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Most people know what a turnip is. But not so many are sure they know a rutabega when they see one. Assuming you know what a turnip is and you also know what a cabbage is, we can tell you that a rutabega came about as a cross between the turnip and the cabbage. Yes, we know that’s unlikely, but it seems to be so.
Turnips and rutabegas are members of the plant genus Brassica. In fact, among people who care about such things there’s a theory known as the Triangle of U which diagrams the relationship between members of the Brassica — a theory which has been proven true by DNA studies. But that takes us very far afield. All we wanted to do was to introduce this light, whimsical poem by Marilyn Robertson. It’s called “Roots” and it goes like this…
Is this a turnip? I ask the man arranging vegetables
in the markeet. No, he says, that’s a rutabega.
Here’s a turnip — and he holds up a roundish
white and purple root. The colors are nice,
but the name is not half so musical as rutabega.
It makes me think of jumprope rhymes,
cheerleaders at football games:
Rutabega, Rutabega, sis boom bah.
Or the melodies of old songs: Rutabega moon,
keep shining…Rutabega, here I come,
right back where I started from.
I put a few in my shopping cart.
At the check-out counter,
I ask the young man bagging groceries,
Pardon me, boy, is that the Rutabega choo-choo?
He has no idea what I’m talking about.
April is National Financial Literacy Month and it’s also National Poetry Month. We think it’s a bad idea to put them in the same month.
On one side we have the Academy of American Poets which began National Poetry Month in 1996 to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. On the other side, we have the US Senate which in 2003 passed Resolution 316, making April National Financial Literacy Month, and two years later the US House of Representatives passed a bill supporting the goals and ideals of Financial Literacy Month.
Because we have poetry and financial literacy occupying the same month, we’ve looked around for poems about money. There aren’t many. We’ve already posted “The Banks Are Made of Marble” by Pete Seeger and, anyway, we make a distinction between song lyrics and unadorned poems. After a critical search we think that “Money,” by Philip Larkin, is the best poem about money. Readers familiar with the rhythms and rhymes of conventional English verse may be unsettled by these unconventionally long lined couplets. We must add that Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985) was a distinguished British poet, a kind of unofficial Poet Laureate in England, and that the word screw in the poem is a Brit’s slang for salary or wages.
Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’
So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life
—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.
I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
Maybe you’ve read “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the poem by William Butler Yeats that begins:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
William Butler Yeats may not be the grand exciting figure he was some decades ago, but his major poems still retains their beauty and mystery. “Innisfree” is one of his earlier, simpler verses. Marilyn Robertson is acquainted with”The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and has named her own poem “Innisfree.” Here it is:
When I can’t sleep, I often recite a poem I’ve memorized,
taking deep breaths between the lines, but not so much
that I ruin the meter. Last night it was Yeats.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…
But I soon realized it was a poor choice, because
the last ting I wanted to do was rise.
Then I began to wonder where Innisfree was, exactly,
and could you get there in a rowboat
with all the things you’d need for a long stay.
Gardening implements. String for the beans to climb.
The beehive, of course. A couple of warm sweaters—
who knows what the weather will be like?
I’m thinking it would be summer and, with any luck,
someone else will have built the cabin—
maybe Yeats himself—and left behind a basket
of wattles to use for kindling, plus a few poems
to read on the porch after supper as I watch
the linnets busily fluttering away the Irish light.
Johanes Kepler was the astronomer who first understand the beautiful eliptical orbits of planets around the sun. He had a wonderfully restless mind and in 1611 he composed a charming, learned little book speculating on why snowflakes have six points. Brilliant though he was, Kepler didn’t have the knowledge of atoms and molecules that we do today, so his book, fascinating as it is, doesn’t come up with the answer.
Here’s how we get those delicate snowflakes, some of which landed on Kepler’s coat as he walked across the Charles bridge in December of 1610. A molecule of water is composed of two little atoms of hydrogen linked to a bigger atom of oxygen. The two hydrogen atoms are positioned 104.5 degrees from each other, and that gives the three atoms taken together a shape rather like a three-sided pyramid. That’s a water molecule.
That’s not the same as what we call water, which is a bunch of water molecules hanging out together. The comparatively large oxygen atom is composed such that the side opposite the two hydrogen atoms is able to link up with the hydrogen atoms of other water molecules. When a water molecule links up with four other water molecules, it arranges into a nice four-sided pyramid – called a tetrahedron in your geometry class.
Now we’re getting someplace. Because as the temperature drops, these four-sided arrangements of water molecules draw closer together and form a six-sided, or hexagonal, structure – which is what we see when we look at an ice crystal. That ice crystal is the heart of the combined molecules which add up and spread out to a clearly visible snow flake. Now you know.
Another version of why snowflakes have six points can be found in the very short tale The Queen of the Rain Was in Love with the Prince of the Sky. Furthermore, that little story also explains why no two snowflakes are precisely alike. And this is shameless self-promotion, because that little gem is by Eugene Mirabelli, who writes all these unsigned posts at Critical Pages.
If you’d like to read the mini-book The Queen of the Rain Was in Love with the Prince of the Sky, which is considerably lighter and more entertaining than molecular chemistry, click on the title at the start of this sentence. On the other hand, if you’re a chemistry buff and can’t follow the lucid explanation of the arrangement of atoms and molecules posted here and insist on seeing diagrams, you can find some really good ones on the web. And if you’d like to read that book by Kepler, check out the offerings at Paul Dry Books.
Critical Pages has never taken notice of fiction in the Young Adult category. One reason is that we’re not Young Adults ourselves. Another reason is that when we were Young Adults — and that was a long, long, long time ago — young adult fiction was mostly books like the Rover Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. And no, we’re not kidding. We were more or less aware that things had changed, especially when we read the Judy Blume novels that our kids left around the house. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that we’re astonished by Hollis Seamon’s young adult novel, Somebody Up There Hates You.
It begins this way:
I shit you not. Hey, I’m totally reliable, sweartogod. I, Richard Casey – aka the Incredible Dying Boy — actually do live, temporarily, in the very hospice unit I’m going to tell you about. Third floor, Hilltop Hospital, in the city of Hudson, the great state of New York.
This wild, touching but hard-edged story is about two teenage kids, Richard and his girlfriend Sylvie, who are in a hospice unit, dying and behaving pretty much the outrageous way teenage kids behave, or certainly might behave, knowing that their time is limited.
The narrator’s voice is one of the many marvels of this short, incandescent novel. Another marvel is the antic spirit that enlivens scene after scene amid the stark reality of hospice. The tone is not sentimental; Richard is dying and when you close the book you know he’s not going to get a reprieve.
The book’s flyleaf tells us that Hollis Seamon spent years visiting a children’s hospital, fascinated and touched by the young people she met there, while she was caring for her young son. Seamon’s web site shows that prior to Somebody Up There Hates You Seamon had published a collection of short stories, Body Work, plus a mystery, Flesh, and the recent Corporeality, a second short story collection — all for adult readers. No matter your age, Somebody Up There Hates You is a tough book to read but worth it all the way.
A month ago we posted a piece about houses and mansions, because houses are so much bigger than they used to be and mansions are so very much bigger than even your average big house. Being rich is all about square footage when we talk about housing. And here we have a poem by Marilyn Robertson about mansions and what happens when they lose all sense of propriety, go wild and break the law.
When Mansions Go Bad
Bad news for big houses this morning:
COUNTY PURSUES TOUGHER RULES ON MANSIONS.
When mansions go bad, you’ve got to get tough.
They’ll start parking any which way on your street.
When you come home, they’ll be sprawling on
your front steps, smoking on your lawn.
A mansion can swallow a meadow in a single afternoon.
It can block a view, turn a clearing into a gym,
a lane into a bowling alley.
They’ve already hijacked a couple of houses over on Elm.
Just sat their big butts down and took over,
spreading conservatories, wine cellars, ballrooms
clear out to the neighbor’s fence.
Now mansions must keep to a modest 5,000 square feet.
But what mansion is going to stand for that?
They’re going to rebel.
They’re going to put their thousands of extra feet down wherever they damn please.
At Critical Pages we have an ongoing campaign to encourage reading, support independent bookstores and save writers from starvation. And we think the best way for you to do all three Good Works is to visit your independent bookstore and buy a book. Or splurge and buy half a dozen. Or a dozen and a half. And keep in mind our upbeat motto: Book Lovers Never Have To Go To Bed Alone.
That photo up there is charming, but what we meant was that if you were a reader you could always take a book to bed. So you’d never need to be alone. You’d have the company of all the characters in the book. That’s what we hoped you’d understand. The photo below is an excellent example of what we mean.
That’s better. Book Lovers Never Have To Go To Bed Alone. Book lovers can take a book to bed.
Problem — the word that Google defines as “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome” is fading from the dictionary. Ours is a living language. Words come and go. Google says that problem is synonymous with difficulty, trouble, worry and complication. Of course, difficulties, troubles, worries and complications sometimes do occur. But when that happens it’s bad for business and, furthermore, it undermines belief in the military and in academia and makes government the butt of jokes.
To avoid these kinds of disasters, business and the armed forces, as well as the government agencies and virtually all academic institutions, have quietly done away with the word problem and all its synonyms. In it’s place they now use challenge or issue. Upper echelon government and military personnel feel much better when facing challenges than when dealing with problems or complications, and university administrators believe they can handle issues with discretion, whereas worries tend to become public and become very difficult to manage.
Now a populist movement among workers is growing to get rid of deficiency. No one feels good about being deficient, and employees feel especially bad about being stigmatized as deficient in skill or knowledge essential for the job they’re being paid to do. Middle managers and foremen have suggested that the felicitous phrase opportunity for growth be substituted for the old fashioned and discriminatory word. You wouldn’t be deficient in your ability to prioritize your workload, instead that would become an area where you had an opportunity for growth. Everyone likes opportunities. Ours is a living language. It’s great!
Stephen King has decided to publish his forthcoming book as a print publication, not an e-book. This is news in the book biz. It’s news because e-books are surging and publishers are wondering out loud whether the old fashioned books — you known, the kind that are printed on paper and bound in covers, sometimes in real cloth covers — are going the way of the quill pen. Furthermore, and most important, Stephen King was one of the first best selling authors to sell a fresh work as an e-book.
Stephen King has sufficient star power to make those kinds of decisions. Usually, it’s the mega-publisher who decides which way to send a book to market, but King is a mega-mega-author. Way back in 2000, when e-books were a new phenomenon, King let Riding the Bullet come out as the first mass e-book. It was so popular, the servers hosting the book crashed. In fact, it was so successful that he released his next book from his own website and let his readers pay on the honor system. Not all his readers were honorable. King is big enough to sustain that kind of hazard.
And now Stephen King is releasing Joyland exclusively in print as a $12.95 paperback. Does this signal a change of heart about e-books on the part of the writer? Probably not. The new Joyland is an old-fashioned, hard-boiled mystery novel and he choose to publish it through Hard Case Crime, which has been publishing hard-boiled crime stories since 2004, issuing them in retro covers. It’s the kind of book that you’d want to publish the old-fashioned retro way, without intending to make a statement about e-books and the future of publishing.
You never know what you’ll find on these pages. This time it’s a quick bit of quirky short fiction. “The Case of Jorge Medeiros” is by Francesca Forrest, an editor who is also a writer of young adult novels and short stories which deal in the fantastic. We came across her tale of a man and his book of random numbers at askiyume.livejournal.com. And we found it a welcome relief from some of the grimly serious news coming from all directions these days. No need to be rational all the time. In fact, it’s good to enjoy the irrational now and then.
The Case of Jorge Mederios
A texting driver made a widower of Jorge Medeiros, and perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to say that it was the association of text—words—with death that pushed him in the direction of faith in numbers.
In any case, left with the care of his two elementary-school-aged children, Jorge’s indispensible aid became a book of random numbers, a souvenir from the middle of the last century that his wife had picked up at a yard sale as a curiosity.
He started out using it for household tasks: How long should he run the dryer for? Its serial number was 4214289, so he opened the book at random and ran his finger down the columns until he came to a number that began with 421. The next two digits were seven and six. Seventy-six minutes? Seventy-six seconds? Seven point six minutes? The dryer dial said “Max Dry” next to the 70, so he decided on seventy-six minutes. The clothes were very dry.
He used the number book to determine what temperature to set the oven to keep the pizza warm, how many rolls of wrapping paper to buy for the school’s fundraiser, and how much was an appropriate amount to spend when the kids were invited to birthday parties. The results were varyingly successful and disastrous: 512 (degrees Fahrenheit) resulted in thick black smoke, a visit from the fire department, and no pizza for dinner; 96 (rolls of wrapping paper) delighted the PTO at Linsey Elementary School.
He even used the book of random numbers for the kids’ bedtime stories, at first just reading off the numbers, only to be pressed by the boys to explain the what, who, where, when, and why. Four thousand fifteen whats? Grains of sand. Twenty who? Fishermen. Three hundred fifty where? Miles off the coast of New Bedford. Eighty-eight when? Years ago.
“Thirteen,” their father said, and then, by way of further explanation, “The twenty fishermen carried the 4,015 grains of sand divided between their—” (here he consulted the book) “—five boats to ward off the bad luck of the number thirteen, when they had to go out fishing on the thirteenth day of the month. It’s a bit of the shore with them in the boat, see? So they’ll never drown. They’ll always make it home.”
And so on.
This his sons have accepted as natural. Three months ago, for their father’s thirty-fifth birthday, they pooled their funds and bought him Pi to Five Million Places. He told me the gift brought tears to his eyes.
Since then, he’s abandoned his original book of random numbers and now relies entirely on pi for his number consultations, taking smaller or larger doses of it as needed, mining it from its never-ending, nonrepeating decimal tail.
“It’s a continuous stream, see? Go on, open to any page.” I opened to page 147 (of 588), and sure enough, nothing but row upon row of uninterrupted digits, zero through nine.
“Just like life . . . and irrational, too, just like life.”