In my next life, I want to be a neurologist.

The brain is so remarkable, so compartmentalized and yet so connected. Fortunately for most of us, it all just works seamlessly. After my dad had a stroke, I was fascinated (in a sad way) to see how specific parts of his brain and his memory had been affected while other parts seemed unaffected. Now I am fascinated (in a sad way) as I observe my MIL and her progressing dementia. I had tended to associate dementia primarily with memory loss, but now I realize that it also has to do with losing the ability to process information coming in. Not entirely independent from a loss of short term memory, but it seems different somehow.

I’ve often laughed that about 10 (15? 25?) years ago my own memory banks were full. For new information to come in and be stored, some old piece of information had to go out. BUT I COULDN’T PICK WHICH INFORMATION TO LOSE. I know I’m not alone here. I still remember long-disconnected phone numbers and long-moved from addresses. And, yes, I understand that some of it is due to the differences between short- and long-term memory. Still, I would really like to be able to remember what I walked into the kitchen for.

Christmas is a time filled with memories that you box up and pull out once a year. I scale back my holiday decorating every season, but I’m still not ready to part with many of the trinkets that stir up memories of loved ones and happy times. The small tree is decorated mainly with ornaments “about” the daughters, those collected on family vacations or, more recently, travels with the husband, and others that have been acquired in my adult, married life. It’s my Christmas Present tree. Still there are at least two large tubs of tree decorations that once hung on my parents’ and my grandparents’ trees. Maybe some year I will decorate a big tree again, or a Christmas Past tree, but more likely the tubs will just get hauled in and out of the attic once a year.

I have a memory bank that doesn’t actually have anything to do with Christmas, and yet this is one of the few times of year that this slot gets accessed. I still get a thrill when I look thru the mail and recognize the handwriting on a Christmas card. It just makes me happy to know, without looking at a return address, that this card came from the hand of someone I care about. Christmas cards may be a fading tradition. They certainly aren’t very environmentally friendly. It’s quicker and easier to send out an email greeting. Pre-printed address labels are convenient and more likely to be properly handled by the post office. Still, I address my cards by hand in my print-cursive hybrid scrawl that hasn’t changed since high school. It’s not what I think I’ll be remembered by in the future, but it might make somebody remember me now.

Vacation Reading

Noplobomo was a bit of a bust this year, but I’m not surprised. I assumed that Thanksgiving travel would kill my resolve and, indeed, it was a self-fulfilling assumption. Still I think the exercise returned some awareness to my rather neglected blog and I hope to post more regularly (whatever that is) thru the end of this year and into the next. Writing it down makes it so, right?

Vacation reading usually means a carefully curated stack of books to fill any down time, airport waiting, too excited to sleep, or generally quiet moments that might be encountered on a vacation. (The phrase “carefully curated STACK” goes a long way in explaining why I generally prefer road trips to air travel.) But there’s another form of vacation reading; currently I am working on curating a list of books to help me get ready for vacation and I’m hoping to get some suggestions from y’all.

Next year the husband and I are taking a bucket list trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland and Norway. We’re going with a tour group so there isn’t a lot of actual trip planning to do. And since it is too early to start packing, even for me, I need to occupy my mind with some sort of preparation so I am looking for books to read that will help me understand Iceland, Norway, and/or the aurora. I’m a big fan of using fiction/historical fiction to help me get a feel for places, but obviously non-fiction can give me more bang/facts for the buck/reading effort.

It’s not going to be all-vacation-reading-all-the-time, but I have recently read the following two books.

Iceland: Land of the Sagas by David Roberts and Jon Krakauer was a superb photography book. The stunning photos of Iceland are accompanied by text that is part travelogue/cultural observation and part a retelling of some of the famous Icelandic Sagas. The sagas are old, classic literature of Iceland (think Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) which are a cross between American tall tales and Greek mythology. The book would have benefited from a few maps since geography and geology are very significant in Icelandic tales, but otherwise I quite enjoyed it.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is…exactly that. Gaiman puts his writing talents to work telling some of the original Norse myths, stripping the stories down as close to the originals as possible. It was really interesting reading these tales that have had such a huge influence in his own writing as well as in recent pop culture. In school, my mythology education was almost exclusively confined to the greek and roman tales. I’m hoping that the cultural implications that might be found by exhaustively comparing greek and norse mythology will somehow just seep into my brain by some form of osmosis since I’m not willing to put that much effort into anything these days. I really enjoyed the one about the mead of poets. Also, I never really understood how Ragnarok was considered the end of days, but it may or may not have already happened – until the perfect final words of the book.

A few years ago I read and enjoyed Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, a novel based on the true story of a woman accused of murder in Iceland in the late 1800’s. After hunting on the internet and consulting with my favorite booksellers, I have a few other titles on my list, but I’m open to suggestions. I’m not particularly interested in the current Scandanavian mysteries that are all the rage now (Steig Larsson, Jo Nesbo, etc.) unless you can tell me that it would really give me a feel for life in small Norwegian fishing villages above the arctic circle.

Reading for vacation. Reading on vacation. Reading as vacation. I’m good with all three.



More on happy endings

I wanted to write some comments about happy endings yesterday, but I was not about to put any more of my words on the same page with Annie Proulx’s words. Her works are moving higher on my to-read list while my own fantasies about writing fiction are getting smaller in the rear view mirror.

Would I write happy endings? Probably. I’m a sap at heart. I like happy ending books that make me cry. That being said, I actually like sad books that make me cry, too. I enjoy being pushed to the emotional edges. I just don’t always appreciate it when I’m reading in public and I find myself sobbing. Two rules of travel: 1. Always carry a book. 2. Always carry a kleenex.

I loved the story (true or not) about Darwin only wanting to relax with fiction that had happy endings. It reminded me of one of my favorite stories about D#2. One of the first chapter books she tackled on her own was Stone Fox. I’m guessing she was probably seven years old when she holed up in her room reading Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner. We heard a loud crash and I raced up the stairs to investigate. D#2 had reached the end of the book and had hurled it across the room. She was curled up on the floor by her bed, sobbing uncontrollably. When I asked if she was OK, which she clearly was not, she managed to choke out (spoiler alert), “he died!” And thus she learned a cruel lesson of literature, the dog always dies. But she also learned the magical lesson that books can transport you and make you care and feel about characters and people.

We always read aloud to both girls, from before they could understand what we were saying until well after they were reading as much as they wanted to on their own. All thru elementary school and into middle school we made time for reading chapter books. The husband memorably scared the bejeezus out of them with the Lord of the Rings, while I voiced characters in more volumes of the OZ books than I knew existed. We also listened to books on tape (yes, literally cassette tapes) when we traveled. We had many favorites, but nothing could top Jim Dale reading Harry Potter.

D#2 wasn’t sure she wanted to learn to read when she got to first grade. Why should she make the effort when people could just read to her? Fortunately her teacher knew the right way to motivate/bribe her. Both daughters went thru phases of wanting to read anything NOT recommended by their mother, but it wasn’t too long before they were pressing their favorites into MY hands. As grown women, the daughters are still avid readers and part-time writers.  And that, my friends, is a happy ending.

Happy Endings

Last night, author Annie Proulx was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards.

(True confession: I have never read anything by Annie Proulx. I know, I know, I know…she’s on my list.)

Here’s a link to her entire speech, and here’s the best part:

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it consolation.

Darwin. They say he read novels to relax, but only certain kinds, nothing that ended unhappily. If he happened on something like that, enraged he flung the book into the fire. True or not, I’m ready to believe it. Scanning in his mind so many times and places, he’s had enough of dying species, the triumphs of the strong over the weak, the endless struggles to survive, all doomed sooner or later. He’d earned the right to have the happy ending at least in fiction, with its microscales.

Hence, the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, grief daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers going to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido gone astray in the first chapter turns up barking gladly in the last.


Forward or back

D#1 went camping with some friends a few weekends ago. She was telling me how they passed time and filled many a conversational lull by playing “would you rather.” It’s the exercise where someone poses a question and everyone has to answer it. Questions can be serious or silly, such as: Would you rather die by drowning or burning? Would you rather have spider legs or octopus tentacle arms? You get the idea. It’s an old parlor game that has been around for ever, but I never actually played it much, as a kid or an adult. I’ve even seen packaged party/board games built around the concept. You can just answer, or it can lead to further discussion if you question someone’s response or ask them to justify it. Coming us with good questions is key and one of the camping group was apparently excellent at it.

Today I saw the following poll on my twitter timeline: