Archive for September 2009

Re Jane Brody- Benefits to Parents of Engaging Child With Talk

September 30, 2009

Thinking today of Jane Brody’s article in the September 28th New York Times, “From Birth Engage Your Child With Talk”.  The article discusses the importance of parents and caregivers talking to their infants and young children, rather than tuning in to their cell phones, Blackberries, and iPods (and tuning out their young charges.)

As Brody points out, the benefit to infants from having their parents talk to them is pretty clear (i.e. they learn to talk.)

What Brody doesn’t discuss are the benefits enjoyed by parents from such exchanges.  Here are a few I came up with:

1.         Any parent taking the long view realizes that he or she should take full advantage of any time period in which the child willingly listens to them.

2.         Even more valuable is any time period in which the parent is allowed, even smilingly applauded, for repeating him or herself.   (Babies are rarely heard to complain: “Mom, I heard you already.”)

3.         Babies are among the few people (outside of talk radio audiences) who greet nonsense talk with glee.

4.         Babies will laugh at even your stupidest jokes.  Babies will especially laugh at your stupidest jokes.  (Subtle plays on words tend to fall flat unless (i) you do too, and (ii) it’s something like “shoe”, “atchoo”, and “shoo!” said to the cat.)

5.         Babies like to hear you sing.  Babies love to hear you sing.

6.         Pointing things out to babies – the red rose bushes, the white clouds, the blue rapidly oncoming car—makes you notice such things as well.  A distinct advantage over cell phones.

7.        While it is true that a baby, if screaming or vomiting in the car seat, can be a significant distraction to the driver, studies have yet to show that they increase accident rates by 23 times.

8.         Babies’ super-active brains are hard-wired to learn language (and many other things).   As a result, they are probably the “smartest” conversationalists you’ll ever have even if relatively silent;  they take your  words literally to heart.

9.       Most parents really do want a child who can talk to them some day, even to say “Mom, I heard you already.”  (Another person to call on the cell.)

10.     Babies don’t charge for roaming.

If you have a baby, or know one, and want something to read to them with numbers and elephants and whimsical (sorry!) watercolors, check out 1 Mississippi by Karin Gustafson at link above or on Amazon.

Finding Out That My Good Parenting Skills Were All Make-Believe

September 29, 2009

An article by Paul Tough, in The New York Times on September 25th, called “Can The Right Kinds of Play Lead To Self-Control?” brought me to a dramatic  realization.

 I have terrific kids;  they are tolerant of others, and though not automatonic, stiff, or repressed —they are kids—they have been patient, co-operative, and self-controlled pretty much since passing the bounds of young childhood.   All these years I’ve been (secretly) congratulating myself on my parenting.  I knew I wasn’t particularly schooled in parenting, and I’ve never actually thought my parenting out that much—still I privately believed that the results (i.e. my children) must demonstrate some innate maternal skill.

 Now it turns out that all these great qualities in my children are primarily due to the fact that they played loads and loads of make-believe.

 And, on top of that, even though I’ve sometimes characterized myself as a bit of a single parent, I really do have to give a bunch of credit to their dad, who was terrifically good at fomenting imagination games, particularly if they involved blocks or little playmobil figures.  (He is someone who had a couple of thousand toy soldiers as a boy, so he was extremely practiced in the set-up of forts, installations, whole towns, and any other type of miniaturized construct.)

 After reading Tough’s article, in fact, I’m not sure I deserve much credit as a parent at all.  I will protest that I did supply the occasional comic voice in many games of make-believe.  (Usually I played a rather duncelike- compulsive figure, Mr. Potato Man, who was represented by a small plastic snoopy dog with a sack of potatoes plasticized to his back.)  I also talked stuffed animals, provided tea sets, watered down “tea”, and had certain of my own playmobil and block skills.  (It wasn’t all their dad.)

  And, when there were no actual toys handy, I supplied puppets made up of my talking hands and one forearm.

 But, frankly, my main pratical, measurable, contribution was to turn off the TV. 

 Since TV did have to be on some of the time, I made our TV as unattractive as I could, for as long as I could,  retaining antiquated and very small television sets.  (I remember my mother, horrified, to hear my daughter proclaim after watching a well-known program at her house – “I didn’t know Big Bird was yellow.”)

 Finally, I was blessed to be able to arrange long periods of time (i.e. summers) in beautiful places where there was no TV at all.   (I realize that not everyone has such phenomenal luck.)

 The result was a great deal of make-believe.

 I really do believe that TV, and now the computer, can be insidious for developing minds.  (I won’t even go into the problems discussed by Jane Brody today in the article “From Birth, Engage Your Child With Talk” about the distractions electronic devices provide to caregivers.)  

 Yes, there is often something good on.  A program that is ostensibly enriching, educational.

 But it’s still not the same as playing “sick baby” with leaves for medicine and pine cones for shots, and, if you’re lucky, a younger sibling who (for a short time at least) is willing to lie still.

 It’s not even as good as “Mr. Potato Man.”

Why People Hate Computers – Let Me Count The Ways

September 28, 2009

I have just spent the last few hours trying to download and/or convert illustrations of a cheerful  pantoum to post in order to compensate for the somewhat grim pantoum I posted a couple of days ago.   (See e.g. “Pantoums – Hard Hard Hard – Overheard on the Esplanade”).

This has led me to an entirely new subject matter.

Why do people hate computers so much?  (Given all the marvelous things they do for us.)

Here’s my guess:

1.  Because they are too expensive to throw out the window.

2.  Because they are too heavy to throw out the window.  (Anyone they hit, if surviving, will undoubtedly sue you, and may also steal your passwords.)

3.  Because if you complain about them, you will sound both decrepit and curmudgeonly.  Anyone overhearing will say, in a calm, slightly amused voice, ‘why don’t you let me try?’ and will try to sit in your computer chair and take over your keyboard, all the while ignoring the curmudgeonly gritting of your (probably soon to be false) teeth.

4.  Because they lure you on with the possibility that whatever you are trying really might work this time if only you are patient and wait the ever increasing and decreasing and increasing  number of seconds of the download period.  Then, just as you get to what looks like almost the end of the download, they freeze again.

5.  Because there is no convenient place to hit your computer, and if you do, you’ll probably hurt your typing fingers.

6.  Because your eyes are burning, but you just can’t stop looking at the screen.

7.  Because you know that any email you may get at 1:02  a.m. is probably spam, but you can’t resist checking.  Like Mallory before Everest, you check your email (in both accounts) because it’s there, or at least, it may be there.

8.  Because you just checked your email and there was only spam.  And you just checked your other email and there wasn’t even spam.

9.  Because it really should have worked by now.  Under all the age-old and new age laws of despair and giving up and great things happening when you finally do surrender, and happy endings too, it really should have worked.   (Don’t computers read literature?  Self-help books?  Self-help E-books?)

10.  Because your whole life’s work is held hostage.  (By the way, what happened to your earlier life’s work on that old machine that died suddenly five years ago?)

If you would rather read books than e-books, and books with pictures at that, check out 1 Mississippi at link above.

P.S. sorry about the illustrated pantoum.  My computer and I will figure it out someday.

Monday Morning – Not Ready For It

September 28, 2009
Monday Morning - Not Ready For It

Monday Morning - Not Ready For It

The above image is from 1 Mississippi.   (Copyright Karin Gustafson) Check it out at link or on Amazon.

If you’d rather think about poetry than Monday, check out poetry blogs; if you’re having a hard time writing, check out writers’ block blogs; if you’d rather just laugh (at me), check out Robert Pattinson blogs.

Roman Polanski – Swiss-U.S. Relations

September 27, 2009

I make no comment here on Roman Polanski’s crime, punishment, or long evasion of the U.S. judicial system.

I only wanted to note that the Swiss must be madder than ever at us (the U.S.) right now.  Not only have we wrought havoc on their bank secrecy laws, but now we are invading their Oscar (should I say “Oskar”) ceremony.

I’m guessing that it might be a good time to stock up on chocolate;  it may be very hard to get the good stuff soon.

(PS – I have to say I really don’t know what the Swiss attitude is to all this yet.  It really is a guess.  I also don’t mean to sound glib about Polanski’s original crime.)

Regeneration – Pat Barker

September 27, 2009

I had wanted to post something more cheerful after the pantoum posted this morning, but just finished an impossibly sad book, Regeneration, by Pat Barker, about Craiglockhart War Hospital, a World War I hospital for officers suffering from “shell-shock.”  The book, an intertwining of fact and fiction, focuses on the wonderful Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a neurologist and anthropologist, and patients of Craiglockhart in 1917, among others, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two great British war poets (and British poets of the Great War.)

What is perhaps initially most disturbing is the general contempt British society, and the soldier patients themselves, have for soldiers suffering from breakdown.  (Correction.  What is most disturbing is the horror endured by the soldiers that leads to the breakdowns.)   The only thing deemed more discreditable than a soldier unable to continue fighting due to mental breakdown is a soldier, unable to continue fighting, who is not suffering from mental breakdown.  This is the case of Siegfried Sassoon, a war hero, who at the beginning of the novel (as in fact) has written a declaration addressed to Parliament against the continuation of the war.  As a result of this public letter, Sassoon  is in danger, if not found to be suffering from combat fatigue, of being court martialed.

The job of the kind and insightful Dr. Rivers is basically to get Sassoon and his other patients in shape to return to the front:  “[n]ormally, a cure implies that the patient will no longer engage in behaviour that is clearly self-destructive.  But in the present circumstances, recovery meant the resumption of activities that were not merely self-destructive but positively suicidal.”

Rivers, adopting a Freudian approach, is basically a “talk therapist”.  His sessions with the patients are incredibly civil—clipped, restrained, quietly manly (even when talking about homosexuality.)  (These are Brits, right?  And officers.)

The most chilling parts of the book, even worse than the descriptions of combat conditions, detail the alternative methods of treatment adopted by a Dr. Lewis Yealland at a London war hospital.  Yealland (a true doctor who wrote about his “therapeutic” methods in a post-war book) believed in achieving speedy results through the electric shocking of injured (or what he views as recalcitrant) patients;  those struck dumb by combat trauma, for example, have electrodes attached to their throats and are repeatedly shocked.   (These are still the British I am writing about, doing it to their own.)

Not a cheerful book, but powerful and informative, and quite amazing to read in the modern context.   I  recommend.

Pantoum – Hard hard hard: “Overheard on the Esplanade”

September 27, 2009

I’m tackling a different poetic form today – the pantoum.

Pantoums are sometimes compared to villanelles because they too involve repeating lines.  But pantoums are, to my mind, much harder to write.

As explained previously (see e.g. post comparing villanelles to banana pudding), writing a villanelle is largely a matter of assembly.   It takes preparation time, but once you get two reasonably resonant, flexible, lines (the ones that will be repeated), you can just kind of layer them.   (Like your pudding, your wafers, your bananas, your whipped cream.)

Writing a pantoum is more like setting up a house of cards–a house in which the same cards are used to build both the lower and higher levels.  (My attempts sometimes remind me of a clown stacking boxes to reach some high place; because of a shortage, the clown keeps putting the bottom boxes on top, until, slowly, she realizes she’s just not getting anywhere, at least anywhere transcendent.)

Pantoums also make me think of some Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin schtick in which the same coin or flower is recirculated (tied to his pocket etc.)   My brain here keeps picturing Roberto Benigni as waiter in Life is Beautiful, re-serving a light fish dish (abandoned by another customer) to the Nazi commandant with an ulcer by emphasizing the “fritti fritti fritti” quality of the mushroom omelette previously ordered by the commandant.   (Comparing a pantoum to recycled fish is probably not fair.)

The problem and also the magic of a pantoum is that all the lines are repeated.  The form is made up of quatrains.  Traditionally, it involves a rhyme sequence, though some writers dispense with rhyme.   Frankly, it is a type of poem in which “slant rhyme” or near rhyme works well to avoid a sing-songy quality.

It sounds more complicated than it is.   I’ve included a line-by-line breakdown, after my sample, below.

A note:  in reading, pay close attention to punctuation, which trumps line breaks.  (Meaning that pauses are only to be taken at commas, periods, dashes, etc. and not at line breaks unless punctuated.)  Sorry to sound churlish, but punctuation is particularly important in pantoums as it is one of the few tools for sculpting the repetitions.

(Sorry also for grim subject matter of poem.)

Heard on the Esplanade, a Pantoum

The woman cries
that she doesn’t believe it.
“Don’t tell me lies.”
She pulls away from him.

“That she doesn’t believe it—
Is that what you’re telling me?”
She pulls away from him
in the sun of the walkway.

“Is that what you’re telling me?”
Sky overbright on sleeves
in the sun of the walkway
twists the fall of fall leaves.

Sky overbright on sleeves
he holds onto.  Her, she tries to tear,
twists, the fall of fall leaves.
All pretend not to hear.

He holds onto her.  She tries to tear.
“Tried to rape me,” rings out.
All pretend not to hear.
“How can she, how can she not—”

“Tried to rape me,” rings out.
“Don’t tell me lies.
How can she, how can she not?”
The woman cries.

(All rights reserved, Karin Gustafson)

Now for the truly curious, here’s the breakdown:

For notation purposes, “A” and “B” refer to the end rhyme of the line.   “A1” refers to a specific whole line (which is repeated) and which uses the A rhyme;  “A2” refers to another specific whole line which also uses the A rhyme. “B1” is a specific B rhyming line; “B2” another specific B rhyming line.







A pantoum can have any number of quatrains as long as the patterns are maintained.

If you’d rather count octopi than repeating lines–check out 1 Mississippi at link above or on Amazon.

Funeral Homes v. Bob the Bagelman

September 26, 2009

Recently I’ve had some rather stressful involvement with  funeral and memorial arrangements.  In the process, I’ve worked with (a) a funeral home and (b) Bob the Bagelman (who was suggested by the church where one funeral service was to be held as a source of food for an informal reception.)

Bob’s establishment is small, hot, crowded, dark, and does not have a telephone.  Bob is rarely there, and his very nice wife, despite the fact that she stands behind the cash register, doesn’t seem to know the prices of anything.  (Presumably, this statement does not apply to a single cinnamon raisin with cream cheese.)

The funeral home is spacious, breezily airconditioned, heavily upholstered, and ornately lamped.  When people answering the telephone put you on hold, the recording talks about trust.  The funeral home staff makes a point of being extremely clear about everything that will be done and not done, what’s needed, and what’s included.  While there are several oddly named categories on the final bill, they are nonetheless separately itemized.

Bob’s business is a bit hectic.   I had to call him several times on his cell phone before we could actually talk about the order.  Each initial call I made was at a bad time—once he was chasing an ambulance with a relative in it (admittedly not his fault!), once he was delivering an order, once he didn’t have a pen.  Even after we did talk, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  And, frankly, what he ultimately delivered seemed to me to be overpriced even for New York City.

Even so, I somehow preferred the process of making arrangements with Bob.   Seven reasons why:

1.  Isn’t it obvious?

2.  The funeral home insisted on payment in full in advance.  Bob the Bagelman, who never even asked for my full name, told me to just drop a check by whenever it might be convenient.

3.  Bob the Bagelman prepares food.  You can put butter on it.

4.  Bob the Bagelman, unlike the funeral home, does not try to sell a dress, with completely new underwear, for $465.

5.  Bob the Bagelman told me that when it’s hot, people really go for fruit.  I really don’t like to write about what the funeral home director said about heat.

6.  Yes, Bob the Bagelman overcharged.  Even so, he had a whole lot fewer zeros at the end of his bill.

7.  Bob the Bagelman laughed at my feeble, but frequent, attempts to make jokes, while the funeral home director….well, isn’t it obvious?

Long Distance 911 Call

September 25, 2009

A long distance 911 call morning.  The plight of the adult child whose parents live  elsewhere.  How to interpret the steady phrases of EMTs who are several hours away, and who, five minutes earlier, couldn’t talk to you because (as you heard in the midst of tense rustling), they were “kind of busy here.”

Fly immediately?  Or, stay within cell range?

Don’t cry.

Medication can be complicated for the elderly and/or infirm.  I don’t want to put the blame on doctors (or do I?), but prescription instructions and verbal explanations are frequently cursory, sometimes actually wrong.    People think that medications are calibrated, and I’m sure doctors do try to calibrate them.  But there is a one-size-fits-all aspect even to fairly careful dosages of extremely powerful drugs.

The uninitiated (that is, those unused to the effects of overly high dosages)  think of medications as little thermostats, capable of adjusting the body’s specific internal climate in the manner of a really good air-conditioning unit;  unfortunately, many medications seem more like a battery-powered fan simply stoking this or that bodily function until its juice runs out.

(Which reminds me that I left my iron on this morning.  Can’t turn back now.)

Blood sugar meds seem especially tricky.  The most common one (at least the one my Dad takes) doesn’t adjust sugar but simply lowers it, bang, bang, bang, like a hammer hitting a peg.

The effects can be very dramatic.  We’re not talking about a nail shooting through a wall here, but a person sliding to the floor, unable to talk or move.

Seeing the slide, and then the recovery (even just hearing about them long distance), fills one with amazement for the body’s many delicate balances; its incredibly speedy resilience.

A few packets of sugar later, the body that had become an alarmingly dead weight is once again a smiling, laughing, person, reciting the name of the President and the day of the week. Only those standing to the side, or at the end of the phone line, now have trouble speaking.

No Rest For The Weary – Metered Feet

September 24, 2009

Went to bed at one a.m.  and woke up at five.  (The way in which ten cups of strong tea remain in your system never ceases to surprise me.)

I am not someone who particularly touts the benefits of sleep.  It’s great stuff, but the fact remains that there are only 24 hours in the day, and, when you have a day job, only so many (other) hours can be spent unconscious.  (That’s a joke, boss.)

Nonetheless, I do think that, over time, sleep deprivation can put a serious dent in creativity.  Great swathes of the sleep-deprived brain are spent on questions such as what is your husband’s cell phone number again, and where did you just put your purse, socks, apple, keys, and, most importantly, that fresh cup of tea?   Under those circumstances, it’s hard to make space for new combinations of brain waves.

As a result, I decided today to write about something kind of technical, which is meter in formal poetry.  Ta Da!

Or rather:  taDa taDa taDa TaDa TaDa.

The above, by the way, is my version of iambic pentameter, probably the most common form of meter in traditional English verse.  (I base this statement on the fact that iambic pentameter is the form of virtually all the lines of Shakespeare’s  plays, other than the prose dialogue of his commoner characters such as the Rude Mechanicals in a Midsummer’s Night Dream. )

There are variations.  But before going into these, I want to take a break to thank another blogger, Patrick Gillespie, who writes Poemshape at wordpress  and who kindly wrote about my poetry and blog:  Gillespie knows a great deal about poetic meter.  And although he inspired me to continue with this subject, I had oddly already started writing about this morning on the subway.


If rhyme gives a kind of music to poetry, meter is what makes it dance.   Ironically, meter is measured in “feet” (sort of like toe-tappings.  Also, like the English system of distance measurement.)  A line which is written in “pentameter” has five feet.

A “foot” of poetry generally varies in length between one and three syllables.   (Two is probably the most common.)

There are various terms for the specific rhythm of a “foot” of a poem. An iambic rhythm is a ta-Da, with the emphasis on the second syllable.  A trochaic rhythm is the opposite of an iamb: Ta-da.  (A better example may be “Dada” as in Marcel Duchamps.)   A spondee is a foot with two syllables of equal stress as in “graveside”.  (Sorry for that one.)   Two types of feet which use one long syllable and two short unstressed ones are dactyls and anapests. (What comes to my mind is “Heidigger”, a dactyl, although a perhaps better, example is “Pattinson”.)

It’s all kind of complicated.  Which is why I tend to write poems using a syllabic count rather than using meter based on “feet.”  (Perhaps I should have told you this before the long explanation.)

Yes, it’s cheating.  And lazy.  But using a syllabic count is quite helpful to a striving poet, particularly when sleep deprived.

When writing formal poetry, I also aim for pentameter, because that length of line seems very natural.  To reach an approximation of pentameter, I try to keep the lines between 9 and ll syllables (though 12 can also sometimes work).

Keep in mind, if you try this technique, that a syllabic count really is not same as a count of feet.  You need to be careful that you are not reading the line in an odd or contrived way in order to get it to sound “right.”

I include below another example of a villanelle.  I chose this one because it describes the aging, sleep-deprived brain, although the meter is not that great and may not qualify as as “pentameter.”  The second repeating line: “as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day” is a bit long but just about works because,  arguably, it ends with two “anapests.”

Villanelle to Wandering Brain

Sometimes my mind feels like it’s lost its way
and must make do with words that are in reach
as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day,

when what it craves is crimson, noon in May,
the unscathed verb or complex forms of speech.
But sometimes my mind feels like it’s lost its way

and calls the egg a lightbulb, plan a tray,
and no matter how it search or how beseech
is pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day.

I try to make a joke of my decay
or say that busy-ness acts as the leech
that makes my mind feel like it’s lost its way,

but whole years seem as spent as last month’s pay,
lost in unmet dares to eat a peach
as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day.

There is so much I think I still should say,
so press poor words like linens to heart’s breach,
but find my mind has somehow lost its way
as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day.

(All rights reserved, Karin Gustafson)

Do check out1 Mississippi, my children’s counting book, Going on Somewhere, my book of poetry, and Nose Dive,  comic novel.

Also, I am linking this to The Purple Treehouse today, where C.C. Champagne is talking about syllables in poetry.