Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Perfect Book for a Pandemic

A couple of days ago, desperate for something cheery to read, I plucked from my shelf a book I had read a number of years ago, when I was writing a paper on Betty MacDonald for a children's literature journal.
I had known MacDonald only as the author of the hilarious Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books I loved as a child. But during her lifetime her greatest fame rested on her equally hilarious memoirs for adults. Her first book, The Egg and I, about her comic calamities as the wife of a would-be chicken farmer, was the number one title on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for 43 weeks in the late 1940s, selling a million copies during its first year and at one point, according to her biographer Paula Becker, selling at the rate of one book every twenty-two seconds.

It was her second memoir, The Plague and I, that I chose for my light-hearted pandemic reading: MacDonald's account of her eight-month stay in the Firland Sanatorium in Seattle after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis in September 1938, as the single mother of two daughters, ages nine and ten. At that time, the chief cure for this dreaded disease was absolute, fanatically enforced rest for the lungs, which meant lying motionless in bed for month after month, forbidden to read, to write, to laugh, even to cough ("Coughs can be controlled," the stern nurses would insist). Rooms were kept frigid, with windows flung wide open in the most relentlessly cold and rainy weather, so residents felt perpetually half-frozen.

But MacDonald makes her record of life at The Pines (as she calls it in her memoir) so funny that few readers would be able to obey the no-laughing rule while reading it.

The book begins with her statement, "Getting tuberculosis in the middle of your life is like starting downtown to do a lot of urgent errands and being hit by a bus." She goes on to say, "By background and disposition some people are better suited to being hit by a bus than others." For example, her co-worker Doris: Doris's "mother had a little tumor, her father had a 'bad leg,' Doris had a great deal of 'female trouble,' and they all were hoping that Granny had cancer." (Yes, MacDonald's humor rests largely on unflinching, downright scathing observation of human foibles, including her own.) She writes, "To Doris and her family tuberculosis would have been anti-climactic but a definite asset. So of course it was not Doris but I who got tuberculosis." And in Betty's family it was considered a character flaw to be sick, and even worse, to be a self-pitying "saddo" about it.

It's all I can do not to type in paragraph after paragraph of Betty's commentary on her fellow patients at the Pines. I did call my younger son, in Chicago, and ask him if I could read him some of it over the phone, and after an uncomfortable pause, he graciously said, "Well, okay. I mean, sure." I won't do that to you here. Well, maybe just one more line... oh, which one should I choose? All right: here the glamorous new roommate balks at having her long beautiful hair cut off, as the institution rules require. The Charge Nurse chides her: "I think that you are being unfair to your wardmates. You say that your hair cut will make you look like an ugly old hag yet Mrs. Bard [Betty went by her maiden name, despite her failed first marriage to the gentleman chicken farmer] and Miss Sanbo both have had their hair cut and I don't think they look like hags." Eileen then looks at her two roommates: "Well, it didn't improve 'em any." Ha!

So for the past few days I read, and read, and read, and howled with laughter at how funny a plague could be. I closed the book grateful that during my enforced coronavirus isolation I can still walk to the bathroom! And sit up for more than fifteen minutes a day! And sleep at night under heaps of blankets, unlike the shivering residents of the sanitorium! And right this minute I'm in no danger of dying, and even if I were, I wouldn't be leaving two young daughters motherless.

I discovered from Paula Becker's delightful 2016 book, Looking for Betty MacDonald (part biography and part account of her own personal journey to walk in MacDonald's footsteps, visiting all the many homes in which she had resided), that Betty was born right here in Boulder, where I live. A couple of years ago I made a pilgrimage to her birthplace at 723 Spruce Avenue.

Now I've chosen her for my companion during our current plague.

I'm going to do my best not to be a "saddo."

And if I ever need a good hearty laugh during the coming weeks under stay-in-place restrictions (or months? or years? some of the patients at the Pines were there for a decade or more), I'll open The Plague and I to any random page and start in reading.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Birth Announcement for Vera Vance, Comics Star

Oh, it's hard these days to remember what ordinary life used to be like.

But despite coronavirus, today is the pub date of my newest book. This one is especially dear to me, so I write this post to celebrate her birth and welcome her into this world so fraught with uncertainties. Here she is: Vera Vance, Comics Star.

Can't you tell just from looking at her, in the cover illustration by the brilliant Grace Zong, that Vera is herself no stranger to worry, but someone who finds joy in creating, anyway? 

The anxious, perfectionist only child of an anxious, perfectionist widowed mother, Vera has a passion for drawing, so she is thrilled to be attending a month-long comic-book camp in her school's after-school program. This entire book series, of which Vera's story is book two, is set in an after-school program called After-School Superstars, where each month - and each book - is devoted to a different themed camp. First up: Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, out last year. Next up after Vera, Lucy Lopez, Coding Star, out this fall. I just finished final revisions on Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star, out next spring. But Vera's mother (like my own mother) disdains comic books, setting up a dilemma for Vera, who secretly loves them herself but also craves her mother's constant approval.

Writing this book was bliss for me. One of my favorite themes as a writer is how characters can take what they learn in the world and draw from it greater understanding of their own lives. So in my book Being Teddy Roosevelt, as Riley reads a biography of TR for his school's biography tea, he is able to channel that president's can-do spirit to pursue his dream of being able to play the saxophone in instrumental music. In my book The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish, as Amanda completes a school assignment on the Civil War, writing a fictional diary in the person of Polly Mason, who has one brother fighting for the North and one for the South, she finds a way to manage her divided loyalties to both of her divorcing parents. Now, in creating a comic about the heroic exploits of Little Spoon, who rebels against over-protective Big Spoon, Vera finds a way to embark on a hero's journey of her own.

At this frightening moment for our nation and our world, we're all embarking on a weird hero's journey just to continue muddling through with our lives somehow despite the unprecedented upheavals of coronavirus. I'm hoping I can get inspiration from my own sweet little Vera to keep on doing this: to create with joy despite constant worry and fear. I hope you can, too.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Homesick for Ordinary Life

A decade ago, when I was having one of life's challenging seasons, I remember telling myself that however bad things were now, it would take so little - just one phone call with some kind of unspeakably horrible news - for me to wish I had my current life back again, in every single detail.

That's how I feel right now.

I imagine it's how many of you feel, too.

In recent weeks, I've been complaining a bit about my return, for the first time in five years, to teaching philosophy courses at the University of Colorado. I felt awkward and foolish standing in front of the lecture hall, trying to pretend I was my younger, cooler self, working too desperately to get them to like me. In addition to my Intro to Ethics course at noon, I've been subbing in the Major Social Theories course for an instructor during his six weeks of paternity leave. I enjoyed his students greatly, but I'm not a late-afternoon person. How nice it would be when I didn't have to hang out in my office for hours waiting for that 3:00-4:15 teaching slot!

Now, like every university in the country, we've switched to online teaching for the entire rest of the semester; I'm struggling to figure out how to record lectures, how to post them on CU's online platform, how to structure conversations on "discussion boards." I would give anything to be going into campus on the Skip tomorrow and teaching my beloved students face-to-face. How I adored being with them, talking in a lively, animated, face-to-face way about John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls.

In recent weeks I've also whined a bit about my daily visits to my husband in the care home where he now lives, completely incapacitated from advanced Parkinson's. I didn't have to go see him every day, but I had made a commitment to myself to do this, a commitment I typically honored five days out of seven. Oh, but it was a tedious drive across town with all those traffic lights! (Especially since twice in the last year I was rear-ended at one of these lights). He loved when I brought him meals, but that was more work and expense. And no one can say that nursing homes are not dreary places to visit, however kind and caring the staff.

Now, like every nursing home in the country, after first imposing strict limits on visitation, Manor Care is ceasing all in-person visits whatsoever as of tomorrow. I'm about to make my last visit to him - for weeks? for months? - in a couple of hours. I would give anything to continue seeing him every day to charge his cellphone, tidy his bedside table, wipe drips from his face and crumbs from his shirt, and watch something silly on TV together (the game show "Cash Cab" was my favorite). How I loved that sweet time we spent together!

I could go on and on with this list. I know you could go on and on with yours, too.

In the final act of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Emily, after dying young in childbirth, is given the chance to live again one ordinary day in her small town of Grover's Corners. With painful yearning for every instant of what she has left behind, she cries out, "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for any one to realize you!" and asks plaintively, "Do any human beings ever realize life as they live it - every, every minute?"

We don't. We can't.

But coronavirus has made me want to try harder to do this. The writer Colette is quoted as saying, "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."

Me, too, Colette.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Making an Allowance for Ourselves

When I had my first baby (31 years ago), I was utterly flummoxed by the entire experience. I couldn't function at ALL because it seemed that ALL he did was cry and eat - and eat - and eat - and eat. I remember keeping a desperate little chart of how often he ate - was it REALLY every hour? or more? or was this just my crazed imagination? And nursing did NOT come easily to me. NONE of it came easily to me, in fact, because what I adore is productivity, moving forward on my life goals, getting stuff DONE, and as a new mother with a new baby, I was getting NOTHING done except trying to keep him calm and fed. I spent all day doing things I was bad at doing, and nary a minute doing anything I was actually good at doing.

Other people took such good care of me during that time. One friend would invite me over to her house for a couple of hours while her husband would entertain my baby and she and I would have gin and tonics. I will remember her kindness till the day that I die.

But as the months and years went by, I never got very good at the being-a-mom thing. I always felt I was struggling to function in the world because it was so difficult functioning at home. Well, I could make an allowance for myself: I was a new mom! (Except that I wasn't all that new any more.) And then I'd see other people with brand-new infants who were hosting dinner parties! And bringing home-made treats to office potlucks! And taking their babies to work and actually working when they got there!


Now, decades later, I've been having trouble functioning because of truly tragic family woes, where once again, I'm cutting myself a lot of slack (who COULD function, struggling under my load?) and making huge allowances for myself (oh, you POOR THING!). And yet, I can't help being aware that other people - maybe most other people? - are also struggling under their own crippling loads - loads every bit as heavy as mine - and seem to be doing just fine.


Right now, the worst of my current family stresses are reaching a (sad, but bearable) resolution. Difficult decisions have been made. These difficult decisions will have to be lived with forever. Can I still keep on making allowances for myself, or is it time to suck it up, buttercup, and get with the program?

Here's my tentative answer: YES, it's fine to keep on making allowances for myself! And guess what? It's fine for YOU to keep on making allowances for yourself, too. Life is hard. Why do we want to make it harder for ourselves? And who makes this "program" that we pressure ourselves to "get with"? Why don't we change the program so that it's more humane and forgiving for all of us?

Now, by this I DON'T mean not doing our fair share of whatever it is that has to be done. But it does mean questioning what does indeed "have" to be done. One semester, when I was teaching full-time in the philosophy department, one colleague tallied up the number of talks (job talks, colloquium talks, work-in-progress talks, etc.) we were expected to attend during that fifteen-week period: 65!! Why did we do this to ourselves? Why don't we start resisting some of the extravagant demands we permit the world to place upon us?

Also, "fair" shares have some flexibility. In my little church, I feel I can contribute best by doing the things I love and am good at: writing, speaking (I give a lot of guest sermons), and teaching - also running meetings - and organizing things. I feel no need to volunteer for the things I'm TERRIBLE at, such as counting up the offering after worship and ringing handbells in the bell choir. Although I do take my turn at serving fellowship time snacks, I don't bring amazing home-baked goodies, but present a perfectly acceptable spread of store-brought snacks.

Finally, those other people who seem to perform so amazingly under astronomical stress may fall apart plenty behind the scenes. After all, I look pretty darned functional and productive to the rest of the world most of the time, too. Or they may be people who deal best with stress by keeping themselves constantly busy. One of my closest friends deals with her ongoing heartbreak by walking every day, swimming every day, AND hiking every day. That's her drug of choice. My drug of choice is writing blog posts, reading library books, and mega-sleeping. It's all good.

So, dear ones, let's make allowances for one another, and for ourselves. And if you have a new baby you want me to entertain for an hour while we both sip gin and tonics, just let me know. . . .