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Monday, November 15, 2021

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

What Jesus Has to Teach Christian Introverts

Once we know for a fact that trying to “be more balanced” between introversion and extroversion is like trying to have one blue eye, introverts have good reasons to wonder whether we should try to “act friendly” toward extroverts at all. Frankly, I’m not convinced that it’s ever good for introverts to seem friendly toward extroverts. I don’t think we should reward undisciplined extroverted behavior. I think we should practice good will toward all living things. I think we should make it clear that there’s a difference between good will toward everyone and personal friendship, and I doubt that very many extroverts are ever going to be capable of personal friendship—with us or, in most cases, with anybody. (What they call friendship is acquaintanceship based in some combination of good will and panic.) But we can always learn more about these things by consulting the Bible, so let’s consider the personality that was built into Jesus’ physical body.

When church groups discuss personality types they usually mention that St. Peter is always described as an extrovert and St. Andrew as an introvert, but which was Jesus? Most of the Gospel story is about Jesus talking to people, which He was obviously comfortable and competent doing...no, that does not mean He was an extrovert; introverts are naturally quiet, not shy. We’re told that Jesus habitually woke up early to pray alone, which is definitely an introvert’s habit, and that He spent a lot of time walking from town to town with only a few friends, also an introvert’s taste. Medical science also tells us that an introverted personality is defined by the presence of healthy physical traits, and an extroverted personality is defined by an unfortunate lack of those traits. Jesus definitely had the capacity for long deep thinking, intense emotion, self-awareness, self-control, and a robust moral conscience. Extroverts lack these capacities.
        
It is, therefore, probable that Jesus was by nature an introvert, although He was neither timid nor shy nor an elitist. There were probably times, wedding parties where He might have made sure the wine was strong enough for any man, or fun and games with the children who apparently swarmed around Him in every town He visited, when observers might not have guessed that His physical body depended on regular, frequent periods of solitude to stay healthy. Almost certainly it did.
        
If Jesus was an introvert who spent a lot of His time teaching multitudes, what can we learn from His social behavior?
        
1. Jesus did not need to change His personality. He was unable to do as much as He would have liked to do in His own home town, where people undoubtedly thought they knew all about Him and wanted to cling to their memories of His having once been a child rather than see the man He was...but He didn’t resort to any tricks of “salesmanship” to win over the stupid people in Nazareth. He was who He was. The Nazarenes who chose stupidity, who were so busy reminiscing about “the carpenter’s little boy” that they failed to learn from the Teacher of all teachers, just had to live with their shame.
        
2. When Jesus talked to people, it was not because He needed their attention, but because they needed His teaching and healing. He continued to choose to be alone when He needed to recharge His physical batteries, and to turn to His Father for help and guidance.
        
3. Jesus did not worry about seeming “friendly” to everybody. Far from it. He was “gentle, meek, and mild” in the sense that He used biting, but not altogether condemning, words more often than He used physical force to thin out the crowd around Him. Reread the Gospels—a good Jewish rabbi has a satirical wit, even a mean mouth if he has to talk to idiots, and Jesus was well qualified on both those counts. Like the rabbis immortalized in Jewish legend, He taught people mostly by giving them memorable stories or sayings, and He probably knew that funny, sarcastic, even caustic sayings are easier to remember than bland ones. (Though it’s possible His mouth wasn’t as reliably mean as His friends made it sound; maybe they were the ones who remembered His snarky remarks best.)
        
4. When Jesus made that politically incorrect remark about giving the children’s bread to the dogs, He was of course teaching the disciples that they too were going to have to work with non-Jewish believers. A good orthodox Jew does not touch non-Jewish people, and incidentally, if he happened to be a good first-century Jewish man of the Pharisee denomination, he didn’t even look at women—not even Jewish women. So the disciples needed to see Jesus talking to non-Jewish women as freely as if they’d been Jewish, male, or both. Nevertheless, He obviously was willing to brush the woman off if she was willing to be brushed off, because it wasn’t a scheduled teaching session, and His physical body was tired and needed solitude. If the woman hadn’t been able to demonstrate faith, need, and intelligence in one line worthy of a rabbi,  she wouldn’t have been healed. Jesus didn’t try to be a friend to all, in the flesh, all at once; He conserved His energy. Though He also probably noticed, as many introverts do today, that showing respect and gratitude makes people less tiresome to be around...He didn’t waste time on people who didn’t know they needed His help. And He didn’t try to pamper the emotions of ungrateful, unworthy people, either...“It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs,” indeed.
        
5. When Jesus did attend a regular Saturday morning temple meeting, He went to teach. There is no basis for extrapolating that Jesus would have gone twice to a synagogue where He was expected to warm a bench, let senile seniors feel wise about giving Him bad advice, and be slobbered on by lonely old ladies. (We don’t know how many of His recorded interactions with people were part of a temple meeting. He was no fanatic about regular meetings.)
        
6. Though widely accepted as a rabbi because of His understanding, Jesus hadn’t taken a lot of formal classes. He’d been a bright enough student, at twelve, to be welcome in one of those rabbinical debates the Talmud is all about, but mostly He was homeschooled and/or self-taught. This was why, although He obviously did read and write easily in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, and probably Latin,  skeptics asked how He knew “letters” He’d never formally “learned.” Introverts adore good teachers if blessed to find them, but we seldom need a teacher in order to learn.
        
7. Jesus was not here to take life easy. He was here for the ultimate challenge. This probably explains why He gave so much time and attention to St. Peter. He did not tell the other disciples to be more like Peter. In fact it was Andrew who asked how many times a day he had to forgive his brother if his brother sincerely repented, and when Jesus said “Seventy times seven” He was probably estimating how many ways Peter found to annoy other people in an average day. And by forgiving Peter Jesus did not mean pampering Peter’s self-esteem by letting Peter imagine that Peter didn’t annoy people; Jesus Himself addressed Peter as “Satan” when Peter was being a pest. Jesus did manage to love Peter until time, experience, and probably physical aging had rendered Peter less obnoxious than nature originally seemed to have intended...because Jesus was Jesus, not because Peter was Peter.
        
Peter was a challenge. A typical extrovert, he bellowed and swore and raved about how loyal he’d be at any cost, then when physical violence didn’t win the day for him and Jesus he bellowed equally loudly, swore equally foully, that he didn’t even know Jesus. (Nor did he. Extroverts can live and work and travel with people for more than three or four years and still not know the most obvious things about them. Many extroverts who’ve managed to stay married for more than ten years can’t tell you, without looking, what color their spouses’ eyes are.) Peter was always the first to shout out the most annoyingly stupid question, the most vexatious wrong answer. Peter was always pushing himself ahead of people, hogging the attention, hogging the glory, probably hogging everything else. He was also bossy, judgmental, and a grouch; Peter was the know-it-all who didn’t like the children swarming around Jesus or—although Simon the Pharisee and Simon the Leper may have been one or two different men—Mary shedding hair all over His feet. Peter was prone to violence. Peter had a mother-in-law, but not, until long after Jesus’ death, a wife, or children. A man who calls a thirty-year-old Master and Teacher is unlikely to be much older than twenty-five, but however young he was, Peter was probably widowed or even divorced...possibly because his first wife hadn’t been able to survive being around him.
        
If you and I find an extrovert more physically attractive than, say, a sheepdog, or even an actual sheep, we should smother that feeling to death with as much shame as we’d feel about being attracted to a dog. Jesus did, however, show us that practicing good will toward an extrovert is possible. Difficult, and unrewarding, but (for those who need a challenge) possible.
        
8. However, there was no question of “equality” between Jesus and Peter. Jesus was the great spiritual Physician; Peter was His sickest patient. Before Peter was ready for anything resembling a teaching position, he had to spend several years begging people’s forgiveness four hundred and ninety times a day, and being addressed as “Satan.” For a teacher, an extroverted personality is not just a liability but a calamity. Peter had to accept the role of a student, even a servant, before he could be anything but a burden to his friends.
        
Nevertheless, Jesus labored mightily on Peter, and eventually the oaf did become a real Christian. Before it was all over the others even agreed that he deserved the first-place mention he so pathetically always wanted. The disgrace to humankind who cursed and swore, saying, “I know not the man,” one day asked to be crucified upside down because, if there was a more gruesome way to die than the one appointed to Jesus, that was it, and if there was a man who deserved to die that way, Peter was he. And we may imagine that Jesus was particularly pleased with Peter. If Peter didn’t get as far as Paul got in his theology (and didn’t write as well about what he had learned), Peter had progressed farther. He started out farther behind.
        
9. Jesus was sinless (which means that neither being impatient with other people, criticizing other people, nor even rejecting other people altogether is necessarily a sin). We’re only offered the hope of divine help to become sinless. Trying to do it ourselves leads to legalism, the besetting sin of the Pharisees.
        
However, those who want to see Jesus as a hippie, urging people to live for the moment and despise rules, are misreading the Bible. Why do we read so much more about the Pharisees than about other “denominations” that existed in first-century Judaism? The Bible mentions dozens of encounters with Pharisees, apparently only one with Sadducees, none with Essenes, and no formal or denominational recognition of the Zealots, although the apostle known to history as St. Simon was nicknamed “The Zealot,” Simon Zelotes, to distinguish him from Simon Peter. Why? Because Jesus and the apostles were closer to the Pharisees than to those other groups. Probably such religious teachers as they’d had had been Pharisees. Jesus apparently spent a good deal of time opposing the Pharisees’ idea of building a wall of petty regulations around their rules of ethical behavior, but what He advocated in place of the petty regulations was a deeper and richer understanding of the law.
        
According to one study, the real quintessence of introversion is found in the brain, and consists of something scientists are reluctant to call a conscience, so they call it a sense of shame. (That’s like calling an ear for music a “sense of discord.”) Introverts are people who have, according to Kohlberg's theory of moral development, achieved maturity and developed an internal sense of ethics that basically inhibits behavior we recognize as “wrong” and produces an instinctive love of behavior we recognize as “right.” We enjoy being good. We like virtue in the same way we like symmetry, harmony, gracefulness, and eupepsia. 

Although the Pharisees are remembered mainly as the people who formally, publicly, tried to document little rules for maintaining a state of moral virtue, down to minutiae like the rule that on the Sabbath one should tolerate insect life and kill biting insects only after they had bitten one, down to composing and teaching a prayer to be recited while sitting on the toilet, they did this because they were conscientious people—like Jesus and His followers—who liked being good. Their major field of study was the cultivation of virtue, or how close to moral perfection humans can get.
        
Jesus taught people that they could and should be more righteous than the Pharisees, but not in the sense of “Oh let’s not bother about any disciplines that have objective rules that people can be said to have kept or not kept—which, incidentally, introverts naturally want to keep, and usually do keep, and extroverts usually observe only when other people are watching. Let’s just talk about love and feel good about ourselves!” When Jesus said anything remotely like that He was speaking as a Pharisee, or ex-Pharisee, to fellow Pharisees. “You give,” he said (paraphrased into modern English), “one-tenth of the value of every little herb you ‘harvest’ from your kitchen gardens to the Poor Fund. That, you should do. Yet you fail to practice mercy and charity toward poor people when you meet them. That is what you should do, but not,” he emphasized, “at the expense of what you’ve been doing, which was right.”
        
If Jesus felt free to enjoy the food and the wine at Roman-style feasts, to heal sick people during Sabbath services at the synagogue, to treat prostitutes like sisters and thieves like brothers, it was because He and His followers were already far ahead of the average Pharisee on the spiritual path to holiness. He, and they, didn’t want to get drunk, to profane the Sabbath by more mundane work than intercessory prayer, or to participate in prostitution or graft or treason. Jesus wasn’t even tempted by the aggressive, bullying, extroverted ways of St. Peter; He knew that He could say “Get thee behind Me, Satan,” and also “I forgive you,” and even “Put up your sword” when Peter’s impulsiveness led him into violence, as often as necessary, to keep Peter on the short leash Peter’s kind of people need. Jesus exposed Himself to the temptations of human company only when He was ready to do so as a genuine spiritual Master and Teacher who was above all such temptations.

Jesus never rebuked anyone, as those who wanted to “humanize” the rules in Protestant churches in the twentieth century used to rebuke people, for merely happening to find an old, strict rule useful. “You don’t have to give away one-tenth of the value of the herbs in your window boxes, for pity’s sake! You’re only doing that because you think it’s some kind of requirement for salvation, and it’s not!” Those are not the words of Jesus; they are the words of Satan. In the twentieth century, Jesus might well have said to some Protestant congregations “There was no need to scold the woman whose idea of dressing up for church was to wear her war paint, hooker heels, and jangling bangles right in the sanctuary,” and “When you accepted divorce you lost any moral ground you might have had from which to denounce homosexuality, prostitution, polygamy, abortion, or even incest, so you’d do better to fight your own spiritual battles than to persecute your fellow sinners whose temptations you can’t understand,” and “Just listening to that rumor about what Tracy supposedly did was as bad as what Tracy supposedly did, except that Tracy didn’t actually do it,” and many other such things...but Satan was the one saying “It’s okay! It’s okay! All we really need to do is feel good about ourselves!”  That is not a thing Jesus ever said or ever will say. Jesus was one of the people who perceive the inherent beauty in giving away one-tenth of the value of the herbs in the window box. “That you should have done, and not left the other things undone.”
        
And what can be said of churches in which extroverts, running amok, barged up to people who were comfortable with the traditional rules of membership, monkey-screeching: “We’re allowed to wear makeup now, so why don’t you do your skin more damage than your adolescent hormones are already doing? We’re not saved by abstinence from listening to rock music, so why don’t we bring heavy metal right into the sanctuary, and if you happen to loathe it you should humbly apologize for having different taste than ours—even if our church has traditionally been organized to attract people whose taste is more like yours, and even if those people are in fact a solid majority, we can’t attract converts if we’re different from them, so all of you old fogies should just shut up and let the mob rule! And if you are really practicing abstinence, even though we’ve failed so far to discourage the church schools from preaching abstinence, there’s something awfully wrong with you; you should be at least holding hands with fornication, not fleeing from it—the only reason why young attractive people would flee from fornication would be that they’re homosexual, or worse.” Jesus would literally have lashed out at those people, with a rope, thundering “Get out of My Father’s House.” 

Religion is for introverts who want to seek moral perfection. Trivial rules of denominations or communities are for people who agree that those rules are somehow useful for them. The time can of course come for a church or community to review a rule, observing that, e.g., ringless weddings became a rule when people were selling their valuable jewelry in order to launch church programs, and the church programs are now thriving and the value of jewelry has become much lower, but if the community really wants to relax an outdated rule it should do so quietly, without tolerating any attack on those who choose to keep the rule. If Jesus had been brought up a Quaker He might have smiled at anyone who still says “Thee is...”, if a Seventh-Day Adventist He might have smiled at the ringless weddings, and if a Southern Baptist He might have chuckled at the joke about the newlyweds who had to sit down when they kissed so nobody would think they were dancing, but He would not have laughed at them.
        
Pharisees caused a lot of unnecessary pain. Jesus hurled some of His hardest words at them, and got off some of His snarkiest jokes: “You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” But what did He have to say about the Zealots, the most extrovert-friendly Jewish sect, for whom the Bible was mostly a surprisingly unhelpful mystical guide to paramilitary success? Nothing. He had nothing to do with the Zealots. He wasn’t talking to people who were even interested in the Zealots. The Pharisees were the lifelong friends He loved and chastened; the Zealots had nothing to do with Him, nor He with them. He didn’t have much to say about Caesar, either. His audience already knew that some souls were lost for all eternity.
        
10. Jesus told us to be gentle...in the sense that wild horses become gentle. An interesting question about the New Testament story is this: Jesus undoubtedly knew where to find the young student Saul of Tarsus, who became known to history as St. Paul, while Jesus was living. Jesus was older by enough years that Saul of Tarsus would have seen Him as a grown-up; and although Saul’s teacher, Gamaliel, was a wise and fairminded Pharisee, Jesus could easily have out-debated even him and made Saul one of the twelve apostles. So why didn’t He? The church needed Paul's talents...
       
Possibly, I admit I’m speculating, because Paul was so hardheaded. Even Jesus had to whack him on the side of the head, hard enough to leave him blind for days and make him retreat into the desert as a poor dumb tentmaker’s helper for years, to get through the brilliant reasoning with which Paul had supported the misbeliefs he’d learned as the student Saul of Tarsus. And that’s not something an introverted human would do. Jesus’ moral sense saw nothing wrong in plying a rope with such passionate intensity that several men fled before Him. It was not a question of strength, courage, fortitude, or (I believe) the supernatural power to kill anyone with a thought if that had been what Jesus wanted to do. It was that introvert conscience thing again. Jesus would have felt physically that it’s not right for one mortal to beat up another mortal in order to convert him. He had to be reunited with the Father before He could reach down from Heaven and give Paul the hard knock Paul needed. To do it with His physical hand would have been wrong.
        
Introverts seldom really are, and should never try to be, “meek and mild” in the sense of timid or insipid. When we speak we can be powerful, even overpowering, and sometimes we should be. Our discipline, determination, and consequent achievements can be intimidating, and that also is as it should be. When they’ve failed to make us feel shy, miserable, and guilt-ridden, when we succeed in living well and using our talents, extroverts flee cringing from our shadows—and that also is as it should be. We don’t need to believe that we really have become giants overnight; we need to admit that most of those who harass us have always been insects. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

"Plaid" Cables Pullover



Although the cell phone photo is showing up on my computer as a sort of dingy "natural" white, the actual color of this wool-blend pullover is a light bluish-greenish-grey the Lion Brand company marketed as "seaspray." Quite a few people's eyes reflect the color well enough to match it.

The "Plaid Cable" pattern was printed in Interweave Knits around the turn of the century.

This sweater is a "medium" man's size; 40-42" chest, maybe 5'8" to 5'10".

The material is a washable wool-acrylic blend called Lion Brand Sport. We liked this yarn very much, and miss it.

The price for this sweater is $50.

Book Review: The Collected Poems of John Ciardi

Book Title: The Collected Poems of John Ciardi
        
Author: John Ciardi, selected by Edward M. Cifelli
        
Date: 1997
        
Publisher: University of Arkansas Press
        
ISBN: 1-55728-449-0
        
Length: 596 pages plus index
        
Quote: “[S]tudents..gave me plenty to think about when I asked which poems they thought should be included in this book.”
        
What’s not to love about this collection is that it’s not, after all, the collected poems of John Ciardi, 1916-1986. The man lived too long and published too many poems for his collected works to be bound in one normal-sized book. This book, though substantial, contains only about half of Ciardi’s output—not including prose, poems marketed for children, or translations; he wrote about twenty volumes of those, too. The Collected Poems  will give a reader many hours of pleasure, but I contend that it ought to be titled The Selected Poems of John Ciardi; I suspect that the reason why it wasn’t is that, while living, Ciardi selected his own Selected Poems.
        
And you’ll miss having the whole lot...especially while skipping through The Alphabestiary, a volume of short, funny verses that really demands to be reprinted in its entirety. I’ve never read The Alphabestiary. Now, having read just half the poems in it, I want to read the whole thing.
        
One book you may manage to do without (I think I could) is Lives of X, the memoir Ciardi rashly decided to write in blank verse. He had a sufficiently interesting life—Ellis Island immigrants’ son, laborer, combat aviator, teacher, translator, traveller, successful professional poet—to make a lively memoir, but blank verse, I feel, is formal enough to become ridiculous when the topics are less momentous than Milton’s or Shakespeare’s. Ciardi managed to write a full-length book of it. One of its chapters would have been a gross-out even in prose.
        
What’s left is...rich and various. Ciardi was a successful poet for fifty-three years. Possibly the daily search for fresh topics, and fresh ways of writing about them, was what kept him active for so long. (Between ages forty and eighty he consistently described himself as fat and his habits as unhealthy, which makes his persistent good health and wry cheerfulness seem unfair.) He wrote rhymed and unrhymed, metrical and unmetrical, funny, sad, earnest, whimsical, and occasionally raunchy poems; apart from the regrettable chapters in Lives of X no two were alike. He tried to be original and avoid conventional “prettiness.” In that he consistently succeeded. By most standards, other than originality, the poems succeed in varying degrees. They don’t come up to the standard of the world-class poems Ciardi was best known for translating, but they compare well with the work of other twentieth-century “modern” poets, E.E. Cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, either Robert or Amy Lowell.
        
A few favorites? I like the tribute to a white heron, first published in the 1950s, when Ciardi was questioning his inherited Catholicism:

               “O rare!
                Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
                would have cried Father! Cry anything you please.
                But praise. By any name or none. But praise
                the white original burst...till the air recites
                Its heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.”
        
Ciardi had the luxury of educated readers, who appreciated the play on "O rare" and orare, and revelled in it; he also had the blessing of being sober enough to keep a teaching job, so that he didn’t slide away into obscurities like Ezra Pound’s, or into friends-only personal references like Anne Sexton’s. 
        
After reading earlier poems in which Ciardi worked through the traumas of his inner child, it’s a comfort to find this later poem:

                “Let sons honor their mothers. Mine was mad...
                she ripped with her own teeth what flesh she had
                and fed it, poisoned, to her young...
                I smiled and the world began. What a long ease
                Follows forgiving!”
         
And this carefully balanced thought, in the 1960s:

                “B is for BANNER, which proudly we hail.
                For BLAST and for BRASS and for BURIAL-DETAIL.
                And for BILLY and BUCK, who are studying BRAILLE.”
        
Have you done something nice for the veteran in your family, today, Gentle Reader?
       
Being quite sure that our poor dear teacher is dead, I should also call the attention of anyone else who was in my seventh grade literature class to page 404 of this collection:

                “What’s a teacher
                if she can’t say a name right?...John Sea-YARD-i...
                That was no sound of mine. I was John CHAR-di.”
        
In grade seven, I think Ciardi might have been amused to know, one of my teachers—a kind and simple soul who didn’t speak Italian, had never known anyone who did, and wore glasses that weren’t the right prescription for her eyes—seriously told one of us to read aloud a poem by “John Key-YARD-i.” I remember thinking, “That can’t possibly be right,” and then, “But funny things happened to names on Ellis Island. Maybe he says ‘Key-yard-i.’ That would be in the Teachers’ Manual.” Since I didn’t become a high school English teacher myself, I stumbled through adult life without knowing how Ciardi pronounced his own name. It was nice, around age forty, to find out. (Further along in this book, another poem gives the history of the name.)
        
Then there’s “In the Hole,” which Ciardi published with two different punchlines.

                “I had time and a shovel. I began to dig.
                There is always something a man can use a hole for...
                Brewster Diffenbach,
                pink and ridiculous in his policeman suit,
                asked if I had a building permit. I told him
                to run along till he saw me building something...
                By morning the hole had shut. It had even
                sodded itself over. I suspect my neighbors.
                I suspect Diffenbach and law and order...
                One foot more
                might have hit stone and stopped me, but I doubt it.”
        
The last line expresses an attitude of the narrator’s toward the neighbors and Brewster Diffenbach. In Selected Poems Ciardi changed the attitude to “Forgive me.” In this collection Cifelli gives the earlier version first. It’s rude. Some of Ciardi’s other adult (or “senile”) poems are even ruder, which is a reason Cifelli gives for not including, in this collection, any of his simpler “juvenile” poems—Cifelli didn’t think children should be encouraged to read this book.
        
So who should read this book? Perhaps, most of all, those who think the success of women poets, and the appearance of annoyingly “gay” male poets, means that poetry has somehow become less manly than it was for Sidney or Byron or Wallace Stevens. Ciardi wrote in many different tones and moods but his work is consistently masculine—by which I do not mean merely detached, or unsentimental, or well educated; I mean that if I didn’t know who’d written these poems I wouldn’t necessarily guess that the author was bilingual, or was classified as part of an ethnic minority during his lifetime, but I would guess he was a man. 
        
Furthermore, although several of these poems are about being Italian-American, all of them are American. And proud. They’re not jingoistic; they’re credibly matter-of-fact about combat, and they share the irreverence many of his own generation felt toward President Reagan, but I don’t think any other country could have been the home of this book. In the twentieth century some poets worried about being “un-American” and some, like Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes, even moved overseas. Ciardi noticed when the fear of “Un-American Activities” was going too far; for himself he didn’t need to worry.
        
But you don’t have to “need” poetry in order to like it. If you enjoy the English language and approximately four hundred different ways to have fun with it, while also saying something nobody else has said, you will enjoy The Collected Poems of John Ciardi. Enough that, if and when it becomes available, after reading this book you might still buy a two-or-three-volume set of The COMPLETE Collected Poems of John Ciardi.

Incomplete though it is, this book sells for collector's prices. Can you believe over $300 for a "new" hardcover copy? Ciardi no longer needs our support, but those who want to support this web site may order a used paperback copy for $20 + $5 shipping. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Man's Cabled Cap



The cell phone picture came out nice and clear, but doesn't show the colors quite as they are in real life. This cap is actually a darker shade of gray, like a flannel suit.

In real life this and nearly all of our hand-knitted caps cost $5. Online, we have to add $5 for shipping...per package.

Book Review: Fanny and the Regent of Siam

Book Title: Fanny and the Regent of Siam
        
Author: R.J. Minney
        
Date: 1962
        
Publisher: World
        
ISBN: none; Amazon tracking number B000NXT302
        
Length: 382 pages
        
Illustrations: black-and-white photos and drawings
        
Quote: “I imagined myself marrried of course. I’ve always seen myself as a wife and mother.”
        
In this sequel to Anna and the King of Siam, the capable but ruthless Sri Suriwong is the Regent for the young King Chulalongkorn. Anna Leonowens’ son Louis wants to marry the Consul’s daughter, Fanny Knox; she wants to marry Phra Preecha, and Suriwong wants her to marry his grandson Nai Dee. The suspenseful story that follows is a romance, but it doesn’t fade out after a kiss or even a wedding. Fanny, legally British, is “Siamese” on her mother’s side and not content to be an aristocratic waiting-maid to royalty, or even an ornamental wife to a diplomat. Her effort to gain legal protections for people who run afoul of powerful men, like Suriwong, without subverting the authority of her lifelong friend Chulalongkorn, carries the story on through the romantic period  of her life and into her old age.
        
Although the chaste and simple tone suggests that Fanny and the Regent of Siam is going to be a simple romance—young woman with four suitors, determined to let her life be guided by loyalty to her Christian faith and her Siamese (Thai) people rather than merely by physical attraction—this "75% factual" biographical novel of Fanny Knox takes adult, even macabre, turns. At one point in the story a fortuneteller predicts that she and a friend will have long lives, but not together, with lots of adventures. Fanny Knox did have a long life, with enough sensationalism and melodrama for a bodice-ripping romance... but Minney didn’t write it as a bodice-ripping romance. Palace intrigue, elopements, murders, rapes, and the threat of revolution are narrated in a dry, understated, very nineteenth-century-British tone that will keep the imaginative, empathetic reader turning pages.
        
Fanny Knox was, like the novel about her, hard to classify. Minney insists that she was “White”; her mother, like many Thai people, looked White, and her father was Scottish—but to European racists she was biracial, not particularly welcome back in a Britain where pale-complexioned Thais and Burmese, and even fair-haired, grey-eyed Afghans, were lumped together in the category “blacks.” (Not to Frances Hodgson Burnett or George Orwell but to many of their contemporaries, “blacks” meant “not people...[but] servants who must salaam to you.”) She was by Victorian standards a Good Girl...until...well, she could be described to Victorian Britain as something else. Sometimes she wore European dresses, and sometimes Thai. She grew up wealthy, but died poor. And even when she became a mother, although she seemed fond of her children, they don’t seem to have taken first priority in her life.
        
Perhaps if Fanny and the Regent of Siam had been published twenty years later, feminist readers would have been more interested in the way Fanny managed the contradictions and broke out of the stereotyped molds into which she was born unable to fit. In 1962, it seems likely that fans of The King and I who bought this book in search of another picturesque, wholesome family story were merely disappointed. Picturesque Fanny’s story certainly is. Wholesome...well, Fanny was a Christian and wanted to keep her story wholesome, but the story does have Suriwong and his grandson in it.
        
What’s not to love? Perhaps, now that the Cold War is over and we can take a detached view of the movement towards “democracy” in Asia, some readers might wish Minney had been more specific about the political work to which Fanny devoted her mature years. I suspect Minney blurred over Fanny’s politics as much because publishers wanted to appeal to the romance-reading audience, who weren’t interested in an old woman’s political activism, as because Fanny would certainly have been exposed to ideas from all the countries that called themselves democracies between the 1880s and 1920s, including the emerging Soviet Union.  We’re not told how sympathetic Fanny was to Marxism. Those who like history better than romance might want to know.
        
However, if somebody (like Jodie Foster) wants to direct a glamorous, picturesque, PG-13 sequel to Anna, the material is definitely present in Fanny and the Regent of Siam. Here I stand to testify that, reading this book for the first time as a jaded middle-aged bookseller, I never knew which way the plot was going to twist, and sat up late to find out.
        
I wouldn’t hand it to middle school readers. Mature teenagers will probably enjoy it. If you are a parent or teacher, read it first, and think about whether the teenagers you know are ready to absorb the moral lessons Fanny’s life teaches. I actually think most teenagers could benefit from a discussion of whether one episode should be summarized as rape, prostitution, both, neither; for younger kids (who could understand the vocabulary) it might be confusing or upsetting.

R.J. Minney, who wrote other books and directed movies about obscure heroines of Women's History (although he was male), died in 1979. It's possible to buy this book from me but, since the copy about which I wrote this review has been sold and Minney no longer needs the money, you might as well buy it on Amazon. I'd have to charge $5 plus $5 shipping, and I'd actually prefer that online readers paid that price for something by a living writer.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Long Warm Jacquard Robe



This detail shot is almost true to the actual colors of the Long Warm Jacquard Robe: jade green, bright green, red, white, and yellow. (It's meant to be worn during the coldest days of the year, which in my part of the world usually come after Christmas.) More and better pictures should be available soon.

The Jacquard Robe was knitted from an old sweater pattern, redesigned as a long gown to wear over a dress or suit in a cold place. Women from 5'3" to 5'8" should be able to tuck their toes under the skirt. The bust measurement is oversized, with roomy armholes--up to a 48". The full skirt has side-seam pockets. The sleeves are short and leave plenty of room for sweatshirts or jackets underneath, if you're able to find those necessary.

I recommend this one as more of a coat than a dress...suitable for wearing in an unheated house, or in camp, at temperatures from 30 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (single digits Celsius).

All the yarn used is Red Heart acrylic...machine wash, machine dry, should last for years if not stretched out of shape when wet.

The robe costs $40, plus $5 for shipping.

Book Review: The Red Tent

A Fair Trade Book...Maybe

Book Review: The Red Tent
        
Author: Anita Diamant
        
Author's blog: http://anitadiamant.blogspot.com/

Author's charity: http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/

Date: 1997
        
Publisher: Picador
        
ISBN: B002E8R356
        
Length:352 pages
        
Quote: "Rachel came running into camp, knees flying, bellowing like a calf separated from its mother...she launched into a breathless yarn about a stranger at the well..."
        
If the Bible had been written by women, would it, as one reviewer said, read like The Red Tent? Parts of it might. Maybe.
        
There’s a theory that parts of the Bible may have been written by women—and, in fact, the Bible explicitly says that the Torah as we know it was the version approved by a woman, the prophet Huldah, who was the foremost scholar of her time.
        
I am, I think, about as well entitled to define a really radical feminist as anybody, and I say Gloria Steinem was a well-funded, oh, let’s say “blonde” instead of “wimp,” and if you’re really radically a feminist you can handle the Bible. The rule against women becoming scholars and rabbis is found only in the Talmud, was flouted by Jesus and many other rabbis, and obviously did not exist in what modern Israelis call the classical era of ancient Israel. In the Bible women do just about everything men do and are commended for it. I find more feminist statements than antifeminist statements in the Bible.
        
But that’s another rant; Diamant’s purpose in The Red Tent is to try to imagine the home life of Jacob surnamed Israel, the ancestor by birth or adoption of all Jews, and his four wives. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and the prophet of the One God, but his father-in-law wasn’t fully converted to any faith and may still have taken idols seriously, and Diamant imagines the four wives fondly remembering the Semitic Pagan goddesses of which they’d heard.
        
How accurate is this? How plausible is any attempt to reconstruct the private life of anyone long dead? The Bible mentions that Laban owned at least two idols. Jacob’s offer of labor instead of a dowry, which was normally paid in money and kept by the bride’s parents as security in case of divorce, was lamented by his wives as having allowed their father to cheat them out of their share of his estate. When Jacob, Leah, and Rachel abandoned Laban they took the idols. The idols may, like the idols found in many Christian homes today, have been valued only as pieces of precious stone or metal, or as works of art; the women may have justified taking them as reclaiming the money their father owed them. Rachel took them into the Red Tent and sat on them, which suggests that she didn’t think they really embodied deities...unless, of course, we postulate that the Semitic goddesses were worshipped in more intimate ways than the male gods. 
        
Diamant works with several pieces of Jewish tradition that appeared in history long after Jacob’s time, perhaps introduced as fables. Why can people of any color be Jewish? Despite the well-known history of conversions and adoptions, or perhaps to legitimize it, one tradition teaches that each of Jacob’s four wives was a different color. Then again, perhaps they were all half-sisters. In The Red Tent they are both half-sisters and of different colors.
        
What happened to poor little Dinah? The name means “judged.” If Dinah was the original name given to the only one of Jacob’s daughters named in the Bible, it must have expressed the hope of being correctly judged and vindicated. Even Jacob didn’t think that what her brothers did was a correct judgment or vindication. So, according to some traditions, God must have vindicated or compensated Dinah in some other way. As it might have been, according to one venerable Hebrew folktale, by allowing her to become rich and famous—probably as a midwife, although other contemporary women succeeded in other careers. In Egypt, where she might have been married, employed, or adopted by the family of Potipherah the priest of On. So, when Joseph was promoted to a level of status from which he could be married to Potipherah’s daughter, she would really be Dinah’s daughter...a nice Jewish girl.
        
The Bible does mention that Jacob gave special blessings to Joseph’s two sons. Why is this? There were twelve tribes, and twelve tribal territories, in ancient Israel, but the lists don’t quite match. The tribe of Levi were dispersed through the other territories as priests. There was no tribal territory named for Joseph. There were tribal territories named for each of his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Did these boys need to be adopted as sons by their grandfather because their father had been a favorite son, because their mother was an alien...or because giving them the status of sons rather than grandsons was a way of vindicating Dinah?
         
For her literary purposes, Diamant uses the story that Dinah became a rich and famous midwife in Egypt. Her Dinah lives to be old enough to take a detached, elderly perspective when describing the little girls her mother and aunts must once have been. When poor little Joseph finds himself enslaved in Egypt, Diamant gives him a still righteously indignant, but goodhearted, older sister to smooth the way for him.
        
There are two possible ways a novelist could handle the story of Dinah’s postbiblical adventures. Either she was a little girl who innocently went home with a playmate and was molested by her friend’s brother; or she was a star-crossed lover whose visit to a female friend’s home was understood by everyone as a date with her friend’s brother, whom she wanted to marry. The Red Tent takes the second of these positions.
        
Diamant does not use Dinah’s voice to  write as a scholar, priest, historian, or even a poet, but as a woman who could offer professional insights into the questions the story of Jacob’s family raises in modern minds. What was it like for each member of the family, except infants, to live in a separate tent, and for menstruating and postpartum women to occupy a special Red Tent? How exactly did people produce and nurture babies in such a culture? How did they start the babies? (Diamant’s answer to this question is neither plain enough to satisfy those who don't know how babies are made, nor passionate enough to satisfy those who would prefer a live video.) How did people become slaves, and how were slaves treated? How did they become kings, and how did they defend their thrones?  Did they brew wine and beer strong enough to get drunk on? How did they behave when they were drunk? What did they do with all those animals’ body wastes, and their own? What kind of diseases did they suffer from, and what was it like when a family member was ill?
        
It’s a very steamy novel. That’s what some readers will love, and some readers will hate, about The Red Tent. No lofty philosophical reflections, no songs and poetry, no weaving patterns and hardly any recipes, are found here. On almost every page somebody’s giving birth, having sex, beating somebody up. The Bible portrays Laban as pushy and greedy; Diamant goes further and makes him a mean drunk, a lecher, and a buffoon. You may find yourself sniffing at the pages—nothing but clean paper there, only the words as you read seem to give off that smell of sweat and blood. You may find yourself wondering whether, if you were living in that climate and culture, you wouldn’t constantly crave fresh air.
        
The Bible certainly doesn’t shudder away from the fetor of blood and sweat. The Bible does not, however, wallow in it. The Bible writers did crave fresh air, and they gave breaths of it to the reader. The Bible story of Jacob’s family contains most of the gross-outs found in The Red Tent, and the other gross-outs in The Red Tent are analogous to stories told in other parts of the Bible, but in between the brawls and pregnancies the Bible also includes religious visions, poems, prayers, and inspiring moments of generosity and reconciliation. The Red Tent is not rich in generosity and reconciliation. Dinah’s character isn’t completely consumed by bitterness, but neither does she forgive those who did her wrong.
        
So I say: if the Bible had been written by a woman, or by women, I still don’t think it would read like The Red Tent. Diamant's Dinah is, like most of us, not quite as wise as Huldah.
        
Bible mavens will probably enjoy reading The Red Tent—critically, but with pleasure. I don’t know that The Red Tent is an ideal first commentary on the book of Genesis; I suspect that for most people it’s not. If you’ve read other commentaries, however, you’ll appreciate the way this book manages to be both a valid commentary and a credible novel.

A new edition of The Red Tent is available, so does Anita Diamant want this one offered as a Fair Trade Book? I await her decision. As a Fair Trade Book it would cost $5 + $5 shipping (shipping costs can be consolidated), out of which Diamant or her favorite charity would get $1. If you buy the new edition I'm guessing that she gets more.