Time magazine cover May 2012We at Critical Pages always thought we were keeping current. We figured we were in the swim with the rest of the culture. We supposed we knew society, its older conventions and its newer, younger ways of doing things. But, OK, we were startled by this cover of Time magazine. I mean, TIME magazine!

The cover photo is  certainly eye-catching. The striking  young woman in those stylish black leggings is Jamie Lynne Grumet, a 26-year-old mother, breast feeding her three-year-soon-to-be-four-year-old son. The mother has a blog called I  am not the baby sitter which crashed upon publication of the Time magazine cover.  In her Time magazine interview, Grumet says  that she herself was breastfed until she was six. Clearly we’ve not been keeping up with nutritional trends.

This might bring to mind the protracted breast-fed youngster in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the kid who was nicknamed all his life as Milkman. But, no. This isn’t literature, it’s science. And it isn’t nutrition so much as psychology.  And psychology is more or less a science. Well, sort of.  Maybe you’ve heard about Dr. William Sears and his wife, the nurse Martha, and their books on “attachment parenting.” As we understand it, attachment parenting means getting close to your baby, as much of the time as possible for as long as possible. Bring the kid to bed with you. It builds confidence in the child, we’re told.  OK, we’re cool with all that.  Every happy family is happy in its own way. We were just startled by the magazine cover, is all. And only for a moment. We’re cool.

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Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein

Maybe you had The Giving Tree read to you when you were a kid, or maybe you’ve read it to your children. Jo Page used to read it to her children when they were little, but she’s had some second thoughts. Here she is in her own words.

The last time my older daughter visited, she and her younger sister had a conversation about Shel Silverstein’s renowned book, The Giving Tree.

Whether you’re five, 45 or much older, you probably know The Giving Tree.

But if you’ve been living under a rock somewhere since it was published in 1964, here’s the plot: There’s a tree and a boy. The tree loves the boy very much and gives him whatever he needs to provide for his happiness: juicy apples, shade from the hot sun, branches on which to swing. As he grows he carves the initials of the girls he fancies on the bark of the tree. Eventually, of course, he grows—more or less—into adulthood and seeks to leave the tree. Only how will he, having no means by which he can survive without the tree?

So the tree offers to be chopped down so that the boy can make a boat and sail away. The boy, satisfied once more by the tree’s inventiveness and generosity, chops it down and sails away, leaving the tree a branchless, fruitless stump.

And many years pass.

In time, though, the boy comes back, no longer young but stooped with age and weary of life. The tree, in sadness, explains that she has nothing left that she can give him. The boy assures her: he needs little now. All he needs is a place to rest.

A stump can be a place of rest, she offers. Come, boy, come and rest.

Which is what the boy does. And the tree is happy.

I first read The Giving Tree when I was a teen-ager, fatherless, angry at my mother for her distracted passions, her vanity, her self-absorption. (Naturally I saw her with the total objectivity of an adolescent girl.)

So I loved the book. It made me feel sorry for myself. Why didn’t I have a giving tree for a mother? Why didn’t I have a mother who would put my needs ahead of hers? I would never be that kind of parent.

What kind of parent would I be? The kind who gave her daughters a copy of The Giving Tree, of course. The kind who read it to them in the regular rotation of the dozens of children’s books I read to them before bed.

But then, one day when I read it, it made my skin crawl.

This happened when my children were still very young; I hadn’t been made jaded or cynical by their adolescence. And I never wavered in my commitment to be anything other than the best of mothers to them. They were the loves of my life. However, this time when I read the book I saw a boy who really had remained a boy. I saw a one-sided relationship based on selfless giving that seemed to somehow endorse this as the ideal model for parenthood: the parent rightly fulfilling her role as a decimated stump.

As it happens, it’s been interpreted that way. Timothy P. Jackson, a former professor of religious studies at Stanford observed of it:

“Is it a sad tale? Well, it is sad in the same way that life is depressing. . . . The more you blame the boy, the more you have to fault human existence. The more you blame the tree, the more you have to fault the very idea of parenting. Should the tree’s giving be contingent on the boy’s gratitude? If it were, if fathers and mothers waited on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.”

I’m here to attest to the fact that there are some damn bad parents out there. I’m sure they’re doing their best and all that. Or maybe they’re not. But the point is more that if self-immolation is the best model of parenthood, what are our children learning? What are we learning about ourselves? Is Shel Silverstein positing that the best parenting is a kind of personal crucifixion in which our selfhood is poured out to our children’s benefit and at peril to our own?

Yet our children don’t remain young. They age, even if they don’t grow up. Do parents have a responsibility to enable their growth or to mainly meet their present needs? It’s not a black-and-white question.

And take note: I’m not endorsing any position. I’m not going to do that in print. Not about something as incendiary as how to be a good parent. Lots of people love The Giving Tree. I think my girls do (I decided not to listen to their conversation since I didn’t want to know how I measured up against the tree or even what they thought of the tree) though I’m not really sure why. Neither of them seemed inclined to follow the tree’s extreme—neurotic?—selflessness, for which I am grateful.

Maybe the point is that The Giving Tree is a parable; it doesn’t make transparent sense even in its apparent transparency. And just like Jesus’ parables, The Giving Tree makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We’d just as soon forget those kinds of stories. And aren’t those just the kind of ones we can’t?

—Jo Page


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Munch  - The Scream

Oh, my God! I just spent $120 million on a pastel drawing!

It’s hard to say which is better known, “The Scream” or “Mona Lisa.” The DaVinci has been called priceless, Munch’s painting has the more exact price of $119,922,500.00, which is getting up there toward priceless.

You may wonder why anyone would pay around $120 million for a piece of board, no matter what was portrayed on it in pastel. Of course, this is more than a board with a pastel drawing on it. It’s a figure of a man screaming under a blood red sky.  Furthermore, it’s a fine example of Expressionist art, and in the view of some critics Expressionism was the bridge between Impressionism and abstract art, so this work has historical value as well.

It’s also true — and this may contribute more to answer the question of why pay so much for this portrait — that the image is remarkably recognizable, hence famous.  OK, so it looks like the crayon work of a talented but deeply troubled adolescent.  But people who have seen any of the artist’s four versions of “The Scream” remember it.  It’s been reproduced on mugs, in cartoons, T-shirts and even an inflatable toy the size of a small child.  It doesn’t matter whether you see it in a book or tacked on a college dormitory wall, the image is wholly different from what you’ve seen before.

So, like a celebrity who is famous for being simply famous, the painting has become famous, ubiquitous. Social critics and pop psychologists have contributed their heavy insights, saying that “The Scream” embodies contemporary angst and that the 1895 art work was prescient, forecasting the dreadful times that lay ahead.  And maybe you’ve learned that Munch wrote about the inspiration for the work and later painted it on the frame, as a poem: I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

That helps.

Finally, during the past few months Sotheby’s, the auction house which handled the sale, pumped the media full of curious information about the work and it’s probable sale price.  And Sotheby’s did well.  Every report from those who were at the auction sounds as if the auction was a spectacular theatrical event all of its own.

There’s been some speculation that whoever bought “The Scream” — and the Mona Lisa 200price rules out the notion that a museum purchased it — sought it simply as a way to bank some of his or her millions. I mean, you have to put your money someplace, after all.  The idea in this instance is that no matter the vagaries of the stock market, the painting will go up in value.  We skeptics at Critical Pages don’t think so. We think paintings have a hard time getting big bucks at auction when the stock market has collapsed and, furthermore, there are fashions in art just as surely as there are fashions in clothing.

There’s no telling why whoever bought it wanted it so fiercely that he or she was willing to pay so much. We doubt it was a lust for art.  Anyway, it’s more colorful than the “Mona Lisa.” And “Mona Lisa” wasn’t up for auction.

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Diploma from Messina, class of 1672

Diploma from the University of Messina, Class of 1672

College students are now more than a trillion dollars in debt. That comes as news to anyone who isn’t a college student or the parent of a college student. The young and old who graduate this year are quite aware of it. Last year’s college grad started working life — if he or she could find a job — with an average debt of $27,000.

That average of $27,000 is the debt owed only by the student. Mark Kantrowitz, a knowledgeable expert in the field of student loans and student debt, estimates that if you add in the loans taken by parents to pay for their kid’s education, you get an average total bill of $34,000. That was last year. The numbers have been getting worse, year after year. (Kantrowitz was quoted in the New York Times last year, saying that student debt goes up and it doesn’t ever go down.)  If student debt goes up 5 percent this year, as it did last year, then the burden — well, you can do the depressing math.

The economics of borrowing and debt often inspires comfortable  moralists to criticize the profligate borrowers. But there’s been no criticism of students’ or parents’ borrowing. Over the past 30 years the purchasing power of the middle class has remained flat or has declined.   Our average worker hasn’t been able to make the necessary strides ahead of the cost of living which permits increased savings or increased purchasing. But in that same period, the price of a college diploma has steadily gone further and further ahead, rising between 4 and 6 percent a year.

As has happened repeatedly over the past three decades, parents  —  and now their college-bound children —  have to borrow. The gradual erosion of the middle class has increased so that now we are witnessing something rather like a collapse. The rich float further and further up, the poor drift further and further down.

But that’s a terrible note to post during the month of college graduations, so we’ve illustrated this with a diploma from the Italian University of Messina in 1672.  We think it’s a great diploma with great but serious colors, a truly intricate initial letter and fancy writing. That’s something worth hanging on the wall! Even if it does put us a bit in debt.

The Reader by Renoir

The Reader by Renoir

Yes, yes, the Pulitzer Prize Board didn’t make an award for fiction this year. According to the Pulitzer website, “If in any year all the competitors in any category shall fall below the standard of excellence fixed by The Pulitzer Prize Board, the amount of such prize or prizes may be withheld.”

But you and I know that the board simply deadlocked and weren’t able to choose a winner from the three nominated books. And maybe that’s best. Maybe the concept that there’s one very best novel is childish. Which is the best novel,   Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations? Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov or Tolstoy’s War and Peace?  Now, here are the three Pulitzer fiction finalists:

  • Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a novella about a day laborer in the old American West, bearing witness to terrors and glories with compassionate, heartbreaking calm.
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, an adventure tale about an eccentric family adrift in its failing alligator-wrestling theme park, told by a 13-year-old heroine wise beyond her years.
  • The Pale King, by the late David Foster Wallace, a posthumously completed novel, animated by grand ambition, that explores boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.

We suggest you go around to your local book store, check out the three nominated novels (go ahead, pick them up, read the jacket copy, look at the author’s photograph, read a few pages — you can do that in a real book store), then buy one of the books. Or maybe you’ll find something the Pulitzer people didn’t even notice.  You’re the best critic of what you like to read.

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Minute Man in Concord

Minute Man in Concord

For people living in Massachusetts April 19th is more than the day of the Boston Marathon, it’s Patriots Day —  the day and date in 1775 when the British army, stationed in Boston, sent a force across the Charles River in the dark of night, planning a surprise march to Lexington to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and from there to Concord to seize gunpowder and other supplies stored by the disaffected citizenry.

The rebellious farmers had established a militia, the Minute Men, and now aroused by the warnings of Paul Revere and William Dawes —  “The British are coming!”  —  the armed men gathered at dawn on the Lexington Common. The advancing British ordered them to disperse, the Minute Men refused, a shot was fired, the political revolution became an armed insurrection. John Hancock and Samuel Adams, half a mile away, escaped even as the firing of musketry on the Common began. But the locals were no match for the British Regulars who continued their march to Concord where another group of Minute Men had gathered on a rise overlooking at a bridge over the Concord River. The British occupied the town center and left a small detachment to guard the bridge while others searched for the rebels’ military supplies. The Minute Men, seeing smoke rising from town, thought the British had set fires, so they marched down to the bridge and to engage and overwhelm the outnumbered British troops.

Here’s a stanza from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s elegiac commemorative poem written for the monument erected by the bridge:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

As the British Redcoats marched back to Boston they were harassed continuously by the Minute Men. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wonderful narrative poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” contains these lines about those events:

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled, —
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

In Concord, inscribed over the grave of two British soldiers who were killed in the Concord skirmish, is a stanza of a poem called “Lines” by James Russell Lowell:

They came three-thousand miles and died
To keep the past upon its throne
Unheard beyond the ocean tide
Their English mother made her moan.

(If you’re interested in poetry, we can recommend the elegy by Emerson, and we do enjoy the stirring poem by Longfellow, but we’re happy to avoid Lowell’s knotted and at times incomprehensible verses.)

Nowadays, April 19th is celebrated on the third Monday in April. In Lexington, early in the morning of every 19th of April, no matter when it’s celebrated, the Minute Men gather on the Green under the leadership of Captain John Parker, and the Red Coats come marching in neat rows under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith. The armed farmers are told to disperse, but they refuse. A shot is fired, then a fusillade of British musketry, and when the smoke clears, some of the Minute Men have fallen, and the British regulars continue their March toward Concord.

Intergalactic vehicle

Read Intergalactic Vehicle Fake Photo

Have you ever listened to radio programs that broadcast late at night, very  late at night? At that hour your mind is open to all sorts of strange thoughts, and some pretty strange thoughts get broadcast in those small hours. Once, when Marilyn Robertson couldn’t get to sleep, she tuned in and heard an interesting story which she reports to us in her poem, “Alien”

Last night, a man on the radio was reminiscing
about the time he was touched by an alien.
He was sitting in his carport, shooting the breeze
with an ex-Marine buddy,
when a woman passed by the house.

She was making a kind of humming sound
and she stopped and asked him for a cigarette.
Well, he gave her one and when their fingers touched,
that’s when he felt the electric current in his stomach.
That’s how he knew.
She told him her name was Tomorrow.

Elsewhere on the dial, the usual mayhem:
hurricanes, robberies, runaway trucks, a warning
not to eat certain vegetables…but nothing more
about the humming woman from another galaxy,
bumming cigarettes along a country road.

 —Marilyn Robertson


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April is National Poetry Month and National Financial Literacy Month, too. If you knew about the one, you probably didn’t know about the other, so we’re spreading the word about these national observances.

National Poetry Month was started by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. It’s relatively well established, kept alive and vigorous by booksellers, publishers, libraries, schools and poets. According to the Academy of American Poets, “Thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations participate through readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events.” And if you go to the Academy’s website you can find a good list to this year’s programs.

National Financial Literacy Month was born as Financial Literacy for Youth Month in 2000, inaugurated by the The Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. In 2003 it received the imprimatur of the US Senate, and in 2004 the Senate dropped the youth part and passed a Resolution naming April as our National Financial Literacy Month. Apparently, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) has become the leading organization to celebrate and promote Financial Literacy Month.

We thought it would be nice to merge Poetry and Financial Literacy and we’ve come up with two quite different songs. The first is “The Banks Are Made of Marble,” sung by The Weavers, with that rousing chorus:
But the banks are made of marble
with a guard at every door
and the vaults are stuffed with silver
that the farmer sweated for.

Unfortunately, though you’ll hear a great song by the Weavers, there are no visuals to accompany it. By the way, you’ll hear Pete Seeger singing the first stanzas. It’s a great little song and always comes back during hard times. Take a listen.

The other song, quite different in sentiment, is “The Fear,” sung by Lily Allen. Lily Allen’s songs are generally characterized as “explicit,” as is this one. We warn you of that, and warn you also that the video is one of the silliest we’ve ever seen. The song begins with:

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them.

You see how it goes. We like Lily Allen for her cheerful vulgarity and we don’t know what she’s doing dancing around in that stupid dress in this lame pastel video.

Quem Quaeritis manuscript

Quem Quaeritis mss from Bodleian Library

Scripture tells of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion, the day we call Easter. And the celebration of Easter in the church gave birth to, or resurrected, theatrical drama in the western world. Drama as a living art had perished with the collapse and break up of the Christianized Roman Empire. But at an Easter service which took place in the decades shortly before the year 1000 the people in charge devised a very brief skit to dramatize the events of that third day. After the execution of Jesus, when “the three Marys” went to the tomb to anoint the body, they found an angel seated on the edge of the tomb. The little drama, enacted by church singers, went like this —

[Angeli]: Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?
Responsio: Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Angeli: Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.

Or in English —

Angels: Whom do you seek in the tomb, O followers of Christ?
Response: The crucified Jesus of Nazareth, O heavenly beings.
Angels: He isn’t here; he’s risen, as he foretold. Go and announce that he has risen from the tomb.

From this slight beginning, drama was reborn.

You probably know that after the Supreme Court hearing about the health care law, the Republican National Committee released a video with what sounded like an honest audio recording of part of that hearing. And you probably know it wasn’t an honest audio. The Republican National Committee had manipulated the audio to make it sound as if the government’s lawyer, Donald Verrilli, was nervous and stumbling, because he was having a hard time making the case for the government’s health care plan.

Why did the Republican National Committee lie that way? After all, only the most partisan Democrats would claim the government came off well in that hearing. Verrilli certianly did his job well, but any objective listener would have to say that the conservative justices appeared very dubious about the law and the more middle-of-the-road justices seemed pretty skeptical of it.  It wasn’t a good day for the Obama administration.

George Romney’s first video attacking President Barack Obama also was a bare-faced lie. Romney’s campaign associates frankly admitted that they used Obama’s words when he was quoting one of his opponents, but they  attributed the sentiments to Obama. They  said they were merely making a political point. Apparently, that made it all right.  (We have a post on that, but please don’t get distracted.)

Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee has said that the GOP ad about health care and the Supreme Court uses multiple audio bites and runs them together to make it sound as if the Solicitor General is having a hard time defending the law. “Our goal was to make the point of what a hard sell Obamacare is,” Spicer told the Associated Press.  Oh, good, that explains the lying.

Blue ScillaThe flowers above are called scilla. They come in a variety of colors and they’re  one of the early signs of spring,  dotting the untended suburban lawns. And if you have a few one year, you’ll have lots more the next year, and so on year after year.  If you hire a lawn service every April, or if you simply use a good broad spectrum weed killer, you’ll be rid  of this invasive weed. That’s why we never hire a lawn service or use weed killer.

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Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos

Book buyers like to shop Amazon.Com. You could even go so far as to say they love it. Consumers don’t know much about Amazon’s top man, Jeff Bezos, but they do know that Amazon is the world’s largest bookstore. Best of all, you can buy a book with a few clocks of your computer mouse. And if you don’t want to buy it at full price, you can see right there beside it some second hand copies for sale at a lower price. (That might be hard on the writer but, hey, we’re poor readers, not starving writers.)

Furthermore, the book will arrive at your home the very next day, or in a few days if you’re not in a rush. And if you’re in a big hurry and want something right now you can download a book to your Amazon Kindle reader. But maybe you don’t want a book. Maybe you’d like a movie. Amazon has lots of those. And lots of music, too. As Amazon says: “20 million movies, TV shows, songs, magazines, and books.” And dresses. And shoes. And crockpots and shovels and tomato sauce and banjos. Amazon is amazing!

So it’s interesting that writers and publishers loath Amazon, the world’s largest bookstore. How can that be? (OK, we’ve already given you a hint. But please keep reading anyway.) Publishers don’t sell books to directly readers, they sell them to booksellers who then sell them to readers. Now online shoppers in the United States will spend $327 billion in 2016, up 45% from $226 billion this year and 62% from $202 billion in 2011, according to a projection by Forrester Research, Inc. And Amazon dominates the online book selling world.

Here’s what you do when you dominate the market, if you’re Jeff Bezos.  A couple of years ago Amazon decided to sell MacMillan’s e-books, and e-book of every publisher, for $9.99 or less. (Great for customers, right?) That meant Amazon would lose money on every sale, but Jeff Bezos has money to burn and selling at a loss would knock out other e-book sellers, such as Barnes & Noble, whereupon Jeff and Amazon could monopolize the market.

But MacMillan objected to Amazon’s pricing and said that only MacMillan had the right to determine pricing for MacMillan’s books.  So Amazon simply turned off the little buttons that permit you to buy MacMillan books  at Amazon, thereby shutting the publisher out of the biggest online market.

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It turns out that the word nostalgia means homesickness. I guess some of us weren’t in class the day the teacher talked about nostalgia. Some of us thought the word referred to that feeling of pleasure, tinged with gentle melancholy, that can arise when you think of something that had been familiar and meaningful to you in the past.

As it happens, we were wrong. All of us around here were wrong. The word was composed in the 17th century to describe a malady, severe homesickness, which was first noticed in Swiss mercenaries. Those Swiss mercenaries were sent all over Europe and, no surprise, they got homesick, extremely homesick. The word incorporates two Greek words, (nóstos), meaning a return home, and (álgos), meaning pain or ache.  When it comes to making new words, the obscurantist medical profession gets out the Greek and Latin dictionaries.

We looked up nostalgia in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition. (That’s a classic edition.) Yup, there it was. The total definition is one solitary word: homesickness. That edition was based on the famous Second Edition of Webster’s New Internatinal Dictionary which was copyrighted in 1934, so we turned to a more up-to-date volume, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, which was copyrighted in 1989. The number 1 definition was still homesickness.

But there was also definition number 2:  “a wistful or excessively sentimental sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Have you got that?  OK, we’ve already admitted  not being in class the day our teacher discussed nostalgia, but I’m sure neither Miss Hammerstone nor Miss Bundelmom would ever speak so strangely.

I don’t know if looking at some old tie-dyed T-shirts and torn blue-jeans would give you a wistful or excessively sentimental sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. On the other hand, if you’re in Rome and visit Vatican City and you see one of the Pope’s Swiss guards looking rather sickish, you can say, Ah, nostalgia!

Swiss Guards  at St. Peter's

Swiss Guards. Some may suffer from acute nostalgia.


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As we said in an earlier post, the first sign of spring is often winter aconite, not crocuses. And that’s good for winter aconite, because if it came to blossom later, it wouldn’t really be looked at or cared about, because it’s a rather meager flower, a kind of small version of a butter cup. But even before the aconite has melted away, crocuses appear, delicate chalices of color that steal the show. Here are some crocusesCrocuses 9 violet

The only way to have crocuses in the spring is to plant crocus bulbs in the fall. Now, planting in the grimness of fall when the garden is a bedraggled mess, when the days are short and chill, and the nights long and cold, requires faith.  But in this instance, halleluiah! The saints and angels will dance and your faith will be rewarded! Unless you’ve planted the bulbs in soggy soil, so they rot, or planted them where squirrels can eat them for lunch. We know this sounds like theology but it’s really just gardening.  Now relax — your test of faith doesn’t come until the fall. For now, enjoy the display. It’s transient. Like a lot of things.

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