Category Archives: Charles Dickens

A Little Quiet, Followed By Loud

In one of those Halloween shops this weekend, with Bridgid. You know–those Halloween shops, the ones that randomly spring from the earth this time of year, like earthworms from the soil after a driving rain; except for the fact that earthworms are an important part of the cycle of life, the give and take of our ecosystem, the tapestry of the planet, and Halloween shops contribute the following:


And this is TAME. [Also, is that a tie around her head?] You know what I’m saying. This is like…this is like the “Accountant Piratess” costume. This costume is my concession to the fact that I flatly refuse to post terrible things here that one’s mother could see [hi, Mom!]; also my concession to TASTE, also MORALITY. The shop we were in was SODOM AND GOMORRAH. I was Lot’s wife. No, really.

Like–a Little Miss Muffet Adult Costume. No no no.


Ugh, Halloween is weird!


The store didn’t stop there, however. We were making our way past bloodied skull masks, two-headed babies with glowing eyes–the stomach, it turns. When I see such things I feel uneasy. It should not be de rigueur, during Halloween season, for free peoples to walk past two-headed babies with glowing eyes in a store without batting an eyelash.


I have drawn my line in the sand. I have drawn it. There it is.


Let’s scatter these nothings, these Hallowe’en dregs, to the four winds; instead, let’s look at my nephews in this year’s costumes!


If you need to pardon yourself to sponge the cute off your eyeballs, you may.


According to my sister, my niece Maddy has decided that she wants to be a vampire for Halloween. This includes the Halloween costume party at her kindergarten.

MY SISTER: So I was like–great! It’ll be five princesses and MADDY THE VAMPIRE.

Quoth my sister, however, Maddy “never wavered” in her desire to be a vampire this year.

That’s my girl.


I am the oldest of seven children. When I was growing up, one of us was consistently garbed as a hobo on Halloween. Someone was also always dressed as a “housewife” [sporting a cold-creamed face and a bathrobe. Ah, simpler times!] My sister has a memory, which may or may not be true, of being a witch “five years in a row” [direct quote].

Hey. Hey, YOU have seven kids and YOU dream up Halloween costumes for SEVEN KIDS every year, young whippersnapper. 

My roommate told me that when she was a girl, her school had something called “Hobo Day”, where the children all came to school dressed like hobos.



So I just read “The Once and Future King”, by T.H White–



It cut me right open. Beauty, beauty.

Not beauty: “Nicholas Nickleby.” I have spoken of Dickens many and many a day, here in Wheat Not Oats. And many and many a day have I expressed the pure and shiny and unstinting love in my heart that I have for all his works.  Not this one. No: Not this one.

I waited and waited for him to show me what I knew he could do, and he never did. It was dretful disappointing.

Nicholas Nickleby: Not so much.

Perhaps the movie version is better, starring Anne Hathaway. She is pretty good.


Things are quiet, these days. Fall is moving in. Moved in, rather–it’s here. I kicked my way through a lot of leaves on a Sunday morning walk. In college I would collect the most colorful ones and put them on my desk; by the end of the season they were brittle, dust to the touch. They had a week in them away from their tree.

I finally busted out a knit cap today. The store said that it was “one size fits all”, which means “one size fits all except for Emilie, whose head is roughly the circumference of a basketball.”  I jammed it down, though, and made it work. I think. I have boy hair, so I’m always all worried that I’ll look like a longshoreman from a distance.

I bet there would be times when you’d want people to mistake you for a longshoreman, though. Like–

–Dark alleys down by the pier
–Longshoreman bars
–The topmost deck

I think you get the picture.



Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road.
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look.  Or tell me clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see. Talk to me till
I’m half as wide awake as you
And start to dress wondering why
I ever went to bed at all.
Tell me the walking is superb.
Not only tell me but persuade me.
You know I’m not too hard persuaded.

Robert Francis


Filed under Brothers and Sisters, Charles Dickens, My Parents, My Roommate, Nieces and Nephews, Poetry, Robert Francis

Sea Change

Sunday afternoon, Lake Michigan. Sitting on some rocks with Kimbo and Laura.

There is a family a few feet away. Three little ones, two boys, one girl. Their mothers in tow. Suddenly:


Her mother rapidly begins to remove the t-shirt the little girl has over her bathing suit; the little girl’s head becomes briefly entangled.

US: Man, what gives?

The mother looks at the t-shirt.


The mother looks at us, because at this point, we are openly staring; we are all but poised to flee to the lady lifeguard who keeps walking past us, doggedly surveying the water for drownings and et cetera, to beg her for sweet mercy.

MOTHER: There is a bug–

[Here she gestures with her hands, making a circle shape with her fingers the size of a buttermilk pancake]


US: Aaaaaaaaaaiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

[She has a slight accent, which makes her sound worldly-wise as she says this, like: I stormed the embassy in ’92 and the government had placed an embargo on shoe imports and on my feet I wore the leaves of a banana tree and a length of twine and in my heart I wore My People]

She walks down to the edge of the water and starts hurling the shirt into it, over and over.

MOTHER: Bug–you–water–sdfusdkihsb–

I kid you not: We see whatEVER was in that shirt landing on the sand. Yards away, we see it. A bug? You’d better hope, and I’d better hope, that it was a bug, because if it wasn’t, that means that someone has successfully bio-engineered a creature which is a cross between a stag beetle, a Gatling gun, and a bald eagle, and they put it in Lake Michigan, and it’s only a matter of time before you turn on the tap to fill the kettle with water to make your cup of Darjeeling-Oolong- what-have-you and GACK.

When the mother comes back, the shirt is a wet, ragged version of its former self.

ME: [joking, but not really.] Was it a crustacean?
MOTHER: [excitedly] Yes, perhaps a crustacean!

[She widens her eyes, bares her teeth, and curls her hands into claws to imitate what it was that she saw in the t-shirt.]

US: [reflexively recoil]

Shortly thereafter, they packed up their goods, and–with well-wishes all around–they departed.

I think we all knew that we had experienced something very special.


Bought chocolate pudding cups this weekend. Sure did.


So here’s something I haven’t really done, so much, in this blog-o’-mine. Katie sent me an e-mail, talking about what she called her

Top Five Desert Island Books

I’ve been having a few exchanges on this subject, lately; not necessarily about books of the Desert Island variety, but your general Hey! It’s Summer And Apparently That Means Book Lists For Beach Reading, For People Who Go To The Beach And Read Books Also Simultaneously Too.

I basically know what my favorite books are. My top five-ish, even.

So then I was like, “Well, why not share them?”

I mean?

I mean, when O Magazine and the New York Times both tell me what I, as a woman, should be reading this summer, what I should be pulling out of my artfully distressed straw tote, and I dutifully read the linked excerpt, NYT, and it reads like a pink-heeled lobotomy*–well, you know, uprise! I’ll make my own listy!

*Please note: Sometimes a pink-heeled lobotomy is exactly what you need

1. Bleak House–Charles Dickens








So, so, sososososososo good and many-colored and peopled with amazing peoples and funny and sad and triumphant and weird. A man spontaneously combusts. Also, smallpox! Also: Love.

2. Middlemarch–George Eliotmiddlemarch
















George Eliot may have the pseudonym of a man, but she’s all lady. She writes with sonar radar accuracy about the psychological viewpoint of women from any old era–then-era, now-era, you name it. I’m always all, “I HEAR that, Dorothea Brooke” or “Can I get a WITNESS, Maggie Tulliver” or “You keep on LOVING him, Dinah Morris”. My only problem with George Eliot is that she writes The Perfect Woman and then unerringly pairs her with a man comically unworthy of her amazing-ness.  It’s exactly like Charles Dickens, but in reverse. What’s the good word on this tendency? Can we get some equality up in here? [Sorry about saying “up in here” just then.] Anywho, “Middlemarch” wraps itself around your heart valves in a hurry. Class commentary and forbidden love. So fine.

3. The God of Small Things–Arundhati Roy 















This book heart-cracked me. It is covered in magical adjective vines. Please read it. It is too precious to say more.

4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–Mark to the Twain











Do I  really need to explain why this is one of my all time favorites? Also, I wanna be a river boat captain, circa This Book.  It is a true and cherished dream. But that would involve a time machine, and time machines are tooooo tempting!

5. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek–Annie Dillard













I quoted this book to everyone I knew for six months. They hated me. “Please stop talking to me about the reproductive system of a bumblebee”, they would say, but I would not, because they needed to know. This book melted me down in a straight-up steel forge. When I start thinking about things like the circulatory systems of maple trees, I understand that, ultimately, I have this book to blame. It is beautiful and nature and God and praying mantises.

You have your honorable mentions, too, when you make your little lists; like Waiting for the Barbarians and Winter’s Tale, which have writing, both, to burst the heart, and millions of others too numerous to mention, like Claire Messud is a really good writer,  and then David Copperfield is soooo lovely and…

The Fountainhead.

Oh, shut up.


Hey, did you-all see that Farrah Fawcett and Ayn Rand were buddies, after a certain fashion, and that Ayn Rand wanted Farrah Fawcett to PLAY DAGNY TAGGART in a potential TV movie of “Atlas Shrugged ? Do you know how totally super weird that is? I’m getting the weirds just thinking about this.

Dagny Taggart should probably be played by Angelina Jolie, push comes to shove.

You’re never gonna hear me say that again.

Well, maybe.



It wasn’t the life I would have wanted,
had I known what sort of life I did want,
as if anyone ever knew; though I

did know. Everyone had her shadow life,
her should-have life, the life she should have had,
all those thoughts sharp-sharking into her soul,

all those doodles on the skin of the day.
The shame, that this had been and this had not,
could-should, kowtowing to the life of should,

the shock, let’s say, of seeing it had passed,
the chagrin, let’s say, the savage chagrin
that this was what it was, et cetera,

who did I think I was, et cetera,
the queen of Sheba in her shantytown,
or Shirley in her temple (such a doll)

or Scheherezade waking to the day–
not Sylvia, not the sylvan huntress.
The whole shebang was a shambles, hello,

shanghaiing my wishes, shout it out, shout,
those stories of what was and never was,
love, voyage, give me succor–sugar–suck–

hushing the heart and shushing the senses.
Hello, day, shake the sheets out, wake the day.
(As I said this, I was choking up.)

The challenge of cheerfulness–hello, charm–
charade and charm, chameleon, cameo.
I saw the dawn and fell into a hush.

Sarah Arvio 


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Filed under Annie Dillard, Charles Dickens, Poetry, Sarah Arvio

It’s What It Is

I learned a new thing.


There is a type of supernova called a Type Ia supernova. A supernova occurs when a star explodes.  A Type Ia supernova is related to a white dwarf, supernova-wise, and that’s really, really all the further I’m going with that particular line of thought, because then we’re forced into all this na-na-na about “luminosity” and “the Chandrasekhar limit”, and I’m not saying all that stuff doesn’t ring my bell, I’m just saying we’ve all got lives to lead. 

To wit: As you know–right? You know this, right?–a white dwarf is generally What A Star Becomes after becoming a red giant. Very dense, cold, probably crabby.

WHITE DWARF: I’m only emitting a few thousand Kelvins! Brrrrr!
RED GIANT: Suckah!

Anyway, Type Ia supernovas are apparently also referred to as standard candles.

Standard candles! I kind of love that.

That’s like seriously all I wanted to tell you. 


I mean:


Standard candles



Yup! Six of one, half a dozen of the other!


Slightly terrifying artist’s rendering of a Type Ia supernova I located, followed by two other slightly terrifying artist’s renderings of–quote– “Accretion and Outflows in a Classic T Tauri Star” and “Black Hole Accretion Disc with Winds and Jets”:






That T Tauri Star is WEIRD.  It looks like it has an eyeball. That’s all I’m saying.


It’s done, it’s done: “Our Mutual Friend” is done! I sure did smile and laugh my way through the remaining Dickensian pages.  I even inured myself to the heroine, Bella Wilfer, All Time Worst.  Unless we’re talking about Dora Spenlow, from “David Copperfield”, and there again! It’s like a Worst-Off, is what it is. Worst Girl Ever-off. Two girls go in, one girl comes out the…worst.

Uh, I’m done.


Two Saturdays ago, I was perambulating down Clark Street with Laura in the warm sunny-shine. We passed a flower-box of pansies on our way. I remarked upon how odd pansies are; how they look as though they have faces. You have seen pansies. You know.

A block later, we passed another flower-box of pansies. Laura bent forward at the waist.

LAURA: [to the pansies.] Hello.


In Your Absence

Not yet summer,
but unseasonable heat
pries open the cherry tree.

It stands there stupefied,
in its sham, pink frills,
dense with early blooming.

Then, as afternoon cools
into more furtive winds,
I look up to see
a blizzard of petals
rushing the sky.

It is only April.
I can’t stop my own life
from hurrying by.
The moon, already pacing.

Judith Harris

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Filed under Charles Dickens, Judith Harris, Math and Science: General, Poetry


I’m alllllmost done with my latest Dickens, “Our Mutual Friend”. It’s his last novel, and it’s purt’ good. Again, though, as ever: WHY, Dickens, must you pair your protagonists with lady-loves who are such TOTAL GOOBERS? Goobs, I tell you! Goobs!

Somebody with sweet potatoes for brains could see, for instance, that Bella Wilfer and John Rokesmith are the marital equivalent of a peanut butter and tar sandwich. And if you’ve ever tried to eat a peanut butter and tar sandwich, you know where I’m coming from. You are probably also missing your molars.

 Do peanut butter and tar go together? Are these your brains?

sweet potatoes

 Maybe it’s ’cause Dickens was a philanderer. 


Those sweet potatoes look heavenly, though. Let’s not lie about it, or anything.

DICKENS: And there I have you!
ME: Damn you, Dickens!
DICKENS: I win! Me!


The space shuttle Atlantis is currently on a mission to repair the Hubble, otherwise known as My Heart. Last Friday, the astronauts worked on replacing the gyroscopes.

This is a gyroscope:


They help keep the telescope pointed a-right.

Anywho, two astronauts–Dr. Massimino and Colonel Good [note: these are their real names] went on a space walk, to fix the gyroscopes, and to replace some batteries, much as you or I might do!

YOU: The cordless phone is dying!
ME: Nuts!
YOU: Well, time for a space walk.

Colonel Good had some trouble replacing one of the batteries, but it finally clink-clanked itself into place.

The article I read goes on to state, quote:

“Congratulating his men, the shuttle’s commander, Scott D. Altman, jokingly quoted King Leonidas of Sparta, who held off the Persians at Thermopylae 2,500 years ago. ‘Remember this day, men,’ said Commander Altman, ‘for it will be yours for all time.'”

That Commander Altman sounds like a real firecracker.


Spacewalks are quite interesting, actually. You should go read about them.


How I Fell & How It Felt

At the movies, in my suede boots, like a fawn in the dark
startled by the lights, I fall; down the stairs vertiginous steep
I fall all week–and still fall, and still bark
and bloody my shin, and I am still asleep.

Or no, moving from Cheer, to Joy, to All,
I fall like a cumbersomely breaking sack
of groceries in the parking lot. Why call
for help, game hens, why hope for something back?

The “sorrys” go by me, like the jaunty sparrows
pecking the llama’s grain. From a mother’s sleep
I fell into such a state–the slings and eros
of outrageous fortune–I could weep

as Ash (our hero) now begins to weep
vast shining cartoon tears for the beloved
Pokemon who’s died. But tears are cheap
as movie tickets. Everyone is moved

uniformly. I just feel it more
in my right shin. I bet there’ll be a scar.

Jennifer Clarvoe


Filed under Charles Dickens, Jennifer Clarvoe, Math and Science: General, Poetry

“Now you are a very decent flower.”


March 20th was the first day of spring.


Is there anything better than lilacs? Anything at all? No, you shut up.


I’ve been reading Charles Dickens’ “Dombey and Son” for weeksweeksweeksguh, and finally–finally!–I’ve put her to rest. There is a character in “Dombey and Son” named Captain Ned Cuttle, with a hook for one hand [which he kisses to ladies], and he is sheer, heart-stopping, nautical dee-light. His landlady is Mrs. MacStinger.

There is also a character named Mrs. Pipchin:

“…Her husband broke his heart in–how did you say her husband broke his heart, my dear? I forget the precise circumstances.’

‘In pumping water out of the Peruvian mines,’ replied Miss Tox.”


“Broke his heart of the Peruvian mines, mused Mr. Dombey. Well, a very respectable way of doing it.”


It’s too bad Dickens was so Amoral McAmoral of the Amoraltown Amorals in real life, because his books are generally the white-hot center of my universe. Major wife-cheater, Charles Dickens. Yo. 

Reputedly, he modeled the character of Dora Spenlow–for my money, one of the most eyeball-sucking female characters I’ve had the misfortune to encounter–in “David Copperfield” after a real-life young lady who rejected the advances of Dickens in his youth. Dora dies in “David Copperfield.” Yo.  



I can’t stop loving you!


Let’s get back to the first day of spring–the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox is my favorite, and not just because it’s the herald of Spring. It’s because I love the word “vernal”, too. Vernal vernal vernal. La la la! Green and new growing things! There is only one thing associated with green–my very most favorite of all colors–which I dislike, and that is St. Patrick’s Day. The teeth-grittingest holiday on the face of the earth.  Uuuuuuuuuuuuuu. I hate St. Patrick’s Day.

YOU: Grinch!
ME: That’s Christmas, you idiot.

Anyways, the vernal equinox is when the center of the sun crosses the equator, so:


Clear as mud!


A tough week, poetically. My intent was to share a slice of Poetic Springishness today–perhaps something about clear springs, lambs, young saplings–but instead I read two poems that made me feel like I had put my hand on a hot stove, so I’ve got to share those, in fairness.

This is one of those poems.

This is the other.

A Hand Is Shaped For What It Holds Or Makes

A hand is shaped for what it holds or makes.
Times takes what’s handed to it then–warm bread, a stone,
a child whose fingers touch the page to keep her place.

Beloved, grown old separately, your face
shows me the changes on my own.
I see the histories it holds, the arguments it makes

against the thresh of trees, the racing clouds, the race
of birds and sky birds always lose:
           the lines have ranged, but not the cheek’s strong bone.
My fingers touching there recall that place.

Once we were one. Then what time did, and hands, erased
us from the future we had owned.
For some, the future holds what hands release, not make.

We made a bridge. We walked it. Laced
night’s sounds with passion.
Owls’ pennywhistles, after, took our place.

Wasps leave their nest. Wind takes the papery case.
Our wooden house, less easily undone,
now houses others. A life is shaped by what it holds or makes.
I make these words for what they can’t replace.

Jane Hirschfield

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Filed under Charles Dickens, Jane Hirschfield, Math and Science: General, Poetry