I’m tending my young tomato plants today in preparation for them going into the ground. It is still cool in Paradelle – frost-free but still some 40 and 50 degrees nights and days. I’m a jersey boy and I grew up growing tomatoes in that Garden State in every year I can remember.
My father showed me how to plant seeds in flats the month before the last predicted frost. I didn’t like plucking out tiny seedlings in order to keep the best ones. I wanted every seedling to produce tomatoes, but that isn’t the way it works in a backyard garden.
I learned to dig big holes, add composted manure, plant the seedling deep. I didn’t like putting them in so deep that they looked like such tiny plants. they went in all the way to the first main leaves so they would send out deep roots and not shallow roots that could easily burn in the hots days of Juky and August. We left a bowl-like depression to catch the water. We covered them with modified milk cartons to keep away cutworms, discourage invaders and protect for those first cool nights.
Today’s podcast of The Writer’s Almanac(which is primarily about writers and literature but often takes little diversions – as many writers do when they should be writing) coincidentally had a segment about tomatoes.
It was on this day in 1893 that the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit. The Tariff Act of 1883 said that a 10 percent tax had to be paid on all imported vegetables. The importers argued that according to the dictionary definition of fruit — the structure that grows from the flower of the plant and holds the seeds — a tomato was a fruit. The government read the definitions of “eggplant,” “squash,” “pepper,” and “cucumber” — all of which, like tomato, are fruits in the botanical sense — but which are considered vegetables.
Justice Gray delivered the opinion of the Court: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, but in the common language of the people, they are vegetables which are usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”
I knew most of that, but it struck me that the real problem was that “vegetable” has no actual scientific or botanical definition. It is a culinary term.
Tomatoes have always been for me a vegetable because that was the way we treated them in our home. But there is one exception to that. When I am in the garden in summer, weeding, staking, looking for pests and watering, I can’t help but pick a very red and ripe tomato and biting into it in the same way I would eat an apple, peach or plum from the trees in my childhood backyard. No tomato tastes better than those. And some are “grape cherry tomatoes” their shape and size suggesting that other fruit.
As I am typing this, I can see my seedlings outside in their tray with a net cover. I also see two squirrels running around the yard and a rabbit snooping by the deck wondering about when my plants will be set into the ground. And that reminds me of a poem by a teacher I once had in a summer workshop. here is an excerpt from “Blue with Collapse” by Thomas Lux.
It’s spring, the blooming branches
nearly hide the many dead ones.
A squirrel, digging for a nut, upends my frail
tomato plant and fails
to replant it, even though he has the tools.
I find this kind of squirrely oblivion everywhere.
In the summer of 1897, a father was asked a very difficult question that many parents have heard. Is there really a Santa Claus? Dr. O’Hanlon’s daughter, Virginia, was eight years old and was hearing from friends on summer vacation that she was foolish to believe in Santa. Her father, a serious man who was a police surgeon and deputy coroner, avoided being the word of authority and told her to write a letter to the editors of one of their New York City newspapers, The Sun. They printed her letter on September 21st.
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
That short letter from 115 West 95th Street, got a reply, “Is There a Santa Claus?” in that edition. It has become the most reprinted editorial, and is best known for one line in the editorial, which begins:
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence…” read the full editorial
I got the same question from my sons a few decades ago. I didn’t tell them to write to a newspaper. I did not want to crush their belief in Santa, but I didn’t want them mocked at school. My older son was a big fan of the book, The Polar Express. In that book, there is a Christmas bell. Believers can hear it ring; non-believers can’t hear the sound. Our family could all hear the sound.
What i ended up telling the boys was that the popular Santa Claus of TV and movies and at the mall were not Santa, but they were believers who wanted to carry on the original version of Santa’s work. No magic sleigh and flying reindeer, but there is something of the magic still evident in the season. My younger son nodded in agreement and said there had to be some Santa because “there’s no way you and mommy would buy us all those gifts!” True, true.
For me, the more important line in the editorial is saying that “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”
As Old Man Winter is a personification of the season with some mythological and historical roots, Santa Claus is also a personification of pagan and some religious traditions made less secular. I wish Santa Claus was not associated with a religious holiday and was more of an end of the year symbol. Bringing gifts to those we love and care about, gathering with friends and family is certainly a good way to end the year.
I was surprised to find a website for The New York Sun because I thought it had disappeared many years ago. It was a daily NY newspaper published from 2002 to 2008 adopting the name, motto, and masthead of the earlier NY newspaper that published the editorial, The Sun, which existed from 1833 to 1950. It became the first general-interest broadsheet newspaper to be started in New York City in several decades. Its op-ed page became a prominent platform in the country for conservative viewpoints. The Sun merged with the World-Telegram in 1950. Since 2009, The Sun has operated as an online-only publisher
CBS Sunday Morning did a segment, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” that talked with Virginia’s living relatives and takes a look at the original letter. watch story online
Marginalia (or apostils) are marks made in the margins of a book or other document. They may be scribbles, comments, glosses (annotations), critiques, doodles, or illuminations.
Fermat’s last theorem is the most famous mathematical marginal note.
The first recorded use of the word marginalia is in 1819 in Blackwood’s Magazine.
Voltaire composed in book margins while in prison.
Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a personal statement in margins just before his execution.
Beginning in the 1990s, attempts have been made to design and market e-book devices permitting a limited form of marginalia.
Billy Collins has poem titled “Marginalia” that begins:
Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
‘Nonsense.’ ‘Please! ‘ ‘HA! ! ‘ –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote ‘Don’t be a ninny’
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Edgar Allan Poe titled some of his reflections and fragmentary material “Marginalia.”
Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls ‘Metaphor’ next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of ‘Irony’
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
‘Absolutely,’ they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
‘Yes.’ ‘Bull’s-eye.’ ‘My man! ‘
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.
I made plenty of notes in my college books. I tried not to mark up those expensive textbooks so that their value didn’t drop (though some of my friends liked the “annotated” books they bought used). But I heavily wrote in the margins of the novels and poetry collections I used in my English classes, and I still have most of them today.
Five volumes of Samuel T. Coleridge’s marginalia have been published.
Some famous marginalia were serious works, or drafts thereof, and were written in margins due to scarcity and expense of paper. Emily Dickinson wrote poems on scraps of paper, used envelopes and such.
And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.
Reading and analyzing marginalia can be a scholarly pursuit, especially the marginalia of famous authors. Herman Melville is one of my soulmates and there is a website, Melville’s Marginalia Online, devoted to the marginalia in books owned and borrowed by him from 1819-1891.
The old books are scanned and then filtered and sharpened in Adobe Photoshop in a digital literary archaeology. Scholars study his notes in copies of books about whales. That seems obvious. less obvious are notes on themes that emerge not only in Moby-Dick, but in his other books, stories and poems.
Melville writes in White Jacket: The horn seemed the mark of a curse for some mysterious sin, conceived and committed before the spirit had entered the flesh. Yet that sin seemed something imposed, and not voluntarily sought; some sin growing out of the heartless necessities of the predestination of things; some sin under which the sinner sank in sinless woe.
Studying his marginalia, especially in a copy of Dante’s Inferno, we see him being interested in the way impulsive, unplanned, unpremeditated acts could be seen as sins. He marks up passages about damnation and free will.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
Some marginalia is our way of saying that we didn’t just read the words, but we thought about them. We paused, considered a line, and made a note of our own.
Marginalia is an older practice than even printed books. The “scholia” on classical manuscripts are the earliest known form of marginalia. We have evidence of margin notes and even illustrations in beautiful old illuminated manuscripts.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
Some say that reading some authors along with the marginalia of another author is the best way to read.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
My favorite marginalia is not very scholarly. Egocentrically, I now quite enjoy reading my own marginalia in books I read in my student days.
I even wrote margin notes in my own journals. I made notes in the journals from my pre-teen and teen years many years later noting the “lies” I had written there. I think that I imagined it I wrote it down, it would be true.
And I love it when I look in someone else’s book and find their notes. This is especially true when I buy used books, which I often do. Some notes are like those Collins mocks – lightweight, silly, literary graffiti. But some are thoughtful, and I like reading them and trying to figure something about the previous owner.
Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.’
All this is an elaborate introduction to what inspired this post. I bought a used copy of theI Ching and found inside of it a series of Post-It notes. I consider them a modern day marginalia. Margin notes from someone who doesn’t feel comfortable writing in the margins of a book.
I read them and thought about who she (yes, I imagined it is a woman) was when she was writing the notes.
She asks this Book of Changes, this ancient Chinese divination text, “What is my true calling?” A very big question.
Something bad had happened to her. “I what ways can I go about healing myself in ways I have not covered. What is my missing link and how can I find it?”
She tosses the coins, heads and tails, and looks for the answers. I feel sorry for her. I want the book to give her answers, or at least make her believe there are answers.
“How can I reclaim my sparkle and presence,” she asked. I didn’t look up the answers she was given.
She sold the book. Either she got her answers, or gave up on finding them in a book. She left her marginalia, these bits of her life and searching, for me to find.
I did my own searching. I didn’t find the answers, or rather, I didn’t find the answers I wanted to find. I also sold the book. I removed her notes. I think each of us should start our search with a clean page.
If you accept that our dreams have some meaning, then it would follow that recurring dreams have some greater meaning.
As a young teen, I had a recurring dream about standing at edge of a cliff looking down at water far below. In the water were large rocks and also a girl I knew from school who was swimming – and there were sharks circling her. I have a fear of heights and I’m no great swimmer, so jumping in to save her would be unlikely. But in the dream, I jump. As a fall, I realize I am headed towards the rocks and I adjust my arms (bird or Superman style) to move closer to her. I always woke up right before I hit the water.
It was during this same period that I became interested in dream interpretation and read books ranging from the pop dream interpretation books (mostly useless) to Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (mostly over my head).
This was the book where Freud introduced his theory of the unconscious. Freud’s take on dreams is that they are a kind of wish fulfillment. His ideas about dreams have had mixed responses since he wrote the book in 1899, but that basic premise still has validity.
He also saw dreams as the way that thoughts of the unconscious mind pass through the preconscious to our conscious mind. Via that process, what arrives in our conscious mind is in an altered state and so it requires interpretation. Freud’s solution was psychoanalysis, not amateur sleuthing with books.
I came to see my cliff dream as wish fulfillment. I had a crush on that girl and the sharks were the other guys who surrounded her. I wanted to rescue her, but I saw the dangers and it would have been a frightening thing to attempt. I never did attempt it. The dream went away, probably when I gave up any chance of being with that girl.
We also have the ideas of Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung. He similarly saw dreams as a way of connecting our conscious and subconscious minds, but the meanings were much larger archetypes. Gestaltist dream theory suggests that it is our childhood recurring dreams that are the most important for the purposes of therapy.
Our greatest concerns show up in our dreams. When those concerns aren’t worked out satisfactorily in reality, they appear in dreams.
From what I have read in the years since, the most common recurring dreams are: falling, being chased, being in school, flying, being unprepared for an exam or meeting, being nude in a public place and, most oddly, losing teeth.
It seems that the vast majority of recurring dreams are considered by the dreamer to be unpleasant. That is unfortunate. I wouldn’t mind having a pleasant dream over and over again.
It seems that research has found that recurring dreams don’t tend to start in adulthood very often. I can’t recall any dreams in my adult life that have been recurring. For those adults who do have them (and it is more likely to be a woman), feeling trapped or alone, and being overwhelmed by responsibilities are common themes. In other words, the topics are not childhood scary things but adult scary things.
I still record my dreams on a pretty regular basis in the hopes to gaining insight into my waking life. I think you need to do that in order to discover your own personal symbolism. For example, for someone like myself who has taught most of my life, dreams set in a classroom must have different meanings from adults who only recall the classrooms of their youth.
You can find articles online on how to stop recurring dreams that are very disturbing. No surprise – the solution is to interpret the dream and figure out what is causing it and deal with that problem. easier said than done.
I hate lists. I particularly had “to-do” lists. I make lists all the time, and I always have a to-do list near my desk.
Lists have been around for long time. Leonardo da Vinci made lists of things and things to do. George Washington made lists. Fictional characters like Jay Gatsby made lists.
Lists must have some appeal. The horribly-named and just plain horrible online “content” known as the “listicle” seems to get lots of views. “10 Ways to _____” or “The 7 Best _____” or “The 5 Things You Need To Do This Weekend” seem to promise a fast way to better your life. Maybe it is part of the same movement that makes slide presentations full of short bulleted lists so popular. Here are all the answers in an easy to digest package.
I consider the writer and scholar Umberto Eco to be a wise man. He said that “The list is the origin of culture,” when he gave a Der Spiegel interview. He had just curated an exhibition on the history of the list at the Louvre.
That certainly elevates my “Things To Do This Week” notepad writing to a new level.
In a book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. , Umberto Eco says that lists are the way we put order to chaos. I know that as I grow older I rely more on lists – shopping, projects around the house, tasks for work lists – than I did before. (Though I have been making lists since my teen years, some of which are in journals from that time.) They do help with he memory. Sometimes. I have been known to scribble on a list something like “Call Harry” and then the next day looked at it and wonder why I needed to call Harry. Was there some specific thing I wanted to tell him, or was it just that I thought it was time to chat?
Lists can be hopeful. Just this week, I made a list of garden ideas for next spring. I guess I plan to be alive in six months.
Lists can be depressing. I occasionally find lists of things I wanted to do from a year or more ago and realize I haven’t done many or any of the things on it. What have I been doing with my life?
I have a love/hate relationship with my lists. But when I finish typing this sentence and hit “publish,” I can cross something off this week’s list, and that I find quite satisfying.