Stuart Little

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Remember This Fondly: On Reading Roald Dahl to My Son

My son turned six in March, and among the many presents he received on his birthday—Hot Wheels tracks, Lego sets, a bag of eerily gelatinous sand—was Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. This gift came from me, intended as the latest in a string of Dahl books that my wife and I have read to him in recent months: Matilda, The Magic Finger, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though I’d never heard of Danny before buying it, its description seemed right up my son’s alley: a young boy and his dad exact vengeance on a wealthy twit by stealing all his pheasants. Who doesn’t like pheasant theft?

We’d steered him towards such storybooks about a year ago, when we introduced E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to his steady diet of picture books. I wasn’t sure how he would take to Charlotte, with its rural setting and homicidal barnyard talk (“Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer…there’s a regular conspiracy around here to kill you at Christmastime”). But, like Templeton the rat slurping at a rotten egg, my son happily ate it up. He also enjoyed White’s Stuart Little, though it nearly bored me into a coma. But what I found dull and episodic, he thought of as cool. After all, Stuart is a mouse who drives a wind-up car.

After years of reading picture books to my son, this transition has been, like so many as a parent, an instance to make me stop and see that the kid is growing—like a lost front tooth or the need to buy bigger shoes. To be sure, he still likes children’s books; Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss remain very easy sells. But he approaches these longer, sparsely-illustrated stories with a new and eager seriousness, as if each is its own small project. When I ask him if he’s in the mood to hear Charlotte’s Web or Danny, it’s like asking if he wants to head outside to tinker with the car. “Sure,” he’ll say after a pause, his head cocked in consideration. “Yeah, let’s read it.”

Unlike the way he interacts with an Elephant and Piggie book or If I Ran the Zoo—a kind of wouldja-look-at-that sort of romp—his engagement with White and Dahl has been vastly different. There’s so much more to follow in these books, and so much he can’t understand. “I eased my foot off the accelerator,” says Danny as he tries to drive a car. “I pressed down the clutch and held it there. I found the gear lever and pulled it straight back, from first into second. I released the clutch and pressed on the accelerator.” What six-year-old (or, for that matter, 36-year-old) can keep such action straight? And why would my son sit still for it? If that scene had come in a Willems book, he would have squirmed like a worm on a hook. Any sustained lull in a picture book usually spells doom; a mild desperation comes over me when things aren’t “fun” enough, and I can feel my son growing restless.

But with White and Dahl and others, a lack of entertainment has not been a problem. Their books send my son to a different mental area—a deeper, spongier chamber. With no foxes in socks or bifocaled elephants, he’s forced to focus inward, where he creates the pictures himself. This is, of course, no revelation; it’s what reading is. But to see a child venture into this place for the first time has been both heartening and strange. What is he seeing in there? An animated version of Quentin Blake’s artwork? A chaotic Peter Max jumble? Something more cinematic? There is no way to know.

And it ultimately may not matter. I’m beginning to think that when my wife and I read these books to him, the story itself is somewhat beside the point. I suspect that the real draw, for him, is not just the chance to find out what happens in the next chapter, but to nestle in beside us on his football-shaped beanbag chair. Because Dahl doesn’t just make our son think differently; he draws him to us. There’s something about having to direct the action himself that makes him nudge in closer as we read. It’s as if, finally forced to explore a story without the guidance of pictures, he wants us to be near—like when he’s walking through the house after it’s gotten too dark to see.

My fondest memories of my father have to do with the same moment in my own childhood, when he read me Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. My dad had been in a classic-book-of-the month club, and his Mark Twain volumes were sturdy, slipcovered editions with plates of N.C. Wyeth art. I doubt I understood much in these books beyond their characters’ bare actions—the fence-painting, the river-rafting, the girl-irritating—and I remember almost nothing from them now. But the feeling of being on my dad’s lap, his voice deep and sonorous above me, has stuck with me through the years. His reading enabled a warmth and a closeness that otherwise wasn’t much there. He could’ve been reading the dictionary, and I would have sat there, rapt.

Because of this dynamic—the storybook’s drawing of the child to the reader—I feel closer to my son when we’re reading Roald Dahl. For all the talk of the importance of reading to your child—often eat-your-peas harangues that have more to do with a fear of future failure than enjoyment of the actual act—the emotional and physical closeness that reading facilitates doesn’t get much play. But given my own Mark Twain memories and what happens on the beanbag chair, I’ve come to consider such closeness to be vital and unique. I can think of no other time that my son will sit, his head propped on my shoulder, for a half an hour or more. That I can sense the drama popping in his mind as I read is an obvious added bonus. Reading storybooks has put us at the neat intersection of stillness and excitement.

My wife is currently reading him Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which, as I understand it, takes Charlie into 2001 territory. Meanwhile, we’re closing in on the end of Danny the Champion of the World; we should finish in a couple of days. It’s a quiet, almost sad little story about fighting your own insignificance. But, of course, my son just likes to hear about pheasant poaching and making a rich guy mad. As I’d hoped when he unwrapped it on his birthday, he loves Danny, and begs pathetically for more when I stop reading for the night. Sometimes I give in and read another page or two. All I ask in return is that he’ll remember it fondly 30 years from now.

Image Credit: Flickr/solarisgirl.

The Profits of Dreaming: On Fiction and Sleep

Freud famously said “the madman is the dreamer awake”: better, we think, to let him lie. Like Mr. Rochester’s woman upstairs, we quarantine the dreaming mind in time and deny its existence by day. But what if it were true that night and day were not separate, and that our fictions were considered to be as serious, as vital, as what we do while awake?

I’ve always had strange dreams, but when I entered my mid-twenties, they became much stranger. By day, my life was unremarkable: I was a graduate student in a college town, then an adjunct instructor of writing and an administrative assistant at a non-profit; I lived in an apartment in a quiet neighborhood with my fiancé, a fellow graduate student, and went to bed by 10:30.

At night, though, things were far more exciting. I underwent terrifying medical experiments while strapped to a hospital bed. I bought a pet porcupine named Sweetie and dressed her in a fur coat, so that I could pet her, feeding her yogurt from a spoon. I gave birth to tacos and teddybears and human children, always boys, one of which came out fused to my hands. I joined the French Resistance and witnessed an alternate ending to World War Two in which Eva Braun, Hitler’s longtime mistress, detonated the wrong bomb, killing Hitler instead of us. When I started my novel, no one who knew me was surprised to hear that it explores dreams and the human subconscious.

I’m certainly not the first writer to lead a real life less dramatic than the one in my imagination—or, perhaps, to wonder about the worth of fiction in the face of reality. Emily Dickinson—dubbed “the Queen Recluse” by her good friend Samuel Bowles—spent most of her life at home, watching with frustration as the men of her family pursued careers in politics and public service. Jane Austen wrote love stories that resonate centuries after her death, despite the fact that she likely did not experience a romantic relationship herself. Charlotte Bronte had so powerful an imagination that she referred to her characters as her “inmates.” Marcel Proust worked from a Paris apartment soundproofed with cork and curtained from the sun. While writing In Search of Lost Time, Proust was lost in time himself: he slept during the day and worked at night. Once, he walked to the Louvre, realizing only when he arrived that it was midnight and the museum was closed.

For other writers, sleep offers a wellspring of creativity. Dreams have played a key role in some of literature’s greatest works of fiction: Frankenstein was conceived in a dream by Mary Shelley, as was E.B. White’s Stuart Little. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt about a doctor with split personality disorder so vividly that he wrote a novel about this character—later titled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—in an astonishing three days. In her book Writers Dreaming, Naomi Epel interviewed a collection of writers, including Stephen King and Maya Angelou. King, a famous proponent of the creative power generated via sleep, said creativity and dreams are “just so similar that they’ve got to be related. Part of my function as a writer is to dream awake.” Angelou agreed: “I do believe dreams have a function. I don’t see anything that has no function, not anything that has been created. The brain is so strange and wondrous in its mystery.”

It’s this tension—the potential functionality of dreams versus their ultimate mystery—that makes our relationship to the sleeping mind so fraught. While non-REM sleep has been tied to an array of critical subconscious processes, from emotional regulation to restoration and homeostasis, the function of REM sleep, when dreaming occurs, remains controversial. Some researchers believe it plays a role in learning and memory processing. Others think that dreams rid the brain of unwanted thoughts that could otherwise lead to obsession or paranoia. Michel Jouvet, a leading dream researcher from the University of Lyon, believes dreams give us the opportunity to rehearse our responses to frightening situations ahead of time, preparing us for their occurrence in waking life.

But in the absence of conclusive evidence, sleep’s utility—like that of fiction—is still in doubt. How much, in the end, does either one matter? Neither fiction nor dreams are what we call “real life,” that conscious space sandwiched in the sunny hours of each day. No matter how vital my dreams are to me, they—like my writing—exist in the margins of my daily life, the shadowed wings to either side of whatever action is happening onstage. The decrease in the financial support and cultural priority allotted to all forms of the arts has enhanced the sense that what writers are doing is not quite a job, not quite worth professional payment—not quite, well, necessary.

Business is now the most popular college major in the United States. Since 2009, funding for humanities and liberal arts programs—called “nonstrategic disciplines” by Florida Gov. Rick Scott—has decreased across the nation. It’s not all dire: the National Endowment for the Arts recently avoided a 49% budget cut, and Michelle Obama’s campaign on behalf of arts education has brought attention to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the two-year-old Humanities Turnaround Arts program. Still, cultural funding has been in global decline since 2009: Australia and Britain, as well as a range of European governments, have instituted major cuts; Portugal closed its Ministry of Culture after legislative elections in 2011.

Though I’m strongly in favor of arts funding, I still feel a near-constant sense of doubt about the worth of my work. I wonder whether my contributions could ever be equal to that of a doctor, a social worker, a soldier. As the earth’s climate warms and its resources thin, indulgence—both material and psychological—feels increasingly unsustainable. Even sleep has become a luxury, commodified for its relationship to performance. But the profits of dreaming remain unclear; in schools, excessive daydreaming—dreaming’s voluntary counterpart, commonly dismissed as “spacing out” or frivolous wishful thinking—has even been named a disorder.

Certainly, daydreaming has its drawbacks. As a child, a teenager and even a college student, I could spend hours imagining scenes so detailed that I was oblivious to everything around me until I came to, minutes or hours later, in a classroom whose lessons I hadn’t learned.

But daydreaming, like a self-built raft, has also carried me through years of fear and loneliness. Those moments were self-building, too, opportunities to experiment with experience and personality—and ultimately, to develop the character who will accompany me throughout my life: me. Like fiction, daydreaming allows me to imagine my way into a life that isn’t mine, and in the process, it offers emotional sustenance. And though it might not be real life, fiction can feel like it. In fact, a 2006 scientific study found that reading fiction activates the brain in a way that is very similar to actual, lived experience: reading vivid metaphors arouses the sensory cortex, and action-oriented sentences do the same for the motor cortex.

But the fact remains: no matter how many studies link fiction to empathy or dreaming to memory consolidation, we still don’t know conclusively what fiction or dreaming do for us, and perhaps we never will. It’s the most painful thorn in our side, this not-knowing, the eternal bane of human existence: we like to marvel at mystery, but we also like to contain it. Perhaps our limited tolerance for mystery has made us similarly resistant to the same in-between qualities in ourselves: irrationality, indecision, eccentricity. Yet peculiarity is as inherent to the human animal as muscle or bone. The mind is a beast in itself: like the body, it needs time and space to roam. In cordoning it off, we run the risk of alienating ourselves from the miraculous absurdity of life itself. We forget how to wonder, to drift. We forget that most questions in this world—the ones that really matter—are impossible to answer completely.

Readers of fiction are notoriously divided on open-ended conclusions. But are there any other kinds? In fiction, as in dreams, we muck around in the innards of things. We play and pretend. I get the same feeling, reading a novel or a short story, that I do when I look up at the stars: I am silenced, awed by the unknowable. Is sleep villain or hero, enabler or hindrance, site of action or useless intermission? If we knew, we might know a great many other things, too, and then there would be little reason to write fiction at all.

Image Credit: Wikicommons/Sogno di una sedicenne.

A Matter of Life and Death: Jill Lepore’s The Mansion of Happiness

In an early episode of Mad Men, our wonderfully awkward, career-driven heroine, Peggy, gives birth without realizing she was pregnant to begin with. It is as much of a surprise to her as it is to those watching. However, as impossible as this might seem, it has precedent, particularly during historical periods when conceiving out of wedlock was social suicide. Our brains are so powerful that we can live in denial of indisputable bodily facts.

I remember the scene struck a chord with me. No, I had never surprised myself by birthing a baby, but I identified with the sense of disassociation from one’s own body. As a woman living in New York City, whose body is on display daily, I have developed, like many other women, a fraught relationship with it. Sometimes I catch myself referring to it like another person. “My body didn’t like that” I say after eating spicy food. Who controls my body? Could something happen in there that I don’t know about? Am I my body or something else?

The fact that we are living does not distinguish us as human beings. But the fact that we can think, talk, and write about living does. We create a meta-narrative of books, movies, and television because we find ourselves so endlessly interesting. We also overcomplicate and over-explain. Like a high school relationship, we can’t just do the thing — in this case, live — we have to talk about it, write poems about it, get to the bottom of it.

New Yorker staff writer, Jill Lepore’s well-researched and emotionally intelligent new book The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, discusses how people relate to life and death, and how those relations have morphed throughout history. Before 1840, the menstrual cycle remained a mystery. Now we understand more, which has allowed us to invent the pill, leading to redefinitions of life and discussions about who possesses the rights to a woman’s body. The debate over birth control, initially, was a debate about population control and economic relief for poor immigrant families. Since then it has transformed. Now it’s a fundamental fight for gender equality.

In a chapter titled “The Gate of Heaven,” Lepore talks about life support, which also, not very long ago, didn’t exist. I was in high school when the Terri Schiavo case was breaking news. What do you think her family should do? Someone asked me. Was I obligated to have an opinion? At the time I thought I was. If I am to be an adult in this world, I have to have unshakeable personal beliefs about life and death. But as technology breaks new ground, our notions about living are muddled. Nothing is unshakeable.

As I read the book, lines of poetry surfaced in my mind. John Donne writes famously about life and death, and its public versus private aspects: “no man is an island / entire of itself.” I thought of Shakespeare: “to be or not to be.” I thought of Tracy K. Smith, this year’s Pulitzer Prize recipient, who writes about life, death, God, and the future of the universe: “women will still be women / but the distinction will be empty. Sex / having outlived every threat will gratify / only the mind, which is where it will exist.” The history of poetry is the history of shifting conceptions of life, the body, where we come from and what the future holds.

In this sense, Lepore’s new book is the stuff that poetry is made of. Beginning with insemination, each chapter centers around a different stage of “life,” and its historical re-imagining. You might not have realized that life stages have histories. But the notion of the “teenager,” the transitional period between childhood and adulthood, is fairly new. And thank goodness it exists, because what would we do without Nirvana or The Wonder Years?

The book starts with the first pictures taken of a human fetus, by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson in, aptly named, LIFE magazine. When Nilsson was five years old he fell through some ice while skating and, after being pulled out, reported “there were some very interesting things to see down there..” Through deft swerves in the narrative like this, Lepore demonstrates that even those who make history have histories of their own.

The book ends with a man who freezes the dead, hoping that technology will one day have the power to resurrect. In between, Lepore tells the history of artificial insemination, the invention of children’s libraries, science journalism, Planned Parenthood, old age as a diagnosable disease, the addition of the word “germ” and “happiness minutes” to the English lexicon. Lepore’s history isn’t single-file. She weaves names and dates, illuminates unlikely connections; she is a master storyteller.

When my little brother was a kid, he thought babies came from a woman’s bellybutton. It turns out he wasn’t any less informed than male scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries. Women were thought to have the same sex organs as men, merely turned inside out, like a reversible jacket, and ovaries were deemed “female testicles.” The female orgasm was thought to supply heat for conception to occur, which was why a woman couldn’t charge a man with rape if she became pregnant. Apparently, the use of purportedly “scientific” evidence as a tool for female repression has its history too.

Lepore often links the age of discovery, exploration, and the New World to increasing interest about the origins of life. Poets, writers, and artists have made connections between landscape and the body, but Lepore argues the point brilliantly using historical documents. For Lepore, the exploration of uncharted territory extends to outer space, sci-fi movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey in which Kubrick imagines a universe where humans can procreate without the necessity of women.

Much of this book is about the human impulse to deny our own bodies; breast pumps, ectogenesis, the myth of the stork, Sylvester Graham — a preacher in the early 1800s who fervently condemned masturbation — the book Stuart Little, in which an adult human gives birth to an adult mouse. (Excuse me, he isn’t born, he “arrives.”) The more we know, the less we want to admit. Parenthood magazines capitalized on a population’s deep wish to “unknow” everything they had come to know, and then relearn it again. Lepore sardonically describes this notion of parenthood as “being so inept that you are a danger to your own children.”

In the ’60s and ’70s political campaigns appropriated the rhetoric of “life” for their own gain. The term “sanctity of life,” a term we hear frequently during election time, first appeared in 1972. Life itself hasn’t changed. We are all still born, struggle through puberty, stumble through a first job, fall in love. Last I checked, we all still die too. What has changed is the knowledge, method, and language for living. “The longer we live, the longer we die,” Lepore writes near the closing pages. She could also say: the more we know about living, the harder living becomes.

Last week I went on a road trip with my father through the West — Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota — some of the most desolate parts of the United States. Big sky, big prairie is an appropriate setting for thinking about big issues. Do I want to live for work or work to live? Why did I spend my adolescence along Los Angeles freeways instead of Dakota farmland? At the end of the trip, after learning about Buffalo Bill, the Indian Wars, and Lewis and Clark, my father pulled the parking break and said to me, “learn as much as you can, figure out what’s important and teach it to your children.” That was my father’s vision of life. Like Lepore’s it was related to history; how we connect to the past and how we communicate that story to future generations.

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