SUPERGIRL IN A SWEATSHIRT

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It was sunny and breezy; at least that’s how I want to remember it. I know I went on a walk around the block with Charlotte our Sheepdog on one leash and Tina our Chihuahua on the other. Walking them wasn’t easy. As you can imagine, those two always wanted to go in opposite directions but I could handle it.   I could have even ridden my bike with a leash in each hand and gotten them around the block at the same time if I’d wanted to. Of course I could. I was Supergirl in a powder blue Snoopy sweatshirt.   There was going to be an ice cream cake from Baskin and Robbins later. It was a great day. I was ten, at last I was ten and I was as happy and as proud as I’ve ever been. And all I’d really done is make it to the double digits.

That’s the picture in the scrapbook of my mind. I return to it over and over, absolutely refusing to let the memory pull away like a piece of taffy leaving only wispy, tenuous strands. I want this one solid.

Time passes. Full of vigor and purpose, we spend our energy and our days doing Things. Becoming Someone. Crafting our own myths. Grappling, striving, racking up accolades and degrees and connections. Going to the right events. Seeing. Being seen. Inventing and reinventing ourselves. It’s called living and sometimes it’s a whirlwind so intense and so wonderful that there are no words to express it. And sometimes it’s a hurricane so awful, so dreadful that we can’t breathe and we are choked for words and we don’t know how we can go on. But we do.

Even if some of us are lucky enough to do what we dreamed of doing when we were ten it’s likely there’ve been a few disappointments, plenty of tedium, and many compromises along the way. Every Supergirl needs to file taxes and wash her cape occasionally.

Sometimes dreams themselves are thwarted or deferred because of unexpected forks in the road or demands of those who love and need us.   At those moments a chasm opens. And in those really bad and lonely times, some of us may even do ourselves the ultimate cruelty by convincing ourselves that our greatest success has been in our repeated failure.

Well then. It really is time to be Supergirl.

When you’re young you’re sure that adults have total control over everything. Every adult knows for sure that you have control over virtually nothing. Half the time we feel as if we’re bobbing about in the ocean, frantically clutching after a buoy.  Even the most overtly successful of us sometimes feel as if we’re phonies and that we’ve failed.

But we haven’t.

If life is complex, let’s at least keep this part of things simple:

You’ve remembered which of your children likes peanut butter sandwiches and which likes tuna. They will never forget that you always remembered.

You took a minute to respond to and then forward on some unknown kid’s email to a colleague. That kid found his mentor. Finding his mentor changed course of his whole life.

You looked a clerk in the eye at the grocery store. You said thanks.

You’ve really listened to a whole phone conversation with your mother without folding laundry, playing Words with Friends, or mentally working on your repartee.

You were wrong. You said so. You apologized.

You never mentioned that your friend didn’t utter one single coherent sentence that time when she was upset.

You responded to the email.

You were careful not to give standing ovations for every show.

You let someone lie to save face.

You looked behind you and held the door open.

You didn’t give away the punch line.

Your feelings were hurt. You talked it out. You got over it. Your friendship continued.

You didn’t jump to conclusions when it would have felt so self-righteously great to do so.

You noticed the new haircut.

You knew when to ask questions. You knew when not to.

You did that little bit extra. It might have even been a loved one’s birthday. You were far away. You went out and bought a slice of their favorite cake to eat so you could celebrate together from afar. This was not your favorite cake. You ate it anyway.

Let’s face it; the above list does not constitute the makings of a traditional killer resume. But that doesn’t make each tiny scenario any less powerful.  These are just the small heroics that punctuate our days, that form the ongoing web that invisibly binds us together. These are just a few of the unsung, unselfish and very kind acts of all you quiet superheroes.

You’re out there. You’re doing good. And thank you.

THE COURAGE OF HARPER LEE

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I was jazzed and completely dazzled when I heard the news. Everyone was. After more than fifty years no less a source than the Associated Press confirmed on February 3 that Harper Lee would be publishing what they referred to as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the finest novels ever written. The only novel Harper Lee ever published. The publishing news of a lifetime.

All great authors leave us wanting more, and there is no question that Harper Lee is among the greatest for not just for creating characters of immense sympathy and depth but for crafting a story of tremendous resonance to time and place. It is a book that illuminates not just vicious injustice but has at its core a celebration of kindness and decency. It was and is and will remain a work of remarkable courage. Like only a handful of others—The Origin of the Species, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Silent Spring—it’s a book that changed the world. So many people have said as such far more elegantly than I.

I knew, everyone knew, that Harper Lee stopped giving interviews in 1964, shortly after the initial publication of the book in 1960.  I didn’t and don’t know much about her. But here’s what’s very clear: Harper Lee said what she wanted to say in Mockingbird the way she wanted to say it.   It is equally clear that she has long valued her privacy. She chose to share To Kill a Mockingbird. To my mind when an author publishes a book, the author is reaching out to the world. The published book is almost a gift, an offering. With readers, a connection is formed, a partnership that completes and recreates the book time and time again. But to me, that’s where the partnership ends. I don’t have a right to know what an author—or any one else for that matter–eats for breakfast or what they might think about Kanye hopping up on the stage once again at the Grammy Awards.

There are precious few of us who can write a book such as To Kill a Mockingbird. But if nothing else, all of us are the authors of own lives. We cherish the ability to actively, or sometimes subconsciously, craft our own myths; to tell our own stories they way we want them told. All of us also have the right to keep some things private, to keep our own secrets for our own reasons.

This thought of privacy and personal secrets is true whether someone is as quiet as Harper Lee or as exuberantly out there as Lady Gaga.  Beware, be cautious. Most public people, who talk about themselves constantly, are fueling an image for the public. We should never make the mistake of thinking we know who they really are or what they really think. We most emphatically do not. For some people their public persona becomes an extension of their craft. That’s fine. But obviously that’s not true for everyone. I don’t think it should be.

It didn’t take long to discover the AP actually had it wrong about the new Harper Lee book. Quite wrong. The “new” book wasn’t new. It seemed that it had been thought lost, and recently been rediscovered. More troublingly, there are murmurs that Harper Lee herself is quite frail, with diminished eyesight and hearing. Her sister Alice Lee, long her attorney and protector, has recently died. It seems as well that Harper Lee’s editor at HarperCollins has never spoken to her directly but has dealt only with her friend and attorney, Tonja Carter and her literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg.

Although the forthcoming book features the adult Scout and other characters from Mockingbird, apparently it was not conceived as sequel. According to reports on ABC News, the book was written prior to Mockingbird itself. According to a quote from Ms. Lee published in a HarperCollins press release and quoted by ABC News, the manuscript was the first book Harper Lee submitted and her original 1950s editor who suggested that she rewrite it from the perspective of Scout as a child. This purportedly new book then is an unpublished, nay rejected, manuscript that was the leaping off point for what became Mockingbird.   This is emphatically not a carefully constructed companion volume to Harper Lee’s opus.

Of course it’s possible that this lost or forgotten manuscript has just resurfaced. Of course it’s possible that the 88-year-old author might truly want it published. People can change. They can certainly change their minds. Ms. Lee’s friend and attorney Tonja Carter has worked closely with Alice Lee for a very long time and is a person that Ms. Lee trusts. I refuse to believe that she would take advantage of the elderly and frail author. But still something feels uncomfortable here.

But it’s tantalizing to think about reading a story about the adult Scout. Just as it’s tantalizing to think that somewhere J.D. Salinger has squirreled away a fifty-year saga of the Glass family. God help us if that turns up someday.

Here’s what I think. For more than 50 years Harper Lee chose to present her viewpoint, her story as To Kill a Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense to me that she would now look to publish what could be described as a previously rejected manuscript to support what has always been viewed as a fully formed statement in Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense.  Except, of course, that there is a great deal of money to be made here. According to ABC News the forthcoming book is “in the top 10 on barnesandnoble.com” and the publisher has set a “first printing of 2 million copies. “ This might be a good moment to mention that the ivory tower of book publishing also a business. And it’s a basic fact. Business need to make money.

What is the real story?   Is it possible that the media is improperly reporting that story now? I just don’t know. But I’m deeply uncomfortable. If Harper Lee is impaired in some way or has made the choice to publish this book either under duress of some kind to read this forthcoming book smacks of voyeurism to me.

I won’t do it.

What I will do is reread To Kill a Mockingbird.  In this small way I hope to honor the work and legacy of the very private and very courageous Harper Lee.

Note:

Above image from The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley

HOLIDAY

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In keeping with my utterly indoorsy nature, I’ve found the best way to stay warm and content in the freezy cold during the holiday season. Beaches are lovely, but sausaged into a bathing suit I am not, ski slopes are inspiring but steep. I’ve been around a while. I know what I am doing. I am happiest and safest basking in the warm glow of the TV. It pays to be picky though. This year I went on holiday with the movie Holiday.

For any of you who aren’t familiar with this 1938 George Cukor directed gem, Holiday is one of the best pairings of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. A quickie synopsis: Cary Grant (Johnny Case in the movie) plays a hardworking young man who meets and falls in love with a woman named Julia Seton, (NOT Katharine Hepburn) on his first ever vacation, is smitten, and immediately proposes. Once back in New York he’s invited to lunch and is stunned to discover that he’s about to marry into one of the wealthiest families in the city. His fiancée Julia, however, is determined to impress her austere and humorless father and propel Johnny into the stratosphere of the family business. It would appear this self-made man is about to hit the jackpot. But here’s the twist: Johnny Case, a man who has been working constantly he says “since he was ten years old” wishes to retire early and work late. He wants to enjoy life while he’s young. He’s amassed a small sum for this purpose. His fiancée is appalled. Luckily for him (and the movie) her sister Linda, played by Katharine Hepburn, is entranced.

Pleasures of watching Grant and Hepburn aside, I’ve nurtured what I thought was the central conceit of this movie–retire early and work late— for a lifetime, ever since first saw it when I was about 14. I mean really, how appealing to retire and enjoy life first and work later? Except that gung ho and hyped up even then, I didn’t do it. Immediately after college I hopped a plane to New York and shoe horned myself into a publishing career. Screeched to an about face to stay at home with my sons. Was grudgingly transformed into a PTA guru. Unexpectedly tripped into a teaching career. Cut forward many years. Here I am. Based on what I thought was the premise of this movie; I’ve been aggressively working through my youth and should be deeply unhappy. But most assuredly I am not.

Here is why. Let’s retell the story.

In college I studied what I loved best, majoring in art history, immersing myself in not just the beauty of the works, but seeing the world through the prism of artistic creation. When it was time, I took those visions, those viewpoints and made them work in the work world helping to create titles involving everything from science books to cookbooks, how-tos to children’s books. It was my choice to stop work and stay at home with my boys. I consider myself lucky to experience the joy of being invited to share rice crispie treats and juice boxes under the secluded sheets of a table fort.  I am proud of (sometimes) saying just the right words to make a roomful of tired and hungry 5th graders reach inside themselves to think things they’ve never thunk before.

So really. Have I been working the whole way through, or have I really been on holiday the whole time without even realizing it? Either way, why stop?

I get to be wrong here. In spite of my longstanding love for this movie, it’s not really about retiring early, working late at all. It’s about doing things that you love, if you are especially lucky, with the person or persons you love. Sometimes it’s about inventing and reinventing yourself if life’s path zigs where you expected it to zag. It’s about perspective.   It’s about finding a way to enjoy life.

An old friend once admonished me: “Do something kind for yourself every day.” Go on. Do it. Happy Holidays and Happy and Healthy New Year to all.