her way back home.

Covid-19 Has Revealed the Dual Nature of Schools in the USA

blackboard_highdefinition_picture_167748

The debate over whether to open schools is revealing an important question that has lurked just below the surface for a generation–indeed, perhaps for as long as free public education has existed in the United States: what is the purpose of our schools? Is it to teach people crucial skills and allow them to acquire important knowledge, or is it rather to provide a holding tank, a safe and dependable place for a part of the population that cannot yet care for themselves?

Some teachers take umbrage at the thought that K-12 schools are used as childcare centers; they say that they are not babysitters, and that the push to open schools is an attempt to get the economy going again by providing workers with childcare that is not otherwise available to them. There is truth in this assertion. But universities, too, have been used for the last fifty years as childcare centers of a sort, places where a group of people is deposited under the guise of acquiring a higher education until they are ready to enter the workforce, or until the working world is convinced to let them in. Our educational institutions, in other words, have been, at least for the last fifty years, both places of learning and care facilities at the same time.

It’s best if we accept this dual role of educational institutions, rather than rail against it. A K-12 school can be both a place where education occurs as well as a place where parents can send their children for safe care (school shootings and pandemics aside). A university or college can be a place to teach important skill sets, including knowledge that is difficult to acquire on one’s own, as well as a place where young adults are sent while they wait their turn to enter a work force that isn’t quite ready for them yet. This leads to the question of opening the schools: are they essential for our country? In the short-term, the answer is a resounding “yes”: providing such a safe space is essential in order to run the economy we’ve grown used to, one in which financial necessity compels parents to scramble to find childcare, as well as one in which young adults require an expensive university education merely to snag an entry-level job in a field that becomes outmoded within years.

In this sense, teachers and professors are indeed essential workers; they are, in fact, babysitters. (Note that I do not say “mere” babysitters. The term itself is a demeaning one, indicating that a caregiver’s job is completely passive, but anyone who has ever been around young children knows this is far from the truth. I will leave that topic for future post, however. At any rate, babysitting is at least as important a role in our society as being a university professor, perhaps much more so.) But at the same time they are caregivers, teachers are also purveyors of knowledge and skills, and we need to keep both functions in mind as we think about the job they do.

I’ll be honest: I can see no clear solution as to whether schools should be opening up in a few short weeks. Sadly, we have completely squandered the time we bought back in March, when schools were summarily shut down in order to stem the spread of Covid-19. We did not stop the disease from spreading, which is bad, but what is even worse is that we completely failed to create a workable plan for re-opening schools and instead just held our breath, hoping that the pandemic would simply die down or fade away. It didn’t have to be this way; the complete lack of leadership at the federal level is to blame for this awful situation. During this time, other countries’ schools have created solutions  that we can learn from, and we must study them closely to find our own, but here is one simple takeaway: flexibility is the key to fighting this pandemic. As argued in Tomas Pueyo’s important article published the early days of the pandemic, we need to shift between strict containment measures, including lockdowns, and loosened restrictions, again and again until Covid-19 becomes manageable. This demands that we act with flexibility, becoming responsive to the current situation.

And here we find a heartbreaking irony: flexibility is precisely what is lacking in the educational institutions we have come to rely on for childcare. And this in turn is a direct result of the binary role of schools in our society and our unwillingness to recognize it. In other words, what matters in childcare is dependability, after all; we need to know that our children have a safe place to go with someone watching over them whenever we need to be at work. But as far as education goes, flexibility is the most important thing. If one learning method doesn’t work, a good teacher always has a host of other methods to try out. Learning itself has to be flexible, because knowledge is acquired through a series of attempts, failures, and (hopefully) successes; a good education should always provide its student with the ability to be flexible. In other words, critical thinking, simply described, is the ability to see a problem in a variety of ways in order to solve it. Flexibility, elasticity, and adaptability are excellent things in education, however unwelcome they may have become in the working world (or the political world, for that matter). I would even argue that ignoring the role of flexibility in education has actually led to the demise of its effectiveness in our country, as we came to rely on testing and objective-chasing rather than more organic approaches to teaching, but that, too, I will have to leave for another post, or to another blogger.

My point here is simply this: it isn’t necessarily bad for education to serve as child (or young adult) care, but not recognizing and accommodating this dual nature of our educational institutions will lead us to make faulty, even disastrous, choices as we move forward to confront our new future. 

This pandemic, awful as it is, may well have good consequences. One of them, I hope, is the bright light it shines, often harshly, on the institutions and traditions we’ve come to accept so blithely through the years. Though it may be painful in the beginning, we can work to make these institutions work for our society much better than they have in the past. But the first step, as always, is to see things as they are, and in this case, we must accept the idea that schools have been necessary in this country not only because they teach the skills and knowledge that citizens of a democracy must have, but also because they provide childcare to people who need to work and otherwise could not afford to do so. Let us look at the situation clearly, transparently, and earnestly: only then can we hope to meet the challenges that face us in this difficult and unprecedented time.

How the Study of Literature Could Save Democracy

Beowulf MS, picture from Wikipedia

Usually, I am not one to make grand claims for my discipline. There was a time, back when I was a young graduate student in the 1980s, that I would have; perhaps even more recently, I might have argued that understanding ideology through literary theory and criticism is essential to understanding current events and the conditions we live in. But I no longer believe that.

Perhaps in saying this publicly, I’m risking some sort of banishment from academia. Maybe I will have to undergo a ritual in which I am formally cashiered, like some kind of academic Alfred Dreyfus, although instead of having my sword broken in half and my military braids ripped to shreds, I will have my diploma yanked from my hands and trampled on the ground before my somber eyes. Yet unlike Dreyfus, I will have deserved such treatment, because I am in fact disloyal to my training: I don’t believe literary theory can save the world. I don’t think it’s necessary that we have more papers and books on esoteric subjects, nor do I think it’s realistic or useful for academics to participate in a market system in which the research they produce becomes a commodity in their quest for jobs, promotions, or grant opportunities. In this sense, I suppose I am indeed a traitor.

But recently I have realized, with the help of my friend and former student (thanks, Cari!), that literature classes are still important. In fact, I think studying literature can help save our way of life. You just have to look at it this way: it’s not the abstruse academic research that can save us, but rather the garden-variety study of literature that can prove essential to preserving democracy. Let me explain how.

I’ll begin, as any good scholar should, by pointing out the obvious. We are in a bad place in terms of political discourse–it doesn’t take a scholar to see that. Polarizing views have separated Americans into two discrete camps with very little chance of crossing the aisle to negotiate or compromise. Most people are unwilling to test their beliefs, for example, preferring to cling to them even in the face of contradictory evidence. As social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris point out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.” They use the term “cognitive dissonance,” which means the sense of disorientation and even discomfort one feels when considering two opposing viewpoints, to explain why it is so hard for people to change their ideas.

To those of us who study literature, the term “cognitive dissonance” may be new, but the concept certainly is not. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, in an essay which is largely forgotten except for this sentence, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” (“The Crack-Up,Esquire Magazine, February 1936). In addition, cognitive dissonance isn’t that far removed from an idea expressed by John Keats in a letter he wrote to his brothers back in 1817. He invents the term “Negative Capability” to describe the ability to remain in a liminal state of doubt and uncertainty without being driven to come to any conclusion and definitive belief. Negative capability, in other words, is the capacity to be flexible in our beliefs, to be capable of changing our minds.

I believe that the American public needs to develop negative capability, lots of it, and quickly, if we are to save our democracy.

But there’s a huge problem. Both Fitzgerald and Keats believe that this function is reserved only for geniuses. In their view, a person is born with this talent for tolerating cognitive dissonance: you either have it–in which case you are incredibly gifted–or you don’t. In contrast, Aronson and Tavris clearly believe it’s possible to develop a tolerance for cognitive dissonance: “Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty…” While their belief in our ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and to learn from it is encouraging, it is sobering that they do not provide a clear path toward fostering this tolerance.

So here’s where the study of literature comes in. In a good English class, when we study a text, whether it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Beowulf, students and teacher meet as more or less equals over the work of literature in an effort to find its meaning and its relevance. Certainly the teacher has more experience and knowledge, but this doesn’t–or shouldn’t–change the dynamic of the class: we are all partners in discovering what the text has to say in general, and to us, specifically. That is our task. In the course of this task, different ideas will be presented. Some interpretations will be rejected; some will be accepted. Some will be rejected, only to be later accepted, even after the space of years (see below for an example).

If we do it well, we will reach a point in the discussion where we consider several differrent suggestions and possibilities for interpretation. This is the moment during which we become experts in cognitive dissonance, as we relish interpretive uncertainty, examining each shiny new idea and interpretation with the delight of a child holding up gorgeously colored beads to the light. We may put a bead down, but it is only to take up another, different one–and we may well take up the discarded bead only to play with it some more.

The thing that makes the study of literature so important in this process is that it isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. To my knowledge, no one has ever been shot for their interpretation of Hamlet; the preservation of life and limb does not hang on an precise explanation of Paradise Lost. If we use the study of literature as a classroom designed to increase our capacity for cognitive dissonance, in other words, we can dissipate the highly charged atmosphere that makes changing our minds so difficult. And once we get used to the process, when we know what it’s like to experience cognitive dissonance, it will be easier to for us to tolerate it in other parts of our lives, even in the sphere of public policy and politics.

If I seem to be writing with conviction (no cognitive dissonance here!), it’s because I have often experienced this negative capability in real time. I will give just two examples. The first one occurred during a class on mystery fiction, when we were discussing the role of gossip in detective novels, which then devolved into a discussion on the ethics of gossip. The class disagreed violently about whether gossip could be seen as good or neutral, or whether it was always bad. A loud (and I mean loud!) discussion ensued, with such force that a janitor felt compelled to pop his head into the classroom–something that I had never seen happen either before or since then–to ask if everything was ok. While other teachers might have felt that they had lost control of the classroom, I, perversely, believe that this might have been my most successful teaching moment ever. That so many students felt safe enough to weigh in, to argue and debate passionately about something that had so little real importance suggested to me that we were exercising and developing new critical aptitudes. Some of us, I believe, changed our minds as a result of that discussion. At the very least, I think many of us saw the topic in a different way than we had to begin with. This, of course, is the result of experiencing cognitive dissonance.

My second example is similar. At the end of one very successful course on Ernest Hemingway, my class and I adjourned for the semester to meet at a local bar, at which we continued our discussion about The Sun Also Rises. My student Cari and I got into a very heated discussion about whether the novel could be seen as a pilgrimage story. Cari said it was ; I vehemently disagreed. The argument was fierce and invigorating–so invigorating, as a matter of fact, that at one point a server came to inquire whether there was something wrong, and then a neighboring table began to take sides in the debate. (For the record, I live in Hemingway country, and everyone here has an opinion about him and his works.) Cari and I left the bar firmly ensconced in our own points of view, but a couple of years ago–some three years after the original argument occurred–I came to see it from Cari’s point of view, and I now agree with her that The Sun Also Rises can be seen as a sort of pilgrimage tale. It took a while, but I was able to change my mind.

It is this capacity to change one’s mind, I will argue, that is important, indeed, indispensable, for the democratic process to thrive.

In the end, it may well be that the chief contribution that good teachers of literature make to culture is this: we provide a safe and accessible place for people to learn what cognitive dissonance feels like, and in doing so, we can help them acquire a tolerance for it. This tolerance, in turn, leads to an increase in the ability to participate in civil discourse, which is itself the bedrock of democratic thought and process. In other words, you can invest in STEAM classes all you want, but if you really want to make people good citizens, do not forget about literature courses.

In view of this discovery of mine, I feel it’s my duty to host a noncredit literature class of sorts in the fall, a discussion-type newsletter that covers the great works of English literature–whatever that means–from Beowulf to the early Romantic period, in which discussion is paramount. If you’re interested or have suggestions, please let me know by commenting or messaging me, and I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop.

And in the meantime, keep your minds open! Cognitive dissonance, uncomfortable as it is, may just be what will keep democracy alive in the critical days to come.

Elegy for an Aristocratic Lady

There’s something about losing a beloved pet that’s similar to hitting your funny bone, or perhaps more aptly, getting kneecapped. You know the pain isn’t going to kill you, but for a short time it’s excruciating, almost unbearable, and although you know it will get better eventually, for the time being you can’t focus on anything but your loss.

My husband and I got kneecapped pretty good last Friday, when we had to put down our beloved Leonberger dog, Lady. Her registered name was Legacy’s Aristocratic Lady; she was a Grand Champion and the mother of two litters of fine Leonberger pups. In this post, I just want to note her passing, even though the world around me is falling apart as I do so.

Lady was always a big girl. My husband called her “Lady” specifically so that people would realize she was a girl, because with her size and heft, she looked less delicate than a typical female Leonberger, which are large dogs to begin with. Here are a couple of pictures of Lady and her littermates when they were newborns:

If memory serves me correctly, Lady was wearing the red collar. The really important thing about Lady is that she was best friends with her sister Alfie (Legacy’s Alphaba). Alfie was the runt of the litter, so it was kind of sweet that the biggest puppy and the smallest puppy got along so well. Sometimes bitches, even from the same litter, have problems establishing a pecking order, but that was never an issue with Alfie and Lady. They were best friends from the very beginning, and as far as they were concerned, there was no pecking order.

Alfie laying on Lady
The size difference is really apparent here.

Lady grew up to be an AKC Grand Champion, but more importantly, she and her sister completed well over one hundred visits as Therapy Dogs to our local library as Reading Dogs (PAWS to Read), during which they patiently listened to young children read to them.

And throughout their lives, they stayed best friends:

About a month after her first litter of puppies left for their new homes, we acquired a Siamese mix from our local Humane Society, and proceeded to go on a three-week camping trip with all of our pets. Lady, perhaps still mourning the departure of her four puppies, latched on to Leo Tolstoy. From the moment she met him, she decided that Leo was her feline offspring:

Leo and Lady remained closely bonded, as you can see above.

Three years ago, Lady had another litter, and we kept a puppy, whom we called Millie (“Legacy’s Lady Camilla”). Here she is perched in her favorite spot:

And the years passed. We knew Alfie and Lady were approaching old age as we celebrated their eighth birthday at the end of February. (Leonbergers, as giant breed dogs, generally don’t have long lifespans.) And I had worried for years about which dog would live longest and how she would handle the final separation. I’m not surprised that Lady went first; she had many physical issues, most stemming from a knee injury she sustained when she was four years old. But of course we were still devastated when we learned three weeks ago that Lady was dying of osteosarcoma–an all-too-common disease in Leonbergers. So we set out to enjoy the last bit of time she had with us as much as we could, taking her for drives in the countryside so she could enjoy all the smells, spoiling her with treats, and generally just loving her as much as we could.

Lady in the background, Millie near the food bowl (as always!), and Alfie and Leo Tolstoy together

I can say that I never, in eight years, saw Lady curl her lip at another creature. I have heard her growl from time to time, but only in her sleep or when disciplining her puppies, never as a threat. She was unfailingly gentle, always loving, and she thought every smaller creature was her own long-lost puppy. I could say she was the best dog ever, but that wouldn’t be true, because Alfie, too, is the best dog ever, and Millie, though young, is showing great promise of becoming the best dog ever, too.

We all miss Lady terribly. As I said at the beginning of this post, hitting your kneecap on a sharp object certainly won’t kill you, but it sure feels like it will for a while. We’ll survive the loss of Lady, certainly, but the pain hasn’t ebbed away just yet. And we are all, especially Alfie and Leo, doing the best we can to wait for our grief to subside.

Alfie and Leo the night after Lady died

A Very Short List of Good Books in Which Nothing Really Happens

Most of us who have taken (or, as the case may be, taught) literature classes understand that stories are made up of three components: plot (what happens); setting (when and where it happens); and characters (whom it happens to). And what makes the study of literature so fascinating to us is that these things aren’t present in equal amounts. Picture a series of knobs, like those on a complex sound system. Say you slide the plot knob way high, turn down the setting knob , and leave character knob in the middle region. This configuration might describe a detective novel, in which what happens (plot) is of paramount importance. But if it’s Sherlock Holmes stories that you like, then the setting will be different, because it isn’t their compelling plots that draw you in, but rather the unique character of Holmes himself, or the foggy, turn-of-the-century setting of London, because it’s the hansom cabs, gas lighting, and general ambiance that appeals to you. A book’s literary mix, in other words, can reflect a variety of combinations of plot + setting + character.

Certain writers tend excel at one or the other of these three elements. (Of course, there are more elements of story out there beyond plot, character and setting; for example, I haven’t discussed “voice,” the teller of the story, and there may be some elements I haven’t thought of or read about. But for the purposes of this blog post, we can just focus on the standard three components of story.) To illustrate my point, I’ll just say that Thomas Hardy, who created an entire English county (Wessex) for his novels, is great with setting, that Agatha Christie is ingenious as far as plot goes, and that Jane Austen produced amazing characters. Some writers are wonderful at two of these, but fail with the third. For example, Charlotte Bronte is great with setting and characters but her plots are pretty much bat-shit crazy. (I still love her works, by the way.) A few highly talented writers, like Charles Dickens, manage to work all three elements in equal portions. But for today, I’d like to talk about stories in which nothing much happens, those novels which are virtually plot-less, and why they can be a source of comfort and entertainment to readers today.

I am now going to alienate half of my readers (sorry to both of you!) by saying that I place Jane Austen squarely into this category. But just think about it: not a whole lot happens in Pride and Prejudice. I mean, the only really exciting part of the novel I can remember (and I’ve read it many times) is when Lydia elopes with Wickham. And that scandalous event doesn’t even happen to the main character. That’s not all: to be honest, I cannot even remember the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which suggests that it scarcely has one. But that’s okay–Jane Austen isn’t about plot. If you want excitement and adventure, don’t read Austen. Read Sir Walter Scott instead. But be advised: Walter Scott himself, author of Ivanhoe and Waverley, those early, action-packed adventure novels so beloved by the Victorians, openly admired the newfangled work of Jane Austen, his opposite in so many ways, as he clearly indicated in an unsigned review of her book Emma. As far as nineteenth-century English writers go, Austen is not the only plot-eschewing literary giant, either; if you’ve ever read an Anthony Trollope novel, you’ll know that few dramatic scenes ever occur in his novels. In fact, when something dramatic does happen, it often occurs offstage, leaving the characters to deal with the effects of momentous and emotional events without ever allowing the reader to witness them herself.

Now this type of novel might be dull and frustrating for most readers, but I will admit that I take great pleasure in books in which very little happens, especially nowadays, when I must brace myself anytime I dare to look at news headlines, with crisis after crisis occurring at breakneck speed. Thankfully, in the world of literature, there is a whole category of works in which books with minimal plots highlight either setting or characters, or both components, in order to produce a delightful and soothing reading experience. I will share some of these works below, with the ulterior motive and express intention of hoping to spur my readers to make their own suggestions in the comments section, and thereby help me find more of these little treasures that I can place on my personal reading list.

First, there are the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. I am a late-comer to these books, having just finished the first in the series, Queen Lucia, in which nothing really happens other than village residents in early twentieth-century England try to one-up each other and claim dominance within their social circle. The very pettiness of these maneuvers is highly entertaining, however, and the characters are drawn well. The writing is as precise as a well-built chronometer, with an Austenian feel to it. Earlier this year, I attempted to listen to Mapp and Lucia, which was a mistake, I think; I stopped listening because it was too acerbic. I think that with Queen Lucia under my belt, I will be much more appreciative of the sharp wit with which Benson portrays a character that not even he likes that much. (Sidenote: Agatha Christie wrote a book called Absent in the Spring, under the name Mary Westmacott, in which she also created a very unlikable character. It’s worth reading, but very different from her usual detective novels.)

Another novel quite similar to Benson’s work is D.E. Stevenson’s Vittoria Cottage. Stevenson was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of swashbuckling novels like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but she specialized in what was termed “light” fiction. Now, I’m not taking anything away from Robert Louis, but I believe it takes real talent to write about the trivial; as Hamlet says, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii). D.E. Stevenson possesses this talent, and it is a delight to delve into the world she has created, in which nothing happens, and little seems to change.

The Kindle version of Vittoria Cottage has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, which is highly appropriate, since Smith’s works offer an excellent contemporary example of the minimally plotted novel and fit precisely into the category I’ve identified here. Sure, the Sunday Philosophy Club books are detective stories, but they are the subtlest mysteries imaginable. One could say the same thing about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series; we don’t read them for plot, but rather for the delightful characters they introduce, such as Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi, as well as for the simply drawn but well-evoked setting of Botswana. Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books have more plot, but only because they depend on coincidence and absurdity to move their stories forward. I could sum it up by saying it this way: in Smith’s novels, there is scarcely any climax, but instead a gentle descent to the concluding pages. And far from condemning or critiquing such a structure, I will praise it here, in an attempt to celebrate these minimally plotted novels that allow us to focus on, and take delight in, both setting and character instead of plot.

Now, readers, it’s up to you: do you have any suggestions for books of this type? I look forward to more discoveries.

Elegy for Eavan Boland, 1944-2020

The only modern poet I have ever understood is Eavan Boland.

If you recognize that sentence as an echo of Boland’s wonderful poem “The Pomegranate,” you might share my feelings for her work. Boland’s death will probably not get much attention outside of Ireland, but I feel it’s right for me to acknowledge it here, where I talk about the things that are important to me.

In a time of so many losses, perhaps it’s silly to focus on one death, yet I do it out of selfishness, for myself and for what this poet’s work has meant to me. First, a confession: I am not a poet, nor am I really a great reader of poems. As a professor of literature, I have studied poetry, but I feel much more comfortable with the works of Wordsworth, Arnold, Shakespeare, even (dare I say it?) Milton than with contemporary poetry. To be honest, despite my elaborate education, I really don’t understand contemporary poetry–so I must not really “get” it. I’m willing to accept that judgment; after all, there are a lot of things I do get, so it’s a kind of trade-off. I realize I’m not a Michael Jordan of literary studies, which is why I rarely comment on poetry that was written after, say, 1850. But I feel it’s only right to mention here my attraction to, and reverence for, Boland’s poems, one of which (“This Moment“) I used for years to teach poetic language to my freshman and sophomore college students.

I first noticed Boland’s poems in the mid-90s, when I was teaching full time as an adjunct professor, still hoping to make my mark–whatever that was supposed to be–on the world. I had subscribed to the New Yorker, back in the days when it was read for literary, not political, reasons. This was during a period when poets and writers who submitted their work and not gotten it accepted for publication actually protested outside the offices of the magazine, stating that their work was just as bad as what was being published within the pages of the New Yorker and demanding equal time. (I thought about looking this story up on the internet, because, in an age of so much fake news, everything is easily verifiable, but forgive me–I decided not to. If the story about these outraged mediocre writers is not true, I don’t want to know about it. I love it and cling to it, and it does no one any harm, after all.)

I was very much aware of the opacity of much that was published in the New Yorker, and one evening after the children were in bed, having recently heard that story about the protesters, I shared it with my husband. To demonstrate how unreadable the stuff that was being published was, I grabbed a copy off our end table, thumbed through it until I found a poem, and started to read it out loud. After two or three lines, however, I stopped in mid-sentence. My husband said, “What? Why did you stop?” I looked up slowly, reluctant to pull my eyes away from the poem, and said, “It started to make sense to me. Actually, this is really good.”

I am not sure which poem of hers I was reading that evening. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t know, because it drives me to read so many of her poems, always searching for the Ur-poem, that first poem of hers that drove me to appreciate so much more of what she’s written. Boland’s poetry seems to me to explore the intersection of place and person, of history and modernity, in simple, sometimes stark, language. I love it for its depth, not for its breadth (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). I love the way it sinks its roots deep into the past, all the way back to myths and legends sometimes, yet still manages to retain a hold on the very real present.

Eavan Boland died yesterday, April 27, at the age of 75. You can read about her influence here, in an article by Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. Her poems can be found online at poets.org and on poetryfoundation.org.