Nature vs Nurture

Nature vs Nurture

The nature part…

The Night Swimmers by Peter Rock

Peter Rock is a Portland writer and he teaches at Reed College. I’ve read two of Peter Rock’s books, My Abandonment and The Night Swimmers. In each novel Peter Rock’s protagonists bob and weave and hide from their demons. And they seek sanctuary and balance in nature. In My Abandonment, comfort is taken in the Pacific Northwest woods.  In The Night Swimmers, the characters swim in Lake Michigan for miles under inky black night skies.

The Night Swimmers has been reviewed as an autobiographical novel, but the lines may be blurrier than that. The story starts in the 1990s on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. The narrator has recently graduated from college and is beginning his life as a writer (all the hows and whys of his future remain undefined and this troubles him). He is living with his parents on the lakeshore when he meets an intriguing widow at a party. And they have this in common, they both enjoy distance night swimming, but the commonality is discovered later and accidently in a near collision in the dark water. As the summer continues, the narrator and the widow begin to swim across miles of open water together in the dark. The narrator is attracted to the widow in an undefined way but nothing comes of it. The widow, Mrs. Abel, remains mysterious, as unobtainable crushes often do. Then one night during an exceptionally long swim, Mrs. Abel disappears at a strange shoal. The narrator swims back to shore without her after searching frantically. When he is at last able to get out of the water, dawn is breaking.

Twenty years later the narrator is a novelist, married, and a father to two daughters. He is able now to reflect on his summer of Mrs. Abel, their night swims and her disappearance. As the narrator considers that time, he gathers artifacts from his past – photographs, letters, art work and his mind wanders to the painter Charles Burchfield and the psychic photographer Ted Serios.  (Serios reportedly had the ability to take a Polaroid shot of his head and produce photographs of places he had never visited.)

A Charles Burchfield painting.

The narrator weaves together all the gathered detail to help him make sense of that summer -it is after all the tangents that flesh out our storyline, that add color.  In further pursuit of understanding, the narrator returns to Wisconsin with his family to wander through empty cabins and share secret summer spots with his delightfully odd daughters.  And of course, he begins to swim again, late at night.

I loved this novel of remembrance and Peter Rock’s tribute to the watery depths of memory. It’s how I too envision memory, my own secret pool of images and flashes of light.  A body of water both roiling and placid.  When I dream of water, I know I am dreaming my life. And on different nights there can be misshapen grotesque monsters in the water or sunshine on turquoise water.  There are sometimes –often– flotillas of people I love shouting back and forth stories of our shared time and there is outrageous laughter.  Sometimes the water is peopled with those from whom I ran. On a walk today through a reach on Chrystal Springs I looked for spring runs of steelheads and lampreys with an environmental engineer.  I learned about fish and wetlands from him and I also discovered he too envisions his memory like water. And when he dreams of himself, he is water.  I asked if he fished, “no”, he shook his head thoughtfully and, “no” again. He said, “it would be like killing a part of myself”.

My Abandonment is based on a short newspaper article Peter Rock read in The Oregonian. The article told of an adult male and his daughter found living in Forest Park – Portland’s largest wilderness park.  Rock researched the story and then imagined the end. The book was made into a movie in 2018 called, Leave No Trace. Both the book and movie are well worth the time.

Leave No Trace. Ben Foster is stellar in his role. The daugher reminds me of someone we all know.

The nurture part…

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman.

The Gunners is the name on a mailbox in front of an abandoned house. And it serves as a secret club to six friends growing up in an economically depressed section of Buffalo, New York.

Kauffman has written truth in The Gunners and so like real life, the novel is keen and funny. And sad. It is filled with equal parts of loss and mistakes, grace and love -not unlike most lives. Through all the years the Gunners — Mikey, Lynn, Alice, Sam, and Jimmy hold on to one another. They don’t do it seamlessly, because each has their own shortcomings, and there have been gaps and a few mistakes.

The story starts as the kids randomly find one another and agree to form a club in the abandoned Gunner house. The years pass and their ties loosen. But death brings them together again and they return to Buffalo for a funeral. They reunite at a lake house and discover their feelings for one another haven’t changed, that their ties are true and meaningful. And it’s time to start filing in the blanks…

Kauffman’s writing is clean and it enables her to sidestep gooeyness. She builds individuals with specific vulnerabilities and personalities, you don’t feel sorry for anyone, even though there is tragedy. Reading this book is like taking the hand of a dear childhood friend and heading out for a purposeful stroll.

Other books:

The Immortalists by Chole Benjamin.

What if you were told, as a child, the exact date you would die? Would you live your life differently? The Immortalists is about the four Gold children who on one boring summer vacation day meet with a psychic who has a gift to foretell the exact day on which a person will die. The novel follows each Gold as they set out to live their lives, with their death date fueling many of their choices. This one is about family and destiny and illusions. The novel takes place in San Francisco during the early AIDS epidemic, Las Vegas during the Siegfried and Roy years, New York, and primate labs focused on ageing experiments. I think Chole Benjamin is a bit of a smart-y. You’ll learn a lot if your read this book and I suspect you will enjoy it mightily.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

This book is won.der.ful.  The story centers on quirky Eleanor who is the embodiment of that one person in the office with whom we are all (likely) familiar. Eleanor has only clipped responses for her co-workers, she wears crummy out-of-date clothes, and getting to the point: she is simply an all-around socially clunky oddball. You know workers snigger behind her back and make after-work plans that intentionally leave her out of the fun and bonding (and Eleanor knows it too).

Eleanor’s profound loneliness is carefully revealed to the reader and its shattering. But wait, get this, despite her loneliness the story is also funny because Eleanor is funny. Eleanor’s humor is shared in her internal monologues because Eleanor doesn’t think much of people and talks almost exclusively to herself. Even so, you know something has to change.

And here is how it happens -she of all people falls in love with a local jackass pop singer. Her crush brings Eleanor out of her shell a little but her fantasies are upended when she is persuaded (by a co-worker) to help an old man who has fallen in a crosswalk.  Read it before Reese Witherspoon turns it into another HBO mini-series (not necessarily a bad thing).

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J sez:

Hiya Scramblers.

It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.

It’s that wonderful time of year for a teacher. I’m in between semesters. I have no class… But you already knew that.

I’ve been a so-so reader since I last caught up with you. I’ve started a lot of books, but probably put more aside than I have finished.

But I want to tell you about the latest book that I enjoyed. Vox by Christina Dalcher.

It takes place in the very near future. A Trump-like government is in power. The regime has taken measures to silence women. Females are dismissed of their wage-earning positions. Passports are confiscated, for those that hold them, and not available for those applying. Women are  issued counters to wear on their wrists. The counters count their words: they are allowed 100 per day, unless they curse. A curse word costs them 10 words. They are not allowed to use sign language, read, or write. They can watch the news: a Fox News-like program with a constant feed of pro-government propaganda. Young girls get counters too. Their consolation – they get to pick the color. They can continue to go to school, where they are offered classes in cooking, sewing, and household management.

The rest of the world looks on, heads shaking in disgrace, but no country stepping in for fear of disrupting the already fragile balance of the world economy.

How did this happen? Not to blame the victims, but half of the voters, women, did not see it coming. They underestimated ultra-conservative’s fear and contempt for women’s reproductive power. They overestimated the morality of the men they thought held them equal.

And they sorely underestimated the power of their own vote. They didn’t have time to canvas, to engage people in “women’s causes.” They didn’t see things ever really changing from the status quo, so what good was it to talk and talk and talk about it?

Dr. Jean McClellan is one of the many women silenced. She is a neuro-linguist who, with her federally-funded research team, had discovered an antidote to Wernicke’s Aphasia right before being dismissed of her government research position and being issued a counter.

[J’s blog note and a speech language pathology primer: Aphasia is a term for the loss of language following a brain injury – most commonly an ischemic stroke occurring in the brain’s left hemisphere. Generally, 80-90% of the human population’s language centers are in the left hemisphere. Wernicke’s aphasia is characterized as poor comprehension and a confused meaningless output of words. Damage specifically in the posterior temporal lobe results in Wernicke’s aphasia, named so for the scientist who discovered that particular neural real estate. ]

Jean’s husband is a high-end government official with ties to the president. They have four children. Three boys, the oldest of whom has slowly been falling into line under the current doctrine. Jean is beginning to hate him. Twin boys, oblivious now, but probably following their older brother’s lead. And a young daughter who, heartbreaking to Jean, is beginning to win awards in her kindergarten class for fewest words used during the day. A prisoner in her own home, subservient to her husband and sons, Jean yearns to take her daughter and run away.

But one day, the president’s brother is afflicted with Wernicke’s aphasia and Dr. Jean McClellan, the researcher with the solution, is called back to duty with the the promised allowance of all the words she needs while she refines her antidote.

As you can imagine, Jean negotiates for more words, plus her daughter’s words, and much more. And the race is on.

This is a good one, Scramblers. A Handmaid’s Tale for the Trump era.  A modern-day horror-story.

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Quiet Signs

Her voice sounds as if it is travelling across a great distance to reach you. There is not only a sense of exaggerated physical space between Jessica Pratt’s voice and our ears, she also summons the feelings on her masterful new album, Quiet Signs, that her songs have travelled through the distance of many years.

Jessica Pratt, Folk Artist

At times Pratt sounds as if she sang a song while standing on the breezy parapet of a castle at sunrise during a cool medieval morning — she sang through a pleasant swirl of fog and wood smoke — and her song has been making its way gently toward you, finally having arrived through the mist of centuries.

At other times her quiet voice and her simply plucked guitar seem to be floating through the very dimly lit air of a low-ceilinged bar in California during the middle 1960s. There is Pratt standing with her guitar, singing from a corner stage — you can feel the nighttime outside, and along with the faint smell of beer, coffee, and cigarettes, the room is peppered with scents of patchouli, cinnamon, vanilla, and cloves.

Quiet Signs is Pratt’s third full-length release, and it is brief — just nine songs presented in less than half an hour. Pratt’s nimble voice and straightforward guitar are front-and-center, with subtle atmospherics perfectly provided by flute, piano, organ, and string synths. The record is a sprightly marvel.

How casually, almost effortlessly, Pratt delivers her pure, witchy magic. Here are two songs to check out by Los Angeles artist Jessica Pratt from Quiet Signs (out 8 Feb 2019 on Mexican Summer Records.)

Poly Blue

This Time Around

9 February 2019

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Cathy’s favorite book of 2018

My favorite book this year brought goodness and light to 2018 and continues to make me happy as I pick it up and randomly reread a few pages at a time. The book was written as a children’s book, but it is much more than that. Robert MacFarlane is the author of The Lost Words and it was illustrated by Jackie Morris. The Lost Words is an oversized book, and within its covers are pages of “spells” that honor nature with the intent to introduce words to children, words that are disappearing from our language. Each “spell” is enhanced by Morris’ stunning illustrations. The price of the book is worth it, if just to gaze at her art work.

Here’s the backstory to The Lost Words, in 2007 the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped multiple words that described the natural world. The omissions did not go unnoticed and a feisty public debate over the eliminated words ignited. At one point a group of artists and scientists sent a publicly shared letter to the Oxford Junior Dictionary requesting the deleted words be added back into the next edition. The words, they argued, included many British plants and animals that were symbolic of the nation’s cultural ties with the land and wildlife.

The public letter also referenced research that drew correlations between natural play and wellbeing for children. My only contention with that argument is adults should have been included. There is a correlation between natural play and wellbeing for adults too. Adults should not be overlooked simply because we are not as rosy-cheeked and adorable as a 10-year old when we wander (hobble/limp/stumble) through open meadows and dense forests.

Morris’ lush illustrations run throughout the book.

The Lost Words is a response to the Oxford Junior Dictionary omissions and reintroduces the words to young readers. There is an ongoing effort to get this book into all primary schools throughout Great Britain. And you dear readers should make an effort to get the book into your living room. If anything, the book is a gentle reminder that if we lose words for something or lose words that describes the thing, then it is more difficult to understand the essence of it. For me the book is a light tap on the shoulder that signals I have a lot more to learn about the outdoors and the words that are used to name and describe all the bits and glorious pieces out there.

Here is a sample of a “spell” included in the book.


Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!’

 Emoted the coot to the too-cute newt,

With your frilly back and your shiny suit and your spotted skin so unhirsute!’

Too cute?!’ roared the newt to the unastute coot. ‘With all this careless talk of cute you bring me into disrepute, for newts aren’t cute: we’re kings of the pond, lions of the duckweek, dragons of the water; albeit, it’s true,’ -he paused- ‘minute.’

By the by, McFarlane is one of my favorite follows on Twitter. He shares lost words there too.  Here are a few which I have copied directly from his Twitter feed.

Williwaw – a violent squall that blows offshore from a mountainous coast, as cold air descends fast from high ground, accelerated by gravity (etymology unknown).

Rain-bird – common name for the green woodpecker because it was thought to herald bad weather.

A crafty pine-tree rat.

Pine tree “rat”

Eichhörnchen – literally, “little horned one of the oak tree”; squirrel (German). In Mandarin Chinese, the characters for squirrel mean, somewhat less poetically, “pine-tree rat”.

Coorie – to hunker down, crouch, nestle, snuggle in, especially when it’s cold, dark & hostile outside (Scots). A winter activity, then, chiefly — though one might “coorie down” to weather of other kinds of adversity.

Willawel – the murmur of wind in the branches of trees, esp. at dusk (Welsh).

Marcescence – in trees & plants, the ‘holding-on’ of dead leaves through the winter months (noticeable especially in beech & oak). A “marcescent” leaf – or, figuratively, person – is one that has withered but not fallen.

Eyot – a small island in a river, also known as an “ayot” or “ait” (all three words are pronounced “ate”).

Brumation – the condition of torpor & sluggishness brought on by winter. Coined in 1965 by the American zoologist Wilbur W. Mayhew to refer to the cold-weather dormancy of reptiles. (By extension, therefore, the indolence induced by Christmas).

Happy Holidays Scramblers.  Here’s to a hale and hearty 2019 for each and every one of us.

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Keep Reading, there’s a book report at the end…

J sez – keep reading, there’ a book report at the end

Matt and I have had the opportunity to visit some artists’ studios lately.

Vahallan dressed up for a show

Matt works in an art studio basically, where custom wallpaper is dreamt up, painted, cut to order, and shipped all over the world. In November, Vahallan papers held a benefit for Voices of Hope. So in this industrial, yet artistic, space, guests walked around to view and shop paintings, prints, jewelry, photos, baskets, and other goods under festive lights and live music. It’s a unique experience when Vahallan has a show like this. It’s in no way knick-knacky, but it’s not buttoned-up gallery either. It’s a hip event.

I bought a variety of things at the benefit. One item was a fantastic cow painting by Margaret Berry (I never took a picture, but it may be available for private viewing in Oregon. You’ll have to ask Cathy nicely if you can have a look). I love Margaret’s encaustic (wax technique) paintings. A few weeks after the benefit, she agreed to have Matt and me to her studio to look at more of her work.  Her home is inviting and filled with art – a lot of hers, and a lot of others’ original work. She’s friendly and has many stories, one leading to another and circling back again. She confessed a long-time obsession with corn and showed us her corn-corner which is filled with corn tchotchkes and spills into other collections (Jesuses, Buddhas, dolls, and family photos among them).

Can you find the Jesus action figure that says bible verses when you push a button in his back?

Margaret’s paintings are varied – both representative, and abstract. I bought three corn paintings, all recognizable as corn, but in varying degrees of corn-like-ness. I bought a piece in series called Embers that is based on fire but doesn’t have to be fire if you see something else in it. And I bought a prairie scene painted for a show that benefitted the Willa Cather Foundation.

In the winter, Margaret says her wax doesn’t perform well in her unheated studio, which is a tiny out building next to her house. Though she wasn’t using the studio this cold November, we did take a look around.  It is a right-brained storm of paintings from different shows and swatches of examples of varying encaustic techniques. Like Margaret’s engaging personality and conversation, the room flows from one topic to another in a splash of rich colors and texture. But her work space is fluid, and because of the season she had been working at her kitchen island. The cool dried waxy paint was sitting in an unlit burner, looking vibrant and arty, yet orderly, (though Margaret apologized for the mess). The tour was really a nice experience. We left with art, plus that nice feeling you have when you’ve enjoyed a friend’s company, and also some tiny cakes Margaret had been baking.

Deon Bahr painting

A couple weeks later I got an invite to another art studio – that of Deon Bahr. When I met Deon last fall (in a class we were involved in at the University), he introduced himself as an architect with a second career as an artist. I asked him more about his work and he was game to talk about it and even humored me with pictures when I requested some. Lucky me! I took Deon up on an invitation to come and see his studio. His work is a perfect combination of precision and math required of an architect plus design and arrangement of shapes and color an artist brings. He makes wonderful, beautiful, orderly paintings and sculptures. I wanted every piece I saw.

Deon is obsessed with the Golden Mean.


This is the average that occurs when the ratio of two quantities is the same as the ratio of their sum. It is a phenomenon that occurs naturally throughout the universe;

and in the history of art and architecture…

Deon’s home and studio, both designed and built by him, are expressions of the Golden Mean at every line and angle.

Deon’s house, an image from the internet

Like Margaret’s home, the interior of Deon’s is filled with art of his own and others’, mostly known Nebraska artists. His studio is the upper level of his garage and has several projects going all at once: miniatures of future huge-scale sculptures, paintings, figures and cubes that are interchangeable to create multiple views to suit the observer’s mood. As you would expect of an architect, each space is functional. The graded sky light, designed on the principles the Golden Ratio provides natural light; a huge bay window is big enough to allow a front loader to deposit or unload large sculptures; and an almost secret board with a hook flush to the floor is actually a type of dumbwaiter large enough for big paintings to move up to the studio, or down to the garage below.

My descriptions don’t do the work or the workspace justice. It was fascinating and a really incredible afternoon of art in every sense.

Vonnegut, not a stranger to RSWR pages

And now for my book report with an advanced notice: I love and revere Kurt Vonnegut’s work so much I don’t think I can really write about it with the distinction it deserves, but anyway…

My recent art excursions prompted me to re-read one of my all-time favorites, Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. Matt said about the band Yo La Tengo, “What did we do to deserve them?”  I have the same sentiment about KV. Nobody wrote about the human condition like Kurt Vonnegut, (that line is an inside joke for those of you who have already read Bluebeard, and for those of you who are soon to discover it).

In short, Bluebeard is the memoir of Rabo Karabekian, a WWII veteran, and an abstract artist active in the mid-century. The fictional Karabekian was contemporary with the real-life Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, among others. In the story, Rabo’s works were enormous paintings of solid color with overlaying bands of contrasting colors. Twenty years after he painted them, after expressionism had been accepted as “real art,” the paint he used, Sateen Duralux, disintegrated, resulting in blank canvases with piles of dried dusty paint on the floors of museums and prestigious office lobbies where they hung. In Rabo’s mind, he became the colossal joke of abstract art history. True to Kurt Vonnegut’s treatment of his characters, this is just one of many indignities life hands Rabo Karabekian.

Not child’s play

This book is about a lot of things: Abstract art, for one – and the spiritual forces at work that propel artists to create interest, sometimes without conventional figures. This book is an answer to everyone who has ever looked at a Jackson Pollock painting and thought, “anyone could splatter a bunch of paint on a canvas.” Vonnegut, as Karabekian, puts the transcendent significance of abstract images into readable words as easily as and as simple as it is to read Dick and Jane. Nobody boils down complicated issues into just a few pure words like Kurt Vonnegut. In the story, Rabo Karabekian’s paintings – his strips of color, before they fell off the canvas –represented souls free of their bodies, or their “meat” as he described it. Zen-like, his paintings represented the good, inner-part of humans before their physical selves created a violent distressful world.

Not child’s play

Bluebeard is also about a lot of other things too: Belonging and Forgiveness. Creation and Destruction. It’s about where we live and where we create. In Rabo’s case, this is in a huge mansion on the Long Island Coast with a potato barn as a studio. What’s in the potato barn is a secret, and I encourage you to read to the end to find out what is there. The story is rich. Pure Vonnegut, this book is so packed with insights and humor, it made me stop reading every once in a while, to shake my head in appreciation of his writing.

It was a perfect complement to my recent run-ins with artists in their spaces.

Happy New Year Scramblers. And Happy Reading.

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