The No-More-Fainting Ladies’ Fainting Couch

Journal
My grandchildren think it’s hilarious that Nana has a “real” ladies’ fainting couch, and they love to bring their friends to see it. Actually, mine is a 1920’s replica of a type of furniture that became popular in the 19th Century.
This was a time when women’s corsets had whalebone and everyday gowns were extremely constricting. (Think Scarlett O’Hara having her dress laced tighter and tighter.) The idea was to have an hourglass figure with an extremely tiny waist. And the result was, indeed, that some ladies were prone to fainting. Hence the expression, “having the vapors.” It wasn’t that our 19th Century foremothers had excessively delicate sensibilities. It was that they couldn’t breathe! Thank goodness the 20th Century brought not only women’s suffrage, but liberation from the corset and the stiff, unwieldy garments with their bustles and layers of petticoats!

And lest you wonder why women would have put up with such unhealthful wardrobe dictates, they had little option. Any woman with pretensions to being fashionable, or merely not to be considered eccentric, simply had to conform. And really, who are we to judge? Think the gorgeous, excruciating stilettos of today!

These days I can barely manage kitten heels, but I am happy to report that I am not prone to fainting. I do love my ladies’ fainting couch, however. It is my favorite place for reading, meditating and the occasional lovely nap. And, of course, for curling up with a grandchild to read or have a quiet talk, which once upon a time would have been called a “long, comfortable cose.” Some traditions are well-worth keeping!

This was a time when women’s corsets had whalebone and everyday gowns were extremely constricting. (Think Scarlett O’Hara having her dress laced tighter and tighter.) The idea was to have an hourglass figure with an extremely tiny waist. And the result was, indeed, that some ladies were prone to fainting. Hence the expression, “having the vapors.” It wasn’t that our 19th Century foremothers had excessively delicate sensibilities. It was that they couldn’t breathe! Thank goodness the 20th Century brought not only women’s suffrage, but liberation from the corset and the stiff, unwieldy garments with their bustles and layers of petticoats!

And lest you wonder why women would have put up with such unhealthful wardrobe dictates, they had little option. Any woman with pretensions to being fashionable, or merely not to be considered eccentric, simply had to conform. And really, who are we to judge? Think the gorgeous, excruciating stilettos of today!

These days I can barely manage kitten heels, but I am happy to report that I am not prone to fainting. I do love my ladies’ fainting couch, however. It is my favorite place for reading, meditating and the occasional lovely nap. And, of course, for curling up with a grandchild to read or have a quiet talk, which once upon a time would have been called a “long, comfortable cose.” Some traditions are well-worth keeping!

About Giving Thanks

Journal
We all have negative bias to some degree. We tend to notice and focus on what’s wrong in our day, our lives, our country, more than on what’s right. The experts tell us this has a biological, evolutionary basis.
That is, back in the day it was much more important to notice the hungry saber-toothed tiger than it was to smell the daisies. It was, of course, a matter of survival.

But the same instinct today does not always serve us so well. Yes, noticing what’s wrong may prompt us to correct it, to improve our lives and those of others. But negative bias can also cause discontentment, excessive worry and anxiety. We tend to take so much of what’s good in our lives for granted that we barely notice it and therefore do not get nearly the pleasure and satisfaction from the good things that we might. Oftentimes these are small, everyday things that we simply take as a given, a baseline, and we don’t even think to be thankful for them. Yet, as many other experts tell us, a little bit of gratitude goes a long way toward the well-being of the person being grateful.

Here’s a small example: In America today, it’s pretty safe to say that almost every residence—apartment or house, urban, suburban or rural—has indoor plumbing with hot, running water. And of course we take it for granted. We go to the sink or shower and have the option of turning on the hot or cold water, or combining the two to get the exact temperature we want. Who even thinks about it?

My very dear friend does. She’s in her eighties now and lives in a beautiful home. But when she was newly married her husband was in the United States Armed Forces stationed in post-war Germany. They lived in a cold-water flat. If she wanted hot water for bathing, she had to heat it on the stove in a huge pot. They were only there about two years, but she told me that since then she has never taken hot running water for granted. Every time she gets into the shower, she says a short prayer of thanks.

That little story had a profound effect on me. I can’t say that I remember to say a prayer of thanks for my hot shower every day, but I do sometimes. And believe it or not, it changes my outlook for the day. And my friend’s story made me cognizant of so many other things that are just part of life and that we hardly notice, but that really are rather extraordinary, especially given a bit of historical perspective. For instance, it was late summer in LA one day and and the outside temperature was 108 degrees. Yet here in my study it was a delightful 75 degrees, because of course, I had the air-conditioning on. But when I was a girl in the 50’s growing up in New York, I didn’t know a single family that had air-conditioning! And yet here we are, and yes, I am profoundly grateful.

Yesterday I spent one and a half hours riding bumper-to-bumper on the 405 Freeway coming home from the west side of LA. That same trip at 11:00 at night would take me 30 minutes. Certainly cause for frustration, right? But I didn’t want to go there, so instead I took some deep breaths and said a silent prayer of thanks to my little green car for its great power, its comfort, it’s air-conditioning. I said a prayer of thanks to God that I have a car at all, that I live in a place where I can drive instead of crowding into the subway and hanging onto a strap, and that I had found my wonderful calligraphy teacher all those years ago and was coming home from class.

I’m not any saintlier than the next person. I’m not saying that I do this sort of thing all the time, only that when I do, it makes a huge difference in how I experience my day. Negative bias, as I’ve said, can lead to better lives: If I were a city planner sitting in that traffic, dwelling on the awfulness of it might prompt me to come up with some ingenious solution to find a better way to move people in LA from point A to point B. But I’m not that person, and so my little exercise in seeing the good instead of the bad made for a much more pleasant ride and subsequent evening.

Here’s another example: Most of us think of going to the supermarket as a chore. The parking lot is too full, they never have the brand of yogurt we want, the freezer aisle is, well, freezing, and there are just too many choices. Do I want Granny Smith apples or Red Delicious or Washington? Medium or large, organic or conventional? From which country or state of origin? Do I want white rice or brown? Basmati, long grain, or sushi rice? And don’t even get me started on the coffee and herbal tea offerings! It’s exhausting, right?

Except… have you seen the pictures circulating on the Internet of the supermarket aisles in Venezuela? Oh, Dear Reader, the shelves look nearly empty! They resemble a store here in America that’s on the final day of its “Going Out of Business” sale. But in Venezuela the food shortages are business as usual. Inflation is rampant, money doesn’t go very far, and people line up for hours waiting for a store to open, hoping to find a few basic necessities for their families. And this is not because of some massive drought or crop failure. This is not the Irish potato famine of the 1800’s. No, this is entirely created by an increasingly oppressive, authoritarian government that has crushed its own economy. This is the antithesis of The United States of America.

Which brings me to the holiday coming up in a very short time: Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday. Many people think of it as a day to thank God for all the blessings in their lives. And that’s fine, but I have always thought of it as a day to thank God for America, for the very concept and existence of America, and for the blessing of being an American.

Yes, I know our country has problems, divisiveness, political rancor and dysfunction. Those are things we all want to work on in our own ways, and so of course, we need to be aware. But on the national macro scale just as on the personal micro scale, this negative bias doesn’t always serve us so well. And especially now, as Thanksgiving approaches, I want to focus on the miracle that is this country. For all its faults, it is the nation of the Declaration of Independence, the founding document that became the template for individual liberty such as the world had never seen before. And yes, for some that liberty has been a long time in coming, but our founding principles have made it possible.

And so on a personal note, here is a partial list of my thank you’s to America, and to God for the privilege of being born here:

Thank you, America, for providing a safe haven for my maternal grandmother, who barely survived a pogrom in Russia and came through Ellis Island in the early 20th Century. She is one of those who literally got off the boat and kissed the ground.

Thank you, America, for the fact that though my paternal grandmother was taken out of school at the age of nine and put to work in a Lower East Side sweatshop, all fourteen of her grandchildren went to college.

Thank you, America, for giving a new life to my in-laws after the Nazis murdered their families.

Thank you, America, for the fact that though my uncle was unabashedly fired from his job as an accountant at a major U.S. corporation in the late 1930’s when they found out he was Jewish, today such behavior against any minority is not only illegal but is looked upon with abhorrence by decent people everywhere.

Thank you, America, for being the sort of place where a football player can raise over $15 million dollars for hurricane victims in less than a week.

Thank you, America, and thank you, God, for this amazing country with its supermarkets full of food, its malls full of “stuff” and its plethora of books to help us organize and purge our “stuff”. Thank you, America, for the trivial decisions of whether to buy a 12 or 14 pound turkey, whether to ask for a paper or plastic bag at the market, and which brand of sneakers to buy our kids.

Thank you for the fabulous interstate highway system, the urban corridors of concrete and steel, the stately halls of Congress, the magnificent mountains and the fertile farmland.

Thank you for being the birthplace of the technological revolution, of countless, miraculous medical advances, of the automobile and of the palm-size piece of glass and steel that puts more information at my fingertips than all of the libraries of the world combined.

Thank you for my right to vote, to worship as I please, to pursue my dreams and help my family pursue theirs. Thank you for being “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Thank you for being the shining beacon on the hill.

God bless America. Have a joyous Thanksgiving, everyone!

That is, back in the day it was much more important to notice the hungry saber-toothed tiger than it was to smell the daisies. It was, of course, a matter of survival.

But the same instinct today does not always serve us so well. Yes, noticing what’s wrong may prompt us to correct it, to improve our lives and those of others. But negative bias can also cause discontentment, excessive worry and anxiety. We tend to take so much of what’s good in our lives for granted that we barely notice it and therefore do not get nearly the pleasure and satisfaction from the good things that we might. Oftentimes these are small, everyday things that we simply take as a given, a baseline, and we don’t even think to be thankful for them. Yet, as many other experts tell us, a little bit of gratitude goes a long way toward the well-being of the person being grateful.

Here’s a small example: In America today, it’s pretty safe to say that almost every residence—apartment or house, urban, suburban or rural—has indoor plumbing with hot, running water. And of course we take it for granted. We go to the sink or shower and have the option of turning on the hot or cold water, or combining the two to get the exact temperature we want. Who even thinks about it?

My very dear friend does. She’s in her eighties now and lives in a beautiful home. But when she was newly married her husband was in the United States Armed Forces stationed in post-war Germany. They lived in a cold-water flat. If she wanted hot water for bathing, she had to heat it on the stove in a huge pot. They were only there about two years, but she told me that since then she has never taken hot running water for granted. Every time she gets into the shower, she says a short prayer of thanks.

That little story had a profound effect on me. I can’t say that I remember to say a prayer of thanks for my hot shower every day, but I do sometimes. And believe it or not, it changes my outlook for the day. And my friend’s story made me cognizant of so many other things that are just part of life and that we hardly notice, but that really are rather extraordinary, especially given a bit of historical perspective. For instance, it was late summer in LA one day and and the outside temperature was 108 degrees. Yet here in my study it was a delightful 75 degrees, because of course, I had the air-conditioning on. But when I was a girl in the 50’s growing up in New York, I didn’t know a single family that had air-conditioning! And yet here we are, and yes, I am profoundly grateful.

Yesterday I spent one and a half hours riding bumper-to-bumper on the 405 Freeway coming home from the west side of LA. That same trip at 11:00 at night would take me 30 minutes. Certainly cause for frustration, right? But I didn’t want to go there, so instead I took some deep breaths and said a silent prayer of thanks to my little green car for its great power, its comfort, it’s air-conditioning. I said a prayer of thanks to God that I have a car at all, that I live in a place where I can drive instead of crowding into the subway and hanging onto a strap, and that I had found my wonderful calligraphy teacher all those years ago and was coming home from class.

I’m not any saintlier than the next person. I’m not saying that I do this sort of thing all the time, only that when I do, it makes a huge difference in how I experience my day. Negative bias, as I’ve said, can lead to better lives: If I were a city planner sitting in that traffic, dwelling on the awfulness of it might prompt me to come up with some ingenious solution to find a better way to move people in LA from point A to point B. But I’m not that person, and so my little exercise in seeing the good instead of the bad made for a much more pleasant ride and subsequent evening.

Here’s another example: Most of us think of going to the supermarket as a chore. The parking lot is too full, they never have the brand of yogurt we want, the freezer aisle is, well, freezing, and there are just too many choices. Do I want Granny Smith apples or Red Delicious or Washington? Medium or large, organic or conventional? From which country or state of origin? Do I want white rice or brown? Basmati, long grain, or sushi rice? And don’t even get me started on the coffee and herbal tea offerings! It’s exhausting, right?

Except… have you seen the pictures circulating on the Internet of the supermarket aisles in Venezuela? Oh, Dear Reader, the shelves look nearly empty! They resemble a store here in America that’s on the final day of its “Going Out of Business” sale. But in Venezuela the food shortages are business as usual. Inflation is rampant, money doesn’t go very far, and people line up for hours waiting for a store to open, hoping to find a few basic necessities for their families. And this is not because of some massive drought or crop failure. This is not the Irish potato famine of the 1800’s. No, this is entirely created by an increasingly oppressive, authoritarian government that has crushed its own economy. This is the antithesis of The United States of America.

Which brings me to the holiday coming up in a very short time: Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday. Many people think of it as a day to thank God for all the blessings in their lives. And that’s fine, but I have always thought of it as a day to thank God for America, for the very concept and existence of America, and for the blessing of being an American.

Yes, I know our country has problems, divisiveness, political rancor and dysfunction. Those are things we all want to work on in our own ways, and so of course, we need to be aware. But on the national macro scale just as on the personal micro scale, this negative bias doesn’t always serve us so well. And especially now, as Thanksgiving approaches, I want to focus on the miracle that is this country. For all its faults, it is the nation of the Declaration of Independence, the founding document that became the template for individual liberty such as the world had never seen before. And yes, for some that liberty has been a long time in coming, but our founding principles have made it possible.

And so on a personal note, here is a partial list of my thank you’s to America, and to God for the privilege of being born here:

Thank you, America, for providing a safe haven for my maternal grandmother, who barely survived a pogrom in Russia and came through Ellis Island in the early 20th Century. She is one of those who literally got off the boat and kissed the ground.

Thank you, America, for the fact that though my paternal grandmother was taken out of school at the age of nine and put to work in a Lower East Side sweatshop, all fourteen of her grandchildren went to college.

Thank you, America, for giving a new life to my in-laws after the Nazis murdered their families.

Thank you, America, for the fact that though my uncle was unabashedly fired from his job as an accountant at a major U.S. corporation in the late 1930’s when they found out he was Jewish, today such behavior against any minority is not only illegal but is looked upon with abhorrence by decent people everywhere.

Thank you, America, for being the sort of place where a football player can raise over $15 million dollars for hurricane victims in less than a week.

Thank you, America, and thank you, God, for this amazing country with its supermarkets full of food, its malls full of “stuff” and its plethora of books to help us organize and purge our “stuff”. Thank you, America, for the trivial decisions of whether to buy a 12 or 14 pound turkey, whether to ask for a paper or plastic bag at the market, and which brand of sneakers to buy our kids.

Thank you for the fabulous interstate highway system, the urban corridors of concrete and steel, the stately halls of Congress, the magnificent mountains and the fertile farmland.

Thank you for being the birthplace of the technological revolution, of countless, miraculous medical advances, of the automobile and of the palm-size piece of glass and steel that puts more information at my fingertips than all of the libraries of the world combined.

Thank you for my right to vote, to worship as I please, to pursue my dreams and help my family pursue theirs. Thank you for being “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Thank you for being the shining beacon on the hill.

God bless America. Have a joyous Thanksgiving, everyone!

Rooney, The Time-Telling Canine Wonder

Journal
We’ve all known intelligent dogs, and despite what some experts may tell us, those of us who have lived with them know that they definitely do have some interesting thought processes. We can see it in their eyes and by their actions.
Once upon a time my husband and I had a beagle-lab who would pick up her empty food and water bowls with her mouth and deposit them into the open suitcases we had set out to pack for a camping trip. Was she thinking about ensuring that she would not be left behind? Of course she was!

Alas, not only are my tent-camping days long behind me, but so are the days of delighting in a pet. Years ago, I developed allergies to all creatures furry and feathery and now can only admire them from afar. Which brings me to the present day, and Rooney. Rooney is the beautiful, beloved little ginger-haired Pomeranian belonging to my friend and calligraphy teacher, DeAnn Singh. DeAnn gives workshops and private lessons in her inviting home studio of Designing Letters, and Rooney sits like an all-seeing little emperor on his very own throne, carefully observing all the proceedings. Except, that is, on the one afternoon a week when I come for my lesson. At that time DeAnn asks Rooney to leave because of my allergies (of course she asks: you don’t exactly tell Rooney anything.)

Rooney, needless to say, is not pleased by this dismissal. Sometimes he won’t budge at first. Often, he tries to stare me down. But eventually, DeAnn prevails and the little guy leaves. This has been going on for more than seven years, but a bit of background is in order. In the early days once Rooney left, DeAnn would close the door. And Rooney, lest we miss the extent of his displeasure, would bark. And bark. Relentlessly. Then one day DeAnn had the brilliant idea of asking Rooney to leave but keeping the door open. This seemed to please him. He knew he wasn’t supposed to enter the studio while I was there, but in case he really, really wanted to, all he had to do was saunter over the threshold.

He rarely does so. He may doze in a patch of sunlight, observe from a distance, or find something more interesting with which to occupy himself for the three hours each week when I encroach on his territory. But here’s the really fascinating part: DeAnn and I meet from 1:00-4:00 P.M. each week. Rooney will grudgingly escort me in and then as per DeAnn’s request he will walk out. But at 4:00 on the dot— every single week— Rooney walks back into the studio, cocks his little head at me and gives me a sharp look that unequivocally says, “Okay, lady, your time’s up. My turn.”

How does Rooney know it’s 4:00? He comes in to dismiss me whether or not I’ve begun packing up my work, and whether or not DeAnn and I have begun saying our good-byes—so there are no visual or audio cues. He does this whether the sun is shining or the day is dark and cloudy, and even on a week when we’ve just changed the clock. So the sun is not a cue. There is no bell to signal the end of class as in a school building. There is no grandfather clock chiming in the adjacent house nor a Big Ben somewhere announcing the hour to the entire neighborhood. Nonetheless, Rooney marches in every week at precisely 4:00 to show me the door. How on earth does he know?

DeAnn and I have no idea. Rooney truly is a time-telling canine wonder. And an exquisite one at that!

Once upon a time my husband and I had a beagle-lab who would pick up her empty food and water bowls with her mouth and deposit them into the open suitcases we had set out to pack for a camping trip. Was she thinking about ensuring that she would not be left behind? Of course she was!

Alas, not only are my tent-camping days long behind me, but so are the days of delighting in a pet. Years ago, I developed allergies to all creatures furry and feathery and now can only admire them from afar. Which brings me to the present day, and Rooney. Rooney is the beautiful, beloved little ginger-haired Pomeranian belonging to my friend and calligraphy teacher, DeAnn Singh. DeAnn gives workshops and private lessons in her inviting home studio of Designing Letters, and Rooney sits like an all-seeing little emperor on his very own throne, carefully observing all the proceedings. Except, that is, on the one afternoon a week when I come for my lesson. At that time DeAnn asks Rooney to leave because of my allergies (of course she asks: you don’t exactly tell Rooney anything.)

Rooney, needless to say, is not pleased by this dismissal. Sometimes he won’t budge at first. Often, he tries to stare me down. But eventually, DeAnn prevails and the little guy leaves. This has been going on for more than seven years, but a bit of background is in order. In the early days once Rooney left, DeAnn would close the door. And Rooney, lest we miss the extent of his displeasure, would bark. And bark. Relentlessly. Then one day DeAnn had the brilliant idea of asking Rooney to leave but keeping the door open. This seemed to please him. He knew he wasn’t supposed to enter the studio while I was there, but in case he really, really wanted to, all he had to do was saunter over the threshold.

He rarely does so. He may doze in a patch of sunlight, observe from a distance, or find something more interesting with which to occupy himself for the three hours each week when I encroach on his territory. But here’s the really fascinating part: DeAnn and I meet from 1:00-4:00 P.M. each week. Rooney will grudgingly escort me in and then as per DeAnn’s request he will walk out. But at 4:00 on the dot— every single week— Rooney walks back into the studio, cocks his little head at me and gives me a sharp look that unequivocally says, “Okay, lady, your time’s up. My turn.”

How does Rooney know it’s 4:00? He comes in to dismiss me whether or not I’ve begun packing up my work, and whether or not DeAnn and I have begun saying our good-byes—so there are no visual or audio cues. He does this whether the sun is shining or the day is dark and cloudy, and even on a week when we’ve just changed the clock. So the sun is not a cue. There is no bell to signal the end of class as in a school building. There is no grandfather clock chiming in the adjacent house nor a Big Ben somewhere announcing the hour to the entire neighborhood. Nonetheless, Rooney marches in every week at precisely 4:00 to show me the door. How on earth does he know?

DeAnn and I have no idea. Rooney truly is a time-telling canine wonder. And an exquisite one at that!

Getting to Know My Uber Drivers

Journal
Not long ago I had the pleasure of visiting family in New York and New Jersey. As everyone is rather spread out, I found myself calling Uber quite a bit. I am new to this service, since here in LA we basically live in our cars.
So I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t anticipate the fascinating conversations I had with almost all my drivers.

There was the single mom with teenagers who works as a school secretary. In the summer when things are slow, she’s permitted to take Uber calls, and was very happy to get out of the office and drive me. We spent the entire ride discussing the perils of raising kids in the digital age, and how she tries to stay one step ahead at all times.

There was the man from Lebanon whose wife speaks at conferences all over the world about children with learning disabilities. We spent the time talking about possible reasons for the obvious rise in these issues in recent years.

There was the fellow from Sudan who has two young children and wanted my take on the differences between parenting and grand parenting. He wanted to understand the nature of the special bond we grandparents feel for our grandkids.

There was the guy who, in addition to driving for Uber, is an engineer and owns a transportation company that contracts buses out to school districts.

Then there was the one from Peru, also an engineer, whose parents used to work in the aerospace industry and who has lived in more countries than I could count.

Perhaps the most interesting was the youngish American-born guy who took me on the long drive from Westchester County to New Jersey. He asked me what I did and when I told him I wrote medieval verse fairy tales, he wanted to know where my stories came from and how I formulated my characters. He asked detailed, pointed questions. Then I asked what he did. He writes comedy sketches, he told me, and produces and promotes comedy shows. So then we discussed ways in which he comes up with his ideas, how he sees the humor in the everyday. The hour’s drive went by so quickly, and it was a delight for both of us.

Who knew ride-sharing could also lead to such interesting idea-sharing? So my suggestion to all who use this service: Get to know your Uber driver. You never know what you might discover!

So I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t anticipate the fascinating conversations I had with almost all my drivers.

There was the single mom with teenagers who works as a school secretary. In the summer when things are slow, she’s permitted to take Uber calls, and was very happy to get out of the office and drive me. We spent the entire ride discussing the perils of raising kids in the digital age, and how she tries to stay one step ahead at all times.

There was the man from Lebanon whose wife speaks at conferences all over the world about children with learning disabilities. We spent the time talking about possible reasons for the obvious rise in these issues in recent years.

There was the fellow from Sudan who has two young children and wanted my take on the differences between parenting and grand parenting. He wanted to understand the nature of the special bond we grandparents feel for our grandkids.

There was the guy who, in addition to driving for Uber, is an engineer and owns a transportation company that contracts buses out to school districts.

Then there was the one from Peru, also an engineer, whose parents used to work in the aerospace industry and who has lived in more countries than I could count.

Perhaps the most interesting was the youngish American-born guy who took me on the long drive from Westchester County to New Jersey. He asked me what I did and when I told him I wrote medieval verse fairy tales, he wanted to know where my stories came from and how I formulated my characters. He asked detailed, pointed questions. Then I asked what he did. He writes comedy sketches, he told me, and produces and promotes comedy shows. So then we discussed ways in which he comes up with his ideas, how he sees the humor in the everyday. The hour’s drive went by so quickly, and it was a delight for both of us.

Who knew ride-sharing could also lead to such interesting idea-sharing? So my suggestion to all who use this service: Get to know your Uber driver. You never know what you might discover!

The Stories Behind Our Favorite Children’s Picture Books

Journal
One of my greatest delights is taking my grandchildren to the bookstore. The teens avidly read the latest young adult series books, and the middle readers love to discover that they can go up a level in the princess and superhero chapter book category.
Then there’s my grandson back east, who is devouring the “Who’s Who?” biographies faster than I can send them to him! But the love of books begins, of course, with picture books that we read to them as babies and toddlers.

And while I love discovering beautiful new books to read to my youngest grandkids, there is no denying the unending allure of the classic, iconic children’s picture books. We all have our favorites. Maybe they’re remembered from our childhoods, or from the bedtime reading we did with our own children, or perhaps they are the books we most love reading to our grandkids. Some of them we know by heart: “In an old house in Paris/ that was covered with vines…” Perhaps we delight in buying the stuffed animals and dolls that go along with them nowadays.

I certainly have my favorites and am always so happy to settle in with a grandchild and read a book that even he or she knows by heart. But one thing I find interesting and new is the opportunity to learn the backstory for some of these classic books.

For instance, I discovered only recently that Ludwig Bemelmans, the author/illustrator of the Madeline books, was a naturalized American citizen who lived in France and Germany as a child. His multi-lingual background accounted for some of the unusual rhymes in the Madeline books, such as “beef” and “Genevieve” as well as “France” and “ven-ge-ance.” He named his heroine after his wife, whose name was Madeleine, but changed it to Madeline because that was easier to rhyme.

The “old house in Paris” of the books is a boarding school, based on his mother’s stories about the convent school she attended. When he visited, he did indeed see rows of little beds and washbasins. He himself attended boarding school and claimed that he was the smallest one there. But the real catalyst for the original book came when he was hit by a car while bicycling on vacation at the seaside in France. In the hospital recovering, he encountered a bed with a crank, a ceiling with a crack, and a little girl who proudly showed him her appendix scar!

Another iconic children’s book, Goodnight Moon, was a collaboration between the prolific children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown and illustrator Christopher Hurd. They had worked on a number of books together before, and though she finished the text in 1945, she waited for him to come home from his World War II service in the Pacific so he could do the artwork. It turns out that the “quiet old lady whispering hush” is a rabbit, rather than a human lady, because the artist drew animals better than people! And though the author never had children of her own, she certainly had an uncanny sense of the rhythms of language that would resonate with very young children, and as many a parent can attest, could actually lull them to sleep!

The book was published in 1947 and has sold over 48 million copies since then. It did begin with a bit of controversy, however. It was in the forefront of a new kind of children’s literature called the “here and now”. This new genre, based on contemporary research in early child development, aimed to depict children’s actual lives and environments and was a marked departure from the fairytales and moralizing stories that had heretofore defined children’s literature. The New York Public library actually refused to stock the book until 1973, but eventually honored it as one of its “Books of the Century.”

The most chilling backstory of a classic children’s book that I know of is that of Curious George, by the husband and wife team of Hans and Margret Rey. They were German Jews living in Paris on an extended honeymoon when Hitler invaded France in 1940. They knew that Jews were being rounded up and they had to escape. But the trains had stopped running and there were no more bicycles for sale. So Hans found spare parts and put together his own bicycle and the two pedaled across France forty-eight hours ahead of the Nazis.

They took only what they could carry, including five manuscripts. One of them was the story of a very curious little monkey, whom they had named Fifi. At one point, the story goes, they were stopped by a border guard who asked what they did. They showed him one of the manuscripts. He read it and said that his kids would like it, and he let them go. Eventually, they made their way to Brazil and then the United States. Their American editor at Houghton Mifflin thought that Fifi needed a more American name, and so Curious George was born.

The original book was published in 1941, and to date all the beloved Curious George books have sold over 25 million copies. We don’t know for certain whether it was Curious George who saved Hans and Margret Rey, but we do know that they most definitely saved Curious George.

My favorite backstory is that of The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. I’ve written about this in Chapter IV of my new book, The Alchemy of Illuminated Poetry®, where I discuss the positive impact of constraints on the creative process. The story begins in 1955 when an article by John Hershey, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” appeared, discussing how boring the standard Dick and Jane early reader primers were. So Dr. Seuss’ publisher challenged him to write and illustrate a book for beginning readers using a list of only 236 words, considered in the range of a six or seven year old. The result was The Cat in the Hat, which was published in 1957. It was an instant success and launched the entire “I Can Read” book genre.

Dr. Seuss was the pen name of the author /illustrator, whose real name was Theodore Geisel. Apparently, he chose his pen name because Seuss was his mother’s maiden name, and she had always wanted him to become a doctor. Perhaps had he been one he would have healed many people, but laughter and joy are their own medicine, and his enduring work has brought so much of that to millions of children through the generations.

Then there’s my grandson back east, who is devouring the “Who’s Who?” biographies faster than I can send them to him! But the love of books begins, of course, with picture books that we read to them as babies and toddlers.

And while I love discovering beautiful new books to read to my youngest grandkids, there is no denying the unending allure of the classic, iconic children’s picture books. We all have our favorites. Maybe they’re remembered from our childhoods, or from the bedtime reading we did with our own children, or perhaps they are the books we most love reading to our grandkids. Some of them we know by heart: “In an old house in Paris/ that was covered with vines…” Perhaps we delight in buying the stuffed animals and dolls that go along with them nowadays.

I certainly have my favorites and am always so happy to settle in with a grandchild and read a book that even he or she knows by heart. But one thing I find interesting and new is the opportunity to learn the backstory for some of these classic books.

For instance, I discovered only recently that Ludwig Bemelmans, the author/illustrator of the Madeline books, was a naturalized American citizen who lived in France and Germany as a child. His multi-lingual background accounted for some of the unusual rhymes in the Madeline books, such as “beef” and “Genevieve” as well as “France” and “ven-ge-ance.” He named his heroine after his wife, whose name was Madeleine, but changed it to Madeline because that was easier to rhyme.

The “old house in Paris” of the books is a boarding school, based on his mother’s stories about the convent school she attended. When he visited, he did indeed see rows of little beds and washbasins. He himself attended boarding school and claimed that he was the smallest one there. But the real catalyst for the original book came when he was hit by a car while bicycling on vacation at the seaside in France. In the hospital recovering, he encountered a bed with a crank, a ceiling with a crack, and a little girl who proudly showed him her appendix scar!

Another iconic children’s book, Goodnight Moon, was a collaboration between the prolific children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown and illustrator Christopher Hurd. They had worked on a number of books together before, and though she finished the text in 1945, she waited for him to come home from his World War II service in the Pacific so he could do the artwork. It turns out that the “quiet old lady whispering hush” is a rabbit, rather than a human lady, because the artist drew animals better than people! And though the author never had children of her own, she certainly had an uncanny sense of the rhythms of language that would resonate with very young children, and as many a parent can attest, could actually lull them to sleep!

The book was published in 1947 and has sold over 48 million copies since then. It did begin with a bit of controversy, however. It was in the forefront of a new kind of children’s literature called the “here and now”. This new genre, based on contemporary research in early child development, aimed to depict children’s actual lives and environments and was a marked departure from the fairytales and moralizing stories that had heretofore defined children’s literature. The New York Public library actually refused to stock the book until 1973, but eventually honored it as one of its “Books of the Century.”

The most chilling backstory of a classic children’s book that I know of is that of Curious George, by the husband and wife team of Hans and Margret Rey. They were German Jews living in Paris on an extended honeymoon when Hitler invaded France in 1940. They knew that Jews were being rounded up and they had to escape. But the trains had stopped running and there were no more bicycles for sale. So Hans found spare parts and put together his own bicycle and the two pedaled across France forty-eight hours ahead of the Nazis.

They took only what they could carry, including five manuscripts. One of them was the story of a very curious little monkey, whom they had named Fifi. At one point, the story goes, they were stopped by a border guard who asked what they did. They showed him one of the manuscripts. He read it and said that his kids would like it, and he let them go. Eventually, they made their way to Brazil and then the United States. Their American editor at Houghton Mifflin thought that Fifi needed a more American name, and so Curious George was born.

The original book was published in 1941, and to date all the beloved Curious George books have sold over 25 million copies. We don’t know for certain whether it was Curious George who saved Hans and Margret Rey, but we do know that they most definitely saved Curious George.

My favorite backstory is that of The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. I’ve written about this in Chapter IV of my new book, The Alchemy of Illuminated Poetry®, where I discuss the positive impact of constraints on the creative process. The story begins in 1955 when an article by John Hershey, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” appeared, discussing how boring the standard Dick and Jane early reader primers were. So Dr. Seuss’ publisher challenged him to write and illustrate a book for beginning readers using a list of only 236 words, considered in the range of a six or seven year old. The result was The Cat in the Hat, which was published in 1957. It was an instant success and launched the entire “I Can Read” book genre.

Dr. Seuss was the pen name of the author /illustrator, whose real name was Theodore Geisel. Apparently, he chose his pen name because Seuss was his mother’s maiden name, and she had always wanted him to become a doctor. Perhaps had he been one he would have healed many people, but laughter and joy are their own medicine, and his enduring work has brought so much of that to millions of children through the generations.

Rockin’ with the Grandkids

Journal
With summer upon us, I am thinking about my favorite set of outdoor furniture. It’s the wrought iron table and rocking chairs that sit in our courtyard just outside the kitchen. Many years ago I had the good fortune
to stumble upon an intriguing little shop that sold Mexican imports. It was full of unique outdoor furniture, fountains and flowers. It was lovely to walk through and smelled divine. One day I found a low, round table and child-size rocking chairs to match. I immediately bought the table and two chairs.

At the time I had two grandchildren—a 3  1/2 year old girl (who’s now 19), and her baby brother (now 16.) Days later my granddaughter and I sat together at the table, gently rocking in the chairs, which are actually comfortable for adult women as well as kids.

“You know, Nana,” she said to me, “one day my brother will be old enough to sit, and there won’t be a chair for him. And what if we bring a friend? You really should buy two more chairs.”

So I dutifully went and did just that.

A week later my little darling said, “You know, Nana, my mommy might have more children. And we might have cousins. I think two more chairs will fit. You really should buy them.”

And so, of course, I did.

Not long after it occurred to me that while a woman could sit in the little chairs, a man certainly could not. And I remembered that there had been a similar adult-sized wrought iron rocker on the other side of the store. So I went back yet again, but the store was gone. And I mean gone, as in razed to the ground, apparently to make way for condos. Oh dear!

I was so grateful that I had listened to my granddaughter and filled up the table with six chairs. I never again found any like them. They were originally a rust color, and my mother spray painted them green to match my other outdoor furniture. And here they have been ever since.

Over the years my husband and I have been blessed with more grandkids, and how many countless hours have I sat with them at this little table? How many art projects have we done? How many Sabbath afternoons have we sat and read and eaten their favorite snacks? Or just sat chatting and watching the palm trees sway? Or watching the more energetic among us play capture the flag or handball?

Every time I look outside at that table, I smile.  And I know that if we ever decide to downsize, this little table and chairs will absolutely be one of my keepers!

to stumble upon an intriguing little shop that sold Mexican imports. It was full of unique outdoor furniture, fountains and flowers. It was lovely to walk through and smelled divine. One day I found a low, round table and child-size rocking chairs to match. I immediately bought the table and two chairs.

At the time I had two grandchildren—a 3  1/2 year old girl (who’s now 19), and her baby brother (now 16.) Days later my granddaughter and I sat together at the table, gently rocking in the chairs, which are actually comfortable for adult women as well as kids.

“You know, Nana,” she said to me, “one day my brother will be old enough to sit, and there won’t be a chair for him. And what if we bring a friend? You really should buy two more chairs.”

So I dutifully went and did just that.

A week later my little darling said, “You know, Nana, my mommy might have more children. And we might have cousins. I think two more chairs will fit. You really should buy them.”

And so, of course, I did.

Not long after it occurred to me that while a woman could sit in the little chairs, a man certainly could not. And I remembered that there had been a similar adult-sized wrought iron rocker on the other side of the store. So I went back yet again, but the store was gone. And I mean gone, as in razed to the ground, apparently to make way for condos. Oh dear!

I was so grateful that I had listened to my granddaughter and filled up the table with six chairs. I never again found any like them. They were originally a rust color, and my mother spray painted them green to match my other outdoor furniture. And here they have been ever since.

Over the years my husband and I have been blessed with more grandkids, and how many countless hours have I sat with them at this little table? How many art projects have we done? How many Sabbath afternoons have we sat and read and eaten their favorite snacks? Or just sat chatting and watching the palm trees sway? Or watching the more energetic among us play capture the flag or handball?

Every time I look outside at that table, I smile.  And I know that if we ever decide to downsize, this little table and chairs will absolutely be one of my keepers!

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