Living · Picture Books · Reading

Idylls of the Introverts–a summer tradition

A Tree Grows in Solvang

When my son was ten, he and my partner played a tabletop fantasy game called Warhammer 40K. This involved lots of painting of tiny soldiers and model tanks and buildings, and it sort of peaked when they found out there was a convention in Chicago. At first, my eight year old daughter and I thought we’d go too, but we also thought it sounded like watching movies in a foreign language about subjects that don’t interest you. So we passed and decided to think of our own thing.

I had always wanted to go to Solvang, a little tourist town in the Santa Barbara wine country with Danish roots (and therefore bakeries). There was even a Hans Christian Andersen museum.

As a Girly Getaway, it had loads of potential.

I made a reservation at a Bed and Breakfast with a fairy tale theme, and we got a room filled with Danish lace and paintings of swans and princesses. It was perfect. We bought Dala horses and ate abelskivers, the little spherical pancakes drizzled in raspberry sauce, and we decided this was our thing.

And that was before we discovered the bookshop.

The bookshop is what kept us going. The Book Loft is a lovely, independent bookstore with used and new books and the best Fairy Tales and Folklore collection I’ve ever seen.  We each bought an armload of books, and we headed across the street to the park to examine our haul. We read under a tree all afternoon.

Since then we have done largely the same thing every summer. We love the little town, but if we’re honest, we go for the books. It’s a perfect destination for us, although neither of the boys understand.

We chat all the way there and back, and if it were a trip with girlfriends, we probably would buy wine and keep chatting. It’s not.

It’s with my favorite bookworm, and we spend a considerable chunk of our time sitting next to each other companionably and reading. We stop to read each other funny passages or show a picture or summarize a great story. We are geeks. When she was eight, I was already buying more picture books than she was. She was reading children’s fantasy novels, and I was collecting picture books and new versions of fairy tales.

Now she’s a teenager, and she reads YA fantasy novels. I’m still collecting fairy tales. This year I got a couple collections with an eye to adopting one for my folklore syllabus in the fall. But the first thing I did was read one of her books—a verse novel about Joan of Arc. And she read a collection of graphic novel-style fairy tales I’d picked out to stay current. That’s right. We both sat there and read a whole book under that tree before one of us had to go to the bathroom.

Book Haul 2019

Several things stand out about this to me (or they did, when our hotel smoke alarm went off and the front desk guy came in to turn it off and saw our giant stack of books strewn across the bed and looked at us like that was one thing he’d never seen when he entered someone’s hotel room at night.) Maybe this is weird. Maybe the fact that we essentially make a two-day bookstore run every year is weird. Maybe that we take a vacation together but don’t talk half the time is weird. Maybe the fact that we’re happy doing essentially the same thing, eating at the same restaurants, and that we go to the fudge shop the first night for us and on the way home for the boys, since we can’t be trusted not to eat theirs is weird. (That seems least weird to me of this list, frankly.)

But the fact is some day she’s going to be 21, and even though people have been recommending wine to her there since she was 13, she will someday take them up on it, and the dynamic will change.

I tried to shake things up a few years with different locations or (gasp!) restaurants, but she has always been somewhere between reluctant and outraged. I have pushed her to all the local museums and the ostrich farm, with the tacit understanding that we should probably know more of the area than the park and the bookstore, but really, what makes us happy is the quiet time leaning against each other under our tree, comparing this year’s books to last year’s, and chatting with the shop workers and servers who only see us once a year, but remember us anyway. Some comment on how much she’s grown, like the server who remembers her back when she wore Crocs with gibbitz in them and clapped at the Red Viking because they served her milk in a pilsner glass.

The secret to happiness is indulging your inner geek. Especially with someone who high fives you for it.

Living · Reading · Teaching · Uncategorized

Ode on a Shortened Summer

The most glorious myth of academic life is the summer vacation. People who don’t teach sometimes assume the summers are one long, three-month margarita party. That’s never the case, of course, although some may start out that way.

Instead, those who work at state universities, at least in my experience, spend a significant chunk of summer doing the research or creative work they don’t have time to do during the school year. Then there’s the planning of next year’s courses. This year that was dramatic and demanding, as my school converted from a quarter system to a semester system, so even people who have been teaching the same things for some time had to reconceive their syllabus, reading lists, and teaching strategies.
There’s also a very real need to rest one’s head and do something different for a bit, so you can come back strong. I try to reserve time to read things I will never have occasion to teach. I wrote a beautiful list and made a stack of books at the beginning of summer. In addition to three more novels in my lovely, pulpy, mystery series, I intended to read twelve books, mostly fiction, one a re-read of a book I haven’t read since college (Kamouraska by Anne Hebert).
This year’s haul from Solvang. The Book Loft always has the best new fairy tales.
Looking at my list now, I only read four, started four more, and don’t know exactly what happened with the others. I never even pulled the mysteries off the shelf. I did, however, read a tall stack of new fairy tales I bought on a trip with my daughter, write a handful of blogs and a pitch for a children’s novel, and now I am plowing through three non-fiction books I just HAD to read before school starts.
I guess what I’m realizing that what’s valuable about summer for me is the ability to plan and then pitch the plan entirely.
From September to June everything has to be very carefully orchestrated. I keep list after list and plan and organize, so that all goes well in my classes and professional life. Summer is a welcome rest for my brain not just because I’m not prepping, teaching, or grading, but because I can afford to go unscripted for a while. It’s very liberating.
This summer, because we are shifting from quarters that ended in June to semesters that start in August, our summer is about seven weeks instead of eleven. And scripted or not, it has been jam-packed. We’ll be ready, because we must be, but we might all be starting out a little tired, which we usually don’t, I think.
I resisted this conversion for a long time. I voted against it. I grumbled when our vote was ignored, and we were simply told to convert. But now, staring down the barrel of my first week, I’m not worried. I’m glad I’ll have sixteen weeks instead of ten to get to know my students better. I’m glad to have more time to go deeper in the texts I teach and to assign more writing and more revision. I’m part of an academic family, so I’ll be glad to have more holidays match up and have some more time off in the winter. Mostly, though, I’m just always glad to go back. That’s the real perk of this job—not the summer break, but the fall return.

Mothering a Man

Have you ever noticed most fairy tale heroes and heroines have dead or missing parents? The obvious explanation for that is that kids need to forge their own identities in order really to mature.
Beauty doesn’t have a mom, and her dad actually gets in the way of her growing up. Cinderella’s mother is dead, and dad is MIA, so she has to negotiate the female authority in her household and to establish her mature, romantic relationship entirely on her own (once the godmother supplies the dress and shoes). Even Jack must leave his mom (no dad mentioned at all in most versions) and enter the giant’s realm without any guidance. In fact, he comes back and takes care of her; he’s translated from dependent to provider in a few pages.
Kids seem to need serious independence in order to mature and thrive.
But I’m rejecting that today, on the eve of my son’s 18thbirthday, and not feeling a bit guilty. Conflicted, maybe, but not guilty.
I moved out at seventeen. I moved in to a dorm for my freshman year of college, but I never moved back home. That was it. I had been working for a year, driving for nearly two, and I waved to my mom as she stood in the driveway in her bathrobe, and was gone.
Most kids don’t do that these days, especially in Los Angeles county. In fact, most of my kids’ friends don’t even drive. LA is a nightmare for traffic and hazards. My son doesn’t have a job yet. He’s not moving out. His independence is coming a bit later.
He is not alone. Many have noted the expanded adolescence. Laurence Steinberg’s The Age of Opportunity argues that adolescence is both starting earlier and lasting longer these days. Lots of kids aren’t moving out. They can’t afford it. And it’s not such a bad thing.
There’s a case for extended adolescence having neurological benefits. Their longer period of neuroelasticity is allowing them greater ability to learn later in life, both in terms of intellectual content (they have more spots in their brains to pin new information later on), and they have greater emotional understanding and impulse control.
However, there is a serious dearth of awesome stories about nineteen-year olds living with their folks.
Harry Potter doesn’t have parents, but he finds lots of surrogates. Percy Jackson has a mom, but he leaves for school like Harry, so she’s not solving any problems for him. Violet and Klaus (and Sunny!) Baudelaire are largely fending for themselves too, so our stories have not caught up to the culture.
I guess there’s nothing exciting about living in your childhood bedroom in to your early twenties. They can vote; they can be drafted; they can be arrested;they can smoke. But they’re not driving or working enough to support themselves. How do you parent them?
They’re legal, but dependent.
Maybe I’m just making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe 21 is the new 18, and 25 is the new 21, and we just chill and move on. But seriously, someone ought to write the thriller about the 19-year old who has tremendous adventures and still lives at home. We could use a script down here.
Here’s some further reading, if you’re interested:
Steinberg, Laurence. Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. 2014.

Cleaning the Writing Pipes

I have written academic prose for a number of years now—mostly about teaching, but also about literature. It is a mode I still don’t find natural, despite (cough) over two decades experience. I can do it, but it takes effort. When I argue, I do not sing.

Academic writing takes research and planning and more planning, and then writing, then revising, then editing. So does writing fiction. But somehow one feels like work to me, and one feels like play.
In fact, writing fiction feels so much like play that I haven’t let myself do much of it. I’ve needed to get a job, to get tenure, to get promoted, and fiction hasn’t figured in to that. And now that I have reached a point in my career when I can write what I want, I still put up roadblocks.
In the worst sort of self-sabotage, I now feel like I’ve built a career writing academically:  how will I remember how to write creatively? So here’s how I have done it—am doing it:
I’ve read books about being creative, and finding time to fit creative work in around a career. I’ve taken an online coaching class for creative folks who feel blocked. I’m reading and workshopping with The Artist’s Way. And once, last fall, I participated in an all-day write-a-thon whose goal was to produce sample fairy tales, folktales, and fables for a collection aimed at elementary classrooms.
That was an exhilarating nightmare. And it unclogged my writing pipes.

The setting was a room full of tables and laptops, and about twenty writers. Over the course of the day, each writer produced nine pieces, in thirty minute time blocks, on themes and subjects that were assigned on the spot. “Here’s your topic. Write a story. Go.”
For fairy tales, we had to retell a tale we remembered from our childhood in our own words–in thirty minutes. We had to tell one about a princess that started traditional and ended postmodern–in thirty minutes. We had to concoct a ghost story for the folklore section based on a tabloid headline we drew at random–in thirty minutes. You get the idea. Nine texts.
I do not envy the editors their job of clean-up and presentation. I am not proud of all those pieces; there is one, even that I would be truly mortified to see in print.  But the process of cranking out story after story really got my head in to a whole new space.
The experience was invaluable. For someone who doubted her ability to write creatively, I had nine texts to show for myself. Some had come in part from stories I knew, but some were utterly original—about subjects I had never considered. I learned that I had enough story-stuff in me to pull together when I needed it, AND if I needed new material, I could be counted on to produce it.
I had not written against a clock since my last grad school midterm, and then I knew what I had to say; it was just a matter of writing it down fast enough. This was an entirely different experience: making things up that I didn’t have a plan for–and making them presentable–was trying in ways I could not have predicted. It was physically exhausting also—the drive home from Los Angeles is a blur.
The journey to viewing myself as a creative writer is long and winding and not over, but I took some giant strides forward that day. It is my fervent hope that others don’t make it this hard on themselves, but I suspect many do. Is it our culture of productivity (despite being fraught with early death and stress-related ailments)? Some vestige of a Puritan work ethic that says we shouldn’t enjoy work too much? Just a personal fear of letting ourselves “play” as adults? Do we worry that an art career doesn’t come with a 401K?
It doesn’t matter at the moment. What matters is I’m kicking all of that to the curb. And whatever else I have been or am, now I am a writer too. And I’m finding my singing voice.
(The Artist’s Way is by Julia Cameron, and there has recently been a 25th anniversary edition released.)

Beginning Bibliotherapy

Confession:  Last week was horrible.
I don’t really have the energy to blog.  But I thought maybe I could share some books that cheer me up.  You know, a top ten list of my Bibliotherapy favorites?  Here’s what I’ve got.
1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  Kids’ books count, y’all, and this one is an absolute delight. Part allegory, part quest, part punster’s dream, this book never fails to make me laugh.  I found it as an adult, actually, reading it to my kids.  But now I recommend it to everyone I can. Like you!  Enjoy.
2. Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up and Other Stories.  Even though some of these have a dark edge to them, many of them are so surreal that I find myself able to dissociate their tragedy from mine, which is a step to looking more clinically at my own problems and sorting them out.  I particularly recommend “Axolotl,” “The Night Face-Up,” and “Letter to a Young Lady from Paris.”  You won’t regret it.
3. Fairy Tales.  Most will do, but here I’ll recommend a lovely collection of Baba Yaga tales; nothing makes you feel back on your game like overcoming a witch, over and over again.  Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales translated by Sibelan Forrester.
4. Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  These are searing, beautifully written letters, that I discovered in college when I needed them most.  I still return to them, and they never fail to soothe.
5. Poetry by John Keats or W.B Yeats.  Not just because their names visually rhyme.  Because their speak of beauty like a friend, and to read them is to feel connected to that transcendence.
Ok.  5, not 10.  But it’s a start.  Spenser only wrote half of the Faerie Queene too.
But what would you add?  Do you have a book you recommend to make people feel better? Bibliotherapy is becoming a thing, you know, and we need to be ready with our prescriptions.
Picture Books

Fairy Tales are for Grown-Ups

I know what they say—that folktales are told to children as a way to transmit and preserve cultural knowledge and norms. Grandparents tell simple stories in the nursery to keep children quiet and entertained, while also keeping alive tradition and custom. But I also know many of those stories scare the pants off us. And I know this too—they are not simple because they’re for children. Children understand plenty. They are simple because that makes them easy to remember, and because they convey straightforward truths that don’t need dressing up.

We call fairy tales simple because they rely on stock characters (often nameless heroes, villains, millers, and youngest daughters…) and they are mostly plot, with little extra description, rationalization, or back story. But just because they are plot-heavy, and modern novels tend to be character-heavy, developing round, rich, psychologically real characters, does not mean plot-heavy works are lesser. What they are is speedy.

Folktales communicate their lesson and their drama in as little time as possible; sometimes it seems even as few words as possible.  Stock characters inhabit familiar scenes—a challenge, some assistance, punishment, or reward.  Tales leave out anything that doesn’t contribute to the narrative action.  A mother has daughters with one, two, and three eyes, respectively, and Little One-Eye and Little Three-Eyes bully their sister mercilessly, but no one asks how on earth it came to happen that a child was born with three eyes.

Think of Little Red Riding Hood.  We know precious little of her.  She is loved by the women in her life—her mother and grandmother—and she has a red cloak that suits her. Newsflash: the color red suits LOTS of people—whole ethnicities, really—huge swaths of the world. We don’t know clearly how old she is, what her favorite food is, even if she’s been asked to run questionable errands for her mom before now.  We know what we need to know:  she’s an innocent, young girl.  Grandma is old and (at the moment) feeble, and mom is confident in Red’s ability to find Grandma’s house or too busy to go herself. The wolf is ravenous. And scheming. Those two traits define him. If he weren’t scheming, he’d eat her on the road. If he weren’t ravenous, he couldn’t eat two humans in two gulps.

Given these skeletal characters, we are invited to project our own ideas on to the characters. Red can be any little girl—just like your little sister or your neighbor—and we begin the process of identifying with the narrative, concretizing the words in to images in our heads, building up a character we know, who will be unique from anyone else’s. The mother is any harried but well-meaning parent. She puts Red on the path and then lets her go. We know kids who are let loose too young, who don’t have enough guidance or tools to deal with the world, and we know what happened to them!  So keeping the characters spare encourages us to build them up in our heads, to clothe them in what we know of the world, and to make the tale seem personal. It speaks directly to us. 

With so little time spent developing character, the bulk of a folktale consists of plot. What does Red do?  What does the wolf do?  The actions define the tale. Is this a questing tale or a rags to riches tale?  A coming of age, or a tale of retribution?  The plots are often simple and focused on one problem or stage in life, because that’s the way we experience things.  Human life is formulaic:  we are born, we grow, we thrive as adults (often by means of choosing an occupation and starting a family), we age, and we die. But we deal with one phase at a time, as folktales allow us to. 


Folktales give us familiar crises and supply solutions. They help us learn to think our way out of problems, and depict others successfully escaping the jaws of the Threat Of The Day.  That is why they are loved by adults as well as children, and that’s why they mean different things to us at different ages. They’re therapy. (Second Newsflash: literature is therapy.) But folk literature uses a unique method of stock characters and scenes that allow us to project people we know in to the story, so it becomes more individualized, and hence, more meaningful. The gaps we fill as we read or listen render the tale much more complex than it looks, because it is unique to each reader. 

That is the magic and the allure of folktales, and why even in an age of digital effects and science fiction, we can’t get away from them.  We just keep retelling them. The television shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time first aired the same season, for goodness’ sake.  We’re not just not done with fairy tales; we seem not to be able to get enough of them. The wolf is as terrifying today as ever he was, and we all have to face him. May we all see him for what he is, as Red does, when we do.