Sunday, May 26, 2024

Memorial Day 2024 ~ Lost at Sea

As Memorial Day approaches, I am curious about my dad's service in the Navy during World War II. During my childhood, Dad didn’t talk much about aspects of war that shaped him into the man he became and certainly must have pierced his young heart at times.


Tonight I watched a PBS documentary called “Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan.” Did you know that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy bought and transformed two Great Lakes passenger ships into fake aircraft carriers? Japan was surveilling our Pacific coast while Germany eyed our Atlantic coast. Where, then, to quickly train fighter pilots to take off and land on aircraft carriers? Lake Michigan! As soon as pilots achieved proficiency, they immediately went to wartime assignments on real ocean-going aircraft carriers. More than 15,000 pilots and 40,000 deck crews trained on Lake Michigan.


The PBS program prominently featured the Naval Air Station in Glenview. In port, the fake aircraft carriers, the Sable and the Wolverine, moored at Navy Pier in Chicago. Glenview is just seven miles inland. Video showed sailors being trained there for all the jobs required to keep a ship going. I wonder if that’s where my father learned how to do his job aboard ship. PBS video also showed impressive fighter jet activity over Glenview’s airfield. For decades, Dad talked about that base with pride and affection.


Wanting to learn more about my father’s wartime missions in the Navy, I dug out an account he had written in 2003. Because he had written it for his Northern Illinois University newsletter, however, it was more about classmates than about war. (… And about the possibility that they had been the sailors giving gum and candy bars to Sophia Loren as a child playing in the streets near Naples!) Dad’s article did mention resistance faced by the U.S. at Normandy being much fiercer than what his group of ships experienced in the Mediterranean. And later in the Pacific, his was a receiving ship for naval personnel whose ships had been crippled or sunk by Kamikaze planes.


I may have unwittingly learned more about my dad’s military service one day in about 2010 when he and I were walking around the pond in his senior community. By that time, he was well into Alzheimer’s and this day, as he did every week, he proudly directed us to the flag-plaza brick commemorating his being in the Navy and Mom’s serving in the Red Cross during the war. He then shared that he and fellow sailors constantly feared submarine torpedoes. He pointed to the black POW/MIA flag above our heads and then paused, mentally searching for the explanation of those acronyms. He finally settled on Lost at Sea.


Lost at Sea touched me on several levels—swimming in a vast, unforgiving ocean, no hope of rescue … Dad’s and anyone’s fear of drowning like this … his and many aging brains futilely flailing in search of words … my wondering in vain what justifies war. Trying to comprehend the discipline, courage, and self-sacrifice of military men and women defending freedom and integrity—I’m completely at sea. “Thank you for your service” is but a drop in the ocean of all the gratitude they deserve.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Dance Most of All ~ my review

In this 49-poem compilation, The Dance Most of All, poet Jack Gilbert reflects on scenes from his life with wisdom and melancholy. I find these poems interesting for several reasons. One is the wide variety of places and experiences mentioned—significant loves to simple observations remembered from Paris, Umbria, Nepal, Pittsburgh. I am also interested in Gilbert’s tone as he remembers, because I, too, look for meaning in memories. When reading his poems, I can see stains on his cheeks from tears cried long ago and then rest with him in each resolution.


The book’s title is taken from Gilbert’s poem “Ovid in Tears,” which ends

“… Both the melody

and the symphony. The imperfect dancing

in the beautiful dance. The dance most of all.”


I like his reviewing life as an imperfect yet beautiful dance. My most personally intriguing poem in this collection is “Not Easily.” Each line elicits a wow, hmmm, or oooh. I can picture it, but I can’t explain it.


“… We can swim in the Aegean,

 but we can’t take it home. …”


Monday, May 20, 2024

Old-Fashioned on Purpose ~ my review

Knowing Jill Winger might be preaching to the choir, I chose to read her book, Old-Fashioned on Purpose: Cultivating a Slower, More Joyful Life. Yes, as it turns out, I am the simple-old-fashioned-organic choir. Philosophically, I cheer the concepts presented here and have tried more than a few of Winger’s ideas. But I still gained some interesting tips and perspectives.


Winger relates how she “became” Old MacDonald. She explains the sustainability and interdependence of the plants on their prairie, their grazing livestock, and her family’s nutritional needs. She calls this a “cycle of abundance.”


Drawing from old wisdom of people like Benjamin Franklin and Adam Smith and newer voices like Michael Pollan, neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, and Wendell Berry, Winger touts the creativity, joy, and balance benefits of broadening one’s skills to lead a simpler life. She includes some recipes, such as honey mint lip balm, quick pickled veggies, and grass-finished beef.


At times as I read Old-Fashioned on Purpose, I felt a bit sad because I am now past the age when I could farm. I miss snapping beans. I miss sharing zucchini and tomatoes with neighbors. But I also felt encouraged by Winger’s exciting suggestions for cultivating community, beginning with letting go of perfection and pushing past fears. I believe most joy-seeking people, regardless of age or locale, would find helpful tidbits in this book.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

My review of The Librarianist by Patrick DeWitt


In the novel, The Librarianist, Bob Comet, a career librarian, experiences love, betrayal, loss, and a wildly bizarre adventure—all without much spirit of adventure. As a character, Bob is likeable enough. He’s highly intelligent and lives life sensibly putting one foot in front of the other, doing what needs to be done. I felt, however, that I never knew him. He accepts life’s ups and downs with such equanimity as to be a spectator to his own life. I had expected a person who loves books to exhibit a lively curiosity, literature-gained wisdom, and perhaps vivid ideas and emotions. But throughout my reading of The Librarianist, I felt like the son in the Papaoutai (by Stromae) music video, who keeps trying to dance with a mannequin. Bob Comet never came alive for me.


Was author Patrick DeWitt trying to show that early childhood trauma, which Bob had back in the 1940s when people didn’t call it that, essentially mummifies a living person?  Probably an unlikely stretch. As events of The Librarianist unfolded, I felt a range of emotions for the characters, even if Bob seemed mostly unmoved. And I will say that this novel contains the most shocking plot twist I’ve ever read. As in, wow, bravo!

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

My review of This Is Happiness, a novel by Niall Williams

 This Is Happiness

What a pleasure to read Niall Williams’ novel, This Is Happiness. The simple story is narrated as memoir by 78-year-old Noel (Noe) Crowe remembering a significant few of his late-teen years. They were spent living in tiny Faha parish, Ireland, with his grandparents, who at that time also housed a man named Christy, ostensibly in Faha as part of a team of workers who would bring electricity to the village. Trying to find his own purpose in life, 17-year-old Noe is fascinated by middle-aged Christy, especially after discovering Christy was really in Faha to right long-ago wrongs.


Even as a teen, Noe is sensitive and insightful, and by the time he sets to writing This Is Happiness about those years in Faha, his wisdom is finely honed. He looks back on his na├»ve self, his grandparents, Christy, and Faha’s people with tenderness and a touch of humor. Because Niall Williams’ writing is lyrical, I felt I was seeing Noe’s pains, quandaries, and discoveries as art. And a takeaway—not that Williams intended a lesson—is that even my life’s difficulties are beautiful when seen through a lens of kindness and wonder.


This book is absolutely lovely. I recommend it to anyone who appreciates a turn of phrase or human interest stories or life in Ireland or quirky childhood memories—or “generosity of spirit” (Noe’s observation of Christy). I leave you with a few sample quotes from This Is Happiness by Niall Williams.


“Sometime maybe you’ve had the sense that something has arrived in your life, and what it is you can’t tell, but it’s as though a gate you haven’t checked in a while must have blown open, and without even going to look you know it has. You’ve no proof, nothing you can point to, but you know: something has blown open.” [page 80]


“I couldn’t speak to beauty then, but I could to dignity and bearing and deep quietude in her. Sorrow, I thought …” [page 133]


“The two men were Bat from back the road who came in, God bless all, with cap low and eyes down, and Mossie O Keefe who was the Job of Faha, a man so hexed, not only dogged but whaled by bad fortune, that eventually, by a Fahaean genius for latitude in language, his initials became the thing people thought when things were not OK. You hit your thumb with a hammer, you went over on your ankle, you thought of O Keefe and said, ‘OK!’” [pages 239 and 240]


“As I’ve said, I am keenly aware I am dealing in antiquities. When you are born in one century and find yourself walking around in another there’s a certain infirmity to your footing. May we all be so lucky to live long enough to see our time turn to fable.” [page 55]

Monday, January 29, 2024

Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World by Scott Shigeoka

Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World“Did you know that curiosity is your superpower?” heads the book jacket’s intriguing invitation to read Scott Shigeoka’s Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World. The book jacket’s description certainly piqued my curiosity. I wanted to learn to ask more interesting questions because of my father’s habit of asking us kids at the dinner table, “What good questions did you ask at school today?” Note: He didn’t ask the expected question, “What did you learn?” His question instead implied we should proactively engage with people and information. Decades later—and I suppose more recently reminded by the Ted Lasso mantra unfurling on neighbors’ front-porch flags, Be Curious, Not Judgmental—I wanted to learn how to follow Dad’s wisdom. Shigeoka’s book, Seek, delivered more than I could have asked or imagined.


Shigeoka introduces concepts like deep curiosity and predatory, agenda-driven curiosity. He addresses different curiosity blocks, such as bias, assumption, and fear of uncertainty, and he offers hints to surmount such obstacles. Curiosity opens our worlds to other viewpoints and parts of people we might not see in normal, mundane, fact-exchanging conversation. But curiosity toward ourselves is also horizon-expanding. It leads us to apply self-compassion and come out the other side of life’s destabilizing events with renewed, hopeful, wiser perspectives. In promoting openness and curiosity, Shigeoka emphasizes the importance of listening. But he also advises how to discern when it’s best to listen and when to speak.


Seek is well-researched. Shigeoka presents concepts supported by psychological and behavioral studies as well as insights of writers and poets. With humility and humor, he includes stories from his own curiosity journey. I appreciated that he goes beyond educating the reader; I found this book very encouraging as well. In a culture where the most opinionated screamer appears to win, we need courage to move toward people with open, quiet, genuine curiosity.


Speaking of courage, one practice worth mentioning in more detail is “Become an Admitter.” On page 101, Shigeoka recaps four detaching strategies, one of which is admitting when you’re wrong. Enter a conversation with openness to (1) discover another view but stand pat with your own and (2) be willing to reroute your own thinking. He says, “See admitting being wrong as an act of intellectual humility that leads to better communication, relationships, leadership, and life satisfaction. You can do this by saying ‘Tell me more’ when you’re told you’re wrong, prioritizing learning and growth, and reminding yourself that humans are wired for forgiveness.”


As for learning to follow my dad’s example, I did pick up further inspiration and plenty of examples of good questions to be asking people. One in a list Shigeoka gives reminded me of the Seek book jacket: “What is a superpower you have that helps you or others?”

Friday, January 26, 2024

Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield ~ my review


In his Pulitzer(1927)-winning novel, Early Autumn, Louis Bromfield prismatizes 1920s New England high society through each main character’s perspective. The Pentland family estate near Boston represents old money and rigid societal expectations of such families. Anson and Olivia Pentland, Anson’s father, wife, aunt, and adopted cousin, as well as two teen daughters are all immersed in this culture. All have different perspectives, from fierce family pride to contemptuous rebellion and every nuance between. As Bromfield pens each perspective on the page, they splay out into a many-colored story.


The novel begins with a debutante ball that Olivia half-heartedly throws for her daughter. Several characters ominously profess to be wary about the adopted cousin’s (Sabine) return from Europe to stay a few months. They fear she will stir up trouble, and in fact, shortly thereafter, Sabine decides that a little rocking of the Pentland boat might amuse her. Knowing that Olivia is very unhappy in her marriage to Anson, Sabine arranges for Olivia to get to know a handsome outsider, a scorned Irish immigrant.


Although Bromfield at times employs omniscient POV, Early Autumn is truly Olivia Pentland’s story. In fact, his subtitle is A Story of a Lady. As events unfold, ninety percent of the action is Olivia’s inner conflicts about those events, romantic temptation, her daughter’s best interests, her discovery of ruinous Pentland family secrets, navigation of relationships with Sabine and the aunt who prove to be very unsafe people for Olivia, choices to be kind when no one else is, and her inner journey from one perspective about the Pentland family name to another. Through it all, she proves herself to be a lady.


I very much admire Olivia’s strength and dignity. Today we no longer place much importance on “being a lady,” because somehow being a lady now translates to being a fuddy-duddy or weak. But Olivia quietly, gracefully faces both overt and covert dangers. She is the clear heroine of this novel. “In a world which survived only by deceiving itself, she found that seeing the truth and knowing it made her strong.” [page 63 in my edition]


Early Autumn is a rich character study. Bromfield not only reflects attitudes in post-World War I America, but he also holds up to the light the very quality necessary in any era—tenaciously seeking truth before acting.