Friday, December 31, 2010

I am Actually Reading Right Now

When one is alone a lot, as I am, one thinks about things.  I mean, I might be reading an article and a word or a thought reminds of something and then that leads to something else and suddenly I find myself mulling something that has nothing to do with what I am ostensibly reading.  Yesterday I got my latest New Yorker and, as is my wont, I began reading it from front to back – rereading all the synopses of current Broadway plays and films available at certain esoteric locations around New York City, and the letters to the editor and so forth, and today I started an article on the artistic director or whatever it is of a fashion house of which I have never previously heard.  I read these things (the article preceding was on the Vatican Library) because the writers published in the New Yorker are so gifted that everything is interesting when one of them writes about it. 

The first mental digression occurred right off the bat because there was a photograph of the subject of the article - a German named Tomas Maier, whose first name is really Thomas, but which he altered for reasons which he justifies one way, but which I suspect really boils down to an attempt to make himself interesting.  The article described him as looking like a “hipster monk” (one trick of writing for the New Yorker is to master the art of oxymoronic descriptives), so I was interested to see the actual photo of the man, and, by gosh, he DOES sort of look monkish in a roughly good-looking way.  What I noticed particularly, though, is that he has beautiful hands, and it was this that got me off into one of my usual tangential reveries. 

When I was younger, I thought of beautiful hands as those which occurred in paintings, rather than the actual appendages of breathing humanity.  I refer to those medieval depictions of the Virgin or saints with the gently arched fingers which give no hint of actual musculature within.  There is the graceful hand of Michelangelo’s Virgin in his Pietà, or those various depictions of Jesus or of saints with hands having the two first fingers raised and the thumb extended.    Sitters for portraitists seemed, before 1880, to drape their hands nervelessly in ‘beautiful’ formations.  But some years ago, I began to realize that when I see someone whose hands look attractive to me, the attraction lies in the strength and utility that is exhibited.  I like hands that look like they can – and do – perform actual work.   Fingers should look strong and capable.  Most people think, consciously or not, that their mother’s hands are beautiful; certainly I do.  I like looking at my mother’s hands, there is history in them.  Even now, I see the fingers that held Kleenex when she commanded me to, “Blow!”, that held the hankies moistened with her own saliva to wipe spots off my face, that sprinkled flour over the greased cookie sheet, that grasped the handle of the kitchen pump to draw water from our cistern; and they look warm and able and beautiful and alive to me.   I like men’s hands to look like they can grasp things.  People talk of the unpleasantness of a limp handshake, but I don’t much care about the handshake; what is a real turn-off to me are limp hands themselves, and tentative, ineffectual gestures.

I turned the page in my article, and there in a space embraced by the article I was reading was a poem entitled “Crepuscular” by Kimberly Johnson.  Now, ‘crepuscular’ is one of those words I have to look up again each time I see it, because I never remember from one time to the next what it means – even in a general sense.  It is certainly one of the ugliest words in all of English with its overtones of scabs and pustules and general crustiness, at least in the spelling and pronunciation.  I am pretty sure it is nothing of the sort (I pause here to look it up AGAIN).   There!  I knew it!  It means something beautiful: twilight – how did something so lovely as twilight (or the pertinence thereto) get an ugly word like crepuscular, which sounds like it should be applied to urban decay or gangrenous sores? 

At any rate, as soon as I came to the end of my current paragraph, I read the poem which I rather liked.  But there was a line that again sent me wandering – a tangent within a tangent – that spoke of autumn sunlight:
“…That’s what the sun does
In autumn, slanting southward and brownly
Between the hunched houses of the neighborhood.”

What struck me, besides the fact that I liked the poem, and this fit right in, was that I had been thinking just yesterday very specifically about how the light of winter was different and how the light of early morning is so full of hope and promise, while the light of late afternoon is so different, even though each is hitting the earth at the same angle, only from different directions.  Is it because I know one is morning light and the other evening?  They seem to look different; evening light seems to have more gold in it, as if a little blood had spilled into the silver gilt of the light that morning brought.   Autumn and winter light (like the ‘beautiful’ hands of old paintings) seem to hold no power, no oomph, as though the sun had a headcold and was just going through the motions.   In a larger sense, it seems eerie that something I think of one day out of a clear blue sky (so to speak) shows up in my reading or conversation or TV viewing the very next day.  It seems to happen all the time. 

When I think about things, such as the above, I find myself composing paragraphs about them.   I am rather poor at visualizing things I haven’t actually seen, for instance picturing a forest or beach or whatever.  (I can never picture my green summer yard when it is winter, or my barren winter yard in summer.) I have to think of a particular beach or forest, and then I wind up all tied up mentally with what happened there or with whom I went there.   I think in words and although I see the people and places about which I dream when asleep, there is an element of narrative, of being slightly aloof or at one remove from what is going on.  The lead character in my dreams, the “I” person, is frequently not me.  I know the thoughts and emotions of the dreamer but he, or sometimes she, is not the me I know when I am awake – we differ in appearance and age, in motive, in our concerns, our remembered histories.   I have attributed much of my descriptive or narrative abilities, such as they are, to the need when I was younger to hide, and to pose as someone I am not.  In this sense, my past was a gift.  Many of the painful periods of any life are gifts in disguise, very costly gifts, it is true, but once the rough stuff is past, there is a wonderful pool of awareness that is left in which to bathe.  It seems to be every parent’s aim to shelter his child from the very things that made that parent so spectacular.  “I don’t want my kid to suffer like I did,” is a two-edged sword.  The desire that one’s child have a better life than one’s own kind of depends on the definition of ‘better’.  People do not love chocolate for its sweetness alone.  It is that tiny edge of bitterness that makes the sweetness special. 

And now, if I am not to add this New Yorker to the guilt stack of those I have not finished, I must return to my reading.  See how I never get from A to B without a detour?   Now, Mr. Maier, if we may resume…

Oh and one more digression (in case I mysteriously disappear from Blogland).  I am, as we speak, drinking coffee lightened by CoffeeMate from a huge can which, when I got it home, appeared to have been previously opened.  I thought of all those articles about product tampering, and then I thought about all the hassle of returning this can or the cost of throwing it out, and I did the math.  Besides, isn't it as likely that someone hid an emerald ring inside the can as a shot of anthrax?  Live for the moment, say I, and the moment doesn't seem to call for a trip back to Sam's Club.  So if I am not here tomorrow, it wasn't the emerald ring...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Touching on Christmas and so on

For once, we here in Reedville were too far north to get hit by the big blizzard.  All those folks who chortle smugly as we get our ‘lake effect’ snow most of the winter got to chortle out of the other side of their mouths and it serves them right.  Yesterday we got an inch or so of snow, the kind that falls in big fluffy flakes like that which one sees on Christmas cards.  A rather odd sight was to be seen in my very own back yard, where there is a spring of water which keeps right on seeping forth come hot weather or cold.  This spring was lined with a flock of robins who apparently hadn’t heard about the migration thing.  They were strung out along the area where the water movement leaves a line of earth visible in the snow and seemed to be eating something, but I can’t imagine what sustenance could be found in that cold water.   Surely no earthworms could be abroad in these temperaures.  Is it possible that they eat the forget-me-nots that seem to spring up in any patch of water around here?  Actually I knew that robins don’t really fly south – or at least a lot of them do not, despite people believing that that is what they do.  In winter robins retreat to woodlands and are rarely seen, giving rise to the migration belief.  I read somewhere that old-timers used to say that if you just kick the bushes near a woods in winter you’ll find the robins.  I am not sure who was out kicking bushes in the snow to discover this, but it sounds like he had a lot of fun.   We here in the northern boondocks have our simple pleasures. 

Christmas, which I generally dread, was not bad at all this year.  As long as I lived on the farm, Christmas was magic.  Then, after I moved to California, it was a lonely and sad time for me for a while – so much so that I scheduled some elective surgery over Christmas one year just to get out of the house.  Then I met Tumwell and all the magic returned.  Tumwell was a total kid when it came to the holidays.  He brought the magic back for me.  I had to watch him like a hawk to make sure he didn’t sneak a peek at presents before the appointed day.  I am a purist; I want to open everything at once on the actual date.  He always wanted to open gifts early.  We finally arrived at what became our tradition: gifts were opened one minute after the midnight between the 24th and 25th.  On Christmas morning we would rise late and go to Tumwell’s Mom’s house for Christmas dinner.  She gave me the nicest gifts.  One year she gave me a pair of tap shoes – the real deal.  I still have a teak rocking chair she gave me.   Each year the Christmas meal got more elaborate, because Tum’s mom always included every dish I had expressed a liking for among all the meals I had previously had at her table.  Once Tum asked her why she was making something or other again for Christmas and she said, “Well, Dave likes it,” and Tum said, “What about what I like?”   He was kidding of course, but it was true – she seemed to take me very much into account in her meal planning.   As her youngest son, Tum was expected to eat what was he was given. 

But then I went to Saudi, and Tum and his mom both passed away, and since then Christmas is more of a hassle than anything else.  For the last several years Caitlin, a newly married niece (well, ‘newly’ when it first started) has invited all of us in the area to her home for Christmas.  The first year this happened she was living in a house in the town south of Reedville where my Mom also lived, but she and her husband have since purchased a beautiful home on the main street of a village an hour’s drive east of us.  This house was built in the 1890’s and then was carefully restored by its previous owner and is a perfect place for a Christmas.  The problem is that more and more of my brothers have been returning to the area and this means more and more people for whom I must buy gifts with less idea of what to get them and far less money to do it with, now that I have retired.   This year, I had a couple of things I bought in Bali that served as gifts, but then I was forced to get out and do some shopping for the rest of the gifts.  I got out earlier than usual – that is TWO days before Christmas, instead of one, but actually once I got out and started shopping, I kind of enjoyed it.  I felt pretty good about most of my purchases.  I suddenly realized that I didn’t have to get the “perfect” gift, just something that fell into an area in which each recipient was interested.   After that, it was relatively easy.  I have a tendency to get caught up in a right-wrong axis in things, and to forget that the world doesn’t rise or fall on my choices.  I did propose (and my proposal was eagerly accepted) that the adults exchange names next year and each would buy only one gift.  That will make future years SO much easier.   Besides, this year Zeke (Caitlin’s husband) has installed a pool table in the cellar of his home, so there was something fun to do.  Do you know what the difference is between a basement and a cellar?  When a basement is more than half underground, it is a cellar.  I know you will thank me for this info, and you are free to act superior and correct others when they misuse the terms in future, as do I. 

It looks like the weather will finally rise above freezing later this week and by New Year’s Eve it will be in the 40’s.  By then the northern areas will have clear roads; the real north is remarkably efficient in clearing the roads.  It is the border states that get overwhelmed and cancel everything when there is more than an inch of snow.   I am debating driving to northern New Jersey to visit Freddie, a man I met a few months ago, for New Year’s weekend.   Freddy is a very nice guy and his story is rather interesting.   He married his high school sweetheart and they had three boys.  When the boys were grown – or nearly so - Mrs. Freddie, who is quite an attractive woman who had received some flattering attention from men on the prowl over the years, began to fret that she had somehow missed out on all the fun and dating that other girls had.  Eventually she left Freddy for one particularly attentive admirer and they got a divorce; however Mrs. Freddie found that these men on the prowl had no intention of doing more than tasting the honey and then flitting onward to the next flower, and she ended up somehow blaming Freddie for her subsequent unhappiness.  To get out of a fraught environment, Freddie moved to a little villagedeep in the wilds of northern Jersey.   One day a fellow employee at the company where Freddie has worked for more than 20 years invited him home.  The man (for it was a man) came onto Freddie, and Freddie, who has maintained his youthful face and physique, says he thought, “Well, why not?” and thereby discovered that he liked the guys even better than he had liked the ladies, something that had not even entered his head previously.  Thus the way was paved for my entry into his life. 

Freddie likes to play music and is planning to trade his electronic keyboard in for a ‘real’ piano; he says he likes the feel of the real thing.  Although I have not yet persuaded him to play for me, I noticed that the sheet music he had on the rack of the keyboard was very complex stuff.   He had a large photograph of the Shirelles on one wall and when I said I really liked them and asked if he liked them particularly he told me that the lead singer was his aunt.   He brought out the program from her funeral in northern California and some other things that he had acquired because of the relationship.  So I am kind of dating a girl group by extension.   Well, kind of dating.  We seem to like each other, and he is a really nice man.  He is intensely prosaic, though (other than liking guys), and very much a family man for his now-grown sons.  The only thing ‘gay’ about him (other than the sex thing) is that he is very fond of Broadway plays.  He regularly attends these with an elderly female friend who shares his interest.   

I have only visited Freddie once, several months ago when it was still early autumn, but I have been thinking about him a lot lately.  He said he wanted things to be an equal type thing; that he didn’t want me to be the one who always did the travelling (he is about 5 hours from me).  I think he meant this, but he is a true Northern Jersey/New York City type who thinks anything outside a narrow radius centered in Manhattan is the back of beyond.  He thinks I live somewhere within shooting distance of Sarah Palin, I think.  So he is worried about driving in the winter so very far north.   I thought this whole situation was languishing, but while I was in California, I found my thoughts turning to him more and more, so I e-mailed him and suggested I visit again.  He sounded very eager to see me.  I talked to him on the phone the other day and he is still all for seeing each other again.  It makes sense for me to go there rather than the reverse because he works and I don’t.  He views a trip here as a big undertaking, while I think a five hour drive is not all that big a deal, if the roads are clear. 

We have nothing much in common – he is not a reader, he likes very different TV fare, he has no interest in the kinds of things I like, he will text several times a day, whereas I never text and only write e-mails – usually far longer than a text message.  But he is a decent honorable man and we find each other fairly attractive.  Maybe something will grow, maybe not.   He is a creature of habit; he would have been glad to stay married and be Dad, then Grandpa.  The gay thing came as a surprise, but now that he has discovered it, this is where he wants to be.  He has been on the same job for 20 years; he plans to stay another six or seven years to qualify for a full pension.  I never stayed on any one job for more than six years and that six year job was in Saudi where I had to sign two-year contracts.  And I certainly never planned six years ahead for anything.  There are a lot of reasons we are not a match, but maybe there are also a few reasons we can be.  Either way, I am looking forward to visiting again.   And then we’ll see. 

Despite all the news about poverty and kids not having any gifts this year, I ask you, have you ever been in a house where there is a child, where that house is not jammed from one end to another with every imaginable brightly colored plastic toy?  It seems almost obscene to me the number of toys a child has in the present era.   And so many of them perform , leaving the child a spectator.  Where are the Tinkertoys, the Lincoln Logs, the Legos, the Etch-a-Sketch?  I am just asking; it was the toys that allowed me to build things that I loved – those and crayons and marbles – I made up more games using marbles than the manufacturer ever dreamed.  When I was in Sam’s Club, I saw a huge super-size barrel of Lincoln Logs and I almost bought them – for ME.   It seems to me that most parents awake each day and say, “Hmm- it is a new day, Kimmie needs a new toy!”   Maybe it is just me, but I do know that the most pampered kids with whom I went to grade school never had nearly as many toys as has every kid I have seen lately.   

And a Happy New Year to YOU.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Touch of Dyspepsia

It certainly seems that no matter how often I feel I am freezing my butt off, said butt never seems to diminish in any visible manner. Quite the contrary.

This thought occurs to me because I have risen a few hours ago at 4 a.m. to a house that seems colder than the hubs of hell. I am still on California time – and apparently still on expectation of California temperatures. The thermometer reads about 20, although my eyeballs are frozen so I can’t be sure of that. It is just getting to be that time of dawn when the snow looks blue. And so do I.

I actually lay awake for some time before arising and thought about things. One thing I thought about is the incredible annoyance of those fake words that I have to type on most people’s blogs in order to post a comment. I have no objection to typing the letters shown; what bugs me to the last nerve is that these letters are often displayed distorted in such a way that I can’t tell which letters are showing. This irritation is such that I am often tempted to change “What a darling little peachy-weachy!” in response to someone’s posted baby picture to “Somebody ought to smother that uggo in its crib”. Usually my mental response to the picture of any baby (including those of relatives whom I love dearly) is that it looks like a lump of Play-Doh with eyes.

One must be cautious about such “honesty”. I once made the mistake of giving my honest opinion of the attractiveness of persons who are visibly pregnant, and I thought the walls would crumble, such an uproar did ensue. And this from GUYS! I am sorry but every time some magazine (always aimed at female readers, I notice) publishes revealing photos of pregnant ladies, I am grossed out.

I am equally grossed out by sonograms. Has no one any sense of privacy (I hardly dare say “decency”) any more? Jeez Louise! A perfect world for me would be one in which children were presented in public for the first time about the time they begin to resemble something recognizably human. Recognizable, that is, to the beholder who is not terminally suffused with the ‘awww’ disability which renders folks incapable of actually seeing what these squashy little bundles of flab and wrinkles look like. It is bad enough seeing my own collection of flab and wrinkles without the sudden shock of rounding a corner or entering a room and being presented with something like that.

I returned to NY to find a snowman built on my deck and the interior of my house clean and decorated with Christmas tchotchkes. I haven’t been able to find anything I needed since my arrival, so thorough was the cleaning, but it sure is nice to come home to someplace that looks like the dwelling of`a person who has evolved beyond the ape stage of existence, that is, someone who does not live in Kansas where such an evolution is banned, I believe. I ought to invite someone to visit quick before I mess it up again, although since I had to cook something last night that ship may well have sailed.

I have noticed that ships sailing have been in the news rather a lot lately. Last night they were yammering on and on about some Mediterranean cruise which hit rough seas. Passengers were rather miffed, I gather, and most of them seemed to have spent the time holding up their telephones and taking pictures, when they might better have engaged in taking cover. I am looking forward to the day the news shows someone gasping out his or her last breath while a streetful of people, including the emergency responders, record the process on their cellphones. What is it with people? What the hell is the use of a bunch of pictures of people you don’t know undergoing some sort of disaster? I am totally down with the secret satisfaction of watching someone else get the pie in the face that should have been yours, but it seems a little crass to stand there taking pictures while he or she wipes the fruit filling out of his or her eyes.

Anyway, I was wondering why the hell people go on cruises in the first place. I personally would do it for the adventure. If I just want to lie in the sun, I’d save a thousand bucks and find a beach. If I want to get from point A to point B, I’d take a plane. For several thousand years, people have understood that venturing out to sea was a risky proposition. There was a time when one had no choice; there were no other methods available for crossing the wine-dark seas. But now there are options for safe and convenient crossings. I have been watching irate passengers complain that their vacation is ruined and so forth. How is it ruined? Now they have something interesting to talk about. Hasn’t anyone noticed that a tale of an uneventful voyage puts the listeners to sleep – or if they are lucky, to flight? "The food was so delicious!"  "The sun was so - well - sunny!"  Here is a rule of thumb, people: A picture of you on a deck chair is not interesting, but a picture of a deck chair on you IS.

One of the rough voyages that was featured in the news this past week was one to Antarctica which encountered very rough seas. Color me naïve, but I can’t come up with any scenario wherein I would embark on a voyage in frigid polar waters and expect smooth sailing. I am just saying, here. I suppose anyone daft enough to travel to Antarctica in the first place is daft enough to expect comfort. I imagine half of them are hoping to book lodgings at the five-star Ross Ice Shelf Sheraton.

Are you dreading the next six months of Kate and Wills overkill as much as I am? I did notice, though, in the official photo that came up every five seconds on my news program, that old Prince W seemed to have a very fixed smile, rather as if Kate were standing on his foot with her Manolo Blahniks. The ones with the stiletto heels.  I don't know why HE looks so pained - SHE's the one getting the balding guy.

Speaking of news overkill, am I the only one who thinks that the news media should ignore publicity hungry ideologues who use newsworthy occasions to get attention for their crackpottery? I see the fool that got all kinds of attention by threatening to burn some holy book or other has now been invited to London by some asshole or other. And don’t even get me going on the jerk that pickets any funeral which will get him more than two lines of news coverage. I do have to say, though, that anyone who gets that hysterical on the topic of homosexuals must be fighting pretty hard to keep his hands off any pretty young man who walks by. Whyever else would he care so much?

Those of you who do not live in the brackish backwaters of Northern California, and thus might have missed the news from that quarter, might like to be aware that the world is scheduled to end (or the End Times to begin, or whatever) this coming May on, if I remember correctly, the 20th. Round about then, anyway. This is a heads up for those who thought they had until 2012 when the Mayans calendar runs out to prepare for the end. Those wishing to divest themselves of their worldly belongings in order to purify their lives in preparation are invited to contact me to receive convenient shipping instructions for any automotive, gold or electronic non-necessities of which they may wish to dispose.

And now the day is upon me – whatever shall I do with it?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Man in the Hat

My grandmother had finished high school and begun a job of some sort when her mother died.  As the eldest daughter, she discovered she was expected to abandon her job, which she enjoyed, as well as all hope of a 'normal' life, and to devote her life to caring for her younger sisters, her brother and her father.  This was made clear to her in a most graphic manner; the time was just before Christmas and her father took her to her mother's closet, told her that henceforth she would be wearing the plain clothes therein, and she discovered that her name had been removed from all the Christmas presents intended for her, and her that younger sisters' names had been substituted.  That is, at least, the story as my mother told it to me.

Grandmother had recently visited a friend in some small upstate New York village, and on the night of that day when her father laid out her dull grey future as spinster caretaker to her siblings, she packed a bag, sneaked out of her house and fled to the friend.  She never saw her father nor most of her siblings again, except for a sister named Daisy who tracked her down years later and who resumed a relationship with Grandmother and her ever-increasing brood of girls.  Shortly after moving to the village of her friend, Grandmother met her future husband and they were married.  Grandfather was a good man, the marriage seemed happy, and they ultimately had 10 daughters and a son, of which 8 daughters lived beyond childhood.  The son died shortly after his birth and two of the daughters died in the great flu epidemic of 1918, a year in which my Mom, the sixth daughter would have been two years old. 

For some reason, my Grandmother had a restless streak which manifested itself in an odd manner; every year or two she insisted on moving to a new house, usually within the same small town where the last house stood.  Grandpa apparently was unperturbed by this and his job didn't change; there was no apparent reason for these moves, at least none that my Mom ever knew.  Eventually Grandmother had lived in all the available houses in the town where Grandpa worked, and she moved to a larger village some distance away, while Grandpa remained in the town where his job was.  My mother hated moving with a passion, and at first remained with my grandfather, while her mother and sisters moved to the larger village.  Eventually she joined her mother and, later, Grandpa ended up in the larger village also.  I have never got a sense that there was any breach between my grandparents, and from tales Mom has told, they were people to whom others turned for help when someone needed bringing to the doctor or the like.  Apparently the local doctor in the smaller town where Mom spent her younger years called upon Grandpa so often to collect or return patients to their homes that Grandpa acquired the nickname "Doc" which followed him all the rest of his life.  I know Grandmother only from my mother's recollections; she died at the age of 49 , from complications of epilepsy the same year my Mom graduated from high school and when Mom's youngest sister was only two years old.

I suspect that I may have inherited my Grandmother's restlessness as evidenced by my desire, which is almost a lust to go someplace else from where I am at differents points in my life.  Had Grandmother lived in my era, I suspect her moves would have been to far greater distances.  A woman of her era was terribly circumscribed.  I don't think the impulse to move was rooted in a desire to get away from either her husband or children - there was just an intense desire to try some new place.  I completely understand this; I never leave things, really, instead I go to new things. 

When my father asked my mother to marry him, she laid down one condition: from the start they must own their own home.  So much had my mother hated moving all the time, she had no desire whatever to move ever again.  Consequently, my parents purchased a three-story frame house at 512 Goodling Street, an important north/south street in the city, but not so busy as Main Street or other commercial avenues.  This house had an apartment on the second floor which my parents rented to a childhood friend of my mother and her daughter Bunny who was my age, while the husband and father of this pair was off in the army fighting World War II.

So few men were at home during the war that there was a manless culture in the city.  My father had been denied entrance to the service because of his age, although he had tried to enlist; he had married at the age of 41.  This was a time when each neighborhood had its own commercial center, and neighborhood groceries were found every few blocks.  Mom tells me that so many young wives were living alone, with no one to babysit while they shopped for groceries, that it was common for a line of infants in carriages to be left outside the larger grocery stores in the commercial district which lined the avenue a block north of my parents' home.  Young mothers might come into the store and call out, "The baby in the blue jumper is trying to crawl out of the buggy!" or "The little girl in the pink dress is crying!" and the mother oif the child in question would hurry out to fix the problem.  No one worried about abduction or mishap beyond the normal type of mishap which might occur at home as easily as it would on the sidewalk outside the grocery. 

When I was three, my Uncle Bern who had inherited the family farm in Reedville, 15 miles south of the city, developed a severe heart condition which rendered him unable to continue the strenuous business of farming, though I believe that was the life he loved with all his heart.  His wife, Aunt Delia, was the quintessential house-proud farmwife, who dearly loved Uncle Bern.  It was agreed among the members of the family that my parents would swap their home in the city for the Farm.   Thus my mother, who had always been a girl of the towns and villages, came to be a farmer's wife.  She had hoped for a life in the city and she had hoped to remain in the house she and Dad bought when they married, but I never heard her complain about the new circumstances in which she found herself.  Late in life she said she felt it was much better to have raised nine kids - eight of them boys - on a farm in the country, rather than in the city.  For my father, however, it was a bitter disappointment.  He did not like the regulated life of a farmer with the never-ending morning and evening milking, the lack of time off, the lack of control over one's time, the endless round of planting, cultivating (i.e. weeding crops), harvesting and so on. 

Frequently Aunt Delia would have me visit her and Uncle Bern in the city; they were childless and they loved me very much.  Dad and Bern's sister Agnes (also childless) lived across the street from Aunt Delia, with her husband Mick who was a car salesman and who owned all the buildings on the short block of Opal Street between Goodling and Belhurst streets - the side of the block which faced Delia's house.  Uncle Mick's buildings consisted of three three-story houses which were broken into apartments and a long multi-car garage which looked like it had six parking slots - at least there were six square windows in the facade of the one-story wooden building.  Aunt Agnes was my favorite aunt and she adored me.  She was a wonderful aunt for a child to have, but she was a sore trial to any adult who knew her.  I didn't know it for years but she was a severe alcoholic, whom I think may also have been mildly agorophobic.  In a "Chap Record" I found at the Farm later, there was an entry that predicted she would end up tired and nervous, bent over a washtub.  Chap records were a fad, something like autograph books, only instead of containing autographs, they had entries by the owner noting each person he or she met with a humorous note as to how they struck the writer. 

Aunt Agnes loved having me to stay with her for short vacations.  These visits were very odd times; she was a weird combination between a fussy guardian and a permissive one.  She taught me how to behave and how to use every possible table utensil including shrimp forks and fingerbowls, without ever once giving any kind of meal except a quick one at the kitchen table at which I was never joined by anyone except my brother Gary when he was also invited.   Things not eaten at one meal showed up again at the next, not out of some form of punishment, but just because there it was and there we were.  Gary and I learned early that Aunt Agnes would not hear us go to the back door and throw things off the back landing - Mick and Agnes' apartment was on the second and third floors of the corner building, so uneaten food made a most satisfying arc as it descended into the back area below.  Often Gary and I would check on our next visit to see what stage of decay some of the larger bits of food had attained since we threw them. 

Aunt Agnes - or Aunt Delia, for that matter - thought nothing of sending us to the shops which were a block north of Opal Street between Goodling and Belhurst.  So long as we didn't have to cross a street, they saw no need to worry about our safety.  The only street we ever crossed was Opal Street itself, since the two aunts, who had a bit of a rivalry over my affections, lived on opposite sides of that street and I had to (and wanted to) see plenty of each.  On these forays of perhaps 200 or 300 feet, I was given all sorts of safety instructions: look both ways, don't dawdle, watch always for the automobiles which apparently were believed to lie in wait with drivers who neither saw us in front of them nor who had any other purpose in life than to mow down heedless children. 

When I was six and had begun first grade, I was visiting one of the two aunts and I had with me the money to do some Christmas shopping for the first time in my life.  I think I had to purchase a gift for the draw at my school at the local five and ten on the commercial block which had a selection of enticing toys on offer.  On this occasion Gary was with me, and we were allowed to go by ourselves (as always) to do our Christmas shopping.  The modern parent might think that my aunts were incredibly lax in their oversight, but at this time it would have been far more unusual for any child to be restrained from exploring his own block.  Children seemed to live outside on the local sidewalks.  We seemed to live in a world that cherished us; my aunts, especially Delia, from whose house Gary and I actually made our sortie, were actually more overprotective than otherwise, but protection of children in those days meant cautioning them about heights, cars, sharp objects and electricity. 

At the five and ten, Gary and I separated and he was looking at one side of a toy counter while I was in the aisle that ran the length of the opposite side of the counter.  Counters in five and dimes were generally like long tables; one could see across the store over them.  Those stores did not have the high walls between aisles which block one's view as does Walmart or other stores of today.  While I was looking at a bunch of hard-covered books on the counter, a man in a grey three-quarter length coat and a fedora-style hat - the winter uniform of any man in public in those days - came to stand beside me and opened a conversation.  He asked my name and age and if I went to school yet.  I answered everything truthfully and in a respectful manner.  Although I had been cautioned about dealing with strangers, I always imagined strangers as being men or women on the street.  This was in a store and thus the other constant injunction to always be polite and respectful to adults was in operation.  The man asked if I had any girlfriends, and I recall being a little confused as to how to answer.  I kind of intuited, even at that age, that the cool young man always would reply, 'yes' to this question.  I both knew and kind of didn't know exactly what was meant by the term 'girlfriend'.  I knew that it meant something different from 'friend who happens to be a girl', but I salved my conscience by recalling that I DID have plenty of friends at school who fit the category 'girl' so I said 'yes'.  I also was beginning to feel uncomfortable with this man - he stood very close and spoke in an undervoice.  He seemed so old, and his voice held something different from the jocular tone in which my uncles, or my Dad's friends, spoke to me.  I looked for Gary but he was engrossed in something in the next aisle. 

The man then went on to ask me if I knew "what girls like."  I felt a sort of sick fear slide down inside my chest to my stomach.  I didn't dare move away - he was a GROWN UP - and I didn't dare lie, though I SO didn't want to know, because somehow there was an aura of - not really menace - but sort of sickness, like watching someone cut open an animal, so I said, "No."  I never felt physically threatened, just a sort of horrified feel of the Earth shfting unpredictably under my feet.  I have since had dreams - though they probably have nothing to do with this incident - where something is very wrong, but all around me people are unconscious of anything unusual and are proceeding with daily concerns and I can't seem to communicate the danger.  This felt exactly like that dream.  The man proceeded to tell me a number of graphic scenarios, about bodily areas in girls whose appearance and purpose I wasn't really sure about.  I was in a panic.  I felt smothered by this man.  I desperately willed Gary to look up, but he didn't. 

Finally a sales clerk started to come in our direction - not because of the man, but because she apparently had business near us.  The man quickly stepped away, breaking the spell that had held me frozen.  Quickly I darted around the counter to Gary and whispered urgently, "Come on!"  I had already gathered a couple of gifts, and being the orderly and regulated child I was then, I felt I had to stop and purchase these before leaving the store.  The whole time I was frantic with worry that the man would return to me and I couldn't yet speak to Gary because for some obscure reason it was imperative that the store's personnel not hear me, but the alternative to making the purchases was to return each item to where I had found it (it never occurred to me to just drop them anywhere other than where I found them), and doing that felt far riskier.  It would have returned me to the man's proximity.  As we scurried home, I told Gary all that had been said, and I think it scared him too although he was always much braver than me and I really don't recall his reaction. 

When I got back to Aunt Delia, I told her the whole, word for word as I recalled it.  If you knew Aunt Delia, or at least knew how she appeared to me, you would realize the extent of my shock.  Aunt Delia was nice through and through.  Such words as I was saying are not ones I would EVER have spoken to any adult, let alone her, under any other circumstances.  Aunt Delia had grey hair which she wore in a bun, and wire rimmed glasses.  Her character matched her appearance - a grandmotherly, kindly, sweet, decent woman who thought only of ginger cookies and family pictures, not of getting girls alone and touching them in dirty places.  She was all that is meant by the word 'genteel'.  Of course she was shocked and horrified, and happily she did not for a minute make me feel bad or as if I had somehow done wrong. 

I don't think I was terribly marked by this incident, although I can still picture the man in his grey coat and his fedora.  I can't picture his face, though.  I became, perhaps, a little warier for a time and probably had a healthier - though not morbid - awareness of how to behave toward people I didn't know.  I never ascribed those occasional dreams I mentioned above to this incident, and even if they were a result, they have not been a serious factor in my life.  I think my relatives reacted exactly correctly - they were on my side, they didn't behave as if I had caused the problem, but I don't recall that they became markedly more protective, or stopped letting me go about on my own. 

When I was in my first weeks of college, about a dozen guys in my dorm were having a bull session and somehow the topic of these kinds of encounters arose.  All but one of us had experienced something similar.  My roommate (who had become a six foot plus basketball scholarship athlete) had actually been knocked down and fondled briefly by a man who used to watch his Little League games.  He didn't seem terribly harmed.  It seems to me that more harm is done by overreacting to these incidents in the child's presence, or by instilling terror.  I speak, of course, of boys, and of incidents that do not reach the level of abduction or actual sexual relations.  Boys know this behavior is aberrant and they don't like it at all, but they should not (in my opinion) be terrorized into thinking every man will do this sort of thing.  Reasonable caution, not vigilante gangs of men bearing torches and pitchforks, seems to be a reasonable response. 

I wonder, though, what was this man's motive.  He made no move to get me to go with him, nor did he talk about male privates; he spoke only of girls.  Was he a bitter and angry man who saw a happy boy shopping and who wanted to spoil the boy's confidence?  Is there a kind of thrill  in having a conversation like this with a frightened and unresponsive boy?  I never felt he would physically bother me (I could have been wrong), but I felt like my psyche or my view of the world or my joy was being besmirched.  I didn't feel targetted: I felt, so far as I thought about it, that any boy standing where I did would have been equally a victim.  I was very frightened, but not of being attacked.  It was like things didn't make sense for a while.  There was no order to things.  I think it is like seeing one's guardian or caretaker being drunk; where is the safe certainty of life? 

I am not complaining or regretting; I am more curious than anything.  What was happening from the man's point of view?  Was he mean?  Envious?  Destructive?  Turned on?  I like to know why people do things and how they see their own behavior, and I really can't fathom this man's motives or his reward, whether realized or anticipated.  It was never a big deal later in my life; I don't even know why I wrote about it.  I was just thinking of that house on Goodling Street and my times there and then I thought of this and it was something to write about.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Catching Up

I guess I need to post a new blog, if for no other reason than to give JennyD more space to comment. Yes, I have suddenly had such an upsurge in Followers that what to say I wot not.  I know my Shaggers new and old know that 'wot' is a real word and not a mis-key, such a clever lot as they are.

As I said to OneGirl on her blog, a blog is a public forum and one has no control over the comments made.  I wouldn't have it any other way.  To Marge and JennyD who apologized for lengthy comments, more power to you!  I love long comments which are mini-blogs in themselves - I do it all the time on others' sites.  Hey, if it is TO me or ABOUT me or inspired by me, I just can't get enough.  Fear no more.

I am feeling concerned about this current entry - I learned long ago to write on a text editor and then cut and paste into my blog, since I have lost long and wondrous posts by trusting blog websites not to delete all ere I published.  But I do not wish to leave an entry inadvertently on this computer, since I am writing from my friend Emily's computer at her home in Northern California.  As I have said before, I do not share my blog with people I know, nor do I use real names.  This allows me to write things I don't care to have shared or picked over by my near and dear.  Nor need I worry that someone will be offended by a misreading (or even a correct reading) of things I write.  I have noticed that even such a canny lot as my Shaggers occasionally read something entirely different from what I thought I wrote - how much more likely for a reader who has exposed nerves and who still disagrees with me over whose pencil that was in third grade and who holds a grudge therefore, to do so. 

I came to California from Western NY on the train with my brother Luke and his girlfriend Carol.  It was all-in-all a nice trip.  Just as we were about to cross the Mississippi River, Carol went downstairs in the observation car to a tiny snackbar/booze bar for a teeny-weeny double vodka, and while she was there, Luke and I heard a man shouting therefrom.  When Carol returned, she told us that a middle-aged female conductor had observed a man stealing a number of items from a girl's purse and putting them into his own backpack.  The man defended himself against the charge (rather weakly, I thought) by saying, "Just because I look like a derelict doesn't mean I am a thief!"  As a defense, I do not think this will enter the annals alongside Clarence Darrow or Johnnie Cochran. 

The conductress glommed onto the man's backpack and told him he was not leaving with it, and the man struggled to pull it away from her, whereupon Angela, the lady behind the counter flew out like an avenging Fury and told the man to leave her colleague alone.  Angela is a lovely lady who looks about 35, and had told us she was 59.  We spent a fair amount of time talking with her.  She had been a magazine model when young (she had a beautiful face) and was quite an interesting lady, with a lively wit.  Between them, the conductress and Angela managed to keep hold of the backpack, and after the train crossed the Mississippi into Iowa it stopped athwart a main street in a tiny town for an hour while the local gendarmarie boarded and removed the faux derelict, blocking a queue of traffic and leaving the drivers therein to wonder what malign impulse had led them to drive down that particular street in the middle of the night.  Angela later told us that occasionally passengers are lulled into thinking that the quiet informality of a train makes it an easy target for the less-than-upright.  "Au contraire," she assured us (although those are my words, not hers), there are undercover agents from the ATF and DEA on board, among others.  Further, if one boards in Chicago with contraband and is caught in California, he can be (and might well be) charged in every state the train crossed.  Our naughty derelict, by prolonging his efforts through the crossing of the Mississippi had rendered himself liable to prosecution in both Illinois and Iowa. 

Our only other event out of the ordinary was having a freight that was in our way develop a flat wheel (!) and delay us two hours while the situation was remedied; happily this happened in the midst of spectacular Colorado scenery.  The fine folks at Amtrak schedule the California Zephyr so that we see the Rockies and Sierra Nevada by day and cross Utah and some of Nevada by night, which is just as it should be.  If you have two days (from Chicago) or three days (from NYC) and are in no hurry, do take the train.  Bring a blanket, for sure.  The meals are OK, and the rule is that you are seated with whomever has an open table.  We had uniformly interesting tablemates - a man from NASA, two women travelling to see an ailing father and grandfather, a young man with a new job in Colorado.  There was also a young seraphically handsome self-described ski-bum and snowboarder with whom I had a great chat about surfing and about books.  I started talking to him because I saw he was reading Gatsby - it turned out that it was his second time reading it - and I got another lesson on judging a book by its cover, so to speak.  And this man's cover was pretty darn awesome - he had a mass of blond curls and the face of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. 

The wedding was not bad; although I did have to endure a Catholic Mass; the groom's family were quite convivial and I had a great time with his mother who was just a few years too young to have made the Hippie scene in San Francisco and who wanted to hear all about it - WELL!  And she didn't even seem sorry she asked!  There're manners for you!  Many of my siblings - Lucy, of course (mother of the bride), Luke, Liam, George and Jack - were at the wedding with their various offspring, so I had a pretty good time - best of all, Jack did NOT bring his dreadful girlfriend.  I had a date that didn't work out so well - although it was kind of fun and ended with a late meal at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Berkeley where I got to stammer a few remembered Arabic phrases to an interesting lady of Morrocan and Palestinian ancestry.  I then came to stay for a couple of weeks with my friend Emily - my best friend whom I have known since my surfing days in Hermosa Beach many years ago.  She went to a junior college briefly, back in the day, with Squeaky Fromme.  How's THAT for a name-drop? 

It is great being with Emily - some days we do nothing, and the town she lives in has a truly great used bookstore, as well as some nice places to eat.  Emily is a great reader and we love to talk for hours about books, the old days on the beach and everything in between.  We also have no trouble being quiet and doing separate things with no pressure to interact constantly.  Being with Emily is like being at home, only with someone to talk to, and with someone else doing the cooking.  Bliss, in short. 

I realize I am departing again from my effort NOT to make this a diary-type blog, but I do feel that I should aim for at least two entries a month, especially since I am swamped by a tsunami of new readers.  OK, a ripple.  But of such quality.  And I know, quality rather than quantity should be my motto when writing, but I fear I am not sufficiently miserable just now to plumb the recesses of memory for the makings of the better entries.  And I have come up with one or two ideas for alleviating my rather blah existence of late - I hope these last beyond the return to NY and actually get put into practice.  I should be home around the 15th, then there is only Christmas to get past and voila! - a new year.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A (Lack of) Vision Statement

Back in the dark ages of 2005 when I started to blog, almost on a whim, as I do most things, I think (although I am not sure) that my intent was to talk about the past as I partook of it, or witnessed it. I guess that would be sort of my vision statement, which, like those of most companies, ignored the real motives, which in my case was to do something to alleviate the boredom of living in small-city Alabama, and in the companies’ case, to make a heap o’ cash. This latter aim, I hasten to say, was my purpose in being in Alabama in the first place, but had nothing to do with the blog. And the main two reasons that living in small-city Alabama was boring was because I was relatively new there and had no connections, and more importantly, because I am a person who just sits around and is bored, rather than one who seizes the opportunity to explore my surroundings and make new friends.  It has nothing to do with the blandishments, or lack thereof, that Alabama offers.

As a vision or goal, this writing about What Happened has wavered some and has glowed mighty dim sometimes. Sometimes I get caught up in what is going on now, and sometimes I get caught up in issues, neither of which areas brings out the best in me, and both of which seem to extinguish for the moment my interest in what has gone before. I most emphatically do not want to blog as a diary of what I did today, and equally I do not want to talk about issues all the time, since when one does that, readers (sometimes even readers as bright and insightful as my Shaggers, all two of them) tend to snap into their pre-existing belief set and read only to agree, if they are so bent, or to nitpick if they are of a different view. Moreover, what could I possibly say that makes any difference?

It may or may not surprise anyone, considering the paucity of my entries lately, that I actually blog mentally several times each day. In the last day or two I have written a mental blog about a great blue heron which spent hours yesterday progressing majestically through and around my pond (Damn! they are big!) and about the ponds themselves, and about watching closely a video of Bush at Ground Zero and obsessing over how easily and naturally he kept his arm across the shoulder of the man in the hardhat (head cop? head fireman?) throughout his remarks via bullhorn and how different he is as a person from me in a way that makes me wish I had some of him in my make-up, and about buying my brother Luke his first computer (with his money, I hasten to add), and about my trip to Las Vegas with my former roommate from Saudi, and about my forthcoming trip to my niece’s wedding in California whither I am travelling by train.

I have not actually considered, until this moment, why the few who come here do so. Y’all have given me some very flattering comments, and since the majority of the tiny crew of readers who do come have been around for a very long time, I have to believe that some of it is true. It can’t ONLY be because then I’ll come and visit you, can it? That would seem too high a price for you to pay. I try to write as well as I can – at least in respect to using the English language I grew up with – although I hasten to admit there is no re-write or polish (or very little anyway – I do usually spellcheck, and in the good old fashioned way, by rereading, at which time I also check if my sentences actually make sense). No, I am not fishing here for compliments; I was just struck that I actually have never before thought about WHY such folks as jeankfl and onebeam and flooz and mizangie and Shana and the rest drop by. (I could mention some other faithfuls such as Gayle and Kittycatlane, but the former seems to be vacationing from blogging – and reading - for the nonce, and the latter is, I think, on a different site and is finding the navigation here a slog – besides, all those cats…) It would probably be useful for me to think about this, and then again, one of the reasons I do not use my real name – or the real names of my subjects - is to avoid writing FOR somebody, which for me means running a mental censor over everything and the whole point was to avoid that. But still, it is pointless to write things without some yardstick to measure, in my own head, whether those things were worth writing about, or whether what I wrote is worth anyone’s time to read.

I always knew (this is a segué, by the way) that there was something in my head that was highly counter-productive and that was the voice of my depression, or tendency thereto. And the other day, when I was walking away from the kitchen counter, leaving something or other lying there which should have been put away, I heard my head say, “I don’t have the time.” Since I had read the Sunday magazine that comes tucked in my newspaper this week (which I rarely do) and had found therein some words on the very topic of limited time by Diane Keaton, I was struck by how this phrase works for me so differently from the way it does for her. In discussing being older, and more aware that the time left to her on this Earth is limited, she spoke of stripping away the non-essential and throwing herself into the things worth doing. For me, limited time is a paralyzing thought, quite the opposite view from Ms Keaton’s. It is true that I strip away quite a bit of non-essential activity – and disposing of the food and utensils I was leaving on the counter could arguably been non-essential, at least for the nonce (and would also have taken two minutes, MAX!). But I find that I do absolutely nothing all day every day other than fill time with the least demanding activity possible, my nap (or naps) being the highlight. Anything that takes a foreseeable commitment of time is something from which I shy away. I don’t usually watch daytime TV (there are limits!), but I fiddle with repetitive computer games, read idly, wander about – anything that I can stop at any point without having to return home, clean up, or draw to a close one minute after I want it to be over with.

I thought during all those years of unrewarding work, that there was a certain legitimacy to the claim that I didn’t want to spent my off-work time doing that which I didn’t like doing. But now I have nothing but time – the Sunday breakfasts here with Mom are the sole scheduled events in my entire week and I do neither the cooking nor the clean-up for those. And I still hear nothing in my head, except variations of, “It takes too much time.” It takes too much time to make new friends, to try to reanimate old friendships, write letters, find congenial volunteer work and then perform it, mulch the garden, put up the deer-proof fence around my yew hedge, water house plants, finish painting my dining room (going on 5 years now on this project), straighten up this or any other room, set up my TV-cable-DVD properly – you name it, it takes too much time or effort or there are too many bits I don’t like about it. Do I know what I should do? Absolutely – at least in part. But I don’t do it. In the past when I have spun endlessly in ruts like this one, I have eventually revved up the energy or whatever to break away completely. I have hitched or flown or driven off to new, really different, places and that move in itself got the juices flowing for a bit. My friend Emily, the one friend I do call at least once a week, says that I am now reaping the whirlwind that I sowed by being utterly unable to commit to anything or anyone in my life. She is, I think, right. That doesn’t, however, seem to get me anywhere.

At the time, I thought I would have the Farm to live on forever, have my college friends forever, then I thought that I would surf forever (inept as I was), I would live by the ocean forever, then I believed I would do theater forever, I would be with Tumwell forever, and on and on. I never swore I would stop at any one of these places and stick it out through thick and thin, I just assumed I would never leave for something else, and even when I left each of these behind, I denied I was doing it – it was just a temporary respite, a quick foray into a new interest and that, unlike me, they –the friends, the places, the lovers - would remain the same, frozen in time, awaiting my return. I thought, I guess, that if I never closed a door behind me, that the door would remain open. But the portals of life are immune to the laws of inertia; the natural state of doors is closed and close they will if one does nothing to keep them open.

It is a grey day and I am having grey thoughts – and speaking of grey, the great blue heron looks grey to me; I don’t know where that ‘blue’ business comes from. And what do they eat all winter? The one out back looked like he was snapping up frogs or something, I am pretty sure he wasn’t having a salad. How many frogs can be found forging their way through winter's snowdrifts?  I'd look into this, but I just don't have the time.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Point of It

Yesterday, I took back a book, very much overdue, to the library and then killed a little time by looking over the books they had available at the annual book sale. I came across a book of roughly a zillion pages called An Introduction to Literature and leafed through a few pages. It will give you some idea of the size of this book if I tell you that it contained all of the plays Hamlet and Death of a Salesman and twelve other plays, as well as a two complete short novels, plus essays, poetry, commentary, discussions of each of these entries and a good deal more. And pictures! I spotted the lyrics to Dylan’s Times They Are a-Changin'. I also noticed and was a bit intrigued by a short story by David Leavitt, who is known for, among other things, having published at the age of 20 in the New Yorker that magazine's first openly gay short story. I read a line or two of the short story of his which was included in this book (It was not the one from the New Yorker) and was somewhat intrigued – it just looked like it might interest me. As is my custom, when faced with something I should read, and which will forever after clutter my already filled-to-bursting home mostly untouched ever again by the warmth of a human hand, I purchased this book for a mere fifty cents - only 15% of the fine I had just paid for my lack of vigilance in the matter of the due date of my returned book.

I didn't know if I would even read this enormous tome beyond perhaps dipping into the Leavitt short story that had caught my eye and maybe one or two others but already this morning, worn by the elections, I sat down and started off at the beginning of the book for the hell of it and on page FIVE it has already earned back its cost by gifting me with a quote that says EXACTLY what I have come to feel about blogging - MY blogging, not other people's. It took a while to realize what I was doing for myself with this plebian form of writing – though only sometimes and only at the best of times. I had actually realized some time ago that it seemed to be giving me that awful word "closure" and allowing me to let go of times and places that were long dead. In regard to saying farewell to individual people, I had previously discovered a description that was emotionally exact in describing my feeling in a quote from Death of a Salesman, where the wife says of her failed husband, "Attention must be paid!”, because I feel exactly as she did, that neither my life nor that of a person who is subject of my writing, can be allowed to pass unmarked - even though she and I both know they will. But they will not go unremarked by ME. I, at least, will say, "Thank you" as best I can, even though in haste and poorly, and on the spur of the moment - or at least the spur of the hour or two.

The quote that rocked me with its exact perception as to what I feel and what I want (when I think about it - and I nearly always have to see what I have said and work back from that to discover what I feel or want), was from, of all people, a Japanese courtier named Lady Murasaki and she wrote it a thousand years ago about literature:

"Again and again something in one's own life or in that around one will seem so important that one cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion. There must never come a time, the writer feels, when people do not know about this."

So many people feel something of this nature; in its most mundane and annoying form it is that late night conversation (or monologue) after way too many drinks, where you hear some asshole saying of some song or writer or NASCAR winner, "But you gotta understand what this is about!" to the unmoved or uninterested or contemptuous.
When I think about writing something, I almost always forget this. And when I know what I am going to write about, I get caught up in facts and outrage and opinion and attempts to DO something or get to some thing or to make some point. But when I have just written something without thinking, and on re-reading find that I still like it, I get that this is what I was doing.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fun in Surgery

A kind of funny thing happened yesterday while I was getting my cancer surgery. (I subscribe here to the literary convention of leading with an attention-grabber.) The doctor carving chunks out of my neck and shoulder was a first year resident and her assistant, who was also a sort of oversight doctor, was a third year resident. (I saw him glance at himself in the mirror at one point and brush back his forelock and I said, "I saw that!" which discombobulated him somewhat.  I live to serve.)  Anyway, after my doc was done chopping away a couple of pieces of me which were a lot bigger than I had anticipated they would be, the third year guy left and she was busying herself about the office, cleaning up bloody gauze and the like. She took some plastic bottles and put a piece of my neck into one, then she started looking all around, into this, under that. She then left the office saying she would be right back, and left me lying on this folding table assembly swathed in a rather shabby blue robe that featured an off-the-shoulder style – or at least it did the way I wore it. She left the door open, so I could hear her talking to someone in the distance. And she said words no patient likes to hear, at least not in the tone of voice in which she spoke them:

“You won’t believe what I just did!”

I confess that I awaited her return with rather more interest than I might otherwise have done.

She came back with the three-year guy and a nurse and the three of them proceeded to scour the office. It transpired that she had inadvertently discarded or lost a piece of my shoulder. They looked high and low. My actual tormenter was beside herself.

“Don’t worry,” soothed the young nurse. “Everybody does it sometimes. Why, I,” she confided, rolling up her sleeves and slipping into True Confessions mode, “lost something right in front of Dr. Petrov!” One pictured this Petrov as an old tyrant whose crusty exterior concealed a heart that was pretty darn crusty also, as seen on every TV drama since 1946.

“I better not get home and find it in my pocket,” I said.

The three of them turned the hazardous waste bin upside down and picked through its contents. Affecting my best Brooklyn-mobster accent, I said, “Do ya want a piece of me?”

Then they went through the ordinary wastebasket. The looked under the table on which I lay in semi-deshabille. They went through everything again. They started looking in places that really were not possible candidates for receptacles of my discarded flesh; you know the kind of desperation searching one does when something is nowhere to be found, like maybe you had gone into a fugue state and climbed up and put something atop the refrigerator or above a ceiling tile. I mentioned that this procedure reminded me forcibly of Nurse Jackie, which none of them had seen and of which most had not heard. I was enjoying myself immensely. Eventually, the assistants in my doc’s search gave up and departed with an air that suggested she had best suck it up and admit defeat with, perhaps, a soupçon of relief that it was not them who lost it – or lost me, as the case may be.

She kept up the search, and I was beginning to wonder if the rest of my life was to be spent lounging, semi-clad, on a narrow table while busy poking and prying went on all about me. Finally, in her third foray into the wastebasket, she discovered the missing bit deep in the finger of a discarded latex glove.

So that was how I spent yesterday, and a lovely day it was, too. Now I am walking around with these humongous bandages here and there about my corpus. Because of the stitches, I was advised not to lift anything heavy or to do any exercise that might raise my blood pressure.

I could not believe my ears. “I never thought I’d hear a doctor advise me not to exercise!” I exclaimed. ”Far out! Could I get that in writing?”

But the doc said if she wrote anything she would definitely include an expiration date for the admonition. Still, I am sitting on my butt doing nothing on doctor’s orders and that suits me down to the ground. Normally, of course, I would be doing exactly the same thing, but it is nice to have this unwonted aura of virtue surrounding me.

And it is only basal cell skin cancer, which is hardly cancer at all.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Plain Folks

Did you see where that candidate was mistakenly listed on an election tally sheet as "Rich Whitey”? Hope he wasn’t running in a heavily black or Hispanic district! Although I must say, in a way, he brought it on himself. There wouldn’t have been that much of an issue if he had billed himself as Richard Whitney, rather than Rich Whitney, even if the same error was made in spelling his last name. What’s with this “Jes plain folks” business of people running as Rich or Bill or Jimmy or Meg? People are always yapping about the “dignity” of certain government offices, yet they seem unwilling to elect anyone who shows any traces of dignity.

In the same vein, there is great antipathy, it seems, towards any display of intelligence in political candidates. I completely understand people not wishing to elect theoreticians to run things, but it seems deeper than that. There seems to be overt hostility toward anyone displaying above average intelligence. Do I want a candidate to understand what it is like to worry about bills and jobs and mortgages? Sure – but I’d kind of like him or her to have actually figured out how to handle these issues successfully. What is dismaying to me is that people who wouldn’t dream of voting for someone smarter than they are, seem to have no problem with voting for people who are putting a zillion of their own dollars into a campaign.

When people have a zillion dollars to finance a campaign, they have gotten it in only one of two ways: they either inherited it or they made it. If they inherited it, there is no way that they have experienced the same day to day problems as you or me. If they made it, there’s a damn good chance that they are smarter than you and me, even if they call themselves by a folksy moniker and say ‘he don’t’ and ‘I ain’t’. And they damn sure are not an “outsider”, either way. But I guess that if people can believe that Survivor represents reality, they can believe anything. Presumably these believers are on the lookout for their local ‘plain folks’ candidates in the produce aisle down there at Aldi’s discount grocery or when they are picking up a package of 4 T-shirts for $10 at Wal-Mart. If you believe that someone in possession of a zillion dollars is an average guy or gal, just like you and me, there is definitely a lot of stupid in the equation, but it ain’t the zillionaire who’s got it.

This antagonism toward intelligence is nothing new. I recall clearly that one of the handicaps that Adlai Stevenson failed to overcome in his campaigns against “Ike,” was the perception that he was an intellectual or “egghead”. (And why is an intellectual called an egghead? I have yet to perceive the slightest sign of intelligence in any egg I have encountered. Have you ever tried conversing with an egg? Dumb as a rock, take my word for it.) “Smart” and “elite” are not synonyms: neither are “educated” and “elite” the same thing. In fact, P. G. Wodehouse made a lucrative career satirizing how clueless the elite classes of England really are. There is no evidence that the elite classes of the USA are any brighter than those of the English. It is struggle that toughens and educates a man or woman. A smart person, rich or poor, learns from his failures and hurts and setbacks. A stupid person just repeats mistakes. The opposite of “smart” is “stupid”, not “nice” or “ordinary” or “jes plain folks,” although actually none of those three terms rules out being stupid also. It is odd that people dislike a candidate who shows his smarts, but at the same time no one seems to feel that “stupid” is high praise. You just can’t have it both ways.

As far as I can figure out, this large swath of the electorate is hoping for ‘dumb and lucky’. Maybe they should spend Election Day buying lottery tickets instead of voting. The rest of us might remain dumb, but chances are we’ll emerge a whole lot luckier.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

God Calling...

It is always heartening to hear that God has been in personal communication with one of his faithful. It is astonishing to me that what God has to say is so very much in tune with what the believer wants to do in the first place. God regularly advises various preachers to open large and remunerative ministries in high traffic areas, showing that God is a far better businessman than I am. The most recent testimony to God’s vigilance that I have encountered was provided by the wife of the man who was murdered while jet-skiing in the lake that the US shares on its border with Mexico. Whereas the wife had stopped to try and take care of her husband – or at least his corpse – she tells us that God was urging her (and, like good King James, I paraphrase here) to get the hell out of there and save her own ass. As someone who does not believe in a deity, I am struck by how remarkably the advice this lady received resembles the advice that my own more hell-oriented internal voices give to me. It is remarkable to me also that when someone was shooting at her, this lady actually required God’s advice as to what action to take.  I suspect, if God were otherwise occupied and a bus was bearing down on this lady, she'd not think of moving without someone's advice.  I have not heard any record of this lady speculating on why God didn't speak up an hour earlier with the same advice and leave her with a husband who was intact.  God could even have thereafter suggested to her that she get a divorce; then, either way, she'd probably end up with the house.

Of course, it is hard not to think of Shakespeare’s dictum that “Conscience doth make cowards of us all” – you were thinking that weren’t you? OK, this isn’t exactly what Shakespeare meant (It isn't at all what Shakespeare meant), but I doubt that this lady could spell Shakespeare – quite possibly she can’t spell ‘God’ – much less quote him. It is very easy when making a choice that gives one qualms to suddenly hear the voice of God telling one to take the road one preferred in the first place. So many of us listen to some inner voice, and it is to be hoped that few of us are listening to the same voice that was cited by the Son of Sam serial killer. And how, exactly, can we identify the source of a voice when we are under fire? I’m thinking the lady to whom I am referring did not stop and asked for two forms of identification. But that’s just me.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Just the Facts, Ma'am

When I heard that a New Zealand “presenter” had made fun of an Indian person’s name, an act that roused India to protest, my reaction was, “Is this guy (or woman) nuts? What a jerk!” As usual, knowing the whole story makes all the difference. The name in question is Dikshit. I ask you, who could possibly let a ripe target like that lie? Not me, that’s for sure.

It is an orange and yellow fall, this year. I haven’t seen a single maple that has turned red, they are all just the candy corn colors. I understand red leaves result when there is a sudden sharp frost early in the leaf-turning process. If fall creeps up slowly a degree or two lower each evening, the color is not nearly so vivid. And there is something a little depressing about an orange fall, like someone you love fading slowly rather than the quick shock of a sudden heart attack. Since I am not working, the days pass more quickly, and I really haven’t fully realized yet that spring is past, despite the Fourth of July and even Labor Day. Apparently my gardens feel the same – some bulb I planted and forgot has sent up leaves I don’t recognized, and finally has a cluster of buds which I think will never bloom at this late date. I have a couple of dahlia bulbs I planted this year and these too have not yet bloomed, and apparently never will, or at least they will not do so this year. And although I do have zinnias and cosmos higher than my head, and although these have brought forth some blooms, the majority of the buds are just forming.

I got to thinking of this business of sharp early frosts causing brighter autumns and it occurred to me that this is one more thing that I think I “know” without really having any independent awareness of it as a fact. Somebody told me that. The difference between this “fact” and many others that I assume I know is that I actually recall where I heard this one stated. The man my dear friend Marilyn married told me this in reference to liquidamber trees in Sacramento. I have never actually done any verification of it – and really why would I? But in the last few years I have realized more and more that the things I think I know – and take for granted that I know – are things I have just read or heard. I realized long ago that the real danger of the silly tabloids one finds at the checkout counters is that you read the false headlines about famous people and laugh, but a year later when a celebrated person’s name comes up you have a vague memory that they did one thing or another and don’t remember where you read or heard it.

Almost everything I know, is actually something I have read or heard. I’d say fully half of my knowledge is in this category – possibly more. I definitely know that hot water burns, because I have been burned by hot water more than once. But every single thing I have heard about, say, South America is something that I heard or read or saw in a film or on TV; I have never been there. Much of it is extrapolated from what I encountered in Mexico - a land that is definitely not South America, simply because the Mexican people look vaguely the same and speak the same language.  I know from experience that Arabs are far different than the common American perception of them. I don’t even bother saying so any longer, when I hear someone who has been nowhere tell me what Arabs are like because my experience is that the speaker will dismiss my eight plus years of actual experiences in Saudi as ‘liking Arabs’ – in the same way many people once dismissed positive statements about black folks as not being true, but merely the deluded effusions of a n------- - lover. Some folks still do – and equally, of course, there are folks of non-white races who will not accept a single positive statement about anyone white.

I love history and I read it constantly, not really to learn anything, but just because I like it. And the more I read of English history, which is my favorite topic and the one about which I read most, the more I realize that almost anything anyone says is mere speculation, or only partly true. It is impossible to really enter into the mindset of an earlier era. How much more this is true of a people that is not as similiar to me as the English are. This doesn’t just apply to history, however. How often have I heard detailed descriptions of life in the inner cities from people whose only experience of them is driving on a freeway that cuts through them?  It is clear that people who tend to read one set of bloggers and who prefer one cable news channel have a radically different set of ‘facts’ from those who get their information from another. It is easy for a person from the first group to believe that a person from the second group is being willfully obtuse. Some people merely want to have their own prejudices reinforced by anything they listen to (this is what we call “Faith”), but even someone wishing to hear all sides, and who listens to all the sources he can find is still reliant on other sets of eyes to know what really happened when he himself was not present. And as to knowing WHY something happened, that is not even within the realm of possibility to know. Most of us really don’t know why we like what we like in our own lives, or exactly why we do most of the things we do.

Dylan, who in my opinion, got so much right, nailed this whole issue long ago:

My guard stood hard when abstract threats too noble to neglect

Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’, I defined these words quite clear, no doubt, somehow,

But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.

Notice that even folks with experience and smarts such as those folks at Microsoft can’t figure things out. They think, for instance, that I wanted to space Dylan’s lines as if they were separate paragraphs. And they were wrong, wrong, wrong.

Don’t think for a moment, though, that knowing how tenuous, speculative and second-hand all my knowledge is will stop me from acting on (or writing about) facts of which I have no personal knowledge. If you think that, you just got another fact wrong.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Well, Guess What...

I have suddenly become aware of the phrase “Well, guess what…”  Has this always been around or is it something relatively recent? It is very specific in its use: the speaker relates some expectation from a third party or from the universe and then introduces a rebuttal with this phrase. The rebuttal is usually considered withering in its logic or truth and the verb thereof is almost always emphasized – sort of italicized. For instance, “They want me to pay a hundred bucks for a telephone! Well guess what, I don’t even like telephones!” “She said I was with her boyfriend at McDonald’s. Well guess what, I don’t even go to McDonald’s!” I am particularly hearing this phrase in sitcoms, and now that I have noticed it, I kind of enjoy it. See, people think I don’t pay attention. Well, guess what, I never stop paying attention. Sooner or later, I get there.

We had, this past Saturday, our 50th Class Reunion. It was quite a lot of fun and quite a bit more elegant than I had expected. Doing my bit, I gave a few after dinner remarks – by request. I also (he said, tooting his own horn) went above and beyond by volunteering to pick up and return a woman, a former Charlotte Harvest Queen, who lives down in the Southern Tier, that extremely rural line of counties that borders Pennsylvania. She lives about an hour south of me in a village that I had never previously visited. Of course everyone was all “That was so generous!”, but it wasn’t, really. As I have said before, I really love the people in my graduating class. And hello, people, she was a HARVEST QUEEN!

Harvest queens were an institution here in my part of NY from roughly 1947 through the early ‘70s. Each town hereabouts would hold a pageant wherein a number of girls aged 16 or 17 would compete, gowned in prom-style dresses. In Reedville, my town, they’d be led onto the stage from a side door of the gym/theater that used to grace our Town Hall by a town volunteer fireman who would be grinning in embarrassment and flushing a bright scarlet. The ladies were escorted from the side door on a path that threaded through the audience of friends and fam. Then up onto the built-in stage where they arrayed themselves in a semicircle of chairs set up for the occasion. The contestants usually numbered between 7 and 10, garnered by local ladies who furiously worked to convince enough girls to compete to make a good showing. Reedville is a very small town; its official population in the road guides of my youth was 384, although the actual count was probably quite a bit larger, since the guides only counted those within the rough outlines of the village of Reedville, whereas a majority of the town’s people lived in the houses and on the farms in the 80 square miles of the town outside the village limits.

The contest consisted of each contestant coming to a microphone and giving a brief résumé. Most of these speeches began, “I am Contestant number X and I am a junior at Reedville-Charlotte High School…” After these little speeches, the master of ceremonies would ask each lady a brief series of questions. Upon completion of this process, the judges would retire and select a Queen and an Alternate. I had always thought that the title of Queen granted a girl two privileges: the right to compete for County Harvest Queen and from there (if successful again) to represent the county at the State Fair; and secondly, the Queen and Alternate got to ride in the Memorial Day parade next May in an open car, blushing and bowing to the masses. I thought the Alternate, meanwhile, had no other function than to keep an eye on the Queen, hoping for signs of a wasting disease, so that she could succeed to the higher honor.

The girl (they will always be young in my eyes) who did most of the hard work arranging this reunion happened also to be the Reedville Alternate back in the day, and she told me that there was a great deal more to it than that. Anne, for such is her name, told me that there was quite a program of activities for the winners and that, other than competing for the next highest level, the Alternates were included in all activities as equals of the Queens. They met local celebs such as members of the Rochester Triple A baseball teams. There were a number of dinners and events, and the ladies were treated to various opportunities to learn and grow in social awareness.

In general, the prettiest girls won, although occasionally we all were shocked by a decision that was unexpected. Sometimes a pre-contest favorite would freeze up during her speech or the questioning by the emcee. Nearly all the contestants in Reedville were attendees at Reedville-Charlotte, but there were a few exceptions to this. The very southwest portion of Reedville fell into the Stratford school district and an occasional contestant might hail therefrom. In addition, a few girls in town attended a Catholic school in the city, and although I don’t recall any of them competing in my time, they were certainly possible candidates. Of course one year when a girl from Stratford High School won, there was a lot of grumbling from most of us, not least because her father happened to be the town supervisor (our local version of mayor) and we all felt the fix was in. The crowd normally divided between guys rooting for the prettiest and girls wanting to see a popular girl taken down a peg or two.

I don’t want to get all political here, but it is easy to notice that merely being pretty gave a girl entrée to a series of events where she could develop connections, poise and some social awareness. This was never questioned in the 1950s. But the thread of looks counting that still shines through so many areas of achievement was clearly in play. I ask those who watch American Idol, when was the last time a contestant made the top levels who was not at least above average in attractiveness, particularly the females? There has been a heavy gal or two on Idol, but, really, when you see a plain girl prepare to sing in the early phases, you can take it as a given that she will be both dreadful and slightly psychotic. Even the majority of successful female political figures at the highest level of government seem above average in appearance. Is this because people generally vote more readily for the attractive, or is it because prior experiences have given attractive ladies an edge in savoir faire, connections and experience? Life, as we all should know by now, is not fair.

I loved attending the Harvest Queen pageants. There was so likely to be great food for humor. I recall one poor farm girl who, at the required age, still retained the lissome figure of a pre-adolescent boy. This was coupled in the unfortunate girl with a face that was, to be kind, very plain. I remember, as she swept out on the arm of her red-faced fireman, my brother’s best friend muttering, “Toothpick!” which sadly became her sobriquet among us forever after (although not to her face). Naturally we all were giggling through the remainder of the proceedings. My favorite misadventure at the proceedings was the time that a girl known as “Manface Millie” competed. Unbeknownst to me and my friend Howie, the girl’s best friend and the best friend’s mother who doted on Millie were right in front of us. Howie was the nicest guy in the world, a kid who had dropped out of a junior seminary, and who never wanted to offend anyone, but he spontaneously muttered to me, “She doesn’t have a chance!”. Thereupon the friend and her mother, as one, whirled angrily around to face us, the mother saying, “I think she looks very nice!” Howie, the poor fish, blushed fire red and attempting to palliate his offense, promptly added his second foot to his mouth by stammering, “I meant in comparison with the OTHER girls!”

Toward the end of the Harvest Queen era, the county contests began to be televised.  I remember the first time this broadcast occurred - I happened to be back in the area for a visit.  In order to buff up the proceedings into a show that would dazzle the viewers, some entertainment was added.  A former Reedville Harvest Queen was asked to sing. (She was a semi-relative, having a great-aunt by blood who was an aunt of mine by marriage.  I am related, one way or another, to nearly everyone whose family has lived in Reedvile for more than 20 years.)  Well, this young lady launched herself into a version of Fly Me to the Moon which distinguished itself from every other version I have ever heard by being off-key in every note from start to finish.  One of the perils of live broadcasting on local TV!

On a different note, my sister Lucy’s only daughter is to be married in November, in California. The invitation arrived yesterday with an insert informing me that a bloc of rooms has been reserved in a local hotel. Ah, the joys of being filthy rich, which Lucy and her husband are! I suppose these rooms are well-priced, but gee! Doesn’t anyone remember what it is to be semi-broke? Luke and his girl Carol plan to go to and from the wedding by rail and I may go out with them. I really cannot afford this trip and moreover, I HATE weddings which seem to me to be one dreary set-piece after another designed to remove any little pleasure that might derive from seeing a few folks I like in an uncomfortable setting. But I do really like Lucy’s daughter who is a very bright and lovely girl with a great sense of humor. And one does attend these events, I suppose. I may take the opportunity to extend my time in California for a few weeks in order to spend time with my best friend Emily (and possibly other old friends). I have cadged an invitation from Emily, and I have only to arrange the details. An awkward feature of the whole thing is that the wedding is just before Thanksgiving, and if I am to join Luke and Carol on the train going out, then in order to spend a decent amount of time with Emily, I will have to remain with her over Thanksgiving, a holiday which I spent with her last year. Emily has three kids and divers other relatives in her vicinity for whom she provides dinner and I’d really rather not appear to them in the light of the gift that keeps on taking. But I really love Emily and I guess I can withstand a little discomfort for the pleasure of her company. She is the only person in my life with whom I can be entirely open, and for whom no topic is verboten. She is a very bright lady – probably much smarter than me, if such a thing is possible. She is a voracious reader, generally reading books several cuts in sophistication above those which I read, and her knowledge of movies is encyclopedic.

Also, Papa, my former Indian roommate in Saudi, will arrive here next weekend. I look forward to this with mixed emotions. For one thing, I am to accompany him to Las Vegas for a week during which he will be attending an advanced computer class and I will have to try to think of something to do in the meantime. I dislike Las Vegas intensely (the only worse fate would be to be stuck in Orlando). I wonder if there is some non-gambling sort of hip neighborhood such as can be found in other nicer cities, a local Greenwich Village. I do not like the glitz or the gambling or the vulgarity of any part with which I am familiar in that benighted city. Worse, Papa is an indefatigable tourist and will want to do everything. I am going because it is free (he has two tickets on the flight and his wife couldn’t come) and because I feel it is not healthy for me to just sit home all the time, even though that is what I want to do on any given day. I like Papa, but the mad desire to see everything and to shop tirelessly, all the time talking of computer-related topics, which are SO over for me is pretty daunting. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!

And that is the news from Reedville on this sunny Fall day