MEMOIR WRITING FROM MARGIE ARONS-BARRON

FISHING FOR A STORY…

By Margie Arons-Barron

They’re crammed into the glass jar, some gray or pinkish or maybe brown.  Some are inert, and others squirm.  All are slimy.  I force myself to reach into the jar and pull one out, holding it in my ten-year-old hand while, with the other, I force one end onto the hook, into the anus.  Or maybe it was the mouth.  I could never tell which.  I make sure the worm’s body covers the hook so the fish won’t know its dinner comes at a price.

I let the line out into Long Lake, dragging my “worm hand” in the water to wash off the slime.  I shiver with disgust, looking to my father for approval.  He knows everything about what the bass is thinking.  This inlet is rocky; he’ll hide in the vegetation.  A storm is coming; he’s more likely to bite.  Think like a bass, he tells me, and I nod as if I understand.

Sometimes the bass are not biting.  As the sun comes up, it’s pike that we entice.  We take them to our cabin to grill for breakfast.  Those shared times predate catch-and-release.

My father would face the bow, where I sat, his back to the motor, hand on the tiller.  Occasionally, our Johnson/Evinrude outboard would die, and I’d row the boat, stopping in one place or other depending on what my father believed the fish were thinking that day.

“Uh, Dad,” I said on one occasion.  “The motor is on fire.”

Swiveling on his seat, fearing conflagration, he loosened the clamps and dumped the engine into the lake.  “No point in going farther,” he shrugged, so I picked up the oars.  Blisters on my hands were a badge of our bonding.

Cynics dismiss bass fishing as a hobby, not a sport.  Bass fishing is hardly about reeling in a fifty-pound tuna.  It was my father’s sport, though, and I was grateful to share it with him.

Still, father-daughter bonding would go only so far.  Dad and his best fishing buddy were flying into Brown Paper Company property in northern Maine to fish for several days.  I longed to be included.  My hurt was extreme when he returned, sunburned and bearded, and revealed that the friend’s son, three years younger than I, had gone along.

Years later, when he lost his leg to diabetes, he couldn’t handle the instability of a small boat and settled for deep-sea excursions on charters.  The fishing was never the same for either of us.  Yet, on what would have been his hundredth birthday, my husband, sister, and I went deep-sea fishing out of Gloucester.  Post-hurricane, there were fifteen-foot swells.  Hearty men hung over the gunwhales, projectile vomiting.  Protected by pride and Bonine, I stayed the course and fished for six hours.

I owed it to my father.  My reward was fresh haddock for dinner—and a connection reaching well beyond the line cast over the water for some unsuspecting halibut with a big mouth.

BOLLI Matters Writer Margie Arons-Barron

After a long career in broadcast journalism, Margie has turned to writing memoir and fiction at BOLLI.  She has been a member of the Writers’ Guild and serves on the Journal committee.  She is also an avid and successful blogger.  You can read and subscribe to her blog at:  https://marjoriearonsbarron.com/

CREATIVE NONFICTION WITH DONNA JOHNS: THE LAWN MOWER MAN

The Lawn Mower Man

by Donna Johns

It started with a small act of kindness.

Rodney Smith Jr. saw an elderly man struggling to mow his lawn. He pulled over and offered to finish the job for free. While he was mowing, he thought about all the people who might need this kind of help: the elderly, the disabled, single mothers, veterans. By the time he finished his first lawn, he had committed himself to mowing fifty lawns. He found his clients through Twitter and word of mouth.

Fifty lawns turned into a hundred. Since Rodney didn’t own a mower and some of his clients didn’t have the equipment, he contacted someone on Craigslist who was selling a mower. When Rodney explained his mission, the man gave him the mower. That’s when Rodney realized he could ask for what he needed and people, inspired by his mission, would be happy to help.

Rodney’s next project was more ambitious. He decided to mow lawns in all fifty states. Underwritten by lawn mower companies and private donations, he set out in 2017 to meet his goal. Every family he helped was featured in his Twitter feed. They included veterans suffering from PTSD, moms working three jobs to keep food on the table, elderly widows living alone. He also sampled cuisine from each state; he was not a fan of New England clam chowder.

Returning home to Alabama, Rodney completed his Masters in social work but decided that his true calling was on the road, highlighting the needs present in every community. He grew his one act of kindness by forming a group for young people called the Fifty Lawn Challenge. Hundreds of children have pledged to mow fifty lawns in their communities for free, and the numbers grow with every state he visits.

After a second summer touring the fifty states, Rodney had raised a significant amount of money. He spent part of this past winter reaching out to the homeless in his home state of Alabama. Armed with a trunk full of survival kits (sleeping bags, heavy socks, warm jackets, gloves) and cash cards donated by businesses, he traveled through the state highlighting the plight and the dignity of the homeless. He would approach a homeless person and simply ask them what they really wanted or needed.

Many of them longed for a hot shower and a soft bed for the night. Rodney handed out vouchers for two days at a local hotel. A lot of them wanted cell phones so they could look for work and have a way to have an employer call them. Two brothers in North Carolina just wanted bus tickets so they could go home to see their family. Rodney left each person knowing that someone cared enough to reach out and connect with them.

His newest project? He’s raising money each month for someone in short term financial trouble. Each month he asks his supporters to vote on some candidates submitted to him through his huge social network. Last week he delivered a check to a single mother in Texas whose son has a serious medical problem.

And, of course, he still mows lawns when he sees someone in need.

You can support Rodney’s work at http://weareraisingmen.com/ and you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

“BOLLI Matters” feature writer Donna Johns

Donna is a teacher/librarian, writer of unpublished romance novels, sometime director of community theater and BOLLI member. She has two fantastic faux knees which set off the metal detectors at Fenway Park. 

 

STORIES FROM STEVE: Firsts

 

by Steve Goldfinger

At age ten, I went to my first opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. Its composer was Vaughan Williams. Its librettist, Gertrude Stein. The line, “Pigeons on the grass alas” was her most memorable absurdity. Some of my classmates who were there with me probably still remember it. They may also recall that, not long afterward, we were taken to see a play performed by the Jean Louis Barrault company. As it was entirely in French, I am certain not a single word of it remains in our minds.

So, why were we fifth graders bused from PS 193 into the big city for these bewildering performances? Well, we were a group of bright kids selected from various elementary schools across Brooklyn who would comprise a so-called “opportunity” class that would last from grades 5 through 8. Our curriculum was intended to maximize what was thought to be our potential.

It wasn’t all artsy stuff. Back in 1946, we had some serious discussions about the world and concluded that communism was probably best for China. That same year, Miss Sullivan taught us about propaganda techniques in advertising. I learned not to be duped by testimonials and glittering generalities.

My mind was challenged.

I witnessed my first death in 1946.  Fred Cornman’s father, a musician, came in to play the piano for the class.  We sat in the auditorium, listening. Suddenly, a clamor of discordant notes erupted from the piano as he slumped onto to the keyboard. And at that moment, for the only time in my life, I heard a loud death rattle.  I knew exactly what was happening. I raced from my seat down an aisle to the back exit to escape. Miss Sullivan was close behind me, running to the principal’s office.

I can still hear that rattle.

I fell in love for the first time in the eighth grade. Her name was Paula. She sat next to me. She was beautiful, clearly the most popular girl in the class. The rare Sadie Hawkins Day (February 29th) was traditionally when girls would ask boys to a dance. I couldn’t bear the thought that she might ask someone else, so I oafishly pre-empted her by inviting her to go with me. She accepted. Over the next months, my thoughts were torrid; our behavior was chaste. I remember the thrill of her allowing me to put my arm around her shoulder at a movie. I remember kissing her at her door. It was the first time we kissed. I mean really kissed.  And it was the last time we dated. We went to separate high schools.  So obsessed was I with Paula that I did not date again until my senior year.

My heart still skips a beat when I think of her seventy years later.

Memoir Writer Steve Goldfinger

Since joining BOLLI a few years ago, after a long career in medicine, Steve has been exploring his artistic side.  He has been active in both the Writers Guild and CAST (Creativity in Acting, Storytelling, and Theatre) as well as the Book Group.

THE BOLLI JOURNAL 2020: Now Accepting Submissions!

THE 2020 BOLLI JOURNAL IS NOW ACCEPTING SUBMISSIONS!

Yes, the next volume featuring the creative work of our BOLLI membership is underway, and we’re looking forward to seeing your work!

Submission Process

 BOLLI members may submit up to four pieces of writing and/or visual art/craft work (total) for consideration.  (Nor more than three per member will be published.) 

Writing: Any BOLLI member may submit original unpublished fiction, creative nonfiction (including memoir, topical essay, nature, travel, sports, food writing, etc.) poetry, or playwriting.  Please double space and number each page of your work, but do not write your name on your manuscript/s. Include a word count below the title of each piece being submitted.  (Items not to exceed 1000 words.)

Visual Art/Craft:  Any BOLLI member may submit original, unpublished high resolution photographs. High resolution images of original drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, woodworking, etc. may also be submitted.

Sending Materials:  Work should be submitted via email although hard copy may be left with Lily Gardner for scanning and sending via email.  (No particular computer program is preferred for submission, but all photography should be sent in high resolution.)  Indicate “Journal Submission” in the subject line of your email.  Material should be provided as attachments. Send to the editor at: susanlwurster@gmail.com.

Your submission will be acknowledged within a week of its receipt. If you do not receive such acknowledgment, contact editor Sue Wurster at: susanlwurster@gmail.com

Editorial Review:  All material will be reviewed (as “blind” submissions on a “rolling” basis) by The Journal committee:  Managing/Production Editor Sue Wurster and Art Editor Joanne Fortunato; Helen Abrams, Margie Arons-Barron, Lydia Bogar, Betsy Campbell,  Miriam Goldman, Dennis Greene, Donna Johns, Marjorie Roemer, Caroline Schwirian, and Larry Schwirian,  Genre editors will review, make suggestions for improvement, and present items to the full committee for consideration.

The editor will respond to members with suggestions from the committee for improving submitted work.  While we will be reviewing work on a rolling basis, final decisions regarding items to be included in this volume will be made after the September 30 submission deadline when all items will be considered for the volume as a whole.

Deadline for Submission: SEPTEMBER 30, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND? THE PONY RIDE by Barry David

THE PONY RIDE

By Barry David

The ring was oval-shaped, and we stood about midway on one side watching the ponies.  It was a glorious fall day. We were in no rush.

My granddaughter held my hand.  She had not yet decided about having a ride; it’s scary to try something new.  So we waited as she carefully appraised each pony as it passed by with its mounted child.

There were brown ones and black ones, some with mixed colors, and others with patterns.

I wondered what she was thinking.   Was she intimidated by them, simply afraid, or was she considering what color pony she’d like to ride?  What goes through a four-year-old’s head?  Lots!

“Would you like a ride?” I asked her.

“Yes,” was her reply, and there was no question about it.

“But I don’t want to ride on a big pony.”

“Okay,” I assured her.

“But I don’t want a small pony.”

“Oh,” I mumbled.  Where was this outing going?

In silence, we watched a few more go by and then, she said, “Papa, I want to ride on a medium pony.”

“Okay!”

A medium pony.  Not too big or too small.  Moderation.  And, given the times we are in as a nation, not too far left or right.

The extremes we deal with each day can make most of us uncomfortable whether in a pony ring or in politics.  Whether we are four or eighty-four, white or black, male or female, conservative or progressive, we are all simply part of the human web that connects us.

When faced with complex choices, compromise most often points the way to a lasting solution.   Sounds pretty basic, and it is.  Not rocket science, if egos are parked at the door.

Too many of our leaders need to get off their donkeys or elephants and mount a ring full of medium ponies.  If they just go on pony ride, they will help us all get “there” faster and “fairer.”  If not, we need to send them home on their donkeys or elephants, never to return.  We can’t allow any leader’s ego and dated ideology to screw up what can be a good pony ride for America.

And, oh, yes!  The pony ride—on a medium, light brown and white pony—was a great success.

BOLLI “Matters” contributor Barry David

Barry says that he and his wife Liz began taking courses at BOLLI “almost from the beginning while winding down my career in the computer field as GM of ADP.  Love taking subjects that I’ve not had exposure to before.  Being snowbirds, we’re delighted that spring semester is build the five-week offerings.  BOLLI has been and remains an important part of our life.”

 

 

MEET OUR MEMBERS: Howard Barnstone, Woodworker Extraordinaire

HOWARD BARNSTONE

Woodworker Extraordinaire

At five years old, Howard Barnstone was given a toy lathe which he used to make turnings out of balsa wood.  After that, his toys of choice extended to Lincoln Logs, Lego, and “girds and panels” sets.  And so began his lifelong interest in woodworking.  In his high school wood shop course, he made a chess board out of oak and cherry squares and then moved on to creating wooden skateboards—totally ahead of his time.  At U. Mass. Amherst, he enrolled in a woodworking art course in order to finish the wooden clock he had been working on at the end of high school—even the gears were cut out of mahogany.

When he was about 27, Howard took an open night class in woodworking at Brookline High where he was making a cherry coffee table.  He was planning to finish it up during the last class, but he was invited to another event being held on the same evening.   “I was torn about which way to go,” he says.  “I finally decided to go to the event and leave early.  I figured, that way, I could also make the class.”  That ended up being a good decision.  At the event, he met Gayle Ehrlich, his wife (and fellow BOLLI member)—but was also able to finish his project.

Howard chose to follow a path in the business world but says that he can see a connection between business and furniture building and design.  “I used to put together merger and acquisition deals for a financial information company.  Building furniture is similar to complex business deals in that both involve many interlocking pieces that need to not only stand alone but also function within a complicated over-arching concept.”

All along the way, Howard managed to find time for open shop courses at the local high schools.  He built a variety of tables for his family in the process.   Now that his children are grown and he has retired from the business world, Howard says that he is pursuing woodworking and furniture building and design in an even more in-depth way.  “My goal is to refine my abilities and make great furniture for my own pleasure,” he says, “enjoying it for its craft and mastery.”

Howard says he mostly designs and builds tables and cabinets, particularly in the Shaker style which “I like for its clean lines, efficiencies, and practicality.”  He says he also admires the work of both Thomas Moser and Stickley.

Shaker night tables (in progress) and boot benchh

During the spring of 2017, Howard took the three-month full-time intensive furniture course at the North Bennett Street School which he enjoyed immensely.  “We completed two full projects—a Shaker night stand and a cupboard on a stand,” he says.  “We spent extensive time with both hand and machine tools.  We also focused on dove-tail, mortise and tenon, and other aspects of joinery as well as wood choice and properties.”  Since then, he has also completed Peter Thibeault’s course on The Fine Art of Furniture.

At this point, Howard is focused on the next steps in his journey with furniture.  “I look forward to better applying design concepts and principles,” he says, “learning about the evolution of historical furniture design and modern approaches to the manipulation of wood products to achieve certain furniture design aesthetics.”

In terms of future work, Howard says that “Like authors feel they have a certain number of books in them,  I have a certain number of furniture pieces in me–and it is up to me, like the author, to produce, them by putting in the hard work. Time will tell.”

Finally, Howard says that it doesn’t really matter what he is making as long as it is engaging him. “I think of myself as being the furniture version of a gentleman farmer.  I just get extreme joy from the process of working with wood.”

*

BOLLI Member and Furniture Artist Howard Barnstone

Howard says about his BOLLI experience, “I have been taking classes at BOLLI or the past four years and have enjoyed the quality of the teachers, courses, and the camaraderie  of learning together.”

 

 

Is there a BOLLI member you’d like to see profiled in BOLLI Matters? Contact Sue Wurster via email:  susanlwurster@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER CHEF’S CORNER: SWEDISH MEATBALL STROGANOFF

SWEDISH MEATBALL STROGANOFF

from John Rudy

I found this recipe in an old cooking magazine in the ‘70s.  I make plain meatballs (lean hamburger, some salt and one small finely-chopped onion).  I then broil the meatballs until they are medium rare; not more than about 6 minutes turning once.  I usually make them quite small, smaller than a golf ball, maybe 3/4ʺ.  The meatballs can be frozen to be used later.

The sauce recipe is sufficient for about 1½ pounds of meat.

By using lite cream cheese and sour cream, the calories are reduced and the taste seems to be the same.

Stroganoff Sauce

2 cans Cream of Mushroom soup (10½ oz can)

1½ cup Milk

6 oz  Cream cheese (softened)  (I use the “lite”)

¼ cup   Catsup

¼ tsp  Garlic Powder

1 pt  Sour cream (I use the “lite”)

Mix together in large saucepan (except for the sour cream);  warm, but do not boil. Stir constantly.

Add the meatballs and cook until thawed (if previously frozen) or hot.

Stir in the sour cream.

Serve over noodles or with toothpicks as an appetizer. (If the latter, there will be too much sauce.)

BOLLI Matters “Chef’s Corner” feature writer John Rud

 

John says that it was his mother who inspired his love of cooking and baking at an early age.  (She cooked vegetables in boil-able packages.)

MARCH CHEF’S CORNER: WHAT DOES A TEST COOK EAT?

WHAT DOES A TEST COOK EAT?

(Click on picture or on “America’s Test Kitchen” below  to connect to video)

from John Rudy

Here is a 1-week report detailing what a test cook on America’s Test Kitchen (my favorite source of recipes) eats all day, along with a good explanation of why things were done in the way that they were.  Enjoy!

“BOLLI Matters” feature writer John Rudy

John says that it was his mother who inspired his love of cooking and baking at an early age.  (She cooked vegetables in boil-able packages.)

 

 

 

SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP INVITATION: Hardy Pond Watershed Talk

THE HARDY POND WATERSHED

Are you interested in the ecology of Waltham and neighboring areas?  BOLLI’s Waltham Matters SIG is delighted to pass along an invitation to learn more about the Hardy Pond Watershed.  Hardy Pond is a gem located in the Lakeview neighborhood of North Waltham and extends over 900 acres into Lexington.

On Thursday, March 21, all are welcome to join in a discussion of the Watershed at the Lexington Auditorium at Brookhaven (1010 Waltham Street, Lexington.) Organizers and discussion leaders are members of the Waltham Land Trust, the Hardy Pond Association and Bob Hartzell, a lakes and ponds expert.

Questions, comments, etc. about this venture and/or about the BOLLI Waltham Matters SIG should be directed to Sue Adams at:  scadams43@gmail.com

 

TECH TALK with John Rudy: Your Digital Data

Your Digital Data:  Thinking and Planning for Incapacity or Death

All of us have a lot of personal digital data available to us that may not be available to others .  Let’s start with a sample of the various categories:

  • You have files on your home computer, tablet, or smart phone. These may be photos, tax returns, passwords, etc.  In general, nothing will happen to these if you die and (1) IF SOMEONE HAS THE APPROPRIATE PASSWORDS TO ENTER THESE DEVICES and (2) knows the names of the important files.  You probably have thousands of files, and you might not have set up a file structure or named them in a way that is obvious to your heirs.
  • Professionals such as stock brokers, bankers, accountants, and lawyers have your files, and their protection systems are probably robust. In most cases, I suspect that you do not duplicate on your systems the data that they have on theirs, relying on your ability to log into their systems.  But can this data be shared?
  • You might have data with social media environments that your family doesn’t want to lose. Let’s limit ourselves to Facebook for now, but that, of course, is not the only social media platform out there.
  • You have email IDs that could be closed down.

Discussing all these areas in detail is complicated, and you not only have to be proactive, but you also have to understand any pertinent US or state laws that protect this data.  I’m going to provide my thoughts on a number of these issues, but I do not claim to understand all the laws that are in effect.  And some of these laws might differ by locale.

  1. Try to set up your computer folders so they are readable. At the top level. have something called PICTURES or PHOTOS and store all your photos in sub-files under this.  Have a file called TAXES and do a similar thing.  Then document what you have done and ensure that your heirs have a copies.
  2. Have a Password file, with all your passwords. It is best that you use a password manager, but, if not, set up an Excel list.  Keep it hidden, but be sure that your heirs have copies.  If you are sick or die, others may need to get into these accounts.
  3. If you die, some applications will become aware of it. Here is an example that affects me.  MIT provides me with an email address which I can link to whatever normal email I am currently using.  MIT also has a web crawler that looks across the Internet for obits of their graduates.  Six months after I die, MIT will cancel this forwarding service, and my heirs will be unaware that any messages sent to that address will bounce back.  That means that I better make sure that my heirs pay proper attention to all incoming messages for 6 months so that they can inform folks of the proper email address to use in the future.
  4. Companies like Facebook say that they close your page when you die. Is that what you want?  Here is an interesting article on the Facebook situation:  https://www.lifewire.com/facebook-account-after-you-die-4103721 There is even a Facebook app you can download, called “If I die,” that you can set up at any point before your death to control what happens.
  5. Do you want your spouse to have access to your calendar if something happens to you? This might be useful if you would want appointments cancelled or colleagues informed.  Of course, you should be sure that your spouse has access to your address book.
  6. I recently read the following in a newsletter: “Merely scribbling down your passwords on a sheet of paper isn’t always enough. In many cases, your relatives are still legally prohibited from accessing your account without express permission. Thankfully, 41 states have adopted laws that allow you to declare who has access to what data—as long as you include a provision in your will or revocable trust and your power of attorney specifies that they can have access”   Who would think of that?

I am not a lawyer, so I do not know what the legalities are (and they might be different for different states) for allowing your broker or bank or attorney to share data with a designated person.  I have personally addressed this problem by making my heirs trustees for my accounts.  You might ask whether a letter from you is sufficient to provide access (and whether it is effective for both death and disability).

While you are thinking about your digital assets, it might be appropriate to include your heirs’ names on a checking account and on the checks, so that they can pay bills on your behalf if you are incapacitated or die.  Obviously, you must think carefully about who you provide any of this linkage/access to.

And lastly, this is not a one-time endeavor. You should periodically review your approach and attempt to see whether the environment within which you operate has changed.

“BOLLI Matters” feature writer (both Tech Talk and the Chef’s Corner) John Rudy

A long-time technology expert and guide, John provides his helpful hints in this monthly BOLLI Matters feature.  In the comment box below, provide John with questions,  comments, or suggestions future tech items to cover. 

john.rudy@alum.mit.edu (781-861-0402)

STORIES FROM STEVE: I QUIT

I QUIT

By Steve Goldfinger

“Giving up smoking is easy,” Mark Twain said.  “I’ve done it hundreds of times”  

My tally is a lot lower, perhaps ten or twelve times.  My fervent intentions were almost always foiled after I drank a little alcohol with a pal who was lighting up. “Can I have one?” invariably led to more.

At one point, I was seeing a patient who flaunted a pack of Lucky Strikes in his front shirt pocket. How I craved one, and my ensuing strategy was craven. He was in for a routine health check up, and I strongly urged him to quit smoking. The best way, I assured him, was to go cold turkey. “Toss that pack into that waste basket. Right now,” I implored.  He did.  I went for that waste basket as soon he was out the door.

That was 50 years ago, and I’ve been clean for about that long now.

It wasn’t so easy when it came to golf.   I can think of dozens of occasions when, driving home from a horrendous round with my golf buddy, I assured him that the end had come.  Never again.  Why torture myself?  Why destroy a perfectly gorgeous Sunday morning by hitting one wretched shot after another, succumbing to outbursts of temper, and cursing–so unlike me during the rest of my week. He would smile and remind me of the two good shots I had made that day.  And, sure enough, during the week, I thought about those shots, remembered how many wonderful ones I had hit in my prime.  Just recapture the rhythm, the mind set, the joy of being out in nature, the camaraderie, I said to myself.  And the next Sunday, I was out there with him again.  And the ride back was no different.

There was only one way to truly quit, and I proceeded to do it. Last year, I prepared a professional looking affadavit entitled Goldfinger’s Last Round of Golf and in it, detailed all my foozled and otherwise mis-hit shots, hole by hole. I sent it out to all my golfing friends– recent ones and others from years ago.

So far, this has worked.  I even gave my clubs to one of my sons. But I had this dream last night: I was out on the course with a player who was hitting magnificent shots with a set of curious-looking clubs, a recent breakthrough innovation by a club manufacturer who was advertising them widely.

I asked if I could swing one. When  I did,  the ball soared high and far, in a trajectory that would have made me proud even at my golfing peak.

These clubs can be purchased online or at a nearby golf store. They are handsome and affordable.

Tune in next month.

 

Memoir Writer Steve Goldfinger

Since joining BOLLI a few years ago after a long career in medicine, Steve has been exploring his artistic side.  He has been active in both the Writers Guild and CAST (Creativity in Acting, Storytelling, and Theatre) as well as the Book Group.  

POP CULTURE WITH DENNIS GREENE: HARRY POTTER

                          J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter:                                Serious Literature or Adolescent “Slop”

By Dennis Greene

     “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at age fifty.”  –C. S. Lewis

Unless you have been living under a stone for the past twenty years, you have certainly heard of British author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Ms. Rowling has sold over 500 million copies of this seven-volume “young adult” series published from 1997 through 2007. The series has spawned ten extremely successful films and is frequently credited with encouraging the millennial generation to enjoy reading thick, complex books. This literary phenomenon has made the author a billionaire, and the Harry Potter franchise is now valued at over $25 billion dollars.

The Potter fan base is not limited to young adults. Millions of mature readers have come to know and love the Potter books by sharing them with their children or grandchildren. Others have sampled The Sorcerer’s Stone to see what the fuss was about and discovered, in one reviewer’s words, “the liveliest, funniest, scariest, and most moving children’s stories ever written. The praise from many well-respected reviewers has been effusive. A. N. Wilson in The (London) Times referred to Rowling’s narrative skills as Dickensian while Stephen King predicted that Harry Potter deserved his place on the shelf with Alice, Huck, Frodo and Dorothy. The Mail on Sunday rated The Philosopher’s Stone as “the most imaginative debut since Roald Dahl,” and the Guardian called it “a richly textured novel given lift-off by an inventive wit.”

The skyrocketing commercial success of the Potter books, along with the literary awards and critical acclaim they have received, eventually attracted the attention of the elite literary establishment. Leading the attack on the popular books was Yale Professor and well-known ;iterary critic Harold Bloom. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Can 35 Million Book Buyers be Wrong?  Yes.” Professor Bloom observed that Rowling’s writing was “dreadful” and the book was “terrible” (note Professor Bloom’s magnificent use of richly descriptive adjectives) and then went on to disparage her readers.

“Why read it?” Bloom said.  ” Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do. At least her fans are momentarily emancipated from their screens and so may not forget wholly the sensation of turning the pages of a book, any book. And yet, I feel discontent with the Harry Potter mania, and I hope my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery or nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages.”

 The disparaging comments of this prominent critic, cloaked in the prestige of both Yale University and the Wall Street Journal, was an unwarranted attack on a young novelist whose first published work had achieved startling commercial success. In Rowling’s wizarding world, Professor Bloom would be easily recognized for what he is—a highbrow snob and a bully. If Professor Bloom were rewriting his article today, it would have to be titled “Can 500 Million Buyers Be Wrong? Maybe not.” I have no idea if it was a conscious decision, but in a later Harry Potter book, Ms. Rowling introduces Professor Slughorn, a mercurial, pompous, social-climbing Hogwart’s teacher who hosts dinner parties for “pureblood” students from famous wizarding families while excluding Hermione, the smartest student at Hogwart’s, because she is a “mudblood.” Professor Slughorn might easily have been patterned after a certain Yale literary critic.

Once Professor Bloom opened the floodgates, the deluge from other critics began. One of the first to pile on was Dame A.S. Byatt, an English author with an honorary title and an aristocratic aura, who opined that the Potter books were “written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, reality TV, and celebrity gossip.” Another British newspaper critic predicted that “in years to come, people will make a link between our plump, comfortable, infantilizing society and the popularity of Potter.” Other more measured critics did fairly identify a number of flaws in the Potter books, including tired writing, overuse of clichés, and being too complex for children and young adults to sort out. I don’t know exactly where Harry Potter should rate on the spectrum of young adult books of “literary merit,” but I believe it would be much closer to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Grahame’s Wind in the Willows than to Twilight or The Hunger Games.

 After 20 years, the commercial success of the Potter series has assured Rowling and Harry Potter an honored place in popular culture. Whether the Harry Potter books are to stand as one of the great classics of English literature or are ultimately judged to be unremarkable adolescent “slop” as Professor Bloom contends, only time will tell.

I enjoyed spending time in Ms. Rowling’s imaginary wizarding world and coming to know all her unique and definitively drawn characters. But what made these books special tp me was Ms. Rowling’s extraordinary ability to make me care about each character and emotionally participate in their interactions. The seven-year transformation of each of these characters about whom I cared deeply was a poignant coming of age story. Ms. Rowling really “gets” the adolescent experience and makes the reader see it. I still have an emotional reaction when I think of Dobby’s death or Dolorous Umbridge’s tyranny. Along the way there are also trolls to kill, mysteries to solve, backstories to discover, unspeakable evil to oppose, and a series of wonderful friendships to admire. In addition, the books incorporate many of the traditional elements of classical English literature.

The most comprehensive discourse on the literary merits of the Potter books is John Granger’s Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. He describes the way the author meticulously planned and structured the entire narrative before completing the first book. Ms. Rowling was familiar with many of the fundamental patterns of great English literary tradition and seamlessly wove them into her tale. Among the patterns evident in the narrative are:

The traditional Hero’s Journey.

  1. The patterns of Literary Alchemy, a tradition dating back to the middle ages and evident in works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson, Blake, and Joyce. The mythical philosopher’s stone, which is the title of the first Potter book published in England, was the key to medieval alchemy.
  2. Well devised narrative misdirection drives the reader to keep active and on edge through the 4100+ page journey and allows numerous plot twists and surprises.
  3. All the trappings of the English schoolboy novel as established by Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays published in 1857.
  4. Incorporation of numerous postmodern issues and concerns, including class prejudice, slavery, friendship, race, xenophobia, intermarriage, loyalty, family, bureaucratic ineptitude, credibility of the press, gender, individual transformation, tyranny, and, of course, love and death.

If you are a sophisticated reader who enjoys exploring the text to discover literary antecedents and subtext, as some scholars do with Tolkien’s works, there is much in Rowling’s Harry Potter books to examine.      

 There are many adult readers who haven’t read a Harry Potter book, either because they instinctively dismiss books designated “young adult” or because Professor Bloom and his ilk have driven them away. William Safire, in a New York Times article, argued that “children’s books like Harry Potter are responsible for the infantilization of adult culture,” and Ruth Graham in Slate argued that “adults should be embarrassed to read literature aimed at teenagers.” Faced with such highbrow snobbery, some potential readers may give in to the shaming. But those who do succumb will be doomed to reading only books like Portrait of a Lady, Anna Karenina, and “The Sun Also Rises” and existing in a continual state of depression. Instead, I suggest you look to the wisdom of C. S. Lewis who observed that “on becoming a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

If you are willing to risk being thought childish by literary highbrows, try reading Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone.  You may enjoy it and discover for yourself the literary merit encased in Ms. Rowling’s magnum opus.    

“BOLLI Matters” pop culture writer Dennis Greene.

While Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer,  he’s been a pop culture geek and junkiey for sixt.  He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.  

A LIGHT-HEARTED MOMENT FROM LARRY SCHWIRIAN

THE LESSER OF TWO WEEVILS

By Larry Schwirian

Mavis and Marvin were a couple of happy-go-lucky boll weevils living in the deep South in the early 20th CenturyAt this time, boll weevils were decimating the cotton fields of practically every state in the south.  Marvin, being male, thought of himself as superior and the more destructive of the two as he had a heartier appetite, but Mavis, seemingly the lesser of the two weevils, was more discerning.  She also had a secret.

Either she happened to read the work of Swedish evolutionary biologists who discovered that female weevils live longer when mated with males bred to reproduce later in life—or she simply noticed that, the more she mated with other weevils, the more energized she felt.  And as weevils are not monogamous, she mated a lot.  Soon, Mavis started cluing-in her less observant sisters to these dynamics and became the leader of the weevil feminist movement. She set a new longevity record by living to the ripe old age of twenty-one days, outliving Marvin by more than sixty hours.

Mavis’ dedication and lust showed the citizens of Enterprise and surrounding Coffee County that they needed to diversify their crops.  It wasn’t long before they became the country’s largest producer of peanuts and, later, peanut oil.  In 1919, as a tribute to her leadership and appetite, the citizens of Enterprise, Alabama erected a statue in Mavis’ honor in the middle of town.

The Enterprise, Alabama Weevil Monument

 Note: There really is a town in southern Alabama called Enterprise, and it does have a monument to the boll weevil. Also, Swedish evolutionary biologists really did discover that female weevils live longer when mated with males bred to reproduce later in life.

“BOLLI Matters” frequent contributor Larry Schwirian

Architect Larry and his fellow architect wife Caroline live in an historic preservation home in Newton and, together, lead BOLLI courses on architecture.  Larry has been an active participant in  and leader of the Writers Guild special interest group as well as serving on the BOLLI Journal Committee.  

 

 

 

 

MEMOIR BY LARRY SCHWIRIAN: AUDREY

AUDREY

By Larry Schwirian

Her name was Audrey,  and she was the new girl in school in the fall of 1952.  She had long, black, wavy hair, big brown eyes, and blemish-free olive skin.  Wearing a sleeveless, bright colored dress, she wasn’t built like Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobridida, but, then, she was only eight years old.  I was instantly smitten, and she hadn’t yet spoken a word or looked my way.

Audrey was anxious to make new friends, and I was anxious to be the first in line.  Soon after, she invited me to have dinner with her and her parents at her home.  One of the most unforgettable experiences of my youth was playing spin-the-bottle with her in her living room while her mother prepared an exotic Italian meal.  I used the word “exotic” because my familiarity with Italian food was limited to spaghetti.  I had no idea what her mother was cooking, but it smelled great, and I wasn’t really there for the dinner anyway, even though I did enjoy the food.  Altogether, it was a very memorable afternoon.  I got my first kiss from Audrey and will never forget the aromas emanating from that kitchen.

My budding romance with Audrey came to an abrupt halt only a few weeks later when my teacher caught in the coat room hiding a love note in Audrey’s coat pocket.  Miss Weigle (which was, of course, pronounced “wiggle” by most) made me stand in front of the class and read the note out loud.  Needless to say, it was an earth-shattering experience for me, and I am sure Audrey was equally embarrassed.  It didn’t kill my ardor for her, but it definitely put a damper on our evolving relationship.  It would be another five years before I had the courage to admit to others that I had romantic feelings for a member of the opposite sex.  In our senior year of high school, she was selected by her peers to be homecoming queen and the most popular female in our class.

I have since learned never to write anything down that I would be embarrassed to have read out loud in front of other people.

BOLLI “Matters” contributor and co-chair of the Writers Guild Larry Schwirian

Architect Larry and his fellow architect wife Caroline live in an historic preservation home in Newton and, together, lead BOLLI courses on architecture.  Larry has been an active participant in  and leader of the Writers Guild special interest group as well as serving on the BOLLI Journal staff.  

 

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