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The Glad Game

November 13, 2014 | by

polly-anna-club-front

In the immortal words of Winston Churchill, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” 

Pollyanna Whittier would agree. The once popular novelist Eleanor H. Porter wrote the original children’s book Pollyanna in war-ravaged 1913. It concerns a destitute, orphaned young girl who’s taken in by her grim Aunt Polly. The girl wins Polly over with a good attitude—the Glad Game—all the while touching the lives of those around her. It was a best seller, and over the following decades, various authors went on to write thirteen sequels chronicling Pollyanna’s life.

Pollyanna grows up, has a family, moves around the world, but is always encountering lost souls and helping them develop a sunnier outlook. The books, while lurid—you may have heard about Pollyanna’s miraculous recovery from paralysis—are less treacly than the 1960 Disney adaptation, and considerably stranger. (Did World War I–era children enjoy seeing characters miraculously rise from their wheelchairs? Hard to know; Downton Abbey fans certainly do.) The books are certainly no more sentimental than most of the escapist titles on current fiction best-seller list, let alone YA.

To the extent modern kids know Pollyanna, it’s probably via Hayley Mills in that Disney adaptation, and possibly through the eponymous pejorative. But if by some chance you’re a die-hard fan, you should make your way to Littleton, New Hampshire—Porter’s birthplace—where there’s a bronze Pollyanna statue, erected in 2002, and even an official Glad Day. (Glad Clubs enjoyed a brief popularity all over America.)

The Pollyanna mentality kind of works, too. The other day, having just reread Pollyanna in the stacks of the library, I set myself the experimental challenge of casting a rosy light on everything I saw in a five-block New York City street. No mean feat. People rushed past panhandlers, an elderly woman with dementia punched her nurse (feebly, at least), the front page of the paper’s international section recorded nothing but suffering.

But then a motorist leaned on his horn, and a bunch of others followed suit, and it became a cacophony. And suddenly, this thought intruded: How inspiring that, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary, these drivers still have the idealism to believe their honking will make a difference! When you thought about it that way, it was sort of a triumph of the human spirit. Sort of. 

I wonder if Churchill—nearly killed by New York City traffic in 1931—would agree.

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Food for Thought

November 12, 2014 | by

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From the jacket of the first hardcover edition of The Supper of the Lamb.

Recently, I was putting together a list of good food writers for a group of students. I didn’t have Robert Farrar Capon on the list, then I added him, then I removed him again. He seemed not just too religious, but too—specific, somehow.

Capon, who died last year, was an Episcopal priest, and he wrote a lot about his high-church beliefs, but you don’t need to be devout to read him. Believe me: the sum total of my theological training took place ten years ago, when I attended the introductory session for a Christian education class at a large Manhattan church. It was held by the parish theologian in a halogen-lit room that bore very little resemblance to the Gothic house of worship. It contained a circle of music-class folding chairs, an industrial coffee urn, a handful of engaged couples, and at least one mentally-ill person. I was doing a little half-assed spiritual seeking at the time, trying to redress what I then saw as my parents’ joint educational neglect. (It was the same impulse that had led me, several months prior, to become the class dunce in Introduction to Yiddish at the 92nd Street Y.)

I don’t know what I expected, although I’m sure my fantasy involved no actual religion; I was probably hoping for Barbara Pym–like busybodies, homemade cake, and very possibly a secret religious awakening that didn’t actually infringe on my life or challenge anything I already thought. I’m sure I wore some kind of demure costume. In actual fact, a man wandered in, took a large handful of animal crackers, and left. Another woman in a faux fur rested her chin on her bosom and promptly fell asleep. One guy asked a lot of really stupid questions. The teacher did a good job fielding them, actually, and I told myself I’d come back and knew perfectly well that I wouldn’t. I still get e-mails announcing lectures on Ecclesiastes or C. S. Lewis, and I can’t bring myself to get off the mailing list. I mean, no one made me go there. Read More »

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Veterans Day

November 11, 2014 | by

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Photo: Davidd, via Flickr

Little green army men—they don’t have a more specific name—are now in the National Toy Hall of Fame, which exists, in Rochester, and held its 2014 induction ceremonies last week. For those of you who have never played Marble War or seen any part of the Toy Story franchise, I give you Wikipedia:

Army men are sold in plastic bags or buckets, and often include different colors such as green, tan, or gray, to represent opposing sides. They are equipped with a variety of weapons, typically from World War II to the current era. These include rifles, machine guns, submachine guns, sniper rifles, pistols, grenades, flame throwers, and bazookas. They may also have radio men, minesweepers, and men armed with bayonets. The traditional helmets are the older M1 “pot” style that were given to US soldiers during the middle to late 20th Century. Army men are sometimes packaged with additional accessories including tanks (often based on the M48 Patton tank), jeeps, armed hovercraft, half-tracks, artillery, helicopters, jets, and fortifications. Their vehicles are usually manufactured in a smaller scale, to save on production and packaging costs. Army men are considered toys and not models due to this fact historical and chronological accuracy are generally not a priority.

Invented in 1938, little green army men went out of fashion during Vietnam, but they’ve never been off shelves. If you haven’t looked lately, they can be readily found at any dollar store. They’re mostly made in China. 

At the 2014 induction, the men in uniform were joined by sort-of-toy bubbles and five-time nominee Rubik’s Cube. It frankly would have been an outrage had the Rubik’s Cube lost out to either the Slip ’N Slide—one of the least fun things in existence and also not a toy—or the craven commercialism of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But who knows? It’s a cruel game. Flexible Flyer has never won because of its lack of snow-related geographical distribution, and the soon-to-be-discontinued sentimental favorite Hess Truck just lost out in its final run. But in the words of a Hess spokesperson, “We are honored that Hess Toy Truck was nominated.” I don’t think he or she was joking. 

If next year’s Nobel Prize is anything like the National Toy Hall of Fame, we hope Philip Roth proves a Rubik’s Cube, and not a Hess Truck.

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Classified

November 10, 2014 | by

matthiessenestate

The crowd at Peter Matthiessen’s estate sale.

In early April, Peter Matthiessen, the beloved cofounder of The Paris Review, died at eighty-six. Last week, I received an e-mail from my mother, containing a link to the following announcement:

SAGAPONACK
THE ESTATE OF THE LATE
PETER MATTHIESSEN
RENOWNED AUTHOR &
NATURIST*

A treasure trove of artifacts and mementos. Both indigenous and from the 4 corners of the Earth.

Artisanal pottery, vintage typewriters, vast assortment of books, many annotated paintings, prints, photography and posters. Vintage LP collections in original portfolios, Early 20th century American piano table, 19th century French country dining table, additional chairs, tables, chests, beds, headboards, bedding, cookware, tableware, table linens, vintage luggage, toys and games, Vermont casting grill, teak picnic table, and much more!

Children under 10 must be closely attended by an adult. Please be respectful of neighbors when parking.

The subject line of the e-mail read, “Of course, we’ll be there!” (My parents live just down the road.) Read More »

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Squeaky Wheels

November 7, 2014 | by

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Photo: Vladimir Kirakosyan

Yesterday was very rainy and everyone was cranky. I was covertly trying to take shelter under the edge of a stranger’s golf umbrella while I crossed the street, when suddenly there was an outraged blast of honking horns and an explosion of profane shouting from several drivers. We all looked over to the opposite intersection, where a large, elderly man in a sateen Yankees jacket and one of those woven plastic fedoras was making his leisurely way against the light, against traffic, and, in the process, blocking the way of a large truck. He seemed oblivious, or indifferent to the commotion he had caused.

A block later, I was in the supermarket, pushing a basket with a broken wheel through the produce section. Someone bumped into me hard. I turned in irritation, but then saw it was the same oblivious old man in the Yankees jacket and figured it was hardly worth it. He banged into me again, in DAIRY. He was banging into people all over the place. It was late; I had the grim realization that I had come down with a cold. Always dispiriting, in its petty way. 

I got into the elevator to go down to the bulk section, where I planned to buy some dried beans. There was one other person inside: the guy in the Yankees jacket. 

“They’re liars,” he said, before the door had even closed. “Liars. This is the second time they’ve lied to me. About queso fresco,” he said pointedly, when I didn’t ask. Normally I live for this kind of thing, but I just wasn’t in the mood. I stared stonily at the placket of buttons, willing the elevator to hurry. Read More »

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Context

November 6, 2014 | by

A daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson from Mount Holyoke Seminary, ca. 1847.

I’ve always loved this line of Emily Dickinson’s: “November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.” Where did I first encounter it? Who knows—maybe a kid’s book of quotations or a calendar or something else. I know the context was cheerful rather than melancholy, although on a day like this one—gray, rainy, fall shading into winter—it felt apt, in its gnomic way.

What did Norway convey to Dickinson, who had never left New England? A bleaker, more romantic version of the same? A place of Norse legends and epics? Perhaps she’d met Scandinavian immigrants and this informed her remark. But however she intended it, it’s so evocative. It was not until very recently that I read the fuller context, from an 1864 letter to her frequent correspondent Elizabeth Holland:

It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sunsets sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year. ------ is still with the sister who put her child in an ice nest last Monday forenoon. The redoubtable God! I notice where Death has been introduced, he frequently calls, making it desirable to forestall his advances.

In the same letter, she mentions the recent death of the family’s maid, Margaret O’Brien—“I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her, and even a new rolling-pin has an embarrassing element, but to all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” Another friend is ill. And, of course, there would have been the background of the Civil War, felt even from within her home. The letter ends, “Sharper than dying is the death for the dying’s sake.” 

The first English translation of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s landmark Popular Tales from the Norse appeared in 1859. It’s filled with trolls, enchanted animals, captive princesses held under spells. One of the best known is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Cupid-Psyche story in which a maiden is only allowed to interact with her husband by darkness. Others feature mountain people, envious of those who get to live by daylight. Did it make its way to Amherst? I have never read of it in Dickinson’s letters, but perhaps a scholar can tell me otherwise. 

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