I hate it when this happens

I have to stop reading for a moment.

I am tackling once again after a long hiatus The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell, a marvelous little novel (?) that consists of nothing but questions.  To wit:

image“If you had enough money to live on, could you see yourself retiring to a small village in France and never being heard of or from again, and not speaking French when there, mostly because you can’t, but also because you have nothing to say and you’d have no one to say it to if you had something to say, and mostly just sleeping in your quaint medieval stone cottage?  Could you make do with a little exercise once in a while and a piece of Beaufort of very high quality?  And maybe a look-in on the pigs?  What if the cartoonist R. Crumb were your neighbor?”

And that’s where I had to stop reading.

I am in Beaufort, SC, and the Writer’s Almanac email this morning heralded R. Crumb’s birthday, noting that he had retired to a chateau in France.

This kind of thing happens to me all the time, and it’s unnerving.  Usually it’s with the crossword puzzle: this morning I read that Slawomir Mrozek, the Czech playwright had died, and I mentioned it to my lovely first wife, who was doing the crossword puzzle.  I reminded her of the the production of The Cuttlefish for which we had had to work on costumes at UGA—I was mistaken: Cuttlefish was by Witkiewicz—and she immediately said, “The clue I’m looking at is ‘cuttlefish kin.'”

Reading Caves: theory & practice

On the Nature of Reading Caves

At Newnan Crossing Elementary, we’ve been celebrating Read Across America, as is our wont, with our Reading Caves event. I thought it might be appropriate to talk about the theory and practice of this curious cultural artifact.

First a photo of this year’s caves:

As you can see, teams of teachers come in and transform the media center with bulletin board paper and fripperies. The idea is that students will come in and secrete themselves in one hidey hole or another and read for a short time. It’s just something out of the ordinary and fun.

But why? Why don’t I bring in multitudes of volunteers to read books, usually something by Dr. Seuss, to classes all over the school?

I used to do that, actually. As the school got larger, however, it became more and more of a problem to line up the number of volunteers needed, then match their availability to our insane patchwork schedule all over the building.

And then one year, I forgot. I looked at the calendar, and it was February 25, and I had done nothing about Read Across America Day on March 2.

I panicked.

But then, somehow, I remembered a thing I had read years before.

The Theory of Reading Caves

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, et al., is a tome published in 1977, and it bears every hallmark of the sensibilities of the 1960s and their aftermath: utopianism, rejection of urban/corporate life, respect for older ways, optimism, etc., etc. Large parts of it belong to the “isn’t it pretty to think so?” school of planning, but a great deal of it is not only heartfelt, but valid.

The book is essentially a grammar of design for living spaces: towns, buildings, homes, neighborhoods. More than 250 ‘patterns’ in this grammar are presented, hierarchically listed and interlinked. The patterns are derived from the authors’ observations about how healthy cultures live(d), and many are precisely archetypal.

Late in the book, p. 927-929, we are presented with a detail pattern: 203 CHILD CAVES. I will quote the pattern in its entirety:

Children love to be in tiny, cave-like places.

In the course of their play, young children seek out cave-like space to get into and under, old crates, under tables, in tents, etc. […]

They try to make special spaces for themselves and for their friends, most of the world about them is “adult space” and they are trying to carve out a place that is kid size.

When children are playing in such a “cave”, each child takes up about 5 square feet; furthermore, children like to do this in groups, so the caves should be large enough to accommodate this: these sorts of groups range in size from three to five, so 15 to 25 square feet, plus about 15 square feet for games and circulation, gives a rough maximum size for caves.


Wherever children play, around the house, in the neighborhood, in schools, make small “caves ” for them. Tuck these caves away in natural left over spaces, under stairs, under kitchen counters. Keep the ceiling heights low, 2 feet 6 inches to 4 feet, and the entrance tiny.

I don’t think I need to provide a lot of proof or defense for pattern 203: who among us has not thrilled at the receipt of a refrigerator box? I remember that one reason I looked forward to school being out each summer was that I could prevail upon my father to go to Maxwell-Prince Furniture (“Drive a little and save a lot,” a slogan necessitated by the fact that they were not on the Court Square but, gasp!, nearly a whole mile away out on Hwy 27, at the Hospital Road intersection) and get me a box. It would become my Fortress of Solitude for weeks.

So, in my panic and desperation at having not scheduled a single reader for the school, I boldly announced a new initiative: Newnan Crossing Reading Caves!

That first year was more than a little desperate. I pulled the thing together literally overnight, bringing in sheets and swaths of fabric; lamps; pillows. I turned over tables and enveloped them in bulletin board paper. I turned the book aisles into long, narrow enclaves. I borrowed the parachute from the gym and draped it over tables and the couch. I borrowed materials from teachers. The whole thing was quite lame.

And it was a huge hit. The kids didn’t see the tape and bulletin board paper, nor did they see how desperately cheesy it was: they saw CHILD CAVES, and they were ecstatic.

At that point, Newnan Crossing was pushing 1,000 students, and it was clear to me that Reading Caves was a much more practicable solution to Read Across America Day than the nightmare that scheduling volunteers had turned into. We went with it.

Reading Caves in Practice

Since that first year, I have invited teachers to join in the fun. Those who choose can volunteer to put up a Reading Cave, and they choose their theme. On the afternoon beforehand, they come into the media center and transform it. For the next two days, media center traffic comes to a standstill: it’s silent reading time in here, and besides, most of the shelves are covered by the caves.

After the teachers have set up theirs, I’ll go around and do the table thing to fill in the gaps. (I also have my own major Cave to put up.)

We run Reading Caves for two days so that most classes have a chance to come in and spend a while reading. After each class comes in, I give them four minutes to explore, and after a one-minute warning, they have to sit and read. (This year, I created two sound files, one with an introduction, and the one-minute warning, followed by a “sit and read”; and a 20-minute loop that had nothing in it but a chime to end the session about three minutes before the end. During the entire day, I play quiet music, this year all space music. Drove me nuts.)

The four minutes are insane: we usually have two classes at a time, and they go nuts as they explore one cave after another. And then when the one-minute warning sounds, it becomes bedlam. Now they have to choose which cave to sit in, and the friend/clique factor kicks in, and lo! there is much squealing and running.

And then it’s quiet for about ten minutes as they settle in and start reading. For the little kids, that’s enough time. For the older ones, I need to find a way to have longer sessions, because they’re just getting into it when the chime instructs them to close their books and “return to real life.”

They leave on a high, chattering about how much fun they’ve had. It’s pretty neat: a really big response for not a lot of work.

The caves can be elaborate, or they can be simple as pie. Here are some from this year and the past:

Charlotte’s Web, complete with bales of hay, the web, troughs, and a fence of yarn (that no one could see and which we finally had to take down for safety’s sake). If you look in the trough on the right, you can see a little brown Templeton. Kids climbed up on the tables inside, somehow managing to not knock off all the chairs that were perched up there with them, holding up the roof.

The fifth grade’s Iditarod cave. Simplicity itself, but because you entered from one aisle and had to crawl all the way down and around (in a U-shape), it was very popular. Also popular, and pictured up at the top of the post, was a Twilight cave. How do kids this young even know about that accursed phenomenon? That cave was actually two: a cave and a den (for the werewolves.)

My 100 Book Club cave. Not very flashy, but it was comfortable. More than a few kids found it cozy:

I have these large pieces of cardboard that were donated several years ago by Multec, a local company that makes packaging. I’ve saved them and use them every year, so my cave has actual walls. I’m thinking of ways to make it more complex and interesting next year. And I hold them together with Mr. McGroovy’s Box Rivets, a wonderful, wonderful invention.

One year, I did a Hogwarts. Here’s the Slytherin common room from that cave:

Above that was the Gryffindor common room. You entered the cave by crawling under a table; that table had the Great Hall on top. I had house banners hanging, and great portraits all over the walls.

Here’s a glance at the exterior, beyond the Three Little Pigs houses:

The houses of the Little Pigs were made of PVC pipe, covered in fabric. Each would hold one child.

My all-time favorite was the year 5th grade did Narnia. You entered through the Wardrobe, of course:

There was a stretch of Narnia in winter:

Then you turned the corner, and there you were in Mr. Tumnus’s house:

Pretty spectacular.

Some practical considerations: since we turn out the lights, you will need to consider how the children will see to read. There are outlets nearly everywhere in the media center, so power is not really a problem. I made that mistake with the “Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way” cave two years ago: the all-black and black-light lit space was very cool, but no one could see to read.

You have to consider supervision. Make sure there’s a way an adult can see into the space and check on things. We had to cut a flap in the Iditarod cave this year for that reason. Otherwise, the more closed in, the better. One reason the 100 Book Club cave was not as popular as it might have been was that it was largely open.

Seating is an issue. This year’s Magic School Bus looked great, but was not very popular because there were no cushions. The same went for the secondary parachute cave. There was just bare carpet, and not many kids found it appealing.

Like A Pattern Language suggests, room for more than one student is good, but more than five is just not cozy. Still, most of the one-kid caves were occupied, because there are some students who are serious about the reading part and don’t want the distraction of other kids.

The cave does not have to be elaborate:

This one, just a table on its side draped with paper, was occupied more than half the sessions. If I had gone a little more origami on it and closed the front a bit, it would have been even more popular.

I’m already planning next year’s Reading Caves. Let me know if you’d like to join in.


I’ve written about this before, but I’ve refined my ideas and wanted to write about them.

Here’s the basic idea: I print a poster about once a week to show what I’ve been reading. It shows what I’m reading now, what I’ve just finished, and what I plan to read next.

Since I started this, about a year ago, I’ve beefed up the “What I’ve Read Recently” section. I’ve added the star ratings and the reviews so that they mirror our catalog software. Kids can write reviews and rate books in the catalog; I do the same with the books I feature on my posters.

I’ve also added little tags to inform the kids (and teachers) further. There’s the “100 Book Club” tag, which lets the kids know that it’s one of the “best” books in the media center. The “New!” badge is self-explanatory, as is the “Grown-Up Book” tag.

The main purpose of the poster is to show the kids what a really good reader does, the pattern and flow of a life of reading. They can see that I’m looking ahead to what I want to read (and do the same themselves with their personal pages in the catalog). They can see that I may have multiple books going on at one time. They can see that some books move through quickly, while others will hang around a long time. If they’re clever, they can see that I may abandon a book, and that it may return at a later date.

Each time I put up a new poster, I clip out the little Recent books at the bottom and staple them across the top of the bulletin board as a kind of reading record:

I also clip the Recent books and their reviews and put them over to the side for the life of the new poster. After that, I take them out to the shelf and tape them up where the book itself resides:

That way, my insidious plan to lure kids into a lifelong habit of reading has a longer shelf life. Ha. See what I did there?

The Unfinished Angel

I am reading The Unfinished Angel, by Sharon Creech, who won the Newbery Award for Walk Two Moons, and who has written several other wonderful books. This book is delighting me more than any book I have read in a while.

The narrator is an angel living in the tower of an old villa in a village in southern/Italian Switzerland. The angel has been there for 400 years, but is more than a little unsure of he/she is supposed to be doing: “An angel is supposed to be a happy being, no? Angels are supposed to float about bringing love and goodwill and good fortune, no? I do not know where I got these ideas. Maybe they are wrong. Me, I am not feeling all that cheerful with the peoples around, and I am not finding many peoples deserving of the splashes of love and good fortune, even if I knew how to splash and where to get the love and good fortune.”

I find myself reading it out loud in a half-Italian/half-Slavic accent and giggling.

I quote this chapter in full:

Hairs and Feets

You won’t believe this, but there are peoples who pay money to other peoples to wash their hairs and even to paint colors on their toes. Is really! And in the same world of peoples there are other peoples who have to crawl in the dirt scrounging for a measly piece of garbage to eat. I am not fabbragrating! Don’t get me started.

At night I swish in the heads of the peoples with the clean hairs and feets, showing them the peoples crawling in the dirt, but in the morning when the clean peoples wake up they have already forgotten. I think maybe it is my fault that they forget so quick and so it is my fault that there are peoples who have to crawl in the dirt. I am not knowing enough. What are the other angels doing?

I am breathless with wonder at the ability of some writers to juggle words like luftballons.

Summer Countdown: Day 12

Today (yesterday —the time slippage in these posts is always a confusing thing for me) was a regeneration day. I nursed my continuing gastrointestinal distress—I’m seeing the doctor again on Wednesday (today), thank you—and read, mostly Opening to Inner Light. Also, a new book came in the mail, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: the religious significance of entheogenic plants and chemicals, a collection of essays by Huston Smith, author of the classics The World’s Religions and Forgotten Truth: the common vision of the world’s religions.

Inner Light (Metzner) is a pretty powerful little book. As I posted previously, the first chapter’s metaphor, that of waking from a dream, was instrumental in helping me see my way out of a significant funk that I had gotten myself into. Already, then, the author’s purpose, providing a summation of the world’s metaphors and symbols as structures for psychological transformation, has borne fruit.

The second chapter’s metaphor is that of lifting the veil. “Now we see darkly,” “I was blind, but now I see,” that kind of thing. Is there any interest in the readership for a running commentary on each of the metaphors? It might make for some interesting discussion, either here or in real life.

I also began to work assiduously on my backlog of Middlemarch readings. This is my daily email from dailylit.com, and I fell off my morning readings back at the beginning of July. I don’t remember why, but I just didn’t feel like reading about those people one morning. And then the next morning. And then before I knew it, I had four or five days of reading to catch up on. And then nearly a month.

So yesterday, I dove back in and found that Eliot still delighted me, and that I was just as involved in the working out of her issues and themes as before. I’ve set myself a daily reminder to read three of these emails every day until I’m caught up.

Other than that, just basking and meditating. Tomorrow I return to GHP to catch a couple of performances and to retrieve some personal belongings, and then we are hosting some Chinese youth who are in town with the Hangzhou Welan High School Folk Chinese Youth Orchestra. This is the group who was to come last summer but made the fatal error of agreeing to try to play Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way. It was very kind of them, especially considering the effort was futile, given that they are a traditional instrument group and in no way could approach the Western chromaticism of that particular piece, and it unfortunately dragged them into the curse on my music: the tour was canceled due to an H1N1 outbreak in their province.

What I’m saying is that though I’m in good spirits and have no excuse not to get down and work on something, I may not have the time until Monday or later. And then we head up to Abingdon, VA, for the Festival. And then I go back to work. There is not enough time, not enough time.

The Idea of Justice

Grayson gave me The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen, for Father’s Day. I began reading it today while basking in the labyrinth. It contains sentences like

An appropriate understanding of social realization , central to justice as nyaya , has to take the comprehensive form of a process-inclusive broad account. It would be hard to dismiss the perspective of social realizations on the grounds that it is narrowly consequentialist and ignores the reasoning underlying deontological concerns.

Okay. I’m already reading it with a bookmark sliding down the page, line by line, to keep my eyes on track. I guess I need a word wall to help keep the dialectics sorted out. I got it that he’s not a transcendental institutionalist (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant) but rather a fan of realization-focused comparison (Smith, Condorcet, Bentham, Marx, Mill), and I think I’m on his side.

For example, the term nyaya above is one of two basic Sanskrit jurisprudence concepts. Niti is organizational propriety/behavioral correctness , the Law (which as Mr. Bumble reminds us, “is a ass”) , while nyaya is realized justice, i.e., an inclusive view of human behavior. The Western example he gives of niti is Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor) and his dictum, “Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus”: Let justice be done, though the world perish. As Sen wryly notes,

it would be hard to accommodate a total catastrophe as an example of a just world.

Precisely. He also gives an Indian term,

matsyanyaya, “justice in the world of fish,” where a big fish can freely devour a small fish. We are warned that avoiding matsyanyaya must be an essential part of justice, and it is crucial to make sure that the “justice of fish” is not allowed to invade the world of human beings… No matter how proper the established organizations might be, if a big fish could still devour a small fish at will, then that must be a patent violation of human justice as nyaya.

So far, the path he seems to be taking us down is one that I already have a sense of as being the proper one.

Sam Clemens

I am also, via DailyLit.com, reading Who is Mark Twain?, by the same. It’s a collection of essays, etc., and this paragraph, from “Jane Austen,” made me laugh out loud:

Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? For me, I mean? Maybe that is it. She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.


Through DailyLit.com, I have been reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I don’t know what I was expecting, because, honestly, the only thing I’ve ever heard about it was how wonderful it was. I’ve never read any of her other stuff, save Silas Marner of course, so I had nothing on which to base any preconceptions. (I didn’t even read the blurb on the sign-up page.)

It is highly amusing and highly entertaining. I did not expect at all a comedy of manners. Of course, I can see the seeds of high tragedy as well, so the suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

I highly recommend it.

What to do…

Well, I’m back, sitting in the labyrinth on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. I have nothing pressing on my agenda, so that means I have tons I could be doing:

  • Finish the northwest corner of the bamboo fencing: that’s where the now-dead tree was in the way of the fencers, so they just plunked down a post, then spanned over to the wooden fence with chainlink. Very ugly.
  • Sketch. I haven’t done so in weeks, and the ELP calls.
  • Actually try to get the grass seed into the dirt in the labyrinth. I’m leery of doing the raking thing, because it seems to me that it would rip up the roots of the grass that’s already there.
  • Work on a couple of blogposts, including the most recent Lichtenbergian assignment.
  • Read Twyla Tharp’s The Collaborative Habit: life lessons for working together
  • Read more of Little, Big, one of the most amazing books I’ve read recently.
  • Rework the lighting fixture at the southpoint of the labyrinth from copper wire mesh to solid copper.
  • Write a charming letter to the editor of the Times-Herald, explaining to sports writer Tommy Camp why his tongue-in-cheek take on curling was full of it.
  • Just sit here in the sun and my new Utilikilt.

update: Just so you know, I mostly sat there in the sun in my kilt. I read The Collaborative Habit but found it not very inspiring, mostly because I have covered all those bases with Lacuna Group. I wrote a very charming letter indeed to the Times-Herald. They should print it.

Reading: an update

I was appalled to find that I haven’t updated my reading pages in forever. I’ve done my best, but heaven knows I’ve forgotten something that I’ve read since last summer, and I have this persistent feeling that I’ve forgotten something wonderful.

Oh well. It’s just electrons on a page.

I’m doing a better job keeping my reading progress up to date at school, where I print out a big poster:

I got the idea from some media specialist newsgroup and adapted it for myself. I have to say it works. What is it that our beloved Lichtenberg says? “If you want to make a young person read a certain book you must not so much commend it to him directly as praise it in his presence. He will then go and find it for himself.” As usual, Lichtenberg was right. I’ve created a run on the Dead dog book and a swelling interest in the Ember and Green Knowe series.