19 November 2013

Book Walls

My computer is currently walled in by books. Lots and lots of books - fifty or so of them. And the desk is shored up by another dozen or more on the floor beside it. That's life in the grad school lane.

They're not all mine - some are (an ever-increasing proportion, I have to admit), but most of them are library books. I'm lucky enough that even though I live in a semi-rural area, I have access to the library of one of the biggest universities in Canada, which just happens to have a campus in town here. With the library card from my distance ed uni, the locals let me take out anything I like, and even send me books from the big city campus if I ask. And I ask - you better believe it. And then there's the public library, which netted me some couple dozen books for my research this time. It'll be heavy lugging taking all that stuff back when the time comes.

You know, I like real books. I enjoy reading ebooks on my ebook reader, when it's novels or short stories (like fairy tales!) which I'm reading for amusement. But for research, for non-fiction, give me a real book. For keeps, give me a real book. For looking up information, give me a real book. For knowing that I have the book in my collection - you know, when I run across that obscure reference to Andrew Lang, and I can say "Hey, I've got that on my shelf downstairs!" - give me a real book.

Real books are not dependent on electricity; if the power goes out, I can still read by candlelight. Real books don't suffer from file corruption or obsolescence - I got my copy of the Brothers Grimm in 1987, and it's still perfectly good, barring a bit of yellowing of the pages. On real books, I can stick sticky notes all over the margins, so I can find the quotes again which struck me while I was reading them.

And of course, real books make great walls around your computer. If I wasn't sitting in my office (aka bedroom) by myself anyway, I still wouldn't need a cubicle for privacy - I have book stacks to do the job.

Life, the Universe, and Grad School Book Walls. Better get back to studying.

12 November 2013

A Different Kind of Remembrance Day

The last few years, I've made a habit of putting up a thoughtful post on Remembrance Day, a post reflecting on the past, on The War. To me, as I learned it from my parents and their generation, The War always refers to World War II. 1939-1945. As if there had not been any other war in the decades previously or since. The scars it left were so deep, even seventy years and two generations later they still hurt.

But this year, I don't want to talk about The War. Because this year, on Remembrance Day weekend, I was engaged in a remembrance of a different kind: I got to go to the 80th birthday celebration of a dear aunt of mine. It was a wonderful party: over eighty people jammed into her daughter's house, eating, talking, laughing, hugging my tiny little aunt who was walking through the crowd of her friends with a great big smile on her face...

Laughing - did I mention laughing? We laughed so hard we had tears running down our faces. Her four granddaughters put on a skit, poking fun at some of her traits. One of the girls acted "Oma", complete with her coat, slacks, shoes, the wig she wore when she had chemotherapy four years ago, and her thick German accent. The funniest bit bar none was when the play "neighbour" talked to the play "Oma", discussing her propensity for making friends with anybody and everybody (that very propensity which was responsible for the crowd of 80+ guests).
"I know you like getting to the mail box at the right time so you can talk to the mail carrier, don't you. You probably even know her name - what's she called?" says the "neighbour".
Play "Oma" replies: "Oh, her name is Jane!"
"No, it's not," interjects the real Oma quite positively, "it's Michelle!"

It was wonderful to celebrate the life of this little woman whose eighty years on this earth have by no means been easy. From having to flee wartime Poland as a child to a bout of cancer in her seventies which we all thought would kill her, through personal difficulties and health struggles, she carried on, and poured out love around her wherever she went. Some of that love was palpable in my cousin's house this past Sunday, flowing back in waves from her children, grandchildren and many, many friends towards this small, grey-haired, smiling person in the turquoise blouse.

It was a Remembrance Day of a different kind, and it was a great blessing to be part of it.

07 November 2013


I was reading a fairy tale last night, "Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess". It's a story of a prince who has an incredibly long nose. His mother and everyone is shocked, but because he's a prince, they decide that nobody is allowed to point out to him that his nose is in any way unusual. They surround him with only people with long noses, always talk of his nose being handsome, make fun of short-nosed people etc., so he grows up thinking that his nose is normal and short noses are weird. Finally he falls in love with a short-nosed (or rather, normal-nosed) princess. She gets kidnapped, and he has to go find her, and for the first time in his life is confronted with people who all make comments about his nose. He doesn't want to accept that his nose is at fault, he keeps thinking it's everyone else who's off the wall with their comments and their silly little noses. It's not until his nose interferes with his pursuit of the princess (he can't kiss her hand because his nose gets in the way) that he admits that his nose is, perhaps, "too long", which breaks the spell; the princess is freed, he gets a normal nose, and all live happily ever after.

Now, today I had a conversation with some friends about kids with special needs. And suddenly this fairy tale popped back into my mind, and I got to thinking: I wonder if we don't do our kids, especially those with any disabilities (or diff-abilities, as it were), a disfavour by telling them that they're amazing and talented and can do anything that anyone else can do. Because one day they'll be confronted with "the real world" which will tell them that their nose is, indeed, unusually long - that they're not, in fact, "normal", and they'll find that their disability really does hamper them in what they might want to do, and they won't have the inner resources to cope with that knowledge. When you have a Prince Hyacinth who's been told all his life that he's the normal one and all the other people are weird, he's going to have a hard time figuring out how live in a world of short-nosed people. Of course, we want kids (or indeed, anybody) to be proud of who they are and have healthy self-esteem, but the Prince-Hyacinth-syndrome goes out the other end - he's deluded about his problem, doesn't know he has a problem, because his mother so carefully shielded him from it.

Now, to be honest, I'd prefer the ending of the fairy tale if his nose would shrink to median proportions, sort of go to a moderately-long-but-still-human size, instead of shrinking right down to being "like everyone else". There's nothing wrong with having a long nose, I'll have you know; I've got one myself (see?). But, you know - I used to very much think there was something wrong with my nose; I used to feel terribly self-conscious about it. Then one day a friend of mine, when I pointed out that my nose was long and had a bump in the middle, said "So what? I like it!" Reader, I married him (what else could I do?), and I haven't felt bad about my nose ever since. In fact, I rather like it because it's unusual (also, several famous Germans have had similar noses - Martin Luther and Albrecht Dürer, for one; also, Vincent Van Gogh, though he was a Dutchman).

But, you see, my schnoz isn't so big and bumpy that it gets in the way of what I want to do. Prince Hyacinth's, on the other hand, interfered with what he wanted, namely to snog the princess (who was locked up in a glass cage or palace, so he could only reach her hand - the details, as given by Andrew Lang, are a little murky). And it's when Prince Hyacinth says that "Well, it must be admitted that my nose is too long!" the spell snaps - both his and the princess'. She busts out of the glass cage, his nose shrinks to allow for adequate smooching (on the lips, no less, I'm sure, although Andrew Lang never says so, The Blue Fairy Book being a publication for children).

Admitting to our problems, even just to ourselves, can be the key to solving them. There is a line to walk between accepting our uniqueness, and closing our eyes to the issues that hold us back. True self-esteem sees our strengths and our limitations, and admitting to both is what lets us go to where we want to go.

Now don't anybody bring up Tristram Shandy - that is not the kind of nose this fairy tale is talking about. This is a children's story, people.

Life, the Universe, and Long Noses. And they lived happily ever after.