Archive for Death

The Meaning of Life; or, How to Avoid the Midlife Crisis

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Why do successes sometimes feel like failures? As philosopher Kieran Setiya points out in a wise new essay, “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). Each time we accomplish something, it’s done, finished, and we must move on to the next thing: “the completion of your project may constitute something of value, but it means that the project can no longer give purpose to your life” (12). And so, in “pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were trying to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye” (12).

What’s the solution? Key, Setiya argues, is to distinguish between telic and atelic activities:

  • Telic: “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12).
  • Atelic: “not all activities are like this. Some do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity. The same is true of hanging out with friends or family, of studying philosophy, of living a decent life. You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (12-13). So, “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This, however, does not mean that one should only invest in the atelic. The issue is where you derive value: locating the majority of life’s meaning in the telic will leave you unfulfilled, and often precipitates a midlife crisis. As Setiya writes, “it is at midlife that the telic character of one’s most cherished ends are liable to appear, as they are completed or prove impossible. One has the job one has worked for many years to get, the partner one hoped to meet, the family one meant to start — or one does not. Until this point, one may have had no reason to dwell on the exhaustion of one’s ambitions” (14).

To avoid or resolve the midlife crisis, yes, you can (as Setiya puts it), “invest… more deeply in atelic ends. Among the activities that matter most to you, the ones that give meaning to your life, must be activities that have no terminal point. Since they cannot be completed, your engagement with atelic ends will not exhaust or destroy them” (15).

But you can — and should — also continue pursuing telic activities. Just pursue them for their own sake instead of for the end product: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). As Setiya advises, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

Setiya’s “The Midlife Crisis” appears in Philosophers’ Imprint 14.31 (Nov. 2014), pp. 1-18. Just follow the link. As you may have guessed from my summary, I highly recommend it.

Related posts (on this blog unless otherwise noted):

Comments (2)

Dallas 1963, New York 1980, Washington 1981

Zapruder film, frame 312

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, I happen to be staying at the Washington Hilton — the hotel in front of which President Reagan was not assassinated 32 and a half years ago.

Don DeLillo called the Kennedy assassination, “The seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.” But I had not yet been born on November 22, 1963.

Newsweek: attempted assassination of the Pope, 1981The murders and attempted murders that color my childhood are John Lennon (killed December 1980), Reagan (shot in March 1981), the Pope (shot in May 1981), and Anwar Sadat (killed October 1981). I saved the issues of Newsweek magazine that covered each event. The cover for the Pope issue featured a black-and-white photo, moments after the assassination attempt.  The caption, in bright letters, was: “Again.”

Kennedy’s assassination reached me via popular culture, in collections of Life magazine photographs, or the Kinks’ “Give the People What They Want” (1981), which includes the line: “When Oswald shot Kennedy, he was insane / But still we watch the re-runs again and again. / We all sit there glued while the killer takes aim…. / ‘Hey, mom! There goes a piece of the president’s brain!’”

That last line neatly encapsulates my 11-year-old self’s experience of the Reagan assassination attempt. Television news played the clip so frequently that it began playing on an endless loop in my head, too. My friends and I began re-enacting the event on the playground. The person playing Reagan would wave, and then duck into an imaginary car, pushed by the person portraying a Secret Service agent. The person acting the role of Press Secretary James Brady (shot in the head), would fall to the ground. The person playing DC policeman Thomas Delahanty (shot in the neck) would fall forward.

The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981

Yes, we were aware on some level that our recess re-enactments of the Reagan assassination attempt were not “appropriate.” These were real people, wounded by real bullets. It was not something that we should be play-acting for fun.

So, why did we do it? Play is a way of understanding the world. Though horrific, the event was also so unreal (televised, rewound, repeated) that our improvised absurdist performances helped us make it real for ourselves. We were not merely making light of the darkness (though we were doing that, too); rather, our silliness was a way of understanding the seriousness.

Newsweek: John Lennon (1940-1980)My reaction to the murder of John Lennon was, I think, much closer to how people responded to President Kennedy’s murder. Neither of these were televised murders. (Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald happened on live TV, but the Zapruder film was not broadcast until the 1970s. While Lennon’s and Kennedy’s murder were both covered on TV, there was at the time no footage of the murders themselves.) The absence of the televisual made me feel Lennon’s murder more personally, more deeply — as did the fact that I was a fan of the Beatles. That was truly sad. The Reagan assassination attempt felt more surreal.

The highly mediated world in which we now live affords us little time to actually feel the pain, much less think about it. In public places (at a school, in a movie theatre, in a store), the gunman — it is nearly always a man — fires. People flee, get maimed, die of their injuries. Survivors tell their stories to the media. Our legislators assure us that these murders are a byproduct of living in a free society; regulating guns would somehow make us (well, those of us not murdered by guns) less free. The sad inevitability of gun violence, offered up for our infotainment, impedes our ability to make sense of it.

But it’s not just media. Experience also dulls the senses. I felt more acutely Lennon’s murder precisely because I had no memory of the murders of Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Its newness made its impact sharper.

Perhaps, then, that is one legacy of the Kennedy assassination. There were political murders before November 22 1963 (Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were all assassinated), but in the years since that afternoon in Dallas, they seem to have become commonplace. And, as DeLillo has observed, “Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened.”

Above: Steinski’s “The Motorcade Sped On” (1986); video by Coldcut (2008).

Images: Zapruder film from Fans in a Flashbulb; Reagan assassination attempt from L.A. TimesNewsweek cover of Pope from eBayNewsweek cover of John Lennon from The Pop History Dig.

Comments (4)

This Job Can Kill You. Literally.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

As you likely already know, Margaret Mary Vojtko — an adjunct professor of French for 25 years — was found dead on her front lawn on September 1st. Facing mounting medical bills and lacking money to maintain or even heat her house, she died of a heart attack earlier that day.  As Daniel Kovalik writes, “Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.”  His article, “Death of an adjunct,” has been widely shared across social media, been reprinted in the Huffington Post, and inspired stories in Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Gawker.

In some senses, her death was not preventable: she was 83 and fighting cancer. It’s likely that she would have died sooner rather than later.

But in other senses, her job killed her. And I’m not speaking figuratively. As Mr. Kovalik notes,

in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Full Time Respect for Part Time Faculty!

Her job left her unable to meet her basic needs (heat, food, medicine). Furthermore, that level of stress has an adverse effect on a person’s health. People forced to cope with large levels of extreme stress — and poverty is definitely an extreme stress — have shorter life expectancies. A job that reduces you to poverty also hastens your demise.

I would not suggest that Duquesne University acted alone in killing Professor Vojtko, nor that all individuals at the university lacked sympathy for her. But the university is certainly an accomplice. While it claims to be a Catholic university, Duquesne has fought its adjuncts’ attempts to unionize, alleging that it deserved an exception on religious grounds; in contrast, Georgetown University, citing the Catholic church’s commitment to social justice, recognized its adjuncts’ union.

Duquesne has many accomplices. Its treatment of Professor Vojtko was cruel, but not unusual. Exploitation of adjunct labor has become the norm in academe. Faced with rising costs (and, in “state” schools, decreasing support from the state), colleges and universities consider adjuncts an “economic” solution to their staffing needs. They’re highly qualified cheap labor, and — as the number of tenure-track jobs decreases — there are more Ph.Ds. to choose from each year. It’s a buyer’s market. Duquesne only did what other universities and colleges have done. Indeed, at American universities, 73% of all instructors are non tenure-track (adjuncts or grad students).*

Adjuncts United!

Yes, some institutions treat adjuncts more humanely than others. Some provide health insurance and even retirement plans. Some. But, even under the best conditions, adjuncts are second-class citizens. And, yes, some make it on to the tenure track. But most do not.

Relying on adjuncts as the primary way to teach classes has become normal, but it’s not good for the adjuncts and it’s not good for higher education. Adjuncts owe no loyalty to the institution that employs them; so, at the beginning of term, heads of departments must scramble to find people to cover classes. That’s no way to run a university. As Professor Vojtko’s death makes all too clear, that’s also not a humane way to treat an educator — or anyone, for that matter.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

One reason that universities rely upon adjunct labor points to the third group responsible for killing Professor Vojtko: all those who mock academic labor, consider teaching a cushy job, argue that educators are lazy (as in the familiar misconception, you only teach a few classes and then you get summers off!). The concerted effort to refashion intellectual labor as a form of leisure diminishes sympathy for a hard-working group that has much to contribute. It deprives them of their humanity. It makes them easy targets. They become easy to neglect, easy to ignore, and easy to crush beneath the weight of indifference and poverty.

Certainly, teachers — at primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels — are not the only people who have been maligned in this way. Factory workers (especially unionized ones), policemen, firemen, all public-sector workers have all been criticized as somehow unworthy of the salary and benefits they receive.

I’ve been using the passive voice, failing to name just who is doing the maligning, because this is not merely the fault of one particular faction. Certainly, responsibility lies with pundits on the right who complain about “the takers” mooching off “the makers,” governors who slash education budgets while simultaneously giving tax breaks to the wealthy, and businesses pushing an “educational reform” because it serves their financial interests. But people on the left are also at fault. In an effort to reduce the cost of college (certainly a laudable goal), President Obama fails to address the single greatest contributing factor to the rising cost of tuition: decreasing state support requires universities to find money from other sources. This is not something that the privately funded Duquesne University (Professor Vojtko’s employer) faces, but the president’s move to hold colleges accountable without a comparable push to restore public funding simply perpetuates the myth that educators are too highly paid. This myth obscures the fact that many of us are not well paid at all.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

I spent three years as an adjunct. Those years (1997-2000) were not happy ones. I was often angry. Indeed, I am frankly surprised and grateful that I have friends from that period of my life: a bitter person isn’t fun to be around. Today, I am tenured, a full professor of English at Kansas State University (which receives 20% of its funding from the state). As an ex-adjunct, I find stories like Professor Vojtko’s especially troubling. Her path might have been my path. It wasn’t, but it has been and will be the path of many others. The exploitation of adjuncts has only increased since my days as an adjunct.

This brings me to the fourth and final group I would indict in the death of Professor Vojtko: me, and people like me. No, I did not create the conditions that foster the exploitation of adjuncts. Nor do I support those who think that college should be run like a business, and am frankly appalled by the efforts (by President Obama, and others) to apply a capitalist ethos to institutions that strive to serve the public good. And, sure, I’m sympathetic to adjuncts. But that’s not enough.

American Association of University ProfessorsThose of us who have attained even a modest amount of institutional power need to speak up. We need to support organizations fighting for adjunct rights — such as the American Association of University Professors. I have been intending to join this group for years, and only now — while writing this paragraph — did I actually join. Writing this essay and joining that group aren’t sufficient, I know. But it is at least a step in the right direction.

We need to stop exploiting adjuncts. It’s killing them. And it isn’t good for the rest of us, either.

__________

* Note and Correction (added 22 Sept. 2013, 5:40 pm): According to the study, the 73% includes full-time, non-tenure track faculty (15%), part-time/adjunct faculty (37%), and graduate employees (21%). Those first two groups are both adjunct: that is, “full-time, non-tenure track faculty” is the equivalent of adjunct. So, if we add these two together, then we get 52% adjunct, plus an additional 21% graduate students, for a total of 73%. A more recent study indicates that  non-tenure track faculty (adjuncts and graduate students) now comprise 76% of instructors at American colleges and universities.  The correction here is that my original post stated that “73% of all instructors are now adjuncts”; using the source I originally cited, the more precise way to state this is that “73% of all instructors are now non-tenure track (adjuncts and graduate students).”  So, when Chris pointed this out (comment no. 37, below), I made the change.

Resources (updated 18 Nov. 2013, 3:00 pm)

Image sources: “Adjunct Professors Petting the Short End of the Stick” (Politics 365, 4 June 2013),  “Precarcity Everywhere” (Disorder of Things, 1 Feb. 2012), American Association of University Professors.  The Doonesbury strips come from “Mathematicians and the Market” (GeoffDavis.net, 1997), but check out Doonesbury at Go! Comics for more of Trudeau’s work.

Comments (74)

Antonio Frasconi (1919-2013)

Frasconi

Antonio Frasconi, woodcut artist and children’s-book illustrator, died on January 9th at the age of 93. I heard about it this morning, but I’ve yet to find a full obituary (apart from this brief notice by Joey of Purchase College). So, I’m writing a few words.

He was born in Buenos Aires, to Franco Frasconi (a chef) and the former Armida Carbonia (a restaurateur), both of whom had emigrated from Italy during World War I.  Young Antonio grew up in Montevideo, where, by age 12, he had become a printmaker’s apprentice and, by his teens, was seeing his satirical cartoons appear in local newspapers.

In the 1940s, he began working in woodcuts, producing work which won him a scholarship from the Art Students League in New York.  To study there, he emigrated to the United States in 1945.  By 1948, he had his first exhibit — at the Weyhe Gallery, also in New York.

But the reason I know about him are his beautiful illustrations for children’s books. He married fellow artist Leona Pierce in 1951, and the birth of their first son, Pablo, in 1952, inspired him to create work for young people. As Frasconi noted in a 1994 Horn Book interview, “the happiness he brought, both as an inspiration and as an audience for my work, made me think in terms of using my work as part of his education.”  Frasconi observed that, with his accented English, his own reading to Pablo was different than his wife’s reading to Pablo. He went to the library, looking for bilingual books, and, finding none, decided to create his own.

The result was the groundbreaking and beautiful See and Say: A Picturebook in Four Languages (Harcourt, 1955). It presents a series of objects, each named in in English (printed in black), in Italian (blue), French (red), and Spanish (green).  Illustrated in bright woodcut prints, the book is a great “first words” book for young children, and language education for any age. Though not the first children’s book Frasconi illustrated, it was the first one he both wrote and illustrated, and I highly recommend it. Used copies are not too hard to find, but this book (attention, New York Review Children’s Collection!) really ought to be brought back into print.

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

The images above come from The Ward-o-Matic‘s post on See and Say.  Visit the site to see more.

Back in 2000, I spoke with Mr. Frasconi because he was a very close friend of Crockett Johnson. Both men leaned left, had artistic influences that extended beyond children’s books, and held each other’s work in high regard. Indeed, Antonio’s political leanings inspired him to move — along with his family (Leona, Pablo, and Miguel) — to Village Creek, a planned integrated community that is directly adjacent to Rowayton, Connecticut, where Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss lived.  That was in 1957.  The family met Johnson and Krauss soon after moving there, and quickly became friends.

photo of Antonio FrasconiThere were regular spaghetti dinners at Ruth and Dave’s house (Crockett Johnson’s real first name was “Dave,” and friends called him “Dave”).  Antonio illustrated Ruth’s The Cantilever Rainbow (1965), her greatest avant-garde children’s book.  When the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (1964-1965) got television coverage, Dave phoned Antonio so that he could come over and see it (at that time the Frasconis didn’t have a TV). So, the family went over and watched the protests. When Dave started serious painting, the Frasconis were among the first people he showed them to. As Miguel Frasconi recalled, Dave was “so excited,” as he explained to Antonio “the geometric properties of these pictures — like he had discovered something totally new.” At the time, Miguel thought: “this is an adult, and he’s as excited as a little kid.”

While my own brief acquaintance (one interview, really) with Antonio Frasconi and his family derived from work on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (2012), Frasconi’s work is well worth getting to know in its own right.  He illustrated and designed over 100 books, including collections of poetry by Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Pablo Neruda. He created Los Desparecidos (The Disappeared, 1984), a powerful collection of woodcuts that tells the story of those tortured, imprisoned, or killed under the Uruguayan dictatorship.  He created art for children’s books.  He was a great teacher, artist, and humanitarian.

Thanks for sharing your recollections with me.  And rest in peace, Mr. Frasconi.

Works Consulted:

“Antonio Frasconi.” The Annex Galleries. <http://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/739/Frasconi/Antonio>

“Antonio Frasconi.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

 “Antonio Frasconi (Uruguay).” North Dakota Museum of Art. <http://www.ndmoa.com/Exhibitions/PastEx/Disappeared/Frasconi/index.html>

Goldenberg, Carol. “An interview with Antonio Frasconi.” The Horn Book Magazine Nov.-Dec. 1994: 693+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

Nel, Philip. Telephone interview with Antonio Frasconi. 12 Oct. 2000.

—.  Telephone interview with Miguel Frasconi. 2 Dec. 2007.

—.  Telephone interview with Pablo Frasconi. 28 Nov. 2007.

Sources for images: Facebook post from Miguel FrasconiWard-o-Matic blog post on See and Say, and “Artist and Professor Antonio Frasconi, 1919-2013” (at Jane Public Thinking).

Comments (7)

Remembering Remy Charlip (1929-2012)

Remy Charlip. Photo by Paul Chinn, SFC / SF

As you may have heard by now, Remy Charlip has passed away at the age of 83. The author of Fortunately (1964), Arm in Arm (1969), Thirteen (1975) and many others, Charlip was also a dancer, choreographer, and the model for Brian Selznick’s rendition of Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

He was also one of many people I interviewed for the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  He knew them both, and illustrated two of Ruth’s books — A Moon or a Button (1959) and A Fine Day For… (1967).  During our interview (23 March 2003), he told me about working with Ruth on the first of these two books.

Philip Nel: Well, let’s see.  Maybe we should just start with when you first remember meeting them — or meeting Ruth.

Remy Charlip: OK.  Well, actually Ruth sent me a fan letter.  She saw my book that I did of Ruth Krauss’s [Margaret Wise Brown's] called David’s Little Indian.

PN: Mmm-hmm.

RC: Do you know that book?

PN: I don’t know David’s Little Indian, no.

RC: Anyway, it was published after Margaret Wise Brown died, and it’s a story about a little boy who finds a little Indian and together they name the days.  So, she said she loved the book, and I don’t remember the letter very well, but I do remember that either she asked me to get in touch with her or I got in touch with her.  I don’t know.  I knew her books — I think I knew A Hole Is to Dig and I’ll Be You and You Be Me.  And I’ll Be You and You Be Me is a very — one of my favorite books of Ruth’s.  She influenced me in writing.  I think Arm in Arm actually came as a direct inspiration from her work.

I usually tried to read some (or most) of an author’s work before I interviewed him or her. In this case, I did not: I had grown more aware of the mortality of my interviewees. So, as soon as I had his telephone number, I gave him a call.

RC: Well, one thing I learned, for instance, was we did — I decided — she started to, after a while — let’s see, what was the first book that we worked on together?

PN: Well, A Moon or a Button?

RC: A Moon or a Button.  OK, so, we did that, and (Laughs).  And this is very interesting.  She brought me up to see Ursula Nordstrom, and Ursula would have no truck with me at all.  I made full-color paintings for that book, and the first thing Ursula said to me was, “Black-and-white separates the men from the boys.”  It was a total insult, and a total, you know, particu — you know.  Um.  I don’t know.  Maurice used to call her “the” — and you can’t print this –

PN: OK.

(I’ve cut Maurice Sendak’s occasional nickname for Urusula.)

RC: And, so, I think what Ursula really resented was that in Ruth’s generosity, she would always work with people who were younger, who were inexperienced, and who she thought had some talent and would like to help them — and as well as to work with people that she thought [their] work was exciting.  So, let’s see — so, she got very upset.

PN: Ruth did.

RC: Yeah.  At Ursula.  And, she took my paintings, she kind of gathered them up from the desk in her arms and hands, and threw them up in the air, and ran out, crying, to the ladies room.  Ursula ran after her.  And I sat there thinking, “The children’s book business is much more exciting than I thought.”  (Laughs.)

PN: (Laughs.)

Discussing Ruth’s poem, “The Song of the Melancholy Dress,” he told me:

RC: And anyway, I asked her where she got the idea for the melancholy dress, and she said, “Oh, I overheard somebody say something at a party, and the woman said that she bought a melon-colored dress.”  And, so, a lot of her ideas came from misunderstandings, and I love that because I found that very helpful when one is working, you know, that you –.  And that’s really creativity, when you use something as something else.  And so, when I did the Paper Bag Players, which is a children’s theater, the costumes were all made out of common-place household objects and material — like, say, a shower curtain for the water, a box, big box, for the costume of a soldier — you know, that kind of thing.

PN: Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.

RC: And, or a lampshade as a hat, lace curtains for a dress.  So, the Paper Bag Players was all about how you can — so, that’s another thing that I actually learned from her — in another way, I mean, I also had friends who were, like Lou Harrison, for instance, who one day said, “I’m going shopping up in the Bronx.  Would you like to come with me?”  And I said, “Sure.”  And we went up to an automobile graveyard, and had a little meter with him, and he was hitting brake drums to get the sound that he wanted, a particular note. And he was very — it was very urgent that he do it because they were now not making the break drums in the same way that they were.  They made thuds instead of boungs.

PN: Ahh, I’ve gotcha.

RC: So, it was probably something at the time, where I myself take things that you ordinarily look at one way, but then you can look at it in another way.

PN: And that’s a good description of what Ruth does.

It’s also a good description of what Remy did.

For an example of that (and of his sense of humor), you might take a look at this excerpt from his It Looks Like Snow, which I posted back in March of 2011.

Photo by Paul Chinn, from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s obituary.

Comments (1)

Jose Aruego (1932-2012)

Maurice Sendak, Ellen Levine, Jean Craighead George, Leo Dillon, and now Jose Aruego.  It’s been an all-too-mortal year for children’s books.  Mr. Aruego died on August 9, his 80th birthday.

I never met Mr. Aruego, but he did kindly grant Julia Mickenberg and me permission to use his illustrations for Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo (1971) in Tales for Little Rebels (2008).  For all such permission requests, I included a self-addressed stamped envelope to facilitate the reply.  He returned the envelope, embellished with his own beautiful script rendition of my name.

Jose Aruego, envelope addressed to Philip Nel, 2005

It seemed as if, even though this was a mundane request, he was going to respond with his full attention.  Next to his signature, he added — in beautiful tiny script, on a post-it note — a request for a copy of the book, once published.

Jose Aruego, postscript to Philip Nel, 2005

His biography is a fascinating one.  As we note in Tales for Little Rebels, he grew up in Manilla where, at school, he sat next to and befriended Benigno Aquino — the Philippine leader assassinated (decades later) for opposing Ferdinand Marcos.  Though as a young man Aruego trained to practice law, he lost the sole case he tried, leaving the profession after a mere three months.

Aruego’s heart wasn’t in the law.  It was in art.  Inspired by his childhood love of comic books, he decided to study art in New York City, because he thought of it as the comic-book capital of the world.  In the late 1950s, he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design, studying with Leo Lionni — the artist about to gain fame in the children’s book world for Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959), Swimmy (1963), Frederick (1967), and many others.

Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego, Leo the Late Bloomer (1971)After graduating, Aruego worked for ad agencies, sold cartoons (New YorkerSaturday Evening PostLook), and eventually decided on pursuing free-lance illustration full-time.  He married and later divorced artist Ariane Dewey: they co-illustrated over forty-five books together, both before and after the dissolution of their marriage.  He also illustrated over a dozen by Robert Kraus, including Whose Mouse Are You? (1970) and Leo the Late Bloomer (1971).

A bit of a late bloomer himself, Aruego created many great children’s books during his over fifty years as an artist.  He’s a great example of a person who followed his own path, and, in so doing, found his true talent.  Rest in peace, Mr. Aruego.  Thanks for leaving us all the gift of your sensitive, detailed, warm, amusing art.

Related links:

Leave a Comment

Stayin’ Alive

Yield to bicycle (sign)While riding my bike last Tuesday morning, a car hit me.  It was 7:45 am, I was cycling uphill and due west.  A car coming due east — blinded by the sun, the driver later told me — took a left turn and hit my bicycle on its (and my) left side.  Fortunately, neither of us were moving quickly.  She had slowed for her turn, and I can’t go as fast up a hill.  It’s also fortunate that I was standing up on the pedals.  I don’t know precisely what happened at the moment of impact.  I remember thinking: “Oh, #@$!! I can’t believe this car is going to hit me!” Next, I was getting up off the pavement, left knee bloody and right knee bruised.  My bicycle lay to my left, wheels and crankshaft bent, and left pedal broken.  I say it’s fortunate that I was standing up because I deduce that the car must have knocked me off my bike — when standing up, pedaling, less body is intertwined with bike than would be in the sitting-down-pedaling position. Thus, I found myself getting up off the pavement, and not from under bike or car.  More importantly, my bicycle absorbed the impact of the car.  My body’s (minimal) injuries derived from the pavement more than the car.

After realizing that I was only a little scraped and bruised, and (alas) cursing at the driver (whose remorse quickly shamed me into apologizing for my rudeness), my next thought was: “Hey, I should be able to exercise again in a couple of days!  Excellent!”  (And I was able to.)  It took an hour or so for “Hey, I’m really lucky to be alive!” to sink in.

I mention this because, in reading Jesse Goldberg’s “Injuries and my fears of aging,” I realize my primary response to aging has been to exercise more and with greater regularity.  In my 40s, I exercise more than I did in my 30s; in my 30s, I exercised more than I did in my 20s. Why? The older you get, the harder it is to start exercising again.  I know that, if I were to stop, I would quickly lose a lot of ground.  As a cross-country runner in high school, I could take the summer off and, within a week, get back into shape.  I can’t do that now.

To be clear, I was not and have never been a great athlete: I got a varsity letter in cross-country my senior year only because I kept showing up (I never once placed in a varsity race). But, as an adult, if I exercise regularly, I feel healthier, I can do my job better, and I sleep better — well, inasmuch as a neurotic person like myself ever sleeps better (I have a hard time “turning off” at the end of the day.  Too much on my mind). The “life of the mind” — writing, teaching, research, service — isn’t designed for one’s health. We spend far too much time sitting at a computer, in meetings, in archives, at conferences, and on planes.  We spend far too much time sitting. One can even sit while teaching, although I generally do not.

Though keeping in shape allows me to function in the ways that I did when I was younger, it also doesn’t.  As I age, my body becomes more prone to injury.  My “exercise more!” response to aging also requires me to pay greater attention to my body.  For the last year, I’ve been seeing a chiropractor regularly, and — since my mid-30s — have had to go to physical therapy for the occasional injury.  I’ve had to adjust the way I run (calf-muscle troubles), and adjust the way I sit at the computer (neck troubles).  Before bed each night, I am now obliged to go through a sequence of stretches so that my body can continue to function as I would like it to.

Unlike Mr. Goldberg, I do not fear aging. I fear Alzheimer’s. I fear living in a permanent vegetative state. And, yes, I’m not looking forward to death. I’ve always liked Woody Allen’s line: “It’s not that I’m afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  But aging itself?  As long as I have my health (or most of it), aging is fine. To paraphrase the cliché, aging is far better than the alternative.

In addition to leaving me very happily not-dead, the car inflicted no lasting damage. The driver kindly took me to the emergency room, where medical professionals examined me, treated the open wound, made sure I was OK.  Since then, my left knee has scabbed over nicely, and skin is growing back. The bruised muscle above my right knee (lower thigh muscle, really) is nearly 100%, and the post-accident muscle stiffness has receded.  The driver’s insurance paid for the damage to my bicycle, and Pathfinder (great local bike shop) has already repaired the bike. This was, without question, the best possible outcome of a car striking a bicycle.  I’m very fortunate.  (In sum: do not worry.  I am fine.)

In any case, this post is less about the accident and more about my (ultimately futile) attempts to slow the inevitable decline and fall of my body.  It’s about fighting aging via exercise.  I know will eventually lose this fight, but it’s a battle worth waging.

(And, yes, this blog will return to its more typical — i.e., not autobiographical — posts very soon.)


But first,… a few thematically related songs.

Abdominal‘s “Pedal Pusher” (2007) may be the greatest bicycling song ever.  Love this.

For another great exercising song, let’s turn to Darrow Fletcher‘s funky gem from 1977, “Improve.”

Since I took the post’s title from their song, let’s give a listen to the Brothers Gibb (two of whom are no longer staying alive, I’m sorry to say).  Here’s “Stayin’ Alive,” which was also released in 1977.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard the heavy-metal cover of “Stayin’ Alive”?  We’ll have to fix that now.  Here’s… Tragedy!

Wyclef Jean also did a great tribute / cover in “We Trying to Stay Alive” (1997) — which in the video, also has a nice homage to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

Comments (5)

That’s Life

Eric Maddern & Paul Hess, Death in a NutMaurice Sendak, Leo Dillon, Ellen Levine, Jean Craighead George, Peter D. Sieruta.  During this past month, children’s literature has become a relentless parade of death.  Or so it seems.

This feeling could just be a function of age. The older we get, the more deaths we witness. The older we get, the more these deaths remind us of our own mortality. Indeed, the longer we live, our sole certainty is the deaths of many more people we know.

Perhaps deaths of writers-for-children hit us with more force because we do not associate childhood with death, even though children die every day — from malnutrition, disease, violence, toxins, abuse, neglect. Or perhaps their deaths strike us so powerfully because children’s writers are a link to our own half-remembered childhoods, and the naïve certainty that we need not worry about death because it will surely spare those we love. In this sense, the death of a favorite childhood author can be like the death of a parent. It is not the same experience, of course, but does instill a sense of loss and bring a reminder that our own journeys through time will end abruptly.

Mostly, though, I think Philip Pullman is right. We live most of our lives denying our own deaths, keeping a safe distance from the fact that life is temporary.  When, in The Amber Spyglass, Will and Lyra enter the first town of the dead, a man named Peter explains, “everyone has a death. It goes everywhere with ’em, all their life long, right close by”: “the moment you’re born, your death comes into the world with you, and it’s your death that takes you out” (260).  This is news to Lyra and Will, who soon learn that they need their deaths to guide them to the land of the dead. As a grandmother’s death tells them, “I have heard of people like you, who keep their deaths at bay. You don’t like them, and out of courtesy they stay out of sight. But they’re not far off. Whenever you turn your head, your deaths dodge behind you. They can hide in a teacup. Or in a dewdrop. Or in a breath of wind” (264).  He (as is true of dæmons in the novel, death tends to be a different sex from its person) says that he and “old Magda… live together in kindness and friendship,” and advises Lyra and Will that his approach is better: “That’s the answer, that’s it, that’s what you’ve got to do, say welcome, make friends, be kind, invite your deaths to come close to you” (264).

As we move into June (and if other friends, relatives, and people we admire manage to retain their health), maybe we’ll resume ignoring death. For a little while, anyway. Or perhaps we’ll consider the possibility of making friends with our mortality. Come what may, we’ll certainly keep turning to children’s books — for comfort, hard truths, escape, wisdom, pleasure, mourning, faith, love. Literature sustains us. Art sustains us.

In Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip (2011), Duck befriends death.  At the very end of the book, she dies. Death carries her to the river, and, placing a tulip on her chest, “laid her gently on the water and nudged her on her way.”

penultimate 2-page spread from Wolf Erlbruch's Duck, Death and the Tulip

The book concludes:

For a long time he watched her.

When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.

“But that’s life,” thought Death.

 


A few good picture books about death:

  • John Burningham, Granpa (1984)
  • Tomie de Paola, Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973)
  • Wolf Erlbruch, Duck, Death and the Tulip (2011), Catherine Chidgey’s translation of Ente, Tod und Tulpe (2007)
  • Eric Maddern, Death in a Nut, illustrated by Paul Hess (2005)
  • Mo Willems, City Dog, Country Frog, illustrated by Jon J. Muth (2010)

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):

 

Comments (6)

Tributes to Maurice Sendak: Visual Artists Respond

Fitting that the passing of an artist should inspire so much art.  Here are a few tributes to Maurice Sendak that I’ve enjoyed. (I’ve assembled links to prose tributes at the bottom of my reminiscence of Maurice; The Comics Journal has its own page of mostly prose tributes, too.)


Pat Bagley

Pat Bagley, tribute to Maurice Sendak

This is easily my favorite, and the one that I think Sendak himself would most have enjoyed. Pat Bagley dos a great job in representing Sendak’s un-sentimental approach to death. Sendak often spoke of his own mortality, and accepted the inevitable with a dark sense of humor.


Hanna Freiderichs (a.k.a. AgarthanGuide)

Avengers on Parade (RIP Maurice Sendak) by AgarthanGuide
Under her Deviant Art pseudonym ArgathanGuide, Hanna Friederichs has created Avengers in a Sendakian parade.  You can find it on her Deviant Art page and Tumblr.  The image calls to mind Sendak’s many parades — in Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952), and his own Where the Wild Things Are (1963). The above image derives from a less well-known source: his 1961 mural for Larry and Nina Chertoff that now resides in the Rosenbach Museum.

Maurice Sendak, Chertoff Mural (1961)
The photo of Sendak’s mural, above, comes from The History Blog‘s great story about it, which I recommend.

Update, 13 May, 9:30 am: Thanks to Roger Sutton’s post, added Hanna Friederichs’ full name.


Harry Bliss

Harry Bliss, Sendak

Harry Bliss‘s graveside portrait of Babar, Madeline, Curious George, and the Man with the Yellow Hat evokes how everyone in the children’s literature community has felt — artists, scholars, writers, librarians, teachers, editors, agents, all of us.  Losing Maurice Sendak has felt like a death in the family.  As Kenneth Kidd put it, “Could be the select company I keep, but my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake.”


Debbie Milbrath

Deb Milbrath, RIP Mr. Sendak

Most artists invoke Where the Wild Things Are (presumably because it’s Sendak’s most recognizable work), but Debbie Milbrath references a more thematically appropriate work: Outside Over There (1981), in which Sendak filters the kidnapping (and accidental murder of) the Lindbergh baby through Mozart’s Magic Flute,  and ends up with a work that offers glimmers of hope through its darkness.


Andy Marlette

Andy Marlette, Where the Wild Things Are

Andy Marlette imagines wild things paying tribute to Maurice Sendak.  There were many such cartoons — I’ve only included a few here.


Jeff Koterba

Jeff Koterba color cartoon for 5/9/2012 "Sendak"

Jeff Koterba makes Sendak into Max, apt since — as Sendak has admitted — Max is a version of Maurice himself.  I suspect Sendak intended an allusion to Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz (1865).


Nate Beeler

Nate Beeler, [RIP Maurice Sendak]

Nate Beeler imagines roaring terrible roars and gnashing terrible teeth — a first response to Maurice Sendak’s passing.  The first stage of grief.


Bob Englehart

Bob Englehart, [Max and wild thing]

 In Bob Englehart‘s image, a wild thing comforts Max.

Sarah McIntyre

Sarah McIntyre, [Max and wild thing]

I like that Sarah McIntyre has drawn the wild thing seeking comfort from Max. The kid is handling it better than the monstrous, giant, wild thing. Sendak always said that children understood much more than adults give them credit for.


Chris Eliopoulos

Chris Eliopoulos, [Max alone]

Understated, lovely.  The creator of Misery Loves Sherman, Chris Eliopoulos has many different websites to visit.


Mark Streeter

Mark Streeter, And the Wild Things Cried

Mark Streeter‘s comic says what Chris Eliopoulos’s implies — but Eliopoulos assumes a knowing reader, and Streeter does not. Strange though it may seem to those of us in children’s literature, there are people who do not know Maurice Sendak’s work.


Stuart Carlson

Stuart Carlson, RIP

Stuart Carlson‘s tribute seems an apt one to end on. First, mourn. Next, hang your teddy bear, threaten the dog, shout at your mother, and board a boat (… to where the wild things are).

More on Sendak from Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):

Comments (13)

The Most Wild Thing of All: Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

Maurice Sendak, 2011

But the wild things cried, “Oh, please don’t go—

We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

And Max said, “No!”

—Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

In June 2001, I went to hear Maurice Sendak speak at Yale University. A couple of years earlier, I’d started working on a biography of Crockett Johnson, and I knew they were close. I had written him to see if he would be willing to chat, but, the previous April, he had declined via a letter from his assistant: “Mr. Sendak does not have any useful recollection relating to Ruth and Dave…. He hopes your research yields more valuable results and best wishes!” So, I thought: I need to try again. I’ll go, I’ll ask him during the Q+A period. When that time came, I was very nervous. He’d already turned me down once. What if he gets angry at me for pestering him? But… I plucked up my courage, and asked.

He looked me in the eyes, and after the briefest pause said Yes. I should talk to him after the Q+A. I did. He wrote his home number down in my notebook, and told me to call.  I did.

I remain astonished at his extraordinary generosity toward me, who (at that time) had published a handful of articles and no books… and yet was going to write a biography. Why even give someone like me the time of day?

This is why. Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson — along with their mutual editor, Harper & Brothers’ Ursula Nordstrom — were the most important people in shaping his early career. In the early 1950s, he began visiting their Rowayton Connecticut home on the weekends, while working on Krauss’s books. They were his “weekend parents” who helped shape him into the great artist he would become. He stayed with them many times during the ’50s, illustrating eight of Krauss’s books, starting with the groundbreaking A Hole Is to Dig (1952).

So, he was willing to help me. I phoned, we chatted, and then set up a time for a longer conversation later that evening.  At 9pm on June 22nd, I phoned him.  We talked for the next two hours.  The phone call began like this:

Philip Nel: Let’s hope the tape works.

Maurice Sendak: Oh, you’re taping it?

PN: Yes, if that’s alright with you.

MS: Yes, that’s fine.  You’re going to hear an odd sound now and then which is my putting a colored pencil into my sharpener ’cause I’m going to try and draw as we speak.

PN: OK.

MS: I have to finish a page a day, a layout a day, for the book I’m doing.

PN: What are you doing?

MS: Well, it’s a book based on an opera, an opera that I’m going to produce.  I have a little children’s theatre which I’m getting rid of, but this is our last thing to do.  It’s an opera that was performed in a concentration camp in Prague, there’s a very famous concentration camp called Theresienstadt.  It was actually Emperor Tieresias’ army encampment right outside the city.  During the war, it became a camp, and it was known as Hitler’s favorite camp.  There was a movie made to impress Red Cross and diplomats coming that all that they were hearing about dead Jews, dead gypsies, dead gays was all a lie.  And a film was made showing volleyball and chess and children, part of a children’s opera, some brief moments.  And the true fact is that there was an opera composed in the camp.  A young composer named Hans Krasa and his librettist wrote an opera for the children in the camp.  And the opera is called Brundibar, and it’s one of the only things we have of Mr. Krasa except for a trio and some songs because he was incinerated when he was about 35 along with the librettist and all the children who performed the opera.

PN: Wow.

MS: We now have the rights to the opera — took us a long time to get it — and Tony Kushner, the playwright

PN: Yeah, Angels in America.

MS: Yeah.  Is one of my very most wonderful friends.  I begged him to take the job of translation because the original English translation is horrible.  The Czech is beautiful, but it’s got to be sung in English, so we translated it, and we got people interested in doing it, staging it.  It has been done, but in schools, in community centers.  It’s never had a real production.  And so in order to raise the money for it, we agreed we would do a picture book.  So, Tony extrapolated from the libretto into a very gorgeous complex story — the first time he’s ever done anything like this.  He’s amazing.  He just adapted it, without any fuss or feathers.  Gorgeous, gorgeous funny language.  And I’m doing the picture book because we need the money for the stage production, and Hyperion will pay for a good part of the stage production and the trade is they get the picture book.  And I was very sick for a year and a quarter, and of course I’m terribly late.  So, I’m trying very hard to catch up.

PN: Wow.

MS: And, it’s beautiful, beautiful work — a perfect way for me to wind up, actually.  So that is it.

PN: Wow.  I’ll be fascinated to see that — the book — when it comes out.

MS: Yeah, the book is evolving because Tony keeps rewriting and I keep rethinking, and we swore we would not make it too dark.  It would be the sweet, little Czech peasant opera.

PN: Well, good luck.

MS: It’s hopeless already.  I have Hitler in it, I have Eva Braun in it, I mean I’m just uncontrollable.

PN: It would be difficult to avoid the darkness.

MS: Impossible.  But, really, seriously must to an extent in order to not obscure what these people really set out to do, which was to write a charming piece to amuse the children.  It’s just that history beclouds it so much.  It is difficult to do.  It is difficult.  But it’s also great fun.  I’m having a wonderful time.

PN: I’m fascinated.  I’ll be interested when it comes out to show it to my class.

He asked about my class.  I had just begun teaching Literature for Children at Kansas State University.  “I always wonder how you teach children’s literature,” he said.  I offered to send him a syllabus.

MS: To me, it’s really a great mystery.

PN: Well, I’m new to teaching it.  I’ve taught it only for a year.  So, I’m pretty close to that sense of mystery.

MS: Well, once the mystery settles deep on you, then you’ll know how complex this thing is.  It’s always been considered low man on the totem pole, one page in the New York Times, and it’s all treated like Peter-Pan-ville.

PN: Right.

MS: It’s very tiresome, and it used to irritate me profoundly when I was young and now I just can’t afford the energy that goes to being irritated.

After a little more conversation, he started to tell me about Ursula.  And Ruth.  And Dave. (David was Crockett Johnson’s real first name, and his friends called him “Dave.”)  Maurice was very open, direct, and shared an enormous amount of deeply personal memories with me — tears in his eyes, as he described his visit to Ruth just before she died. I felt like his therapist, mostly listening, asking the occasional question. By the end of the conversation, I felt as if during the course of those two hours we had become old friends. He invited me to visit him in Ridgefield. I accepted.

(I never did manage to get out there, which is something I now very much regret, of course.)

Maurice Sendak became the biography’s third central character.  Dave and Ruth are the two co-stars, but Maurice gets third billing — or would, if the book were a film.  Beyond the decade of the 1950s, when he was collaborating with Ruth and staying with them some weekends, he visited in 1963 when he got stuck working on Where the Wild Things Are.  What should he call the three wordless two-page spreads in which Max and the wild things cavort in the forest?  Dave suggested “rumpus.”  So, just before the wordless pages start, Sendak has Max say, “Let the wild rumpus start!”  Dave and Ruth were so important to Where the Wild Things Are that Sendak has said, “I feel as though Max was born in Rowayton, and that he was the love child of me, Ruth, and Dave.”

Maurice and I collaborated on getting Crockett Johnson’s Magic Beach published in 2005, with an afterword by me and a foreword by him. We kept in touch. Generally, I’d write him a letter, and then a few days later, he’d phone me back. It was always astonishing to pick up the phone and hear Maurice’s voice on the other end. Or to find his voice on your answering machine. I don’t think I ever quite got over the fact that Holy cow, I’m talking with Maurice Sendak.  That, truly, was “the most wild thing of all!”

In the summer of 2008, I sent both him and Nina Stagakis (who knew Johnson and Krauss very well) an early draft of the manuscript up until the mid-1950s. How was I doing? Anything I might improve? Anything missing? As he recuperated from triple bypass surgery, he read what had become a double biography of both Johnson and Krauss.  On September 10th 2008, he left a message on my office phone.  He said he liked it, it was good work, but he had a few questions. Call him back. I did. He was hesitant to criticize, but I wanted to know. So, he offered his critique: “For me, it was me and Ruth.  And, for you, it was you and Dave.”  Ah, I said, so I need to have more Ruth in there.  He said, well, it’s your manuscript and you can do what you like.  I said, no, I want there to be a balance between the two.  He said, it’s “like a missing color from a palette.”

So, after our phone call, I started going back through the manuscript, and creating a map for each chapter that included a one-line summary of each paragraph which I then labeled either “CJ,” “RK” or “CJ-RK.”  I made the same map for all subsequent chapters, too.  This allowed me to see where the book was unbalanced, and to create a balance, trimming “CJ” sections, expanding “RK” sections.

Maurice was a little out of sorts that September night. In addition to being in recovery, he was also in mourning — his partner of 50 years, Dr. Eugene Glynn, had died the year before. And, at the start of our conversation, he alluded to an article about him in that day’s New York Times, which he described as “a very odd interview that’s very frank.” So, he said, “I’m telling you because I may sound odd.” Wondering what he was talking about, I looked it up (on-line) as we spoke. That’s the article where he at last talks openly about his sexuality. The interviewer asks whether there were anything he had never been asked, and Maurice answers, “Well, that I’m gay.” So, I think he may have feeling a little more vulnerable than usual that evening. (I expect that, if I had just told the New York Times a secret I’d been keeping for 80 years, I’d feel vulnerable, too.)

That was the last time we spoke.

He continued to be supportive of the biography, granting permission to use artwork, and sending me a scan of a photo of him in his 20s — I wanted an image of how he looked at the time he met Ruth and Dave. I believe my biography of Johnson and Krauss will mark the photo’s first publication, though I’m not sure.  But this was all done through his assistant, Jennifer.

My sense of his final years was that he was devoting the life he had left to his work and to mentoring other artists. So, though he no longer returned my occasional letters by phoning me, I figured: well, if I were in my 80s, I would also claim as much of my time for myself as I could! And: He’s been so very generous to me. I can’t complain. I could worry about him, though. I did worry about him.  Whenever he talked to the press, he sounded sad. And he’d sounded sad to me, when last we spoke.

I did write him, and thank him for all he’d done. I was planning to write him again, in a few months’ time, sending him a signed copy of the bio. and another thank-you. (Sigh….) Well, at least he got to see page proofs. The publisher sent him those a few months back.

When I heard the news this morning, “No!” was my first reaction. Yes, I knew he was 83, and he’s never been in the best of health. (He was sickly as a child, and had his first heart attack just before he turned 39.) Still, I assumed he’d always be there. I assumed I’d get the chance to write to him again.

But it was time for him to board Max’s boat and sail away.

Farewell, Maurice.  And thank you.

More on Maurice Sendak (last updated 14 July 2012, 10:15 pm Central Time):

More on Sendak from Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):

Comments (22)