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A Peepable Moment

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I couldn’t resist the chance to combine my love of peeps with the Food Bank if Northern Nevada’s 30th anniversary.

Peeps Contest 5

Feeding the Peeps for 30 Years.

Feeding the Peeps for 30 Years.

Peeps Contest 8

Mo-Peep took pics.

peep

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That, My Friend, Is a Dark Side

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Harry can't help himself.

Harry can’t help his true nature.

“When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends,” Harry Burns says classically in my favorite movie, When Harry Met Sally.

Darlings, confession time, I have been known to peek. I know! I know! Bad form. But if I’m falling in love with the book, especially the hero of the story, in about chapter two or three, I get antsy. Is he (she) still alive in the end? I’m not looking for details such as is he destitute?; did he end up with Trudy?; Did he avenge his enemy? Did he learn anything at all?

It’s no more than this – is he alive? I just scan real quick-like. Is his name on the page? There, my eye catches it and I never go there again.

And just seeing it there isn’t even a guarantee that the author has him among the living at the last (I’ve been fooled before by my snooping.) But having acknowledged the protagonist there in the finale I know, we both — the author and I — love that character.  We are simpatico.

Harry’s fear is that he won’t finish the book, that’ he’ll die not knowing. He spends hours, days, thinking about death. He doesn’t care about the literature, the form, the character, the story, the theme, the author – he’s just afraid the New York cabbie may take him out first.

Sally knows better that I that the book should just unfold as written -- no peeking!

Sally  is horrified by the notion — no peeking!

My thing is different – not dark – I’m the Sally Albright. I cheerfully know that I’ll finish, by gosh I’ll stay up all night if I want to drink in the plot with its greater meanings, but succumbing to the temptation of unraveling the ending actually helps me to enjoy the book.  Rather than racing to the end and thereby hastening the delicious details of the author has in store, I can savor it all — page by ambrosial page.

Used to Daydream In That Small Town

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Marjorie, Curtis Sr. and Curtis Jr.

Marjorie, Curtis Sr. and Curtis Jr.

Certain people in the family tree capture my imagination – my husband’s maternal grandmother, Marjorie Barton Townsend Williams is one of those enigmatic people. Born in 1890 in Overbrook, Penn., to prominent blue-blood parents at the cusp of the new century when women were venturing further from Victorian sentiments and sensibilities, she left the enclave of mansions owned by her grandfather, father and uncles to serve as a Red Cross volunteer aid in France during WWI. She arrived as the war ended, tending to those men who were injured and help others transition back to the States. Under these circumstances, Marjorie met her future husband, one-time Minnesota lumberjack, then audacious soldier Curtis G. Williams. Enamored, he followed her back to Philadelphia upon his US Army release to rekindle the romance and finally won her father’s approval to marry her after some months.

From there the newlyweds traveled via train to his natal Minnesota to start their new life. His diary – more a collection of humorous stories than anything – has been passed down to the grandchildren. In it, he describes Marjorie only near the end of these reminisces. Other than this, I can only suppose her reaction to moving half-way across the country to live at first in International Falls (on the boarder to Canada) and later to Duluth.

Main StreetSo when I recently read Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Marjorie grew in my mind to be main character Carol Milford Kennicott. Also a new bride, Carol and husband Dr. Will Kennicott arrive via train in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. She looks out the window at the flat dingy landscape and reacts:

“That one word—home—it terrified her. Had she really bound herself to live, inescapably, in this town called Gopher Prairie? And this thick man beside her, who dared to define her future, he was a stranger! She turned in her seat, stared at him. Who was he? Why was he sitting with her? He wasn’t of her kind! His neck was heavy; his speech was heavy; he was twelve or thirteen years older than she; and about him was none of the magic of shared adventures and eagerness. She could not believe that she had ever slept in his arms. That was one of the dreams which you had but did not officially admit.”

Did Marjorie feel this way?

So much of Lewis’ book deals with Carol’s tilting at windmills – trying to change this town, revolt against what she views as provincialism attempting to bring in culture, refined architecture, educational reforms only to be rebuffed by tradition and complacency.  Carol endeavors by turns to fit into established cliques and then break away to blaze trails of originality and single-minded leadership. Lewis’ social satire about small towns was the first to expose certain narrow attitudes and this bewildered readers who commonly idealized American small towns.

But far more than the town and its inhabitants stifling her, Carol feels most misunderstood by her own husband who though he loves her, cannot understand her restless nature.

Was this Marjorie’s experience too?

Or was her life one of isolation – raising three sons while her husband caroused as though still single?

Of note, the book Main Street was published in 1920, the year Marjorie and Curtis married. The book became a modern best seller, with the exception of some small towns in Minnesota because of the book’s genesis from Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre, Minn.

Did Marjorie read this book? And if she did, what would she have said? — That she identified with Carol? Or that her life shared nothing with a character living in similar time and place?

We do know that she was not happy. Unlike Carol in Main Street who was able to make a peace, eventually, with Gopher Prairie, Marjorie ended her life at age 47 leaving her sons ages 12 to 16 to cope with the loss.

When researching ancestry, even the lives of those who lived not that long ago, mysteries abound. Through literature it’s interesting and instructive to imagine Marjorie’s life as it might have been, how she felt, what she saw and the choices she faced. Reading something that may have mirrored her life has helped me to understand at least some of the undercurrents in a life that was too short.

Cold Words Can Comfort

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Now is the winter of our discontent –

The opening line of Shakespeare’s Richard III’s soliloquy rattles ‘round my head once the glitter of the New Year has dimmed.

We’ve weathered some emotional and financial storms previous Januarys – both hubby and I lost our dear dads during this month, we’ve lost other friends and a favorite uncle, too. If the furnace, car, dishwasher or nearly anything mechanical goes kaput, it’s akin to Murphy’s Law that this will occur kick off our new year. Frankly, we’d like to tear this month off the calendar and start with February just to avoid the anniversaries.

We know we’re not alone in this January haze of loss, illness or frustration, the newspapers fill of obits and human misery.

sierra snow 2We’ve seen a lot of weather stack up over our dear Sierra pass this season and have dealt some with the wind, rain, ice, snow, fog and inversion. But, knock on wood, for us, the January Jinx hasn’t hit this year, aside from this head cold that has had me lying low and a few lame car repairs. Curled in my bed, reading while tethered to tissues and tonics, the sequence of authors tending to me have been (in order) William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis and Leif Enger. The latter three have set the mood of winter thusly:

Main StreetLewis in Main Street describes main characters Carol and Kennicott dashing before a Minnesota blizzard:

After a mile she saw that he was studying a dark cloud in the north. He urged the horses to the run. But she forgot his unusual haste in wonder at the tragic landscape. The pale snow, the prickles of old stubble, and the clumps of ragged brush faded into a gray obscurity. Under the hillocks were cold shadows. The willows about a farmhouse were agitated by the rising wind, and the patches of bare wood where the bark had peeled away were white as the flesh of a leper. The snowy slews were of a harsh flatness. The whole land was cruel, and a climbing cloud of slate–edged blackness dominated the sky… They were flying now, the carriage rocking on the hard ruts. The whole air suddenly crystallized into large damp flakes. The horses and the buffalo robe were covered with snow; her face was wet; the thin butt of the whip held a white ridge. The air became colder. The snowflakes were harder; they shot in level lines, clawing at her face. She could not see a hundred feet ahead.

Enger in Peace Like a River gives us a Reuben’s view of a another Minnesota storm season:Peace Like a River

You don’t give a chipped dime for December ’62, but it was an epic season, all the same, the drifts rising eventually past the kitchen windows and up to the very eaves. In the afternoons Swede and I, in layers of pants, would step from the highest snow bank onto the roof of the single-story addition, then climb to the peak and go skidding down the other side to land with a poof in the front yard.

Then Cather in her best-known novel My Antonia details the Nebraska prairie winter:

Winter comes down savagely over a little town on the prairie. The wind that sweeps in from the open country strips away all the leafy screens that hide one yard from another in summer, and the houses seem to draw closer together. The roofs, that looked so far away across the green tree-tops, now stare you in the face, and they are so much uglier than when thMy Antoniaeir angles were softened by vines and shrubs. In the morning when I was fighting my way to school against the wind, I couldn’t see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late afternoon, when I was coming home, the town looked bleak and desolate to me. The pale cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify – it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said, ‘This is reality whether you like it not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and the shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.’ It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer.

Dear authors, knowing you’ve been there, felt fright, desolation mixed with joy and consolation comforts me. Your thoughtful descriptions of the highs and lows of winter  helps me to remember and appreciate the coming of spring and New Life.

Start with a New Page

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New year, new beginnings, new life.

New year, new beginnings, new life.

The days they do fly and here we stand at the third week of the year. That great post I had all written in my head to greet the baby new year — the one that was the overlay of new beginnings brightened by New Year’s weddings because I finished Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding at the dawn, was to be a remembrance of the two New Year’s weddings — 20 years apart — that we’ve been honored to attend. I got bogged down choosing and sizing the art. Oh what a dandy that blog could have been. Too late.

Too late, too, was the comparison between our lives to Gulliver’s Travels as written by Jonathan Swift. Oh how the Lilliputians could so aptly have been compared to our Congress and lawmakers. It was pithy — or at least how I had blogged in my head on the backs of my eyelids while I drifted off to sleep.

My next  was an open letter to all the NFL bystanders — we patient partners who stand by while our TV rooms turn blue with the slang slung at Jim Nance and Joe Buck to quit blatantly  favoring the ref’s call for their perceived favorites. No need to write that one now — our team, the Niners are going all the way with the help of hometown hero Colin Kaepernick. Fist pump all the way!

A reason to cheer in the new year.

A reason to cheer in the new year.

Oh the riotous post about our small grey kitty who habitually spills unwatched beverages and has killed off two electronic devises in two weeks. And yet, by God, we still love that scamp. The theme boiling up was something about this unconditional animal love while trying to comprehend why we struggle to do the same for our fellow human friends and relations. That one was written as I drove to work, never making it to the tips of my fingers and onto the screen.

My next post was gunna be — am I just too old, too work-worn to go through yet another boss?   It’s me railing against change, against new systems or worrying about what the new expectations shall be. Am I “up” for it mentally to read the tea leaves of exactly what’s in the head of a new boss? What if the term out-sourced comes up? When in life do we ever stop having to justify our existence?  My allegory of the new and the old. The beginnings always and yet beginning again. Yep. That one, too, came in the night, when my mind wouldn’t stop racing the clock.

One for the books 2

New reads, new ideas, new worlds to explore.

But it’s One for the Books by Joe Queenan that has me sleeping through the night again. His newly published book about reading (a personal passion of mine) helped me re-set my thoughts. Writing of the state of reading today after examining his own patterns, interviewing 65 of his friends and relations and maligning everyone from book reviewers to English teachers, to some of the authors themselves, mostly he bemoans the time slipping away. Voracious in his reading (he reads up to 150 books a year), he’s yet to get through Eliot’s Middlemarch even while reading up to 40 books simultaneously and he hasn’t washed his windows in 17 years. And for him, that’s OK.

These January blogs will never see the light of day, never be fleshed out completely, but for me, this has been a most positive month. These blogs: I’ve thought them up, one by one; they’ve entertained me and I am not looking back. No, not I.

Resolution Off the Charts at 23,749

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If 23,749 was a distance, it would get me back and forth from my home in Reno, Nevada to Pittsburgh five times.

If 23,749 was a height, it would be 10 feet from the summit of Makut Parbat in the Himalaya.

23749 is a Zip Code, or will be one someday, near Norfolk, Va.

Add up the calories in 53 fried Twinkies and you get approx. 23,749.

The 2012 road to reading led me to new adventure.

The 2012 road to reading led me to new adventure. (photo by Marjorie Williams)

If 23,749 were an a circumference measured in miles, it would be more than that of Venus.

If 23,749 were an age by days, it would be 65+ years.

In my case, 23,749 is the number of pages I have read in 2012. Whoa, really? Well, that’s what Goodreads tells me in my stats for the past year.

But more than that, 23,749 means I more than accomplished that goal of reading 75 books this year that I set January 1, 2012.

Me.

I accomplished a New Year’s Resolution. It’s traditionally something I’d be keen on for the first month or so of a new year. For example, running for exercise, giving up butter, sleeping eight hours a night, organizing all the closets — those have traditionally made my lists.

The key to this success? I love to read, I have access to a lot of books and I could measure results. The challenge was time — finding the time to make it happen. Even though my life is busy, busy, busy, choosing books that were sure to compel me to read kept the momentum going. For me, that meant good books — no trash, very few best sellers and portable — the books may or may not be classified as classics but necessarily not high-brow. Good books and never stopping. As in finishing a book and starting a new one the following day or even the same day. Not letting my brain, eyes or fingers for page-turning rest when I had made time.

A bonus to it all has been starting this blog. That in itself has been an adventure and one that will continue into 2013.

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Autumn reading warmed my heart. (photo by Marjorie Williams)

So want to know what I’ve been reading? I did blog back in August about the first 50, so here are the final 34 for the total of 84:

18 Fiction

16 Non-Fiction

I got into an Irish thing in August between Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw reading An Ideal Husband, Dubliners and Pygmalion by each and  add a biography – Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris.

The looming elections led me to read Common Sense by Thomas Paine, The Theory of Social Revolutions by Brooks Adams, The Souls of White Folks by W.E.B. DuBois, and Griftopia by Matt Taibbi. The books helped me to make sense of our history, economic and social challenges.

The need to totally escape into thriller led me to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Cinema Murder by E. Phillips Oppenheim and the Fortieth Door by Mary Hastings Bradley.

My love of baseball and music drew me to Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin and Moneyball by Michael Lewis.

Get your English on — with a maiden name like Melton, I must have some connection to John Milton. So I dove into Paradise Lost and continued on to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, the little-read Anne Bronte with Agnes Grey after Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forester, for non-fiction, the autobiography of Charles Darwin and to round out the English sprint I read Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.

My friends, I do buy American and from modern authors too: The aforementioned Flynn, The Road by Cormac McCarthy (intense and good), The Heart is a Lonely Hunger by Carson McCullers, a juvenile read Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata and A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway.

I’ve got this ancestry research part in my soul that I love to enrich so to play with the theme: Hey America, Your Roots are Showing by Megan Smelenyak, Maria by Curtis Bok, Chapel Talks for School and Camp by Anne Barton Townsend (a great-aunt to my husband) and Western Carpetbaggers by Thomas Fitch.

Great Short Poems edited by Paul Negri was and is a heart-felt treasure.

Stranger than Fiction by the Voice of Reason radio personality and Don’t Know Much About Geography by Kenneth C. Davis came by way of a visit to the local used bookstore. While Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min came from my Mommy.

I thank the University of Nevada Journalism Department for bringing author Mark Kurlansky to town to lecture. I crammed in advance of the visit to read the epic 1968:The Year that Rocked the World. My 2013 list will include Salt and Birdseye by Kurlansky, for sure.

Ever on my spiritual path I welcomed (along with Milton and  Townsend above)  Jesus, A New Vision by Marcus Borg and Help Thanks Wow, the “new one,” by Anne Lamott.

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The snow flies as the year closes, but the reading continues into every season. (Photo by Vic Williams)

What’s on the bedstand now? I’m in the mid-point now for Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Getting me up to that momentous 23,749.

Far more than a number, reading helped me associate my life with books and my books with my life. It has energized me, lifted me, educated me, entertained me, changed me.

Ignorance is a Cure for Nothing

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I cried in my car today. I was alone, tears streaming down my cheeks creating rivers in my morning makeup.

No, the cause was not familial – the kids, husband, home and hearth are fine. I am still employed – all is well on that front. I am in good health.

So what caused said downpour? It stemmed from The Souls of White Folk, by scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois. The Souls ...is a collection of essays written in-part from an academic point of view on race and being African American in America at the turn of the 20thcentury.

I say in-part because of Du Bois’ personal story in Chapter 11.  The previous ten chapters lay the foundation of his thesis that Negros, as they were called then, of the South need the right to vote, education, and to be treated as equals in order to strengthen the people and the nation. Du Bois uses the metaphor of the veil. He shows the reader how all African-Americans wear it because their view of the world and its potential economic, political, and social opportunities is so vastly different from that of white people. The veil is a visual manifestation of the color line.

A white woman in the West, 110 years after it was first published, I understand the premise, hear the history, value the heritage, and enjoy the research and approach. I’m cognizant that time, strife, determination and sheer will have brought about changes in our culture. Things are different – many things better – but race relations still evolve. Prejudice is pervasive.

Through the Libravox audiobooks app I eagerly paced through Du Bois’ seminal work the past week or so. The writing style is both descriptive and didactic. Due to his narrative I see the red earth of Georgia, the sweat of the sharecropper, the expanse of the color line. Each chapter begins with a classical quotation followed by several measures of an African American spiritual or tune to lay the foundation of the them of the chapter.

So Chapter 11 begins (you can listen here, and I recommend it because the narration is very good):

O sister, sister, thy first–begotten, The hands that cling and the feet that follow, The voice of the child’s blood crying yet, WHO HATH REMEMBERED ME? WHO HATH FORGOTTEN? Thou hast forgotten, O summer swallow, But the world shall end when I forget.” (Poem by Swinburne)

The song is the spiritual:  “I Hope My Mother Will Be There.”

Until this point, Du Bois is narrator and traveler through the south telling the reader what he has witnessed and solutions he recommends, but here he bears his soul.

Unto you a child is born,” sang the bit of yellow paper that fluttered into my room one brown October morning. Then the fear of fatherhood mingled wildly with the joy of creation; I wondered how it looked and how it felt–what were its eyes, and how its hair curled and crumpled itself.

This beautifully written soliloquy to his son, Burghardt, so personal, so filled with wonder, disappointment and heartbreak. He shares feelings for his own life, the south, a futile life of being born under the veil of racism in a crescendo of sorrow after losing his firstborn. I felt his sadness and rage as he plead to God for just this one bit of happiness in this life. He asked to save this one innocent human being, his son.

I am not any of the things that Du Bois was: sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan Africanist, author and editor. But a thing we do share lo these years apart is the love of a child. It’s universal. It’s colorblind.

Ignorance is a cure for nothing, says Du Bois. This is why he wrote and why we read. Books – be they non-fiction or fiction – when written with humanity, help us to have a shared experience. Thank you W.E.B. Du Bois for teaching me today.

Care to read other books by African Americans? Here is a list of 50 to get you started.

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