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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


The Hill Country Years

I've spent the last few days running around my old home town, taking pictures and scribbling notes, overtly to document scenes in some of my stories and to refresh memories I rely on for my fiction, but also, I admit, just to relive some of my childhood. It's a weird feeling, really, because I spent so much of my adolescence and even a lot of my young adulthood disparaging this town and region, complaining of the staunchly conservative folk who live here, or of the absence of any worldly culture, or simply of the oppressively hot, humid weather (of which we've had plenty this trip!). Yet, in the face of how much has changed around here in the last decade or so, I have been forced to look beneath the surface of the Texas Hill Country to find what I remember, and in doing so, I have uncovered a lot of charm I had, as a teenager and young college student, refused to acknowledge: the folksy simplicity and quiet pride of heritage in the people here, the unique and unexpectedly varied history and artistic culture of the region, and the fun of the surprise summer shower rolling over the scraggly hills.

Also, in noting how much has changed around here, I have realized how much I remembered--and apparently relished--from my childhood, because the Texas I write about in my fiction is always the Texas of my youth. The other day, I ventured down into the woods behind my parents' house to relive some of the hikes that informed my long novella about two boys spending a summer in the woods, and I had to search hard to find those memories under the changed terrain and through the new neighborhood construction. On various drives through town I searched for businesses and homes and even streets that feature in various short stories, only to find the businesses and streets changed, or gone. And yesterday, driving up to Kerrville on an impromptu trip, I toured my old campus--which makes an appearance in the story I'm working on now--and stopped at the bridge over the Guadalupe in Center Point--which provides the final scene in what is probably my best story--and I found both wildly altered.

The bridge was almost unrecognizable, and if anyone were to visit it looking for the final scene in my short story, they'd likely drive over it and move on, searching for the bridge I describe. It's no longer there. In fact, the bridge as it appears now renders the final scene in my story impossible, which was at first a bit annoying. (If anyone asks, that story is now officially set "in the past.")

My old college campus, though, is a different matter. There are certainly a lot of changes, with a huge new student center, a new welcome center, and a large new science building, as well as a massive building (I'm guessing a dorm) currently under construction. Yet when I reached the heart of campus--which, to my great relief, is still the old academic building and the library--I found very little changed. The quad and its surrounding buildings, like squat brick professors paternally but benevolently overseeing their students, looks so precisely as they did a decade ago that when I posted the new photos of them online, a former classmate thought they were old photos.

I am reminded of Tom Franklin's essay, "The Hunting Years," with which he opens his debut collection of short stories. In it, he returns to his old stomping grounds in the woods and swamps south of Mobile, Alabama. He had gone there to revisit some of the scenes in his stories, seeking fresh details to enliven and finalize his fiction. Instead, he encountered a man with a rifle, warning him off a public trail so the man could hunt in peace. This begins a reverie for the South that Franklin remembered, one in which hunting was a communal, not a solitary, event--a South in which friendly manners were more important than private land. Yet he, too, found less changed in his South than in himself, and he was not only able to access and use the details from his old home area in exactly the way he'd hoped, but he also was able to see his South in a new light, through a fresh perspective, in a way that lent his fiction greater depth.

I have to admit that some of this trip back to my own hometown, I modeled after Franklin's journey home. I, too, hoped to find new details and refreshed memory. But I also knew, from Franklin's essay, that other possibilities existed, that new opportunities might present themselves. I might have thought that knowing--and expecting--such an outcome would have prevented it, because I shouldn't be able to recreate what was for Franklin a spontaneous and unexpected realization. But such is the depth of the Texas Hill Country, that even knowing what I'm looking for, I can find surprise and insight nonetheless.


On a life, our liberty, and the pursuit of reading: a reflection on the life and work of Judith Krug

Two years ago, I had the great privilege of eating dinner with Judith Krug. My wife was giving a two-hour presentation on librarians in film at the annual conference of the Wisconsin Library Association, and as a member of WLA's Intellectual Freedom Roundtable, she also got to meet and work briefly with Judith Krug, the founder and director of the American Library Association's Freedom to Read Foundation and a co-founder of Banned Books Week. Krug was always looking for fresh voices in her passionate campaign for intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights, so after their work was done, she met for dinner with several librarians, including my wife; they graciously invited me to tag along. Krug was the center of attention, of course--she is an icon among librarians, practically a superhero and a living embodiment of the dearest ideals and values of librarians everywhere. She also was a charming woman, witty and outspoken and stylish, both engaging and engaged--she even expressed some interest in my own work, asking after my creative writing and, when the evening was over, wishing me luck on my dissertation, which I was then deep in the process of finishing. She was a delightful, impressive figure even to me, a library proxy who usually only gets to enjoy these sorts of evenings because I was smart enough to marry a librarian, and since that dinner I came to admire and respect her a great deal.

My wife admired and respected her even more, not only because she is a fellow librarian but because Krug later invited Jennifer to join ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee, a position which allowed Jennifer to occasionally work with Krug more closely. She frequently speaks of Krug with a kind of reverence, as though speaking of a mentor; indeed, the more librarians I meet, the more I think many people--and not just librarians--viewed Krug as a kind of de facto mentor.

On April 11 this year, Judith Krug died. The nation mourned. (President Obama sent her family a letter of condolence.) But a nation also celebrated her life, none more enthusiastically than librarians and, among librarians, none more than Krug's friends and colleagues at ALA.

Last night, the Freedom to Read Foundation celebrated its 40th anniversary, as well as the life and legacy of their founder and hero, Judith Krug, with a gala at the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. My wife, of course, attended as a member of the IFC, and I--ever the grateful adjunct to my wife's library adventures--joined her as a guest. During the course of the evening, book lovers of all sorts chatted over drinks while enjoying a balcony view of Millennium Park and later gazed at the astounding modern art collection (Picasso's The Old Guitarist is nothing short of breathtaking in person, but I also was stricken by the stark emotion in the early Kandinsky paintings), though, to be honest, the highlight of the gallery was a brief meeting with Judy Blume. Blume was browsing the art with her publisher and with Judith Krug's husband, but she was kind enough to greet all the admirers who crowded around her, my wife and I among them. We shook her hand and praised her speech in Madison, WI, which I have written about elsewhere--she said her husband thought the speech was disjointed and rambling, but I strongly disagreed, much to the delight of Blume's publisher--and Jennifer told Blume how much librarians everywhere, including Jennifer's mother, love and admire Blume. Finally, we left Blume alone and descended to a wide reception gallery to gather at small round tables, to eat and celebrate.

After dinner, the Foundation presented a series of awards, including two to Judith Krug--both awards had been announced prior to her death, and the latter, the William J. Brennan, Jr. Award, given by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, was a rare honor indeed: the award has existed since 1993 but has only been given five times. The second, the FTRF Founder's Award, was in fact created in her honor, and was presented by Krug's long-time friend and fellow champion of intellectual freedom Judy Blume, who cried during her speech--as did many of the rest of us (yes, including me). Later, we heard a long but pleasant speech by Chicago lawyer and author Scott Turow, of Presumed Innocent fame, and some delightful closing remarks by the FTRF's treasurer, James G. Neal, but though both men had broader purposes in their speeches--to support the freedom to read and the FTRF's important mission of promoting First Amendment rights--neither could help praising Judith Krug's legacy as well. As the founder of the FTRF, long-time director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, outspoken advocate for readers' rights, and dedicated warrior librarian fighting censorship everywhere she found it, Judith Krug was, in every way imaginable, literally the reason we had all gathered last night.

These were not the first of Krug's awards and accolades--she collected pages of them in her life, all to honor her dedication to fighting censorship and promoting the freedom to read--nor were they the first of Krug's memorial ceremonies at this year's ALA conference, and they are unlikely to be the last of either. In his letter to Krug's family and friends (published in the evening's program), President Obama writes, "I trust that her spirit and strength will continue to serve as a guiding force for everyone who benefited from her life and her life's work." The fact is, if you have ever read a book or visited a library, you have benefited, whether directly or indirectly, from Krug's life and work. That's how far-reaching and how important Krug was, and how deeply important she remains, to all of us.


Writing in Chicago

I'm in Chicago this weekend and most of next week; my wife has a professional conference here and I get to tag along and soak up the city. I love this town, and if I controlled the universe and could orchestrate my life, I'd probably fix myself with a nice brownstone in the Gold Coast area and just revel in this city until I retire (at which point, PEI, here we come!).

My plan was to get some writing done in the hotel room while my wife is off at meetings and conference panels, and in fact, I've done quite a bit already; last week, in Texas, I knocked out two new drafts of long-troubling short stories, and yesterday, as it rained outside, I began work on a third. This morning, I read a story from a friend of mine and offered some comments, then went back to work on my own story, but I made the mistake of opening the window, and I didn't last long at the desk. Compared with our summer weather in the Middle East, and last week's weather in Texas (where we were visiting family), the weather here in Chicago is gorgeous, so today I rode the El down to the loop and then walked over to the newly revamped Sears Tower, with the intent to visit the new observation deck there. Word was, the new owners of the building built these clear glass "pods" in some of the 103rd-floor windows, so you can actually stand inside the window and gaze through the clean nothing between your feet all the way to the street below. I don't suffer much from vertigo and generally love heights (despite my back-breaking tumble from a tree two years ago), and I was looking forward to the chance for a Spider-Man view of the building, but when I arrived, the line wrapped around the block, and I decided to grab a bit of lunch instead. I think I'm going to head out early tomorrow morning and try again, when the line might be a few dozen people shorter and I can more comfortably enjoy the long wait.

Instead, I walked a few blocks west to check out a diner I'd read about, Lou Mitchell's, a 1923 diner that bills itself as the start of Route 66 and is famous for their fluffy omelets and homemade pastries. I arrived right at lunch time, and the place was jumping, but the service, mostly from delightfully cliched old women I kept wanting to call Flo and Alice, was swift, friendly, and efficient. The line was almost out the door but I was seated--at one of a series of nifty U-shaped bars--in minutes and had ordered and was eating just 10 minutes later. Though it was a bit noisy, the atmosphere was classic and the food fantastic; I ordered a simple breakfast (which they serve all day) of two scrambled eggs, with hash browns and toast. The eggs were the thickest, fluffiest eggs I've seen in my life, bigger than my two fists together, and the toast tasted like it was made not from bread but from pure butter, squared off and fried crisp. And the coffee, though nothing earth shattering, was nice and rich, the way I like it, and came in true diner style, tossed onto the table to slosh, just a few drops, over the rim of the thick mug and into the heavy saucer below. Their fresh-squeezed orange juice, by the way, tastes like liquid fruit. Amazing.

Afterward, I decided to made my trip downtown worthwhile by hoping on the Brown line and riding the El around the Loop and out into the city. I didn't go all the way to the end of the line, but I did ride across the river, through the city to North Ave, and up into Lincoln Park a ways, before I realized it was time to head back. The Brown is practically a tour train; it rolls slowly from stop to stop, easing through wide intersections, around turns, and across the river as though pausing for photographs (which I took plenty of), and it makes for a leisurely ride. When I hopped off and transferred to the Red line back into the city, we dipped underground and shot through stop after stop, making what the return trip in less than half the time.

All in all, a wonderfully satisfying afternoon. Tonight is the first of Navy Pier's twice-weekly summer fireworks, and the weather is perfect for that, too. Better still, my wife's conference schedule, unusually, is wide open this evening, so I'm looking forward to a quiet night on the beach. Tomorrow morning, it's back to Sears Tower, and then maybe, if I can resist the bright blue skies and cool breeze, I'll get back to work. Or else I'll just take a notebook and pen over to Grant Park and gaze at the Buckingham Fountain and Lake Michigan beyond, holding my pen thoughtfully and acting like a writer but, let's face, simply enjoying the view instead.