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MORE DOLLARS THAN SENSE

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In the December/January issue of MORE magazine, I have a short piece about money, gratitude, and common sense. The story was inspired by something my friend, Ira Ziering, said to me years ago, advice that has served me well over the decades.

As Fate Would Have It

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In the spring of 1995, Burt Porter agreed to do a favor for one of his neighbors in Glover. During a winter storm, the neighbor's mailbox had blown over. So Burt offered to share his own mailbox and pick up mail for both of them until the fallen post got back on its feet.

The neighbor had a subscription to The New York Review of Books. Burt had been teaching English for thirty years, and was himself a poet and musician, so he decided to thumb through the Review. In the back pages, he came across a list of personal ads, and since he had been single for a while, he looked through those as well.

At that time, my dear friend Lindsay Knowlton was the director of Financial Aid for the School of Law at Boston University. She'd had the job for many years, and appreciated her colleagues and the students and the excellent health and retirement benefits. But the job could be long hours, and she had two vocations entirely unrelated to her day job: birding and writing poetry.

She, too, was single, and had happened to place a personal ad in the issue of TNYRB that Burt had picked up for his friend.

When Burt saw her ad, he got in touch. A few weeks later, Lindsay went on a birding trip in New Hampshire and continued the drive all the way up to Glover. It was Father's Day, and Burt was celebrating with his sons and his sons' partners and various family members and friends, some of whom lived on Burt's land.

"I was charmed immediately," Lindsay told me afterward. And when the guests left, Burt and Lindsay found out they had a lot to talk about.

Four days after Lindsay returned to Boston, she suffered a massive stroke. For the first twenty-four hours, it wasn't clear if she would make it. Lindsay had mentioned Burt Porter to her sister, but without saying where he lived in Vermont. So her sister called 411, reached a sympathetic operator, and told her the whole story. Together they went through all the possible B. Porter's in Vermont, until they tracked down Burt's number.

He arrived at Lindsay's hospital room within the week. Over the next six months, he continued to make the trip back and forth from Glover to Boston, while Lindsay worked on her recovery, which was a long and grueling and often disheartening. By the end of the summer, it became clear that memory loss and vision impairment would make it impossible for her to return to her job at Boston University. Lindsay and Burt had spent only one afternoon together before the stroke, but that had been enough.

So when Burt asked her what she wanted to do next, she answered, "Move to Vermont and live with you."

In the fall of 1995, she joined Burt and Burt's son and his son's girlfriend and a bunch of chickens and two oxen and a variety of other animals and birds and neighbors and family members who came and went in the house and garden and surrounding fields on the sixty acres in Glover.

*

Lindsay's recovery was far from complete.

"When Lindsay got here," says Burt. "She was still wacked." They are telling me this story in the kitchen of their house, where a big wood-fueled cooking stove radiates heat and keeps a pot of soup warm.

"One time," says Lindsay, "I was trying to tell Burt a story about a friend of mine who is a big birder and loves loons especially. My friend had spotted a pair of loons on a pond, right about the same time a red fox had spotted the same pair. So my friend got to watch as the fox slipped into the water to go after the birds. But the loons just kept diving longer and deeper until they eventually drowned the fox.

"It was a good story," she says. "The problem was, I couldn't remember the word 'fox.'"

Burt laughs. "She kept saying, 'Oh, you know, that giant orange bird with little tips of black on its ears.'" He holds his hands up on either side of his head and makes fox ears. "It was like in the Wizard of Oz. She fell asleep in Boston and woke up in Vermont with some old guy she barely knew."

At that point, Lindsay had already attended the MFA Writing Program at Goddard College and later received her degree from Warren Wilson College. She had also received a fellowship from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, been funded by the Massachusetts Council for the Arts and Humanities, and twice been a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. She had published widely and been a finalist in a number of prestigious manuscript competitions.

But she couldn't remember the name of the giant orange bird with black tips on its ears.

Slowly, surrounded by the landscape and people and animals and life of a small town in northern Vermont, Lindsay returned to words and the natural world. In many ways, it was an ideal setting for her. She felt at home in the old house in the country. She had grown up in rural Massachusetts in the second oldest house in New England, built in 1636, and she had been a birder and naturalist all her adult life.

Still, after sixteen years, she's mindful of native Vermonters' reluctance to allow flatlanders to claim full citizenship. "I never call myself a Vermont poet," she says. But her poems are filled with the language and images of the world in which she recovered the names of things: the sighting of a bobcat or the slow collapse of an abandoned barn. She recently published a poem about the burial of the last of Burt's pair of oxen, Nip and Tuck:

Ritual for a Red Ox

"That was the last of them then," I thought
when up on the hill, I heard the knell of backhoe brakes
and looked down at the pasture to see Erik's
telltale rig digging out the grave.
We had buried Tuck a year before,
and now it would be an aged Nip.
Lately it seemed he'd been readying himself:
after peacefully grazing-- instead of the usual way
of lowering himself down on his knees to sleep,
he would just flop down
and roll on his side like a horse,
as if angling for a looser life
or playing dead. But this time
he meant it--this time was for real.
I thought "smart ox to go early in spring before
the black flies worry your poor spent hide."
And after Erik, with backhoe and chains, had dragged Nip
into position and slowly lowered him into the grave,
as we had done before with Tuck,
we all gathered in a circle and joined hands;
and just as Lucinda had shown us with Tuck,
we tossed hay in to foster his oxen dignity
until only one long horn poked through. Then
Burt read his poem about the year
quickly turning and the oxen kneeling in prayer
"to what mild God an ox might think is there."
With final solemnity he cast the book
into the grave and Erik leveled out the dirt.

And the field grew up
lush and green and barren.


Last year she published her own first collection, Earthly Freight, with iUniverse, because, to my mind, thought she had been a finalist in a number of competitions, none of the traditional publishers had the wit to recognize the Wordsworthian dignity and glory in these poems. I should hasten to add that is not what Lindsay would say. In truth, it doesn't much matter how she gets published or what she calls herself. She makes poetry of what she sees and hears, finding language fine enough for the natural world.

*

If Lindsay's poems are those of the sharp-eyed naturalist, Burt's are those of the musician and storyteller. He almost always writes in forms, often sonnets. Even the longer narrative poems use blank verse, the stately, five-beat, unrhymed lines of Wordsworth and Frost.

Musical talent runs in his family. Burt began playing mandolin when he was six, accompanied by his mother on the piano and his father on the mandolin. Eventually, Burt inherited the fiddle that had been made for his great grandfather in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1873.

Burt also writes songs and ballads of his own. Whenever we visit, we get him to play for us. I'm especially fond of the Yeats poems he has set to music. This evening, after we eat, as light dies in the window behind him, he takes his mandolin out of the case and plays a song he wrote about listening to his father play the mandolin, when Burt himself was a small child.
Songs softly gleaming
Like gold in the evening,
Songs that would fade
In the twilight's last glow...

As the day fades and the house fills with music, there is an eerie, pleasantly disorienting sense of timelessness. We are here in Glover in 2011, and there in his childhood home in 1951.

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Burt grew up in rural Connecticut, but by the time he graduated from college, the area around his hometown had gotten too crowded for him. He looked for work in northern Vermont and found a job teaching English at the Lyndon Institute in Lyndonville, where he taught for forty years, eventually becoming chair of the English Department. He's always had animals on his land, chickens and dogs and, for twenty years, the pair of Red Devon oxen, Nip and Tuck, that Lindsay has immortalized.

Burt has published four books of poetry, including A Spiral Wind and Rhymes of the Magical World. He plays fiddle and mandolin throughout the area, and also calls for square dances. In the warm kitchen, which smells of soup and homemade bread, he continues to play the mandolin and sing one of the Yeats poems I love. Behind him, the big window reveals red-winged blackbirds, grackles, evening grosbeaks, and the usual sparrows and nuthatches, feasting on the feed that Burt and Lindsay scatter along the porch railing.

In addition to writing poems and playing music, Burt travels the state giving talks sponsored by The Vermont Humanities Council. One of his favorite subjects is the traditional fiddle music of New England. He has developed a few theories about how and why this music sounds the way it does, with its regular rhythms and complex melodies. He doesn't claim to be a scholar.

"This is just stuff I've come up with over the years," he says, as he explains his theories to me. "It made sense to me when I thought of it."

He believes the repertoire was shaped, in part, by our native Yankee love for order. Indeed, when Burt takes out his fiddle and plays the New England version of the waltz "Crossing to Ireland," the plangent notes and echoing repetitions seem to rise up out of the evening, out of the surrounding farms with their neat barns and gardens and fields and pens, out of the Vermont landscape.

No matter how random and serendipitous the details of their story might sound, every time I visit them, I have a sense that out of all my friends, it is Lindsay and Burt who have ended up exactly where they are supposed to be.

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Speaking of Life and Laundry

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Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

BY RICHARD WILBUR

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every bless├Ęd day,
And cries,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."

Spring

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This has been a strange spring in many ways. We had snow on the shady side of the house until the end of April. And then May 1st the season changed, and all the apple trees had bright green buds, the hyacinths unfurled overnight, and delicate pale, pale pink blossoms, yet to be identified, sprung up once again under the arbor. Yesterday I hung out laundry for the first time this year, and I realized that hanging out laundry is my true ceremony for marking the beginning of spring, more than planting the peas or setting out seedlings to harden off, it's carrying the wet sheets up out of the dark basement and running the line from the shed to the pole. When I brought the clothes in, around six, bright sunlight still streamed through the woods behind our house.

Meanwhile, I find myself living in a nation in which killing someone is being celebrated with beer-chugging parties and exclamation points. Recently our president announced that the CIA and Special Forces had assassinated the titular head of Al Qaeada, the man behind the planning of the September 11 tragedies. Only a few days earlier, the headlines trumpeted that American bombs had killed the son and three grandchildren of a loathsome dictator, responsible for the torture and death of thousands in his own country.

I don't know how to respond to this sort of news. My husband asked how I would feel if I heard someone had killed Hitler. Glad, I think. Relieved. And yet, do I want the state to have the right to kill people, for any reason? Suddenly, in this season, life seems immensely valuable.

A few weeks ago I was having coffee with a group of people and someone said, casually, "April is the cruelest month." After which, someone else asked where that quote came from, and what it meant anyway, and I found myself again in the oddly uncomfortable position of knowing a lot more about that line of poetry than anyone in the group actually wanted to hear. Of course, it's the first line of Eliot's poem, "The Wasteland," and the poet explains exactly what he means in the first four lines--April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain. He then goes on to expand that meaning in each of the five sections, venturing into the worlds of Tarot cards, Easter Sunday (the Road to Emmaus), Augustine's Confessions, The Golden Bough, the Upanishads, the Holy Grail, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Dante, and Wagnerian opera--among others. Eliot was having a long, slow nervous breakdown during the time he worked on the poem, and The Wasteland has always struck me as the perceptions of a man whose nerves were on the outside of his skin, unsheathed. The post-WWI world of western Europe felt unbearable to him, thus it seemed cruel to have memory and desire stirred. Better to accept our wasted fate and huddle under winter's blank cover. To be honest and unfashionable, I tend to read the poem more optimistically than some. The poet ends with Shantih, shantih, shantih, which the poet footnotes as the formal ending to an Upanishad, and translates loosely as "the peace which passeth all understanding."

During that same coffee gathering, a friend told me about sitting by the bedside of a woman we both know, who is dying of cancer. My friend is leaving to work in a distant country for two years, so she will never see the dying woman again. She said she knew it sounded trite, but sitting there in the hospital, she really began to wonder what it was that filled her head most of the minutes of the day, what those worries were, and why they seemed so compelling. Suddenly I understood that I spend a good deal of my energy protecting some illusion of my self from some illusion of the world, as if my precious little self were made of cheap glass and the world were a big bad hammer.

Of course, an individual life can seem fragile. But life, in the largest sense, is also and equally irrepressible. That's what the rituals of this season confirm. Though I'm a Christian, I'm not a big fan of the way most churches celebrate Easter--too much triumphalism for me. In fact, I don't really need Jesus to have come back and proved he was still around, but if he did that, I hope he actually walked the road to Emmaus with two of his followers, who remained entirely blind to his true identity throughout their journey together, who spent the whole time telling him all about his own death and resurrection. That is a human story. We're so busy recounting the bad news of the day, we miss the miracles.

If we accept the theory that the world's theistic religions are grounded in seasonal rituals, celebrating the planting and harvesting of crops, it all makes sense. Jesus reappears in the spring, along with everything else. The birthday of the prophet Muhammud is celebrated in late February, or early March, of the western calendar. The Sikh New Year is observed on March 14 of our calendar. When I join friends at the Seder table, they sing raucously to G-d that it would have been enough just to lead them out of Egypt, or just to split the seas so they could escape, or just to give them the Torah. They survived. They are careful to remember those who did not. They are careful to tell all the stories--of slavery, of death, of escape, of miracles--because one set of stories does not cancel out the other. We mourn, we pray, we celebrate, we hope. Next year in Jerusalem, they say. L'chaim.
laundry

The P Word

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We have recently gotten a puppy, and I have discovered that on this subject, as on so many others, the world falls into two categories. There are the folks who don't know, and the folks who do know. When you say the word puppy to a member of the first, don't-know group, the person's face tends to get a dreamy, innocent look, as if you had announced that you were shortly to be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.

But when you tell the folks who do know that you have recently bought a puppy, their response is more along the lines of, "Yeesh. How are you holding up?" To which the correct reply is a mild shrug and, "As well as can be expected." These are people who either have gotten a puppy recently or have gotten, over the years, many puppies. In other words, they remember.

Obviously, I love dogs, or I wouldn't have paid for a second one. But not unlike caring for an infant, caring for a puppy is a pain in the keister. Of course I know perfectly well that there are major differences between the two experiences. Things that are better about having a puppy: you can leave a puppy in a wire cage and go to a movie (BIG difference); a puppy will eventually learn to poop outside; you do not have to start a college fund; eventually, you will have a dog.

Things that are better about having a baby: eventually you will have a person.

But then, as I always tell my children, anything worth doing is a pain in the keister, and the more worth doing it is, the bigger a pain it is. This list would include learning to play the harmonica, traveling to India, getting and staying married, building a boat, planting a garden, writing a book, keeping a friend, and, of course, raising a child. And if I am right about this, I can only deduce that having a puppy is an extremely worthwhile endeavor.
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The Monk, The Goats, My Heart

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"Every morning put your mind into your heart and stand in the presence of God all the day long."
An anonymous monk of the
Eastern Orthodox Church

Recently, I came across this quotation and wrote it down on a slip of paper and stuck the paper on the wall behind my computer. I was taken with the words of the monk, but I didn't completely understand them. That's to say, this sounded like a good idea--to put my mind into my heart--but I wasn't sure where my heart was.

I found the quote in an introduction to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts of yoga. The word sutra in Sansrkit means thread, and also aphorism. So the yoga sutras are not quite two hundred elegant knots of the finest thread, meant to be patiently, attentively unraveled, one at a time.
1. And now the teaching on yoga begins.

2. Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.

3. When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature,
which is unbounded consciousness.

4. Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.

Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind. No kidding.
Just this morning, as I was trying to locate my heart, most of my thoughts were on my neighbor's goats. I was supposed to have fed them and shut the barn door last night, and I forgot. I knew I needed to call and apologize, and see if I could help out on a different day, but I got so caught up in the possible disasters that had occurred due to my forgetfulness that I paralyzed myself with two of my favorite mind-altering substances--fear and shame. For a while, I became convinced that a mink had gotten into the pen and eaten the geese. In retrospect, this seems unlikely, since the new goose is a 50-lb. gander, and I would like to see, from a distance, the mink that could take him down.

But none of that really mattered. What mattered was: 1) I had said I would feed the animals and close the door, and 2) I hadn't done that.

In normal human parlance, this is called a mistake. The best possible response to making a mistake is to apologize for it, sincerely, and move on. It is not good form to make the other person--the one you have thoughtlessly inconvenienced--spend a lot of time reassuring you that everything is fine and she is not the least bit miffed, because she probably is, and, if she isn't, she will be by the time she's through trying to make you feel better.

Fortunately, by the time I called the goat-owner, I had first talked to a sane friend who had talked me down off the roof. So I was able to say, "I'm so sorry. I forgot. I hope the animals are all right." To which the goat-owner said, "Oh yeah, it was fine. I was actually home anyway." In other words, I had just spent 40 minutes of my working day turning a mistake into an abomination, and then back into a mistake. The whole thing reminded me of Mark Twain's observation: "I'm an old man and have known many troubles, but most of them never happened."

Here's the thing: somewhere in my being, I knew all along exactly what I needed to do. But when my mind gets going with the bloodied animals and the neighbors storming my door with flaming stakes, I get distracted. I become mesmerized by the circus of horror I've created for my own entertainment. This part is always a bit confusing for me, because the experience of mental self-torture does not feel pleasurable, and yet clearly I get something out of it, because I keep on doing the same thing.

After that forty-minute detour into my own mind, it occurred to me that I did, in fact, understand what the anonymous monk (not to be confused with Thelonius Monk) means when he says, "Every morning put your mind into your heart..." He means, spend the day in that place where you already know what to do, where it is quiet, where you can hear and see and sense what is actually happening around you. Forget the horror show in your head. Spend the day in your "essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness." Or, if you like, spend the day in the presence of God.

The Big Thaw

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People say it is harder to write about happiness than it is to write about despair. But as our dear friend Alice used to say, "What do people know?"

Still, in this case people may have gotten it right. It's tough to appear both sophisticated and enthusiastic, and my generation has perennially chosen cool and clever over chirpy and cheerful. But recently I have decided I prefer cheerful, so I'm going to blow my cover.

Two weeks ago, on a gray Friday afternoon, I was writing a few desultory sentences when I got an email message from my husband, who was supposed to be reading at the library: I'm not getting ($*%&^^& done. Want to go over and have lunch in Walpole?

Walpole is a small town across the Connecticut River, in New Hampshire, with three big draws, the first being an Agway store. If you can't find something you want at Agway, you need to get your desire buttons reset. Walpole is also the home of the famed chocolatier Burdick's, and of the Walpole Creamery. In winter, Agway and hot chocolate, made from steamed milk and shaved milk chocolate; in summer, Agway and homemade peppermint ice cream on a sugar cone.

To say this has been a tough winter is a laugh riot understatement. At that point, the temperature had not climbed out of the teens for weeks, ice dams hung like impending doom, and banks of plowed road slush sealed off our mailbox. Plus, the rest of my world seemed just as frozen as the six-foot snow banks. I had four different writing projects out on the desks of nine different editors, and had heard nothing for weeks. But most difficult for our family was a heartbreaking situation with a young relative, which had been dragging on for months with no light of hope or salvation or change of any sort.

When I got my husband's email, I wrote back, yes.

After lunch at the tavern, we headed to the Agway, stocked with tightly-budded hyacinths, colorful watering cans, dog beds, wheelbarrows, rubber boots, birdfeeders, welcome mats, knitted hats, work gloves, fertilizer, grass seed, ice melt, mulch, cat treats, buckets, shovels, spades, rakes, and what we actually came to get--feed hay and traction sand. On the way out, I saw a poster stuck on the wall by the door, with a picture of a litter of leggy, lab-mix puppies. I took the attached phone number and stuffed it into my back pocket.

I had wanted a lab-mix puppy for a long time. In fact, one of the reasons I had wanted to move back to Vermont was so that I could at last have some animals--goats, retired horses, maybe a goose or two. But over the endless winter I'd become convinced the whole animal thing was a bad idea. We were all getting old--my husband, our beloved mutt, and me. Who wanted to trudge out through ice-crusted snow at 6 in the morning to check on a pregnant ewe? I needed to write every day. I needed to make money. I needed to get a grip on all the good stuff that all the other folks my age seemed to have already staked out for themselves while I was raising my children and wrestling my demons. I couldn't go around pandering to half-baked dreams until I made some headway in the fame and fortune department.

Our footloose adventure across the river had a warming effect on my spirits. When we got home, I acted on impulse and phoned the woman with the puppies. As it turned out, there was one female left --black with a wiry coat. The next day we drove to New Hampshire to see her, fell in love, paid for her, and agreed to pick her up the following week. One day later, our neighbors down the road called and offered me their goats. The day after that, I met the goats, fell in love again, and agreed to take them. The day after that, I noticed a strange sensation of lightness in my chest. I thought maybe I was dying. But as it turned out, I was starting to thaw.

At the end of that week, the temperature shot up to 51* and I took our old rescue dog on a long walk. The ice dam slid off the roof with a stunning rumble, and I was able to dig out the mailbox. A week later, we brought home the puppy. There's little time for numb contemplation of theodicy when you're teaching a 12-week-old Labrador the difference between your favorite socks and a dead quail. Everything around me seemed to be sliding and shifting. The warming trend continued.

Supposedly, people tend to get happier as they get older. Here's what I've learned in the happy aging process: when I fixate on what is not available--fame, fortune, a kind word from an editor, youth-- I make myself miserable. But when I open my eyes and look around at what the universe has on offer--long-legged lab puppies, tight-budded hyacinths, brook water flowing beneath slabs of ice--I lighten up. I thaw.

You can't always get what you want, sang one of the great prophets of our age. But if you try sometime, you can, it appears, get what you need. And getting what you need can make you really really happy. Even at the end of a very very long winter.

Weather, Death, and Denial: my 60th birthday insight

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This morning I stumbled onto a major insight, which forced me to reassess my relationship with every state and climate in which I've ever lived. As well as my relationships with my neighbors, myself, death, and denial.

I grew up in Texas, where people like to brag about the sulfurous summer heat. Down there, it is okay to fry an egg on the sidewalk and ask, on a regular basis, "Hot enough for you?" It is not okay to answer, "In fact, it is way too f*&^ing hot for me and I have decided to get a job in a meat-locker." The appropriate answer is a wry chuckle and something along the lines of, "Nope. I was hoping for a real summer this year."

For reasons I have never figured out, I've also lived a good portion of my life in the San Francisco Bay area. I am one of the few people I know who does not like the San Francisco Bay area, but I spent my undergraduate years there, then later got a teaching job there, then many years later watched my oldest child head off to graduate school there.

When I taught in California twenty-six years ago, this same child was an infant. I have a vivid memory of bracing myself in a doorway, my baby in my arms, while the earth turned to viscous liquid beneath my feet. I had never before experienced an earthquake, and after it was over I knew one thing--I never wanted to experience another one. Actually, I sort of enjoyed the physical sensation. What I didn't like was the fear of dying in a doorway. But when I tried talking with Bay area residents about this concern, I got blank stares.

"Don't you worry about another earthquake?" I would ask a group of mothers in the nearby kiddy park.

Wan smiles, averted glances. It was as if I had started sharing some of my favorite sexual positions.

Plus, there is no summer in San Francisco. The instant the air retains a hint of warmth, a dense blanket of cold fog rolls in from the bay. This does not stop hard-core San Franciscans from wearing shorts and tank-tops on mid-July evenings, when the temperature is hovering in the fifties--a topic also not up for discussion with the natives.

Eventually, my husband and daughter and I escaped back to the East Coast, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because Cambridge is such a hodge-podge of drifters, professors, and quacks, I never located any uniform topic on which everyone seemed to be in denial--at least in terms of weather and natural disaster. I did regularly have moments in the aisles of Whole Foods during which I rethought my position on gun control; I wouldn't have wanted to hurt anyone, but it would have been satisfying to fire off a few rounds in the air and remind folks that they were in a public place where many people other than themselves and their precocious children were trying to shop for food.

But, in general, complaining counted as a competitive sport in Cambridge, and I never lacked for an attentive audience when mouthing off about what wasn't working for me. There was not a lot of loyalty to the land there, or to the climate, and few had staked fierce claims on local identity.

angie's house winter

Good Books

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Just before the flood of enforced holiday downtime swamped my boat, a friend sent me a review by B.R. Myers, titled "Smaller Than Life." Myers's point is that a good deal of award-winning contemporary fiction gives us small characters in small lives doing no-account things, delivered in a language that conjures an overheard subway chat, as if it were fiction's job to reflect back to us in a sort of funhouse way the most tedious moments of our days.

Plenty of the writers producing the subway-chat fiction are smart, thoughtful, and talented. I have heard and read what they have to say about their work, and they clearly have in mind an esthetic that reflects, to them, essential realities of our 21st century world. My own response to their work is grounded in the simple fact that I experience the world differently. I don't find daily life thin and bloodless. I find it rich and weird, deserving of a broad vocabulary, a varied syntax, and a willingness to go way out on a limb to capture the dazzling array of events. To me, these are the necessary elements of a good book.

After I read the Myers essay, I posted it on Facebook and immediately got responses from others who feel frustrated and lost when it comes to the world of contemporary fiction. A couple of people asked if I would suggest some good books, and that seems like an ideal task for the new year. So, my criteria are these: rich language, varied syntax, and a willingness to go out on a limb to capture the dazzling array of events. What follows is a hodge-podge of old books, new books, mysteries, and thrillers, since I find some of the best novel writing is being done by authors in the so-called "genre" categories. I haven't even addressed non-fiction, poetry or drama here, but maybe I will do that somewhere down the road. Also, I've stuck to English-speaking writers (with a couple of exceptions, like Tolstoy). In many cases, I only mention one book by each author, because that happens to be the one that stuck with me, but for most of these writers, all their books are finely-crafted and thoroughly worth the read. Finally, this will work best if readers send in your own favorites, so that we end up with a juicy list of good books that will last us all a good long time.

Old Books: A LEGACY by Sybille Bedford is often my favorite novel, though surely HOWARD'S END, by E.M. Forster, is a more wonderful book. Both the authors concern themselves with the sweep of history and class politics as they play out in the characters' lives. And the characters are stunning.

Other Old Favorites: THE YEARS, by Virginia Woolf, Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH, Wharton's HOUSE OF MIRTH, James's THE AMBASSADORS, and, of course, SWANN'S WAY. My daughter just reminded me about WAR AND PEACE, which is our favorite Tolstoy. If you want to see why and how point of view matters in a novel, reread THE GOOD SOLDIER, by Ford Maddox Ford. I'm a huge Dickens fan; no one more shamelessly puts his characters through the wringer, so that they can come out alchemized into gold or meet their deserved disastrous ends. BLEAK HOUSE is the best, and it leads nicely into another category--mysteries.

Good People

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Recently I got a mild flu. Actually, it wasn't all that mild, but its main symptom was bizarre weakness and dizziness when standing, so I lay down a lot and felt okay. I considered this particular flu an excellent illness. The first day, I felt way too lousy to conduct business and errands, and, besides, no one wanted me around because I looked like someone who had recently climbed out of her tomb. So I stayed on the couch and malingered.

Malingering is an art that has been helped along exponentially by the Internet. Malingerers used to have to watch Guiding Light and read People magazine. Now we have at our fingertips the ultimate malingering mechanism--the Web, which serves up You Tube videos and email correspondences and astrological projections and bizarre recipes for rhubarb and, miraculously, TED lectures.

TED lectures are a few cuts above Oprah, but not so many cuts above that a sick person like myself can't follow along. I first came across them a couple of years ago, when my daughter sent me a TED talk by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro-anatomist who suffered a stroke when a blood clot shut down the left hemisphere of her brain. My daughter sent me that particular lecture because I had been working on a book that included essays on the neuroscience of memory, and she thought I might be interested in what this fascinating woman had to say about being a brain scientist who got to watch the left side of her brain shut down, step by step, and know what was happening as it happened.

This may not sound like a good thing for a sick person to watch, but the single unifying reality of the TED lectures, as far as I can tell, is that they are uplifting. Of course, over time this can be a bit much. No one wants to be uplifted for hours on end, especially when suffering from the flu. But if I watch only a few, I am left with a certainty that I seldom feel--that the world is full of good, bright, determined people working for our betterment.

The format is simple: each of these remarkable folks stands in front of a huge audience, in some glitzy venue approximately the size of the Roman coliseum, and speaks for eighteen minutes on a subject of her or his choice. Often the subject is some astounding project the person started and now manages, the goal of which is to end world hunger and reduce carbon emissions to prehistoric rates. The only imperfection I have found so far is that there seem to be many more men than women on the giant stage, but TED is addressing that as I write with a TED Women's Conference, so I give them points for trying.

It turns out that these men and women are much better company during illness than the benighted characters of Guiding Light, although I was once a big Guiding Light fan and would never try to pose as person above the fray of soap operas. But I find myself hungry for good news these days, and I can't help but think that there's something innately healing about malingering in the company of good people.
TED talks

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