The morbid book group

[FYI, readers, I have a poem in this anthology, which relates to this post.]

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A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a book discussion group that  focuses on texts that offer varying perspectives concerning health, surviving cancer, different cultural views of aging, and dying; books on “dying well,” hospice and palliative care, and on hope and healing; books on chronic pain and on neurology and the medical establishment, on birth traditions, on the history of medicine. We have also read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Still Here by Ram Dass, and discussed books that have topics such as placebo effects, psychology, alternative medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, the training and practice of doctors, and the death & dying ‘industries,’ including works by authors with personal and moral perspectives on how to live (and how to die). The people involved have included a pediatric palliative care expert, a NICU nurse, a hospice team spiritual counselor, a minister, a former nurse and massage therapist who’s a tai chi instructor, and others–most of us “of a certain age,” by which euphemism I mean we have been living through the experience of having parents in extreme old age and of having long-time friends who now contend with chronic or potentially fatal illnesses. At least one of us has survived cancer.

For a perspective on how most Americans view a serious study of such topics, I offer my husband’s assessment. He calls this “the morbid book group.”

In fact whenever I mention that I participate in a book group (a popular American activity), people ask me if the group has a theme; I tell them, “The theme is medicine, and wellness, and how we die.” And there’s inevitably a pause, and usually my friend asks, “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”

No. It has not been depressing, in fact. I have gained more than I can say from these books and from our small group discussions: information, perspective, philosophy, insight, dare I say wisdom? Not to mention freedom to talk about those things we tend to evade in polite conversation, the space in which to say “This really sucks” or “This saddens me deeply” or to ask, “What can we do?” The book selections have led to great discussions–and have helped me to forge some new friendships as well as to confront and accept different points of view on controversial issues surrounding health care. And death, yes (hello morbid books!), and grief, and–most of all–compassion.

Difficult books? Challenging reading? Have I ever shied from it? I relish exploring this kind of non-fiction-fact-science-ethics-cultural criticism. Participating in this book group is one of the highlights of my current life experience; it’s up there with my long-running poetry critique group and my MFA years in terms of transformational engagement and exchange of ideas.

Below, a list of some of the books we have read and talked about. Just in case any of my readers wish to begin a morbid book group of their own.

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Radical Remissions, Kelly A. Turner

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler

Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson

Death’s Door, Sandra Gilbert

Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich

Still Here, Ram Dass

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Birth, Tina Cassidy

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer

The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom

Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni

Healing Spaces, Esther M. Sternberg

Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson

…& more ahead, as we plumb consciousness, placebos, the medical hierarchy, and compassionate ways of living in the world. By the way, readers–suggestions for further readings are welcome!

 

 

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Reading as drug

“…Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug we cannot do without–who of this band does not know the restlessness that attacks him when he has been severed from reading too long, the apprehension and irritability, and the sigh of relief which the sight of a printed page extracts from him?–and so let us be no more vainglorious than the poor slaves of the hypodermic needle or the pint-pot.”  ~ W. Somerset Maugham, “The Book-Bag”

azaleas by Ann E. Michael

In June and July, my situation lets up enough that I am not in my office 40 hours a week and can, for a time, attend to the garden or the hiking trail or avail myself of more time to read. Yesterday, I browsed through the campus library and came away with seven or eight books. How I loved that feeling when I was a child: walking through the stacks, thumbing through card catalogues, picking and choosing, now with deliberation, now with impulse, until I had reached the borrowing limit!

It is, in a way, a kind of addiction, though for the past three decades I have been a bit more studied and less compulsive in my reading habits. A bit. Plants and animals, and the workings and seasons of the garden, are my alternate texts when the printed page is unavailable or my eyes feel tired. Certainly I read on-screen quite often, but that process is not nearly as fulfilling. I have downloaded a book by Deleuze (Difference and Repetition) as a kind of experiment; I’m not at all sure that philosophy will be comfortable to read on screen, but I suspect I might prefer reading philosophy on a computer than reading a novel on a computer.

For me, the worst thing about onscreen reading, as I possess neither laptop nor tablet computer, is the inability to stretch on a lounge chair or curl up on a sofa (or, best of all, in a hammock) while reading. And the pleasant experience of leaf-shadows gently caressing the off-white pages of a paper book, the tone of the paper shifting ever slightly as the light changes, the sensation of dozing off with a book over one’s face when the sun gets hot…book addicts find these aspects as enjoyable as the intellectual response to the material, the words themselves.

Several significant events & celebrations appear on this summer’s horizon, but with any luck I can employ my library cards to good purpose a few more times before the fall semester arrives.

 

 

Proofreading

Every Living Thing–The Life & Times of a Glasgow Vet Student has a cute anecdote regarding the value of careful proofreading and how small mistakes can be inconvenient and costly at the customs line. Who thinks to proofread a passport or visa? Well…

Proofreading is how I began my so-called career many years ago, and the habits I learned follow or perhaps plague me still. For example, I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s 1992 novel A Place of Greater Safety and finding the text riddled with typos. The most common error is a missed quotation mark–not surprising because Mantel takes a unique approach to setting  up dialogue. But it’s dismaying to find that a major publisher allowed so many mistakes to slip through, and it interrupts my reading pleasure.

Years ago, I saw Edna O’Brien reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. She read from one of her short story collections, and at one point she paused, adjusted her reading glasses, and stated: “Typographical error, Farrar, Straus, Giroux.” Called out on the podium, publishers!

Online sites host the largest number of typos and outright grammatical or mechanical mistakes, but paper texts aren’t as reliably correct as they once were. The New York Times has become quite lax lately; three months ago, I even found a typo in The New Yorker!

Proofreading services

I understand why there are so many more typos these days–there are so many fewer proofreaders. It gets expensive, hiring all those human beings to inspect the small details of every text, and publishers are not making as much money as they once did. How many picky readers like me exist? Probably not enough of us that we could stage a book-buying boycott demanding that Random House hire more proofreaders (people like me could never really stage such a boycott–we’re too addicted to books).

Computers, however, are not yet intelligent enough to catch the shimmery, shifting nuances of the English language and its attendant finery in the shape of punctuation and capitalization, footnoting and italicization. So there will be mistakes, and I guess I can live with that. “To err is human,” and all that. And Mantel is a fine writer.

Another Reading reading

On All Saints’ Day, November 1st, I’ll be reading poetry in Reading Pennsylvania–again! And this time, I’ll be accompanied by my fellow Goddard alumna, the dynamic and talented Barbara DeCesare, author of Jigsaw Eyesore and Silent Type.

Reading, PA is home to GoggleWorks, a former goggle-making factory that now serves as studio, theater, and gallery space for Berks County area artists and craftspeople of all kinds. Small, struggling cities like Reading are turning to the arts as a means to fill abandoned factory space and create an economic and cultural reason to keep downtown areas alive. Sometimes these efforts succeed, sometimes they don’t. GoggleWorks opened in its current incarnation in 2005. So far, that’s a 7-year run, supported through grants and donations and rent. I am optimistic about GoggleWorks and about other such endeavors, including Bethlehem PA’s Banana Factory, which is a little closer to my neighborhood. I strongly believe the arts belong in our neighborhoods, in our school curricula, and in our lives.

I’m thrilled, therefore, to be reading from my book, Water-Rites, at 6 pm November 1st at GoggleWorks’ Cucina Cafe.

And I’m thrilled to be reading with Barbara, whose work is funny, poignant, imaginative, fierce, and charming by turns.

November 1st is the Day of the Dead in Mexico, a good day for elegies and to celebrate the lives of those we’ve loved and lost. I will be thinking of David Dunn, among other dear ones. And in honor of All Saints’ Day, I may also read a poem or two about saints; recently, I’ve composed a few imaginary lives of saints poems.

I have no idea what Barbara DeCesare has up her sleeve for this event, but it is certain to be delightful. If you are in the region, stop by at 6 pm. I believe an open mic follows the reading.

water-rites by Ann E Michael

Short books and re-reading

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clockWhen life gets busy and over-scheduled, even an inveterate reader may find she has to give up some of her precious book time to life’s other adventures and responsibilities. Philosophy and meditation require enough time for reflective, slow thinking; a hectic week precludes such activities. Creative thinking gets funneled into problem solving of a more mundane and practical variety. Creative writing? It may have to move, temporarily one hopes, to a back burner.

Last week was one of those over-scheduled periods when I take advantage of brief, unscheduled minutes to read short books. The beauty of reading short books is that the best short books reveal depths upon re-reading–one of the beauties of poetry as well. And if those short books happen to be books of poetry? “More’s the better,” as my great-aunt used to say.

During my crazy week, I managed to read three short collections of contemporary poetry, all by poets with whom I am personally (if marginally) acquainted. All three books are wonderful: layered, varied, well-crafted, interesting, moving, refreshing, surprising reflections on and of modern life with enough empathy and reach toward the “universal” to keep the poems valuable beyond today’s context. All three books are going on my re-read list so I can study and savor them again later, yet each collection is vivid and entertaining enough to read when crunched for time.

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Will Greenway’s 1999 collection Simmer Dim was published by University of Akron Press and offers the reader a travelogue to many places in the world without as well as the more interior worlds of memory, relationships, and reflection. Greenway writes in both free verse and in rhyme, which he employs so well it seems natural even in the informal diction his work often takes.

April Lindner’s 2012 collection This Bed Our Bodies Shaped was published by Able Muse this summer. The poems offer the sense of a personal speaker, suggesting intimacy that is revealed subtly through well-crafted lines and images of flowers, scene-settings, and  allusions from the classic to the modern (rock n roll). Lindner presents the woman’s perspective as individual, surprising, and non-stereotypical; when she writes about jobs, a lover, motherhood, or menopause, her observations are often quirky but wonderfully observed.

Elaine Terranova’s 2012 collection Dames Rocket was published by Penstroke Press. I love Elaine’s work, steeped as it is in the natural world, plausible and tactile, yet positively ascendant in tone. Her memoir-type poems evoke the kind of childhood that is fast becoming historical, and her awareness of that fact–the fact of aging–gives these pieces poignancy and occasional irony.

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All three books are also available on Amazon.com. Or ask your librarian to locate a copy for you.

Just-so

This classic illustration was posted here: http://www.jwoolfden.com/classics.html

OKAY, cynics, I know this may be a bit of a gloss; but here is another older post which is the keynote speech I gave for DeSales’ Sigma Tau Delta induction (Honors society of English majors), April 2010.

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Why the English Major Is So Adaptable: A ‘Just-So’ Story

When I was an undergraduate, Oh Best Beloved, I was not at all certain of my life path. I attended an alternative, seminar-college program that—gasp—did not require me to proclaim an academic major. In my first two years of college, I wandered through classes in studio art, Renaissance history, feminist literature, social anthropology, psych, physics, dance, and philosophy. Then, I began reading in earnest. Previously, reading had been merely an obsessively entertaining hobby; as a junior, I wanted to learn the “how” of writing. I graduated with enough credits in both English and Philosophy to have been a double-major, if my institution had required majors, or to have received an undergraduate creative writing degree, if such a thing had existed in days of yore.

And then, I was out in the world. The world was in a terrible recession. Jobs were scarce. Inflation was in the double digits. Gas prices were skyrocketing. The sky was falling, and I was a newly-minted English major.

All my Wise Elders advised me to specialize. That meant going to graduate school, which I probably should have done a little sooner, or learning a trade. I thought I could survive outside of academia despite the economic woes, the scarce want-ads. My reasoning was that I had four years of humanities training in critical thinking, research, and problem-solving and that at 21 years old it was time to put those theories into application. I thought I had learned to be adaptable.

And what do you think, O My Children?

I was right.

You are likewise English majors, and you are also facing a time of recession and a paucity of careers in your chosen area of interest. This will not hinder your success, though it may make your career journey a little more…circuitous. Or shall we say: intriguing. But you like a challenge, don’t you? That’s the most terrific thing about choosing creative writing, or English, or rhetoric, or literature—the more you study them, the more intricate and complex and revealing these subjects are. I have never met an English major who wasn’t also a dedicated life-long learner. But I have met English majors who are lawyers, and psychologists, and social workers, and business executives, and filmmakers, and visual artists, and physicians, and ecologists, and diplomats, even computer geeks, not to mention those other careers: screenwriters, playwrights, poets, novelists, journalists, bloggers, teachers…

So, Best Beloved, do not sell yourself short. Furthermore, do not expect a “Reader, I married him” moment with your career. Allow yourself room to transform. Carpe diem.

What that meant for me back in 1979 was a temp job for the legal discovery department of a large law firm. From there, I signed on as a member of the International Union of Typographers No. 6 and learned a specialty: typographical proofreading. That field went extinct with the advent of desktop publishing. But by then, I’d jumped to advertising, which I hated, and into magazine work, which wasn’t so bad. There’s a Darwinian term for this: co-adaptation. I was finally getting close to a more specialist use of my English major background as the economy improved; and I married and had children and, in time, went to graduate school for the scholarly pursuits I’d missed so much.

I didn’t starve. Neither will you. You can do research. You can make yourself clear. You know your audiences may require different modes or styles of you, and you’ve learned how to adapt yourself and your arguments to those audiences. You can be persuasive. That’s how I got my first job after the temp work wound down; I was inexperienced but convincing. Even in a tight job market, employers are seeking people like you—adaptable, well-educated people. My husband recently directed me to an article in the New York Times that stated today’s businesspeople want employees who are clear communicators, especially in writing. This is partly because executives do their own writing nowadays. Fewer secretaries to rely on; each person’s expected to make herself clear—on her own written merits. Even if it’s email instead of the paper memos of my day.

English majors can write.

The jobs I’ve briefly mentioned paid my bills and got me medical insurance but did not satisfy my urge to practice the how and why of writing, so I did what writers generally do: I wrote. I cannot emphasize enough the role that constant practice of craft plays in the development of a writer. It doesn’t matter if no one sees your work—though I encourage you to share it with others and get feedback and critique—what matters is that you continually practice what you’ve learned in college and extend your education through application and extension of those principles.

If you find yourself in a day job that has little, apparently, to do with your major, don’t despair. Because writing is portable. I still write most of my drafts with pen or pencil in a small notebook, and laptops are pretty easy to transport—you can, with a little self-discipline, write anywhere. In my day, I have written in small dingy office warrens, in the waiting rooms of doctors and music teachers, in the parking lot while the high school band wrapped up its practice, in the sun beside the dressage ring at the horse farm, while my babies were napping, while the laundry was cycling, in the wee hours of the morning before anyone else wakens. The poems and essays I drafted under these circumstances sometimes reflected the places of their composition—but not always. I have waxed metaphysical in playgrounds. Another example of becoming adaptable out of necessity, Best Beloved, when the Great Magician or the Djinn of All Deserts or the small god Nqa tried me with obstacles to test my persistence.

Make the time to write, because writers can get rusty. Above all, make the time to read, because after you graduate, reading is the best way to continue your literary education.

But you knew that.

Of course, there is graduate school. And there are writing seminars and getaways and retreats and conferences. If you haven’t got the time or money to get to writers’ conferences or workshops, you can adapt by exchanging literary emails with a few like-minded friends or gathering in a library or coffee shop to exchange work or discuss books that excite you. Scholarship may seem like a solitary pursuit, but it benefits from lively interactions with other human beings.

Yes, Oh Best Beloved, do remember other human beings. We do not, after all, write only for ourselves; we write in and of and for a community of people. If our work is obscure, obtuse, or unclear, we are not taking part in this communication. The most fundamental purpose of language is to make clear our intent to another person who is, after all, not inside our brain but functioning under his or her own neurological system. Language—in our case, English—is the most formidable tool for demanding, commanding, sharing, expressing. Those in this room are understandably passionate about it. I am pleased to be among you. The world badly needs your talents, enthusiasm, and the abilities you possess to analyze the facts and transform yourselves and others because, My Children, the English Major somehow became adaptable, and that is all to the good.

Outside the (type) box

Many years ago, back when there was a career called typographer, I was one. I apprenticed to typographers because I had superior proofreading skills, a background in art and design, there was a recession, jobs were few, and I was a quick learner. In an essentially blue-collar job, I was decidedly outside the box: I was a 21-year-old female with a BPhil in philosophy and literature. But I was a terrible waitress. So, in desperation, I essentially talked my way into a job at a typeshop in New York.

A voracious reader all my life, I felt attracted to the potential type offered for expression via the medium of words. I’d studied art since the second grade, so the aesthetic side of typography fascinated me, too. I got into the business just as the field was waning due to the innovations offered by phototype methods, digital typography, and the invention of desktop publishing. Nevertheless, typography kept me fed and housed for a few years while I learned to discern the differences between various counters, serifs, descenders, dashes,  x-heights, weights and the rest. I read books on the history of type design and the history of the alphabet itself. My obsession with words and letters kept me inside the typography box, though I suppose I was often more like a stray Caslon e in the Helvetica drawer.

Wood type was no longer in use, but I used to purchase wooden type fonts–the individual letters–and type cases, because they are so folk-art-appealing and so potentially useful. As collectors began to scour flea markets for wooden type, I bought metal fonts and slugs instead; I’m particularly fond of ampersands and dingbats. (If you’re in Wisconsin and you want to see what the age of wooden type in the USA was like, check out the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum.)

Two of the shops I worked at still used metal type occasionally, though they had mostly switched to digitally-mastered film type; and one shop boasted three Linotype machines. Two of the machines worked. The other was there for parts. The typesetters were all WWII veterans, and the smell of molten lead wafted through the building…it really felt like the end of an era. And it was.

Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

Working at typeshops engaged my brain in novel kinds of problem-solving and detailed observation, taught me about the lives and careers of men who could have been my great-uncles, satisfied–sometimes–my yearning for aesthetics in the workaday world. An elegant logo or headline still pleases me. I learned about all kinds of odd and wide-ranging things while proofreading, too, while I marked up thousands upon thousands of proof pages; and during my breaks, I read novels. One old-timer at a shop I used to work at told me, “Every proofreader I ever knew read books on his break.” He shook his head as if that were sheer lunacy.

Today, I might note that every computer programmer I know spends his or her break time (and post-work hours) at a computer. It is nice to love something about the work one does for a living.

Typographers today are designers and computer graphics folks who understand how to digitize and digitally set and “cut” fonts for virtual pages. The design tolerances are different, though the challenges of readability and clarity and appropriateness remain. As for proofreaders, there are fewer every year, even though we certainly could use them. AutoCorrect and SpellCheck are woefully inadequate proofreading systems, as I constantly remind my students who don’t know your from you’re or their from there or then from than.

And as for me, I have moved from proofreader and typographer to tutor, instructor, poet…jobs that suit me a bit better, where my quirkiness is more tolerated and thus more conventionally acceptable. I continue to admire thinking and being that is outside of the box, however, and in that spirit I offer you some artwork that moves type outside of its outmoded, old-fashioned box. Click on the cityscapes link to find metal-type cityscapes by Hong Seon Jang. For what artists can do with letters, see also my earlier post on Steve Tobin’s sculpture, “Syntax.”