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Jennifer Croft (on where she came from, in three words)

A portrait of genius: the author and translator Jennifer Croft.

[Two-minute read.]

I’m glad to know you, Eleanor Wachtel. I’ve been within a few feet of Ms. Wachtel, but never met her. Through her cool, superbly researched interviews on Writers and Company, though, I’ve spent sweet hours in the presence of such brilliant folk, and Eleanor did it for me again the other day. That time, it was a writer and translator, from languages I can’t speak, of books I hadn’t heard of. More homework for Howdy.

Jennifer Croft is a shockingly young person to have shared a Booker Prize, for translating Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. She is a startlingly Oklahoman person to be a celebrated English-language conduit for literature in Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish, including her own novel-memoir Homesick, which she wrote in Spanish before translating it — mainly so her younger sister could read it. She is smarter than you and WAY smarter than me, and sports a childhood far more interesting, too, not that any of us would dial up that ordeal on some Alternative Life Choice-meter. I’ll admit, though: I envy her obsession and isolation, along with her intellect. This is not wise, I know.

I’m quoting Ms. Croft today for a tiny thing she said in the interview, not some intricate, gorgeous sentence-making she has spun. She is telling the story of the oddball manner in which an eccentric young girl from Oklahoma, and her desperately ill younger sister, came to immerse themselves in Russian and Ukrainian, respectively. Unusually for their family, the home-schooled sisters were watching television during the Lillehammer Olympics. The younger one idolized Oksana Baiul, the gold medal-winning figure skater from Ukraine. Jennifer, perhaps 12 or 13, was wowed by the brilliant Russian pairs skaters, Gordeeva and Grinkov, and did what any no typical American kid would do: she immediately went to the library for books on Russian grammar. “I wanted to do something obsessively and alone.” I was moved and intrigued by this recollection, but it was something she said later that still rings in my mind.

I remember Kurt Vonnegut’s comment on James Joyce, that the great Irish writer could spin the most dazzling, intricate sentences “but my favorite sentence in his short story Eveline is this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.” This is how Croft hit me. For a similar reason, I’m quoting a simple statement that, in the context of the childhood story she was telling and the remarkable literary figure she has become, strangled me a little. She continues telling Ms. Wachtel what amounts to her Origin Story, the haphazard introductions to Ukrainian and Russian that a family acquaintance, who spoke some of both, gave to Croft and her sister, and the feverish six-hour forays that the former made into the system and the irregularities of a Russian language not even sharing an alphabet with English.

And then she said, slowly but undramatically,

“Eventually my sister moved on to other interests…

and I didn’t.

It was that simple. Humble, diffident. And she didn’t.

Guest Post: MP Freeman Reacts to “Silver Linings”

MP Freeman is *none* of these things, but I do like the image. Clashing (or gently bumping?) opinions produce the spark of truth…?

[4-minute read. An old friend of my site sent a reaction to this piece, which was both too long, too smart and too well-written to stay in the Comment section. Mr. Freeman agreed to my posting it instead as a guest article.]

 

 

So what are silver linings? Are they anything like gratitude? I’ve never thought of silver linings and gratitude as being the same things. Silver linings are nuggets of good that you can extract from the crap heap of something that has happened. A team loses a game. What do they look at as a silver lining? Maybe their defence played well; maybe somebody made a good shot. Maybe they drew a big crowd. Those would be examples of gold that they can extract out of the pain of defeat.

This pandemic isn’t the same as losing a game. There’s something drastically different about this, compared to other situations where we might search for a silver lining. And there’s nothing like praising the defence for playing well. This pandemic doesn’t have a foreseeable end; a game would. This pandemic, much the same as other crises over the ages, has set the world into a tailspin. The best that we can say about the situation is that we’re holding on for dear life. And we don’t even know whether we’re doing that well. Sorry, but to say that we’re looking for a silver lining amongst all of that might be a bit of a misnomer.

The old age home where my mother is housed right now has been under lockdown since about a week and a half before the country shut down. Contacting my mom in any way is very difficult. I used to see her all the time; we would sit and talk over supper at least three times a week. And one night a week I would stay for the entertainment and sit and enjoy the time with her. But since the pandemic all of that has stopped. Calling the home to see how my mother is doing burns up valuable phone time that they can’t afford to give each patient staying there. I have an old school friend staying there and he has a cell phone. His sister told me to phone him and that he would find my mom and put her on the phone. But I can’t do that, because that would put him in jeopardy because of violating the social distancing instructions. And I can’t go into the Lodge to see my mother because that isn’t allowed right now. Where is the silver lining in that?

A lot of people have been left at home not going into work every day. You would think that that has all kinds of silver lining tucked into it. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case. People like their routines in the morning; they might even need them. Getting going these days where we’re stuck at home during the pandemic is not easy for everybody. Getting up is a step in the process that is delayed. Some people, I would even say most people, don’t keep their routines in the morning which includes showering, getting dressed for work, having breakfast, brewing coffee, driving to work. People have been knocked off balance by this. Where is the silver lining in that?

Getting food is an adventure. Finding the things that you actually want to cook is sometimes problematic. Being able to go to the store to pick up that item that you missed or don’t have in the pantry is nonexistent at this time. So you’re trying to plan ahead for your meals but it’s not the same as it used to be. I’m finding that the meals I thought I would want aren’t the meals that I thought I would have on a given day. Everything is closed during the pandemic. People aren’t traveling, people aren’t going to museums or to parks or beaches or the boardwalk. People are being told to stay, to self-isolate and to maintain social distance. Many don’t leave their homes for days. Where is the silver lining in that?

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James Naismith (on the Requirements)

Linus is probably over-thinking this.

I stumbled, in a long-familiar and typically random way, on a reference to The Inventor and First Coach’s 12-part prescription. It was a hand-written guide for how to be an effective participant in his as-yet unbranded off-season training game for the more dedicated rugby players, this at a YMCA International Training School in Massachusetts. This new sport was being played exactly nowhere other than a Springfield barn at this time in 1892, but The Young Men’s Christian Association had been around for nearly 50 years by then, and already had a strong international presence. James Naismith couldn’t have devised this odd, indoor game in a better place for it to become the world-wide phenomenon it is today. But this document, “The Physical and Mental Requirements of Basket-Ball”, was an effort by the muscular Christian Phys. Ed. teacher to get  his muscular young Christian students to think the game. (This is still a hard sell with players –except for the very best ones — but I admire his pure-hearted drive to make the game MEAN something, right from the start.)

 

A copy of the “Requirements” hangs in a museum in The Inventor and First Coach’s hometown of Almonte, near Ottawa. It is so quaint, quirky and remains true:

“THE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL REQUIREMENTS OF BASKET-BALL”

“Agility, accuracy, alertness, cooperation, initiative, skill, reflex judgment, speed, self-sacrifice,

self-confidence, self-control and sportsmanship.”

Go ahead.

Break it down. Think them through.

I did. I like this list. The many words that ensued can be found up there in It’s All About Sports!, although it actually isn’t. (All about sports, that is, though my wife and mother-in-law are overwhelmed by eye-rolling when I say this. “There’s more to life than basketball,” I insist, “but there’s more to basketball than basketball, too!” They reply, “Mmm, not so much…”) But you may want to read my ruminations on each requirement.

Marilynne Robinson (on civilization)

May she keep on teaching and writing. Marilynne Robinson, photo from an article in The Guardian newspaper.

[3-minute read]

We hear it all the time. Human beings are naturally aggressive. We have always had wars, and we always will. Some of the more pessimistic among us – and listen, such people are not deranged; there are reasons aplenty to cast a stink-eye on our history  – go so far as to suggest that war is the natural condition of human societies, and that peace is an intermittent and temporary reprieve. This is nonsense.

Among many other reasons, it is foolish to think this way because, first, it is too easy, and second, it is too damned discouraging. Third, and most important, to consider warfare as our default mode is slippery and false because it allows us to excuse and even justify  (to ourselves, to our fellow foreign policy analysts, to our tough-on-crime cronies, to any of our partners-in-expediency) the use of brutal methods to address problems. Meanwhile, we routinely fall into the lazy assumption that human beings have hair-trigger predispositions towards violence or other anti-social qualities, yet most of us wouldn’t say this about the people that we actually know and interact with. (“People are AWFUL! Well, not my people, they’re mostly pretty great but, you know, those people out there…”)     

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Joan Didion (and Company: on writing and encouragement)

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, in 1972. (from New Yorker magazine)

                       [3-minute read]

Here’s a foolish thing, a very 20th-century sort of stinkin’ thinkin’. But worry not, it ends with two great women (and one fine husband, not me) sending out a peculiar but quotable encouragement, and some of us might listen.

I love writing, or having written, or at least the romance of writing. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the dearly beloved Mother Corp of all Canucks leftish, artsy and true, has a long-running radio program called “Writers and Company”. It’s an hour-long conversation between the quietly enthusiastic, impeccably prepared Eleanor Wachtel and a superb range of authors: novelists, playwrights, essayists, poets, from Zadie Smith to George Saunders to Arundhati Roy. These are three of my recent listens, but I wouldn’t likely have heard them if I’d stayed in one particular mental rut.

For me, Writers ‘n’ Co was, for the longest and silliest time, mostly an occasional, accidental listen, often when I happened to be in the car and remembered what time it was: specifically, the Sunday 3 pm slot on CBC’s Radio 1, where Wachtel has been asking her terse but evocative questions since 1990. I’d catch part of a conversation, sometimes the whole thing if there was a writer known to me, and I’d regularly and fervently resolve to never miss another; I found each episode thrilling as a teacher of readin’ ‘n’ writin’, and began to connect it to my own spastic undertakings as a scribbler. (A gutsier, more daring me might have blustered, Wachtel’s gonna interview ME one day. Well. Maybe not. I finally did meet her, briefly, a year or so ago. She was plainer and funnier than she had always sounded to me, that sombre but voluptuous voice teaching me from tinny speakers.)

But I was never much of a planner, and the number of interviews I caught was small compared to the torrent of writer-talk that was available.

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Kris McDivitt Tompkins (on getting out of bed and doing something)

McDivitt Tompkins in southern Chile: a woman and her love and her money. (Pic from The Guardian newspaper and Getty images.)

McDivitt Tompkins in southern Chile: a woman and her love and her money. (Pic from The Guardian newspaper and Getty images.)

I’ve been following this woman’s career for, oh, about 12 minutes now. She was born rich and privileged (even more than, say, me), and also made her own millions as CEO of the outdoor-clothing brand Patagonia. She married, in her mid-40s, another rich dude/outdoorsy entrepreneur-turned-Deep Ecologist named Doug Tompkins, and the two of them decided to pour their money into conservancy and rewilding, into gifts to humanity and the planetary future. (It will take you less than 12 minutes to read this fine Guardian article about her and her recently-deceased partner-in-sublime. The Guardian does some of the best eco-advocacy journalism going.) They bought up huge swathes of land in Chile and Argentina — yup, it’s Patagonia — with no plans other than to preserve them and build local capacity, with The Land as the prime asset and The People as its custodians. It’s beautiful.

I want you to hear from her. The following comes from the above-mentioned article on McDivitt Tompkins, and it seems to me that this wealthy giver, someone who is using her powers of privilege for good, advises us well. Wake up and do good stuff. Yes.

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Hugh Kenner (on taking the best stuff for granted)

Thinking of “Better Read Than Never” – my cleverly named series of reviews on books that are “yesterday’s news” (but not for me) – my tendency to untimely reading isn’t limited to novels. My mind being what it is, I decided to finish off the November 2014 edition of The Atlantic, an interest-packed number of a great old magazine. A James Parker piece on the “rock-star poet” Dylan Thomas, among many other things the inspiration for Robert Zimmerman’s stage name¹, came first, a welcome re-read. What I hadn’t noticed the first time through, or what at least didn’t make much of a dent in my memory bank, was a startlingly great quote from Hugh Kenner.

¹ So far, I have reserved judgement on Bob Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I’m leaning towards The nostalgia and narcissism of the Boomer generation triumph again. Interesting choice. People paid attention, but I’m not sure it does anything for literature, which continues to have a declining coolness index unless I’m wrong (I hope I’m wrong).

Kenner – yup, news to me, too – is described in the Atlantic piece as a student and explainer of Marshall McLuhan, though I’ve come to discover that he was much more than that. Alongside McLuhan and the uber-educated imagination of Northrop Frye², the I hardly knew ye Kenner was in fact one of the great critical minds of 20th-century scholarship, a prodigious writer and one of the great Wise Guy Canadians. (True to form, I’m now bandwagon-jumping on to an e-book platform of his The Elsewhere Community (1998), an account of his travels to learn from and be among the greats of the arts and sciences.³)

² I was lucky enough to have a remarkable English teacher in high school, Pete Hill, who shoved The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye at me. Even then, my rather lightly educated mind knew it was awesome. (Note to self: read more Frye.)
 ³ Also true to form, I will now find an obscure way to connect this literary life to basketball: Kenner was born in Peterborough, Ontario, where one of the older high schools is Kenner Collegiate, named after Hugh’s father, a teacher. (A school named after a teacher?!) At least one of my teams has played at Kenner, so there.

(But enough about me.) The knockout punch of the Dylan Thomas look-back came toward the end of the article, which argues that we should not look at the excesses, lifestyle and literary, of the Welsh poet but rather at the best of what he was and what he did. Author James Parker reminds us of the famed McLuhan aphorism: The medium is the message. Parker advises, therefore: don’t look so much at this or that Thomas poem, which may by now feel dated or immoderate or just plain meaningless; instead, consider what the man himself meant, and attempted. At this point, Parker quotes Kenner’s explanatory paraphrase of The Medium is the Message.

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Chuck Klosterman (on sports and useless certainty)

[3-minute read]
The 'o' is long.

The ‘o’ is long.

If you’ve read one of these things before, you know my schtick. (It’s not so artificial, though, not really.) I’m a confirmed Accidentalist as a reader, about the farthest imaginable distance that a member of the homo sapiens tribe can be from A) a trend-watcher, eyes peeled for the New and the Hot and the Must-Read¹ or B) somebody with a plan. Usually, that means that when I get around to reading something I wish I’d read it long before. So.

 ¹ Cases in point: I’m still smart-phone free. I drive standard. I play vinyl records and CDs.

I’ve made no sudden conversion to Column A or Column B, but am still prone to literary accidents, which is how I ran into Chuck. Klosterman’s 2016 – wait, isn’t that THIS YEAR? – book-length thought experiment But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. It’s my first book-length CK, though I used to read him often on the Grantland sports ‘n ‘popcult website (ah, Grantland, we hardly knew ye). The moral: it pays, in intellectual and vaguely spiritual terms, anyway, to go to the library. [That hyperlink right there was to a Neil Gaiman essay. You should go to it. And to the library.] BWIWW?, with its black text on white, upside-down cover, leaped into my sweaty palms from my local branch’s “Express Reads” shelf. Get it now, it’s hot, but you have only 7 days before library muscle is pounding on your door…²

² I should have bought it. Ended up costing me a $10 library fine.

It’s a smart and entertaining book, which concerns itself with “Big Potato” questions that cluster around the title query: how can we be so sure about nearly anything, when time so often (and often so quickly!) proves us to be out to lunch without a paddle? what can we safely predict about our futures? do we have even half-decent tools for justifying what we think we know for certain? Klosterman is stylish, contrarian and witty on such starchy questions as these³, there are any number of quote-worthy morsels, but I liked the one below. Sportsy readers don’t get nearly enough Cool Quotation time, so this one’s for them. And for you.

³ No small potatoes. Only big ones are his prey. “Starchy” questions. Get it, didja get it?
The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book at the back.

The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book from the back.

As he concludes the book, Klosterman turns his attention to sabermetrics, the growing movement to quantify and generally science-up the approach to appreciating and understanding sports, the teams and the athletes. Why care? you ask. I answer, Because there’s more to sports than just sweat and dunks, grunts and numbers, for one thing, but also because Klosterman makes reading about sports feel fresh and [gulp!] enlightening. He makes sport feel like a genuinely useful lens to understand human beings and their cultures. Bam. Tell the truth: you have to finish this piece now, right? And the quote is just around the bend.

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Marilynne Robinson (on writing, and labour)*

* And on writing on Labour Day. But that’s more about me than by her.

[3-minute read]
This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom more in a moment.

This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom and from whom more in a moment. (Guardian photo)

My bride asks me some hard questions sometimes. Labour Day Monday’s was, What do you want your blog to be? What’s if for, anyway? I mumbled my usual answers, which she cut short with a familiar refrain: I think it needs to be more focused. Who’s your audience? I get your latest posting and I never know what it’s going to be about.

She says that with the unmistakeable This Is Not A Good Thing tone. The Dissatisfied Client tone. I resist, naturally. I like writing about different subjects. Don’t you love it when you go to the movies and you find yourself thinking, Gee crappy, I don’t know WHERE this is going! I do. I find that thrilling, as long as I trust that I’m in good hands. Besides, writing helps me learn, and I have lots of things I like to learn about. Such would be my arguments, if I was feeling, say, defensive.

However, my lady is probably right: it seems most people like to be on familiar ground at Movie Time, and that people return to a Dave Zirin Edge of Sports column, or a Stephen King novel, or the latest reboot of the hottest superhero flick franchise – moving from the countercultural through the cultural to the culture-of-mass-consumption – because they pretty much know what they’re going to get, and they like that. Meanwhile, I expect my readers to enjoy running the gauntlet of my popping-corn enthusiasms, “madly off in all directions”, as Thurber once wrote. Well, sorry about that, readers!

It’s something to ponder, though.

Earlier, my wife had also had this question, given that it’s Labour Day, and our son heads back to high school tomorrow, and I’ve been teaching on that WonderDreadFul Tuesday nearly every year of my adult life. She asked, So are you having your teacher dreams?

This answer was easy, but I didn’t quite believe myself. Because the answer was NO. One sabbatical year years back, my late August was still filled with can’t find the classroom, teaching a subject I’ve never thought about, general performance-anxiety-ridden can I still DO this thing? mid-night theatre. Later on, when for three straight Septembers I was writing within the Canadian government, it was the same out-of-synch story. Weirdly, my subconscious believed I’d be back in the classroom even though I clearly wouldn’t be. But not this year, at least not that I can remember. I’m still surprised.

Not that I’m free of doubt, or my recurring claustrophobic frustration dreams. I am instead worrying about my writing and where it’s headed. (And basketball. The coaching dreams still haunt me, and that season’s coming up, too.) Which, you may be thankful to hear, brings us to Marilynne Robinson.

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Fenton Johnson (on solitude, and reclaiming reverence)

[3-minute read]

SPECIAL BONUS QUOTATION BEFORE WE EVEN GET TO THE “HE SAID” AT HAND!

The main article appealed to my loner tendencies, but there was eco-writing, a call to end high schools, and a basketball feature. A must-have.

The main article appealed to my loner tendencies, but there was eco-writing, a call to end high schools, AND a basketball feature. A must-have, absolutely killer issue.

“All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

 — Blaise Pascal

I have never subscribed to Harper’s Magazine, but it’s a wonderful read. I buy it as a gift and a comfort to myself, approximately whenever a cover story leans out from a random magazine rack and says, Buy me now. My love for this smart American publication isn’t timely or disciplined or even remotely organized; for one pathetic example, I’m just now finishing the August 2013 issue, and returning to its cover piece, a writers forum on the lumpily uncomfortable topic “Are You Sleeping?”. This was a Must-Buy because  my nights have been harder work than they should be for a long time. (I’m trying to try easier.)

A year ago last spring, I was forced to kidnap (and to pay the $7.99 ransom for) the April 2015 issue of Harper’s, whose cover story was the long and deeply thoughtful article “Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude”, by Fenton Johnson. (You can read the whole article here on the magazine’s archives for free.) The piece begins with the quote from Pascal, the 17th-century French polymath/genius, which Johnson follows with a more homely conundrum. He invites us to consider the average bookstore, or daytime TV lineup, or any number of therapists, clergy or Internet advisors, all counseling us on how to figure out our relationships. He compares that to the scarcity of public comment about being by ourselves:

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