Fiction

Bill Watterson, Michelangelo, And The Importance Of Play


In the middle of my sophomore year at Kenyon, I decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of my dorm room. By standing on a chair, I could reach the ceiling, and I taped off a section, made a grid, and started to copy the picture from my art history book.
Working with your arm over your head is hard work, so a few of my more ingenious friends rigged up a scaffold for me by stacking two chairs on my bed, and laying the table from the hall lounge across the chairs and over to the top of my closet. By climbing up onto my bed and up the chairs, I could hoist myself onto the table, and lie in relative comfort two feet under my painting. My roommate would then hand up my paints, and I could work for several hours at a stretch.

The picture took me months to do, and in fact, I didn’t finish the work until very near the end of the school year. I wasn’t much of a painter then, but what the work lacked in color sense and technical flourish, it gained in the incongruity of having a High Renaissance masterpiece in a college dorm that had the unmistakable odor of old beer cans and older laundry.
The painting lent an air of cosmic grandeur to my room, and it seemed to put life into a larger perspective. Those boring, flowery English poets didn’t seem quite so important, when right above my head God was transmitting the spark of life to man.
My friends and I liked the finished painting so much in fact, that we decided I should ask permission to do it. As you might expect, the housing director was curious to know why I wanted to paint this elaborate picture on my ceiling a few weeks before school let out. Well, you don’t get to be a sophomore at Kenyon without learning how to fabricate ideas you never had, but I guess it was obvious that my idea was being proposed retroactively. It ended up that I was allowed to paint the picture, so long as I painted over it and returned the ceiling to normal at the end of the year. And that’s what I did.

Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.

It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybe utilitarianism is overrated. If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year.
If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.5gRpt

We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.

You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of “just getting by” absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your politics and religion become matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’s expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.

At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.

For me, it’s been liberating to put myself in the mind of a fictitious six year-old each day, and rediscover my own curiosity. I’ve been amazed at how one ideas leads to others if I allow my mind to play and wander. I know a lot about dinosaurs now, and the information has helped me out of quite a few deadlines.
A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.

– Bill Watterson, excerpt from his commencement speech at Kenyon College, class of 1990.

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There are a thousand engaging reasons to love Calvin And Hobbes, but I find it is Watterson’s deep rooted sense of play that creates the transcending and nearly universal connection with readers. For all his shenanigans and misfittedness, Calvin is a kid who cherishes a passion for play and an untamable imagination. Anyone who has ever felt inspired by creativity or learning or the great outdoors can’t help but relate to what fuels this kid. While I’m not sure to what degree Watterson self-identifies with Calvin, he definitely pulled what he personally needed to maintain creativity in his daily life into the central theme of his strip. I find that the most relatable creations are often like this one, so intimately human that they defy succinct explanation.

 

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Further Reading

Bill Watterson On Ethics In Art Making

Rod Serling On Creative Censorship

Kingsley Amis and C.S. Lewis On The Value Of Sci-Fi

Samuel Beckett And The Value Of Depression

55 Classics Review # 11 – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming


Like Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a book I was most interested in because of my enjoyment of the film adaptation and one I found absolutely and entirely different from the film adaptation. Unlike Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is as superb a read as it is a film.

I loved the book and the film. That said, I am honestly at a loss for the bizarre variance of the film adaptation. The book was published the same year that Ian Fleming died. The film was produced only four years later by Albert Broccoli, the same man who contiually brought Fleming’s James Bond to the screen with such success. The prodigious Roald Dahl was one of the screenwriters who adapted wrote the film, which accounts for the spectacular and unique story. The only obvious similarities between these two film adaptations is that Dick Van Dyke stars in each and that those shifty geniuses the Sherman brothers wrote all the music for both films. “Me Ol’ Bamboo” stands firmly as my favorite choreographed number of all time. While there can’t be a correlation through their involvement, one does wonder at the willingness of such a creative duo to sign on with projects that trample on the writing of other great artists.

The book is short, and the story feels a little short. Perhaps this sensation is heightened by the contrast of the multiple plots in the Roald Dahl screenplay. The book, set about 50 years after the film adaptation, follows the Potts’ family (living mother included) as they pour effort and love into refurbishing an ancient and decaying car, which turns out to be magical. A day at the beach becomes a spirited and dangerous adventure at sea, which in turn leads to the discovery of a burglars’ hideout. Heroics ensue.

The story is a tidy tale of a stout-hearted little family, fearless adventurers and ingenuous everyone. The writing style is the extremely comforting narration style found in many of the best classic children’s chapter books. Oddly enough, Fleming’s voice in this book is reminiscent of much in Roald Dahl’s popular titles. Overall, the story is extremely original, full of likeable protagonists, and full of all sorts of danger in turns, with just a hint of the spooky here and there. Anyone looking for an original read aimed at kids will be pleased.

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Further Reading

“In The Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak

Norton Juster Says Creating Is Hard

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

 

55 Classics Review #10 – Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers


Up to this point, I’ve been delighted by the books I’ve read for the 55 List. I mostly chose books for the list which I already hoped to love. This will be the first to break that streak of satisfaction. There are few books I expected to enjoy more than Mary Poppins, and not many have so greatly disappointed me.

I was disappointed on multiple levels by Mary Poppins. I grew up delighting in the Disney film and, like the multitudes, saw the recently released film Saving Mr. Banks which proposes a version of the history surrounding the author’s tumultuous relationship with Walt Disney. I found the Disney version of the history suspect from the start, but I was all the more eager to read the original text for myself. Reading with all this in mind further complicated the experience.

Mary Poppins is written as a series of short adventures in the world of Mary Poppins, the conceited, magical, aloof nursemaid who shows up and continually mesmerizes and criticizes the Banks’ children. Each chapter stands alone and some were really very wonderful. I especially loved a certain chapter concerning the language baby’s speak before they get their teeth. Travers alludes to a few mythological themes and lullaby-type fancies that were very original and which I really enjoyed.

Overall, if I had no previous knowledge of the concept, I would have thought the book was decent. If there was no movie and you asked for a quick thought, I would tell you that everything about the book was enjoyable except Mary Poppins herself. She is the wet blanket in every magical theme. She is aloof and self-obsessive at best and rude and condescending at worst. She steals from the children, does what she wants regardless of their petitions, and constantly tries to leave them out.

All of this wouldn’t be felt so harshly if Disney hadn’t made a film which constantly emphasizes whimsy that Mary Poppins is constantly attempting to stay stern against. In the film, she begrudgingly participates in the whimsy which constantly springs up at her magical heels. She is the exact hope a child might have for a magical adult who doesn’t prefer non-sense but accepts and appreciates joyful magical experiences. The movie sells a version of the unhappy and disconnected Banks’ family, relatively wealthy but without emotional ties until Mary Poppins tricks them and unites them. In the book, the Banks’ home is the poorest on their middle-class street and their father is a cheerful, optimistic sort who seems to take hardship in stride. I haven’t read the other books in the series yet, but the idea of Mr. Banks being saved by Mary Poppins seems to come completely from the Disney rewrite, which makes the entire theme of Saving Mr. Banks, even its very name, a complete fabrication of the Disney brand.

So Mary Poppins is originally a less agreeable figure and Mr. Banks seems like a pretty ideal father figure. Then Disney turns the entire story on its head and douses it in heavy quantities of whimsy.

The most frustrating aspect of the entire debacle is that I can’t help but prefer the film version to the book. I actually think that Disney’s rewrite made the story more engaging and agreeable. I liked the book, but I love the movie. I’m sure that some of that is due to sentimentality, but I so strongly identify with a parenting and mentoring style that emphasizes respect of the minds and emotions of children that I found everything about Mary Poppins off-putting. She represents a harshness and stupidity toward children that you wouldn’t expect from someone who knows the stars as personal friends and receives birthday parties from zoos full of talking animals.

The book ends with Mary Poppins disappearing and every adult in the house complaining about her vanity and egotism and how much damage control they have to do. The children ignore these complains, more eagerly wondering if she will ever come back to grace them with her wonderful presence again. I couldn’t help closing the book agreeing with the adults, feeling that the fun times didn’t quite pay for the constant snubbing and threats.

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Further Reading

Norton Juster On The Perils of Writing

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

For Courage Of Quiet Mothers


Meditate
When the baby starts
With dawn nearing the horizon

Though your bone
Your body
Your very bond aches for rest

For you, oh sweet breast
Hold hope in your open hand
And condemnation in your fist

All life depends on your whim
Though no notice goes
To your hard fought victory

All life seems only to turn against your will
Yet all life peters for lack of your interest
You give life and enthuse

Rejoice and rejoin in happy open-handedness

– M.Landers, June 2014

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Further Reading

Wendell Berry Poem On Children And War

“Gal. V & VII” by M. Landers

“Listen Awhile Ye Nations, And Be Dumb!” by Keats

Jules Feiffer Encourages Failure


 

Jules Feiffer was a huge catalyst in the creation of The Phantom Tollbooth. He wasn’t simply the illustrator, but a next-door neighbor and co-dreamer with Norton Juster. We often hear about the value of resilience through failure, but Feiffer seems almost to encourage an attitude of looking forward to it. A failure often carries more potential for illumination than a straightforward success.

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Further Reading

Norton Juster On Creative Agony

Kurt Vonnegut Says Hate Gets Things Done

Mark Twain’s Amusement With Pains

 

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating


Norton Juster on writing and The Phantom Tollbooth from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

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As I make my way through the whimsical world of The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time, I am delighted as a reader and reassured as a writer. To hear that such genius minds as Maurice Sendak and Norton Juster had fears in the creative process and still managed to endear themselves to others through their mad ideas gives me hope and freedom to believe that we can continue to connect through silly stories.

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Further Reading

Dave Eggers’ Fear As An Author

In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity And Fear

Gal. V & VII


The old man,
who decays as cynic,
you scorn, you deride;
as a young man
you would not have known him.

The young man,
who bleeds optimism,
you exalt, you extol;
will this world not,
in the end, have its way with him?

As father, as husbandman,
as carer for lives,
the weight of beauty
in all nature
and all natures
bores holes in the top of the soul,
making permeable,
capable to feel immense gravity
of life.

The constance of loss,
of life and limb and understanding and innocence
flooded that soul,
without relief,
without respite,
until it sank down under immense gravity
of death.

There is no drain
to empty the optimist soul.
Weight of caring
drags it down to fiery depths,
as a surgeon’s oath
in the midst
of red battle.

You young men
know some things
of history, repeating
of peers, distracted
of money, bending all wills
of influence, wooing.

You do not know some things, sneering at
the withered face,
the weathered lines,
the hardened brow.
These signs of hope deferred
and prayers unanswered
are the knell of your aspirations.
May your sneers turn to dread and woe.

The old man,
who decays a cynic,
you scorn, you deride;
history, repeating
peers, distracted
in the end, you are him,
he was you.

Will this world not,
in the end, have its way with you?

– M. Landers, May 2014

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Further Reading

“The Town Lays Awake Together”

Wendell Berry’s Greatest Poem

“Listen Awhile, Ye Nations, And Be Dumb!”

Where Wendell Berry Finds Peace


When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

– Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things
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It is a thing of awe to consider how much more dangerous are the lives of wild animals, yet how void of fear they remain. Of course we understand that, biologically-speaking, the ability to plan our futures and the resulting tendency toward worry is a product of the superior functionality of the human mind. Yes, of course, worry is a small price to pay for mental capacity toward so many other higher skills.

Yet, when we desire calm and peace, we venture out into the simple and violent natural world, where nothing is safe and peace pervades.

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Further Reading

What Mary Berry Expects Of Her Father

Dave Eggers On Author Fear

C.S. Lewis On Helping Children Cope With A Scary World

55 Classics Review #9 – Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse


It took me a long time to finish this relatively short book, but don’t let that soil your impression of its merit. The past 6 weeks have included, among other things, the much-anticipated and long-belated birth of my son. I haven’t felt entirely comfortable going off to read while my wife attempts to fend off the violent affections of two young ladies set on wrestling out their love for mother and new baby brother. I also blame Middlemarch; reading any book in tandem with Middlemarch makes for demotivation by osmosis.

I have been excited to dig into Wodehouse for some time. Having heard many mirthful mentionings of his work, I watched some of the BBC adaptation Jeeves & Wooster, starring the wonderful duo of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. While Heavy Weather follows an entirely different cast of characters, the eases and difficulties of adapting his work for the screen are evident. Both pros and cons draw from his ability to approach all content with such an even and natural comic sensibility.

Heavy Weather follows a large cast of characters as they attempt to gain control of a manuscript of reminiscences which would prove to be very lucrative and excessively embarrassing to almost all existing British nobility if published. Miscommunication and dumb-luck continue to keep everyone fumbling for control of said manuscript throughout most of the book, with many awkward interactions and side stories. Move by move, each pawn finds something at stake on one side or the other and occasionally on both. It is like reading a season of Downton Abbey written like Arsenic And Old Lace or Harvey. This type of story does not urge one to find out what happens next. It reads like a walk in the country, taken in for the paced experience rather than the end result. There are plenty of unexpected moments, but the plot is convoluted rather than climactic.

As a writer of many plays and comic musicals, Wodehouse makes the actions and reactions at hand in this novel flow as if written for players on a stage. The book is full of fast-paced comic miscommunication, failing strategizing, and diplomatic family blundering. He writes visually and his evocative scenes, comic dialogue, and eccentric characters make ideal performance material.

It is this singular whimsical writing style which is so central to his work that also remains in many ways untranslatable. He describes thoughts, appearances, and concepts as well as he does visual experiences and often time these are the best bits. This means that at least half of what makes this work so remarkably enjoyable remains staunchly text-based. He also uses huge amounts of period-specific British slang, which may make trouble or hinder enjoyment for some readers.

Wodehouse was a consumate writer. He wrote almost as compulsion, continuing his career into his 90’s. He has a remarkable unique voice as a humorist that does not seem contrived or even niche. Reading his work quickly feels like listening to a hilarious old pal recount familiar stories. This is, in fact, a characteristic tendency for some member’s of his cast. These mannerisms, in the author and in his characters, helps make his writing universal yet unique.

Overall, I would suspect that most who enjoy period fiction and indulgent language-building will be able to appreciate this book. It may leave those hungry for significant plot a little empty-stomached, but one cannot help loving and loathing the characters and their antics, even if the last page makes you feel like you’ve been chasing your tail all this time.

Wodehouse is a light read for those who occasionally prefer to take reading lightly.

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Further Reading

“The Railway Children” by E. Nesbit

“On Stories” by C.S. Lewis

“Frankenstien” by Mary Shelley

We Are All War Memorials


Aftermath

“Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.”

– by Siegfried Sassoon

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Like so many other Americans since Vietnam, modern Jingoism has made me weary of nationalism in general. This sentiment is not one of anti-patriotism or even anti-war sentiment, but one that makes vigilant effort to consider the costs of war so grave as to be entered into it at the exclusion of all alternatives.

This spring I was devastated to learn that an old high school friend of mine was killed in action. We hadn’t been close in years, but the man was a compassionate light that brought infectious joy into any room he entered. I spent weeks under a dark cloud after I heard the news, trying to understand all that happened. We never do. We, our very lives, are memorials to wars.

We should keep that in mind on Memorial Day and every day.

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“Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.”

I hear some people pursuing the reflection on the tragic “point” of Memorial Day almost to the exclusion of all celebration. I think grief is a very appropriate emotion today, but I think we should create a tone of celebration. We celebrate the lives lived and the gift given by the fallen, the success of their efforts, and the monumental lives and families build on the foundations they have provided.

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“Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?'”

Sassoon asked this after WWI, and shortly his question was answered. We should be turning our grief to sober-mindedness and our celebration to continued action, asking the same question and turning it to wisdom in alleviating further war.

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Further Reading

World War Develops Great Art

“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

Wendell Berry On Children And The Cold War