Living

An Ode to the Holiday Card

Of course I love holiday cards. I’m a card person sort of generally, and while there have been years when I gave New Year’s greetings because I didn’t have time before then, or even Valentines, or even nothing—yes, many years—I still love to send holiday cards. Some years I have been strapped or rushed or distracted and only done what my mom called “Emergency carding”—only sending a card when I received one. But this year was a good year for cards.

I consider the sending of holiday cards a luxury of time and a tradition worth maintaining.

These days I make them myself, but there have been many years when I bought a box or two at the store. The point is the connection, not the work. The work, though, is play for me, and that’s a luxury too. To have the time to hand craft as many cards as I want to send, and the time to write a greeting in each, and buy the festive postage stamps—all of that bespeaks the glorious season of seclusion for my introverted side. (Yes, I also host holiday gatherings from crafty parties to holiday dinners, but I also have a strong introvert streak, and I love to create in the privacy of my kitchen, listening to my cheesy carols or the Nutcracker on a loop, and make and address cards to send to people I don’t see during the season.)

Some years I have a favorite stamp set and make a pile of the same card. This year I didn’t make more than two of any style, and mostly I made one of each, so the process of determining who would like which card was delightfully time consuming.

I make Christmas cards and Hanukkah cards and vaguely wintry/Yule-ish cards for people who prefer “Season’s Greetings” to anything else. Families with little kids get cards with cute animals as a rule. Some people prefer elegant cards, and some funny, some rustic, and some artsy. Sometimes I have one on hand that I think will be good for a particular person, and sometimes they call for a special one, and I have to make one on the spot before I can send it out.

All of these little decisions I make serve to refuel each of those friendships and attachments that I cherish despite time and mileage separating us. And they all take a little time to make, write, address, and stamp. Sometimes I even stamp the envelope to make it “matchy” or otherwise fancy.

And because I have time to do this, and the materials, and the friends and family to write them to, I am grateful.

As my friend Liz says, “We belong to each other.” And as my other friend, Mr. Dickens, says, “We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” This holiday season I wish each of you abundant time and opportunity to reach out to people you love. And if you didn’t get a card from me and want one, hit me up. I have some left, and I have plenty more paper and ink. ❤

Living

Hygge and Craft

The winter holidays are upon us. I know because I’ve started adding my chili chocolate mix to my coffee, and my house is full of twinkle lights and paper chains. I love this time of year; I’m a world class celebrant. But apart from celebrating and visiting and family-snuggling, I’m also really looking forward to crafting so hard my hands cramp.

Winter is a time when I make a bunch of cards and tags and gift wrap all at once. I send holiday cards and use the tags, of course, but I also gift people boxes of cards and packets of tags that I have hand-crafted piecemeal in the fall and flockmeal in the third week of December.

(Tangent: do we know that “flockmeal” was a word in Middle English? The opposite of “piecemeal,” it means to do or have a lot of something all at once. You’ve just witnessed my first attempt to bring it back.)

Handmade ornaments from years gone by. It’s too big a world for just one hobby.

But back to crafting. I’ve talked about craft as occupational therapy before, but since a number of articles have appeared in my feed recently extolling its mental health benefits, I’m thinking seriously about it again. It seems to me useful for all those reasons they list: the meditative, zen sort of flow, that distracts us from the problems of the world and gives us something productive to do. And one of the benefits, of course, is social; quilting bees and “stitch and bitch” sessions leap to mind.

Tonight I’m thinking of the introverted half of me. I do have a weekly crafty time, and I also host a few parties throughout the year where I have people come over for a crafty cocktail party, where we make stuff and munch. I am also very happy crafting by myself.

My hobby is making cards and papercrafty sorts of things. And like knitting or quilting or some of the other crafts getting props these days, it has an end that aims outside myself. I make cards with the intent to send them. I make tags and gift wrap with the intent to give them away. I use them; they’re functional, so they serve me. But they’re also cute or pretty and that is aimed at serving someone else. It means they have as their end goal making someone else happy. That is social too—just Introvert’s Paradise kind of social. That I can be thinking about other people and forging connections while in my pajamas, listening to music I don’t have to explain… it’s like the crafter’s equivalent of telecommuting. And it’s awesome.

Tags and Parts That Will Become Tags.. Mwa ha ha!

So after the finals are in, after the last committee has met, and after the grades have been submitted, I’m going to be stamping and punching and coloring and cutting till the cows come home. And then the tag-bombing of the neighbors and co-workers and other wonderful people will commence. And then there will be peace in my happy-ass little heart this holiday season. May you find yours as well.

Here are links to a couple of those articles I mentioned:

https://www.sciencealert.com/modern-life-is-brutal-here-s-why-craft-is-so-good-for-our-health?fbclid=IwAR3paDe0MGe5A1dOiR5LOxWDvMGe_DCrkPC-oAF34vquVrnCfnlGLVUfUMo

https://theconversation.com/how-craft-is-good-for-our-health-98755?fbclid=IwAR3KJ59MZ-Vo4hhouhLNzNdIrSuKk6Rw7w0qyhooxvquFSBNfQHuvlxoYYk

Living

The Happy Heart Blog

Tonight I used my heartbeat to calm myself.

This is huge. The event wasn’t. I was just freaking out a little about timing—getting an errand done in time to pick up a kid in time to get home with enough time to get everything done. You know the drill. I felt a little flutter, and because I’ve had heart problems, I still reach for my pulse to make sure it isn’t “flipping out.”

It was slow and regular and beautiful, and I let the rhythm match my breathing, and the moment passed.

A rose on a foggy day, for no good reason at all.

I have had four cardiac ablations to calm my speedy heart in the past. I was born prematurely, with an Atrial Septal Defect, which means I was born before the top chambers of my heart had sealed. It’s a common birth defect referred to as a “hole in the heart.” I had it fixed when I was five, and at 18 was given a clean bill of health.

But at 38, a few years in to being responsible for my parents in their various modes of decline, I had multiple episodes where my heart rate exceeded 220 beats per minute. Finally, after days of being in “flip out” mode, I had my first ablation (a surgical procedure where the misfiring cells in the heart are deadened), and things slowly got back to normal. One ablation usually does the trick, but I’ve had four, and had a pacemaker put in at one point when we experimented with a med that slowed it so well, it needed artificial boosting.

I’m off that medicine now and doing fine. But after ten years of being nervous about checking my pulse, to have it be regular as a beating drum when I feel a bit anxious is a breath of fresh air, and a sign of real success.

Here’s to minor miracles. And winter holiday surprises. And Day Two of Advent. And the last week of the semester. I wish you all a joyous holiday season and your very own happy heart.

Living · Reading · Teaching

The Road to Memory is Paved with Giant Teeth

I’m thinking about memory again.

My position on reading print over electronic texts is not changing. When I discussed Maryanne Wolf’s recent book, Reader, Come Home, I was looking (because she was) at the different ways we read when we read print on paper versus screen. Wolf demonstrates that we read more superficially when we read on a screen, in part because of the distractions possible through advertisements and notifications. We are more interruptible in that context, and we read more content, but much less deeply.

This weekend on the patio I had a moment.

My well-worn Penguin edition of the Prose Edda. I am a reader, not an illustrator.

I was strolling through the fertile fields of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda on Saturday for… I don’t know… maybe the thirtieth time, reading about the creation of the cosmos from the head and body of the giant Ymir. After they kill the evil frost giant, Odin and his brothers dismember him and use his parts for raw materials. They use his skull to form the dome of the heavens (and install unfortunate dwarves at the cardinal points to hold it up). The use his bones to make Midgard, the realm of humans. They use his blood to make the oceans.

This time I stopped here and pondered. It’s gross and gory, yes. And I usually just tromp right through, almost mechanically tallying the parts with their upcycled functions, so I remember them when students ask: his bones become mountains, teeth become rocks, brains become clouds. His blood becomes the oceans.

I paused. I lifted my eyes from the book and gazed for a moment into the distance as one does when contemplating spiritual truths. In mid-ponder, my partner bustled out, mid-chore, and couldn’t help but notice my philosophical stance. He asked what on earth I was doing.  

Processing. I was processing. I imagined giant blood for oceans and, put off by the sheer grossness of it all, I pushed on that image for a minute in my brain. This guy was a frost giant. What do frost giants bleed? Maybe water. Thirty times reading this, in all sorts of contexts with people way more and way less experienced than I, and it had never occurred to me that frost giants must perforce bleed water. The oceans are water.

Well, then. That’s fine.  Way less gross. Cool, even—those clever Norsefolk.

Rob was still looking at me.

And it occurred to me how I read differently online than in a book. When I’m staring at a screen, it’s much harder for me to glance away and think, so I don’t do as much questioning or imagining or connecting to other books and things I know. The screen keeps me riveted, and that keeps me in receiving mode exclusively. I read more quickly. I don’t reflect as much. And if I don’t reflect and somehow connect what I’m reading to other ideas in my head, I don’t remember as much.

Books present information in a lovely, static format. If I lift my gaze, there is no risk that when I look down again the text will be altered or gone. But virtual text taunts me with that possibility all the time—sometimes from faulty internet connection, but sometimes I hit the wrong key or place on my phone’s screen, and I lose the whole damn thing and can’t get it back. (Totally justified) comments about my technical ineptness aside, the risks are greater in the ephemeral world of electronic text, and that may be one reason why I dare not look away. And there is always the risk that some ad in the margin or some clickbait at the bottom will draw me away from the Thing I’m Trying To Read, and I’ll never wend my way back.

This has far-reaching ramifications, my friends. If we only receive a steady stream of information, and don’t give ourselves time or mental space to process it thoroughly, it’s no wonder we read more superficially.

But we also won’t remember as much.

“I’m reading,” I said to my expectant spouse. “This is what reading looks like.”

Reading

Orpheus is Hip Again

He is timeless, of course. The impulses are all just as real, the loss just as horrible, the potential just as tempting. In the new Broadway musical, Hadestown, Hermes keeps repeating “It’s a sad song, but we’re going to sing it again.” It really never gets old.

Orpheus is a worldsinger. He is able, through his music (helloooo, poets!) to control the natural world. His music makes trees uproot themselves and walk closer to him. It makes rocks hurled at him fall out of the sky and roll up to his feet, prostrating themselves before him, asking forgiveness for their audacity (at least in Ovid’s rendering.)

His music makes the furies cry. It makes Hades relent. It changes the world.

Orpheus plays the lyre.

When Orpheus goes to hell to find his bride, all lovers and artists go with him. Anyone who has ever tried to write something or create something to capture the spirit of someone they’ve lost knows what he’s doing. If we can remember our loved ones, they’re still with us. So we take pictures and write letters and bake their favorite cake, and try to feel what it was like when we still had them.

But Orpheus actually goes after her. His art gives hope to all of us; it succeeds. He makes Hades feel remorse. He makes Hades feel empathy. He reminds Hades of his own love, and Hades relents. He agrees to let Orpheus take his bride back, conditionally, of course.

This is the magical moment in the new musical by Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown. In this version, Hades has turned the underworld in to a mine, and the inhabitants are working for him. Hades has been working to craft jewelry to keep Persephone happy. He has been convincing the dead souls that they need him and a wall to protect themselves. He has doubts—about his love, about his power, about everything.

In Mitchell’s hands, the story of an artist weaving a spell capable of overturning death takes on shades of class and social justice and ageism, along with the birth of seasons and love. Mitchell’s Hades is a surly foreman and a jealous, older husband who returns for Persephone early because he misses her and because he doubts.

Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney as Eurydice and Orpheus, respectively, in Hadestown

The descent of Persephone brings the onset of winter, which makes Eurydice hungry. In fact, hunger is Eurydice’s defining characteristic in this production. She is poor but scrappy, and she ultimately trades her life with Orpheus for the comfort and lack of want that Hades peddles. Perhaps that is the greater tragedy here—not that art cannot bring love back, but that art is a luxury that many can’t afford, can’t even survive long enough to enjoy.

When Orpheus arrives in Hadestown, Persephone advocates for him. Against all odds Eurydice remembers him, and Hades succumbs to his magic. But as they leave, Hades adds the condition—Orpheus must not look back. He must not give in to doubt. This is made all the more clearly a test, given that Hades has already exhibited even he doubts his love. What chance does Orpheus, just a poor boy with a song, have?

The possibility that others will follow Orpheus and Eurydice looms in the musical as well as the myth. If Orpheus can escape, why not others? This is the underlying problem with people like Orpheus; their unearthly power threatens the natural order. Letting Eurydice go back would be one thing. Starting a zombie revolution is quite another.

But that’s another of the threads woven through this new retelling—revolution. The possibility of revolution in response to poverty is terrifyingly real. And the idea that despondency can be alleviated by art and beauty is powerful—empowering. For me the take home message of Orpheus has always been that love, expressed through art, has the power to change everything.

Yeah, Orpheus will never not be cool.

Living · Reading · Writing

The Wedding Vow is a Performative Speech Act

In the category of Wonderful Things I Never Thought I’d Do, I officiated at a wedding.

It was on Halloween, or Samhain, or Dia de Los Muertos, or Midterms, depending on your denomination. And it was an utter delight. This is good news, as it was quite stressful for me in the months working up to it. Contrary to popular belief, the ability to stand before a room full of undergrads and talk about how we read myths judiciously is not the same as the ability to enunciate clearly the knitting together of two souls before the people who care about them most in the world.

But I did it. And I am grateful for the honor. And I had such a lovely, lovely time, that of course, I have to write about it.

I was terribly, terribly nervous.

I was enchanted by the ritual of the thing. This couple—former English majors and alumni from my school—wanted some literary reading, a Welsh handfasting, and “whatever medieval badassery” I could come up with.  Hours of careful internet and bookish research convinced me that the formula was easy, but it was all about the details. Such is life.

You need a greeting and a general spiel about marriage and/or love. I got to say my version of “Dearly beloved” and mention that this couple met in a literature class, and that went some way to explaining why I was there, and why I was deploying William Butler Yeats instead of Ecclesiastes.

You need a reading—from a spiritual text typically, but in this case, I read Yeats’s “The White Birds,” and the bride’s uncle read the description of love from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. (I hadn’t read that before, and holy wow, is it beautiful.)

You need some rings, and some vows to accompany the exchange. (I may have made a cheap Lord of the Rings joke. I hope no one filmed. It was shameless.) And you need some promises you know you can keep. In this iteration, the vows were punctuated by the mothers of the couple binding their hands with  a sash, and when they had spoken their vows, they could literally tie the knot. That was very satisfying.

And then they smooched. That’s important too. It’s all important.

The vows are important; the words are important. The wedding vow is one of very few “performative speech acts” left to us in a literate society. As Westley notes in The Princess Bride, “If you didn’t say it, you didn’t do it.” But the march is also important. The recession of the wedding party, followed by the crowd. The first dance. The toasts. The cake. These are all formalities, all weighty, and all observed with remarkable consistency even at a wedding as funky and cool as a masquerade on Halloween.

Human life is formulaic. Our rituals are too. If we’re honest, our arts are too—music, literature, even visual arts. We bear according to pattern in so many things, from the genes we pass on to our children to our “regular” dishes at our favorite restaurants.

And that’s just fine. Because we find ways to make each step our own, while sharing enough structure to create bonds with others. Now this couple has their wedding story to share. It is uniquely their own, with all the goofy, delightful specifics and also its shared participation in a tradition. And in that lovely way that events turn in to stories, and stories belong to all who live and tell them, I now have a new story too.  

Picture Books · Reading

Picture Books that Inspire Creativity

One of my Teaching Assistants led a discussion in class today that ended with her students thinking about creativity and how it preserved their identity, even their humanity, in the face of mass marketing, corporate programming, and aggressive branding that tells us how to live.

One student shared that he felt most himself when he was playing his guitar—when he was alone with his thoughts and expressing his emotions without overt outside input. As they talked, the class agreed all art afforded that space, and then they realized that they used that creative or hobby time to make their most authentic connections to others—through their art.

It was a lovely moment, when students moved from reading a novel to applying some of the ideas to their lives. And it got me thinking, we need to start them young. There are, of course, picture books that can help. 😊 Here are some I love. If you have others, I’d love to hear about them.

Alison’s Super Awesome List of Picture books about Art and the Creative Process:

  1. “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. One of my all-time favorites, this is a story about a kid who doesn’t think she’s artistic, and a teacher who brings out her best efforts. My favorite part is the end, where she pays it forward to the next kid who underestimates his potential. Every house should have a copy, she said firmly. It’s marvelous.
  2. “Little Mouse’s Painting” by Diane Wolkstein and Maryjane Begin. This one is also about visual art, and especially about what others see in your art (spoiler: themselves). But it’s true; we see ourselves in art—visual and other art—and the original artist can’t always predict what others will see or value. So we owe it to each other to keep creating.
  3. “Draw!” by Raúl Colón. This one is wordless, but speaks volumes about a boy’s power to explore the world in his art—to imagine and bring to life vast landscapes, exotic animals, the implication is anything, really—and to value art as escapist and aspirational. (Bonus: his later “Imagine!” takes the artist from his room to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with equally magical and empowering results.)
  4. “Sun Bread” by Elisa Kleven. Not all art has to be painted. In “Sun Bread” a baker makes a vibrant, golden loaf of bread that looks like a sun, and it revives her community, stuck in the doldrums of winter. The book includes the recipe, egg wash and all, so that you can reproduce the sunny bread and understand for yourself “all the joy good bread can bring.”
  5. “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken. This one is about a greedy king who loves presents and has everything, but he can’t get his hands on a quilt made by the master quiltmaker, because she only gives them to people in need. He has to learn to give things up to get what he wants, but of course, he gets more than he expected.
  6. “The Night Gardener” by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. A mysterious gardener is transforming ordinary trees in to extraordinary animal topiaries in the darkness, and a community wakes up to new beauty every day. It’s a lovely fable about the transformative power of art.
Uncategorized

While the Light Lasts

This is a repost. I’m missing my dad more than usual. Hug your people, everyone:

Dementia is a degenerative disease. It does not improve. One does not recover. The best we can hope for is to slow the current, as what was your life–your character, your habits, and your memories–slips over the falls at the end.  But this is not a post about water. It’s a post about light.

In the summer of 2007, my dad was admitted to the hospital for internal bleeding caused by the deadly combination of diabetes and alcoholism. When they tried to treat his alcoholism, they found he couldn’t remember the next day what the counselor had discussed with him previously. Rehab was deemed unnecessary on the grounds that his dementia made it fruitless. It was the first we knew of the advanced state of his dementia. Mom had not wanted people to know, and she had not realized how serious it was. Old men get forgetful, now, don’t they? He had about a two-hour memory window, but couldn’t remember what had happened before—a flashlight with a two-hour battery.

I started researching dementia. For him and for me.

Two years later, that window had narrowed considerably. When I moved him in to an assisted living facility closer to me, I took him some books. I asked him if he wanted to read. No, it’s too tiring. I read aloud “Casey at the Bat” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” They are long poems, but poems we both knew well—poems he had read to me many times over the years.  I thought he had five minutes in him, at least. He did not. He did not have a whole sentence in him. By the end of the sentence, he couldn’t remember what the beginning had said. He was confused, disheartened, frustrated, and tired. His mind was a matchlight that burned out almost immediately. I started wondering how long his light would last.

This is a question we’d considered in my youth while talking about photography. Photography is all about light—capturing light, manipulating light, diffusing light, redirecting light. When we went camping, we took pictures, and some of the best were taken in the ‘tweener times—the dawn and dusk hours where light was softer and often broken by shadows. This was a time when the color of flowers looked rich, not bleached, washed out by the midday sun. It was also the time of wildlife.

Deer are most active during these hours, more mobile, on the lookout for food and water they dare not seek during the bright light. The shadows keep them safer. The shadows also give them a texture, a depth, and the pictures taken during those hours convey a coziness and intimacy that is not attainable in full sun or in the darkness that follows dusk. It’s important, then, to shoot precisely during that window—after the sun has set but before the darkness obscures your vision completely. We shoot not frantically, but with purpose, and with intent to make the most of a fleeting opportunity, to take the best pictures we can in the best circumstances. Had I known this would become so comforting a metaphor for life, I would have paid more attention during those moments.

Sitting in his room in his retirement community, reading Robert Service aloud, I longed for epigrams instead of ballads. I sang him songs. Short songs, never the second verse. I wanted to give him cozy, comfortable memories, but distilled. I learned to speak in images: I bought a new car; the granddaughter lost a tooth; the roses are blooming. I brought in books of buildings and bridges, so we could look at them together (he was an architect). We looked at one picture, pointed out a favorite feature, and then put the book away. When words and images are illuminated in flashes, lasting only a moment, you learn to winnow the world down to beautiful seconds. If your whole life is one moment, with no connective tissue to others, you want to make each moment beautiful.

This is why dementia patients need caregivers (apart from the obvious, practical reasons).  If someone is there, pointing out lovely things, life is lovely. If not, the odds that they’ll think of a lovely thing are long; they’re more likely to start and then become confused, as the darkness gathers in their mind. Those of us without dementia benefit from perspective; we see things in a panorama or a film, with scenes succeeding scenes. Our current scenes have a past, a trajectory we can see, and a future we can sometimes predict.

And all this cycling through days and nights and dawns and dusks serves us best when it reminds us to take the best shots we can while the light lasts.

Living

Life is Like a Book of Chapters

You can’t skip chapters–that’s not how life works. You have to read every line, meet every character.

You won’t enjoy all of it. Hell, some chapters will make you cry for weeks. Longer.

You will read things you don’t want to read and have moments when you didn’t want the page to end. But you have to keep going. Stories keep the world revolving. Live yours. Don’t miss out.

These are thoughts and advice I wrote with a single person in mind, but I think it sounds broadly applicable, like a graduation speech for English majors (and others—I just work most closely with English majors). It was not received well. It was received with some gnashing of teeth and some pleading, and I get that, but there was nothing I could do but try to avoid repeating myself and offer a hug.

The good news is that most of the chapters are good. Most move your plot forward and expand your perspective and add to your character.

Most characters you meet are wonderful; some are helpful without being wonderful, and some are wonderful without being helpful. But many are wonderful and also make your life easier or happier or more productive.

At times when the global or national narrative seems overwhelmingly tragic and frustrating, I need to remember that those sweeping narratives are made up of millions of individual narratives, and the individual stories are usually more satisfying and more easily controlled.

And boy, are they wonderful. I know a retired teacher who stays active by volunteering in her daughter’s elementary classroom. I know a librarian who helps everyone she meets find something they need, from law code to job listings to availability of audio books—even when she’s not working. I know people who bake for others, who volunteer at shelters, who march and protest peacefully so that others can reap the benefits. People who crochet for penguin chicks, who clean up beaches, who work on cars, who lead classes at historical sites, who tell stories and sing songs and create art and offer guidance and shelter and support. 

All of those people have their own stories. They each contain their own constellation of memories and skills and heartbreaks and jokes. And all those stories add up to our larger narratives, so that when one person feels like one chapter of this book is too hard to live through, too overwhelming, too disheartening, it helps to twist the telescope a bit and focus on the microcosm, where examples of good work—of goodness itself—abound.

 So you can tag out—slap a hand on your way out of the ring and go home and restore yourself. Look at smaller scale narratives where, no doubt, great things are happening. But you can’t bow out completely, because all of the stories connect at some point, and we need your little one to help weave the big one we all share.

This is starting to sound trite (some may argue with the “starting to,” even), so I’ll close. But for those who could do with a reminder, stay for your story. Hug it tight. Live it large. And thanks for making the tapestry more beautiful.

Reading · Teaching · Writing

Fables are Real: Thoughts on Marcovaldo

I’m teaching Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo this week, and the older I get, the more I get out of it. I’m so full of things to say, I have to sort through them or risk imploding.

Marcovaldo is the protagonist in a short novel that doesn’t feel like a novel. It feels like a cartoon series to me more than anything—short vignettes with a guy who is sort of a caricature, but also one I can identify with sometimes and pity other times. The book’s subtitle is “Seasons in the City” and begins to explain why some classify it as a mid-20th century “nouveau roman,” or New Novel in the French tradtion. It’s a series of vignettes organized by seasons, not by events in an ongoing plotline.

The seasons pass in the city, but they pass more subtly than in the provinces. And poor Marcovaldo–whose history readers piece together from details dropped occasionally, but even more from his attitudes toward the world–must have been raised in the country, been drafted in to service during World War II, and later moved to the city where all the jobs were to raise his family.

All the jobs, but none of the humanity. All the jobs, but very little from the natural world.

He finds himself trapped in a demeaning job, resentful of the family he struggles to support; the story reads like a list of repeated attempts to escape.

This sweet image is from an Italian version aimed at young readers. This book can be read “simply.” But seriously, the more I read it, the deeper it gets. (Also, there is no point in the book where Marcovaldo stares at a ladybug, on his hand but it is very much the kind of thing he would do–perhaps not this sadly.)

So he’s an idealist in the sense that he thinks he can stumble in to a scheme that will rescue him from this. In the first chapter he finds mushrooms growing wild in the dirt near a tram stop, and he immediately plans a huge feast for his family—watching the mushrooms grow and bringing his kids to help gather them by the hundreds.

In another chapter, he reads in an old newspaper that bee venom has been used to treat rheumatism, and he turns his one-room basement apartment into a clinic, applying angry wasps to people’s skin under a paper cup. He’s receptive to the natural world and its opportunities.

But this is the city. The only mushrooms that grow there are poisonous. The wasp clinic (obviously) goes south and lands him in the hospital. He doesn’t give up, but readers can get tired for him, as he tries one way after another to get something for nothing.

Students sometimes get hung up on this aspect of him and label him as greedy. So this time I’m going in ready to redirect that line of thought. It’s not wrong; it’s just superficial.

First, Marcovaldo is poor. He’s not so much greedy as he is desirous of pretty reasonable things—enough space to house his family comfortably, enough food for them all to eat, enough time to enjoy the world around them. He’s an unskilled laborer with a wife and six kids. His wife has to be home to raise the kids, so it’s all on him to provide for eight people. That he continues to do that seems admirable to me. That he also looks for moments of delight and opportunities out seems healthy.

That is where I’ll start this time. He’s not greedy; he’s burned out.

He’s also lots of other things. He’s an early environmentalist; he notices and cultivates the natural world; in fact, he yearns for it. He’s a class warrior, showcasing the inequities in post-war Italy. He’s full of childlike wonder, always looking for butterflies and stopping to watch birds fly. He’s also kind of a caricature of Calvino—an introverted, disillusioned, middle-aged dreamer. He’s not yet Mr. Palomar, but he’s moving in that direction.

And now I’m thinking I need to write a paper about Marcovaldo. Maybe that would help get him out of my head, like listening to the whole song does, when I have a line repeating in my mind. I need to do something to stop channeling him. Because I can’t stop looking for butterflies and noticing the sunlight hitting pine boughs and freezing when I hear birdsong to see if I can find the bird. I just live in an area with too many birds for that kind of behavior to be practical. 😀