From “The Abundance of Less Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan by Andy Couturier

From “The Abundance of Less Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan" by Andy Couturier

Pages 264-265

“Sooo..” I begin to ask him, a bit apprehensive, not wanting to be insulting, “Gufu-san, why write all this stuff down?”

Unperturbed, he replies simply, “To make a record. If you don’t record things, you start to lose your sense of the place. It’s also interesting when you talk to other people, or when I want to look up something later. But it’s mostly just to make a record, even if I don’t use the information.”

“Yes, but how do you decide which things to write down?”

“Whatever is possible to write down, I write. How much the bus cost. How much the movie was, or how much the hotel was.”

“But why?” I ask.

“I didn’t have any purpose in doing it.”

No purpose? Perhaps I’ve been too attached to all my own actions being done for a reason. Utilitarianism is so deep in my culture I don’t even notice it. Listening to Gufu it occurs to me that it may not be so good to be always reaching ahead in time. Sitting here with my friend in a farmhouse in the mountains of Japan, I find my way of seeing the world start to deepen and change. All these little, unlooked-at details create the fabric of memory. By writing them down, we are refusing to let the experiences of our lives get subsumed in the tsunami of time, the onrush of the next, and the next, and the next. I think of so many travelers (myself included) zipping from one location to the next, taking photos of scenery or a building. Have I been missing the beautiful in the obvious?

Gufu is showing me--not that he’s trying to show me anything--that the whole world can come alive with these tiny details, ephemera, you might call them. But not just a generalized “world,” but a specific world, an India of a particular time, and, as it happens, an India that is disappearing every day.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

"How It Feels to Be Colored Me" by Zora Neale Hurston from "The Best American Essays of the Century"

I admit I would probably have passed this little essay with just a casual bypass through it but I had read the book of essays backwards and had encountered Ms. Hurston in another essay--"Looking for Zora" by Alice Walker which I read without much stumbling or interest until I got to a lively excerpt of Ms. Hurston's writing that woke me up.  It came from her essay " How It Feels to Be Colored Me". It had the singular voice that was also present in these other essays by other writers in this book;
1) Knoxville:  Summer of 1915 by James Agree (from his book -A Death in the Family, 1957)

2) The Brown Wasps  by Loren Eiseley (from his book--The Night Country, 1966)---I liked this writer so much I went out and got this book to read at leisure; I plan to go through all his works.

3) The Way to Rainy Mountain  by N. Scott Momaday  (from The Way to Rainy Mountain, 1969)

4)  The White Album by Joan Didion  (from The White Album, 1979)--she is an excellent writer

5)  Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying by Adrienne Rich (from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, 1979)--I've got this book and I like her prose more than her poems.

6)  A Sweet Devouring by Eudora Welty--(from The Eye of the Story, 1977)--mainly for the topic--book love.

When I ran through this book, I really only found 8 essays in here that I thought were excellent.  One of which was the essay by Joyce Carol Oates--"They All Just Went Away".  Perhaps it is because I ran through them. Maybe this book needs to be dissected finely and spent time with-over weeks.

Voice. The voice that came through Alice Walker's essay--was that of Zora herself--here it is from Ms. Walker's essay:

Page 410-411

I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in
my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all.  I do not be-
long to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature some-
how has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all
hurt about it.. No, I do not weep at the world--I am too busy
sharpening my oyster knife.
                                   ---Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me,"
                                                                                        World Tomorrow, 1928
Now I just love this passionate woman's bold assertion, that despite all the limitations of the world on black people--she was "not tragically colored."  She refuses the badge of martyrdom. She says calmly "I do not mind at all."  And while others might weep,  she says "I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife." Neat.

So I went back and reviewed the essay by Ms. Walker and found several relevant patches in it--besides this one. They told me who she was.

Dr. Benton of Eatonville, Florida knew Zora and recalls that she was always learning things. 

Page 407

"She was an incredible woman," he muses. "Sometimes when I closed my office, I'd go by her house and just talk to her for an hour or two. She was a well-read, well-traveled woman and always had her own ideas about what was going on...."

Sometimes these ideas did not make her very popular and she was destitute at the end of her life:

Page 409

"She came here from Daytona, I think.  She owned a houseboat over there. When she came here, she sold it. She lived on that money, then she worked as a maid--for an article on maids she was writing--and she worked for the Chronicle writing the horoscope column.

"I think black people in Florida got mad at her because she was for some politician they were against. She said this politician built schools for blacks while the one they wanted just talked about it. And although Zora wasn't egotistical, what she thought, she thought; and generally what she thought, she said."

Hey, I liked her immediately.  The type of direct, forthright woman the world has more need of than ever.  And it seems that most people did like her. The rest of Alice Walker's essay is not at all interesting. I leave it. I go to to Ms. Hurston's essay and read it with pleasure. This woman is all here in this essay. Let me indulge myself with its vivid life and try to let you see her in it.If you want to read the essay in full it is at this website:

Compared to some of the massive tomes in this book, this was a short essay packed with electricity. She begins the essay by speaking immediately of color---that color already noted in the title of this essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me."

Page 114

I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on my mother's side was not an Indian chief.

I love the feisty humor of this opening salvo. She says she is "colored" but she can't offer any excuses for this state other than the fact of her lack of an Indian chief in her heritage.Too funny. I am caught by her indifference to race issues already.  Like her--I've never  had the feeling that I was say--"Asian" because to be moving as we did --like tramps from country to country--means you never do develop an ethnic character; you never anneal to a country; you never become one place. I'm a brew--International and global with no real sense of what it is to be an Asian Canadian or as the Federal Progressive Conservative Party calls us --"the very ethnic" sector.  Heck, I'm not "very ethnic". As I told Mr. Harper in an e-mail--I could be called "very brown" but the "very ethnic" sobriquet does not fit me. Like Ms. Hurston, I, too have learned that a good sense of humor and a thick as a rhino skin are necessary to deal with ignorant people --even the ones in our federal government.

In this essay, Ms. Hurston describes her lack of awareness of being colored until about the time she turned thirteen and was sent away from her home town of Eatonville, Florida which was essentially a black town--to a school in Jacksonville.  This is how she explains how she became no longer "Zora" but a new being:

Page 115

   But changes came in the family when I was thirteen, and I was sent to school in Jacksonville.  I left Eatonville, the town of the oleanders, as Zora. When I disembarked from the riverboat at Jacksonville, she was no more.  It seemed that I had suffered a sea change.  I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl.  I found it out in certain ways.  In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown--warranted not to rub nor run.

See the dear way she says to herself the fact of her alteration?  "I found it out in certain ways.  In my heart as well as in the mirror." What was before an innocence-that allowed her to stay as Zora in her home town --to be that girl who spoke to white people in a friendly fashion --oblivious to race differences--was gone.But not gone to be replaced by hatred--oh, no! She's much too fine for that.This is an intelligent girl.  She sees herself still humorously--"a fast brown --warranted not to rub nor run."  She keeps going.  Her spirit is too boisterous and full of those "joyful tendencies" that were "deplored" by her townsfolk but also accepted as being part of "their Zora nevertheless."

She says that if you are strong--regardless of skin color--you will endure--the world belongs to those who are strong as she says here:

Page 115

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world--I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.
How can I not admire a woman this? She wrote this essay in 1928 in the most unimaginably racist situation possible in America plus add to this the handicap of being female. Quite a woman.

When reminded of her slave-background -she said right back at them that she was "an American"; that slavery was done with.  She refused to consider any way but forward for herself:

Page 115

I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it.  No one on earth had a greater chance for glory."

This woman was certainly full of optimism and hope.   And she loved the independence of possible praise or blame to come. She thought that she was better off than white people in fact, since she does not have a "brown specter" following her around. 

Sometimes she forgot all about skin color and in the blare and dance of music, she felt her life keenly.  She gives one example of it in the essay where her white friend is untouched by the music that had annihilated her.

Page 116

  "Good music they have here," he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips.
    Music! The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him. He has only heard what I felt.  He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us.  He is pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.
And I have to admit that I have felt this way too among white people--as if they are anemic emotionally --as if they cannot be passionate in their songs and poems. But then I read Mr. T.S. Eliot's essay in this book--"Tradition and the Individual Talent" and I realize why the poetry of the West is like butter melting in the heat of the tropics--why it is so dull.  The following passage explains to me the coldness of Western poetry:

Page 97

This essay proposes to halt at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism, and confine itself to such practical conclusions as can be applied by the responsible person interested in poetry. To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good or bad.  There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence.  But very few know when there is an expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach the impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

So basically this is a bunch of rubbish. The poet here is saying we have to be impersonal in our poems in order to make art. This kind of stupid thinking is also present in that other essay by Mr. Billy Collins in his essay that I have already maligned in the post "Killing the Dream of Right Conduct--from Free To Be Human-Part 1"  and so I think this must be a pervasive philosophy in the poetical establishment. And this is what makes poetry for the most part --as cold as tombstones placed at the freshly dug graves of the poems. I think it is quite possible to have the reverse be true--that "The emotion of art is personal."  But let me leave this burr on the side of the trousers of the passing reader and go on with Ms.Hurston's fine essay.

So she had emotions. Great big ones if you look at this passage here:

Page 116

In the abrupt way that jazz orchestras have, this one plunges into a number.  It loses no time in circumlocutions, but gets right down to business.   It constricts the thorax and splits the heart with its tempo and narcotic harmonics.  This orchestra grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rending it, clawing it until it breaks through to the jungle beyond.  I follow those heathen--follow them exultingly.  I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww!  I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way.  My face is painted red and yellow,  and my body is painted blue.  My pulse is throbbing like a war drum. I want to slaughter something--give pain, give death to what, I do not know.

And so here you have personal.  Here you have real. And I would take a thousand of these types of lines in prose or poetry over one cold blooded line in what is considered art. Consider me ignorant. What is alive in this piece, is voice; the voice of a woman who is dead but who is more alive than any poem written by Mr. Billy Collins or Mr. T.S. Elliot (although I do like "The Wasteland" and his poems do not choke me).

The essay speaks of what it was to be this woman. And this woman without a race attached to that description.

Page 117

The cosmic Zora emerges.  I belong to no race nor time, I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.

   I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored, I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries.

And isn't that the way we should all feel ---all the time -and not at select occasional times? To be "a fragment of the Great Soul" that holds a piece of each of us--that makes each of us holy?

Last Books Bought In March, 2011

I lucked out on books today.

1) I got two more Roddy Doyle books to keep company with the last two I haven't read yet:
Today's books are:

a) the woman who walked into doors
b) The Van

To keep company with

c) Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

d) Oh, Play That Thing

Now why am I adding to an author when I haven't even read a single one of his books yet?  God knows. I just find that I like to have sets of books so that if the writer turns out to be good -that I'm not kicking myself for not having picked up one of his books when they arrive at the second hand book store.

2) I got an absolutely beautiful and pristine book by Anne Fadiman to keep company with her other book --
Ex Libris that I have been slowly reading. I like her essays. They are well written, amusing and intelligent bits of thought and feeling--mostly about my favorite topic--reading books.

The new book is called

At Large And At Small
Confessions of a literary hedonist and the cover is as I said --charming --a black and white print of tree branches without leaves but butterflies on it. Inside the book is untouched, virginal, blessed. condition.  I love it when a book looks like it was just put on a shelf and never read. I feel as if I'm its first reader.

3) I'm collecting Ray Bradbury books again.  One of my sisters picked up "Fahrenheit 451 The 50th anniversary edition" and today I found "Bradbury  Classic Stories 1 (the grand master editions)"-in perfect shape.  Yum.

4)  My Father's Cup by poet Tom Wayman
Harbour Publishing tends to publish decent stuff so I'm hoping this poet is ok.

5) The Harper Collins World Reader  Antiquity to the Early Modern World
Edited by Mary Ann Caws and Christopher Prendergast

I peeked in and saw some poetry so I picked it up.

6)  The brain that changes itself
by Norman Doidge M.D.

It has a blurb by Oliver Sacks and that was enough to get me to pick it up.   I looked in and there are some interesting stories in here about the parameters of the brain.

7) Maiden Voyages  Writings of Women Travellers--edited by Mary Morris
I picked this book to keep friendship with that other travel book by writers I picked up last time---Bad Trips--edited by Keath Fraser.

I like travel books and I like to have pairs of travel books to zip between them.

8) Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin
-I got this book again because of a foreword by Oliver Sacks and because Dr. Grandin is an interesting woman.  I wanted to know how she thought in pictures.

9)  Two books by Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones

The Almost Moon

No idea who she is but I'll find out

10) Two writing books

Taking Risks  literary journalism from the edge --Edited by Barbara Moon & Don Obe


Influential Writing  by William Connor and Maurice Legris

11) Death in Venice
by Thomas Mann

12) The collected stories of Eudora Welty

13)  Savage  Beauty
The life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
by Nancy Milford

14)  Dear, dear Brenda  The love letters of Henry Millar to Brenda Venus
This last book was full of the letters of Henry Miller in the throes of infatuation and how could I resist?

So I have been busy. And bad.  I have to keep reading.

"God's Weakness for Beetles" from "The Boilerplate Rhino Nature in the eye of the beholder Essays"

I got interested in this essay mainly because the writer was curious about the survival success of beetles.  As the writer indicates this order has ten million species to its credit with indubitably more yet unreconciled to the ledgers. How has this insect managed to create so many variants of its kind?

First what is a beetle?  The definition given in this essay is as follows:

Page 242-243

  A beetle by definition is an insect showing that pattern of anatomical and physiological adaptation unique to the order Coleoptera: a wormlike larva, a pupal metamorphosis, chewing or biting mouthparts, and (most important?) a front pair of wings modified into elytra. These elytra are a pair of hard coverings that fold neatly over a beetle's back, like cabinet doors, to protect a more conventional pair of rear wings that do the actual flying. Of this pattern, full metamorphosis, chewing mouthparts, elytra--science knows 290,000 variations.  Nature knows millions more.  So the pattern is extraordinarily successful. It's also extraordinarily flexible, as reflected by the fact that our biosphere isn't infested by just one dominant species of beetle (as it is by one dominant species of hominid), but instead supports that staggering wealth of variations ---beetles of all crazy shapes, all gorgeous colors, all strange habits, all tiny and monstrous size, from one extreme to another and on into as-yet-uncounted myriads.  Why?  Nobody can say.
So here is a question about speciation offered up in this essay that is not understood despite all our advances in science. Mr. Quammen offers the theory of one G. Evelyn Hutchinson that competition and "difference in size" which allow specific niche development in two water bug species but forbade any other species from colonizing the pond he was studying was responsible for speciation in this group.  Apparently this is still an area of dispute.  Why I can't imagine --since it sounds sensible to me. Two bugs fight it out  with other zillions of bugs and they inhabit an ecological niche; then each of the two bug species decide on the specifics of their niche and split the territory based on size--one bug is bigger than the other. The difference in size is sufficient to allow for both bugs to use the resources of the pond and for both species --but no other to inhabit the region.  In any case, while this theory may account for the presence of only two water bugs in a particular pond, it does not explain beetle diversity, spread and numbers.

The essay did not offer any other hints on why we have so many beetles and only one dominant hominid species.  But it did make me curious as curious as Mr. Quammen on the speciation efficiencies of beetles. Why them? Why so many of them? And how?  So I went to the Internet. 

 This website offered general information on insects and some reasons why they are so successful in their colonization of the planet:

1) they appear to be promiscuous in their food sources--using both normal and artificial food sources  eg grain and paper
2) they breed fast and furious--a termite queen lays up to 43,000 eggs per day
3) protective exoskeleton helps them to survive environmental and physical abuses that kill off other creatures
4) wings give them a good escape method
5) protective camouflage and other defenses like a bad taste when eaten by predators; sting; biting; light emitting; scary coloration helps to protect them
6) can live almost everywhere
This explains macroscopic matters of survival but what helps them to breed so many kinds of them?  I looked to genome studies.  Genome Alberta (see website below) seems to be studying the Western Canadian Mountain Pine Beetle that is decimating pine trees. They are working with other groups and their group project is called "The Tria project" (website below). Interesting stuff on both websites.

While field work is an important part of studying an organism I think genome studies of organisms is essential. This is how the Tria Project defines their research:

Prior to the Tria Project, very little was known about the genomic and molecular mechanisms of the interacting bark beetles, fungi and pine trees. Having spent two years adding genomics resources to the existing foundation of research into beetle, fungal and tree biology, chemical ecology and population genetics, the Tria Project now has a means for examining some of the mountain pine beetle system interactions more closely. Critical information generated at the organismal and population levels is being incorporated into ecological risk models to improve forest resource (feedstock) prediction tools. These improved tools can be used to better predict, analyze and address the challenges of pest outbreaks, including more accurate prediction of feedstock availability from renewable forest inventory for possible industry such as bioenergy production.

So what I get from this overview is that there is some sort of interaction between a fungus, a beetle and the tree in order to have pathogenesis--or successful infestation of a tree. Why is all this important?  Well, what is learned from one beetle can be sort of extrapolated to other beetles.  If we understand this beetle at the gene level--maybe there will be a clearcut understanding of how this order has been able to keep going and speciating in such a prolific manner.

The Tria Project website has some interesting information on the Mountain Pine Beetle including pictures and lifecycle.  The big moniker it goes by in the science world is Dendroctonus ponderosae which makes me feel it is rather like a cowboy beetle. The beetle looks like a piece of bark itself of a brownish hue and split into a tank like back part and the front region which seems more digit like. An ugly thing.

The lifecycle is unremarkable and it goes through the usual egg --larva--pupa--adult--egg business except for one interesting part--the larva overwinters in "brood trees."  The idea of some trees carrying box-loads of larva in winter nurseries gives me the willies but this is how it is. Then in the warmer months-- the adult beetles  appear out of the original infested tree to go do more damage. They find the new host tree using the tree's own "volatiles" whatever this is and the other beetles' own pheromones.  This seems to be quite a specialized business of infestation of a tree since not only are these cues needed to cause an infestation but also the presence of a symbiotic fungus and the beetles' own defenses (whatever they are).

So since this is all so damn complicated, the elucidation of anything in this quagmire might explain how the beetle and its fungal buddy overcome the natural resistance of the pine tree to such pests and how it eventually kills the tree off.  The pine tree has toxic stuff it uses --"toxic secondary metabolites (terpenoids and phenolics)" which sound chemical enough for me to never touch another pine tree again but apparently they are not good enough as the beetle has learned to "tolerate tree defenses"  and even use "host tree terpenoids in pheromone production"--in other words using what the tree produces as defense to produce signal molecules to other beetles to come on over and party.  Neat.

And what is the role of the fungus in all of this?  I should think it would just mind its own business but if there is something for anyone--you know how it is--buddy-buddy and they're in cahoots with each other. And what a neat relationship these two evil doers have --the fungus prepares the way for the colonization of the beetle by overcoming the tree's defenses and it also liberates tree nutrients for the beetle.  The beetle repays the "symbiotic, blue-staining fungi (from the ophiostomatoid group)" by being their vector. In other words the fungus is carried to the tree by the beetle-cars--transportation, parking lot and drop off all provided. Too neat.

Meanwhile our unhappy pine tree, staggering under the burden of climate change that has been productive for the proliferation of its enemies--does its best to protect itself.  The pine trees (eg Pinus contorta--lodgepole pine; and Pinus banksiana --jack pine) produce "oleoresin terpenoid defenses" which somehow halt infection against the enemies; also a "phenolic secondary metabolite" system is involved.  The pine beetle infestation has crossed from B.C. into Alberta and it is making a mess of our forests.

So the "genomic and molecular mechanisms" being studied by this group may give us some idea of how the beetle survives with its fungal partner despite defenses offered by the pine tree. In turn, the elucidation of the molecular mechanisms of their biology--may help us understand speciation in general in beetles. All good stuff.  I don't know how long all of this will take to figure out (science is rather slow and plodding work) but it will be a model for other beetle studies.  And ten thousand years later we may learn why beetles are so much better at life than mankind. At the very least we may be able to save the " ten percent of the world's forests" (that isn't being decimated by logging) that apparently reside in Canada.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Eckbert the Blond" by Ludwig Tieck in "Spells of Enchantment The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture"--Part 2

I left Berta with her puzzlement about what the old woman had meant by her chatter about "the straight path".She of course, does not think of this question very deeply and perhaps she should have done this. But how often do any of us think of "the straight path"?  And in Berta's case, the straight path was missed entirely.

So what happens next is what happens in any good fairy tale with the thief taking the valuables and making a dash for it.  But there are some qualms about this decision --for she manages to suppress Desire sufficiently well as to hold herself in rein. This is how she puts it:

Page 288

  I was now fourteen and it is unfortunate for people that they only develop their understanding by losing the innocence of their souls.

And yes, it is true. To become wise, we make mistakes and lose the innocence of the soul.  And so how did this come about for Berta?

Page 288

To be exact, I now understood that everything was up to me, and all I had to do in the absence of the old woman was to take the bird and the jewels and then set forth into the world about which I had read.  It would then perhaps be possible for me to meet the wonderful, handsome knight who was still on my mind.

She knows full well that she had to control herself --that it all depended on her self discipline and still she fails to keep to the straight road.  For here Desire, meets up and couples with Delusion and all is lost.  The old woman leaves on yet another trip, the girl ties the dog inside the hut and takes the bird.  She feels remorse for the act but does not feel enough of it to return.

Page 289

    The further I went, the fainter grew the barking, and finally it stopped altogether.  I wept and would have almost turned around, but the desire to see something new drove me onward.
And this necessity to "see something new" was what took her away from the old woman to start a new life.  She finds her parents had died, and so her riches served her little. She moves to a new town and stays in a house with the bird who suddenly begins to sing that song of solitude repeatedly. Again, she senses her culpability:

Page 290

I could not sleep throughout the night.  Once again I began to imagine everything, and more than ever I felt that I had not acted the right way.   When I got up in the morning, I could not stand the sight of the bird. It looked at me constantly, and its presence frightened me. Nor did it stop singing.  In fact, it sang more loudly and shrilly than it had been accustomed to do.  The more I looked at it, the more it scared me. Finally, I opened the cage, stuck my hand inside, and grabbed hold of its neck.  I squeezed my fingers tightly together, and when it looked at me with pleading eyes, I loosened my grip, but it had already died.  I buried it in the garden.
So both the old woman's dog and bird are now gone.

Berta married Eckbert and the story she tells Sir Walter ends.

Now this would have been a complete fairy tale in itself but it is not the end of the story. Some sort of retribution appears to be necessary in every fairy tale. And this retribution has not yet been meted out.

Walter thanks Berta for the tale and then says something curious to her that should have got my attention because it was odd but I did not notice until later in the tale when Berta talks to her husband.This is what Walter says to Berta before heading for bed:

Page 290

    She stood up and got ready to go to her chamber.  Walter wished her good night, kissing her hand, and said, "Thank you, noble lady.  I can picture you quite well with your extraordinary bird and how you fed little Strohmian."

Now what was going on? In any case, immediately after this secret is given to Walter, Berta takes ill.   And Walter's friendship with Eckbert cools. Berta gets worse. One day she calls her husband to her side:

Page 291

   "My dear husband," she began, "I must reveal something to you that has practically made me lose my mind and that has destroyed my health, even though it may seem to be just an insignificant incident.  You know that whenever I talked about my childhood, I was never able to remember, no matter how much I tried, the name of the small dog that kept me company.  Now on the night Walter was with us, as he said goodnight, he suddenly said, 'I can picture quite well how you fed little Strohmian.'  Was that just coincidence?  Did he guess the name?  Did he actually know and say it on purpose?  And how is this man connected to my destiny? Sometimes I've struggled with myself and have tried to convince myself that I've just imagined this strange incident, but unfortunately, it definitely happened, most definitely, I was overcome by a terrifying shudder that an absolute stranger could be the one to help me recall the name of the dog. What do you say to all this, Eckbert?"
Now the interesting part for me in this whole passage was the underlined words. How had Berta transformed their best friend into "an absolute stranger" over a matter of the name of a dog?  Did she finally realize that the man that they thought they knew--was someone they did not know at all? And  that he could be an agent of retribution?

Now Walter is turned into a creature that torments both of them. Now their friend was no longer a source of happiness; but became "the only one in the world whose existence oppressed" them; they were feeling the consequences of telling a secret that had been just between the two of them to someone who was essentially a stranger and now, revealed to be the enemy. How could they be restored to their original calm?

One day Eckbert goes out with his bow and arrow determined to distract himself. He encounters Walter and kills him.  How did Eckbert feel about his crime?

Page 292

   Eckbert felt relieved and calm.  Nevertheless, a certain horror drove him back to his castle. He had far to walk, for he had wandered deep into the woods. When he arrived home, he found that Berta had died.   Before she her death she had spoken a great deal about Walter and the old woman.

So Eckbert felt a sort of revulsion for what he had done --"a certain horror" but was still at peace for doing it.   As for Berta, she had received the retribution promised her by her act of thievery.

And so are we done? I asked myself, hopefully.  Oh, no, we are not.  Fairy tales don't like to have loose ends. They want all evil doers punished.  So how was Ludwing Tieck going to punish the husband now for killing a friend?

Eckbert starts his widowhood in even greater seclusion.  He is ridden with guilt over the murder of his friend.  Eventually he makes a new friend --Hugo and he makes the same mistake again. He tells the new friend about the murder of Walter. Now this is beyond my understanding.  The man must have a death wish. Of course Hugo is less than thrilled to know he is friends with a murderer.  But it is the strangeness of his new friend's response that bothers Eckbert.

 His friend seems to have a "malicious smile" on his face; then to his alarm, Hugo begins to look like Walter.Now this was the reason I decided to blog on this fairy tale. It was an ordinary tale when Berta gets guilted to death but to have a second crime and a second retribution story in one tale? That is unusual. So what retribution is due to Eckbert the Blond? The most hideous of them all --the truth in all its unsavoury details.

He arrives at his castle, after leaving Hugo-who-now-is Walter and decides to run off. He arrives at a hill. Then he is utterly undone when he hears the song of a bird--singing the song of solitude. He knew it was the time for retribution--this time of his--and he loses consciousness. When he comes to, he felt a difference in his reality:

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Now it was all over for Eckbert.  He lost consciousness and lost his mind.  He could not separate himself from the puzzle and discern whether he was now dreaming or whether he had previously dreamed about a wife named Berta. The most marvelous things blended with the most common.  The world around him was enchanted, and he was incapable of thinking or remembering.

And I suppose this passage and its residues--are why this story is so horrific to me--the blurring of the boundaries between reality and unreality; the ways we bend rules to get our way in the world.  Desire, Hate, Delusion summed up and its consequences.  All the ways we mess with our lives and all the ways we go insane inside our heads.  Sometimes, in the early morning  I have the same sensation as poor Eckbert--of confusion--I'm uncertain--whether I am dreaming or whether what has happened before today was the dream--and there is horror in this disengagement from reality.

What is reality anyway? Isn't it what we believe to be true?  But if an old woman can alter into a family friend called Walter; then mutate to Hugo and then come back at the end of the story to the same old woman--who can tell if this is reality or nightmare? In this case, the old woman--Retribution--comes to Walter and tells him the way in which he will be disposed of:

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   "And Berta was your sister."
    Eckbert tumbled to the ground.  
    "Why did she leave me behind my back?  Everything would have ended so beautifully......."

And so the straight road was not followed. Eventually the old woman comes to each of us.  And if we were to have followed the straight road....."Everything would have ended so beautifully...."

"Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within"

 I've been meaning to write a review of this book for a while but got side tracked by poetry and essays.  I rarely seem to have time these days to do book reviews other than children's books. I've got a pile of fiction books to read by William Trevor and Alice Munro that I haven't touched mainly because they are long works and I am intimidated by the thought of being seized up those giant maws and never being released to arrive at the shores of poetry again. Also --to be honest--I don't like fiction --at least the fiction that is being produced right now which seem to be microfiber dusters of lint episodes in the lives of people that simply bore me to death.  Where is the movement in these damn books? I bleat to myself as I slog through them. The characters seem to be dormant; they learn nothing from their lives; they are primitives in terms of energy and when they fizz to their deaths, it is a relief simply to be rid of them.  And yet, I go back to the "Grapes of Wrath" time after time without any sense of being bored.

And so now that I have that bit of venom out of my system about these damn modern novels that everyone loves to pieces and that I loathe but ask myself to reconsider and think of as educational textbooks for the acquisition of decent language--now that volley of tennis balls at the writers of such books is done with --let me speak of Natalie.  I really like this writer. I know she can be a bit ditzy in some of her works but in this book she is right nearly all the time.

Why do I like it?  Because the book is practical, because it is encouraging, because (thank god) there is utterly no bullshit about writing in it, and because it helps me nearly every time when I am stuck and miserable and down hearted about the slow progression of my abilities in writing poems. I sit in the minivan (my next most frequent stopping place --other than at the writing place) and I will read the second copy of her book. The first copy of her book is right next to me at the writing place. They are sort of like fairy godmother books that are there to cheer me on. And god knows there are days when words feel like drunken revelers at a first year  university frosh party --where I need her help desperately. Well what type of advice does Natalie give in this book? Let me look at the parts of the book I've used the most.

The bit about the writing relationship was very important. When you start writing it is like meeting clandestinely with a lover--you are nervous, you are pimped up, your heart is racing, your hands are sweaty and you think you are going to make a fool of yourself. You are. Over and over and over again.  You just have to get used to being a fool every time you put down words. It is this writing relationship that you have to make and if you can't make it you might as well just be a Reader.

If you want to understand a writing relationship think of it this way--it is a prison sentence with no chance of parole --ever. You are in writing prison. You have a cell. You write there. Day after day. And you become bitter. And you get over the bitterness and become euphoric. And you get down again,and are a whiny painful creature to be around. This is the same cycle --no matter who you are and yet, you are stuck in this term in the cell --you are learning how to be married to words and this is the suffering necessary to arrive here.

This is the easy way Natalie says it:

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Think of writing as though it were breathing.  Just because you have to plant a garden or take the subway or teach a class, you don't stop inhaling and exhaling. That's how basic writing is, too.

You are a writer all the time and you are in a writing relationship all the time. You feel rather overwhelmed by it but if you get through each day, you are able to do it again the next day. The important thing is to not look back at the work already done, but simply keep going. You  understand marriage --right? This is marriage -but with no divorce allowed.

The second most important piece of advice in the book --is to "trust yourself".  I know you are supposed to listen to experienced writers and I do. But only I decide what is going to happen with the words. I trust myself.  It may take me longer to arrive at the poems that I want to have happen --because I am not willing to go to other poets for format, changes, input--but this is not a science project; this is not a thesis that needs to be given to a graduate committee for approval--this is my own words and I want to be in charge of them. I trust myself sufficiently to feel that I can do this work by myself and that it does not need the group of 7 or 8 supervisors to be made into art. I am not making art. I am writing.  My own way. This is how Natalie says it:

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   Give a piece to one hundred people, you could possibly get one hundred different opinions--not absolutely different, but lots of variations.  This is where the depth of the relationship with yourself is so important.  You should listen to what people say.  Take in what they say. (Don't build a steel box around yourself.)  Then make your own decision.   It's your poem and your voice. 

And I have to say that I feel the reason that so much of modern poetry is like bland bits of Styrofoam is simply because there have been too many adjustments to an original voice to make "art" so that what the Reader gets is some sort of packing material for the dumpster.

Then the bit about honesty. You have to be truthful.  You have to be braver --always than you think you ever can be. It is hard to say what is deep inside you --and admit to being this creature full of passionate feelings of hate, despair, misery, love and everything else.  Poetry--at least for me--is not a canoe ride down a dead river--it is turbulence and spills; it is very dangerous when I am sitting in the bed of feelings and not knowing who is this creature who is spilling her grimy bits in public--not being a good girl--but being bad--that is the part you have to get through and grit your teeth and just do it. But why bother --you might ask?  Why bother to terrorize your chicken self like this with the axe of writing  a poem?  Well, its like this--when it works--when words fit together seamlessly it is mind-sex and I'm addicted to that high. Nothing is comparable to the heroin of writing a good poem. It pleases me and I'm revved up to do it again.  And again. And again. Ten thousand times if necessary.   And this type of writing cannot be plastic, cannot be cowardly, cannot be dishonest. The Muse forbids all three.  As Natalie says it here--the honesty required of the writer must be present in all aspects of her life:

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You can't go deep into your writing and then step out of it, clamp down, go home, "be nice," and not speak the truth.  If you give yourself over to honesty in your practice, it will permeate your life.

In other words, you will change. You won't be that weakling you were in the beginning. You will be a writing warrior and the advice in this book--will keep you on that Samurai path.  Thanks Natalie.

I don't usually put a grade on a book but this one deserves  something from me--excellent beginner writing book perfect for the first five years of writing apprenticeship. I'm in my sixth year of writing prose and I still use this book. In the minivan and at the writing place.   Its a keeper.

"Phobia and Philia A Barefooted Psyche in the Forest of Spiders and Snakes" in "The Boilerplate Rhino Nature in the eye of the beholder Essays"

In this essay, Mr. Quammen gives some indication that we are genetically programmed for phobias and philias or antipathy or love of various organisms. I found this essay rather amusing since it contains various positions besides the genetic basis one for why I hate spiders.  I don't mind them when there is a window or other surface separating me from them but if a scuttling daddy long legs is hovering over the wood floor in proximity to my toes, I'm out of that area.  In fact, I tend to wear socks in case I ever happen upon a den of spiders and they cluster up to me in misplaced affection. This can get bothersome in the summer months when spiders seem to multiply like mushrooms in damp lawns and when it is really too hot and muggy to be wearing socks inside my gardening boots. But I do. Always. You never know.

It is the thought of those long thread like legs that are almost invisible --but that I know if they touched my feet or arm or hands would leap me out of stasis into hornet fast flight that troubles me the most.  It is the idea of thin almost imperceptible touches of a foreign body --that willies me to death.  It's like having a bit of grit in your eye, or a long line of garden dirt in a fingernail that won't scrub out--but infinitely worse.  And so I traveled through this essay to find out if there were any remedies and I find out that the writer is even more of a ninny about spiders than I am.  Here is his remarks about the trip through the jungle where spiders were growing like orchids in the trees because all the birds that used to eat them were now dead (having being eaten by a snake that was inadvertently brought into Guam.

He starts out by estimating (roughly) the number of spiders in the jungle which I have to admit sounded as if they were in horrifically expansive numbers. Note how he goes on and on about the terrorizing aspects of the spider [first that they were "big"; that they were ugly; that they were "silent" (oh for goodness's sake!); then that godawful name--Cyrtophora moluccensis (which-- if you had not disliked spiders to begin with --you would, after having to say this name)]. Yes, this man definitely has arachnophobia.  He goes into too much loving detail to not be paralyzed with hatred of these morbid creatures:

page 62

    The forest was full of them.  They were big.  They were silent.They were black, yellow, orange, shaped variously, some gaudy, some subtle, oy, don't ask. By a cautious estimate, there were zillions.  Many were specimens of Cyrtophora moluccensis, an orb-weaving species that tends to affiliate in labyrinthine communal webs. 
Now notice how much information he has given us here? And 99.9% of it is negative? The man is biased against these creatures. Just the "labyrinthine communal webs" was enough to get me to stop and take a deep breath--because it made me feel as if I were wrapped up in the shroud of these horrific webs.

Next he goes on to speak of gang activities of these spiders.

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The C. moluccensis and the others had assembled in gangs, filling gaps in the understory with huge three-dimensional webs, thick as lace, large as dome tents, threatening to block my escape.
Note how he speaks about "escape"?  I mean is he man or mouse? In the case of spiders  I am sadly a mouse.  Besides which it is plain to me that the poor man was outnumbered by the brutal gangs engaged in slow creation of trapping material for him. This is how a person who is afraid of spiders thinks --a vivid portrayal of all aspects of our phobia revealed to the rest of the non-phobic community.

My husband for example has no fear of any wriggling molesting creature. He picks up bugs in his bare hands. Without tissue paper. Without gloves. Without a protective body suit, face gear, boots and body stockings. I usually have no exposed skin on my body in the vicinity of a spider web.  I have to carry a water hose for protection-- in the clematis vine region--which seems to attract spiders that espalier along the vines as if they were fruit trees. They don't even run off when I'm there deadheading flowers. Oh, no. They look me grimly in the eye and shriek "Booooo" and I'm out of there.

The smaller spiders that tend to anchor to the window next to the front porch produce these large sagging wind shredded webs that safely behind a window I can admire and ignore. The spiders under the bed, the sofa, the corners of the dusty interior of my house--I try not to think about.  I keep my feet in socks. Two pairs.Then if a spider dares to show up, I call my husband or the two boys to do the work that their Y chromosome and lack of a phobia dictates must be done: vermin removal.

In this case, Mr. Quammen was in a jungle with spiders in full possession of the territory so there was no way he could remove any of the webbing and their contents of verminous leggy things; and I doubt he had any interest in doing this anyway.  He speaks of how the encounter with the many-against-the-one turned out:

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    Eventually I made a misstep. My attention strayed at the wrong moment and I marched forward recklessly, pushing my face into one of those webs.  At the first touch of silk on my eyelids, air-raid alarms went off in my brain and the floor of my stomach dropped away like a falling elevator.  No doubt my galvanic skin response, whatever that is, spiked up to a personal lifetime high. But I tried to stay calm.  I backed slowly out. As I did, I saw a single black spider, very large, at roughly eye level just in front  of me.
    She made no move to attack.  She didn't even growl and wiggle her fangs. She simply waited, forbearingly, for me to get my mug out of her web.

I'd say he had a lucky escape. The spider was probably napping or he would have been a goner. I've had the experience of webs in my face when picking raspberries in the forest raspberry patches and it is not a good feeling.  You feel as if something that should not be there--something unclean and tentative--is testing your ability to tolerate groping. You (I) run off ripping off clothes and webbing at the rate of someone being attacked by a swarm of hornets.  Meanwhile the spiders in the raspberry patch snicker and get on with  the business of repairing their tidy abodes.

I mean why do they even need their loathsome appearances to inspire fear in us?  They just need that whispering slick of web across the skin hair and they're safe.

"Half Blind Poets And Birds The Vision of Robert Penn Warren" from "The Boilerplate Rhino Nature in the eye of the beholder Essays"

I've read some of Robert Penn Warren's poems and was interested in what Mr. Quammen would have to say about the poet.  He goes through a few other poets who were blind and partially blind  before landing on Mr. Warren who seemed to have been an interesting man. He had an interest in painting that was facilitated by a summer spent with the nuns that seemed to have been the springboard for his leap into poetry.

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He was shipped off for one summer to a convent in Nashville, where a benign watercolorist named Sister Mary Luke gave the young boy instruction. Each day they would go out to the local zoo, Sister Mary Luke would sleep on the grass, and the boy would paint. "I painted the whole damned zoo, practically  And she'd snore and wake up, then we'd eat all this great delicious feast that the nuns had sent out with us," he later told one interviewer.   Also at that age he discovered real poetry in the form of "Lycidas,"  Milton's elegy to a dead friend.

It was good training for poetry and writing --this painting summer-although he wanted to be  a naval officer. But unable to qualify because of the eye injury he became a poet and a writer.  But what has this all to do with birds? I ask myself.

Well, apparently birds appear throughout his works and apparently formed part of the rich material of his interior life.

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   The Audobon book was Warren's most sustained ornithological reverie.  But birds appear frequently throughout his early and late poems.

Now I wonder why poets seem to like writing about birds so much? I know that when you are about in the forest the first creatures you do tend to encounter tend to be of the avian kind and so --perhaps it is the frequency with which writers and poets encounter birds, that precipitate such fixations on birds.

Another reason is of course their singing, their incredible variety and their work. They always seem to be busy little things, never a hard word to each other and building like mad every time they show up in spring--efficiencies of nest that they then abandon in winter for warmer climes.It is hard not to praise such a productive set of workers who understand how fleeting the products of their yearly labor really are. In addition, they all seem to have so many different ways of being in the world that it pushes me into trying new things in my own rather staid life.

Blue jays tend to occupy themselves on the lower limbs of fir trees and the forest floor; they have the most beautiful appearances and are rarely spotted.  Pileated woodpeckers scale the mid range sections of snags like avian mountain climbers and the thud-thud-thud as their beak and head work together on the rock surface of the dead wood is almost painful to watch. They sometimes flop down to drill at lower snags but are easily persuaded to go up high by even a chattering squirrel. The Downy woodpeckers tend to sit at eye level like a handful of cotton balls and are less noisome. Chickadees in their drab suits are everywhere, plentiful, sociable and friendly.  Their  haunting notes always makes me feel like bursting into tears.

In contrast to the sad troubadour songs of the chickadees, magpies are swearing birds--rude, bossy and forceful Mafia types -- that are not afraid to tackle running off a cat in a group. They hunker in fir trees and wait for their victim and push the poor kitty out of their "territory" with malicious glee.They are not likeable birds because of their bullying ways. Unlike the magpies who seem to hunt other creatures, waxwings only seem to zoom out of the skies for the bright red desserts of Mountain Ash tree berries.  The waxwings are long loops of material in the trees and sky; they tend to blur together in some sort of group dance that I can never seem to see as individual birds.

The crows and ravens are black blobs of pen nib on the bent noses of firs. Red winged blackbirds are snazzy dressers that have the most drab Cinders-type mates who spend all their time evading the winsome handsome male birds.  Canada geese strut around the periphery of the marsh as if they were armies merely camping out for the summer.   The Mallard ducks and other ducks that arrive at the marsh each summer including the rather insane  looking duck that I think is a grebe  For a picture why I think the grebe looks rather Woody Woodpeckerish here is a site with photographs:

This second site has some pictures of Alberta birds:

With the immensities of their lifestyles and characters and singing, a whole life absorbed in bird watching is not too long. And so I can understand Robert Penn Warren's interest. He continued to write about birds until the end.

But I wasn't interested in this essay to find out about his interest in birds. I was interested in why he wrote poems and why he considered his first work to be poetry.  I had no interest in his family life either---although that life must have enriched his poems.  Nope. All I wanted to know was why he preferred writing poems rather than novels.  Mr. Quammen has some answers.

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Toward the end, he became again and only a poet.

    For this there were several plain reasons. Poetry was his first love. It was not a profession or genre but a way of life, he said.  It was a means of seeing and knowing the world. Poetry had helped him through a bad period in his young manhood, a stretch of years dark with depression and with the fear of going totally blind, after he had lost one eye and when the other showed some signs of failing.  Poetry was a means of accepting, or at least dealing with, the world.  "It's a way of existing meaningfully as much of your time as possible," he said later. "And that's never much."

Now in this small passage I am given several reasons why I can benefit from writing poetry even if I never manage to write one good poem--which include:

1) It is a way to live my life

2) It is an enriched way of seeing and knowing what sits in self, other, the world---a sort of most efficient way of eating the world in all its glories

3) It passages a person through bad times--to get her to accept what is often at first impossible to accept

4) It --although it does not mention this here--writing a poem is always an accretion of efforts in the working towards the closure of death.

The practice of reading and writing poetry--even if it never amounts to anything in my life--is still worth doing because with its wisdom --one can become a wider and more mature human being.

In his essay Mr. Quammen speaks of poems being "a one-eyed glimpse of a bird in flight." In other words, it is always half-seen, quick, fleeting and gone.The matter of capture--is the difficulty of the art; then the ambering into solid forms of expression is the next hurdle; and finally the synthesis out of solid form of the most pared, elegant construct of language that a human being is individually capable of --how to go about doing this?  By work.  By seeing. By even "one-eyed" seeing.  

A Few Good Books

Older boy was measured for formal clothes. He has volunteered to be an usher at the grade 12 graduation ceremonies at his high school and after this was done, we bought books. Well, I bought books.  Older boy ignored books.  This is what I got:

1) In All Her Names
edited by Joseph Campbell & Charles Muses
This seems to be some sort of investigation about "The Feminine in Divinity"; since I was entirely ignorant of any such feminine figures in divinity other than Mother Mary, I was piqued and got the book.

2) The Boilerplate Rhino  Nature in the eye of the beholder  Essays
by David Quammen

This book is full of essays on nature --seems to be of the more exotic kind of creatures since there is a rhino marching across the front of the book.

3)  The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature   The Collected Writings of Neal Pollack
by Neal Pollack
I've never heard of this writer and I fell victim to the one section of the book where there was mention of pie and now I have the book home I can't find the section and so will have to go read it to find out if the pie story was in this book or another that I was looking at. I know this is a bad way to select books but you see it was 2:00 p.m. and I'd not yet had lunch and so....

4) Endangered Species  Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives
Edited by Lawrence Grobel

and to be quite frank I only got this book because Joyce Carol Oates was in it (another bad reason to buy a book I know but this is how I sieve through ten thousand grains of print). And I did not quite see how writers were endangered when in the bookstore they seemed to be as prolific as normal bacterial flora growing on blood agar plates.

5) The Wars
by Timothy Findley

My sister had read this book and told me to pick a copy up when I find one so I'm going to see why she considers it a good read.

6)  Felicia's Journey
by William Trevor

Now I was wary about buying this book. I've just finished another book by this writer that I was not impressed by and yet, there are all these folks singing Hosannas in his name.The story (I can't remember the title) was about this girl who gets left behind and grows up without her parents and it dragged on interminably and no one did anything much and I was gritting my teeth at the end. But I have more of his books on the floor and this one sounded ok so I said, let me just try again.

Then for the boys:

1) Brisingr
by Christopher Paolini

We have the other two books and I've to read them to younger boy soon

2) The Supernaturalist
by Eoin Colfer

We've read his Artemis Fowl series so I'm hoping this will turn out ok.

"Eckbert the Blond" by Ludwig Tieck in "Spells of Enchantment The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture"--Part 1

I was caught by two things about this fairy tale--the matter of solitude; and the matter of how the mind exacts retribution for bad conduct.  And yes, the title was eye catching as well --I love that title "Eckbert the Blond".

I used to make a series of stories about my younger son in kindergarten called "X the Giant" where X was younger boy's name. Younger boy was runty and still is. The kids loved it because X did incredible things after he ate the magical tasty stew that his mother made for him (in the story and not in real life; in real life younger boy lacked any sort of viable cooked sustenance.Hmm.. perhaps this is why he is runty.) Each week,  the class heard a new story where X the Giant and one of the featured little brats in the class--did some marvelous, stupendous things together--in teams of two--since it was important to introduce the idea to the infants about the inefficiencies of group work early on; and the fact that these tasks-- like all the tasks that they will face in the work world --are impossible ones but still needed to be done or else they would get canned.  And so the kids were given these types of job  (i.e. save the world, go into outer space, help the class survive another day of school)---the type of fantastical things that five years feel competent to do before adults squish all the imagination out of them); and they'd be just silly with glee.

It is amazing to me how a story with a child's name in it and a few fairy tale details provides sufficient pleasure at the age of 5 years--while that this salutary effect can never again be replicated at a later age--say midlife -even with the most scarifying inducements. Such inducements include various material and human objects that are successively obtained for the intended purposes of rejuvenating the soul, purifying the aged folks and restoring to them their original state of childlike wonder that had been eroded away by long incarceration periods in our penitentiaries of workplaces.  A few of such soul replenishing objects seem to include--a BMW, a snazzy motor cycle, a face lift, breast implants, a second spouse (younger, beautiful, better earning)--that sort of thing. I've always failed to understand why object or human purchases are necessary at midlife or even how they are kept track of by the disintegrating human being in charge of them--who at this time in her life must reconfigure her mind, body and soul as it topples over in demands to gravity, aging and hormonal fluxes.  I find it difficult enough to manage the amount of stuff and three humans I already have to take care of. Best to just stick to fairy tales. I know I'd still take the X the Giant story. 

But let me not bore you all again with stories about children when probably most of you are probably safely childless either because you have not met your sweetie pies yet (the ones you feel would be incentive enough to endure combining genomes with for the express purpose of enduring hell with children) or because you have already sent the brats out of the parental nest like the immature vipers they are.  But let me warn you that the snakes in the grass may return.   I did.  And yours may too.

I see some sagging parents in my neighborhood, who have taken risk management courses sometimes in their lives and therefore understand that life is full of risks that can only be ameliorated by the appropriate listing of threats and measures taken against such threats. So with reference to boomerang offspring, these savvy folks have come up with preventative measures to keep the family nest child-free in their retirement years. They know you cannot completely get rid of the brats once they are here, and then the plague of grandchildren follow like shadows after the body but they have taken some precautions to reduce their liability.

These wise folks have downsized to a single bedroom mansion in the hopes of preventing their adult children from returning to the nest.  In most cases, they understand that adult children do not want to sleep on a kitchen floor---These children maybe in dire circumstances--These circumstances may have been the one I was faced with-- when, inevitably broke after many years of university education doing multiple useless degrees; that failed to bring either the fame or glory that had been predicted by such labor, I returned to the nest.  Faced with an educational mortgage the paying off of which would take indentureship for decades .at minimum wage jobs, I came home, paid off the loan with the zeal of a born again missionary and blew it all going to graduate school.

A degree or many degrees is no guarantee for piles of mullah. If the kid has any sort of brains it is best to direct him into some sort of business life--such as that provided by the work in dentistry, medicine or law which are the biggest businesses around these days.  For unhappily,  in these times of flux and economic bedlam, financial independence of young adults--is a chancy thing and so rubber-band children as I call them-may still return to the one bedroom parental shack and just rough it-- in the palatial bonus room or basement. I can't say I blame them.  Why live in a dinghy mouse infested apartment when mom and dad have a house the size of Kansas and there is no need--ever for them to wean themselves off the parental bank-breast?   I, myself understand that the boys will be leeches on our live bodies, as long as there is any sniff of money in the house; But I remain sanguine about being child-free eventually; I know that some strong willed women in their futures,  are going to alter the present state of mind of my sons  and liberate them from mommie, if only for the reason that my future daughter-in-laws will not want to live with me--for some strange reason people find me frightening.

But I see, here again,  I am off topic and now I must return to the story. If any of you are still left reading, remind me to keep focused. 

The story itself starts fairly innocuously with a man and a wife. They live in  fairly reserved and conservative fashion like 99.9 % of most Canadians who are a boring, brooding, hardworking, Pioneer-grade sort of people, generally taciturn and cold blooded (the long winters make them this way). They are, in fact, rather like the way my husband and I are --except the fairy tale couple don't have extended family bothering them night and day --for my extended family is not shy about seeking, even demanding, our company.  So we have solitude but one that is regularly broken to bits by grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces etc.

For this couple, however, they are unpestered; there is only one other person that they keep company with--a male friend of the husband.  The little triangle works and they seem happy.  But being experienced Readers, we know that no  fairy tale or fictional story or in fact, no real life tale is the way it seems to outsiders. Perfect that is. There is a splinter under the fingernail, the tapeworm in the gut, the aneurysm about to burst in the brain--that sort of impending calamity and this fairy tale will prove to be no different sadly enough.

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In a region of the Hars Mountains there lived a knight whom most people simply called Eckbert the Blond. He was approximately forty years old and barely average in size.

Now isn't that a great start?  I love it when a writer placidly rolls out the character in this way--"barely average in size." And the diminutive name" Eckbert the Blond."

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His pale, hollow face was adorned by close-cropped locks of blond hair. He led a reclusive life and never became involved in the feuds of his neighbors.  Moreover, he was seldom seen beyond the outer walls of his small castle, and his wife was just as fond of solitude as he was. Indeed, they seemed to be very much in love with each other, even though they often complained that Heaven had not blessed their marriage with children.
    Only seldom did guests come to visit Eckbert, and even when this occurred, almost nothing was changed in the customs of the household.  Temperance ruled, and frugality appeared to dictate the ways things were ordered. On social occasions, Eckbert was cheerful and relaxed. But as soon as he was alone, there was a certain reserve about him, a discreet and silent melancholy.

The man sounded terribly boring. "Temperance ruled and frugality appeared to dictate the ways things were ordered"--now I see nothing wrong with this way of life since I'm a tightfisted skinflint having learned in graduate school that it is possible to live off a scholarship of $15,000 per year even if this means only a hunk of bread and cheese for every meal. But the other matters--"a discreet and silent melancholy"  and "a certain reserve" about the man. Hmm... sounds like he would be pill-like to swallow each day for his poor wife.  But I persevered in the tale.

So this is a couple that held to each other tight only (i.e. were uninvolved with neighbors) and seemed to lack for nothing except children (and really they don't know what hell they missed). They hardly head out to the real world.  I think they live the same sort of life that I do (except the hell of children has been gifted to me). This is the life I lead and maybe this is why I need to be in this fairy tale world. Or maybe the fantastical bits in it made me think again that alternate universes are so neat and why don't these types of things happen in Canada --where the nut cracker of ice currently still presses upon each of us so that we are almost at the breaking point?

They did not socialize and as I said before had only one close friend.  I can see why.  He is also dull, frugal and melancholy.  Hmm.. maybe this is why I have no friends. Nah. It's that damn temper of mine.

So who is the buddie of Mr. Eckbert? A man named Philip Walter, who had similar ideas to Eckbert and is similarly boring.

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   No one visited the castle as frequently as Philip Walter, a man to whom Eckbert had attached himself because he had found that Walter thought much as he did.

Now, I'm always a bit surprised when people group together because they are birds of the same feather. I never do this. I want to learn something from everybody I meet and if everybody is as boring as I am (i.e. the same as me), I'd conk out in a coma. And so when I meet someone vivid and wonderful (usually a poet in his or her poems)--it is usually someone utterly different than myself--magical almost--and I fall instantly in love and read everything about the poet and the works until I am that poet; I am that set of poems.  The one I love is promptly assimilated into me like baked beans and ham.

And so, I can't figure why on Earth you would want to know anyone who thinks as you do. Wouldn't there be no point? No chance to evolve?  But it is so.  Everywhere I go--into every sort of educational or non-educational program--people are all of one giraffe stripe budhood. Go into science and they are all science buddy types. Go into the arts, and they are all artsy fartsy bud types.  I would like just for once-- to go into an educational program and find the same sort of natural variety as is present in a boreal forest.

But enough of that jabbering.  The man is boring as hell and he has a friend who is boring as hell. So why am I still reading the story?  God knows. But I read it through and it was creepy and so I thought everyone else needs to be creeped out as well.

So here is the situation. Two men, one woman.  Now Eckbert has "a small inheritance" which I suppose is the reason he lives in a small castle versus a large castle and unluckily for him there were no banks extending credit to him in those times. and so that he could not upgrade to buy a large castle several times greater than his current net worth and he is forced to live a modest life commensurate with his actual net worth.  His main entertainment seems to have been walks with his buddie. And as it so happens that such walks leads to chatter; such chatter leads to a pseudo-feeling that you know the innards of the other when in reality you know nothing; and inevitably such intimacy leads to further disclosures such as what follows.

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  There are moments when a man begins to worry because he has kept a secret from his friend that he has carefully managed to conceal.

Now here is the beginning of trouble. Why do people have to tell each other secrets in our society?  I mean the fact is secrets are not the way into intimacy at all but people in our society think that telling each other secrets means that they safe with each other. This is like handing a grenade to a child and asking him not blow both of you up.  If a secret is a secret, why not keep it a secret?  I feel that it merely stirs things up to let secrets out to other people--- believing that this will lead to intimacy.  Not.

The only way to real intimacy I think is to love each other.  This matter of love is rarely discussed between friends and yet, this is what makes friendships so precious. But instead of loving each other ---we tell each other stupid boring secrets that the friend (if she has a life and most of us do) doesn't even want to hear and be burdened by and we are in a mess, when what happens, happens which in general --is some sort of betrayal.

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   There are moments when a man begins to worry because he has kept a secret from his friend that he has carefully managed to conceal. Then an irresistible urge compels his soul to bare itself and reveal his innermost thoughts to the friend so that they may become even closer than before.  It is at such times that two people reveal themselves to each other, and sometimes it happens that one of them will recoil and become frightened by being so intimate with the other.


Well, of course we recoil. We have no experience being intimate with each other and god knows we spend most of our time at work, and telling secrets at work is like putting your head in the guillotine--it eventually gets separated from the body.

And in off work hours, friendship only goes so far and the door shuts. So if, on the rare anomaly-occasion, the door opens and we see into the room inside the other, we are inexplicably startled to find that the person we thought we knew ---is in fact not what we had conceived to be --which is somewhat perfect--but is instead revealed to be prone to weaknesses and doubts. In other words what we had taken to be immaculate machinery is seen as the sham it is and this makes us uncomfortable because we begin to think that perhaps we aren't perfect robots either but messy pools of enzymes and biochemical reactions and so what do we do in times of uncertainty?  We run for the hills and safety.

But Eckbert the Blond is not there yet.  He falls into the delusion that by opening up to his buddy, they will know each other better and be even more intimate friends. After a meal, one day, he gives his friend his secret --but it is really his wife's secret. 

Page 282

   After the evening meal had been cleared and the servants had left, Eckbert took Walter's hand and said, "My friend, you should for once let my wife tell you the story of her youth. It is quite strange."
   "Gladly," said Walter, and they returned to the fireplace, where they all sat down.
   It had just turned midnight. The moon could be seen fleetingly through the clouds that drifted by.
   "I don't' want you to think that I am imposing," Berta began. "My husband says that you have such a noble mind that it would be unjust to conceal anything from you. I only ask that you don't regard my story as a fairy tale, no matter how strange it may sound."
Now I like the way the writer has turned the fairy tale inside out here and asks both  Walter and us--to see this story as real and not the fairy tale it is.

Berta begins a long winded story that is indeed rather comical, wearisome and fantastical. She speaks of a childhood of misery and suffering.

Page 282

I was born in a village, where my father was a shepherd. The conditions in our home were not the best, and my parents did not know where to find their daily bread. But what troubled me even more was that my father and mother quarreled frequently because of their poverty and heaped bitter reproaches on each other.  As for me, I was constantly told that I was a naive, dumb child, who did not know how to manage the simplest kind of work. And in fact I was extremely clumsy and helpless.  I constantly dropped things.  I did not learn how to sew or spin. I was useless in household affairs.  The only thing I understood very well was the plight of my parents. 

So this poor woman grew up in a dysfunctional family plagued by poverty.Now it is hard not to feel sympathetic because although children are used as casual and essential labor sources in poor countries (no matter what these countries say about child labor laws), it is not their purpose to be labor.  And so this child, sensitive and useless as the labor the parents needed, knew immediately that she was incapable of any sort of ameliorating effect on such a catastrophic household.

And what she did have-- a dreamy, imaginative mind ---only made her condition more acute:

Page 282-283

The only thing I understood very well was the plight of my parents.  I often sat in a corner and imagined how I would help them if I suddenly became rich, how I would smother them with gold and silver and delight in their amazement.  Then I saw jinns rise above me, and they revealed underground treasures or give me small pebbles that turned into jewels.  In short, I imagined the most wonderful things, and when I had to get up to help with something, I would be even clumsier than before, because my head was still dizzy from the strange visions.

Now how is it possible to dislike such a child? Her only thought is not how mucky her parents are for making her work like mad, but how to save them from financial difficulties. And she has an imagination! In my opinion, such children are everywhere until adults make them into adults and all is lost.  The "strange visions" that make her quite dizzy often make me dizzy as well and I'm glad to have them.

Her parents were less amused. They wanted someone to do labor and what they got was a giddy, imaginative child. They pushed her to work and she was miserable-for they used verbal abuse to torture her. She was only eight years old.

One day she could not take it anymore.  She gets up one morning, leaves the hut, enters the forest.  Beyond the forest were mountains. She keeps going.

She passes through many villages and arrives at a strange place in the wild and she almost decides to give up the travelling and die. But she recovers her wits and keeps going.  This is beginning to sound like my poetical journey.

Eventually she arrives at a waterfall and comes upon yet another old woman. I am getting used to these old women now. I think they are the writer's friend.  I will use an old woman in my poems soon. Myself.

Now she doesn't know what to think of the old woman but she is starving and so she approaches her.

Page 284

     Instead of a mill, I came upon a waterfall, which, of course, caused my joy to diminish considerably.  I went to scoop a drink of water from the brook with my hand, when all at once I thought I heard a slight cough not too far away from me.  Never in my life have I been so pleasantly surprised as I was in that moment.  I moved in the direction of the sound, and at the edge of the forest I saw an old woman, who seemed to be resting.  She was dressed almost entirely in black, with a black hood covering her head and a good portion of her face.  She was holding a crutch.
    I drew closer to her and offered her my help.  She told me to sit down next to her and gave me some bread and wine. As I was eating,she sang a hymnlike song in a screeching voice. When she finished, she told me I might follow her.

Now what was an old woman with "a screeching voice" be doing in the wilderness?  And yet, this is how it is in fairytales. When writers get stuck, (I mean he can't have this 8 year old being a feral child forever without conking it so he had to make an adult figure available)-they inevitably chose an old woman to do their dirty for them.

The little girl was happy to follow the old woman and followed her to  the woman's hut despite some misgivings "despite the fact that the voice and appearance of the old woman was quite strange."  Also there was the odd matter of the gait of the woman --"she moved rather nimbly with her crutch and strained her face in such a way that at first I had to laugh." They go deeper into a forest.  Even the forest seems to echo the overall tone of this tale:

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We crossed over a pleasant meadow and then walked through rather a long forest.  When we emerged, the sun was just setting, and I shall never forget the sight and the feeling of that evening. Everything blended into the softest red and gold.  The trees stood with their tops in the glow of dusk, and there was a charming light cast on the fields.  The woods and the leaves of the trees stood still. The pure sky appeared to be an open paradise, and the rippling of the brooks and, from time to time, the whispering of the trees resounded through the calm stillness as if in melancholic joy.For the first time my young soul had a presentiment of what the world was like.  I forgot about myself and my guide.  My spirit and my eyes just reveled among the golden clouds.
A very pretty passage. And an encounter with the soul. Always a bit of melancholy in the joy. Nice.

In the hut, a dog is present and a bird that sings of solitude:

Page 285

  As we descended the hill, I heard a wonderful song that seemed to be coming from some bird in the hut.It sang like this:

        Oh, solitutde,
        Here in the wood--
       What joy for me,
       Oh, solitude,
       Here in the wood--
       What bliss for me!

I admit I like this song. I like being alone (although with the boys home for spring break there is no real solitude; they are termites in the drywall of me.) So anyway, here is the situation. Old woman, dog, bird that sings one song about solitude and little 8 year old girl. 

The hut is spartan quality with a few cups, jars, cage with bird, and bits of furniture. Life at its barest simplicities and nothing wrong with this at all.  The only strange matter seems to be the dynamics of the old woman's body:

 Page 285-286

The old woman gasped and coughed.  She seemed unable to recover herself. Soon she began petting the small dog and then speaking with the bird, who just kept answering her with its song. She acted as though I were not even present.  As I observed her, shivers went up my spine, for her face was in perpetual motion. Indeed, her head shook from old age so that it was impossible for me to know what she actually looked like.
Now, note that part I underlined here. This is going to be important to the Reader as she scrambles through the rock-pile scree of this writer's side of the mountain.  The features of this old woman were mutable.
And she seems to be constantly praying and coughing. I mean she might have T.B. but surely there is a reason why the writer keeps harping on this aspect of the old biddy?

Page 286

  After supper she prayed again, and then she showed me a bed in a low and narrow room. I did not stay awake for long, for I was half unconscious. But during the night, I woke up several times, and then I heard the old lady coughing and then speaking to the dog and to the bird, which seemed to be dreaming and only replied with a few words from its song. Along with the birches rustling outside the window and the song of a distant nightingale, all this made such a wondrous blend of sounds that it seemed to me as if I really wasn't awake but had only fallen from one dream into another, even stranger one.
So even at the start of the whole business, the little girl knew that this new place was bewitched and nightmare-like.

The little girl enters into a schedule of sorts. She is taught to do all the household chores that she had failed to master previously and also took care of the old woman's pets.  She begins to be comfortable in her new environs and she was quite taken by the bird.  The old woman herself had strange habits--often going out and leaving her alone.  But when she came back in the evenings she was taught how to read by the old woman and began to read widely for the woman had books. Really, what more did this child need?  But there is always some sort of irritant in the eye and a prescribed timeline that all human beings seem to follow  composed of hormones and immature cortical matter --that then lead them into error. But let me not get ahead of myself in this now interminable post that all of you are wishing you had never started to read.

An odd matter. Berta, telling the story to Philip Walter--was utterly unable to recall the dog's name even though she had been with the creature for four years. Now remember this point for this is significant although at the time of reading I passed it by like a cactus in the desert, without any sort of recognition of its individuality.

By now she is twelve years old and she is trusted by the old woman who like Eckbert the Blond makes the stupid decision to trust another beloved with a secret.  The bird that sang one song apparently laid an egg daily that contained a pearl or some other precious stone in it.This is tiresome. Why must gems be involved in every tale I tell you?  But there you go.  Once old woman tells the secret to the ninny of a child--she is at the mercy of the child being in her thrall. And she is in her thrall for a bit since she quite likes the set up and the solitude.

Page 287

Now she placed me in charge of gathering these eggs during her absence and of storing them carefully in strange-looking jars.  She would leave me with food and remained away longer, now often for weeks or months.  My spinning wheel hummed. The dog barked. The wondrous bird sang.  All the while, everything was so quiet around the place that I don't recall any storms or bad weather during the entire time I was there.  Not one person wandered there astray; not one wild beast came close to our dwelling. I was content and spent my time simply working from one day to the next...People would perhaps be quite happy if they could spend their days without being disturbed in any way until the end of their lives.

And I suppose this is why I am here in this story. I happen to agree with these thoughts--thoughts that the girl had before corruption filled her pure heart and fungal wilt took her down.

It was reading that opened her mind and took her into the  fungal mycelium. The books got her out of the straight and narrow of daily labor and into the feasts of the imagination:

Page 287

   From the little I read, I began imagining the strangest things about the world and the people in it. Everything was taken from my own experiences and the life around me. When I read about comical characters, I could only picture them like the little dog; the splendid ladies were like the bird in the cage; and all the female figures resembled the old woman. I had also read about love and made up strange stories about myself in my imagination. I conceived the handsomest knight in the world, adorned him in the most perfect way, without actually knowing how he looked after all the trouble I took. But I could feel terribly sorry for myself when he did not return my love.  Then I would make long tender speeches in my mind, and sometimes I would even talk aloud,trying to win him.... You're smiling!  Naturally, those days of our youth are far behind us now."
But are they? I find delusions everywhere and this one of the perfect partner is rampant in our society. There is no perfect partner just as there is no perfect self. And a fantasy--fiction in the mind will not change reality. The girl is doing what most of us do which is running the movie of our lives--our fantasy lives that is--in her head. She dresses the imaginary male to be "perfect" and yet cannot even tell his features. She felt "terribly sorry" for herself when the imaginary male did not blow hot for her. Even in a fantasy life, things go awry. All these delusions women have. Far better to spend your life writing poems than hankering after imaginary hunky males in the head.  For one thing they don't exist and for another when some sort of facsimile arrives, he is generally a whole lot of trouble and bother. Best to enter a nunnery and read and write for the rest of your life. Immaculate existence. That's the ticket.

Meanwhile the old woman has no idea that hormones and a giddy disposition are whirling the molecules of this kid into the stratosphere and beams upon her.

Page 287

   "You're a good girl," she once said to me in her rasping voice.  "If you continue along these lines, everything will go well for you, but nothing good ever comes of it when a person leaves the straight path. Even though the punishment may arrive late, it will always come."

Now, unfortunately, I've found this advice to be entirely true in my own life. I've never kept to the straight route and have zigzagged madly all over, risking my life with my big mouth and generally getting into trouble and misery; but hey, that's just me. .You may be the sane type who can arrive at the destination with all your integers in place but I'm not solid. I'm labile. And so I have to advise you to do what this woman suggests except..... perhaps you won't risk your life; perhaps you won't have learned more about who you are and who others are; perhaps you can get by without this intimate knowledge but I wasn't able to do this and I'm still not able to do this. I still need the seeds inside the fruit. I still eat the fruit entire.

But if you are smart you will take heed of this strange wise woman's advice. It is true and beware!--retribution will eventually come to you --for errors in risk.

Now of course, the girl, being a preteenager, full of bursting hormones, was in the la la land that my 15 year old son currently occupies (he hears maybe 1 word of the twenty words of advice I impart to him and will often stick his fingers in his head or put the music up high to avoid hearing any juicy news I have to give him being the squeamish sort of young boy) and so well, you guessed it, the hormones do her in.

She decides to take her life in her own hands. She decides to abscond with the bird that lays the gems.  Now notice how she describes herself in this passage --as if her temperament were sufficient explanation for her act of thievery.

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    I did not pay much attention as she said this, for I had a lively temperament and was constantly moving about.  However, during the night I recalled her words, and I could not understand what she had meant to say, even though I considered carefully every single word. Since I had read about riches, however, it finally occurred to me that her pearls and jewels were probably valuable. Before long this became clear to me. But what could she have meant by the straight path?

So being lively and hyperactive is sufficient reason to be stupid is it? Now this probably a good point for me to split this post into two parts, first because I have to go out with the boys and secondly because it is always wise to leave the Reader at a crucial moral junction in a fairy tale. The Reader can reflect on his or her untidy morals. And beat his or her chests in disgust at their failures to keep the straight and narrow. They might even reflect as this 12 year old girl is doing in this fairy tale--what indeed do we all mean "by the straight path?"