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I got to read children’s stories to my nephew this week. The author is a favorite from when I was a kid: James Stevenson’s Grandpa and Wainey series. I remember being delighted by these books some thirty years ago. Stevenson understands something about writing for children: that there are going to be multiple ages listening to your story (except when I read for my nieces, who are twins). But typically: there is another adult in the room, or a smaller child, or a larger child than the one you’re reading to. Or you yourself want to enjoy the book instead of just slogging through it. Some books are very good, but are a slog to get through.
Anyway, I always pick books that are too hard for kids to read, and this is an example of that behavior. I think Nephew would do better with this book in maybe a year or two. But I can’t sit around for that long waiting to read my favorite books with him. Luckily, Stevenson has me covered.
Seriously You Should Read these; they’re Hilarious!
Before we go too much further, let’s talk about the premise of these books. The two kids, Maryanne and Louie, are doing some activity–walking a dog, gardening, playing in the snow–and they are growing frustrated. Grandpa lets them rest for a bit while he tells them a story about when he had a similar predicament when he was a kid, but his was much worse. There’s a nice little detail where you can see Grandpa’s eyes looking up ad to the left as he talks. The tell-tale direction to look when you’re making up nonsense off the top of your head.
The stories are wild. In Worse than Willie, Grandpa confesses he didn’t like his little brother Wainey at first. But… there was the time Wainey saved him from angry pirates. In Will you Please Feed our Cat?” Grandpa and Wainey get asked to take care of the neighbors’ cat while the neighbors are on vacation. Oh, and also their rabbits and gerbils.
And hamsters. Oh, and their turtle. And plants. And parrots.
(There are a lot of plants.)
In each of these stories, Wainey mostly gets in the way before contributing in some key way towards the climax.
More importantly, Wainey is the character everyone roots for. Instead of saying “yes” and “no,” he says “YUMP” and “NUMP.” Try to get a child to stop running around saying “YUMP” after reading them one of these stories. Just try. I’ll wait. He also contributes (monosyllabically) to the stories in other ways. It’s… If I told you everything I liked about these stories I’d just start at the beginning of one of them and talk about every amazing thing on every page until you stormed off. Well. First you would spend 10 minutes trying to get a word in edgewise. THEN you would storm off. The point is that these books exist at multiple levels. An adult or a larger kid can appreciate the artistry. A younger kid can scream “YUMP.” It’s fun for the whole group.
Read Children’s Books. They’re Good for You. They’ve Got Vitamins.
Children’s books do something that other books can’t always do. That even some children’s books, for that matter, can’t always do. The goal of a children’s book (a good one anyway) is just to delight. Yes children are supposed to learn them. But they’re supposed to learn through delight. If the book doesn’t delight, the kid doesn’t learn. And usually it’s to delight at the level of language and rhythm. I’m not sure there are books like that when you get older. Of course there are books that instill joy; I could name a dozen such (I won’t). The Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, American Born Chinese. All of these books are beautiful in their respective ways. But perhaps what I am getting at is that they are not silly; or not sufficiently so.
When you read a book like Will you Please Feed our Cat, you’re not thinking about the erosion of human community beneath the pounding waves of technological innovation (Lord of the Rings). Nor about the ways in which power and corruption traumatize ruler and subject alike (The Once and Future King). Nor about how bullying pressures people to abandon their beautiful cultural legacy in favor of conformity (American Born Chinese). You just think about the ways in which the story plays with language and physical comedy. Sometimes you don’t even think; just laugh.
What “Grown-up” Books could Learn from Children’s Books
I have to believe there is room for pure joy in a grown person’s art, and not just the stuff that’s created for children. Maybe it’s the depressive in me. Or maybe it’s that I’m in my mid-thirties. But I look back at my own memories, appalled that I ever made fun of someone’s tastes. If you find something that makes you happy and isn’t hurting anyone, go for it.
Living on the internet as I do, I have noticed that making fun of others’ tastes is a lot of what people do on Facebook and other sites. I just don’t understand why. Granted, I probably shouldn’t still live on the internet. It’s just one bad neighborhood after another, and the crime rate is appalling.
If I have learned anything as a teacher it’s that joy is learning. If you’re not experiencing joy, you’re not learning. And if you’re not learning, you’re probably not experiencing joy. This isn’t meant as a slur against the millions of teachers who work really hard to cram hours of curriculum into their students heads. But we know there are endless problems with the education system that are not the teachers’ fault. So yeah. I said what I said. Learning and joy are synonymous. That’s my guiding principle as a teacher.
If Music be the Food of Love, then Why are So Many Love Songs So Dreary?
And of course a Read/Listen/Watch could not be complete without some talk about classical music. But I think it fits.I suppose the foregoing explains why I listen to as much classical music as I do, especially as much instrumental music. There are certain moods where I don’t want to be troubled by lyrics. And (although I do go through phases) I don’t want a singer-songwriter like Bob Dylan or Kacey Musgraves to make me feel the piquant agony of doomed love. I just want to hear something that makes my soul vibrate in tune with the cosmos. Is that too much to ask?
Anyway, my foray into the viola last week (this would be a great place to make a pun on the composer Gabriel Fauré but truth be told I didn’t listen to his catalogue this week) inspired me to listen to some other concertos featuring instruments that rarely get their day in the sun. I assume it’s partly because they couldn’t out-blast a modern orchestra (the bassoon) or it would just be weird to watch your supposedly dignified soloist pause every five minutes to pour a thin stream of saliva onto the stage (trumpet, trombone, french horn, tuba…). Their loss, though. Horn concertos in particular are frigging beautiful.
No seriously. Listen to these and don’t tap your foot. I dare you.
Against my better judgment, I have been listening to some pop music this week. The spate of celebrity deaths in the last few weeks has me terrified that Willie Nelson is on deck. I have loved his music more than I can easily say. From touching ballads like this one:
…to funny songs about queer cowboys:
I hate that celebrity deaths can affect a person as much as they do. It’s one of those things I feel like I’m supposed to be above… but frustratingly am not. But yeah. My hat’s off to the people who help keep me sane while they’re alive. And make me sad when they go.
What Happens to the Watch/Listen/Read when Life Gets in the Way
Sometimes Friday just sneaks up on me and before I know it it’s time to sit down and write about what’s been keeping me entertained this week. With everything else I’ve been juggling, I’m glad I’ve had other entertainment to keep me busy.
It’s been a heavy week. Last Saturday’s hostage standoff in Colleyville, Texas followed by a week of difficult family stuff has really made it hard to concentrate, hard to keep going. I’d started re-watching Black-ish not too long ago, as the final season is wrapping up, and early this week, I watched season 2, episode 16, called “Hope,” which deals with police brutality,in which Dre Johnson (played by Anthony Anderson,) says “Hope is what keeps us as a people and a country moving forward, and sadly the best way to end that movement is to take away that hope.That hope at its core is all we really have to give our children–a belief in something better.”I’ve spent this week searchingfor hope and comfort, and struggling to find it.
Aside from Black-ish, I binge watched Golden Palace, the spinoff series from Golden Girls. It was the kind of fluff I needed. Matt Baume created a really good video about the Golden Girls and queer influences, too. On YouTube I’ve been watching Mandy Patinkin’s videos on YouTube. Last year someone showed me the video of Mandy Patinkin saying three Hebrew prayers before he fed his dog, and I was absolutely charmed. Most of the videos are short videos-no more than two or three minutes,shot by his son and they often make me laugh. This one from the other day amused me a great deal-as the camera panned past the bookshelf, there was a very clear double take at the title of a pink book on the shelf.
I also happened to watch Kat Blaque’s video about lesbian bars in New York City last night.
Take Two Pop-Songs and Call Me in the Morning
I woke up with the song “Pop Goes the World” in my head this morning. Although the song came out before I was in college, it makes me think of some very good times, and a friend who swore that the way to get any other earworm out of your head was to listen to this song.
There’s also been some George Michael. “Praying for Time” was in my head earlier in the week:
And it’s hard to love
There’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above
Say it’s much, too much, too late
Well, maybe we should all be praying for time
Never Not Listening to Bach
And when we’re seeking comfort, we go back to the familiar sometime, don’t we? It’s been a week of Bach here—the Concerto in d minor for Two Violins, and especially Brandeburg Concerto 6 in B-flat major. Conspicuously absent are the violins. Bach really did know how to thrill a viola player. Or at least me.
Poetry for Short Attention Spans (Yes, Really!)
Not much new in the books department. I haven’t picked We Ride Upon Sticks back up yet. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to focus on it. When concentration is in short supply like that I often go to poetry–I frequently find it hard to put down a book mid-chapter, but when I’m restless or unsettled, I can read a poem or two and not feel the same internal discomfort I’d feel leaving a chapter unfinished. Here are a few I’ve read this week:
A Poem for Pulse
We must love one another whether or not we die.
Love can’t block a bullet
but neither can it be shot down,
and love is, for the most part, what makes us—
in Orlando and in Brooklyn and in Kabul.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
-Adam Zagajewski,translated by Clare Cavanagh
I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone enough
to truly consecrate the hour.
I am much too small in this world, yet not small enough
-Rainer Maria Rilke
I find that poetry, in addition to being easier for me to concentrate on when things are difficult, is soothing. I read poetry in a very different way than a novel or an essay. The poetry I read because I love it wraps itself around me like a blanket and as I read it, I am consumed, phoenix-like, by fire…only to emerge changed or renewed just a little bit, on the other side of the poem. I hope everyone reads something like that—poem, story, whatever, just once in their life.