Inconceivable! An Interview with Wallace Shawn

Legend has it “It” girl Lana Turner was “discovered” at a soda counter in 1937. Outside of perhaps Hedy Lamar, who invented some heavy military tech in WWII, most of the actors in the “glory days” of Hollywood were not known for smarts but for looking glamorous. Hollywood was the way for good-looking people from the back fields of America to break free and become wealthy and “cultured.” They had to speak well, dress well, stay thin, know their lines and marks, and obey the studio.

Times have changed. While good looks are nice, there are plenty of successful actors who have never been considered heart-throbs (Steve Buscemi, Clint Howard, Vincent Schiavelli, Mike Smith, Linda Hunt, etc). Hollywood may have its mega-cash flow (A-listers make $15-20 million per film; Dwayne Johnson had 9 films 2016-2018), but many stars aren’t afraid to flaunt their smarts and get that college degree, knowing how fickle the acting business is. Jodie Foster has a degree from Yale, Natalie Portman from Harvard, Emma Watson from Brown, Mayim Balik has a PhD in Neuroscience, Gerard Butler a law degree, James Franco is finishing a PhD from Yale, and more.

Smart AND Talented

Recently, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting actor Wallace Shawn, listening to him speak and interviewing him briefly. Never heard of him? I’ll bet you have. Perhaps most famously he is known for the Inconceivable role of Vizzini in the cult classic, The Princess Bride. Currently, he plays the Professor on the TV show Young Sheldon. He’s had roles in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, Bojack Horseman, and if you had children any time in the last 20 years, he’s the voice of Rex in Toy Story. You might not know his name, but you probably do know his face and voice.

And what an interesting man he is!  Soft spoken and humble, he loves to chat, and was charmed by all the happy faces he met. Shawn graduated from no less than Harvard, with a degree in history and the hope of becoming a diplomat – so far as spending a year in India teaching English. Acting was never on his radar – in fact, he was known far more for being a playwright, with such well-received plays as Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Marie and Bruce, My Dinner with Andre, A Master Builder, and Evening at the Talk House. His acting career came about due to a friendship with play director Andre Gregory, with whom he collaborated on the semi-autobiographical My Dinner with Andre, and he’s never stopped working since.

He’s also published books of essays, including one titled simply Essays, and his 2017 collection entitled Night Thoughts, which he admits is a bit political. Although biographies will give more clues to his opinions, in person Wallace treads a neutral line, doesn’t give many clues as to his feelings, and tries to keep many of his opinions private. Originally he considered writing to be selfish and self-indulgent, but then realized it was a satisfying creative outlet.

Heavy Reader

photo: Dawn Swingle

So what does a highly educated actor and playwright like to read? What authors does he favor? Wallace preferred to side-step the question a bit, citing that he likes to keep those things private. In the past, his favorite book was The Idiot by Dostoevsky, because it contained just about everything you could ever want to know about the human condition – not the kind of answer I expected, far heavier than I would have imagined. He admitted to liking Japanese literature, including Yasunari Kawabata and Haruki Murakami. The man is far deeper, and a deeper thinker, than I ever would have imagined.

Time with Wallace Shawn is like spending time with a favorite uncle who comes to Sunday dinner. While his movie and television roles may portray him otherwise, he’s sweet, personable, and down to earth. He admires Woody Allen, spent much time with him, and does not believe the accusations against him. His environmentalism showed when asked what he would have liked to have told his younger self, and he remarked he never realized “when he was young that the most destructive animal on Earth was ourselves, that what we put into our cars would destroy everything not only locally, but globally, that butterflies and bees would be dying, and only a handful of people would even care about it.”

Wallace Shawn: actor, voice actor, playwright, author. If you can’t catch one of his plays, check out his movies and TV shows. Truly, a man who is much greater than the sum of his roles!

  

Planting Your Garden

Spring is here! As we put those tender seedlings into the ground, up sprouts the constant question: should I go Organic, or should I show up my neighbors by using Miracle Grow? Will I poison my children if I use it on my tomatoes? Is my neighbor’s cancer due to Round Up™, and did it blow over into my yard? If a lawncare company treated my grass, are my grass clippings poisoning my compost?

So many questions for such a busy season!

“Organic” is a shady term to start with. We think of hippies and happy sheep, and fields strewn with mulch and recycled orange peels, when in reality it just means the land cannot have been treated with synthetic pesticides, fertilizers (including Miracle Grow), or GMOs for three years. Sounds nice, right? Except that two of the three companies licensed by the USDA to certify organic farms are for-profit (Oregon Tilth is not). The farmer wanting to be certified pays the company to license them. That’s like paying a teacher to give you a grade. The problem is worse overseas: 100 countries export “organic” produce to the USA, and though they are supposed to abide by US law, the countries inspect and license their own. And let’s not forget that a good percentage of “organic fertilizer” in many countries is human in origin.  (The E. coli that keeps poisoning lettuce is usually animal in origin).

Won’t chemical fertilizers like Miracle Grow poison me? No. Plants don’t care where the nutrients come from, horse manure or a green and yellow box. Plants use them the same way. The issues with Miracle Grow are 1) the concentration of ammonium phosphate may be too high for some plants. MG makes different formulas for roses, tomatoes, azaleas, etc. Choose the one you need. 2) The greatest issue for chemical fertilizers is that heavy rains can wash a recent fertilizing away. If twelve homes get washout, and it flows into the brook behind them, too high a concentration in water systems can cause algal blooms that suck up oxygen and kill wildlife.

Okay, but what about Round Up™? If I kill the dandelions in my walk, won’t I die?

Uh, that’s a loaded question. Yes, more than 14 countries have banned Round Up (chemical: glyphosate), and while the courts have said yes, Round Up causes cancer, the US maintains it does not. And there’s the difference: In Europe, you must prove a chemical is safe before it hits the market, and that’s hard to do. In the US, chemicals are presumed innocent and you must prove they’re harmful – which is really easy to sidestep even with math and science. In America, it is up to the manufacturer to show their product is harmful, not the government (Got that? The man making and marketing the product must show that what he’s selling is harmful.) When the people with highest exposure to Round Up were studied (ie, farm workers), they had a 41% higher risk of a type of cancer called Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. People with heavy, frequent exposure over time. NO risk was found in people who go outside three times a year and spritz a weed. If you want to use it, do so sparingly, wear rubber gloves, and wash with soap immediately after, and whatever you do, don’t inhale it. 

But if those chemicals wind up in my compost bin, won’t they pollute my compost? Mm, depends. According to John Reganold, Professor of Soil Science at Washington State University, “The heat and microbial action of most compost piles break down many produce pesticides.” So don’t feel bad throwing that non-organic banana peel in the pile. BUT: some pesticides (like clopyralid – Reclaim) can become concentrated. Things like termiticides bind to the soil and last a long time.  And even treated and composted animal/human waste can still contain parasites. If in doubt, buy local, where you can ask what might have been sprayed on the food.

But rest easy: Miracle Grow has never been shown to cause cancers.

So, is organic worth it? Depends on what you’re willing to pay. The most chemical-contaminated foods in the grocery store are strawberries, peaches (more than 57 pesticides on one sample), celery, lettuce and greens (and that’s not counting the E. coli risk), and most other fruit. If you want to reduce your pesticide ingestion, consider buying organic just for fruits (or grow your own), and wash, wash, wash what you do bring home.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are about the best thing there is for your body, and growing your own, organic or not, is a fun (and tasty) experiment anyone can do anywhere. Try growing some popcorn, or a yellow or brown or purple heirloom tomato. Pole beans are great for kids, because they grow incredibly fast and are very prolific, as are grape tomatoes (so why are they so expensive?).

No matter which method you use, read further on gardening in these topical books:

Starter Vegetable Gardens : 24 no-fail plans for small organic gardens by Barbara Pleasant

Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

101 Organic Gardening Hacks : eco-friendly solutions to improve any garden by Shawna Coronado

Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, edited by Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W. Ellis

Organic Gardening for Dummies / by Ann Whitman, Suzanne DeJohn,

The Organic Lawn Care Manual  by Paul Tukey

Vegetable Gardening : from planting to picking by Fern Marshall Bradley, Jane Courtier

High-Yield Vegetable Gardening : grow more of what you want in the space you have by  Colin McCrate and Brad Halm

Northeast Fruit & Vegetable Gardening : plant, grow, and eat the best edibles for Northeast gardens by Charles Nardozzi

The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible by Edward C. Smith

 

The Spectre of Gender Inequality in Children’s Books

Someone posted a video online, and it made me steam.

A mother and daughter protest the lack of female leads in children’s literature by removing books to underscore various statistics, until few are left.

And my head exploded.

Anyone can cherry-pick books to fit any given criteria. AND it devalues wonderful books for no reason but gender (anyone scarred by not reading Harriet Potter? Or Curious Georgette?). The facts felt skewed, I HAD to investigate this.

The video, and most relevant articles, stem from a single study by Janice McCabe in the sociology journal Journal of Gender and Society (2011) which studied 5600 US children’s titles from the 20th century and found that males are twice as likely as females in titles, and 1.5 times more common as central characters. Among animal characters, only 7.5% of titles had female lead characters. They also found that in periods of high feminism (60’s, 70’s) this gap lessened, as opposed to low periods of feminism (40’s, 50’s).  Of 69 Caldecott award winners since 2000, just four have female animals. 25% of sampled titles had NO female characters. In children’s media, less than 20% showed women with a job, vs. 80% of men. Even when characters were neutral – an unnamed bear, a building, a car – parents tended to call the character-object male. In many books that do include females, they are a token character – who really cares about Kanga in Winnie the Pooh? Who cares about Wendy, when it’s the Island of Lost Boys? (Disney is hardest on girls, even when they’re the lead).

We Like Kindergarten - a Little Golden BookSo what does that mean? Are books working against girls? Do we perpetuate female stereotypes and patriarchal archetypes starting with early board books? Do we as parents set our children up for failure by gender-typing from an infant’s earliest days?

Yes and no. The first thing to remember is that video WAS AN ADVERTISEMENT. It’s intentionally made to sell a book called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. It’s SUPPOSED to make you angry so you will buy their product, or from similar publishers of inclusive stories like Zubaan Virago, and A Mighty Girl, which highlights books for girls. But the actual facts are a lot more complicated:

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClosky1) The original study was small. It didn’t look at Newbery winners, or Pura Belpre winners, or Coretta Scott King winners. They picked 5,000 books from a century of literature – when 22,000 children’s books were published in the US in 2009 alone! Every report on the subject admits greater research needs to be done.

2) Language. English has just two pronoun genders to refer to living things – Little Blue Truck by Alice SchertleHe and She. If you do not know the sex of the duck, the bear, the cat,  you automatically assign one (and somehow dogs are always male and cats are  female). Inanimate objects (despite what you named your car) are referred to as It. But It doesn’t work when the It is a character (ie, The Little Engine That Could, or Little Blue Truck). We don’t speak that way (though we try with an incorrect singular Their). Other languages have gender-neutral pronouns; English doesn’t, and He has been our default pronoun for centuries.

3) Reading abilities World wide, the reading ability scores of girls surpass those of boys. Doesn’t matter if it’s Africa, the US, China, or Finland, the star of world literacy. Adjust for gender, and Finnish girls lead the world in reading, not Finnish boys. It’s harder to get boys to read, and harder to keep them reading. Around the world, boys slowly stop reading for pleasure by 11-13 (in general). When you switch to older (12-18) readers, female protagonists shoot up to 65%. Even in intermediate readers (9-12), boys drop to 48% of lead characters. Now we’ve opened up a separate can of worms as to whether books are being geared toward boys to attempt to keep them reading, or assuming boys won’t read and letting girls win.

Absolutely One Thing (featuring Charlie and Lola) by Lauren Child4)  Publishers. In the end, it’s the publishers who release titles and illustrations. As Lauren Child (of Charlie and Lola) states: “…If you write a book that has a lead character that is a girl, publishers want you to slightly ‘girlify’ it, to make it ‘look more like a girl’s’ book.”

5) Quality vs. quantity. “… Are the central female characters empowered or do they reproduce stereotypes? Is there conflicting subtext – are the females punished or rewarded for their actions?” Joan of Arc may be a famous teen who did amazing things, but she was burned alive for it.  Not inspirational to all.

In a quick check of CPL’s shelves, I randomly pulled 112 picture booksThe First Step : How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman (no title peeking). Of 52 with people, 21 had male leads, 23 had female leads, and 8 had both. Of animal/objects, 22 were ‘male’, 9 were ‘female’, and 19 were neutral – somewhat more balanced. In the end, yes, books may be skewed toward male characters – for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t make them bad books. You can find just as much to be admired in Hermione Granger or Luna Lovegood or Molly Weasley as Harry Potter. Books on strong girls are out there, in increasing numbers, and the more women are politically empowered, the more books there are. Don’t buy into one misleading advertisement, but look around. Ask your library if they have a certain book. Ask a publisher if they’re planning on anything in a specific category.   Still want books with lead girls? Check out these timeless classics for children,  teens, and more:

Pippi LongstockingJunie B. Jones is a Beauty Shop Guy by Barbara Park

Madeline

Junie B. Jones

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games 

Divergent

Maisy

Little House on the Prairie series

OliviaEloise by Kay Thompson

Eloise

Matilda

Coraline

The Golden Compass by Philip PullmanIvy and Bean

The Golden Compass

Matched

Mandy

Ella Enchnted by Gail Carson LevineElla Enchanted

Cinder

Beka Cooper series

Blueberries for Sal

 

 

More Than Oprah

Many people are aware that Oprah Winfrey is the richest black woman in America, with a net worth of more than 2.8 billion dollars (which still doesn’t put her in the top 10 richest American women). She is, however, in the top 10 richest self-made billionaire American woman – and the only African-American woman to make the cut. But long before Oprah, there was Sarah Breedlove.

Success Started Early

Breedlove was America’s first self-made female millionaire. Born in 1867, she was an orphan by the age of 7, a domestic by the age of ten, and married her way out at 14. After several marriages that ended in widowhood or divorce, in 1905 Breedlove began her own line of beauty and hair care products for African American women (under the name Madame C.J. Walker), many of whom were going bald because of the harsh lye soaps of the era. The need was great, her products worked, and she went on to become an American philanthropist.

To a degree. Marjorie Joyner was one of her employees. Marjorie became the first African American woman to be issued a patent – for the first machine to permanently wave hair (no Toni kits back then!). However, she never saw a dime for her creation – the royalties and rights went to Madame C.J. Walker! Next time you go to a salon or use a home perm kit, remember to think of Marjorie Joyner.

When we think of African-American women in history, we seem to get stuck on Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Coretta Scott King, but they are just the very tip of the iceberg.

The Long Hard Climb for Recognition

It’s been a slow, hard climb for African-American women. While Hattie McDaniel won a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone With the Wind in 1939 (the first African American to do so), a Best Actress award didn’t come until Halle Berry won in 2001 for Monster’s Ball. That’s a long wait. While the first white woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was in 1909, the first African-American woman wasn’t until the great Toni Morrison won in 1993. Although actress Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame showed African-American women as educated members of space crews in 1966 (and gave television’s first interracial kiss), Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut, didn’t make it to space until 1992. To this day, African American women are disproportionately victims of more violent crimes than any other group of women – by more than double. While more African-American women are enrolled in college than any other group (9.7%), they make up only 8% of the workforce, and earn only 64¢ on the dollar compared to 78¢ for white women; 21% of African-American women live in poverty, compared to just 9% of white women. Only now, decades later, are we beginning to appreciate the remarkable contributions of African-American women in the fields of science and math, such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who helped launch NASA’s space program by doing the math in their heads.

Making Strides

While there is still so far to go in equalizing opportunities for minority women, the 21st century has shown remarkable gains, with not only Condoleeza Rice becoming National Security Advisor and then Secretary General under President Bush, but with Michelle Obama becoming the First Lady of the United States.  African-American women continue to enter politics, with record wins in 2018, including the first African-American women elected to Congress from Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. So grab a novel, a biography, a great DVD on the lives and achievements of African American women, and catch up on some of the great history you never learned about in school.

 

         

  

             

Myth-ing Persons : Heroes of Myth and Legend

January began as one of the last months of year, not the first.  The start of the Roman calendar (and the astrological one) was March. Back then there were only ten months to the year, totaling 304 days. Between was a miasmic 66 monthless days of “winter.” According to legend, Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome (after Romulus himself), added January and February to codify that winter term (along with a catch-up month every other year of 22 days).

Was Numa a real figure? History leans toward yes, born around 753 BC. Both Plutarch and Livy (major Roman writers) wrote about him. He codified Roman laws and religion, so we know he actually lived, but like many legends, there are stories about him that are most likely fable.

Every culture has their grandiose heroes of myth and legend. Some we know are fantasy (Beowulf), while others we know are fact (Jesse James). Let’s look at some famous heroes that history can’t make up its mind about.

Mulan

Disney’s Mulan is based on a Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan. She is believed to have lived somewhere between 386 CE and 620 CE (if you’re not up on your history, Common Era has replaced the Anno Domini). She takes her aging father’s place in the army, and serves for twelve years without her fellow soldiers realizing she’s a woman. Depending on the source, her name might be Hua Mulan, Zhu Mulan, or Wei Mulan. Although she’s first mentioned by the 500’s, historians can’t decide if she’s real or just an interesting story.

 

 

 

 

John Henry

The steel-driving African American of song fame who managed to hammer more rock than the new-fangled steam drill before collapsing and dying was likely a real man. In the 1920’s, sociologist Guy Johnson tracked down not only people who claimed to have worked with John Henry, but one man who claimed to have seen the showdown. The front runner for the actual location is during the cutting of the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia, around 1870, but no one has definitive proof.

 

 

 

 

William Tell

A folk hero of Switzerland, Tell was an expert bowman. When Switzerland fell under control of the Habsburgs, a magistrate put his hat on a pole and demanded all citizens bow before it, or be imprisoned. While in town with his son, Tell refused to bow, was arrested and sentenced to death – though, since he was such a marksman, the Magistrate would let him go if he could shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell did so, was arrested anyway, escaped, and the people rose up in rebellion, in an act considered the founding of the Swiss Confederacy, around 1307. Some historians believe Tell is merely a new twist on an old Danish fable.

Robin Hood

     The story of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Prince John, King Richard, and the Band of Merrymen has been told for almost a thousand years. We know King Richard and Prince John are real (Richard took the throne in 1189), but there is debate about Robin Hood. Most likely a yeoman, not a noble, the name Robin was about as common as fleas, and the word Hood (sometimes Wood; the Old English were creative spellers) simply meant a man who made or wore hoods – more common then than hats. History’s been singing about him since the 1300’s, but his true identity isn’t known. If you can, check out the BBC series Robin of Sherwood.

 

 

 

 

 

King Arthur

Oh, Arthur! How we want to believe! Of all legends, yours is perhaps the most influential of any! Your mage Merlin/Myrrdin is the direct ancestor of Gandalf, Dungeons and Dragons, Dumbledore, and more.  “Arthur” (depending on spelling) is believed to have actually been a military leader who fought battles against the Saxons around the end of the 5th century. The earliest possible references to him date to the 600’s, though some discuss a Battle of Badon but give no mention of a king named Arthur.  Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to give a romanticized version in the 1100’s, then Thomas Malory came along in the 1400’s and standardized the legend. T.H. White called him the Once and Future King, and Lerner and Loewe put it all to music so we could remember it easier. Arthur was probably real, but not quite as mystical as we’ve been made to believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January’s a harsh month, but 31 days is sure better than 66, so curl up with a legendary figure, real or possibly not, and decide for yourself.