Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Traveling Sketchbook, or Serendipity

The Girlfriends gather once a year in South Haven for a weekend of getting-away-from-it-all which includes laughs, adult beverages, and a white elephant gift exchange. We enjoyed this annual event so much this year in January that we decided to make it a semi-annual event and do it again in September. 

We opened white elephant gifts while wearing fake facial hair, which made every gift and every conversation exponentially more hilarious. The gift exchange produced a collapsible, portable camping toilet; an awful "get-in-touch-with-your-feelings" card game from the 1950s, targeted to socially-challenged adolescents; and a sexy black lace dress with plunging neckline, which the recipient modeled. We photographed her and immediately sent the image to the husband in question. 

The most interesting gift of the night was an old sketchbook that Girlfriend Y-Tee had found decades earlier in an alternative school on Chicago's north side. No one claimed them or knew where they had come from, so she called dibs and brought them home. They had been sitting in a storage box in her basement for thirty years--and now one of them became part of Girlfriend Tradition. We wondered about the artist, and whether his career had taken an artistic trajectory.

"Let's try to find him!" we agreed, and I whipped out the trusty Internet. The name on the front cover of the sketchbook was David Enblom, so I googled "David Enblom artist." I got almost 40,000 results--but the first page of links was all our guy. The link led us to a website called MNArtists.org, and Mr. Enblom's homepage on that site listed his own website, which we quickly checked out. 

Mr. Enblom, it turns out, is a talented photographer, although his website was designed for minimum aesthetic appeal and maximum randomness. His landing page includes links to his photographs, his Facebook page, Beatles songs and lyrics, and a playable list of the Billboard #1 Pop Hits from 1941 to 1976. Glen Miller's Song of the Volga Boatmen is playing in the background at this very moment. 

I took photos of several sketches, attached them to an email, wrote "Found these in a sketchbook with your name on it. Are they yours?", and hit send. Thirteen hours later, Mr. Enblom replied enthusiastically, "Yes they are! Would love to see more!" 
 So we sent four more images, and told him that our friend had found his sketchbooks in an alternative high school in Chicago in the '80s. This launched a dialogue with Mr. Enblom, who thought his mom had tossed all of the sketchbooks in the trash. He asked to "borrow" them so he could copy the images, but G.YT was happy to reunite them with their creator. Mr. Enblom--can I call him David? I feel like he's practically one of the girlfriends by now--David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has never lived in Chicago; so how did his sketchbooks end up in a north side high school? David started filling sketchbooks when he was in his early 20s, in 1971. He had switched from studying pre-med to art; you can see the influence of pre-med in his anatomy drawings. "I fell in love with art," David told me, "Dada, surrealism, fluxus." He believes that his girlfriend at the time brought the books to Chicago. She later married a guy who was involved in starting the Prologue school where the books eventually ended up, and where Y-Tee found them many years later.It was a big thrill, David said, when the sketchbooks arrived in the mail. He had assumed that they had all been thrown out and that he'd never see any of them again. Getting the books back "was like finding out you have a brother that you were separated from. I'm getting to know a part of myself--how many memories do you have from 40 years ago?"Many gifts came out of this little adventure. One of them is that David introduced us to The Sketchbook Project, which is a "global, crowd-sourced art project and interactive traveling exhibition of handmade books." There are already more than 28,000 sketchbooks in the exhibit--and you can join the fun. Order your very own sketchbook here for only $25--or check out the digital library of sketchbooks on the website.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reading Les Miserables in Chicago

I finally finished reading Les Miserables (an English translation, obvs) this month--more than three years after I started it.

I had such high hopes when I first ordered the free Kindle version. It's only 959 pages, I thought to myself. I can handle that. After all, I'd already plodded through Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame--all 550 pages--including an entire novel's worth of narrative about the history and architecture of the cathedral; and 750 pages of Herman Melville's Moby Dick--including 30,000 words about whale blubber. That is not a lie.

The difference between the reading of those two novels and the latest novel is that I read with others in a reading group, with a deadline. I read Les Mis on my own, with no time constraints; and during the duration of my reading of I Am Miserables, I read 49 other books (according to my LibraryThing book tags), one of which, Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, was almost as unreadable as I'm Still Miserables

OK, that's a bit harsh. It's just that I'm a simple person, with lofty intentions but with the attention span of a toddler hopped up on Twix at Halloween. So when I encountered the 19-page table of contents (again, not a lie), I thought to myself, "Oh, crap." 

You know you're in trouble when some of the chapter titles are longer than entire chapters of some books. For example: Volume II, Book Second, Chapter II: In Which the Reader Will Peruse Two Verses, Which Are of the Devil's Composition, Possibly, and also Chapter III: The Ankle-Chain Must Have Undergone a Certain Preparatory Manipulation to be Thus Broken With a Blow from a Hammer.

You also know you're in trouble when you don't understand a single word in some of the lengthy chapter titles, as in Volume III, Book Eighth, Chapter XIII: Solus Cum Solo, In Loco Remoto, Non Cogitabuntur Orare. Apparently, they only had a budget for for French-to-English, not Latin-to-English.

Barnes and Noble claims that Les Miserables is the home of the longest sentence ever written, clocking in at 823 words. But the Victor Hugo Internet Hub debunks this risible impertinence, citing five novels with longer sentences. I remember that sentence, however; it caused my undiagnosed aneurysm to throb.

The beautiful thing about reading on the Kindle is that you can look up words you don't know as you go along, without having to stop and pick up your unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. This is fortunate, because Victor Hugo is a vocabulary beast -- I encountered unknown lexical combinations on virtually every page. I am determined to find many opportunities to use recrudescence and fulgurating and matutinal in everyday conversation.

It was disconcerting, however, that many of the words I highlighted did not have definitions in the Kindle dictionary--such as pterigybranche, poignarded, emphyteuses, and arondissement. As it turns out, Hugo's narrator does not hide his linguistic snobbery, and his disdain for anything but the most precise and standard vocabulary and usage. He refers to 

...that abject dialect which is dripping with filth when thus brought to the light, that  
pustulous vocabulary each word of which seems an unclean ring from a monster of the mire and the shadows. Nothing is more lugubrious than the contemplation thus in its nudity, in the broad light of thought, of the horrible swarming of slang. It seems, in fact, to be a sort of horrible beast made for the the night which has just been torn from its cesspool...what is slang, properly speaking? It is the language of wretchedness. 


Victor Hugo's middle name is digression. He admits this in the third sentence, after introducing the character Myriel, Bishop of D--: "Although this detail has no connection whatever with the real substance of what we are about to relate, it will not be superfluous...to mention here the various rumors and remarks which had been in circulation about him..." Hugo then spends the next 63 pages introducing the Bishop, who plays a key role in Jean Valjean's life even though he only appears briefly in the book. The Bishop gives Jean Valjean valuable silver, and urges him to use it to become an honest man; and after this encounter, the Bishop never returns to the story. 

The trick with reading Hugo or any prolix classic author is to figure out which digressions you can skim over without losing track of the main characters and plot lines, and which digressions contain indispensable facts and connections. I failed miserably at this task, which is why it took me three years to finish the book. I probably could have flipped past the entire Volume I, Book Third, or at the very least the first chapter of said Book entitled The Year 1817, which is a single seven-page paragraph name-drop. I could have spurned the entire Book First, Volume II, which comprises 19 chapters (47 pages) about the Battle of Waterloo--which the title of Chapter V refers to as The Quid Obscurum of Battles. (I googled quid obscurum. It means something like what darkness. It's also the name of a famous thoroughbred horse.)

Hugo wrote six chapters about the sewers of Paris in Volume V, Book Second. The Intestine of the Leviathan describes in torturous detail the history, construction, geography, and putrescent contents of the French sewer system. There's some interesting, even quotable, material in there--such as the passage that describes the sewer as "the conscience of the city:"

All the uncleannesses of civilization, once past their use, fall into this trench of truth, where the immense social sliding ends. They are there engulfed, but they display themselves there. This mixture is a confession. There, no more false appearances, no plastering over is possible, filth removes its shirt, absolute denudation puts to the rout all illusions and mirages, there is nothing more except what really exists, presenting the sinister form of that which is coming to an end...All which was formerly rouged, is washed free. The last veil is torn away. A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything.

But if I had neglected this section, it would not have diminished my understanding of the story.

Some of the excursus distracted from the heroic storyline but proved germane to contemporary social and political discussions--such as the analysis of the political stage in France in the early 1830s, described in Volume IV, Book First, Chapters I - IV. These are the kinds of passages that get books banned in the red states:

Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy,and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.

So. I finished reading Les Miserables. I'm glad I read it, in the same way I'm glad I ran a marathon back in the '80s when I was young, energetic, child-free, and motivated by sibling competition. I have earned my bragging rights, but thankthelittlebabyjesus, I will never have to do it again.

What ridiculous book are you laboring to finish?

Monday, November 11, 2013

One Year Ago Today

One year ago today, Aidan died. 

We had spent the afternoon with Manuel and his wife, Mrs. Manuel. (I wrote about Manuel here.) Manuel rudely moved to North Dakota in June 2012. We all missed him, but Aidan missed him most of all. Manuel and Aidan had a tender friendship: as the youth director at our church, Manuel gave Aidan spiritual insight and support, academic help and encouragement, and loving acceptance. Aidan gave Manuel—what, exactly? I’m not sure, but Manuel described their friendship this way when he gave a remembrance at Aidan’s funeral:

I have found myself treasuring the memory of a young man who quietly defied convention. Though our friendship was brief, I will forever be grateful beyond words that Aidan allowed me to be a part of his beautiful and complex inner world... Our friendship was initially established in the realm of the imagination--his mostly...
I discovered a boy whose favorite hobbies were creativity and imagination. These were not static nouns to him--they were his every waking moment. Dragon lore, reference manuals on mythical monsters, fantasy novels, and poetry all captured Aidan with a sense of wonder. It was a regular sight--Aidan staring off into space, only to whip out a spiral-bound notebook and begin drawing furiously; and then creating action statistics in case this new character made it into the card game he had invented.

I love that he was able to capture Aidan's essence so beautifully.

Two weeks before Aidan died (Aidan died. Will I ever be able to hear or say those words without receiving an emotional concussion?) he had told me several times how much he missed Manuel, wished he could see him, and wondered if he would come back to visit. “I need to talk to Manuel,” he told me at one point. I told him we’d be having lunch with him after church in a few days, and his face lit up. “How long will he be here?” he asked. “Probably for at least a few hours,” I said. “I’m sure he wants to spend time with you.” He smiled his curvy Aidan smile. I don’t remember, but he probably hugged me, because he rarely passed up an opportunity for a hug.

We had lunch together around the kitchen table. We ate corn and wild rice chowder with polish sausage, and crusty Dutch oven artisan bread straight out of the oven. Manuel, a frequent bread baker, was impressed with the simplicity and ease of the Dutch oven recipe.

I want to remember every word of our conversation around that table. I remember that M. Peevie and C. Peevie dominated the conversation, and that Aidan was quiet but happy—but I don’t know if this is a true memory, or just a typical meal-time scenario. Whether he said much or little, I do know for sure that Aidan was happy.

Manuel left, and a half hour later Aidan collapsed, was rushed to the hospital, and was not able to be resuscitated. Manuel and Mrs. Manuel joined us in the ER, along with our pastors and several friends. We sat in shock; our friends surrounded us, and we clung to them. Mrs. Manuel wrapped her arms around M. Peevie. 

"I don't know how to leave this place without him," I said, over and over again. But we left, eventually, and went home to a house filled with neighbors and friends who somehow understood that showing up was the right thing to do. They came, with bleak expressions, offering their tears and embraces. I think 40 or 50 people showed up that night.

I cried a bit in those first few hours, but mostly I felt numb. My tears did not come until four weeks later, even though I desperately wanted to cry. 

In the weeks and months following, we have slowly re-learned how to breathe, how to laugh, how to somehow live our Aidan-less lives.

How often--will it be for always?--how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, "I never realized my loss until this moment"? The same leg is cut off time after time.                                                                                    --C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Photo: Missing Aidan. November 11, 2013.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Hello InterWebs,

M. Peevie here. I took a year off from guest blogging my annual birthday post on The Green Room. I was working on my post last year, didn't quite get it done, and then my brother Aidan died. As Mim has said, we lost our whimsy--and since these posts are generally chock-full of whimsy, I just could not hit "publish."

(Mim, or Mimsey, is one of my nicknames for my mom. C. Peevie came up with it. I am also fond of calling her by her first name, and I get a small rush of pleasure when her friends overhear this and make a shocked and horrified face. Mim doesn't mind, she said, as long as it doesn't feel like disrespect to her. I guess so far it doesn't.)
Me, Aidan and C. Peevie, December 2011

So. Aidan. Yeah. It's really hard to talk about that. I love to talk about Aidan, and I miss him all the time. Sometimes I wish my friends would talk to me more about him, and ask me about him. The part I don't want to talk about is how I feel about him dying or about how much I miss him, because I don't really have words for it, and I don't know how talking about it is going to make it any better. So I just sort of go along missing him, and remembering him, and telling Aidan stories when I get a chance.

So much has changed in my life since my last post when I turned 11. I am nearly thirteen now, and I am a different person.

I left my little school where I had lots of friends, and teachers who love worksheets and who sometimes seemed to love rules more than children, and went to a big school, Whitney Young. I went from having two brothers at home to no brothers at home because C. Peevie left for college in August. I went from being a pre-teen who likes big words like "anthropomorphism" to an actual teenager who still likes big words like "precipitously" and "petrichor" and "sesquipedalian." 

I went from getting straight As in school without breaking a sweat to getting almost straight As but definitely breaking a sweat. When I was 10, I wanted to go to DePaul on a softball scholarship. When I was 11, I wanted to go to MIT to study architecture and engineering. And now I have determined that it makes more sense to get a liberal arts education first, so I want to go to DePauw University, and then maybe MIT, or maybe somewhere else, depending on where the liberal arts take me.

My school is great. I have new friends (Hi MK! Hi BB! Hi Beckham!). I like that my classes help me understand important topics in our country like the Affordable Care Act, the debt ceiling, and the government shut-down. I made advanced honors band, which keeps me awake at night with anxiety. I have to keep up with kids who are in high school and who have A LOT more experience than I do. 

I am riding the school bus for the first time (boo) with other seventh and eighth graders who are loud and obnoxious and immature and annoying and stupid. They make me envy deaf people. I also take CTA now (yay), and have my own Ventra card.

It might interest you to know, InterWebs, that I have become a Fangirl. Fangirls are girls (duh) who are fans (duh) of certain TV shows, movies, and actors--but we are more than fans. We are obsessed. My particular areas of obsession include Doctor WhoSherlock (the BBC version), Supernatural, and the Marvel Universe. I'm pretty sure that Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, and David Tennant all love me as much as I love them, which is a lot.

Oh, and I am now a card-carrying Nerdfighter--one who is not ashamed to be intelligent, and who fights to decrease WorldSuck. Nerdfighters are entirely composed of awesome. I highly recommend that you check out the books of the Nerdfighter in Chief, John Green, and in particular, The Fault in our Stars, which I have read multiple times.

That is about enough for now. This is M. Peevie, signing off.