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Archive for January, 2011

poem is taped to bench

Autobiographia Literaria

by Frank O’Hara


When I was a child

I played by myself in a

corner of the schoolyard

all alone.

I hated dolls and I

hated games, animals were

not friendly and birds

flew away.

If anyone was looking

for me I hid behind a

tree and cried out “I am

an orphan.”

And here I am, the

center of all beauty!

writing these poems!

Imagine!

I’ve kept a copy of this poem for years now, as if it belonged to me, as if it were a well-loved fragment of a baby blanket or a page ripped from a youthful diary.  I too was an oddball (some would quibble with the past tense here), a loner child, a quiet girl who chose not to speak in fifth grade, a high schooler who sometimes ate alone in the locker room.  Don’t cue the violins—I’m as amused by my own history as O’Hara is by his.  But when I used to present this poem to seventh grade creative writing classes, I was always surprised that no one found it funny. O’Hara’s clowning around was lost on them.

 

Perhaps the class missed the poem’s humor because of the exclamation points.  Maybe the Twitter generation uses exclamation points so profligately that they don’t get it when a writer overuses them to amuse.  I avoid exclamation points so as not to come off as chirpy and vacuous. I avoid wearing string bikinis and baby doll dresses for the same reason.   But these days everyone wants to sound like a breathless teenage girl.  As a result, a message delivered without exclamation points sounds either unenthusiastic or sarcastic.

 

The exclamation marks in the poem’s final stanza do double duty: first, they announce that the poet, in a very un-poet-like fashion, doesn’t take himself too seriously.  In spite of the Latin title, the poem and poet are decidedly unpretentious. The exaggerated misery of his childhood is matched by the exaggerated success of his artistic life, and signal that an elfish mind is at play.

 

But even as the exclamation marks subvert the meaning of the words they punctuate–And here I am, the/center of all beauty!–they don’t steer the poem towards sarcasm.  O’Hara achieves a tone of genuine surprise at the outcome of his life.  The exclamation marks come off as sweet, not snarky. He may not really think he’s at the center of all beauty, but he sure seems happy.

 

Joking aside, O’Hara makes the more serious point that artists are by nature outsiders.  “Literaria Autobiographia” becomes a quick sketch of the creative temperament in childhood. Playgrounds can be classrooms for conformity:  those who flaunt rules for games and social rules for blending in and getting along risk being ostracized.  The poet cannot or will not conform.  I am an orphan, he cries out.  He belongs to no one but himself.  The poet also, in typical writer-ly fashion, hides from others while at the same time he calls out for their attention and love.

 

O’Hara by all accounts grew up to be a very sociable man, not at all like the boy behind the tree.  In his elegy for O’Hara, poet Allen Ginsburg described him as “chattering Frank.”  If it weren’t for the fact that O’Hara was run over by a dune buggy and killed at age 40, this poem is a perfect fit for the “It Gets Better” campaign.  The Cinderella arc of the poem and O’Hara’s openness about his homosexuality at a time when most gays were closeted, might make a youtube video to rival Tim Gunn’s.

 

Like other O’Hara poems, this one has a spontaneous, just-winging-it feel.  He didn’t like formalism.  “I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff,” he wrote. “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep!'” Still, for a simulated improvisation, the poem is pretty darn tidy and neatly constructed, with four stanzas of four short lines each.

 

Born in Baltimore and raised in Massachusetts, O’Hara found his home in the artistic hive of Greenwich Village.  The list of his friends and associates amazes me and calls up an exciting world of cross-pollination. He roomed with Edward Gorey, worked for photographer Cecil Beaton, hung out with poets John Ashberry, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), and artists deKooning and Pollock.  O’Hara himself worked across disciplines:  he was an accomplished pianist and jazz lover as well as a poet, playwright, and art critic, earning a living as a curator at the Modern Museum of Art. (In its second season, the TV show Mad Men wisely chose O’Hara as a symbol of nonconforming bohemia, of creativity used in the service of art not commerce —in other words, a symbol of everything Don Draper is not.  Link here for Don Draper reading O’Hara’s “Mayakovsky.”)

 

Placing this poem in Detroit’s world-famous Heidelburg Project was not my first choice (I imagined leaving it at a therapist’s office), but the more I thought about it, the better the fit seemed. Artist Tyree Guyton began the Heidelburg Project in 1986 after coming home from the army and seeing what a bleak and dangerous wasteland his neighborhood had become.  He wanted to create a safe and beautiful environment that residents could feel proud of.

I loved these telephones

 

He started with polka dots, an inspired decision.  What better than polka dots to lighten a landscape?  Today the polka dots grow from the street to the houses; even the trees are dotted with clear colored discs that catch the sunlight.  All manner of discarded items—stuffed animals, typewriters, telephones—are used with wit and humor.  Each weather-beaten and frayed piece of the project reminds the viewer of Detroit’s deterioration and gives hope for Detroit’s transformation. The ugly duckling made beautiful.  Just the right place for  “Autobiographia Literaria.”

 

"Birth!" my daughter said when she saw this

 

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The other day I posted but didn’t analyze a poem by Carl Sandburg.  (The poem begins Hog butcher for the world, which might be a fun way to answer the phone when telemarketers call.)

Did Carl Sandburg’s name ring a bell with you?  If you experienced not a clang but only a faint tinkle from far back in your school days, try this to jog your memory:  fog in the harbor . . . little cat feet…are you with me yet?  If you could open your middle school or high school textbook to the section introducing metaphor, there you’d find Sandburg’s little poem “Fog”:

 

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.


If his name is still unfamiliar, perhaps you’ll recognize his face, or at least an interpretation of his face.

 

Which brings me to a question.  What do you get when you cross-breed Carl Sandburg, Albert Einstein and a pug?

 

The answer is . . .

 

Yes, according to internet sources (and not just Wikipedia), Steven Spielburg used those distinctive mugs to create E.T.  I don’t see it myself—maybe there’s a little something in the mouth—or maybe there’s something kindly and innocent in the poet’s face that is picked up in the alien’s.

 

Sandburg had another claim to fame (although in his own time he was famous in his own right). Sandburg revered Abraham Lincoln and wrote a 4-volume biography of him.  Marilyn Monroe was also a fan of Abe’s. (“I think of Lincoln as my father,” she said once, “he was wise and kind and good”—how heartbreaking is that?)  She kept a framed picture of Lincoln in her apartment and read Sandburg’s biography, often carrying it around. Nine months before she died, Monroe visited Sandburg.  He wrote about their meeting in the most gentlemanly terms:

She was a good talker. There were realms of science, politics and economics in which she was wasn’t at home, but she spoke well on the national scene, the Hollywood scene, and on people who are good to know and people who ain’t. We agreed on a number of things. She sometimes threw her arms around me like people do who like each other very much.

 

The photos of their evening together are lovely.  You can see more here.

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poem is inside Atlas of Anatomy

like so:

This poem is very long and I’m unable to find a copy of it online (and unwilling to type it up myself), so my photographs will be the only version of the text available.

Here goes:

 

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my father’s death.  A lot of the family commemorated the day by going to Mass together and visiting his grave.  Living several states away, I was unable to join my mother and in-town siblings.  So I honored my dad another way.

 

One of his many projects late in life was a series of poems that celebrated the body.  The human body was a wonder to him, complex and beautiful in its workings.  “It’s fantastic,” he would say, “unbelievable!” He wanted to describe in great detail each organ or system of the body, using scientific terms, to create modern psalms. He used Psalm 148 as a model.  In that psalm, the writer catalogues the wonders of nature in order to praise the Creator; my dad would do the same by cataloguing the wonders of the body. I remember reading one he completed, but unfortunately I can’t find a copy to post. (I’ll ask my siblings and put it here when we track it down.)  It was about the eye, which is both fitting and ironic.  He was a compulsive reader who eventually lost the ability to read because of macular degeneration.

 

(Another project of his that I’m just remembering now: when I was about 12 we collaborated on a play that reversed the characters’ genders in My Fair Lady.  Somewhere I have stored pages of dialogue and a few songs I wrote marked up with his notes. As I write this my eyes well up.  Did he really think I was capable of writing a musical or was he just providing me with a creative outlet?  I can’t answer that, but he was a most unusual father.)

 

Anyway, when I came across Charles Harper Webb’s “Liver” a few years ago, I thought—someone beat him to it!  Here was his idea—an ode that was also a biology lesson.  I debated whether or not to give him a copy, but decided the ending would offend him.  (“Our liver who art in heaven” and “Hail Liver, full of grace” would not amuse.)

 

I left “Liver” inside a book at the library on the anniversary of his death.  That was the only appropriate choice. Some retired men frequent hardware stores or pharmacies; my dad visited the library every day, at least until he had to stop driving.

 

When I came home from the library, the house was cold so I kept my knitted hat on all day until I went to bed.  In the evening, out of the blue up came an image of my father: surrounded by stacks of books, he sits in his chair wearing the frayed red hat he never took off.  It was unnerving to realize how unconsciously I had been channeling his sartorial habits.

 

Rest in peace, Dad.

 

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More home poems from ESL students

Kyoto, Japan

 

Yesterday I posted Vladimir of Lviv’s imitation poem of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.”  (Vladimir is a student in my sister Ceci’s ESL conversation class. All the students were asked to write a poem about home using Sandburg’s poem as a model.)

 

Today I’ll highlight excerpts from a few more student works. I wish I could include everyone’s, because all the writers, those featured here and those who aren’t, amaze me.  After fourth or fifth grade, writing poetry is an unfamiliar, challenging and potentially embarrassing activity for most people, but writing poetry in another language is more difficult still.  Kudos to all!

 

Sumiyo C. writes of Kyoto:

 

Come and show me another city with historical treasures, so precious and

protected the enemy could not drop a bomb on them,

Here is a place where people live in harmony with the beautiful nature of the four seasons.

Grand as the Heian-jingu, tranquil as the Ryoanji rock garden,

traditional as the Gion-festival

 

She closes the poem with this lovely testament to her city’s endurance:

 

Once a prosperous capital, center of culture, now carrying on their

practice to the next generation, creating meticulous craftwork,

pursuing achievement.

Restoring,

Restoring instead of destroying, caring, valuing, respecting, proud to be

keeping tradition, delicate beauty, craftsmanship.

 

“Restoring/Restoring instead of destroying” is an artful little phrase that I’m enjoying/enjoying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Myongjin A. of Kyongjoo, South Korea begins her piece with the opposition of crumbling antiquities and present vitality:

 

Ancient city, still alive

Buddha’s energy coming from the giant tombs

Relics and legends

Beauty of thousands time

City of the Shilla Dynasty

Calm, quiet, shy, powerful, smart

Still alive.


Amanda L. of Brazil wrote of her new home, Chicago:

 

Buildings scratching the sky, catching the wind

Cold, intimidating, yet magical

City of enchantment.

 

From now on, every time I’m in Chicago I’ll think of the buildings “scratching the sky, catching the wind.”  Even someone whose native language is English would be proud to have written those lines.

 

Natalia V. of Belarus also wrote of her new hometown:

 

My heart beats quickly

Seeing young people in love.


Such a tender image!  Does anyone hear South Pacific’s “Hello, Young Lovers” in the background?  I get a sense of Natalia remembering something beautiful from her own past as she watches new love in her new country.

 

M.K. of Seuol, South Korea employed alliteration to describe her home city:

 

Splendid, sparkling, small space

City of Super-duper energy

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, Esther C. of Korea writes this pithy and powerful portrait of her home country:

 

Divided land,

Barbed wires, land mines

Guns, tanks

Brothers against brothers

Families ripped apart

Hating, distrusting

Yet hoping for peace

My country, dreaming of unification

 

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With all the blahblahblah about Chinese mothers and the ensuing defense of western ones, perhaps it’s time for a dose of multiculturalism that goes down easier.  I’m posting poems, previously unpublished, written not only by novice poets, but by novice poets writing in a non-native language.  How amazing is that!  It’s akin to me writing a duet for the tuba and cowbell or attempting to sew draperies.

My sister Ceci has been teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) for 15 years, and this fall for the first time introduced a poetry unit to her conversation class.  Her class is diverse in every way:  hailing from Japan, South Korea, Russia, Brazil and other points around the globe, they range in age from 19 to 78.  They worship in synagogues, Buddhist temples, churches, mosques, and nowhere at all; they work as mothers, small business owners, babysitters and wait staff; some have high school degrees and others PhD’s.  She asked each of them to write an imitation of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” Here’s Ceci’s description of the project:

No matter where we currently live, we all yearn for a place that nourishes our inner spirits, excites our senses, feels comfortable, and challenges our minds.  The ESL students at the Patty Turner Center have found such a place in their Conversation Class.   The classroom becomes home to many who are so far from the land of their birth. Friendships have been made and borders do not exist. And yet the heart tugs for the memories, the attachments, and the pride in one’s native country. This newsletter contains Imitation Poems that my students wrote about that special place in their hearts after reading and studying Carl Sandburg’s famous American poem,“Chicago.”  For many students, this was the first poem ever read in English and for all it was the first attempt to write a poem in their non-native language. They felt Sandburg’s pride in Chicago through the power of his words. And I hope you feel their pride in the places they call home through their words in English.

I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing that place that nourishes their spirit, excites their senses and feels comfortable.

Here’s the poem Ceci’s students imitated.  (Link here for a video of old photographs of Chicago accompanying Carl Sandburg reading the poem.)

Chicago

by Carl Sandburg

HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under

the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

And now here’s one of the imitations, the only one I’ll post in its entirety.  This one’s by Vladimir K. of Lviv, Ukraine.

Lviv

Unforgettable views

Architectural monuments, museum-town

Coming true dreams and every street a legend

Magic power, aura of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

City of Sleeping Lions

They tell me you are ancient and crowded and I believe them, for I have seen cars that could not pass through narrow paved streets.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer, yes, it is true I have seen a policeman take a bribe and let a killer go free.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head breathing magic power of the Carpathian air and its legendary gray stones of Middle Aged walls so proud

To be alive and standing strong after many battles, invasions, fires, and floods.

Every time, fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action,

Shoveling, rebuilding with new attractiveness

Wrecking, planning, building, breaking, and rebuilding again

Since the founding of the legendary streets of old times, it’s a piece of Earth that your soul seeks.

Smiling and welcoming to new visitors

Proud to have unforgettable views, architectural monuments, museum-town, coming true dreams and every street a legend, magic power, aura of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Vladimir’s poem is an interesting contrast to Sandburg’s.  Sandburg’s Chicago is brand-new and building itself from the ground up, a young man bursting with muscle and plans.  Vladimir’s Lviv is ancient and battle-worn but still working it, not giving up, more like a man with too much energy to retire.

I’m not sure what “Carpathian air” is, but I want to breathe it.  Vladimir, thanks for sharing your love of your hometown with everyone.

Tomorrow I’ll post excerpts from a select few of the other poems.  But to everyone in Ceci’s class, a hearty congratulations!  Felicitanciones! Omedetou! Herzlichen Glückünsch! Chucka hehyo! Salem!  Your poems were a delight to read.

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poem is taped to the scan, pay, GO! machine

Wrong Road

 

So I said to the short order cook (because I

think he owns the joint) what did Santa bring

 

you: a fairly aggressive bit of humor, since

I hardly know the man: my wife and I stop

 

there occasionally on the way to Syracuse

because it is so busy, the eggs are right, and

 

the waitresses friendly: when he says, Oh,

some of this and that: so I said, a boat:

 

(checking to see if he was really rich): a

gun, I said–maybe he was just one of the

 

guys: I have a lot of guns, he said: well,

I don’t think he ever did say what he got,

 

some clothes, maybe: he was turning too many

eggs, jigging hash browns: on the way to

 

Syracuse, I finished it in my head: he got

angry: who’s asking, he says: so I try to

 

bring him down: I’m too old to rise up to

risibility: I said, I’m a little older than

 

you, so I was wondering, because I was disappointed

in myself when my wife asked me before Xmas

 

what I wanted for Christmas: I couldn’t think

of anything: what does it mean to want nothing

 

from Santa: so I just wondered what sort of

thing you might have wanted, or if you had

 

liked what you got: well (reader) this last

part doesn’t sound as good as the way it came

 

to me around Lafayette: I have a little tingle

of fear that the next time I stop there, the

 

guy will say, listen, buddy, I’m old enough

you don’t have to ask me what Santa brought me

 

and I’ll say, well, it’s Easter now, and I’m

not going to ask about those eggs….

 

 

 

If this poem were a monologue delivered across a dinner table by an old man of dear acquaintance, I would nod my head with feigned interest and wait for an opportunity to clear the dishes. Would you please just get to the point? I would be thinking. The story in the poem is needlessly long. Nothing happens, but the speaker goes on and on. The old man asks the short order cook what he got for Christmas. Despite the old man’s attempts to engage his distracted listener, the ensuing conversation barely rises to the level of banter.

 

But this is a poem, a shaped, edited and crafted work of art, not a transcription of a one-sided conversation. So I read it carefully. I read it again and again. And maybe because I lost two fathers this year and watched friends grieve their own fathers, I no longer find this poem merely rambling. “Wrong Road” is pointed, weighty, and a little heartbreaking.

 

Much is going on behind the corny chatter of this friendly old fellow. He begins with what he considers an “aggressive” question, and he keeps upping the ante from there. Can’t you just see his wife rolling her eyes when he suggests that the cook has guns? Later he finishes the conversation in his head, and imagines that the cook gets angry with his questions. “Who’s asking?” the cook says, like some trigger-happy character out of an old gangster movie. And then the speaker admits to a “tingle of fear” when he thinks of meeting the cook again. There’s a lot of violence under the surface of an event-free road trip.

 

That latent violence and the title of the poem remind me of Flannery O’Connor’s much-anthologized story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In that story, a voluble grandmother sends her family down the wrong road where they meet an escaped convict called The Misfit. She yakkety-yaks her way through the whole episode, and eventually has a moment of connection with The Misfit, who kills them all anyway. The difference between O’Connor’s story and this poem is that the violence in “Wrong Road” is all imagined, perhaps even desired. But why would this old man, who enjoys the busy diner and the friendly waitresses, dream of violence?

 

Because when a man gets old and retires, he doesn’t don’t live in a testosterone-driven world anymore, a world where men are always competing, where a man must act and react, and charm or banter or fight his way out of situations. If he’s not careful, he can feel useless and superfluous.

 

Typically ill health and death are the main events in the lives of old people. And so the poem’s speaker invents an alternative event, an amusing, potentially dangerous encounter with a younger and more important man (at least to the diner patrons). In this way he feels part of the busy world, he feels that he matters, that his life still matters, that despite the fact that he can’t think of a single thing he wants for Christmas, he is still very much alive.

 

Although he asks so poignantly, what does it mean to want nothing, he really does want something. He wants connection. And he tries to get it in such an amiable, pleasant fashion that you hardly see the desperation and fear behind it.

 

But he is more than just an old man. First and foremost, he’s a writer. All the while he’s trying to engage the cook, he’s really engaging his future audience of readers and flexing his creative muscles. Yes, retired people make more out of small incidents than busy people, but so do writers. Writers experience events from a distance, picking apart the action, re-working it, drawing it out, packing it with drama. This man isn’t just making up a drama in his head—he’s creating a poem, an act which is itself a stand against irrelevance, against invisibility and death.

 

I left this poem at the motor vehicle department when renewing my license. I thought I’d leave a little reading material for someone bored with the unavoidable waiting. After I taped the poem to a self-service registration renewal machine, I wondered if I was defacing government property, and I started working out a scenario in my head where someone traces the Poem Elf stamp on the back of the poem to me and an officer comes to my door. . . and here I am, just like the old man, inventing drama for myself.

 

A.R. Ammons died in 2001 at age 75. He was born in the south on a tobacco farm, served in the Navy during WWII, writing poems aboard ship, and then worked as a school principal, a realtor, and a sales executive, all before landing as faculty at Cornell University.

 

I have read and enjoyed a few other poems of Ammons– they’re easy to read and funny sometimes–but I had no idea he was held in such high regard. He’s been compared to everyone from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson. No less than Harold Bloom calls him destined to become a classic of the 20th century. Jeez. Time for a re-assessment. It’s like discussing the weather with someone in the grocery checkout and finding out later she was a world-renowned climatologist in line for the Nobel Prize.

 

In the last week I’ve turned several times to my favorite of Ammons’ poems, “In View of the Fact.” In the poem, he’s mourning the death of friends. The last lines are beautiful, and I put them out here in memory of my beautiful, life-loving friend Barb:

 

until we die we will remember every

single thing, recall every word, love every

 

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to

others to love, love that can grow brighter

 

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength

and getting more precious all the way. . . .

 


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Two stories to begin the new year:

 

When I was young and sometimes cruel, I played a trick on my little sister.  I tracked her down in the neighborhood and told her that our father had been looking all over for her and was really, really mad that she wasn’t home.  What got me laughing up my sleeve was that he hadn’t been looking for her at all, and that he had a notoriously bad temper. Dreading his outburst, poor Josie hurried home, knocked timidly on his bedroom door and said in her tiny voice, “I’m home.”

 

“So what?” came the booming voice from the other side of the door.

 

I feel like little Josie, sheepishly returning to my blog after a long absence, announcing my arrival, full of excuses.  But before I launch into an explanation, I hear the response: “So what?”

 

Speaking of getting back home, I was just in Maryland and heard a little story from my nephew, who is a “Firstie” at the Naval Academy.  Last October, as he stood in line for a Halloween concert at the Naval chapel, performers dressed as gargoyles and white-faced zombies snaked in and out of the line, creeping up on people.  They would press up against their victims and stare, expressionless.  Bear in mind that my nephew is at least 6’6”, so his zombie only came up to his shoulder, but she was still “in his face,” so to speak, and wouldn’t go away.

 

He tried talking to her.  “So do you come here often?” he joked, and noticing her sleeveless attire, “Pretty cold out here, eh?”  Still she wouldn’t break character or leave his side. “I was really uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to do,” my nephew explained, “so I put my jacket on her.”

 

Sigh.  I don’t think it’s just the proud auntie in me that labels him a sweetie, a gentle giant, an adorable young man who is also very wise.  I’m impressed, he impressed me, he’s left an impression.  I’ll call it James’ Rule:  when you feel uncomfortable in a situation and don’t know how to act or what to do, perform a kindness.

 

Perhaps I’ve read this advice before in a women’s magazine, but he surely hadn’t.  That’s what makes him such a wonder.

 

Tomorrow, a poem elfing.

 

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