Monday, December 31, 2018

Top Ten Posts of 2018: Number 1!

We've reached the end of 2018...and the end of our countdown! The #1 most-read post of the year is a Q&A with Peggy Macnamara and Katie Macnamara, a mother-daughter team, about their children's picture book, Rosie the Tarantula, originally posted on Feb. 27.

Peggy Macnamara is the illustrator and her daughter, Katie Macnamara, is the author of the new children's picture book Rosie the Tarantula: A True Adventure in Chicago's Field Museum.  Peggy Macnamara is an adjust associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an artist in residence at the Field Museum. Katie Macnamara teaches at John Abbott College in Montreal and Carleton University in Ottawa. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Rosie the Tarantula?

PM: I have been Artist in Residence at the Field Museum since 1990, and have been painting there years before that. I did a book on Illinois Insects (University of Chicago Press 2005) and got to know Jim Louderman. He has lots of live insects in his office including tarantulas. 

Now what is great about Jim is how he interacts with the public. For years he let the kids at the Field Museum hold tarantulas and whatever else he was nurturing. But about five years ago one of his tarantulas, Rosie, got loose.

Our offices are on the third floor and the Field Museum public exhibits are on the ground, first and second floors. Rosie was missing for about three months. No one knows exactly where Rosie went, but she was in good shape when she was found about 100 yards from Jim’s office.

I had taken a couple years to do paintings of the various scientists’ offices and collections, a “Behind the Scenes” series. I wrote a rough copy of Rosie’s adventure, much like my own, wandering around the Field. I wanted to tell a few stories about how collections support present-day scientific research to promote conservation and education. 

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

PM: I have been around scientific material since I began working at the Field.  I have done books on insects and bird nests, migration, the peregrine falcon’s return, so I am familiar with what research is being done at the Field.

KM: I did most of my research online, careful to engage with the most authoritative websites and diligent about having my text and notes reviewed by Jim Louderman and Mary Hennen at the Field.

(I first drafted the notes while my baby twin daughters still took morning naps and I enjoyed my year of paid maternity leave here in Canada. I refined those notes while my daughter Dorothea — super sleepy from a heart condition that kept me by her side with the twins in daycare for the first few months of her life—slept soundly. Hurray for paid maternity leave again!)

Q (for Peggy): How did you and your daughter collaborate on the project?

PM: My daughter Katie has a Ph.D. in English Literature. I send her texts all the time, but this one intrigued her. She researched specific details and rewrote the text.

Katie lives in Ottawa, Canada, and I am outside Chicago so we communicated by phone and email. Her writing was great so all that remained was to get someone to lay out the book. That took about four years. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

PM: I hope kids see the wonder and worth in a Natural History Museum. The collections and research can solve things like the DDT problem. So many bird species are back in force because of the egg collection and researchers’ endeavors. 

KM: I hope the book can be used interactively by parents to speak to children of different ages. When I originally did the research about tarantulas, other relevant animals, and the museum, I started keeping notes of interesting facts.

As a lapsed academic (who now focuses on teaching rather than research at John Abbott College after having dissertated and published essays on modernist literature during/after graduate school), I still have a passion for footnotes, which have inspired past scholarly pursuits and marked their completion (since I always fine tune the notes at the end of a satisfying!).

But I resisted polishing up and showing these notes to publishers until Northwestern asked me to produce a glossary. I’ve read many glossaries in books my 6-year-old son brings home from school or the library, but I often find them less than illuminating. So if I really want to answer my son’s questions, I end up googling.

Instead of a glossary, therefore, I drafted detailed endnotes that parents can turn to (with a glass of wine?) when storytime is over to mine for material to ad lib about during their next reading session.

This can help parents do the kind of interactive work speech therapists and literacy experts recommend. But it can also, more simply, save them from boredom when a child asks to be read the same book for the 20th time. As children get older, they can possibly explore the notes themselves. And even adults may be inspired by them.

(When a mom-friend of mine was asked to experiment with a cricket-based diet and write about it for a magazine, she texted me immediately to tell me it reminded her of one of my Rosie notes about the human cricket-eating craze, which I’d discussed at a reading. I like to think that she went forward with the experiment and the article despite major squeamishness partly because of my footnote).

Right now, my just-turned-4 twin daughters enjoy reading the book with me, but they certainly don’t “get” everything. And given how amazingly interactive museums are these days, my kids don’t fully understand part of my motivation for telling the story I did.

When I went to a darker (and let’s face it, drearier) Field Museum with my mom as a kid, I was kind of freaked out by the dead-ness of the place. The dioramas I mostly saw had been constructed, in part, out of animal carcasses (some of which had been killed by late Victorian natural historians). And the artifacts had belonged to people long dead.

Oh yeah, and those mummies in the basement Egypt exhibit? Spooky! I was frankly a bit more creeped out than curious. Why couldn’t I just see live beasts at the zoo? (Now, of course, zoos bother me with their animals in captivity).

All this is to say that when my mom sent me her take on Rosie’s adventures, I wanted to make the tarantula’s musing somehow mirror my own as a child.

Some kids may still ask why we have museums like these in the first place. But most probably aren’t asking this as a giant special exhibit animatronic t-rex bares its menacing teeth (but such tiny arms!) before them.

Hopefully our book helps them answer questions they might not even have realized they had. Hopefully it enables them to see how they can help many of these historical animals and cultures live on both literally and figuratively. 

Q: What are you working on now?

PM: Katie has written another kids book extending exploration of the Field. It is about octopuses and other wild fish species. I have been painting the relevant material.

I am also working on a book about painting in a natural history museum for 35 years and what it has taught me about art and science.

KM: The octopus book for sure. Also thinking about a book for kids with physical challenges ever since I wrote a blurb about my daughter Dorothea’s challenges with the low muscle tone, loose ligaments, and developmental delays exacerbated by cardiac abnormalities more common in kids with Down syndrome.

Q: Anything else we should know?

KM: She doesn’t think this fact helps her prove her dedication as an artist, but I’ll share it: Peg is the mother of seven, grandmother of 21, aunt of 53, great aunt of...who knows how many. She entertains them (and ALL their friends — anyone who shows interest) with tours at the Field Museum.

Although I had my first of four kids at 36 — the age at which my mom gave birth to her sixth and seventh...twins! — she has been an amazing working mom and teacher role-model to me despite our differing circumstances.

Work and love and life and kids can be so hard to balance. With my dad’s (and her dad’s) adoring support and her mom’s (and her own) practical wisdom, she found a beautiful balance. I’m striving to do that too. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Top Ten Posts of 2018: Number 2!

Counting down the top 10 most-viewed posts of's #2, a Q&A with Beth Benedix about her book Ghost Writer, first posted on March 23.

Beth Benedix is the author of the new book Ghost Writer: A Story About Telling a Holocaust Story. It focuses on the life of Joe Koenig, a Holocaust survivor, and Benedix's efforts to tell his story. Her other books include Subverting Scriptures, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications. She is a professor at DePauw University, and is the founder of the nonprofits arts organization The Castle. She lives in Greencastle, Indiana.

Q: Your book is subtitled "A Story About Telling a Holocaust Story." Why did you decide to take this approach to your book, and how long did it take to write it?

A: Thank you so much for asking this question! It took about nine years to write, and it went through a number of different iterations.

Somehow I always knew that the story I most wanted—felt I needed—to tell was the story of the process of trying to tell this story, which sounds terribly convoluted when I say it this way. But the truth is that the earlier iterations fell flat because I attempted to mute my sense that it had to be this way. 

The questions that I obsess over—the ethical questions concerning how to tell someone else’s story, what it means to choose one method over another, what it means to impose a narrative arc, how to draw out the universal implications of an insular set of memories—are essentially questions of process, and, so, it seemed natural to me to bring these questions out into the open. 

My biggest inspirations in memoir--Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and David Harris-Gershon (What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?)—are painstakingly, playfully, process-driven, and the authenticity of this approach came as a revelation to me the first time I read their books. 

There’s a vulnerability to this approach that feels necessary to me, a tentative quality that conveys the reality of what it feels like to just not know how best to communicate the weight of Joe’s story. 

I gesture to Paul Celan at the close of the book, and this gesture captures my full sense that a story like this, a story of encounter—raw, real, unscripted—is always “en route.” 

Q: Throughout the book, you discuss both Joe Koenig and your father. What do you see as the connection between then?

A: Yes, this connection becomes a central motif, even as it surprised me to make the connection. In the book, I try to make clear that, in so many ways, Joe and my father couldn’t be farther from one another. 

There’s a conversation we have, for instance, where I tell Joe in no uncertain terms my sense of the chasm between them: I tell him that, where he is a true survivor, my father—who died when I was 20—squandered his life. 

And yet… my relationship with Joe, the time I spent with him poring over his story and learning who he is and what makes him tick… somehow this all brought my father back to me in the most vivid way. 

Somehow the relationship we developed—his sense of humor, his brute honesty, the way he challenged me to face my fears, the way he knew how to master the world around him—all of this brought my dad back.  And I started to process Joe’s story through the residual ache of losing my father. 

In an act of what I can only call grace, Joe told me once that we are “the same” because we both lost our fathers too soon. The weight and generosity of that statement loomed somehow over the book for me; I wanted to understand what it meant that Joe could have said this, when our experiences seemed so far apart to me, when his losses were so profound and mine seemed so prosaic. 

So I think the connection is mainly that he validated my sense of loss.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Joe's story and your approach to telling it?

A: Oh, this is hard, because I most want readers to have their own authentic encounters with the book and I’m so interested to see where those moments of encounter might happen for them. 

I guess I would like readers to come away primarily with a sense that they really know Joe. I want readers to see him as a flesh and blood man with a history and a family and a wicked sense of humor, a man who refuses to be labeled and defined by his experience in the Holocaust.

It was so important to me to introduce Joe in this way to readers, because it’s in this kind of meeting that his story becomes most meaningful. Joe’s memories are of unfathomable loss, and I feel an obligation to share these memories, both for his family’s sake and for the sake of recording and collecting his testimony. 

Alongside of that sense of obligation is another: the obligation to show that stories of memory take on lives of their own for the people who listen to them. It has to be a shared act, this kind of story-telling, this kind of testimony, it has to be about the attempt to make a connection—even if the attempt feels clunky or flawed or incomplete.

Q: What impact did writing the book have on you?

A: At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s pretty fair to say that writing this book has changed my life. I live in a perpetual state of gratitude that Joe came into my life, a perpetual kind of wonder at the workings of the universe. 

Knowing Joe has changed the way I’ve thought about… well… everything, from writing to teaching to being a mom. Everything feels more applied now, more hands-on, more in-the-thick-of-it.  There’s a clarity that wasn’t there before, a sense of what really matters.

In the book, I talk about the Jewish concept of beshert—fate.  Allergic as I am to any form of institutionalized religion, this concept—that there are others with whom we are fated to cross paths—resonates with me in a way that I always sort of sensed but was never quite able to articulate until writing this book. 

The magic simplicity of the not-so-chance encounter… I’ve come to honor this as something that can only be felt intuitively and viscerally, and to acknowledge the power of connection when it happens.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on marketing this book! It’s been such a long road, and I’m really looking forward to the conversations that I’m hoping this book will facilitate. 

I’m waiting for the next writing project to announce itself to me. In the meantime, I’m keeping busy being a mom, teaching, directing a nonprofit organization and gigging with my band.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This question makes me anxious! I feel like I should have a perfectly witty response. The only thing that comes to mind, strangely, is a line from Rush’s song “Free Will”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” 

Oh, and a quote from the newly released movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, which I just saw with my kids, a line from Rumi: “the wound is the place where light enters you.” So beautiful.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about Ghost Writer, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 30

Dec. 30, 1946: Patti Smith born.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Top Ten Posts of 2018: Number 3!

Continuing our countdown of the top 10 most-viewed posts for 2018, here's #3, a Q&A with Stephen Hess about his new memoir, Bit Player, first posted on Nov. 20.

Stephen Hess is the author of the new memoir Bit Player. His many other books include America's Political Dynasties and The Professor and the President. He is a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, and he's based in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take to complete it?

A: I had no intention of ever writing a memoir. I thought memoirs were for very important people like generals who fight in big wars.

What happened was that my feelings about Donald Trump when he became president were such that I didn’t want to send the next two years of my life in a crossfire with what Trump was doing. I gave myself a leave of absence from writing about presidencies.

But then what would I do with myself? My colleague Henry Aaron reminded me that you don’t have to be a general to write a memoir. My wife, Beth, a social worker, had me read the theory of reminiscence, and it was good therapy. So why not?

She was right. It was one of the best years of my life as a writer. I think I learned things about myself I probably didn’t know. I started in the winter of 2017, so I guess it took roughly a year. It’s a small book.

Q: How did you choose the book’s title—you take it from a quote from Senator John McCain—and what does it signify for you?

A: That was the moment I saw that expression “bit player” used in a way that was political. If it was good enough for John McCain, it was good enough for me.

What is a bit player? People think of it in terms of movies—not the leads, but the supporting actors. You think of Casablanca—I wasn’t Humphrey Bogart in life, but Peter Lorre. Or Dooley Wilson, the piano player. They were significant to the plot, but they weren’t on screen that often.

Q: Of the various stories you tell in the book, do you have one or two that are particular favorites?

A: Obviously, as my life really entwined with presidents, particularly Eisenhower and Nixon, my role had to be explained and defined.

But then I got to the end, and there were all the stories I like that wouldn’t ordinarily fit into a book. I set them out in the final chapter. For example, dancing with Jacqueline Kennedy. It was a memorable moment I’ll never forget.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s now a virtual pop star, is Beth’s first cousin. We’ve had a lot to do with her. I was involved in the orchestration of trying to get her nominated [to the Supreme Court]. People might look at the index and go to the stories about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

There are others that are significant because they were famous people, such as Richard Avedon, Oliver Stone, John Major. They’re worth mentioning, but they didn’t save my life. It is ultimately a book of stories.

Q: You mentioned your feelings about Trump—how would you compare him with the presidents you worked with?

A: I’ve taken leave from writing about the first two years of Trump’s administration. I think I’ll go back to the business of being a communicator on the presidency.

My views of Donald Trump haven’t changed very much from when I wrote a column for USA Today when he was running for office, and it was clear that Trump had no idea how to be president and seemed to have no interest in learning.

Most people [who are running] read the literature, they go abroad. He did none of those things. He seemed to lack interest. In some ways, I could write the same column today that I wrote in February 2016.

As he enters the third year, the third year of a presidency is in many ways the toughest. I wrote the book Organizing the Presidency, and I’d been on presidential staffs for the first two years of an administration and for the last two.

In year three, it’s always very tough. The fault lines in his own policy advisors start to appear. From a personnel and a policy sense, it’s a rough year, compounded by the midterm elections.

When you look at what the Democratic House is likely to turn to, particularly his tax returns, now he may have to fight to keep them away from the House Ways and Means Committee. And then there’s the Mueller investigation.

It’s his rough year, and it’s a year I hope to get back into the fight. The United States does not deserve a president who knows and cares so little, and is such a vulgarian.

All the people I know agree with me, so how do we reach people who don’t? It’s a real question for commentators [opposed to Trump], how to break through [to Trump supporters]. They’re Americans and they care too.

Q: So as a longtime observer of politics in Washington, what do you see looking ahead?

A: The whole history of the United States and the presidency, I think, as an optimist, is an ascending line. But it’s not a straight ascending line. It takes leaps back, and reforms, and goes forward again. The Trump presidency has put poison into the system, and the trick is how to get it out. And it will.

People expect me to compare this to Richard Nixon. But Richard Nixon destroyed himself, not the presidency. That’s not true with this president. There are many things he’s done that are unconstitutional, attacking the press and the judiciary—there are deeply disturbing trends. But the sooner he stops being president, the sooner we can snap back to what makes America great.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: This could lead to another book. I could write on the presidency after Trump. It’s a worthwhile topic to build a file on.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 29

Dec. 29, 1936: Mary Tyler Moore born.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Top Ten Posts of 2018: Number 4!

On with our countdown of the top 10 most-viewed posts of's #4, a Q&A with Dr. Marcia Morris (my college classmate!) about her book The Campus Cure: A Parent's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students, first posted on Feb. 25.

Marcia Morris, M.D., is the author of the new book The Campus Cure: A Parent's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students. She is a psychiatrist at the University of Florida, and has worked with college students for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Psychology Today and The New York Times.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why did you gear it toward the parents of college students?

A: I started writing articles for parents about three years ago. I noticed that college students were having more issues with anxiety and depression, and I was having more contact with parents. I felt there was more of a need to educate parents.

Thirty-one percent of college students are diagnosed with a mental health issue. Parents think it’s just a passing thing when it could be serious; they may not see a warning sign. We have What to Expect When You’re Expecting—this is kind of What to Expect When Your Kid Goes to College.

Q: You mentioned an increase in anxiety and depression—what are some of the other changes you’ve seen over the years that you’ve been working with college students?

A: The other thing that’s going up is psychiatric hospitalization for college students. It’s tripled in the last 20 years. Suicidal thinking has gone up; the rates have increased in the college-age range.

The rates of suicidality have increased since 2008 when we had the Great Recession. Students are afraid—you see students with debt worrying about paying it off. The financial pressures have increased.

Also, the academic pressures have increased. When I was in college, if I got a B,  that was okay. Students now are holding themselves up to such high [standards] with academics. Some students have trouble achieving a balance.

And social pressures have increased through social media. There’s a feeling you have to look perfect. Eating disorders have gone up. There’s pressure to appear popular on Facebook, but [social media interactions] are not a substitute for face-to-face contact. Face-to-face contact has gone down in the last 15 years. Social contact is a big thing; loneliness is a problem.

Q: The first issue you examine in the book is anxiety. Why did you choose to start with anxiety?

A: Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder college students experience, like panic disorder or social anxiety disorder. Students are extremely anxious. Twenty or 21 percent have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder in the past year.

In the past, depression was number one among college students. Now it’s anxiety. I wanted parents to be aware of the most common problem.

I make suggestions about treatment for anxiety, but also provide tips about not creating anxiety, not to be a tiger mom. Some people may get all As, but it’s not realistic. Encourage kids to do well, but don’t push too hard.

I talk about making sure kids are filling their lifestyle with wellness. Kids need enough sleep. They shouldn’t be studying until 3am. They’re still adolescents until 25. Sleep should not be sacrificed to academics. And they need exercise. Parents of high school and college students should encourage wellness techniques.

Q: You also look at the issue of sexual assault, a topic that has been receiving a great deal of attention lately. What advice do you offer parents on this issue?

A: It’s a tough one. I find often that patients don’t tell their parents right away. In the book there’s an incident where the student comes home and seems depressed. They might try to hide it from their parents. It’s okay for the parent to say, You seem unhappy, did anything happen?

Twenty-five percent of women experience some type of sexual assault before graduation. It may not be rape but it could be anywhere from forced touching to sexual activity. It can be very traumatic even if the woman was grabbed when she didn’t want to be.

Parents need to start asking questions. If your child doesn’t open up, you can ask if there’s another family member the child can speak to, or say to see a counselor on campus.

Parents should be aware that most campuses have a victim advocate office. The student may or may not want to press charges, but the advocate will make sure the student has the care they need.

Q: What about the issue the country is dealing with, especially right now, about violence on campus? What are you hearing from people?

A: The students are aware of what happened [with the recent school shooting in Florida], especially because I live in Florida. There are students who attended that high school. Ever since Virginia Tech, campuses are very concerned about these events. If an event is going on on campus, every student gets alerted by text.

I haven’t been asked by a lot of parents about it but living in Florida I know people are affected. I think the parents might be more distressed than some college students; they’re worrying about how to keep the kids safe.

There’s a behavioral consult team, which varies from campus to campus. They will meet on a regular basis and will gather material. With this shooting, there were a lot of pieces that weren’t put together.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m thinking at some point of writing a book directly for high school seniors. It might be more of an advice book about wellness in the college years. I’m trying to counsel students and give them hope that they will recover and feel better. The large majority will recover. People need a message of hope. A lot of young people don’t have the view to see that.

I want to continue writing about mental health issues. There’s a lack of understanding out there. And also I want to decrease the stigma. People associate it with weakness, but there are issues that are treatable. I want to get the message of hope out there.

Q: Anything else we should know? 
A: I write about the problems that can occur in college, but one main message to parents is to be as positive as possible with their children as they go through the college years. It may be something they’re doing—[for example,] they were able to find a job for the summer. Parents can be hard on children because we think we’re helping them but it’s important to highlight the positive. 
They are all going to have something come up. I hear from students that they don’t want to tell their parents because they don’t want to upset them. Parents need to stay calm and not get upset when their children are telling them something. I want parents to have a positive relationship with their children. 
--Interview with Deborah Kalb