“I remember her as a small woman, but what do I know? I was small myself. She’s in none of the official photographs I have from my elementary-school days, but in my memory, my first librarian is a gentlewhitewoman who wore glasses and was exceedingly kind to this new immigrant. I do not remember her voice, but I do remember that every time I saw her, she called me to her desk and showed me with an almost conspiratorial glee a book she had picked out for me, a book I always read and often loved.
Every now and then you get lucky in your education and you make a teacher-friend; Mrs. Crowell was my first. By second grade she was allowing me to take out more books than the prescribed limit. By third grade I was granted admission to her librarian’s office. My love of books was born of hers. As a newcomer with almost no knowledge of the country in which I’d found myself, I was desperate to understand where the hell I was, who I was. I sought those answers in books. It was in Mrs. Crowell’s library that I found my first harbor, my first truly safe place in the United States. I still feel a happy pulse every time I see a library. I’m with Borges in imagining Paradise as ‘a kind of library.’ Where instead of angels there will be a corps of excellent librarians.”
— Junot Díaz, “In Mrs. Crowell’s Library,” part of “The Educational Experiences That Change a Life,” New York Times, September 14, 2011.
“The cat was covered from nose to tailtip with clumps of dried mud, his fur stuck together in little balls, as if he had been rolling around on a filthy patch of ground for a long time. He purred with excitement as I picked him up and examined him all over. He might have been somewhat emaciated, but aside from that, he looked little different from when I had last seen him: face, body, fur. His eyes were clear, and he had no wounds. He certainly didn’t seem like a cat that had been missing for a year. It was more as if he had come home after a single night of carousing.
I fed him on the veranda: a plateful of sliced mackerel that I had bought at the supermarket. He was obviously starved. He polished off the fish slices so quickly he would gag now and then and spit pieces back into the plate. I found the cat’s water dish under the sink and filled it to the brim. He came close to emptying it. Having accomplished this much, he started licking his mid-caked fur, but then, as if suddenly recalling that I was there, he climbed into my lap, curled up, and went to sleep.
The cat slept with his forelegs tucked under his body, his face buried in his tail. He purred loudly at first, but that grew quieter, until he entered a state of complete and silent sleep, all defenses down. I sat in a sunny spot on the veranda, petting him gently so as not to wake him. I had not thought about the cat’s special soft, warm touch for a very long time. So much had been happening to me that I had all but forgotten that the cat had disappeared. Holding this soft, small living creature in my lap this way, though, and seeing how it slept with complete trust in me, I felt a warm rush in my chest. I put my hand on the cat’s chest and felt his heart beating. The pulse was faint and fast, but his heart, like mine, was ticking off the time allotted to his small body with all the restless earnestness of my own.
Where had this cat been for a year? What had he been doing? Why had he chosen to come back now, all of a sudden? And where were the traces of the time he had lost? I wished I could ask him these questions. If only he could have answered me!”
—Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (New York: Vintage International ed., 1998), 377–78. (Thanks, Megan!)
“It is well to bear in mind that the truth about dogs is as elusive as the truth about man. You cannot put your finger on any quality and safely say, ‘This is doglike,’ nor on any other quality and say, ‘This is not.’ Dogs are individualists. They react to no set bylaws of behaviorism, they are guided by no strict precepts of conduct, they obey unvaryingly no system of instinct, they follow religiously no standard of bloodlines. I know an English bulldog with the manner of a Chesterfield. I know a beagle that can tell time. I know a Scottie that never has the slightest idea what time it is, and I miserably admit to the ownership of a high-bred French poodle that cools its soup by fanning it with a hat.”
— James Thurber, “Dogs I Have Scratched,” in The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and Talking Poodles, ed. Michael J. Rosen (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 56.
All of your husband’s shirts and slacks
and heavy sweaters—a bank of threatening clouds
that hang from a pipe between two ladders—
are much too big for me, and his extra boots
look cold and deep as abandoned wells,
and his tools are no good to anyone but him:
the head of his hammer is loose from pounding,
and he has twisted his screwdriver out
of its handle, and burned through the cord
on his soldering iron and chipped up the blade
of his crosscut saw, and all with the fingers
he touches you with. Where can he be
while I chat with you about the rain, beginning
to ring the fenders of trikes and bikes
parked in ranks on the drive? Where is he
as you and I carry the table of baby clothes
back under your roof and the rain wets the down
on your freckled, elbowy arms and shines
on your face and small round hopeful shoulders?
I walk so empty-handed to my car.
—Ted Kooser, Delights & Shadows (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2004), 80.
“For years, far too many years, I fell into the dangerous trap of being determined to finish a book despite having reached the conclusion half way through—or at the very least having become deeply suspicious—that in all probability this would not give me pleasure or profit. Yet essentially I am an optimist, and therefore, I suppose, when faced with undeniable evidence that a novel in which I am immersed is, for example, a bleak and depressing saga of frustrated sexual longing and entirely populated by characters of scarcely conceivable dullness, part of me hopes that twenty pages hence there awaits bright flashes of comic genius that may yet salvage the experience. Optimistic though I continue to be, from the vantage point of comfortable middle age I can now say that this is never true and that certainly the healthiest, most sensible, and efficient strategy is to abandon ship.”
—Angus Trumble, “Well-Read Lovers; Constant Rejection,” Ask the Paris Review, November 18, 2011.
“On a cold January morning, I once asked a fashionably dressed middle-aged woman, standing outside a building on Madison Avenue smoking a cigarette and shivering, whether she had a pen I could use. She didn’t think this was an odd request and was happy to oblige me. After she extracted a pencil not much bigger than a matchstick from her purse, I took out a little notebook I carried in my pocket, and not trusting the reliability of my memory, wrote down some lines of poetry I had been mulling over for the previous hour, roaming the streets. Today, she’d probably be staring at an iPhone or a blackberry while puffing away on her cigarette and it would not cross my mind to bother her by asking for a pencil.”
“In spite of the string of magazine covers announcing the contrary, we all know that ten simple things will not save the earth. There are, rather, three thousand impossible things that all of us must do, and changing our light bulbs, while necessary, is the barest beginning. We are being called upon to act against a prevailing culture, to undermine our own entrenched tendency to accumulate and to consume, and to refuse to define out individuality by our presumed ability to do whatever we want.”
—Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Crow Planet (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 6.
“At around age six, perhaps, I was standing by myself in our front yard waiting for supper, just at that hour in a late summer day when the sun is already below the horizon and the risen full moon in the visible sky stops being chalky and begins to take on light. There comes the moment, and I saw it then, when the moon goes from flat to round. For the first time it met my eyes as a globe. The word ‘moon’ came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon. Held in my mouth the moon became a word. It had the roundness of a Concord grape Grandpa took off his vine and gave me to suck out of its skin and swallow whole, in Ohio.”
—Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 10.
“A song is a prismatic thing, nonlinear. Writing songs, you are looking for rhymes that feel right—things that come to you even as you are singing. They come to you quick-like. Sometimes even in a scatological way. You don’t have time to distill meanings or ideological fallout. You want to make sure that the feeling is there, but you can create feeling out of tone, texture, and phrasing, not only words. You want to make sure that there’s camaraderie between the lyric and the rhythm. That just has to be, or you wouldn’t have much of a song. All that profound meaning stuff—that comes later. And truthfully, that’s for other people to experience. Believe me, the songwriter isn’t thinking of any of those things.”
—“Bob Dylan in Conversation with John Elderfield,” Spring 2011.
“As I stood on the roof of my house, taking in this unexpected view, it struck me how glorious it was that this was exactly how this land must have looked to centuries of people, quietly going about their daily business—eating, sleeping, having sex, endeavoring to be amused—and it occurred to me, with the forcefulness of a thought experienced in 360 degrees, that that’s really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things. Even Einstein will have spent large parts of his life thinking about his holidays or new hammock or how dainty was the ankle on the young lady alighting from the tram across the street. These are the sorts of things that fill our lives and thoughts, and yet we treat them as incidental and hardly worthy of serious consideration.”
—Bill Bryson, At Home (New York: Anchor, 2011), introduction, 3–4 [reprint ed.].
A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day:
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea:
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.
With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.
—W. H. Auden, “Who’s Who,” in Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 2007), 126; (thanks, Beddy).
“I dropped out of Reed College after the first six months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another eighteen months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?
It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: ‘We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?’ They said: ‘Of course.’ My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.
And seventeen years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.
It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
—Steve Jobs, commencement speech delivered at Stanford University, June 12, 2005; full transcript here.
“About dreams. It is usually taken for granted that you dream of something that has made a particularly strong impression on you during the day, but it seems to me it’s just the contrary.
Often it’s something you paid no attention to at the time—a vague thought that you didn’t bother to think out to the end, words spoken without feeling and which passed unnoticed—these are the things that return at night, clothed in flesh and blood, and they become the subjects of dreams, as if to make up for having been ignored during waking hours.”
—Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (New York: Pantheon, 1997), 283.
“He was kind to me, but I had no sense that he took particular notice of me. There were other, smarter kids in the class, and soon I fell back into my usual position—of thinking I was just a little over average in most things. But near the end of the semester, we read Macbeth. Believe me, this is not an easy play to connect to the lives of suburban high schoolers, but somehow he made the play seem electric, dangerous, relevant. After procrastinating till the night before it was due, I wrote a paper about the play—the first paper I typed on a typewriter—and turned it in the next day.
I got a good grade on it, and below the grade Mr. Criche wrote, ‘Sure hope you become a writer.’ That was it. Just those six words, written in his signature handwriting—a bit shaky, but with a very steady baseline. It was the first time he or anyone had indicated in any way that writing was a career option for me. We’d never had any writers in our family line, and we didn’t know any writers personally, even distantly, so writing for a living didn’t seem something available to me. But then, just like that, it was as if he’d ripped off the ceiling and shown me the sky.”
—Dave Eggers, “Remembering an Inspiring Teacher,” Salon, August 1, 2011.
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii—A 9-year-old Big Island girl has found a message in a bottle that floated over the ocean from an 11-year-old Oregon boy.
West Hawaii Today reported today Trinity Ballesteros was beachcombing along the shore in Kailua-Kona when she saw a bottle floating in a tide pool.
Inside the bottle was a note scribbled by Thomas Craig of Silverton, Ore., asking for friendship and including an email address for his mother. The two children have been exchanging emails and plan to become pen pals.
The boy tells West Hawaii Today from Oregon that he tossed the bottle in Winchester Bay last year during an annual family summer fishing trip.
—“Girl in Hawaii finds message in bottle from Silverton boy,” Associated Press, August 1, 2011.