To sub or not to sub…

At first glance, it would seem that the book I just finished, Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008), doesn’t have much to do with my ongoing conundrum over whether to accede to the requests of various friends and work as a substitute teacher.  Yet as I read Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning “novel in stories”, I was struck by how much I was also thinking about my teaching career and the choices that stretch out before me now that I’ve retired.  The book is, no doubt about it, great fiction, not least because every reader will take something different away from it.  For me, that was a deep sense of the constant march of endings in our life, of the people we miss and the opportunities we missed.

The title character, Olive Kitteridge, is not always a particularly sympathetic one.  Our first introduction to her is through the reflections of her kindly pharmacist husband, Henry, who is constantly “…watching to see that his wife, Olive, did not bear down too hard on Christopher (their son) over a homework assignment or a chore left undone.”  When we first hear her speak, the negativity is pronounced:

“Mousy,” his wife said, when he hired the new girl.  “Looks just like a mouse.”

“No one’s cute who can’t stand up straight.”

“Not keen on it, ” Olive said, when he suggested they have the young couple to dinner.

And when “the new girl” and her husband end up coming to dinner at Henry’s invitation, there’s this:

“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Olive, when, in passing the ketchup to the young man, Henry Kitteridge knocked it over, and ketchup lurched out like thickened blood across the oak table.

Later we learn that Olive Kitteridge is a math teacher in her small New England town.  Of course!  I suspect many of us secretly harbor a not entirely justified dislike of a math teacher in our past.  After all, math is for many people challenging, and it was my observation that challenging subjects often attracted challenging teachers.  In fact, I suspect there are many students who came through my own classroom who still harbor a dislike of me, not necessarily because of anything I did (though with time to think and reflect I regret that I wasn’t always as patient or as kind as I would like to have been), but because the subject itself was difficult for many of them.

And so we have the title character, Olive Kitteridge, who through her own words and actions as well as the reader’s preconceptions, leads us to form an initially negative impression of her.  The genius of the book, though, is that by the end we arrive at a grudging respect, possibly even liking, for this complex woman.  Through a series of short stories about various members of her community, Olive makes sometimes fleeting and sometimes lengthy appearances and we discover that, yes, she is tough and blunt and on occasion even downright mean, but also scarred by events in her own life and deeply concerned for her family, friends, and students.  Her estrangement from her only son might be understandable and justified from his perspective, but we see how much pain it causes her.  And as she struggles to fill her days after her husband dies, I see a foreshadowing of the bleakness retirees are so often warned about.

Which leads me back to my subbing dilemma.  I’m still relishing my retirement, make no mistake, and my days fill so much that I sometimes wonder where I ever found the time or energy good teaching demands.  Every morning I wake up with a deep sense of relief that I won’t have to stand in front of 30+ teens and convince them that what I have to offer has any meaning for their lives.  I’m relieved that I don’t have to deal with the big issues of politics and testing and “value-added” evaluations, as well as the seemingly small issues like daily record-keeping and lesson plans and cell phones in the classroom.  In reflecting on my career, I can see so much that I could have / would have done differently.  But I also see that I got a great deal of satisfaction out of helping students, and I miss that.  Subbing, I think, might allow me to still make a positive contribution to the profession I pursued so passionately.  I know that as a teacher having a good sub, one who would follow my plans and keep my student focussed on learning, was gold, and I do think I could be that person.  But I also know that classroom management was never my strongest skill.  I survived for so many years because I was pretty good at building relationships with students, something difficult to do as a sub.  And as we’ve seen in the news this week, the small issues can blow up into big – even dangerous –  ones with the blink of an eye.  I increasingly think, and Olive Kitteridge maybe helped me see with further clarity, that there is a time to say good-bye, a time to move on.  So for those friends reading this and thinking “maybe she’ll decide to sub”, the answer right now is “no.”


A delicious literary repast with “The Dinner”…

One of the great lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime obsession with travel is this:  despite linguistic or cultural differences, people are people.  More often than not that’s a positive thing, and I’ve experienced unbelievable kindness from complete strangers.  But blindingly fierce parental love, sibling rivalry, using food as a social marker, fascination with fame, and self-delusion are also all traits that I have observed in every country I’ve visited.  That they are also the moving forces behind Dutch writer Herman Koch’s The Dinner (Crown Publishing Group, 2012) only serve to make this exquisite novel more accessible and universal.

Set in a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam, The Dinner is narrated by one of the most unsympathetic protagonists I have ever encountered in my reading.  Over the course of the aperitif, the appetizer, the main course, the dessert, and the digestif, Paul Lohman reveals that he and his brother, high-profile politician Serge Lohman (widely considered the likely next Prime Minister) and their wives have a problem with their two fifteen-year-old sons.  The boys have committed a violent crime.

To reveal any more than that is to deprive the reader of the surprising twists and turns that make this novel so remarkable.  The story is compelling, but it is the structure and the setting that makes you think this could just as easily be happening in your own community, among people you know.  The genius lies in the way in which you are reeled in by the protagonist and led to think he might be trustworthy.  I truly wanted to like Paul Lohman, a regular guy whose acerbic comments about the restaurant’s menu and staff and prices mirror some of my own thoughts when dining in higher-end establishments:

“The lamb’s neck sweetbread has been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and is served with arugula,” said the manager, who had by now arrived with Claire’s plate and was pointing with his pinky at two miniscule pieces of meat.  “The sun-dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria.”

The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness.  Of course, I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and then you have voids.  The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.

It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation.  “You wouldn’t even dare!” the plate said, and laughed in your face.

It’s not until much later we learn that Paul is a “nonactive” teacher who has been removed from the classroom for never-quite-explained medical reasons.  These words resonated with my own current situation, and made me want even more to give him the benefit of the doubt, even as uncertainty about his character and morality were starting to surface:

Above all, I relished the fact that I didn’t have to get up in front of the classroom every day:  all those faces looking at me, a full hour-long, and then other faces that came in for the next hour, and on and on, one hour after the next.  If you’ve never stood in front of a class, you don’t know what it’s like.

Unfortunately, this is pretty much where my sympathy with Paul ended.  By the conclusion of the novel, I found it puzzling that he was even still walking free and able to go to expensive restaurants, instead of sitting in jail.  And the solution he and his wife devised for covering the actions of their son are nothing short of reprehensible.

The great accomplishment of this international best-seller lies in the way in which the reader is forced to confront the self-delusion all humans practice to a certain degree.  Very early in my teaching career I realized that there would always be parents who would go to extraordinary lengths to protect and excuse their child, whether out of misguided devotion or a deep ego I could never be sure.  Of one thing I was always sure, though, and it served me well in trying to deal with a wide variety of awkward situations:  every parent loves their child.  As I put down the book, I found myself wondering how I would have confronted a similar challenge.  I would like to think that I’m made of better stuff.  But am I?  And that is the mark of transcendent literature.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

A week in the Low Country…

At some point during last week’s visit to Charleston with my family, my husband reportedly commented to my sister that all the mosquito, chigger, ant, and who-knows-what-other-insect bites tormenting me were probably not helping his idea of convincing me to move there in our retirement.  He was right, though not just because of the insect issue.  There are actually a host of cultural reasons why the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia are not on my short list of future places to live…which is not to say that I didn’t absolutely love Charleston, because I did!  The architecture, the history, the church steeples, the food, the sunsets, the slower pace, the friendliness, the wildlife, and the light reflected off the water make it a fascinating part of the country, and different from anyplace else I’ve been. I had always wanted to visit, and I was not disappointed.  “Charming” may be overused when describing the South, but it is the best word that comes to mind for Charleston.

However, there is also a heaviness that makes me think I would never fit in or be happy there.  The same history that I find fascinating I also find oppressive.  Not that race relations in my native Colorado are perfect – far, far from it! – but I felt the overarching injustice and legacy of slavery every day during my visit.  And the issues that erupted in a Civil War seemed to me to still be simmering under the surface.  Each beautiful home I toured had me thinking about the enslaved people who had built it and worked there under cruel and inhumane conditions.  And while the ghost stories are fascinating, they also underscore a violent and troubled past that I could really sense, even if I never “saw” anything. (Well, I might have a few orb pictures from my tour of the Old City Jail…) Several people I chatted with who had moved there from elsewhere commented that they never really felt accepted, were always viewed as outsiders.  In fact, the only place I felt free of this was on the water, especially kayaking along Folly Creek our last day.  (And I’m finding it interesting that despite my love of the humanities, I have been at my happiest since I retired when I’m in nature, marveling at orcas or bighorn sheep or dolphins or egrets.)


Often when I travel I try to bring along reading that relates to or reflects where I’m going.  On last week’s trip that was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt (Knopf Doubleday, 1999).  While not set in Charleston, its Savannah location seemed close enough in proximity.  Even though the book is somewhat dated, I had been wanting to read it since enjoying Berendt’s book about Venice, The City of Falling Angels.  I was not disappointed.  This is excellent non-fiction writing, reading almost like a novel.  And the author does a fabulous job of capturing the eccentricities and undercurrents of life in the Low Country.  There’s even a witch doctor (which I loved) and, yes, a ghost!  While Berendt mentions differences between Savannah and Charleston several times, I had the same feeling reading the book that I did experiencing Charleston, that of a charming, lovely exterior masking deeper passions and secrets.

Would I go back to Charleston?  Yes!  In a heartbeat!  There is so much there still for me to see, taste, and experience.  Would I live there?  No, I don’t believe I would.

In honor of October: a few good ghosts…

I’ve never seen a ghost.  I was pretty creeped out at several Civil War battlefields, and I woke up one night at my hotel in the medieval part of Toledo (Spain, not Ohio) hearing chains rattling and convinced my rental car was being towed…even though it was safely parked in a lot several blocks away.  But I can’t say that I’ve ever “seen” a ghost.  My husband and sister, on the other hand, have seen several.  And these are smart, educated, practical people, so if they say they’ve seen ghosts, I believe them.

I have read, though, about lots of ghosts, most recently in the two books I just finished.  While at first glance The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster, 2015) and American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, by Hannah Nordhaus (HarperCollins, 2015) are quite different, they include a cast of “ghostly” characters that tie them together and make them fun October reading.  Set primarily in the disparate locations of the Virgin Island of St. Thomas and Santa Fe, New Mexico, both introduce us to European-born dead women with unfinished business.  And they are both extremely well-written.

The Marriage of Opposites is not particularly a ghost story, though.  It fictionalizes the life of Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro, the mother of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.  Hers is a fascinating story.  A member of a close-knit Jewish family fleeing European persecution, Rachel is first married to a much older business partner of her father’s (his first wife is a fairly influential ghost in this novel).  When he dies and his nephew comes from France to oversee his affairs, she and the nephew fall in love, in contravention of community taboos against marriage between “family” members.  They do eventually prevail and marry, but when one of their sons chafes against the expectation that he will follow in the family business and chooses to pursue art instead, they initially disapprove.  How Rachel comes to accept her son’s talent and different life choices (including, paradoxically, a Christian wife of lower social standing) makes this novel engaging and thoughtful.  And in the hands of Alice Hoffman, magical.  Hoffman has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez, and I suppose the tropical setting of this particular novel could lead one to that conclusion, but I find her approach to magical realism to be a bit kinder and gentler.

As someone married to a painter, I also found the descriptions of a young Pissarro’s obsession with capturing colors, light, and shapes to be spot on.  In many ways, Hoffman’s narrative takes on an Impressionistic feel of its own.  With her exquisite writing, his lovely novel comes as close as I’ve ever read to really capturing the experience of viewing a painting.  Or of sensing the presence of a ghost in the corner of the room.

In contrast, the whole point of American Ghost is to explore the life of Julia Schuster Staab, the great-great-grandmother of Boulder author Hannah Nordhaus and “Santa Fe’s most famous ghost.”  Julia is believed to haunt the La Posada hotel, which was originally the extravagant home built by her husband, Abraham, one of the wealthiest and most influential men in 19th century Santa Fe.  Julia and Abraham were also Jewish, of German origin, and it becomes clear that while Abraham thrived in the rough and tumble American Southwest, Julia did not.

Alternating between visits with psychics, interviews with far-flung family members, and meticulous academic historical research, I found this book to be more than just an exploration of whether there really is a ghost at La Posada.  It is an entertaining and extremely well-written history that illuminates the challenges of being a woman on the American frontier.  As someone who often wonders about the stories that brought my own family to the West, I loved Nordhaus’ narrative.  She captures the ebullience of new possibilities and new wealth, the multi-cultural interactions of 19th century Santa Fe, the grinding, sometimes dangerous realities of a very different landscape from that of Julia’s native Germany, and the psychological/mental health demons that I know first-hand can haunt generations of a family even more than any “ghost”.

Julia and abraham staab

In a few days I’m off to historic Charleston with my husband, sister, and mom.  Who knows, maybe we’ll even take a ghost tour?  It seems like an appropriate thing to do in October.  Not that I think I’ll see anything…