What’s in a Title?

I was raised informally; the teachers at my (progressive) grade school were addressed by there first names; I called my parents’ friends by the first names as well–no Aunt or Uncle unless they insisted (only one person–my father’s accountant’s wife–insisted). This doesn’t mean I didn’t treat them respectfully, but it does mean that I grew up expecting a certain amount of reciprocal respect. When we moved and I went to a more traditional school, I called the teachers Miss/Mrs/Mr. I did ask once why we didn’t call all the female teachers Ms, and was told without irony it was because they didn’t have that many young unmarried women on staff. Okay then.

I believe people should be called what they want to be called (within reason: if you want to be styled Grand Panjandrum, okay, but don’t expect me to do it without an eyeroll). And until invited to do otherwise I still call doctors “Doctor,” regardless of whether they are MDs, DDS, PhDs, or any of the other long list of doctorate degrees. My father-in-law had a doctorate in Education, and while he didn’t do it often, he occasionally would insist on being “Doctor Caccavo.” Because he By God worked for that degree, and the prerequisite degrees, all while supporting a family.

For what it’s worth, in the UK, up until very recently, some medical doctors were Dr. and some were Miss or Mrs. or Mr.  Allow me to put my Medical History Geek Glasses on: in the Middle Ages there were three classes of medical practitioners: doctors, surgeons, and apothecaries. Doctors were the ones who had studied medicine; they’d gone to school and learned all the theories. They did not lay hands upon the patient except in the most basic way–that was for assistants, or for surgeons. Surgeons were tradesmen: they used their hands, they apprenticed, learned the skills required, and practiced (some cut hair and pulled teeth as well; Sweeney Todd may have been a Demon barber, but he was also expected to be a dentist as well). Even up to the beginning of the 21st century, aspiring surgeons were plain Mister or Ms. until they finished medical school–then were briefly Doctors, until they finished surgical training and passed their exams, at which point they returned to Mister/Ms. again.

Don’t get your knickers in a twist about doctor.  Continue reading “What’s in a Title?”

Exploration and early science fiction

It’s Monday. (I feel very witty when I say things that appear obvious.) There are twists and turns every Monday and this week the small twist is that I’m actually writing this on Monday. Normally I write my Monday blog post very early Tuesday morning, and still post it on US Monday but today… I have nine minutes now and no time then for two hours and then a full hour before midnight, so I’m writing my Monday post on Monday.

The second twist (the big one) is that I’ve only read a bit of the book I’m introducing you to. I don’t have time to finish it right now, and I’m too excited by it to wait to write about it.

There’s a story behind why it’s open on my machine. Of course there’s a story. Someone very proudly told me that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wasn’t the first work of science fiction. They claimed something from the eighteenth century as the first. I instantly wanted to argue, because the eighteenth century is too early and too late. Approaches matter, and there are at least half a dozen different arguments for this work or that work to be considered science fiction.

It all rests on definitions. What is science fiction? What is fantasy? Are we only talking about modern novels, or are we talking about other types of narrative? There’s a terrific Medieval life of Alexander, where Alexander explores underwater in a bathysphere and loses to the Amazons when he invades and is fed dinner by them and… I talked about it just the other day at a science fiction convention. It’s not one book. It’s many different types of stories in many different books. It’s also very well studied, even though it’s not known nearly well enough in some science fiction circles. Here’s a bibliography prepared by people who know more about it than me (I’ve read two versions, only.)

One can go back further than that, much further, or go forward. There are stories in many languages and from several continents. The trick is to start looking.

Two days ago I decided to look for French books from the seventeenth century. I already know the work where Cyrano goes to the Moon, and it’s fun, but where one book like that is written, there must be others. I used to know several others, but my brain sometimes forgets everything (I think it does it on purpose, to annoy me) so I looked again. I found several things I once had known, and one single book that’s new to me and that’s surprisingly close to home in a number of ways. It’s the one I want to read when I do not have time.

It’s the story of a voyage to Australia. It was published in 1732. Australia was known to many people by then, not least of all the people who had already been living here for the last tens of thousands of years, but Europe, for the most part, thought of it as unknown and exotic. Bits of it had appeared on European maps, and the region now known as South East Asia had contacts, especially up north. So did all the region north of Australia (Papua and PNG in modern parlance), and quite possibly New Zealand and maybe even China. But Europe didn’t pay much attention to what most of these places thought of the southern continent and was only just in the throes of making its own discoveries.

When I was at school, I was taught that there was no knowledge of Australia in Europe until the eighteenth century. Since then, however, the maps from the Dutch and Portuguese have demonstrated very much otherwise. Parts of Australia have been known to parts of Europe since at least the fifteenth century. Here is a map that reflects stuff from an earlier map, to show what was known to those Europeans who had access to this very specialised knowledge.

Of course, contact with Australia from nearby places dates back long before then. One of my students a few years ago was Indonesian and her family had stories about contact with Australia. We visited an exhibition at the National Museum and she was able to point to her island and then to where people from her island travelled to, for trade. How long has that trade been happening? I need to check out archaeological studies, her island began regular contact with northern Australia a long time before Europeans even thought to come to the Great Southern Land.

Before those early maps from Europe, there was talk about Australia. In fact, Europeans have been talking about Australia since at least the time of Cicero. Cicero wrote about it in his science fictional “Somnium Scipionis (“The Dream of Scipio”), which was part of his De Re Publica where Scipio Africanus went to Mars and saw the world laid out. Australians were there as antipodeans, people who walked on the opposite side of the earth. Macrobius took that dream in the fifth century and wrote commentaries on it and those commentaries were used as geographical explanations throughout the Middle Ages.

A fictional account of someone voyaging to Australia in the seventeenth century has, therefore, a really solid background. It was a story based on things other people knew and accepted. That’s why I want to read it. I want to know what people thought about this country at a time when most Europeans saw it as an intellectual conceit or a place only specialist traders knew about.

The preface explains that the writer knew a fair amount about modern (for that time) geography. He makes it very clear that he’s not talking about Java, nor about the Americas. He even names explorers to demarcate their routes and interests. To me, this is the stuff that science fiction is made of. Take current knowledge (proving one’s cutting edge understanding) and then extrapolate and write fiction inspired by it. The extrapolation is invention, and it says more about Europe than about Australia, but it’s no less interesting for that. It describes an invented Australia in the year 1610. The land, the writer says, is more fertile and more populated than Europe.

Now you know why I want to read it. I wish I had time. It’s on my computer, however, and if ever an excuse arises (if someone tells me “I want a talk about this book” or “Give me an article”) then I shall be very grateful to Professor Ron Ridley who gave me the capacity to read seventeenth century French. Let me tell you about that, and then sign off, because it’s heading for midnight here and I do like the thought of finishing my Monday post on Monday itself.

I was doing third year History, as an undergraduate, and I’d been allowed into a fourth year class on Roman historiography, because it wasn’t going to be offered the following year. Ridley noted that I was doing historical French as another subject, and set me an essay that used it. I had to read and analyse 22 volumes of seventeenth century French in a collection of rare books, with only one article about them (in modern French) to help me. It was a lot of work. So much work… By the end of it, I could read seventeenth century French perfectly well. Even if I have no other skills to my name, I have this one. And now that these early novels are available on the web, I have a reason to rediscover that odd little skill of mine. All I need is someone to give me an excuse…

An Angry Librarian

Certain shows (I’ll spare you the list) lodge deep under my skin–The Music Man, which I saw last week on Broadway, being one. I grew up with the cast album (Robert Preston and Barbara Cook) and the film (Robert Preston and Shirley Jones). I had never seen it staged, however, so when the opportunity arose to see a revival with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, I leapt at it, credit card in hand. I want first to say that I liked it a lot. That being said…

It would be very easy for me to go one of two ways with this new production–uncritically adore it because it’s The Music Man, fer chrissakes, or worry away at it because it’s not the Music Man I grew up with. Short of exhuming Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, or flying Shirley Jones in (at 88, dancing the Shapoopi might not be on her to do list), you’re not going to give me the Music Man I grew up with. And anyway, times have changed and certain things are creaky–even when they might have been “accurate” for the time in which the story is set. I have, however, seen essays basically tearing this production down because Jackman isn’t Preston and–even worse, in one writer’s mind–Foster isn’t Cook.*

I have a couple of bones to pick, sure. The show’s tempo was fast–here and there they could have slowed the tempo down a titch, to useful effect. I loved the woman who played Mrs. Paroo, but wish they’d cast someone younger. Hugh Jackman, who was clearly enjoying himself, wasn’t quite the Harold Hill I wanted him to be (not Preston, but maybe a magnified version of himself?). But none of those quibbles got in the way of the things I liked–nay, loved.

You know the story, right? Continue reading “An Angry Librarian”

Much wittering followed by some recipes

Today I have written a great deal. That great deal added up to a very short story and a few hundred words of non-fiction. It just felt like a great deal. I suspect this was because I am surrounded by autumn storms. Everything feels like a great deal when one is surrounded by storms.

Normally I walk my bookshelves to find you an interesting book to talk about. Because I have met two whole deadlines today (two!) I thought I’d take the easy way out and write about the nearest book to me. I forgot that I had six of my own books in reach because I was talking about them to someone. And yet, the weather is about to break (I have a very handy weather sense) and I need to finish writing this before then because when there is a storm literally overhead, I doubt I’ll be writing to you about interesting reading.

I’m taking the interesting route. On my computer I have – like so many of us, these days – an elibrary. I’m going to open a folder at random. The folder are labelled with the alphabet, except the historical food one, which is labelled ‘Cooking.’ Just typing about that particular heading led me straight into the Cooking folder, so let me find you a cookbook or historical food book of particular interest.

I opened the folder and was curious about one that wasn’t properly labelled at all. It proved to be a transcription of the 1596 The Good Huswifes Jewell. Just the opening is delightful, and if I find it delightful then you’re stuck with it. Let me give you that opening, in all its gorgeousness.

The Good Huswifes Jewell “Wherein is to be found most excellend and rare Deuises for conceites in
Cookery, found out by the practise of Thomas Dawson.
Wherevnto is adioyned sundry approued receits for many soueraine oyles, and the way to distill many precious waters, with diuers approued medicines for many diseases.
Also certain approued points of husbandry, very necessary for all Husbandmen to know.
Newly set foorth with additions. 1596.
Imprinted at London for Edward White, dwelling at the litle North Doore of Paules at the signe of the Gun.”

If ‘Paules’ is St Paul’s Cathedral, then Edward White, the publisher, was in a part of London that had been book and scribe central since the Middle Ages. If you were in London in the thirteenth century and needed a notary in a hurry, the back of St Paul’s was the place.

I’m so tempted to simply let my mind rove in that district in the Middle Ages, and contemplate where I would buy parchment or commission illuminations, but this is a cookbook and my mind must remain resolute (the impending storm insists). Let me give you a recipe from the book, then. Everyone needs boiled chicken once in a while, and I’ve not made this recipe, so it’s a useful one all round:

To boile Chickins.
Straune your broth into a pipkin, & put in your Chickins, and skumme them as cleane as you can, and put in a peece of butter, and a good deale of Sorell, and so let them boyle, and put in all manner of spices, and a lyttle veriuyce pycke, and a fewe Barberies, and cutte a Lemman in pecces, and scrape a little Suger uppon them, and laye them vppon the Chickins when you serue them vp, and lay soppes vpon the dish.

I read this as using broth – I’d use chicken bouillon, because I always do when things are otherwise not clear. Boiling chicken in a broth sounds rather good, actually. Different broths would infuse it with different flavours. Butter and sorrel combined give a very smooth texture and flavour, and the verjuice might be to make it be not too unctuous. Barberries I love and have some on hand: they would add a fruitiness and also cut that unctuousness. In fact, I have most of the ingredients on hand. I’m just missing the chicken, the sorrel and the verjuice. Also, I’m missing bread. Without bread I can’t make sops. It’s just as well, really, because it’s 11.30 pm here and not the time to be making a chicken recipe.

In fact, it was a really bad idea to open that file and find you a recipe. I want to cook! Instead of cooking, let me find you another recipe from 1596. If you’re inspired to make either of these, I’d love to know how it went and, if you take pictures, it would make me very happy to see them.

Because most of you are heading for summer and the fruit is just beginning to arrive (we’re heading for winter and I’m eating persimmon and pomegranate and papaya while I can) how about a recipe that requires summer fruit? This one has fewer terms that need explaining, which is a bonus. I never know how much to translate, because it’s perfectly modern (Early Modern – I was making a bad joke) English. It all depends on how much cooking you’ve done and what kind of cooking. Stoves as we know them weren’t around in the late sixteenth century. A great deal of cooking was done over an open fire with a wonderful set of cooking equipment. This preserved fruit recipe, for example, uses the head of a pot covered by a plate, which is a very nice way of making sure the fruit stays whole.

To preserue all kinde of fruites, that they shall not breake in the preseruing of them.
Take a platter that is playne in the bottome, and laye suger in the bottome, then cherries or any other fruite, and so between euerie rowe you lay, throw suger and set it vpon a pots heade, and couer it with a dish, and so let it boyle.

Now I’m dreaming of apricots cooked this way and eaten with clotted cream.

I need to sign off before I start cooking. I so often do this I open an historical cookbook and then end up making something and not finishing my work. I shall leave you with one last recipe and no explanation whatsoever, and then I’ll finish all that must be done before this impending storm ceases to impend. Then I shall sleep and dream of preserved apricots served with clotted cream.

This last recipe is not quite a trifle as we know it today, but it is, nevertheless, kind of an ancestor to the Queen’s Jubilee dish that so many of my British friends have been making. Only kind of. I know its 18th century descendants and they’re all drinks. I am only missing the cream for this trifling dish. I would turn into something strange if I eat this at midnight, which is the precise time it would be ready, so I’m lucky I’m missing that cream (when you make it yourself, remember than thick cream has no gelatine or other thickener – it should dollop when you spoon it into the dish and must be at least 45% fat):

To make a Trifle.
Take a pinte of thicke Creame, and season it with Suger and Ginger, and Rosewater, so stirre it as you would then haue it, and make it luke warme in a dish on a Chafingdishe and coales, and after put it into a siluer peece or a bowle, and so serue it to the boorde.


PS While there is a place called West Wittering in the UK, and also one called East Wittering, alas, there does not appear to be one called Much Wittering. I might have to invent a fictional town, in Australia but with English tendencies.


(This essay is several years old… but I’m going East for my high school reunion next week, and am thinking about New York City, so.)

A circuit board

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I love cities.  I love my home town so much I blew it up.  Really.  The Stone War, published in 1999, was at its root a discussion of love of place and love of person (and where they intersect) and a mash note to my hometown and favorite city in the world, New York.

I know New York is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Some people don’t care for cities, no matter how glorious.  Not everyone born a New Yorker loves it: my brother was born there and hates it.   Not everyone from out of town hates it, either.  Some  people get off the bus or the train or the helicopter and take a breath and just know they’re home.  The Stone War was, in part, my attempt to describe what I find so profoundly lovable about NYC.  If you don’t have time right now to read an entire novel, here are Five Things to Love About New York:

Its compression.  New York isn’t a small city, but compared to many cities without its geographical limitations it’s compact.  That’s part of why it’s such a vertical city–when you can’t spread out, you spread up.  New York is like a field of caves and canyons and mesas, all man made.  The city uses all its space–below the ground (as they say in the song, the people ride in a hole in the ground) up into the sky, packing more art, life, food, confusion, beauty, ugliness, and generosity in a square foot than you’d think the laws of physics would allow.

Its structures.  The protagonist of The Stone War is an architect for good reason.  I wanted someone who could walk around the city with a sense of its structure and physical beauty.  Every city has architecture: New York has, with the possible exception of wattle-and-daub cottages and igloos, just about every imaginable kind of architecture, from every year of the last 300 or so, jumbled together, full of surprises.  The city’s a palimpsest, bits of forgotten architecture and culture shine through.  When a building is being razed, look at the walls of the structures next to it and you’re likely to see a 1920s painted advertisement or a bit of lost ornamental detail.  The house I grew up in (seen in the watercolor above painted by my father) was built in 1837.  Down the street were buildings older and newer.  The city changes constantly and stays the same.

Its people.  The myth, perpetuated by sitcoms and movies, is that New York is a scary place full of nasty, hardbitten people.  New Yorkers are like M&Ms–hard shell and a melty core.  Living in a place as chock-full of humans as it is, you have to develop a bit of a shell.  Pierce that shell, ask for directions, say, or lose a contact lens, and suddenly you’ve got people coming out of the woodwork to help (when my older daughter was very young and still dealing with potty training, it wasn’t her babysitter who got her to leave the sandbox in Central Park to find the bathroom; it was Katie Couric, who was in the playground with her kid and intervened when she saw Julie doing the potty-dance).  Cultures?  Neighborhoods?  Foods?  Whaddaya want?  Yeah, we got that.

Its weird.  I was working on 53rd and Lexington a couple of decades ago when, around Christmas time, I saw a young, preppie-looking guy on the sidewalk with a bunch of bullwhips around his neck like a wreath.  Rather laconically, he was switching one and calling “Whips!  Perfect stocking stuffer.  Whips! Bring one home to the wife or girlfriend.  Whips…”  And no one batted an eye.  There’s the strange guy with the world’s most beat up saxophone who used to get on a subway car, mangle the first couple of bars of the theme to The Twilight Zone, then announce that the Aliens in his Head would force him to keep playing unless we contributed a little something to his Operating Fund (this guy wasn’t crazy, just canny).  Or the guy whose panhandling come-on was “Can you spare $27,000,000 for a Boeing 747?  No?  How about a dollar for some coffee?”  New York does colorful in its own distinct way.

Its courage.  When I was a kid and there were blackouts or blizzards or subway strikes, the city managed to make kind of a party out of it.  My father directed traffic at 53rd and Madison, where he worked, for two hours during a blackout, then walked 40 blocks home and was smiling when he got there.  Civic improv, you might call it, and New Yorkers are pros at it. Even when things get really grim.  On 9/11 what I remember is the little things…going to the market that day and watching as, over and over, people approached a staple–bottled water or toilet paper or milk–and hesitated, and then took just what they needed for now. In the days afterward, people kept going to work and living their lives.  My daughter had a soccer game the first Saturday after the Event, and the city had been eerie and quiet for days, but there all of us were on a perfect autumn day, watching our five-year-olds play clusterball and willfully not looking at the sky.

When I go back to New York I become livelier and more relaxed, more myself.  In Greek myth, Antaeus was the son of Gaia; he was hard to beat in a fight because every time you knocked him down, he was revived with contact with Mother Earth, bounced right back and waded in, swinging.  New York City is my Mother Earth, every gritty, crowded, chaotic, insanely human bit of it.  There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and for a writer, that’s paradise.

 In Times of War: Ukraine Is Not the Only Country Suffering

A couple of weeks, I wrote about the importance of taking a break from the war news. Being able to step away is indeed a privilege. Ukrainians can’t take a break in the same way that I, living in a nation not at war, can. They may have times when life goes on as usual, depending on where they live, but somewhere else in their own country, cities are being pulverized and ordinary people are the victims of terrorist attacks.

This reminds me of the revelation I had while listening to my Black friends about their experiences in a racist society. What I heard, over and over again, was that the barrage of aggressions, large or micro, is unrelenting. My friends don’t get a day off; the threat is always there to one degree or another. I wonder how living in a state of heightened stress or in a neighborhood that all too often resembles a war zone colors perceptions of a war far away. (See comments on hypertension and stress in Black people, below.)

When the Ukrainian war first broke out, there was an immediate outpouring of sympathy and calls for humanitarian aid as well as military assistance. Americans called for easing immigration requirements for Ukrainian refugees. A couple of friends pointed out the disparity in response between the warmth and concern, and action, for Ukrainian victims, as opposed to people of color in distress in other parts of the world: Central American migrants at the border, Haitians, Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, and more. The Conversation examined ways in which the inequitable treatment of those seeking asylum in the United States is based on race and religion. They wrote:

On March 11, 2022, however, the Biden administration provided guidance allowing Customs and Border Protection officers to exempt Ukrainians from Title 42 on a case-by-case basis, which has allowed many families to enter. However, this exception has not been granted to other asylum seekers, no matter what danger they are in. It is possible that the administration may lift Title 42 at the end of May 2022, but that plan has encountered fierce debates.

The different treatment of Ukrainian versus Central American, African, Haitian and other asylum seekers has prompted criticism that the administration is enforcing immigration policies in racist ways, favoring white, European, mostly Christian refugees over other groups.

The uncomfortable truth is that white Americans are more welcoming toward people who look like them, especially people whom they perceive as innocent victims of violence. I would like to think that once hearts are opened toward one group, common humanity will prevail and the same commitment to fairness will be applied elsewhere, but I am not overly optimistic. The challenge of the moment, or so it seems to me, is to find a balance between reminders that Ukrainians are not the only people suffering from violence and oppression today without descending to “whataboutism,” that is, dismissing the importance of one case by pointing to others. (The classic humorous example being, “But her emails…”)

I think there are ways of bringing up the (non-white) people in need without downplaying the horrible situation in Ukraine. While international aid funds may be finite, caring is not. Commitment to help is not. What would that look like? Perhaps donating to organizations that provide aid to countries around the world, not limited to Ukraine? Splitting contributions between aid organizations? Pressuring our leaders for more just policies, reminding them that just as immigrating Ukrainians need our help, many others qualify for asylum?

Surely, there is enough love to go around.


There’s a correlation between stress, poverty, racism, and ill health. Some studies have shown a relationship between experiences of racism and hypertension in Black people, particularly young Black men1. Stressors repeatedly occurring over time included the death of a family member or close friend (65.2%), having a new family member (32.9%), change in residence (31.4%), difficulty finding a job (24.3%), and fired or laid off from work (17.6%). Involvement with crime or legal matters was reported at least twice during the 48 months by 33.3% of men.2

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/docs/african_american_sourcebook.pdf
  2. Hae-Ra Han, et al. Effects of stressful life events in young black men with high blood pressure. Ethn Dis, Winter 2006;16(1):64-70


Mothering, Creativity, Chaos

Inspired by Nancy Jane Moore’s piece last Friday, I downloaded The Baby on the Fire Escape.* I’m working my way through it–it is wonderfully written, dense and thoughtful, with much to digest. As Nancy says, it’s about mothers as creators, about the ways that women have found to do creative work, sometimes in the interstices of motherhood, sometimes by turning their backs on motherhood, sometimes working with support, sometimes going it alone.

When my older daughter was about two, my husband held the fort and I went to see the Kenneth Brannagh Frankenstein. Which was meticulously true to the source material, and which infuriated me, because I find the source material infuriating.  For all its pondering on the nature of creation, Frankenstein is about a parent who creates life, then freaks out, drops the “baby” and heads for the hills. Which he can do because, well, he’s a man. Continue reading “Mothering, Creativity, Chaos”

In Times of War: Gifts

This week’s offering is short due to the conjunction of my 75th birthday and the spring holidays. The war and its personal repercussions are never far from our thoughts. My family celebrates Passover, and the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine came up many times in our conversation. We all saw Putin as a would-be latter-day Pharoah, certainly a tyrant. There’s a part in the ritual where we call out the names of the plagues visited upon Egypt when Pharoah refused to let Moses and the Israelites free. Our Haggadah includes calling out the names of contemporary plagues. We all looked at one another and said, “Putin!”

And yet, the holiday reminds us to have compassion, even for our enemies. There’s a part in our version where angels start singing when the Egyptian soldiers are drowned in the Red Sea. HaShem admonishes them by saying, “The work of my hands is dying and you want to sing hymns?”

I’m not suggesting anyone should pray for Putin. I very much suspect that if he were to keel over from a massive heart attack tomorrow, there would be dancing in the streets in more than one nation. As much as we hold him responsible and abhor his actions, what do we want from him? Certainly, to stop waging war on Ukraine. To pay reparations to make ameliorate the grievous wrongs he is solely or primarily responsible for?

If we say we want Putin to be punished and to suffer for what he has done, the question remains, in what way? How is it possible to quantify the amount of human suffering—not to mention financial loss, environmental degradation, the ruin of cities? How can there be amends for such heinous crimes?

As a corollary: If we focus all our righteous outrage and even hatred on one man, what are we then ignoring? Even if Putin were to be tried in an international court of law and found guilty, even if he were to be deposed or assassinated by his own people, that cannot bring back the slaughtered Ukrainians or restore their once-beautiful cities. For all our focus on the unfolding military conflict and economic sanctions, consider what it does to us to turn away from what we can do, if only in small measure, for those in desperate need of help.

I love home generous Americans and our allies can be when we see the need. This is why I asked friends and family to donate to Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières) instead of birthday gifts. While the $1500 is a small drop in the bucket of need, I know it is part of the effort to save lives and alleviate suffering. I chose this charity because it’s one of my long-standing causes and I believe in the work they do.

I have also found that taking action, no matter how small, helps me to feel less powerless in the face of seemingly overwhelming evil in the world. We’re in a position to make small donations of money. I don’t think that’s necessary. Small actions of lovingkindness can be even more powerful.


If this post is meaningful to you, please link to it. And check out my previous posts.

Raised in a Barn: Bats

Originally published in 2011

Last week I went east for my father’s memorial party, and got to see what had become of the house I grew up in.  Which is not a house, but a barn.  The new owners have done simply fabulous things, but I remember it when it looked like, well, a barn.  Growing up in a barn gives you anecdotes, so I’m going to occasionally share one here.

Case in point: we had bats. Many of the rooms (including mine) did not have actual walls for some years–just two-by-four studding. And when your ceilings are 45 feet high and not insulated, bats think this is a cozy place to hang, and they do. Even by the time we gained interior walls (once we’d moved up to Massachusetts full time, when I was 13) we still had indoor livestock, because it is almost impossible to seal off a barn the way you do a standard house. So: bats, and their discontent.

My father, at this point, spent three or four days a week in New York, working, while the rest of us lived in Massachusetts.  My mother, always anxious by nature, was generally poised for country-related disasters to occur when Dad was out of town. One afternoon, just as my brother and Mom and I were about to leave to go into town, Mom spied a bat fluttering around near the ceiling. There was a good 30 feet between the bat and the rest of us, but someone had told Mom that any bat that flies during the day is rabid, and she went into full alert mode. Full alert mode, in this case, meant a determination to kill the bat. Which was 30 feet above our heads. Mom thought fast and improvisationally: we had several cans of wasp spray with a 20-foot range, meant to coat the outside of wasp nests from a safe distance.  Mom had my brother and me spray this toxic gunk in the bat’s direction, and it must have had some effect, because eventually the bat fluttered woozily down from the safety of the ceiling into the kitchen (which was a huge room, open to the hallway) to land, panting, on one of the kitchen windows.

A note about the windows in the barn: they were all custom-made dual pane windows with custom screens, relics of a time when my parents were flush.

The bat, tiny little sides heaving, clung to the screen. My mother, still determined to kill the bat before it killed us, instructed my brother to get the CO2 pistol we kept for target shooting outside. Now, my brother and I had been instructed, on pain of extreme paternal wrath, never ever EVER to shoot the CO2 gun inside. Period. We pointed this out to my mother, but she was unmoved. “Get the CO2 gun,” she insisted. “I’ll handle your father.” (At this point I should have realized we were in trouble.)

My brother got the gun, got about three feet from the bat, and put a BB pellet through the bat, the two panes of glass, the screen, and–I think–nicked some bark from a tree outside. At which point two things happened:

  • The bat expired.
  • My mother freaked out.

Mom had not actually understood the mechanics of a CO2 gun. “I didn’t know it shot pellets! I thought you were going to gas the bat to death!”

Honest to God.

Mom was pretty much useless. She sat at the kitchen table shaking her head. I sent my brother to get a butterfly net and use it to carry the bat outside for disposal (in the unlikely event that it was, in fact, rabid). And I got to call my father. Dad was of the old school, telephone call-wise: he disliked talking on the phone, particularly at mid-day long-distance rates.  Still, the story wasn’t going to get any better for waiting, so I called his office in New York and explained what had happened.

Dad laughed for three minutes at mid-day long-distance rates. My mother had a drink. The bat was disposed of.  Everything went back, more or less, to normal. But it did take seven years for my parents to replace the window; every winter when there was a draft I thought of the bat…

Memories and Ruth M Arthur

Yesterday my new book was launched in the UK. There won’t be any launches elsewhere I suspect, because our lives are still vastly influenced by this interesting world we live in, but Story Matrices is out and I will talk about it whenever I have the chance. Except right now. I could spend an hour writing about my new book, but tonight I feel a little haunted, so I want to talk about the book that helped me find words for such things when I was still in primary school.

Ruth M Arthur was one of my favourite authors when I was under ten. I managed to find several of her books when libraries replaced old books with new ones in the 1990s. This means I have on my desk, reminding me of my childhood, the same edition I borrowed from the Hawthorn City Library time after time. The book is A Candle in Her Room, which was my return-to-over-and-over of Arthur’s mainly because it creeped me out, every time I read it. The illustrator was Margery Gill, and her pictures are definitely part of my memories. From the moment I could read, I read the illustrations along with the story and they were part of a whole. They still are, and I still have favourite artists. If they illustrate the internal pages of a book, then I will try to find a copy of that book for my bookshelf. When one of those artists, Kathleen Jennings, illustrated one of my own books I melted into a puddle of sparkling joy.

A Candle in Her Room is a children’s book, from the days before there were Young Adult books. I’m not sure it would be published today. It’s too dark for a children’s book these days. This is a loss for any child who sees that life has dark places and needs words to identify those feelings. A Candle in Her Room and a story about a ghost that lured children away with the promise of happiness (I don’t remember the author, which is probably a good thing – and I’ve never been able to find the book it was in – all I remember is that it was a Penguin paperback from the sixties, with a blue cover) helped me more than I can say when I discovered that the Shoah was not that far removed from me. Two of the characters join the Polish Resistance. This was the link between the book and the Shoah survivors I knew as a child. I never articulated that link, but the book was there for me, nonetheless. I want to say that it taught me that there was a way out of darkness, but it did no such thing. It let me know that other people experienced that feeling I had when I saw the picture from the day a death camp was liberated. When I knew, age 6, that not everyone survives and that the adults who knew all the answers were the ones I could not ask about the picture. When folks talk about children asking the damnedest questions they ignore the fact that some need fiction to fill the emotional holes for the questions that the child cannot ask.

A Candle in Her Room didn’t help at all with my next door neighbour, Doris. I played with her until she was eight. I was the only other child in the street that she was happy to play with. One day she had tonsillitis and went to hospital for it and never came back. I still miss her. It also didn’t help with Charles, who lived across the road and went to school with me, died in a car accident in Tasmania. Nor when… I will become a very different kind of puddle if I remember these friends.

The simple fact is that stories helped me find words to start handling the death of strangers who might be relatives and whose bodies I saw in a big pile in a picture when I was six. This was only step one in learning words and stories that helped me with the other losses and let me eventually reach the stage where I could find my own words and tell my own stories.

I tell people that I’m a sarcastic Pollyanna and the amount of loss in the first twenty years of my very ordinary suburban existence is what triggered the sarcasm. Ruth M. Arthur’s was important to me, then, and probably always will be.

I never want to own a doll called ‘Dido’. Reading Joan Aiken’s books at the same time meant that the name ‘Dido’ was totally fine. When my Pre-Classical Antiquity lecturer tried to explain what he termed a rare name when we learned about Carthage, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books that had anyone or anything called ‘Dido’ – I didn’t tell him I had disproved his ‘rare name’ theory, but I thought it, forcibly. His few thoughtless words couldn’t obliterate my childhood while I had access to books.

A Candle in Her Room now provokes nightmares, even without me reading it. This is odd, because it’s not really horrific. It’s spiced with darkness. For me it carries all that baggage and is more than the sum of its parts.

I wanted to know if anyone knew of it. It’s not, after all, a new novel. I looked it up just now online and it’s still being read and still provoking emotions. I’ve known this book since it was first released in Australia. The edition I read and now own was the London one, from 1968, which tells you a lot about my early reading habits. And I’m devolving into dullness because I just realise that I’m writing this at bedtime. I need to find something to refresh my mind, otherwise I will have nightmares about malevolent dolls. I know this for a fact, because I have nightmares about Dido whenever I think about A Candle in Her Room late at night.

The books we read as children are important. And I shall defeat those nightmares by finding another book with that musty scent and this book shall be one that brings me good dreams.