Thursday, December 15, 2011
The Christmas Lunch
Over the first round of martinis we talked about books, as usual, and the book festival coming in February, and Pat Conroy, and the Savannah Film Festival. Someone had suggested that, in the spirit of the season, we each tell a story about ourselves not previously told. So around the table we went. Four of us told goofy stories. (Mine was the time I apparently drank too much wine and ordered whatever it was that happened to be on QVC at that moment. When the box arrived, inside was a very long, skinny brush with a tapered pointy end. The shaft was bendable. I had no idea what it was or its purpose. One of my children suggested it was a tool to be used during a proctology exam. Another thought it could be used to clean ear wax from an elephant. Neither idea seemed plausible, but we fell on the floor laughing and gained a good memory out of it anyway.)
Finally, it was the retired judge's turn. I anticipated a story told from the bench, so certain was I that he has a wealth of them stored away. Instead, he said, "When I was a very young lawyer I had the opportunity to travel to New York City on a case. I had always wanted to see a play on Broadway and as luck would have it I was able to get a ticket - one single ticket - to the hottest show in town...an impossible ticket to an always sold out play. Well, the big day came...I got all dressed up and stepped outside into a nasty driving rain storm. Cab after cab passed me by already filled. I must have looked a sorry sight. But then a taxi stopped and the passenger door opened and inside sat the prettiest girl I had ever laid eyes on. With a voice like cut crystal she asked me where I was going and if I wanted to share her taxi. It wouldn't have mattered to me if she had been going to the moon, I would have gotten in that cab no matter what. It took twenty minutes to get to the theater; it took five minutes to fall in love with her."
Being the sentimental type, I teared up and my throat felt as though I had swallowed a hot mitten. I reached for my glass. In truth I was a little disappointed we didn't hear some very clever and very funny story about how he eviscerated some pompous member of the (legal) bar. I love those kinds of stories. But the semi-retired lawyer jumped in and said, "Judge, you've told that story of how you met your wife before. Now see here, the deal was to tell us something you haven't told before."
Beneath those wildly untamed eyebrows...beyond those wise and cunning eyes...a knowing light of anticipation and drama winked and then blinked and then shot steady. "Ahh...but that was just the Prologue," he said in his best Charles Laughton voice.
Well, my friends, we all recognized that we were really in for something. Something delicious. Something as intoxicating, perhaps, as the lemon drop martinis. The Lessor signaled to the waiter by silently making a twirling sign with his index finger indicating another round was now in order as we settled in, leaning forward so as not to miss one..single..word.
"Chapter One. It was still pouring rain when we got to the theater. She had changed her plans just like that," he snapped his fingers, "and we walked up to the ticket booth. Sold Out. Big letters! No chance for the both of us to see the play, and I no longer cared to see it without her. All I wanted was to get her out of the rain, to sit in some quiet spot, and get to know everything about her. I reached into my overcoat and pulled out the ticket. A tall, sullen kid - 18 or 19 - was walking toward us. He must have been walking a long time, or through puddles, because his pant legs were wet half way to his knees. I shoved the ticket at him and said, 'Please use this. I can't and I don't want to waste it.' With that, my girl and I jumped into another cab and I never gave the kid another thought."
"Oh, what a sweet story," I was about to say, when he raised his hands to silence any interruption.
"Chapter Two. That girl and I got married and we were happily married for over 50 years. But about 15 or 20 years after I gave the ticket away, and we were living here, an incredible thing happened. A successful actor in a very successful play was appearing on stage in Atlanta. The local news did a piece on him and asked him how he got into his profession. I was sitting with my wife listening to the interview. The actor said that as a kid, he had no direction at all. Had dropped out of school, was hanging out with other kids who had no direction. One day when he was about 18 he was walking to meet some friends. As he passed a theater on Broadway, a perfect stranger stopped him in the street and gave him a ticket to the play. 'I had never even been in a library,' he told the interviewer. 'I was broke, and soaking wet, and hungry. At first I figured I would try to hawk the ticket. I didn't know anything about the theater, but I knew I wasn't dressed right to go in. But then I looked down at the ticket sitting in the palm of my hand. Then I looked up at the theater. And I made my choice. Seeing that play was the turning point of my life. I was baptized.' The fellow went on to say that after that night, he knew his life was going to be dedicated to the theater. He worked as a janitor at first, then a stage hand, saved enough money for acting lessons. Finally he got a break here and a break there and...well...that was that. The play, the theater, the year, the rain, his description of us left no room for doubt."
The semi-retired lawyer and the Lessor stared silently at their drinks...the butterfly dabbed the inside corner of an eye with a napkin...I gazed out the window just as a container ship slipped silently out to sea. Then he spoke again.
"Epilogue: As it turns out, when I stopped the young man on the street that cold, wet evening he was on his way to meet his friends. They made plans to rob a liquor store two blocks from the theater. He, of course, got side-tracked and never showed up. That didn't stop the other two, though. One of his friends was shot and killed that night. You see, the store owner had a gun too. The other went to prison. We all chose our destiny that evening. I feel there is a silent hand trying to guide us in the right direction, but in the end we all must choose our own way."
There really isn't much more to say than that. Except that it reminded me of something Clarence the angel without wings told George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life. Each person's life touches other lives in ways we never know or fully understand. It seemed a perfect message for a perfect Christmas lunch in a world where perfection is hard to find. Merry Christmas to one and all.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
I Am Grad, And I Approve This Message
A case was filed earlier this year. A young lady showed up at a late night holiday party as the guest of a guest of the homeowner. She had had a "few" glasses of wine prior to arriving; when she got to the party she wanted to use the restroom. Two identical doors were located adjacent to each other in the hallway. She opened one of them, took a step, and found herself at the bottom of the basement stairs following a painful journey. It is a classic "step in the dark" case; and, if the law is properly applied, it will be found to have no merit.
There are protesters in New York - and now other cities - gathering headlines. Not many, but a few of my very intelligent (and loved) friends have expressed support for these folks. Their support is, I am certain, very heart-felt, but I (gently) submit I strongly disagree.
The freedom to assemble is as old as the Bill of Rights. It does not matter whether the assembly is the result of joy (the Cubs winning the World Series - I wish), or sorrow (the spontaneous gathering outside The Dakota following John Lennon's death) or anger (students protesting the war in Viet Nam back in the day). The power of a state to abridge freedom of speech and of assembly is the exception rather than the rule... penalizing...utterances of a defined character must find its justification in a reasonable apprehension of danger to organized government. U.S.C.A.Const. Amend. 14. (Emphasis added)
In 1937, Chief Justice Hughes wrote, "These rights may be abused by using speech or press or assembly in order to incite to violence and crime. The people through their Legislatures may protect themselves against that abuse. But the legislative intervention can find constitutional justification only by dealing with the abuse. The rights themselves must not be curtailed. The greater the importance of safeguarding the community from incitements to the overthrow of our institutions by force and violence, the more imperative is the need to preserve inviolate the constitutional rights of free speech, free press and free assembly in order to maintain the opportunity for free political discussion, to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes, if desired, may be obtained by peaceful means. Therein lies the security of the Republic, the very foundation of constitutional government." Don't you just love him? So, in principle, I whole-heartedly support the right of the Occupy Wall Street crowd to gather and protest. But I do not support them and I can explain why.
What is my beef with the protesters? First, their gripes are totally disjointed. Trying to figure out the basis of their displeasure is like grasping smoke. Are they protesting for something, or relief from something? While one young woman preached for the overthrow of capitalism, a young man carried a sign calling for the rich to be "taxed until they are poor." A few other college-type kids admitted to a reporter the much loftier goal of "looking to score some chicks." That goal I can understand. By the way, the petite well-dressed blond calling for the overthrow of capitalism was apparently unaware of the lively sales in heroin and cocaine taking place under her very nose. I will bet my salary the drug dealer had a profit motive. She might want to proselytize to him first on the evils of capitalism.
One unfortunate (and not very smart) soul made the mistake of telling the news that he thought the Occupy Wall Street crowd would afford him a good place to hide from the police; he was wanted for burglary...the old "needle in the haystack" theory of survival. Unfortunately for him, he was arrested anyway - not for the outstanding warrants, but for attempting to grope a girl.
Aside from the multitude of complaints - many of which might be justified if they were expressed with less heat and more light - I find some of the behavior offensive, destructive, and bordering on violent. In particular, I submit to you the protester carrying the "head" of a bank CEO - dripping with fake blood- on a pike, or the one with the sign suggesting gay teens kill their parents rather than contemplate suicide. Let's not forget the classy dude caught on film relieving (and exposing) himself on the sidewalk.
Shall I mention the irony of protesters carrying signs beseeching us to save the earth (which is a cause I do get behind) not noticing the trash accumulating around their ankles? It has been reported the extra cost to the City of New York for clean up and security alone is $1.9 million - so far. That would feed a lot of kids, or supply them with books and crayons and rulers. Shall I mention what I understand to be the miasma of smells? The dirty bodies, urine, and...well, you get the picture. Thankfully, I'm not there to confirm, but it makes me think...the good old days of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. They're back.
Unfortunately, as time groans on, groups with less than altruistic ideologies are filtering into the mix. But in the beginning the crowds were overwhelmingly young. The naivete of youth is endearing, really, and a part of me hates that they might someday lose that lusty belief in a cause. One of the problems, as I see it, is that very few of them have a well-defined idea of the cause they are attempting to champion. Hating The Rich doesn't get one very far in the real world. It sure as heck doesn't "get you rich" yourself. Not unless you take what isn't yours. We all know what that is called. Perhaps, as a group, they will become more cohesive, more focused on an issue. Perhaps they will become more mature in their approach, put down their shock-value signs and tackle whatever they see as "the problem" in a reasoned way. Perhaps they will start in their own towns by running for local office, on a platform they believe in, changing hearts and minds with reason as well as passion.
I wonder whether my friends who give blanket support to the crowd currently occupying Wall Street have given it enough thought. Perhaps they spoke too quickly. I have to believe so, because they are intelligent people who would not want what is happening on Wall Street to be happening on their street. Of course, they might disagree with me and my arguments. Even so, that demonstrates open discourse is alive and well.
For myself, I can say this. My daily toil requires that I sift through facts and weigh circumstances before coming to a reasoned conclusion. I try to do just that, not always successfully, I'll admit. But I know that if I jump in feet first...if I step into the dark and base my opinion on a theory - or my gut - without turning on a light, I will end up at the bottom of the basement stairs sitting in the dark with bruises on my behind.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
The Creep Factor
I remember opening the box that contained The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle, The Book Thief, and Sea of Poppies. I began with the much-hyped Sawtelle. I forced myself to finish it, suffering the seemingly endless journey in excruciating pain, praying for the end...which finally and mercifully came about a week later. I declared it to be the worst book I had ever read, impossibly overwritten, badly in need of editing, and boring. Most of us can overlook some of those defects, but there is no forgiveness in my heart for boring. Many people loved the book, comparing it to Macbeth. The comparison makes me shudder. I have read Macbeth...Macbeth was a friend of mine...and Sawtelle is no Macbeth.
My Sawtelle experience occurred a few years ago, but it was brought to mind recently when I picked up The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. They were on sale at Barnes & Noble for $4.98 each - which, if you look at it from one angle (my favorite angle) - represents a savings of at least $20. Of course, viewed from a different angle (from which I can never see clearly) one could say I am $10 out-of-pocket (with tax) for two books that could have been rented from the library.
I picked up the Tropper book right away. It sounded like a winner to me. The Siebold was a different story. I picked it up. I put it down. I walked away. I walked back to the table upon which it was displayed. Picked it up again. Fanned the pages. Put it back down. Wandered around the store. You know the drill. I did not like the theme. I have always avoided books involving the murder or abuse of children. It was against my better judgment that I finally carried it to the check out counter. Bones had received very good reviews and it was on sale, but from the beginning I felt I made a mistake.
The book is well written and is not in the least boring. In fact, I made it half-way through in less than a day. Nevertheless, I put it down and started This Is Where I Leave You, the theme of which is a Jewish family with "issues" whose members are forced to endure each other as they sit Shiva (seven day mourning) for their dead husband/father. It is very clever and funny and I'm enjoying it very much.
How do I describe my reaction to Bones? It is not a book one particularly "enjoys." Having said that, I can't say I "enjoyed" The Book Thief either. Nevertheless, I would recommend that book without any reservation to anyone who asks me for reading suggestions. From what I've read of the Sebold book, thus far anyway, except for the disturbing first chapter most of the story (which is told in a child's voice) is not as difficult as I feared. I figured that if I got through the first chapter it would be smooth sailing. Perhaps therein lies the heart of the problem. The innocent voice that speaks the story is the same voice luring the reader to a dark place where a malevolent character stalks around its edges. In short, there is an unrelenting essence of creepiness mixed with childhood innocence that I, as the reader, am finding very unsavory and I am unsure whether my reading time might be better spent elsewhere. From the first few pages, I fully realized what I was getting into, i.e. that George Harvey would be lurking behind the curtains for the duration. Perhaps if I were made of stronger stuff...but returning to that neighborhood might be a little too unsettling to make it worthwhile.
Sunday, September 4, 2011
There are times, for reasons I cannot explain, when melancholy descends. I’m not sure melancholy really nails the state of mind I am trying to describe. I’ve searched for the correct word...the definitive word for that feeling. Stress isn’t correct, nor is depression, nor worry. Should I be required to create a word for it, what would it be? Overwhelmsion? That word might almost work. Even if it remains unnamed, when the mood strikes, I know that if I go to the sea my fuzzy head will clear, my spirit will be lifted, and I will return home a little more like myself than when I set out.
It was overcast and humid this morning, but I held out hope the rain would wait. Shorty, almost 91 years old, and I set out for the beach to look for shells. I put on my yellow sunhat that looks like Pooh’s rain cap and handed Shorty her straw hat. She didn’t take note that it was her very own garden hat, nor did she question why it was hanging in my hall closet, nor why her suitcases were in the back seat of my car. I hope she will not ask but I plan. After she has gone upstairs to bed this evening, I will sneak back outside and carry them in. I will unpack them quietly and launder the clothes she will keep and then those we will donate and put them into the appropriate stacks. This evening, as she has done for the last few days, she will ask me if her house is ready and when she can "go home." Once again I will not tell her the truth. "In a few weeks," I will say, but I will not be completely honest. I will not tell her she is to live with me now. I will not tell her yet. Not today. Soon. But not today.
Eventually, however, the news must be broken and the storm will come. When that happens, after it happens, I will find some time to take myself down to the sea and sit on my favorite bench swing and look out toward the horizon. I can breathe there...breathe in that briny oxygen. I realize it is only an illusion, but I cling to the faulty reasoning that nothing really bad can happen within sight and sound of the waves. The birds soar and dive and soar again...with a silvery fish plucked out of the surf as easily as I would pluck a flower. I cannot pretend to know the names of all the sea birds I watch. I recognize the pelican, of course, and the gulls. But is that little bird who runs so quickly on such short legs a sandpiper? Is that larger, longer-billed bird pecking in the wet sand a tern? Every time I go down to the sea, I vow to buy a bird book "soon."
Today, we walked a good portion of the beach. It was overcast and, although humid, the wind blowing off the ocean was cool. We didn’t find any shells of note, but as Shorty correctly pointed out, "We need to come when the tide is just going out." In the days when I had a boat we would run out to Little Tybee, not accessible by land, and find lovely shells. The children were young back then and I would tell them not to take shells that were being rented by hermit crabs. Those shells were their homes, I explained. Some of the shells collected in those long-ago days are scattered here and there on bookshelves and tables in my home. They adorn a picture frame. A bag of them is tucked into a drawer awaiting some long forgotten project. One small scallop shell is attached to the end of a ribbon bookmark. Every now and then I’ll pick up a conch shell and listen to the roar of the waves and I imagine I can hear my own words whispered back to me, "Don’t take that one. That one is someone’s home."
The summer people are almost gone. In another month the beach umbrellas will have been folded and carried away until next season. Those of us who remain, who do not come in search of a golden tan but who long for oyster season and squally seas and stinging salt spray, will be there listening for wisdom in the rush of the waves .
Friday, August 5, 2011
...And As It Writes, Moves On
And so the litany began: "Music," decried one. "Civics," another. "Spelling," said a third. "Penmanship," I offered. Three sets of steely, wise old eyes turned toward me, and a quiet descended as my lunch companions pondered penmanship. "I haven't even heard the word, penmanship, in decades," one murmured. "We used to call it cursive writing," mused another. I had recently downloaded "Not That It Matters," by A.A. Milne, a collection of essays; and, as luck would have it, had just finished reading, "The Pleasure of Writing." This lovely serendipity filled me with a certain smug self-assurance that I could contribute something semi-intelligent to the conversation (for I was in the company of some very heavy-duty thinkers.)
"Milne," said I, "wrote about his joy in going straight from breakfast to his blotting-paper and a fresh piece of foolscap and brand new pen nib." They listened, perhaps only politely, but perhaps interested in what A.A. Milne had to say about the act of putting pen to paper. "He said, 'When poets and idiots talk of the pleasure of writing, they mean the pleasure of giving a piece of their minds to the public; with an old nib a tedious business'." The attention of my luncheon companions seemingly secured, I continued. "He wrote that they do not mean, as he did, the pleasure of the artist in seeing beautifully shaped "k's" and sinuous "s's" grow beneath his pen nib...or how a new sheet of paper filled itself magically with a stream of blue-black words." Silence for a few moments. I was depressing everyone, I feared. "Cursive writing is lost, I'm afraid," said the judge, sadly shaking his head and raising his martini glass. I think I saw a glint of a tear.
We sat quietly contemplating how wrong things had gone and how fast they had gotten there. I wished I had never mentioned penmanship, never started the conversation going in the direction of the lost art of letter writing, of the laziness of saying OMG, or IMHO, or LOL instead of using a correct sentence. The gist of the conversation rocked along those lines, and I began to feel like an old stick in the mud. Someone who doesn't know who - well, here I was going to insert the name of some rock group, proving I was totally "cool." But I can't think of one, so I guess I prove my own point. Trying to turn the mood around, I pulled out my Kindle and pointed out how incredible it was to be able to download an entire library into one slim device. How lovely is technology! We didn't have technology back in the penmanship days. "Why can't we have both?" someone replied. We sat in silence for a little while longer. Another round of drinks came, and then lunch.
We were eating at an inn that is centuries old, in the part of the building that used to be the vast wine cellar, with its walls and arched doorways of red brick. The tables are set with heavy silver and linen table cloths and napkins. There was a time when, to get a table for lunch, one had to arrive well before noon. But on this day, my three companions and I dined alone. We worried that perhaps this lovely old inn might one day simply fade away. Perhaps, like penmanship, it must make way for something else.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Gone With The Wind turned 75 this summer, and many Georgians are making a pretty big deal about it. It was here, after all, where the novel was born and where almost all of its action takes place. My personal celebration involves re-reading it on my Kindle. Although Savannahians consider Flannery O'Connor and Conrad Aiken home-grown literary heroes, we have a soft spot for Mitchell and her (many would argue) masterpiece as well. Certainly, Savannah is given more than just a passing nod in the book, although it doesn't receive much attention in the movie, and I find myself re-reading the descriptions Mitchell gives of my adopted city. She describes very deftly the soft and luxuriant accents of its inhabitants (not the twang one hears in the southern states to the north of us, nor the drawl of the southern states to the west).
As its backdrop, Gone With The Wind juxtaposes the elaborately rich plantation system made possible by slavery, and the bloodiest war in American history which ended it. Nevertheless, this is Scarlett O'Hara's book from first page to last. I can think of no other heroine with enough muscle to hold her own and demand top billing over such dramatic surroundings. (The anniversary of GWTW has also re-opened the debate over the obvious racism exhibited by Mitchell's novel, some of which is painful to read. Nevertheless, slavery is a dark part of our history that doesn't go away simply by ignoring it existed.)
One of my first mentors was a venerable old attorney who practiced in the low country of South Carolina. Imagine Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, and you've got a very good picture of my friend. He looked like him, he spoke like him, and he had all the noble attributes of Finch himself. He lived in the same antebellum mansion his family had occupied for over 200 years. I would have given just about anything to have spent a weekend exploring the attic. Around the corner from his house stands another antebellum mansion, built in the same era, by a several-times-over-great-uncle, with the initials B.B.S. Before the Civil War, the family acquired an island off the South Carolina coast ( long since made into a golf resort) on which one of their plantations was built. There they grew cotton and indigo and experimented with citrus trees. Today, one can still see the ruins of the "big house," the smoke house built of tabby, a few hints here and there of other out buildings...and the family cemetery - lovingly preserved. Decades ago, my friend took me to the island and pointed out the gravestone of his several-times-over uncle. The ancestor's portrait hangs in the clubhouse dining room, and he took me to see that as well. I looked into the face of one of the handsomest young men I have ever seen, peering down from a gilt frame (my friend later gave me a copy of that portrait) and fell in love - with B.B.S., surely. But I also fell in love with the low country and coastal Georgia. After the Civil War, the island property was lost for failure to pay the taxes - something Scarlett would never have suffered without a fight - since Confederate money wasn't good for much...other than using it to light one's pipe. A few years after it was lost, word came to B.B.S. that the island was on fire and the house was destroyed. "Thank God," he is alleged to have replied. Better it be "gone with the wind" than in the hands of the Yankees. My friend said that according to family legend, the mistress of the plantation had her finest china buried on the property when word arrived that the war had been lost, planning one day to return and retrieve it. If the story is true, it remains buried somewhere along the dirt road that leads to the ruins.
Nothing good can be said of a system that relied upon slavery for its survival. And yet, there is something undeniably romantic about it as well. Margaret Mitchell captured all the romance of the Old South without ever addressing the moral and social disgrace that accompanied it. It was startling to me that the Civil War, just ancient history to those of us raised in the North, was constantly debated and discussed in the South - even to this day - and kept alive with family stories and wounds which are kept open. This reverence isn't very hard to understand when one remembers that most of the fighting and dying happened here, on southern soil, and that brick and mortar and stone reminders still stand as tangible reflections of a lost cause.
I can't remember if, during that winter long ago, I noticed the stark contrast between Scarlett O'Hara and Anna Karenina, a tragic heroine totally devoid of gumption. I can't help but believe that if Scarlett was to stand in front of a moving train, it would be her intention to overthrow the Engineer and commandeer the locomotive - not fall under it in despair. Doubtless, she would have declared Anna silly and mealy-mouthed - but she may also have grabbed her by the shoulders and given her a good shake - demanding she snap out of it...advising Anna that she should wait and think about it tomorrow. There's always hope if you just wait until tomorrow.
Monday, June 27, 2011
I've promised myself to spend some time at the beach this summer. I am debating whether it should be a requirement for anyone who has an e-reader and lives near the shore. In fact, after some sober thought, not spending time there with my Kindle in hand feels somehow...wrong. In my mind's eye I see a chaise lounge, and a floppy hat, and roaring waves. In my head I hear that cute Kindle jingle and I have the urge to follow it as I would the siren's sound. Unfortunately, there are things that should be against the law at the beach. It should, for instance, be a criminal act to manufacture string bikini's in anything larger than size "small". In my beachdom, Speedos would likewise be banned. But I digress.
Monday, May 16, 2011
Do You Kindle?
Because I love the physical book so much, I wasn't convinced an e-reader would ever be a good fit for me. But I recently received a Kindle from my eldest child as a gift. The first book I downloaded was Bram Stoker's Dracula. It was free and, as I had never read it, I figured it was as good a place as any to take the Kindle out for a test drive. I'm not an electronic gadget type of person, but it was easy to set up and easy to use...even for me. There are a lot of features I haven't used yet, but I expect learning will be fun.
Because the font size can be changed, a simple adjustment enabled me to read without as much eye strain, and even without reading glasses. I don't know why, but I think I was able to read faster. Perhaps it only seemed faster because I was able to read for a more sustained period of time. Once accustomed to the feel of the Kindle in my hands, and getting lost in the story, I forgot I wasn't reading a glue and paper book. The sensation of being transported was every bit the same.
On the second day, I sat outside on the patio, and found it very easy to read in bright sunlight. Like a paper book, however, care must be taken. Outside the birds were chirping, the sun was shining, there was a breeze. Suddenly the dog jumped the fence and ran down the street. I put the Kindle on the deck chair and ran after him. I forgot about it; it rained. Early the next morning, I let the dog back out on the patio and to my horror I saw my Kindle still on the chair, covered with drops of rain from the night before. I was lucky. I figure that since its designers knew the device would be read outside, at places like the beach, they tried to make it somewhat impervious to weather. I am grateful to them for that, but it was a wake-up call. Instead of losing one book to the elements, it could have been a very expensive mistake. (Especially since I would never have admitted the blunder to my son; he'd have been so disappointed. I would have been forced to buy another Kindle to take its place rather than "come clean" and my secret would have been carried on my guilty conscience to my grave.)
I have since downloaded many more free titles by the likes of G.K. Chesterton, Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, and E.L. Voynich. Within seconds, I can increase my classics library ten-fold without spending a dime. And since the Kindle is so light and easy to carry, I always have it with me and always have something really good to read, just in case...like a literary diabetic who has to keep blood sugar levels stable. But, as much as I have found a new thing to love, I have also come to the firm belief that the physical book will remain alive and well.
Electronic readers have their own limitations. For instance, I miss the dust jackets. Let's be honest. I will be making a trip to Barnes & Noble to purchase Medium Raw in hardback, not the least reason being the delicious picture of Anthony Bourdain on the cover, which I will invariably clutch to my bosom repeatedly. There are many joys in reading. Drooling over a "hot" author is one of them. There is also a satisfaction that comes with shelves groaning under the weight of books. It is the same satisfaction one has in opening the door to a well-stocked pantry: jeweled jars of jams, and pickles, and home-canned tomatoes, and covered bins of pastas and bottles of sauces...lovely vistas of largesse...the comfort that comes with the knowledge that there will be sustenance.
I just purchased my first non-free Kindle book: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. At $9.99 it was hardly a splurge, although it felt like one. It's easy to get used to "free."
I could be wrong, but I do not see the end of the physical book on the horizon. Nevertheless, the Kindle's Welcome Page says, "We hope you'll quickly forget you're reading on an advanced wireless device and instead be transported into that mental realm readers love, where the outside world dissolves, leaving only the auhtor's stories, words, and ideas." That much, it does.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Creating A Monster And Other Pursuits
Ladies and gents, please ignore that little blog-beast behind the curtain. Truth be told, TCR, as much as I love her, is a voracious attention fiend, always tugging at my elbow and demanding to be heard. Discipline isn't her strong suit and neither is sitting quietly in meditation (something she needs to learn and which might do her some little bit of good). With her it's always talk, talk, talk - and I quite frankly get weary just thinking about what she might spout off about next.
I am always promising myself some time off...off to explore different horizons and drink from a different cup. But I haven't had a chance to do any of those things. TCR won't appreciate it (since the only thing she need worry about is unloading what is on her semi-clever mind), but I do have a job that has kept me very busy of late - a fact that my banker, bartender and bookie appreciate. Actually, I don't have a bartender or a bookie but I think it makes me sound more intriguing to suggest I do, don't you?
However, lest you think I am just one note, I've been up to something else. I don't want to say anything more, since I believe in jinxes, but it involves stringing words together. I've been a little busy with that. Oh, but there's more.
Did you know that there was such a thing as Home Farming Day? Neither did I. As background, sadly I had to have three large trees removed from my property: two lovely magnolias and one eucalyptus. Along with the trees went a very large holly bush that stood about 8 feet tall. They were crowding the house and their lovely branches were rubbing against my brand new roof. The eucalyptus tree was dripping its fragrant sap all over it. They had to go. Nevertheless, when the arborist came with his crew, I had to leave. I just couldn't bear watching them kill my trees. As I drove away, my throat felt as though it was stuffed with a hot mitten. But when I returned to the scene, a chink of light filtered into my dark mood and I started dreaming dreams. There was suddenly sunlight for a vegetable garden! One small drawback. The sunny area was in the front of the house, not in the back, and we have restrictions in the neighborhood that involve curb appeal. I threw caution to the wind and decided that I'd plant my farm smack dab in the front of the house and let the complaints fall where they may.
A trip to the hardware store (which, by the way, had just expanded it's garden center) was in order. And now, instead of boxwood shrubs along the front walkway, like everyone else, I have broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, poblano peppers, cucumbers, cayenne peppers, basil, Thai basil, and bell peppers. I checked my darlings this morning and found two very tiny baby tomatoes and one small, still green cayenne pepper. The zucchini plants have blossoms as do the eggplant and the poblanos. The broccoli is growing tall but as yet no sign of buds. I am a little concerned about the cukes, however. They're looking a little puny. There are also no signs of neighborhood unrest over Farmer Grad's little experiment. If it stays that way...and I have a bumper crop...I am not adverse to sharing.
So, you see, with work and farming and "something else" I haven't paid very much attention to TCR, and it is simply driving..her...mad. I hate to even brush by in thought the possibility of...should I speak it...retaliation. No, no...how ridiculous. Even so...do you think I should unplug my computer before turning out the light at night? Sleep with one eye open? Hmmm. Oh, tut tut. Silly, silly Grad. TCR is my creation, after all. Merely my alter ego. I mean, it isn't like that "Hal" computer or that horrid "Chuckie" doll, right? Right. Not to worry. Well, I must run. Time to mulch.
Heh, heh. You think so, do you Grad? Sleep well, my friend. Sleep well.
Monday, April 4, 2011
Why I Was Gone
We were never coddled much as children when we were sick. We were expected to rise above such trifling matters as colds and sniffles and broken arms. When Pestilence came knocking, we simply refused to answer the door. It is amazing how well that philopshy works. Toughing it out is a dominating trait on both the maternal and paternal branches of my family tree. Strength was as much admired as being able to play the piano or perform complex math problems. My Dad and his family spent a lot of time talking about being strong. Tough, even. As if to prove that particular point, my Uncle Joe showed up for Thanksgiving dinner one year when I was around 7. My mother had set the table with her best dishes, and she wore her prettiest dimity apron as she proudly carried the turkey, brown and glistening, to the head of the table, where my Dad sat with carving knife in one hand and sharpening steel in the other. Before us were bowls and platters of potatoes, dressing, gravy, creamed onions, spinach souffle...you name it...the delicious smells wafting across the lace table cloth. Nevertheless, Uncle Joe asked only for horseradish... which he ate directly from the jar...with a spoon. "It makes you strong like bull," he announced to the three small children who starred saucer-eyed at him. It was the most memorable Thanksgiving of my entire life.
So, together with the stress of a very large trial, and some significant maintenance on the house that needed completion, and my in-bred ability to ignore anything short of the major malfunction of a vital organ, I ignored the signs that I was getting sick, had gotten sick, and would continue to be sick unless I broke from family tradition and actually sought medical treatment. It's a good thing I did, I guess, since willing myself well didn't seem to be working. The two weeks I dragged myself into work because I was far too "busy" not to tackle my desk were a false economy; I eventually had to stay home to recuperate at least that long, so I got behind anyway. Where is the justice in that, I ask? A respiratory infection (but short of pneumonia) which started out as a simple allergic reaction to pine pollen was the final diagnosis. I am afraid Uncle Joe is spinning in his grave. I can almost hear the incredulity, "Pollen got you, you say? P-o-l-l-e-n!?"
Time for redemption, it seems. Pass the horseradish, please.
Friday, February 11, 2011
Why I Don't Volunteer
My children never really asked me for advice in matters of the heart; however, that never stopped me from offering it up on a regular basis. "Go to a bar to meet someone, and you will end up with someone who spends his (her) time in a bar. Now think. Is that really what you want?" Go to a sports bar and you will get a double whammy: The cacophony of ten or twelve massive, blaring, television screens with various games being played at once...every spray of spit and drop of sweat amplified larger than life, and in High Definition to boot, so real you can almost smell the stinky, grungy socks of the players. (Does it seem hot in here to you? Is anyone else getting dizzy? Hold on while I crack open a window and reach for my smelling salts.) Better. A sports bar is my idea of what Hell must be like; I don't want to go there.
I mention this because standing in line waiting to get my books signed by Swanson, it dawned on me that I am totally out of practice when it comes to looking for Mr. Right. In introducing the guest speaker, a fellow who was on the committee for the event mentioned that the Book Festival would be held during President's Day Weekend in February 2011 and they were seeking volunteers. That's when I had my light-bulb moment.
It made sense that I would find Mr. Right at the Book Festival! After all, there was some certainty we would at least have one thing in common, i.e. reading. Which would mean he would be, at the very least, literate. And there would be no trouble picking Mr. Right out of the crowd because I have a pretty good idea what he looks like. He's a handsome middle-aged gentleman with a strong jaw, graying at the temples, with beautifully maintained teeth (preferably his own), and he's financially secure. Just picture Mitt Romney. Well...Mitt Romney's older brother...much older brother. Okay, hold that picture in your mind. Now, allowing for the fact that I am in Savannah and not Hollywood, I do have to do a little tweaking of Mr. Right's image because, let's face it, no one here looks as good as Mitt Romney. Much as one does with opera glasses, I twiddle with the lenses until he comes into focus. Ahh. There he is: Mitt Romney's near-sighted, slightly overweight, balding, toothy-grinned much older brother. With a fabulously renovated home in the historic district. That includes a gourmet kitchen, Viking appliances, hand-turned moldings and original, refinished oak or heart-of-pine floors. On Jones Street! Isn't he a dream boat?
In excited anticipation of wonderful things on the horizon, I logged on to the Festival's website and headed for the volunteer page. But, just as I was about to hit the "send" button, a small voice whispered in my ear, "Hold on there, Pardner. Not too fast on the trigger." (The voice spoke with a Texas Cowgirl accent for reasons I can't explain.) I thought about the Festival being held on a three-day weekend. Those don't come along every week. I stared out the window, chin in my hand, fingers tapping my cheek. My desk was a vast, dry wasteland of papers and files with a phone that was always blinking - and beeping - and buzzing. But out there - stretched far into the distance - was a three-day weekend, an oasis glistening in shades of tranquil blue-green. It even had a palm tree. Did I really want to give up my entire three-day weekend to volunteer for the Festival?
I backed up a few pages on the website. It promised over three dozen "celebrity authors." Lisa Genova is the keynote speaker and I was planning on going to hear her speak anyway. (I found it difficult to put "Still Alice" down.) Karl Rove will be there. Love him or hate him, he's got to be pretty interesting. So far, so good. Volunteers were to be provided with colorful Savannah Book Festival T-Shirts. Already, I wasn't liking this. I tried to imagine walking up to Mr. Right in my chosen-by-someone-else T-Shirt rather than in an outfit that I picked because of the wonderful things the color did for my eyes. And the lure of complimentary coffee and pastries didn't seem like compensation enough for giving up a Saturday.
But the real clincher was the apprehension I would be given the task of "Author Host" which, according to the site, required "a significant time commitment." Uh-oh. Touted to be "an extremely important position, since you will be the author’s first and most intimate impression of the Festival. Requires punctuality, tact, enthusiasm and an ability to anticipate the needs of others without being intrusive." My palms began to sweat and my teeth began to itch. What if I had to drive someone around town whose work had about as much relevancy for me as, say, The Memoirs of Justin Beiber? According to the information provided, some authors needed more "hand holding" than others. It would be just my luck that I'd be holding hands with some fleshy-fingered, cigar smoker...instead of with Mr. Right. This wasn't sounding too good at all.
I envisioned myself driving around town with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding hands with a perfect stranger pointing out the sites. "Over there you'll see the monument where Tomochichi is buried." Then, of course, I would have to go into a long-winded explanation of who Tomochichi was. "And this building was used by General William Tecumseh Sherman as Union headquarters after the North invaded Savannah." "That's the house where the antiques dealer shot his young boyfriend, and then that fellow wrote that dopey book about the murder, which was turned into an even dopier movie." At some point, old fleshy-fingers would declare he wanted to be driven to that famous restaurant and have a chat with that famous FoodNetwork personage, and order up some of those really famous batter-dipped, deep-fried candy bars. At that point, I know I would slam on my brakes and come to a screeching halt. "Out! Get Out Now!" So much for tact; however, I think I could maintain some enthusiasm at that juncture.
By the time I drove myself back to the Festival and found a place to park, difficult on non-Festival days, I would arrive just in time to see Mr. Right schmoozing a middle-aged strumpet with big, blond hair, bangle bracelets half-way up to her elbow, and full theatrical make-up. Look at her batting her spidery eyelashes at my Mr. Right! And see how she's nudging him with her acrylic nails painted Hells Bells Red! Oh, dear. There they go, strolling arm-in-arm like an old married couple. I see myself standing dejected in my puce T-shirt; tears welling and dropping with a plink-plunk onto my plastic "Hello, I'm Grad" volunteer badge. Damn Book Festival! But then I notice something...something someone who was less observant may have missed...and I know my years spent in the company of Sherlock and Hercule were not wasted. I smile a Mona Lisa smile of mystery.
The blond strumpet made one fatal error that morning. And I noticed it. She should never have pulled those stretch pants out of the closet. Of course, Mr. Right, while walking side-by-side with her, all cozy, could not have noticed. Not yet. But, they were headed for that cafe on the opposite side of the square. And he, being my ideal, was undoubtedly a gentleman. As they approached the door of the coffee shop he, as I knew he would, stood back a bit and pulled the door open with his right hand, his left hand gently resting on her back to guide her in. In a moment she would be directly in front of him.
I, of course, anticipated what would happen next and I was sorely tempted to watch the drama unfold. But I looked away. I just couldn't bear to see my Mr. Right's semi-handsome face fall as his hopes and dreams of a love-match shattered into tiny pieces. Quite simply, what he would see as Big-Haired Blondie edged her way through the door would inevitably remind him of ten pounds of sausage stuffed into a five pound sack. Further, the image would ruin his appetite. He would ask for his coffee in a "to go" cup. He would be out the door in five minutes...ten at the most. Poor darling Mr. Right. But there would be someone close by...quietly observing...who would be waiting to pick up the fractured bits. Who you might ask? Why, She of course. She of the age-appropriate wardrobe and sensible shoes. She who certainly will not volunteer next year, either.
Friday, January 21, 2011
First, a little background information might be useful to explain what I mean. Very recently I took another long road trip, this time to Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and more importantly, my son and grandson. Although the weather collapsed a few days after I left to return home, paving the streets with sheets of ice that made them treacherous, it was crisp and clear and sunny during my stay with just the right bite of winter in the air. The town where this part of my little family lives is nestled at the foot of the Appalachian mountain range. Why do mountaintops lure us to them? Is it because we feel tall and mighty upon reaching their summits, or because they remind us how truly fragile we are? The visits themselves are always enjoyable and filled with family things to do. However, the solitary travel there and back can be gnawingly monotonous without a good book to keep one company.
As I usually do, I visited the library on the island for audio books before cruising out of Savannah. Golden Age mysteries are usually what I select for on-the-road reading, largely because they entertain without mesmerizing me to the point that I forget where I am or what I'm doing and drive off a cliff or into a cow pasture. This trip was no different. I started with Gambit by Rex Stout starring the detective Nero Wolfe. I had never read anything by Stout; however, he came highly recommended. I was able to name the murderer myself (always a disappointment) but not until the last disc. Not quite Dashiell Hammett, but readable.
The next book in the queue was Crocodile On The Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters. Peters, whose real name is Barbara Mertz, has a PhD from the University of Chicago in Egyptology and her Amelia Peabody mystery series recounts the adventures of Amelia and her husband, archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson, as they dig up ancient tombs, retrieve artifacts, and solve mysteries while fending off fiends and villains. Years ago I picked up The Hippopotamus Pool and enjoyed it very much. On my own library shelves it sits next to The Ape Who Guards The Balance, Falcon At The Portal, He Shall Thunder In The Sky, and Lord Of The Silent. I've never read any of these others, although I am forever meaning to do. By happy accident, it turned out Crocodile is the first of the series; it was nice to have the background. I liked it enough to give me incentive to press on with its neglected progeny one day.
On the heels of the Peters book came, A Place Of Hiding by Elizabeth George. One summer I was given Deception On His Mind and read it at the beach. Although I only remember small bits, I must have liked it well enough because I also have A Traitor To Memory, In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner and...well, one other I can't recall right at this moment, none of which I've read. A Place of Hiding was somewhere between a warm bottle of beer and flat champagne. I'll still drink it, but I could be having a lot more fun.
As I neared home, I had a choice between Through A Glass Darkly by Kareen Koen and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of The Remains Of The Day). I had no idea what possessed me to pick either of them up at the library. First, I didn't think they were mysteries, my favorite genre for audio. The cover on the latter didn't appeal to me at all, and the title sounded like a romance novel. Not my style. I tried to reach for Through A Glass Darkly (I liked the title much better than the other); but, it had slid out of reach on the passenger seat, and I couldn't pull over on the highway. By default, its geography determined that Never Let Me Go was next on the menu.
From the wet pavement I could tell it had rained earlier in the day; but, the clouds had moved on and the late afternoon shadows were long and deep, each second drawing me closer to home. It was a Monday and I very nearly had the road to myself as I slipped quietly through tall pines. I slid the first of the eight discs into the player and waited a moment. The lovely, soothing voice of Rosalyn Landor filled the silence, "Chapter One. My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years..." What I heard after that was calming and chilling and beautiful and sinister all at once.
I arrived home with only part of disc one completed, and anticipated resuming it on my way to work the next morning. My commute is only 20 minutes, which equates to approximately 15 pages covered each way. Not enough time for this book...not by a long shot. I've never simultaneously listened to an audio book while also reading it in its physical form. As I might have mentioned before, the island library is very small. I seldom find a particular book I'm wanting by walking in and searching the shelves. I usually have to order it from the system and then wait a few days before it's available. This book was special; I couldn't stop. Short of sitting in my car for hours on end with the motor idling, there was only one thing to be done. And so it was, I would at least give it a try and check the library stacks on my way home. I headed for the proper aisle and ran my hand over the spines...G...H...I. At first I was deflated. I could see there were only a handful of books in the "I" portion of the shelf. So when my hand stopped on Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, I exclaimed (shouted, really), "I can't believe my luck!!" This outburst caused the librarian to look up from her keyboard. She didn't frown or tell me to "Shuush." She peered above her glasses and smiled at me. She smiled the smile of a confederate book fiend; the "I know...I know" smile. We were in alliance; I was on friendly turf.
It is working quite well, this listening in part and then picking up the thread of the story and reading in part. Today is Friday. I can stay up all night to finish it if I chose. Since starting it, I've heard that it is best to approach Never Let Me Go without knowing anything about the story line. I quite agree, so I will say nothing about it. And as well, I will leave the reviews to those who are adept at such things...the academics and others with scholarly or literary attainments. I am simply a reader who - on particularly good days - fancies herself to be a writer as well. Besides, I can't even pretend I could ever do this book justice.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
I Planned To Procrastinate But I Decided To Wait
First, of course, there was Christmas and all the hubub that holiday brings with it. It isn't Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that wear me out. I can handle those. No. The stress of Christmas comes from our seeming inability to resist tinkering with it. Wasn't the first Christmas wonderful enough just as it was? Must we make a "season" out of it? Must we be forced to endure the never-ending commercials showing people giving each other shiny, new cars? White was the favorite color being pushed on us this year. There must be an overrun of white ones in the showrooms. One of these hawksters even managed to suggest we could actually get the automobile into the house (which, by the way, appeared to be an ultra modern mountain lodge with postcard perfect views of snowy vistas just outside its wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling windows) and then stuff it into a super-sized red Santa stocking. It is enough to put one off fruitcake forever. In any event, Christmas is a busy time.
Further consuming my time was the re-organizing of the kitchen cabinets, drawers and pantry. On that note, I will publish a warning to you - if you do not absolutely need to embark down that road, don't. What began innocently at the utensil drawer spread slowly and insidiously (like the Blob from the 1950s movie of the same name) from shelf to shelf and cupboard to cupboard. It oozed itself toward the pantry and then to the etagere where the pots and pans hang out. I was faced with dilemmas I wasn't equipped to handle in my already delicate holiday-wrought condition. For instance, what does one do with 5 cans of cinnamon? All opened? I vaguely remembered a recipe for Christmas ornaments using obscene amounts of cinnamon mixed with applesauce. I made a heart that hung from a red silk ribbon from that recipe one year and figured I must still have it written down and tucked somewhere. Naturally, this spurned a new mission to find it in the books, and tins, and binders and magazine racks full of recipes and other "things kept" that I (ever hopeful) think might be useful in the future.
The effort of organizing, and arranging, and re-uniting a thing with its parts (cookie press dyes with the cookie press; pasta machine with its crank and the bolt that holds it to the counter top; meat grinder with the little spinning thing that you insert into the round tube that you finally attach to the hub of the KitchenAid, for instance) and then finding homes for everything on fresh shelf liners was exhausting enough. But compounding the enterprise is the angst that comes with admitting, for instance, that the piece that held the blades to the mandolin was lost and would never be found, no matter how long the other pieces sat around, like squatters taking up real estate. Without the lynch pin, the thing was no longer a mandolin. It was junk.
But, oooh, there is always that haunting fear that the lynch pin might...just might...be found somewhere - too late. I recalled holding on to a 14k gold earring for years. Every time I opened my top desk drawer at the office there it was in all its glinty glory. Finally, in a spurt of bravery and blinded by a sudden desire for organization I threw it away. A year later we were moving from our office to new digs, and in cleaning out a "bank box" of papers which was tucked under my desk I found the earring's match. Not only was it a slap the forehead moment, I also felt guilty that I had thrown away something that actually had some intrinsic value (albeit it very little). Nevertheless, clutter is clutter and in my kitchen I whittled it down. Even if I were flying over the Pacific, or sitting on a train bound for Budapest, with the precision of a surgeon I could direct someone to the trussing string sitting in the right rear corner of the second-to-the-right-drawer next to the oven. See? How easy was that! Garlic press? Lemon reamer? Fluted pasta wheel? Go ahead...test me.
It took three days to get all the chaos straightened out. There are still a few bits sitting on the table awaiting final disposition. Among them a small cast iron skillet that is not only a ridiculous size to be of any practical use, but requires the attention befitting a diva. Quite frankly, I want to pitch the rusty little wench. But I'm waffling.
With the holidays behind me, the decorations put away, the kitchen in order, I can't conceive of a reason why I can't throw myself into the short story competition. No excuses come immediately to mind; but, with a little luck I'm sure I can think of something.