Friday, February 28, 2014

Tom Sawyer, American classic

With great relief many of us are turning the calendars to March. 

February in a large part of the country poured on winter like few of us have experienced before. There's no pretense at sadness at we put the present month into the record book.

If you thrive on winter reading this was the year to do it. You were smart (or clairvoyant) if you collected a stack of books early in the season. You had all the time in the world this winter to plow through them.

If you had titles with text which mesmerized you might not have lifted your head from your books all winter long. 

You may actually have missed some of the frightful weather (or forecasts), so lost you were in the entertainment of your selected seasonal companions.

The books I put together for winter reading have seen me through.There are only a few chapters in a couple books still to do.

Tom Sawyer was the latest book from out of my winter stack to be completed.

It's satisfying to be on target with your reading goals. This book made the cutoff date with less than a week to go. It was finished before spring (as meteorologists determine spring, which is March 1).

The first and only read of Tom Sawyer I recall was as a student. It may have been classroom assigned reading or it fell in with books picked up, like now, to read out of curiosity or interest or from being recommended. 

I read books in those younger days like folks eat corn on the cob. One munch leads to another. You keep moving along the row and it's all so good and you never stop and you don't look up until you reach for another.

But that's all so long ago. One never quite reads in the same way as when you're young.

My single recalled incident from the original reading of the book is of Tom Sawyer finagling his friends to paint the fence for him.

The fence painting was the job  his Aunt Polly (his dead mother's sister) set for him as a task to punish him for incorrigibility of behavior. 

Tom Sawyer cleverly got his friends to do the work by pretense. He made it look an enviable thing to be whitewashing the board fence. 

The other kids itched to have a go of it. Reluctant in appearance, but rejoicing all the while, he let each have their turn. 

The painting got done quickly with ample help and our hero had back his Saturday holiday.

"Here's a manipulator." My juvenile mind was swift to sort the title character by personality and mode of operation. My mental picture of Tom Sawyer in all the years since is of that fence painting scene.

Tom Sawyer updated himself through my current reading of the book. Yes, he has his moments of glory using cagey methods. He gets by with some of them.

If he does stop to reason the next step he's about to take there's usually cunning behind his decision. He doesn't mind bending the rules or veracity itself to advance his own end. Tom Sawyer has his interests at heart.

This contriving youth is the Tom Sawyer remembered from the first reading of the book. I picked him out this time too but there was also now recognition of situations which didn't turn out for him, some of which he had no hand in and the punishment still came down on him.

Nineteenth-century boyhood played out against the banks and levees of the Mississippi River at a crucial era of American expansion - a time when small-town boys played, plotted against each other, dreamed big dreams and dared their fears and ran from them as well - is conveyed brilliantly by the witty observative Samuel Clemens (writing under the name Mark Twain)

Twain, a Missouri native, puts his growing-up years along the Mississippi River as rich material into Tom Sawyer. The dialect and detail comes from his own experience of the story he writes.

Aunt Polly hardly registered in my first read. If thought about at all it was as a gray-haired old woman who was always scolding. She was in a continual vexed state with Tom who tried her sorely. 

This time around she struck me as an exasperated soul with good intentions. She's prone to act hastily in her punishment of Tom but has her hands full with him and feels sometimes she has nowhere to turn.

She fixes to reform him one way or another even if it's the undoing of her or him, as she sometimes sighs it might be. She's concerned for the ultimate results of where his behavior will take him.

Once I got past assessing Tom Sawyer for the fence whitewashing episode I accepted him differently.

His scrapes (mostly brought on by himself) and his moments of grace (where he shows courage or tenderness, even if in fleeting revelations of affection or loyalty, and doing his best to hide his honest caring) are seen in a fresh light. The literary character that is Tom Sawyer comes better into view.

I now can see him as the personification of rambunctious and naturally high spirited young living. 

Tom Sawyer embodies our youthful stages. In the phase which is youth we're creative, we're rebellious.

We want to undo what has been set before us and do for our own. We want to kick off the traces, be free to be the agents of our own dreams. 

We want to let our imaginations roam wherever they will, whether it is to run away and be a pirate or robber or star in a traveling circus, as piques Tom Sawyer's ambitions, or find fresh material strictly our own.

And so often, over and over, we're reeled back as Tom is, in one situation after another, and in one relationship and then another, by the equal force of reality.

Tom Sawyer came to the last page leaving me with a village of new friends to return to and certainly to remember more markedly than before.

A couple days later I was at a library not previously visited. A friend was resting on the bench at the library door and who it was made me smile.

It was Mark Twain himself. It was Samuel Clemens done up dandy as a statue and placed at the library entrance.

Twain looks relaxed and congenial in the pose that has been decided for him.

Call it coincidence. Or call it not. But my thought is that he was out there on that bench waiting for me. 

He was letting me know that as an author he was glad I enjoyed, and was diverted from the moment at hand, by a subsequent reading of his famous book.

Ro Giencke - February 28, 2014

Friday, February 21, 2014

Spring - afoot and fancy free

There are some who want springtime to break out early and there are others who live where it actually does. 

Southern Living editor Lindsay Bierman calls attention in the February 2014 issue that the cover conveys spring for a very good reason. 

He says February heralds the return to warmer weather. The choice of herald in his explanation is brilliant. It sold me right there. 

A herald announces good news. In February in the South that news is the arrival back of spring.

This year's February cover was turned into a celebration of spring, Bierman said, following staff discussions (which must have come up annually in the past). 

The staff debated whether the February cover should reflect winter, as the calendar places the month, or if the magazine better serves its readership by casting February in the light of spring.

Bierman figures (with apparent consensus from his team) that spring in the South deserves declaration by February. He advocates for the February cover to serve as a spring issue from here on in.

There's no question that the South has a head start on spring over the rest of us. It does seem smart for the magazine to capitalize on this.

Elsewhere, where this winter has dragged on, the hope that February would be a reprieve from the cold, ice, snow and wind hasn't come to pass.

Those weary of winter regard spring as a beautiful word. As this protracted season drags on, however, spring has a nearly unobtainable reality to it. 

Those stuck in the trenches of winter begin to dream of places where spring is established, where spring has come and been and flowered and rushed on.

It makes me think of the patterns by which spring arrives. Spring comes creeping, it comes in waves, it recedes and flashes forth. Spring in each region has an aspect found nowhere else.

In the north our experience of spring is a slow advance of the season. Its presence for quite awhile is noted by the longer daylight and not a whole lot else.

When it decides to arrive the timing can be so swift it can catch us off guard. By somersaults (mostly mental in nature) and automatic grins we welcome it. 

Until this occurs we must wait while spring unfolds in the warmest regions of our country and works its way to us.

By late January there are clues that the United States is tilting at a more direct angle toward the sun.

Longer daylight is observable. The blooming season becomes more pronounced in the warm climates, and birds there twitter increasingly. Their songs each day are more clearly heard.

Spring begins in Florida for sure, in California and the tip of Texas. The various places spring has first onset are familiar because we hear about them from many sources.

Sometimes these spring oases are known to us through weather news. Often it's via glowing tans as family members and colleagues return from winter vacations or they share on social media their renewal time in the sun.

From its southernmost outposts the wash of spring continues farther afoot and fancy free. It eddies and swirls northerly. It steals along with the lengthening rays. It spreads. It gains a dominant hand over the land.

February in the South, as Bierman suggests on his editorial page, is spring with no doubt to it. 

Not every southern February shows the season's full countenance. But count on spring being there in sufficient form by now, or so close it's splitting hairs to say it isn't.

Sometimes you have to look harder for it. Spring can be elusive in the South (and nonexistent in other places) in colder years. 

Some years spring in the South lies very near the surface even through the quiet winter period. 

A Georgia friend reported snowdrops blooming in the yard in late December this year. At Christmastime, she said - both a discovery and a  delight.

The southern countryside stretches and awakens under blue cloudless February skies.

The bright red blur of cardinals, cheerful robins on green grass, bluebirds quick of motion, cedar waxwings and other feathered species of joyous birdsong gladden this month's mild days.

Frogs are in chorus from nearby creeks. Daffodils are southern sunshine where their yellow flowers catch the eye.

Squirrels race and scold, accelerating the sense that spring is breaking all around. 

Many southern gardeners use February to plant cool weather crops like carrots or radishes. The seeds, set carefully in their rows, hasten through frost-free nights for readiness of picking. 

The new plantings add to crops like spinach, which are already growing, and which make tasty February meals of homegrown greens.

Potatoes also are planted in these early gardens. In some areas of the South potatoes planted soon will be harvested in May. New potatoes on the dinner table by Mother's Day sounds pretty wonderful to many of us.

February in my area will never be misconstrued as spring. February covers of our regional lifestyle magazines have little recourse other than to stick with a winter theme. 

(Unless the editors fool us with a February picnic cover photographed on a rolling green lawn, leading us to believe a copy of Southern Living was sent by mistake.)

As we turn the pages of the February issue of Midwest Living many of us dream forward.

We wonder where the celebration of winter - excellently highlighted through photos, travel features, stories, tips and recipes - will take us. 

It'll take us (we know it well before the last page) to our own awaited season of spring.

The magazine recognizes that the February issue is our bridge, our long span. It deposits us, in the end, on the distant and lovely shore we take for spring in our parts.

At this stage it's still a far shore barely perceptible on the horizon. 

Others have had a foothold on it (it seems to us) since time began. But we'll get there. One foot (of snow) at a time.

Ro Giencke - February 21, 2014

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine trail

Pretty in pink this wish  from the heart 
Conveys happy thoughts wherever we are.

Part of the valentine trail of greetings for
Valentine's Day, a day among the best.

May these special personal wishes, 
Like sea shells lining our daily forward path, Remind us of the beauty in friendship
And the transforming gift of love.

Valentine's Day is here - we note it every year.
May its hours fill us with gladness and cheer
As we share and connect 
With those we hold dear.

Happy  Day !!

Ro Giencke - February 14, 2014 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Joan Mondale, role model

As a Minnesotan the news of Joan Mondale's passing at age 83 touches me personally. 

Joan Mondale and her husband Walter Mondale were a political couple who lived their values on a national and international stage. 

They did so with grace and an understanding of service not as a platform for self advancement but as a bridge you build that connects and brings others forward.

Walter and Joan Mondale's political life spanned many years. Much of their career was spent in Washington DC where Walter Mondale served as Senator from Minnesota, then as Vice President (1977-1981) under President Jimmy Carter. 

The Mondales also served their country abroad when Walter Mondale was later named Ambassador to Japan.

In the global sense the Mondales had the full life that comes to few of us. Their mutual career (she his inestimable support every step of the way) moved them into the center ring of things with all which this brings. 

It can be awesome to stand within the ropes and know, which surely the Mondales felt (with their hometown backgrounds giving context to the experience) that an eminent position isn't to be taken lightly but comes with responsibility. 

Integrity is tested at this level as it is no matter where we are. I believe the Mondales demonstrated a great deal of integrity. This endeared the couple to those who paid attention as they carried out their public and personal duties.

Maybe it's part of the Midwest character that the Mondales had the knack of quiet living. They didn't lose the knack of being comfortable in their own shoes. They had a sure idea of who they were and went about being themselves.

They were the family next door as lots of us viewed them. We didn't really know the Mondales, as we can say of many people, and then surprise ourselves by how much about them we actually know. 

The Mondales had media coverage and through the stories and interviews they took on real form and meant something to us. 

Joan, an accomplished potter, was a promoter of the arts. We were familiar with this interest of hers but equally we knew and appreciated her role as supportive wife and loving mother. 

We had a good idea of the Mondale family because they were before us for decades of public service. Besides Walter and Joan there were daughter Eleanor - who died in 2011 at age 51- and two Mondale sons.

A few years ago we were at a Twin Cities restaurant. One in our party, with a nod of the head in the direction of the adjacent table, alerted us to the presence next to us of the Mondale family.

The entire family was seated and having a wonderful time. It was a time, as I recall, when Eleanor seemed to have a chance of beating the brain cancer which ultimately claimed her. 

It was a moment of rubbing elbows, in a way, with them. Considerate of their desire for privacy at a public meal we left them alone to eat and enjoy.

It was the holidays. They, like us and the numerous groups filling the popular West End restaurant, were appreciating the social pleasure of gathering as a clan to share a festive dinner together.

More than political accomplishments the Mondales, as a married team working through the national political system, left as their mark upon us the stamp of their common decency.

I say this with the greatest respect. Walter and Joan Mondale utilized their abilities and interests (especially in the areas of environment and the arts). They championed their causes without ever losing, in the bigger game, the basic courtesies based on respect and which are essential to every human transaction.

In their public service years, and afterwards, I identified with Joan as wife and mother in the various moves and multiple reframings of their lives. 

Joan Mondale's ability to be on her toes and at the same time keep her feet firmly planted was apparent and this too was admired.

Public lives take poise and stamina to both stretch and stay grounded and she learned to do this very well. There was strength in this slim smiling woman who settled back into the Minnesota lifestyle when their public time came to an end.

Tributes have been plenty following Joan Mondale's death on February 3. The words have been kind and heartfelt. Often in death one is seen most clearly as they were all along. It's as if for the first time all the attributes are lined up and brought to the light.

In Minnesota the truth is that one of the great ones among us is gone. We were lucky to have Joan Mondale. She represented us well. She needed neither political office nor official title to serve but by demeanor and dignity added to the stock of our worth. 

No votes were required for her to win our affection.  She did it with her gifts of service and warmth. We've gained from what she generously gave. Thank you Joan Adams Mondale (1930-2014). 

Ro Giencke - February 7, 2014