In Which a Disassembled Bookcase is Our Teacher


The culprit. The guru.

I’m building furniture this week.

And by “building,” I mean “assembling.”

And by “assembling,” I mean “wielding a power screwdriver and swearing.”

You know how it is–that furniture that comes in pieces, in a big box, looks so beautiful in the picture, and you have such hope, such certainty, that assembling it will be a snap and that it will be beautiful when you’re through…and to be fair, once you’re done, usually many hours after you thought you’d be done, it usually does look pretty good–but what comes in between admiring the picture and admiring the thing itself can try the patience of a clam and goad a saint into finding creatively unflattering names to call the motherless sons of jackals engineers who designed the thing.

I was telling this to my hairdresser today, my hairdresser who is male and young, who renovates houses in his spare time, and he laughed and laughed as I related how just yesterday I was practically hanging upside down over a half-assembled bookcase, trying to use a power screwdriver-drill thing on a stubborn, sideways screw that was half an inch off the carpet so I couldn’t get the drill properly lined up with it, and my hair was falling into my eyes, completely blocking my vision, and my lower back was chanting You’ll be sorry for this tomorrooowww at me.

“Cora,” he said with a smile, “the best advice I can give you is to read the instructions. They’re there for a reason.”

“I am reading the instructions!” I protested. “They’re not clear!”

“They’re clear,” he assured me. “Read them carefully and follow them meticulously.” And he laughed again as he trimmed my bangs.

I thought about this advice as I drove home. My business is words, after all. I describe myself on social media as Reader, Writer, Teacher, Traveler. Is it possible that when it comes to assembling desks and bookcases, my reading skills fail me and I skip ahead impatiently, ignoring crucial steps in the well-written directions?

Well, no. First of all, the instructions for the things I’m assembling right now with Susan, my partner at Blue Planet Writers’ Room, don’t include many words at all. They’re mostly diagrams. Picture of screw, picture of arrow, picture of screw hole in side of bookcase. Only never, never that simple. The diagrams are diabolically complicated, and crucial steps that could be easily described in words (Be sure that all cam-thingees face downward so you don’t see them when the piece is standing up…) are simply omitted. You have to discover these little secrets yourself, as you go.

Secondly, I’m taking my time with the instructions, speaking out loud with Susan as we position the pieces, glue in the pegs, insert the cam thingees, screw in the screws. We keep turning the diagrams to line up with what we’re putting together, trying to ensure that we’re putting the right thing on the right side.

But the bookcase we put together yesterday–the one responsible for so many of our swear words–is not a straightforward design. It’s what they’re calling Mid-Century Modern, meaning it would be right at home in Don Draper’s 1960s office. Within the rectangular frame, some of the shelves are large, some are small, some are shaped like boxes–and many of the pieces are nearly identical on both sides. Nearly. Many of them are nearly identical to other, unrelated pieces. Nearly.

It’s that “nearly” that has been doing us in. While assembling that blasted bookcase, we put five pieces into the design upside-down. They went in at first, because they were nearly right, but when we went to attach other sections to them, it all went awry, because “nearly right” means, in the end, “wrong.” By the time we discovered each mistake, we had lots of sections of the bookcase-puzzle assembled, meaning that we had to disassemble lots of sections to correct our mistakes. It took us hours to finish. We were hot, sore, and pretty much out of swear words. I had been, I believe, as meticulous as my favorite hairdresser urged me to be, and still: five upside-down pieces.

As I drove home from my haircut, I thought, well, then, is that crazy bookcase a metaphor for life? (And then I thought, yeah, probably, because if you look at it in the right light, just about everything is a metaphor for life.) Think about it: You plan, you prepare, you do what seems to be the right thing, you take guidance from people who know better, you work hard and care about what you’re doing…and then you notice that despite all your sincere efforts, things, somehow, somewhere, have gone awry. Pieces don’t fit. Mistakes have been made. It hasn’t worked out as you planned.

And then you swear.

And when people find out that things went wrong, if they’re kind, they might try to help by giving you advice like “Be more meticulous.” If they’re mean, they might give you no advice, but they might presume to sit in judgement of your actions, or your decisions, or your life. But the bookcase, maybe, teaches us that sometimes we do everything we can, we do what seems right, and still, somehow, the favored outcome, through no real fault of our own, escapes us.

And then, maybe, it teaches us that even when a mistake has caused a bit of mayhem, even when there’s a lot to undo in order to rectify that mistake, it can be done. Instead of resorting to defenestration*, we can breathe, and think for a minute, and resign ourselves to the possibly difficult, possibly tedious job of correcting the mistake.

Sometimes the path to the favored outcome is not straight, or easy, or free of mistakes. Sometimes life is like building a complicated bookcase. And sometimes you just need to swear about it a little and then move on, dammit.

*A lovely word which here means “throwing a bookcase out the window.”

Photo credit: Susan Gay Hyatt (fabulous co-executive director of Blue Planet Writers’ Room)


A Little Hope in a Hard Summer


It’s a hard summer here in the world. The New York Times reported today that in the past two weeks–that’s weeks, not years or decades–247 people have been killed in eight terror attacks.

This destruction of human life hits me like a punch in the stomach. I find that the news affects me like that this year–perhaps because it’s more terrible.

Or perhaps it’s always been terrible, but now it’s terrible more often.

Or it’s more terrible closer to home, which makes us more afraid.

More than feeling afraid, though, I find myself, on a pretty regular basis, fighting not to feel hopeless. So much anger. So much murder. So much hatred. Some days, every headline is a horror. What can we do? How can we fix this? How can I help? I ask myself these questions endlessly.

And so often lately, my answer to myself is: I can’t do a thing. Anything within my power to accomplish is miniscule, microscopic, utterly ineffective in the face of such monumentally bad news. I begin to question my usefulness in this world, the usefulness of my work with children and teachers, my faith in writing and the arts to act as a beacon of civilization, in the sense of teaching us to be civilized, in the sense of teaching us not to slaughter each other in our intolerant rage. I remember my extraordinary grad school professor reminding us that the Nazis were educated, cultured, civilized. That they murdered millions and went home in the evenings to listen to Wagner. That the arts guarantee nothing when it comes to civilization.

In short, I come very close to despair on a fairly regular basis these days.

And then.

And then I hear a story about the acts of a truly kind soul, like the one last week about the construction worker who built an eight foot-tall Waldo figure out of wood, and he hides it every day in the construction site beside a children’s hospital so that the kids can look out the windows and play Where’s Waldo in real life. He doesn’t despair at their life-threatening illnesses; he found a way to give them a little joy each day.

And then I see good people swimming hard against the tide of hatred, like the people in Orlando who, the day after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub, stood in line for hours, in the sweltering Florida sun, to give blood for the victims. They didn’t despair at the horrifying tragedy; they found a way to address it by giving of their own bodies.

And then I come to my senses. And I remember that every act of kindness, every gesture of caring, does matter. As every horrible act blasts out shock waves that shatter even those who are only slightly connected to the atrocity, so every decent act sends out its own ripples in the pond of humanity, impacting people who impact others, spreading the impact far beyond the initial splash of goodness.

As the act of terror sows fear, the act of kindness spreads hope. Even to those feeling hopeless, even to such as me. Even to such as you, if you need a little hope in these difficult days.

So don’t despair. Don’t stop doing good things for each other. Don’t pull up the drawbridge, don’t pile the furniture in front of the door. Reach out, even to one other person. Be kind, even to one other person. Find a way to help, even a tiny way, even if you’re not sure it will help. That’s fighting the good fight. That’s spreading hope. That’s working for peace.

That will save the world.

Photo by Shailesh padalkar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



The Kitchen of the Future of the Past


Because I love to cook, kitchen design naturally interests me. Show me a big, beautiful kitchen with dark wood cabinets and gleaming granite countertops and I can picture myself right there, sauteeing garlic and slicing tomatoes and boiling pasta.

Recently, though, I discovered this booklet advertising the Whitehead Work Saving Kitchen of 1937–and I was tickled by it, both for how dated its language is and for how surprisingly “modern” a lot of its features still seem.

“The nearest approach to perfection that science knows.”

The copywriters certainly didn’t stint on hyperbole; they assure the housewife of the thirties that in their kitchens filled with steel cabinets and Monel countertops (Monel was an alloy of mainly nickel and copper), “kitchen chores, as you know them today, are practically abolished.” They assure the little woman that these sanitary, efficient rooms represent “the nearest approach to perfection that science knows.” But my favorite assertion was that the doors and drawers “work with the noiselessness of falling snow.” Cabinets that might inspire you to write haiku about them; how splendid.

The copy is certainly aimed at the lady of the house; the booklet, the copywriters tell us, is “a story that every woman ought to read.” And she can rest easy knowing that the designers have taken pains to ensure that the cabinets harbor “no jutting hinges to catch your dress.”


But despite all these dated, overblown, and mildly sexist claims, I was surprised at the variety of options one could include in a kitchen more than 75 years ago: A towel-dryer? A bulk-foods drawer? A plate warmer? An electric dishwasher? Special vegetable drawers with louvers to encourage air circulation? And dividers for your cutlery drawer, “step” shelves for your small cans, an under-sink trash can…


I didn’t expect all that from a pre-war kitchen. These rooms and their accoutrements seem to have been thoughtfully designed, with a genuine goal of making life in the kitchen easier for the American housewife of the 1930s. Granted, the prices for all this culinary luxury weren’t listed–you needed to work with a designer who would create a custom plan and price to suit your needs–but these kitchens, with their designers’ talk of placing the refrigerator “as near the delivery entrance as possible” were clearly intended for higher income households.

So after chuckling-slash-marveling at these kitchens of the past, it might occur to us to ask a pertinent question: How do we fare today in terms of saving steps and effort when it comes not just to cooking, but to taking care of a house? Funny, that. The University of Houston’s Digital History site includes a section on housework; according to this resource, the average housewife in 1924 spent 52 hours each week cooking and cleaning. Half a century later, in 1974, she spent 55 hours doing the same tasks.

No, that’s not a typo. Fifty years later, women were spending more time running their households–not less.

Today? The site claims that cooking and cleaning up after meals takes less time than it did in the past, but housecleaning takes the same amount of time as when our great-grandmothers did it–while shopping, household management, laundry, and childcare take even longer than they did in the early part of the last century.

How can this be? The site quotes an article from a 1930s-era issue of that quintessential women’s magazine, Ladies Home Journal, to provide an explanation:

Because we housewives of today have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after the dust that grandmother left to spring cataclysm. If few of us have nine children for a weekly bath, we have two or three for a daily immersion. If our consciences don’t prick us over vacant pie shelves or empty cookie jars, they do over meals in which a vitamin may be omitted or a calorie lacking.

So it takes us longer to get things done because we actually have more things to get done…and also because we obsess over the quality and completion of those tasks. I suppose the upside is that apparently, our houses and our children are cleaner than they ever were, and our meals are ever more delectable.

Is this true? And if it’s true, is it worth it? The latter is a question that I suppose every housewife and househusband has to answer for her or himself…assuming they have the time to ponder such things, what with all the cleaning and cooking and household-running using up most of their prime hours every single day, same as it ever was, here in the 21st century.

In Japan, God Isn’t Dead–But He Might Be Cold

Haruki Murakami writes strange tales about parallel universes, towns filled with talking cats, entrances to other worlds hidden at the bottoms of wells, and dark rooms populated by creatures that you MUST NOT look at. He also references the militarized Japan of the early 20th century and the devastating aftermaths of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway the same year. And he writes about jazz. And classical music. And running.

And sometimes all these things are in one book.

Murakami is a superstar author in Japan, with midnight launch parties for his novels filling Japanese bookstores with hordes of fans panting to snap up his latest work. Here in the West, I and the rest of his devoted non-Japanese fans are forced to cool our jets while we wait months–or years–for the translations of his newest books to hit the shelves.

The mysterious nature of Murakami’s narratives attracts me in a powerful way–I enjoy stories that take place in liminal spaces, in places that can’t be found on a map, but that are quite real to the characters wandering around in them. So it’s very intriguing that the most recent English translation of a Murakami novel contains a small mystery of a different kind, involving wordplay, a fairly famous quotation, and Carl Jung.


Murakami’s giant novel 1Q84–published in Japanese in 3 volumes between 2009 and 2010 and in a single English volume in 2011–moves its characters in and out of two parallel timelines–one taking place in the Tokyo of 1984 and the other unfolding, amidst mysterious “Little People,” disturbing sex and violence, and beings split into two physical entities, in a place/time that the protagonist calls 1Q84; the Q, she says, stands for “question.” And she–and we, the readers–do have many questions about that alternate world. (The title itself is a bit of bilingual wordplay: the Japanese word for “nine” is pronounced “kyu”–like the letter “Q.” In Japanese, the title is pronounced ichi kyu hachi yon–“one nine eight four.”)

Near the story’s end (don’t worry, no spoilers here), a trained killer is philosophizing with the person he is about to assassinate, and he tells a story that invokes Carl Jung, whose theories and archetypes Murakami frequently references in his books. The killer explains that Jung, with his own hands, built a small stone castle on his property in Switzerland. And over the door to this structure, the renowned analyst inscribed the following quotation: COLD OR NOT, GOD IS PRESENT. The killer continues:

“I don’t know much about God. I was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had some awful experiences there so I don’t have a good impression of God. And it was always cold there, even in the summer. It was either really cold or outrageously cold. One or the other. If there is a God, I can’t say he treated me very well. Despite all this, those words of Jung’s quietly sank deep into the folds of my soul. Sometimes I close my eyes and repeat them over and over, and they make me strangely calm. ‘Cold or Not, God is Present.’”

Touching words, perhaps, coming from a hardened fellow who finds meaning in a quotation from a long-dead man of science.

But here’s the thing: The quotation is wrong.

I’ve always loved the story of Jung erecting that castle–Bollingen Tower, it’s called. He inscribed its outer walls with a number of quotations, and the one chiseled over the door is in Latin; it reads:



It means “Bidden or not bidden, the god is present.” Another way to translate it is “Called or not, God is present.”

Called. Not Cold.

Jung's Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

Jung’s Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

I was understandably startled when I read the passage, and its mistranslation of the Latin quotation, in 1Q84. I kept turning pages, thinking that at some point, the character would learn of his error, and it might prove to be a poignant moment when he would have to revisit his fondness for the altered line. But that never happened. The book ended; the mystery remained unexplained.

I was mystified. Murakami is an erudite, worldly author. Could the mistake have been made by his translator? I discussed it over dinner with my Japanese friend Toshimi, who had introduced me to her favorite author in the first place. She fetched the English and Japanese versions of the novel and looked up the passage in the Japanese volume. “It’s not a mistranslation from the Japanese,” she reported. “Murakami uses the word tsumetai–‘cold.'”

Huh. Could the writer have misheard the quotation at some point and thought that “cold” was the correct word? Not likely, we decided. Given the author’s fascination with Jung and his theories and archetypes–and given also Murakami’s mastery of English (he has translated The Great Gatsby, among other books, into Japanese), it’s just not possible that the famous writer doesn’t know the correct translation of the Vocatus line.

So we have a small, real-life mystery, courtesy of the author who writes large, mysterious novels. I’ve searched for an explanation in online reviews and articles, but I’ve come up emptyhanded. A couple of sites mention the mystery, but offer no explanation except to assume that it was a mistranslation from the Japanese. And I haven’t found any comments from the author on why he did what he did.

My theory: I think Murakami read or heard the quotation translated into English at some point and noticed the resemblance between the words “called” and “cold,” especially when pronounced with a Japanese accent. Japanese doesn’t have that “aw” sound, so “called” sounds just like “cold” when pronounced by a Japanese speaker. In fact, the two words are spelled and pronounced exactly the same way when written in Japanese katakana, the syllabary used to write out foreign words. They are both spelled as コールド  (which sounds like kourudo). Given the Japanese love of puns and wordplay (just look at the book’s title again), I think he purposely created the character’s story around the mistranslation to add a layer or two of complexity to an already complex story. One could argue that the mistranslation is sad: a quotation that has calmed an unfortunate man in the midst of a painful life is not real–it’s meaningless. He has been drawing sustenance from a mistake. Or, looked at from another angle–from a parallel universe, if you will–one could argue that Murakami has added a layer of hopefulness to his story: the quotation as remembered may be meaningless, but the character has imbued it with meaning. And that imbued meaning has become the important thing, the thing that sustains him.

Life is like that, Murakami might be saying. Maybe there’s no intrinsic point to our existence; maybe it’s all nasty, brutish, and short–but we have the power to give it meaning. To make it count. To think we hear “Cold or not, God is present” and to make that nonsensical axiom into a source of comfort. I like this possibility best of all.

Of course, his Japanese readers would have an extra layer to peel away before they could get this meaning–they would have to know the Latin quotation and know the correct English translation before they could recognize the English pun at play. This seems like a fiendishly twisted path to the author’s ostensible message.

But keeping in mind what Haruki-san puts his characters through in his beautiful, violent books, it might not be outside the realm of possibility for him to put his readers in a bit of a puzzle, as well.

Tower Image: By (site (avec accord)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Perfect Trip: 36 Countries in 36 Months

The end of April is fast approaching, and because of tax time, Easter, and a delightful visit from my friend Jane from England, I have skipped SO MANY prompts in the BootsnAll 30-day travel writing & art project. So it’s time to mix it up and respond to some prompts randomly! Out of order! Like a literary madwoman!

(I’m usually such an organized girl–it’s nice to be a little unruly for a change.) So:

Prompt #26 in the BootsnAll #indie30 project:

What is your idea of the perfect trip?

Be it ever so crumbled, there's no place like Rome. Or like 35 other capital cities that I want to be in.

Be it ever so crumbled, there’s no place like Rome. Or like 35 other capital cities that I want to be in.

A year and a half ago, I got to celebrate the culmination of a six-year international paperwork odyssey that led to a splendid conclusion:

Dual citizenship with the US and Italy. This brings me joy every time I think about it. Because of my family background, I’ve always been Italian jure sanguinis: “by right of blood.” Europe has always been in my heart, as well. But having your citizenship officially recognized is like marrying your long-time lover: you always knew it was the real thing, but now the government knows it, too.

And Italian citizenship, of course, also means that I’m a citizen of the European Union. Twenty-eight nations whisper Come home, Cora! to me on a regular basis.

(Um, I mean that figuratively, of course. I know I just called myself a literary madwoman, but I didn’t mean that in a clinical sense. Political and geographical entities don’t talk, boys and girls.)

(But our deepest desires do.)

So. The perfect trip, if time and money were not a concern, would be to spend 36 months exploring my 36 “other” nations: the 28 that make up the current EU, the 5 candidate countries, and the 3 potential candidates. Slow travel. Seashores and mountains. Food and wine. Cities and villages. Music and art. Theatre and dance. Books! (Mostly in translation…) Blogging as I go. Photographing as I blog. Absorbing the cultures and the languages, celebrating the feast days, meeting the people.

Throwing my arms around the Europe to which I now belong not just emotionally, but legally. Celebrating all the places I can now call home. Perfection.



American Paradox: “American Girl” Keeps Shoving This Girl Out of America

Prompt #28 from BootnAll’s #indie30 project:

What song amps you up for travel?


When I hear Tom Petty’s American Girl, usually while I’m flying down the highway and I happen upon it while pushing buttons on the radio, I start dancing in the driver’s seat, which is good.

But I also get that tight feeling in my chest that says, Cora, why is this car in the US and not on a highway in Europe?? Which is bad.

I know that the lyrics of the second verse are wistful and yearning–the guy pops into her memory, it’s all so close but so far out of reach, people have questioned whether the song is about suicide, et cetera, et cetera…but that’s not the part that sets me to mentally packing my suitcase. It’s the first verse, the part where Tom sings:

Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’
That there was a little more to life somewhere else
After all, it was a great big world,
With lots of places to run to
And if she had to die tryin’
She had one little promise she was gonna keep.

That promise that I keep making–and often keeping–is to travel, to run to everywhere I can, to live, even just for a tiny handful of time, in lots of places in this great big world. With Tom Petty singing in my head.

Click here, watch the video, dance along. Then buy a plane ticket. :)

Africa Has Breathed on Me

Prompt #20 in the BootsnAll #indie30 project:

What part of Africa interests you the most?

Come with me to the Casbah: Delacroix's view of Morocco in 1845

Come with me to the Casbah: Delacroix’s view of Morocco in 1845

Northern Africa calls to me. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt…old and hot and dusty, filled with stories…I want to meet the people, put my hands on the stones of the buildings, eat the food. I have been to the Canary Islands a number of times, which means I’ve been just a few dozen miles off the coast of Morocco, but I haven’t yet made it to the mainland.

This frustrates me. I’ve promised myself that the next time I go, a side trip to Casablanca and Marrakech will be mandatory.

You know, in the Canaries, there are days when the air is heavy and hazy with what looks like the pollution of an industrialized city. It’s not smoke, though, that obscures your view of the landscape–it’s sand, blowing over from the Sahara. The natives say that on those days, “Africa is breathing on us.”

The continent has breathed on me; now I want to breathe on it. :)


Image: Eugène Delacroix [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons