I mentioned in an earlier post that I was recently awarded a Creative Access Fellowship. This meant that I would take part in a monthlong residency at Ragdale House, located in gorgeous Lake Forest, Illinois.
I chose to go in January, because I am dumb.
Due to a family emergency, I needed to cut my trip shorter than expected. (Everything’s fine now.) I was sorry to leave, but at least my departure allowed me to be in New Jersey for the second half of the month—thereby avoiding a liquid nitrogen-like cold front that gripped the Midwest by its nether regions.
Here are three things I took away from my truncated residency.
Ragdale is Quiet
The great people who run Ragdale are singularly focused on making sure that the artists in residence can concentrate in silence. (Their efforts begin in the parking lot, where a sign admonishes anyone who might dare to speak above a whisper.) Ragdale is such a silent place, a writer can’t help but notice how loud he is.
I am a loud writer.
I have a habit of pounding the laptop keyboard as if it’s a manual typewriter.
I also talk to myself when I write.
I also tap on tabletops.
And bounce in my chair.
And walk around.
And dance around.
I am a living, breathing fidget spinner—and the tomblike silence of Ragdale made me notice each and every of my writer tics for the first time. It was quite a wake up call.
I did my best to wrestle my many noises under control. I succeeded mostly. Except for the typing. I ardently believe that typing should always be noisy—and you will never convince me otherwise.
Residency Living is a Lifestyle
This was my very first residency. This made me unique. Almost all of the residents at Ragdale had done residencies before.
A few of them had been at Ragdale before.
One had been at Ragdale three times.
Another resident had been living the life of a nomad since August—hopping from one residency program to another without once stopping off at her permanent address.
People discussed common residency friends whom they met at different times in different residency programs in different states and (on occasion) different countries. It was a little surreal. I think this was the way hoboes conversed back in the 1930s:
Hobo 1: Oh, sure, I know Hobo Joe Junkpan! Last I saw ’em, he was in Seattle or thereabouts.
Hobo 2: Have you come across Fred ‘Bean Can’ Abernathy?
Hobo 1: Yep. He was restin’ his bindle in Santa Fe jes’ last week.
Hobo 2: Santa Fe! At the Old Promenade near Miss Mary’s?
Hobo 1 & Hobo 2: Where else?
[Hobo 1 and Hobo 2 share a long hearty, boozy laugh.]
This did not make any of the residents stuck up or cliquey. Not at all. Everyone was friendly and nice and funny and we all had a fantastic time trading stories over dinner. But the shared bonds of the residency lifestyle made me want to invent a phony residency, just to see if I could get away with it.
“I just finished up a residency in North Korea,” I’d say. “It was really secluded. Food wasn’t so great. Beatings were common. Come to think of it, I’ve might have been in prison.”
Lake Forest is Wealthy
I have never been to Lake Forest before. That means I had never seen Real Wealth before. I’m not talking about McMansion Wealth. I’m also not talking about I’m-A-Dentist-And-My-Wife-Is-A-Lawyer-And-We-Renovated-This-Charming-Old-Victorian Wealth.
No sir. I’m talking Charles Foster Kane Wealth.
Windsor Castle Wealth.
The wealth was stunning—and it took me a while to not feel like I should kneel down and start shining everyone’s shoes.
Even the Lake Forest public library oozed prosperity. The periodicals room—the Skid Row of most every library—had a fireplace as tall as me. And it had an actual fire merrily burning away! As I sat there in a wingback chair watching the fire and admiring the 18th century art on the walls, I thought: My library’s periodical room is peopled by old men in saggy sweatpants reading The New York Post.
In short, you should totally go to Lake Forest just to sit in the library. Every library in the country should be just like it. Let’s get on that, America!
There’s about a jillion more things I can say about Ragdale—all of them great. The food? Great! The comfy rooms? Great! The residents? Great! The incredible staff? Super great!
So if you can find a way to stay at Ragdale, do it!
Welcome once again to Debatables, the monthly column where esoteric kid-lit questions are argued with way too much passion. (Last month, I was unable to fulfill my Debatables duties, so I’d like to thank my debate substitute, the great and wonderful Jilanne Hoffmann, who won the battle hands down.)
My Debatables sparring opponent is, as usual, my colleague, friend, and collegial frenemy, Cricket Muse.
Here are the Debatables ground rules:
Each debater is allowed one brief argument (fewer than 300 words) on a previously agreed-upon topic. These brief arguments will then be followed by a briefer rebuttal (fewer than 150 words).
This month’s debate is near and dear to my pro-rodent (prodent) heart.
To celebrate my upcoming picture book, Scampers Thinks Like a Scientist (Preorder it now!), Cricket and I have decided on a mousey topic:
Who Is The Most Appealing Mouse In Middle Grade Fiction?
I chose the inimitable Amos from Ben and Me.
And Cricket chose Reepicheep, the warrior mouse from the Narnia series.
So! Let’s get started.
Mike: American history wouldn’t have been the same without Amos. The eldest of 25 siblings, Amos demonstrates his admirable character traits from the outset by selflessly volunteering to leave the comforts of home to provide for his hungry family. He soon meets Benjamin Franklin (by way of Benjamin Franklin’s comfortable fur hat) and demonstrates his worth almost immediately by inventing the Franklin stove.
Franklin is, of course, dazzled and negotiates a contractually bound creative partnership that promises a bountiful, lifetime supply of cheese, wheat, and rye for Amos’s family.
As for Amos’s end of the bargain, the mouse agreed to impart a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. Declaration of Independence? Amos suggested most of it. Electricity? Amos endured a series of cruel and unusual electrical experiments.
And—according to the Disney cartoon—Amos also invented bifocals.
Amos never failed to help out a fellow mouse. Toward the end of the book, when Franklin was wasting time canoodling with some French hotties, Amos led a palace attack to rescue the imprisoned children of a white mouse named Sophia. (Amos’s actions, by the way, were not born out of amorous desire, for he also reunited Sophia with her lawfully wedded husband.)
Time and time again Amos proved himself to be kind, creative, brave, inventive, patriotic, altruistic, and fiercely devoted to both man and mice.
I cannot even begin to imagine a personality that could be more appealing.
Cricket Muse: Mike, for a writer guy of great imagination, how did you manage to overlook Reepicheep? “Here then is a mouse, when can there be such another?” I throw that paraphrased quote in there because Reepicheep is an incredibly appealing mouse. No mouse can be more appealing than this gentle warrior. Take a look at his vitae:
Chief Talking Mouse of Narnia
Concerned with honor
Descendent of the mice who freed Aslan from the Stone Table
Fights willingly for friends and good causes
Veteran of glorious battles
Tamer of dragons
Well-read, has a home library
Excellent sword skills
Fearless–sought to fulfill the prophecy to find the “utter East,” Aslan’s country
Adventurer–sailed with Prince Caspian.
Made a knight of the Most Noble Order of the Lion
Skilled chess player
Befriends the unloved and miserable, as in boys turned into dragons
This is a Renaissance mouse. He is well-spoken, elegant of manner, knowledgeable, respected by kings and queens, a skilled fighter, and is so revered that the other mice were willing to lop off their own tails when Reep lost his in battle. Aslan recognizing the fierce devotion of Reepicheep’s followers, restored his tail. It is no stretch to say that Reepicheep is one of Narnia’s most memorable AND appealing characters. He is a mouse among mice.
One of Reepicheep’s endearing qualities is his ability to set aside his pride and accept a hug.
All in all? Reepicheep is one heckuva mouse. No hat hiding for this mouse. He is out and about shaping history and not having to hide behind anybody’s name because he makes his own fame.
Mike’s Rebuttal: You are being disingenuous, Cricket. Amos is not “hiding behind anyone’s name.” He is just a humble mouse with humble needs. He has no lust for fame or fortune. And he certainly isn’t vain enough to pester a Jesus figure for a replacement tail.
As for bravery, Amos is every bit as heroic as your candidate, perhaps more so. After all, Reepicheep is two feet tall (!), is always wielding a sword, and leads a standing army; Amos is just a little mouse with a big heart.
And let’s not forget that Amos is a fine writer, contributing to the historical record by penning his memoirs on eensy teensy scraps of paper. A mouse of letters is a very appealing thing indeed!
In my opinion, there are no bad rodents. Reepicheep is certainly worthy of great respect and hugs. But Amos is the more appealing.
Cricket’s Rebuttal: Mike, there is one glaring fault to your argument. If Amos is so great, then why was he only known to Ben? Humility plays no part in this. Amos never spoke with any other human in his time with Mr. Franklin. This gives ponderment as to whether Amos is merely a figment of Ben’s ample imagination. On the other hand, Reepicheep, warrior, true, but one with a gentle heart, was known to all, and left a deep impression upon all who encountered him. Honored by Aslan, befriended by a dragon, knighted by a king, and loved by MILLIONS of readers, Reepicheep is a mouse of the MOST appealing nature. As for the tail comment, tsk, Mike. You might have alienated loyal Narnia followers with that one. As I recall your Amos did his share of fighting–ruined a good party, and Ben’s popularity with the French. Some nice mouse.
And that’s the debate—which is a shame since Cricket’s rebuttal NEEDS a factual response. But, hey, that’s what the comments are for!
So! Who won the debate? Do you have an appealing mouse candidate who wasn’t mentioned here? Leave a comment! We wanna hear from you!