Much Ado About Doodles

One of the best things about being an independent scholar (whatever that term means) is that my enthusiasms are no longer policed by the academy.

Note: Which is not to say that academics are unenthusiastic about their topics. It’s a truism that academics have a proprietary relationship–well, really, they fall in love with–the subjects of their research. One need only go to an academic conference and watch people unabashedly nerding out about Chaucer or planetary rovers or chaos theory to know that’s true.

No, this is all a very long way of talking about how I saw some of John Dee’s books—and the doodles, notes, and marginalia within—and am unconstrained in saying that it was pretty freaking magical.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.


The circumstances that led up to my sitting in the reading room of the Royal College of Physicians, quietly waiting to pay my respects to Dee’s books, were a perfect example of the kind of generosity of spirit and collegiality among many academics on Twitter. I had heard that the Royal College of Physicians would be doing an exhibit on John Dee, the 16th-century magus and mathematician who is widely thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero (Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee). Unfortunately for me, the exhibit was ending in late July, and I wouldn’t be in England until late August. I was sure I would miss this chance of a lifetime. I bemoaned my luck on Twitter, tweeting out “Oh, to be in England, while John Dee is there…”

Within a day I was thrilled to have a response from R. Satterley (@rsatterley), tagging the curator of the exhibit, Katie Birkwood. Katie generously offered to show me some of the highlights of the exhibit when I was in London, a month after the official end of the show. Katie spent almost an hour with me, and we talked about a wide and fascinating array of topics: how the books were stolen from Dee’s library and found their way to the Royal College of Physicians; Dee’s wife, Jane Dee, and what her life might have been like (in a word–odd); and Dee’s mathematical interests and drive to codify and record everything from the weather to his wife’s menstrual periods. Katie was so very kind and immensely knowledgeable. Thanks, Katie! <waves>

The first thing Katie showed me was, she said, one of her favorite parts of the exhibition: a doodle Dee had drawn (probably in 1545 when he was a student at Cambridge, as Katie notes in the video below starting around 2:40). It was found in a compendium of Cicero’s work’s, tucked in a corner by a poem about the “foaming, frothing seas.” The drawing is of a ship that seems almost to glide off the page, the perspective foreshortened in such a way that it floats toward the viewer. I had viewed the digitized image before my trip, but seeing it in person had a much more visceral effect. I was embarrassed to say this to Katie, fearing it would be too fanciful, but it reminded me very much of the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, in which Eustace, Lucy, and Edmund stare at a painting of a ship rolling on the sea, staring gape-mouthed as it materializes in front of them until they are drawn into the cold, salty ocean.

That idea—of a picture, a doodle, a painting that manifests itself in person, that jumps the dimension between concept and object, the materiality of that idea—captured my imagination. I started thinking about the differences in seeing a picture of an object and the object itself. Why did it seem different, somehow, to experience these books in person rather than to view them on my computer, 7,000 miles away? Do we know, at some deep, molecular level, that we are in the presence of the thing itself? Does that materiality connect us more intimately than an image separated by distance and time? Is it all in our imagination, and if so, is that any less real?

I’m reminded of one of the best stories I’ll ever be able to tell in my life.

Five years ago, the magnificent Ursula K. Le Guin came to my local library with photographer Roger Dorband to talk about their book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. At dinner after the presentation, the table talk drifted to how, let’s be honest, there’s something a little weird about wanting an author’s signature on a book. As Le Guin put it (paraphrasing here), “I’m happy to do it, of course, but I do think sometimes, ‘I’ve just given you my words—thousands of them!’” We talked about how the signature seemed like a material proof of connection, of experience. My husband nodded sagely and said, “Hmmm, maybe you could just lick the book instead?” (For the record: Le Guin laughed and laughed, and when it came time to leave, she gave my husband a little pretend air lick.)

It was all great fun, but really, I think there’s something there.

At the risk of sounding as esoteric as Dee, I think books and writing retain some residue of the people they’ve encountered. “Books speak to us,” we say, and sometimes I wonder if we’re being strictly metaphorical. Why else do we run our fingers over their spines, trace the lettering on their backs and covers, flip through pages as though visiting an old friend? There’s something profound about the physical manifestation of our most cherished ideas, thoughts, experiments, and emotions made solid and shared, a way for people to connect across time and space through the simple touch of a pen to paper.

Or you know what? Maybe this is just a flight of fancy of my own. Maybe this deep sense of connection we feel when seeing somebody’s actual writing, or doodling, or jotting of notes, the joy and connection people find when an author has signed their book, is all in our imaginations. But I ask you: If so, does that make it any less magical?

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What Depression Is

Depression is a big, skittery spider that you tried to smash with a book or some other heavy object but it got away and now it’s hiding in a dark corner of your bedroom so you stay awake all night because you know it will be back.

Depression is a big wave in the ocean that pushes you over and pulls you out into dangerous surf and then gets in your eyes so that everything looks wrong and blurry, and it makes you cry (so much water, so much salt) and you can’t tell if your loved ones are reaching out their hands to pull you up to safety or to point and laugh.

Depression is that long, decaying wooden bridge in all those Indiana Jones movies, and you’ve got to run across it carrying your shining golden treasure (so beautiful, so fragile) and you don’t know which of the wooden boards is going to splinter under the weight of you, making you watch in horror as your rare treasure plummets through the air and shatters on the ground in a million shards.

Depression is the mean girl in middle school with the silken hair and the serpent’s tongue who tells you you’re too fat, too dumb, too ugly to be loved.

Depression is the sweet girl in middle school with the shy smile and kind eyes who tells you you’re too mean, too selfish, too cruel to be loved.

Depression is a fiend. Depression is a bitch. Depression is a thief and a liar.


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Melania Trump Steals Words

When I was teaching, I had to confront students about plagiarism far more than I would have liked. Never once did I have a “gotcha” moment. I hated it. I hated feeling like I had failed as a teacher to impart the importance of original work and/or the basics of how to (intentionally or unintentionally) avoid stealing other people’s words. I hated the look of shame in students’ eyes when I said the word “plagiarism.” I hated the chill that settled over the classroom when I lectured about it.

But I’m realizing now that the reason the whole topic was so charged was that my students and I cared.

Not once, after they were confronted with evidence of plagiarism, did I have students try to deny it. Those who’d done it intentionally felt badly and gave reasons that they’d cheated. Those who’d done it unintentionally also felt badly and promised to do whatever it took to make things right.

Not once did I have a student say it was no big deal.

It’s the denial of any sort of responsibility or moral culpability that’s so shocking in the Republicans’ response to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech.


Photo: Marc Nozell from Merrimack, NH, USA (Wikimedia Commons)

Trump’s campaign chairperson Paul Manafort chalked up the similarities to the commonness of the words and ideas expressed. (Well, there are no uncommon words in “to be or not to be,” either, but you don’t find people claiming authorship of Hamlet’s soliloquy.)

Manafort even had the gall to blame the debacle on Hillary Clinton, even though the plagiarism was first noticed by independent journalist Jarrett Hill. Per Manafort, “It’s just another example, as far as we’re concerned, that when Hillary Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy the person.”

Ultimately, the Trump campaign is trying to pass this off as a tempest in a teapot. Here’s why it’s not, at least to me.

For me, writing is hard. Damn hard. I have to go in, in , in: I have to probe into the whirling mass of thoughts and information stored in my brain, sort through the details of calendars and menus and the periodic table and the conversion rate of gallons to liters (1 to 3.79ish). I have to push all this to the side and think myself into The Thing, the idea or emotion I want to convey. For me, this takes enormous energy and focus, so much so that I often have to type with my eyes closed until I have the words right (which is why it’s sometimes so awkward to write in cafes). Then, once I have a taste of what The Thing is, a feel for it (sensory synonyms fail me here), I have to see if there are words that can capture The Thing.  Failing that, I have to verbally sidle up next to whatever The Thing is (thought or idea or feeling) and point to it, mime it, gesture at it evocatively enough that a reader or listener knows what I mean.

To somebody on the outside looking in, I’m just sitting at the computer, eyes closed and squinting, fingers on keyboard, DOING NOTHING. But what I’m doing actually takes a lot of psychological and even physical energy.

Some might say Melania Trump’s plagiarism is no big deal because both Michelle and Melania’s speeches were written by speechwriters. But by all accounts, both women worked collaboratively with their respective staffs, and if you’ve ever written by committee, you know that the capture of those words and phrases is just as hard won.

No, Melania didn’t just use “common words” that anybody might have used. She stole ideas. She stole emotions. She stole a person’s history and values and hopes.

Melania Trump stole Michelle’s words, and she needs to apologize.




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“No man is an island”: Some thoughts on Brexit and the American tea party

It’s with some trepidation that I write a blog post about Brexit. I mean, I live almost 5,000 miles away from the UK, and most of what I know about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union comes from Twitter, newspapers, and magazines. I’m hardly in a position to provide any new observations.

What I can offer, however, is speculation about how something like Brexit might go down in the US.

I was really struck by the rhetoric and empty* promises of the Leave campaign , particularly by the pledge–splashed on posters, websites, and even on a massive bus–that the 350 million pounds the UK sent to the EU every week could instead be spent on the National Health Service.

brexit bus

I marvel that Brexit, the most fiscally irresponsible, blunder-headed, ill-conceived political campaign in decades nevertheless promised to shore up the social safety net.

Many have compared Brexit to the American tea party, but I just can’t imagine politicians like Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan (darlings, at various times, of the tea party) making a promise like that. I can’t envision them pledging that kind of money to health care, or schools, or even to infrastructure like roads and bridges.

No, tea partiers, I think, would promise that the money would go back in the taxpayer’s pocket.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to speculate what that means about the character of UK politics, but I certainly can say that it highlights the toxic individualism that seems to be taking over American political discourse, especially when it comes to guns and health care.

In my community in Southern Oregon, voters have repeatedly turned down funding for libraries and public safety.  I have seen many letters to the local paper that read, basically, “I’ve got my own books and I’ve got my own gun—why should I pay for yours?” It’s a weird sort of invincibility that ignores the horrifying truth: ours is a community in crisis. Our local social safety next isn’t just frayed around the edges, it has great, gaping holes. And it’s the most vulnerable—children, the elderly, the ill—who are likely to fall through.

I wondered what an analogous movement locally might look like, but it’s hard to find something similar when taking geographical scale into account. Oregon (98,466 square miles) is roughly the size of the UK (95,058 square miles). We do have a longstanding (since the 1940s) proposal to have sections of Southern Oregon and Northern California join together into a separate state called Jefferson, but that’s more of a secession than an exit.

I guess I’m still parsing out how I feel about all of this, but I do feel deeply envious of the assurances citizens of other countries have: health care, reasonable gun control, a secure physical infrastructure. And, despite the names that occasionally get hurled at me on Twitter for these opinions, I refuse to believe that wanting those things makes me a Communist.

I’ll just keep coming back to John Donne’s Meditation XVII:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.


*Nigel Farage, for example, immediately walked back the pledge to send the 350 million pounds to the NHS within hours of the referendum

**Edited to add:

I’ve mentioned the funding crisis in Josephine County umpteen times on this blog. This FB exchange with my eloquent friend Kriston Eller sort of explains why:

KE:  Every time I read that you have no funding for libraries and public safety, I get 1st surprised all over again, even though I have read it many, many times; 2nd confused that this is even a thing that can happen in our country; 3rd disgusted that people can be so wrongheaded and selfish; and 4th angry that you have to tolerate that.

me: YES! And while I feel kind of silly for repeating it again and again and again (and again), I feel like I have to help keep it from being normalized (the whole “frog in the boiling water” thing).

KE: Oh, for sure. I really do think I go into a sort of denial about it because it’s just too stupid to be believed.

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Conversations With Various of My Body Parts

Scene: midnight, my bed.

Me: Cut it out

Brain: What do you mean cut it out I don’t know what you’re even saying to me right now

Me: I said cut it out. I want to go to sleep and you keep talking

Brain: Okay okay okay. That’s chill. I respect that you have things to do tomorrow. I’ll shut up so you can get some sleep. You and me, we’re good

Me: . . . *gets drowsy*. . .

Brain: *whispers* remember that one stupid thing you said ten years ago?… yoooou suuuuck….



Scene: 10:00 pm, my office

Me: Imma look at those pictures now

Heart: Why do you do this to me?

Me: But Imma look at those pictures of my kids when they were babies

Heart: You know how I get

Me: Yeah, but Imma look

Heart: *breaks*

Me: Oh, shit, you were right

Heart: *with dying breath* youuuuuu sssssuck



Scene: 10:00 a.m., running track

Me: Okay, Imma run

Knees: *squeaking* You’re gonna what?

Me: Imma run

Knees: AYFKM?

Me: Imma run real slow

Right knee: Shouldn’t you lose a little weight first?

Me: shut up

Left knee: remember what happened last time? Do the words plantar fasciitis mean NOTHING to you?

Right knee: *calls down to foot* dude, she’s doing it again

Foot: dammit

Brain: note to self–buy ibuprofen. In bulk

All together: yoooouuu sssssuck

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The Thymes They Are A-Changing: A Few Thoughts on Recipes

A few months ago, I had a Girls’ Night Out with my friends. Digression: for us, “Girls’ Night Out” means three things: wine, food, and pants with elastic waistbands. While not actually going out.

In other words, it’s pretty much this:








On this particular night, we went to my friend Inga’s house and she made dinner, a delicious peanut squash soup. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This soup was everything: a little sweet, a little spicy, just the right consistency to be a comfort food. I asked if I could have the recipe, and Inga said, “Oh, it’s easy to find. Just Google peanut squash soup and it’s the first recipe that pops up.”

(Note: I did, and it was, and here’s the result. TRY IT. You won’t be disappointed.)

I remembered this exchange a few days ago because I was thinking about the ways recipes have adapted and changed over time. I sometimes write posts for the historical blog The Recipes Project, and even a brief perusal of that site shows that old recipes are both surprisingly familiar (quantities, instructions) and shockingly different (recipes for pimple creams and breast cancer cures can be found near recipes for preserving quinces).

That exchange at Inga’s house highlighted that as much as recipes have changed over time, it’s possible that–with the ease of finding things on the internet–the recipe genre may be having its most radical transformation yet.

Not so long ago, if somebody asked you for a recipe, it could feel like an imposition. You’d have  to get an index card and painstakingly handwrite the recipe, making sure it fit on the card, that the measurements were correct (I’ll never forget the time I wrote down 2 TBSP of cayenne instead of 2 tsp), that you hadn’t forgotten any steps.

In short, it was kind of a pain in the ass. But the labor involved meant the recipe itself was a thoughtful and time-consuming gift.

With that gift came individuality. In early modern recipes, that took the form of instructions like “take the amount of rosemary that would fit on a two-pence piece.” And everyone’s heard stories of trying to recreate Aunt So-and-So’s pie or chicken or tamales but never quite getting it right because her ingredients involved “smidges” and “dollops” and “handfuls.”

(My own favorite quirky recipe is from my Grandma Sherman, whose fudge recipe calls for “5 cents worth of Woolworth chocolate.”)

Now, not only can we Google a recipe, we can sort by ingredients, cost, user rating, regional origin…the list goes on. Then, when you locate just the right recipe, you can pin it to your Pinterest board and download it to your phone, which has an app to find a coupon for the ingredients you need. And the quirkiness of those recipes have gone the way of the “update” button on the blog.

Perhaps because it has become so easy to find what you want with so little effort, online recipes themselves have become more personalized and narrative-driven. Some blogs are as much about the voice of the writer as they are about the quality of the recipes. This recipe for “Drunken Chicken Marsala,” for example, reads as though it wasn’t just the chicken that got a little tipsy. And this recipe for masala sauce: can we agree that calling a masala sauce “life-changing” is a wee bit hyperbolic?

Anyway, I’m not trying to be overly nostalgic and romanticize the past. I love the ease of internet browsing as much as the next person. But I do sometimes miss the old recipe box: the serendipity of finding some funny old recipe, that softness at the very edge of the cards that comes from years of thumbing, the memories that come rushing back with the sight of a beloved relative’s handwriting.

So, like the rest of you all, I’ll keep toggling back and forth between the new and the old, Google and the cookbook, the search function and the weathered old index card. And as I say a prayer of thanks to the patron saint of the internet (who IS that by the way?) for making it easy to find instructions for pie crust, I’ll also keep my flour-dusted recipe box near at hand.


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Why Do Libraries Bring Out The Best in Us?

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library's closure.

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library’s closure.

I don’t want to bore you with the story of my local library—I’ve told it a gajillion times. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here or here (I’m quite proud of this library, as you can tell!).

But I will tell you that even after the roller coaster ride of emotions I’ve been on with that crazy, beautiful library, nothing prepared me for the despair I’d feel when, on the morning of February 23, 2016, the Cave Junction branch of the library was vandalized.

It was a slap in the face.

After everything we’d gone through—the work and worry, the tears and triumphs—to have the library torn apart as though it meant nothing? To have the very door of the library—which had become a symbol for our movement, for our single-minded insistence on reopening—smashed into tiny shards of glass?

It was a punch in the gut.

But then something amazing happened.

Word got out about what had happened and we were inundated with offers of help. Our community rallied around us. A local diner, The Powederhorn Cafe, held a “Pi Day” fundraiser (with pie and coffee and proceeds going to the library). Oregon Public Broadcasting covered the story and addressed the lack of law enforcement that might mean nobody would have to answer for the crime. People and businesses donated money for a reward to find the perpetrators. Superhero librarians in other parts of the state offered help and held fundraisers. And good-hearted people from around the country donated money and, more importantly, sent their kind words and support.

The library was insured, of course, but on our shoestring budget, even a $5,000 deductible is a big chunk of change. With all of the support and donations, our library met that goal and topped it, raising over $11,000.

I felt like the Grinch, but in a good way. My heart grew by three sizes that week.

And I began wondering: what is it about libraries that brings out the best in us?

I think the very idea of a library assumes that people are basically honest. If a person borrows a book (or magazine, or CD, or DVD), they will bring it back for somebody else to use. Sure, some people will bring back materials late (lord knows I’m one of the worst offenders here—I could probably fund a full day of operation on my overdue fines alone). They may even abuse the system by stealing books (but those people are few and far between). But at its very core, the library assumes a social contract, an ethos of paying it forward.

Libraries exist because we want to share the hard work of the mind, the growth and expansion that comes from deep thought and wide experience. We want to hand over new discoveries that can be enhanced by diverse perspectives, and we want to hand down knowledge to the next generation so that we and they can benefit. Together.

These words feel small and paltry when compared to the potential of the library. This short movie based on the wonderful book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, on the other hand, says far more eloquently what I wish to say…and it says it with no words at all.


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