Archive for April, 2009

Short Post

April 10, 2009

A quick hit today because I have several projects winding down and as I was finishing up on project No. 2, the computer suffered the dreaded blue screen of death.

So here’s a good line from the Godfather of Soul on why he wore red suits: “I want people to say, ‘There he is, not where he is.”

Only A Story

April 10, 2009

First a quick Operation Clear Path update: Subtitle: Cat Going Into Exile. Before I could get to the next part of the project, Isis jumped up on the shelf and knocked over my file of business cards and scattered bills and other stuff all over the floor. The stuff sat there while I worked on two projects I’m supposed to have finished by tomorrow and one for next week (ha!). The foregoing happened at 10 a.m. I finally picked the stuff up at 5 and had just finished organizing it when she jumped up again and scattered two different piles. Aaarrrggghhh! Looking for a free spot on the island of St. Helena.

“It’s only a story” is the theme of an essay by my favorite mystery writer (See “Precious on HBO,” January 15) that was published last week in the Wall Street Journal. Alexander McCall Smith wrote in a somewhat plaintive tone that his readers act as though the characters in his fiction are real people and take it personally when something occurs that they dislike.

I can commiserate as I’ve been fending off such observations about my mother’s fiction for years. Many people wanted a sequel to The Street. Others asked why it had to end the way it did.

Here’s what Mother used to say to people who asked for a sequel: “What would I write?” Her point was that Lutie had burned her bridges in New York and couldn’t help her child. Her story in Chicago would either be more of the same – or she would become a Mrs. Hedges. As for Bub, I guess if he were lucky he’d wind up in the foster care system and not the criminal justice system. Either way, that story wouldn’t really be a sequel but more a prequel to Manchild in the Promised Land and a book that I don’t think my mother could have written. One or two people have if I would write a sequel, which is about the most intimidating idea ever. First I don’t write fiction – not even bad fiction. And my life experience didn’t begin until about 10 years after The Street was published and only included brief visits to Harlem. Second, I cannot imagine how harrowing it would be to elicit comparisons between my mother’s novel and any fiction I might write. So, I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m afraid Lutie will have to ride off into oblivion on the train to Chicago.

AMS observed that readers of fiction want an ordered universe and that generally means that the villain gets what’s coming and that the hero or heroine prevails. I think there’s an even stronger urge operating here. There is a great deal of truth to the notion that thoughts are real and have a concrete connection to the world in which we live. For the time we are reading novels we come to inhabit those worlds and when the book reaches and end, we want to know that everything is going to OK in that world.

Mother left people feeling unsettled at the end of The Street because that was how Lutie Johnson’s world was from start to finish. We can empathize much more if we have that same feeling as uncomfortable as it is.

While I can understand, I’m afraid I can’t actually do anything about it.


April 8, 2009

Discovered a new magazine yesterday while waiting for the auto repair shop where an oil change morphed into nearly $500 for brakes and the serpentine belt. Considering that the car has about 75,000 miles on it and had original parts, I shouldn’t complain. Still it’s a crunch, coming at the same time as payments for car insurance, estimated taxes, and my dental crown.

Anyway I hadn’t anticipated waiting for the car and so brought no reading material. But the shop offers a variety of literature beyond Automotive News. Thus I discovered ReadyMade, which seems to be a downmarket version of Real Simple for poorer and more creative 20 and 30 somethings. Real Simple provoked the ire of a number of readers when it launched nine years ago. People I knew threw around words like irrelevant, pretentious. I just thought it was an excuse to sell ads for places like ABC Carpets. Now the products intersperse less expensive sites such as, but you can still buy a $42 garlic press. ReadyMade, on the other hand, pushes creativity and liveliness, though it may be a bit earnest for New York sophisticates. I would never host a craft party, one of the ideas proposed in the current issue, but I loved the idea that people were using M.F.K. Fisher’s version of frugal cooking to entertain. (“The First Lady of Food”) I’ve already written a paean to the goddess of cooking and entertaining without butter, sugar, and other necessities that were rationed during WWII. See “Celebrating Mary Frances.”

I found ReadyMade’s “Midwest Modern” appealing as well, though it’s doubtful that your average young married couple with a year-old child is going to have the time or the creativity to design and build their own furniture. Since these folks produce this stuff for a living, it’s almost cheating to profile them. They receive extra credit, though, for buying and renovating a 1966 Airstream. Loved the Christmas lights that illuminated the path from the house to the trailer. Take away points because the wife works for Ikea, where they purchase furniture that they don’t design and make.

It’s odd that ReadyMade is still pushing its February/March issue, since most mags publish at least a month ahead. I do like the web exclusives. Pumpkin carving, hanger reuse, and quilted doggy jackets are not exactly up my alley, though.

Operation Clear Path

April 8, 2009

The office reached critical mass over the weekend. The approach of China Syndrome became clear when I had to shovel a path from door to desk. So I started excavating. The whole process became a fascinating archaelogical dig. Here are a few of the surprises unearthed in Operation Clear Path:

  • a Christmas gift I forgot I bought. The recipient got a better one, so I don’t feel guilty about keeping it.
  • Isis’s medical records from 2008.
  • a clipping from 2004 about web sites devoted to literature. I’ve set it aside to see how many of them have survived. Bookslut is still hanging in there, but foetry has gone the way of many of the fake poetry writing contests it exposed.
  • a gift certificate from 1999 (!) At least Barnes and Noble still lives.
  • unspeakable piles of dust bunnies. Did you know they have their own web site? Alternative names: sluts’ wool (from my otherwise proper Grand Aunt Anna Louise James) and from “A Way With Words,” house moss, beggar’s velvet, ghost turds. I thought ghost poo referred to those packing peanuts that jump out of cartons when they’re opened.
  • a journal from June 1994. Had intended to finish reading it before I finished writing At Home Inside out but got as far as October.
  • (these two items were toward the top of the pile and not a surprise): Dreams From My Father, which I bought just recently; and One Drop by Bliss Broyard, which I bought before Christmas because I was fascinated that her father, Anatole, could pass for so many years. After word spread that he had outed himself to his children just before he died, I often wondered whether my parents knew he was black. Mom didn’t write anything directly in the journals, though she did clip many of his Times book reviews. If I had to guess I’d say she did know. The only substantial quote that she highlighted in all those clippings was from one of his “reading and writing” columns entitled “Dancing Steps”: This was Ralph Ellison [who did not dance awkwardly], the black novelist who wrote ‘Invisible Man.’ Ellison often talks about the black cultural tradition, which he uses much as a jazz musician uses melody as a basis for improvisations. For him, rhythm is one aspect of the black writer’s irony. … When the word changed from ‘Negro’ to ‘black,’ he once said to me, an element of mysticism slipped in that I’ve never felt comfortable with.” NY Times Book Review, Jan. 17, 1982. Broyard of course wasn’t comfortable with either word or with the state of being that either described.

The excavation project has cleared the north wall of the office, not counting the bookcase which contains several files on current projects, several books, a ream of copier paper, some atlases and some other stuff that I haven’t investigated yet, two (or more?) drafts of At Home Inside, and my Obama memorabilia collection of newspapers and magazines from the day after his election and from the inauguration.

Next dig site will be the shelf against the east wall, which promises a number of surprises. I think that’s where I put the folder titled “blog topics.

The big down side to all this is that the pile of stuff on my desk has grown about a foot since I started digging.

Mean Girls and Boys

April 7, 2009

Should we be depressed or encouraged that middle schools in Scarsdale and elsewhere around the country are teaching empathy? I had mixed reactions when I read the article in Sunday’s NYTimes.

On the one hand, students should understand what constitutes hurtful behavior and why it is not a good thing to call names, hit or kick, repeat negative things about each other, and ostracize their classmates.

On the other hand, teaching empathy in middle school is probably too little, too late. The principal in Scarsdale said, “… you can’t have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the lunchroom.” Oh yeah? It’s easier to respond in a positive fashion to the horrific pictures of suffering in Darfur because it’s “over there.” Plus it’s cool to help because good feelings are reinforced when Bono or Angelina or the celebrity du jour jets in and poses for a photo op with some poor malnourished battle scarred child. When the message is about being kinder to the kid sitting across the aisle from you in homeroom and you are also facing pressure from your peers to kick her to the curb, it’s whole lot harder to empathize.

Kids have been isolating kids since forever, and I really don’t think that talking about whether Friar Laurence should have been more understanding of Juliet is going to help modern seventh and eighth graders decide not to wear personalized sweatshirts to school. On that issue, if teachers and administrators are concerned about offending children who weren’t invited to the bar or bat mitzvah, then they should just ban clothes with any writing except the school name. Students would still complain about restrictions on their freedom to dress as they please, but the restriction would not be aimed at rich kids whose families can afford to spend thousands on party favors. Maybe school administrators could try a concept that’s been popular in some cities and require uniforms.

As a kid who was generally ostracized, I suffered through all 12 grades. I had friends, but we did not travel in a pack. I would have been terrified by “Mix It Up Day” where the school structures who sits with whom in the cafeteria. That’s a recipe for worse torture for the unpopular students. By college I understood that conformity wasn’t necessarily a good thing and that it was better to stand on one’s own. A great many of us loner types come through pretty much unscathed. We live more or less contented lives. And many people who were truly scarred by their experiences in school achieve greatness because they continue to see the world as outsiders. A little rejection can be a good thing.

Schools offering empathy classes are attempting to teach emotional intelligence, which has been sorely lacking according to Daniel Goleman. It’s a laudable goal, but the effort needs to start long before students reach the id-driven seventh and eighth grades. One mother had an even better idea: include the parents in the lessons because that’s who should be teaching this stuff in the first place, way before school starts. You know, things like share your toys, don’t hit, say thank you.

Odds and Ends

April 3, 2009

Update: Isis is healthy. Her blood work came back normal. Larry’s response: “She’s not sick, she’s just naturally evil!” She slept until 11:30 this a.m., came downstairs, and fell asleep on my lap as soon as she had filled herself up on food and and water. Arose again at 6 to eat and returned to bed.

Just discovered why my former English students never got the difference between it’s and its. Microsoft Word’s “grammar check” doesn’t know the difference either. Pathetic!

I’ve neglected my Facebook account since January. I’m going to spend some time catching up on messages, tags, invites to join groups and so forth instead of writing about Huna, or what I’m reading now, or the jam-packed somewhat confusing finale to Errol Morris’s “Whose Father Was He?”

Vet Adventures

April 2, 2009

I type this with a large gash in my left palm and a smaller one on my wrist. Today was the day for the Goddess to have her annual physical – or as my former boss used to say of his cat, her lube, oil and filter.

Isis is not a large cat – fighting weight – and I do mean fighting – of 10 pounds during the winter 9 or so during hot weather, though Dr. Larry called today and said she’d lost a pound.

Most days she has a typical cat’s life. Nap, get up, rest from the nap, check that all furniture and people are where they’re supposed to be, nap, roam around a few minutes, beg for treats, eat, sleep for several hours, lie in the sun (maybe take another nap), see if dinner might arrive early, take a nap in preparation for roaming around all night. I think she wrote “Cat’s Basic Rules for Running A Household.”

On a serious note, the first nine or ten months of the Goddess’s life were spent in the wild. I got her from a woman who found her in the woods and couldn’t keep her because there were already six cats in the house. Isis had had a litter of kittens, one of which they found impacted when she went for spaying. She arrived at her new home severely undernourished, with huge staples across her abdomen. It was years before she would let anyone touch her belly.

She didn’t come near me at all for our first month together. But she ate well and stretched out on the bed when I wasn’t in it. I finally got her to jump on my lap with the aid of a string that I dragged across the couch. Now she is a heat seeker par excellence. We have steam radiators that get far too hot to touch, but she lies next to the one in the living room with her paws tucked under it. Larry says he expects that she’ll self-combust one day. When the radiator cools slightly, she heads for her heated bed or for a human lap, preferably with an electric blanket on it. She spends the hottest days of summer baking on the sun porch.

She’s fairly mellow most of the time now, but every once in a while she’ll turn on Larry or me for no apparent reason. She has little tufts on her ears, a very square backside, and a tail that’s much too short in proportion to the rest of her. There are times when her fur has a reddish tinge. On one of her trips to the vet, I asked if she could have bob cat in her lineage. Dr. Larry said it’s possible and that hybrids like that live forever. At this point she’s at least 14 years old and still going strong. Here’s a picture of the Goddess, “helping” me write the memoir. (That sign was my mother’s. It says, “A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind.”)


And here’s a picture of what very well may be Isis’s cousin.

One other oddity: I’ve heard her meow maybe five times in the 13 years I’ve owned her. She’ll scream if someone steps on her tail. Once in a while she’ll answer the mating yowls of the neighborhood cats, but she never carries on a normal cat conversation. But she can hiss and spit.

Anyway, her behavior is just bad enough that her chart at the vet has big warnings all over it. Two years ago she tried to bite and scratch Dr. Larry and his tech, so now they knock her out to do the exam. That means taking away food and water the night before, so I was awake this morning at 3:30, 4, 5, and 6 because she didn’t have her usual late-night snack.

When we were finally ready to roll just before 8, I picked her up to put her in the cat carrier and she nailed me, twice. But she was so freaked out that she stayed in the crate even though the latch came undone. The 20-minute ride produced far less dry heaving than it usually does. She wasn’t foaming at the mouth when we got there, either. Since her stomach was empty, she didn’t actually throw up, which had been her habit in years past.

The worst is over because she’ll be too drugged when she comes home to do anything except eat and stagger off to bed. My hands and arms are safe until next year. Thank God she doesn’t have to go more often!

Loose Ends

April 2, 2009

The next few days are crammed with various appointments (vet for Isis – stay tuned for blood in the sand – dentist for me, etc. etc.) so a few quick hits. Henry Louis Gates’s tribute to John Hope Franklin on The reveals how staunch Franklin was in his desire to bring African Americans into the mainstream. Shame on Harvard for dissing him!

Sidebar: The Root will be the subject of its own entry one of these days, when I have time to ponder the strange line between substance and fluff.

The folks at Yankee, which publishes The Old Farmers Almanac, must think the their readership is all a) elderly b) disabled c) wealthy beyond imagining and d) deficient in vitamins and minerals. AND able to clear the brush from acre of land, till the soil, plant and harvest crops, weed, prune, mow, fertilize and log and construct their own barns and outbuildings. I don’t get it.

Just received a copy of Black Noir that includes a short story of Mother’s that I’d never seen before. It’s “On Saturday The Siren Sounds at Noon,” and it was on the basis of this 10-page story that the folks at Houghton Mifflin asked Mother to write a novel. The Street was published in 1946 and the rest of the history is well known. I’d like to know who published it without permission in 1999.

Errol Morris has been publishing a fascinating series, “Whose Father Was He?”  It combines mid-nineteenth century history, genealogy, cultural anthropology, and great investigative reporting on life and death (at Gettysburg) of Amos Humiston.

The Hartford Courant is now going to have two TV broadcast operations in its newsroom.  I wish them well in combining to divergent cultures and styles of reporting. I wish especially well to the print reporters whose new boss formerly ran the TV stations. Query: Should we expect the economic downturn to obliterate media ownership restrictions for all time?

As of 6:30 p.m., the only April Fool’s news item I’ve seen is the American economy and that’s hardly a joke.

Things Left Undone

April 1, 2009

My friend Flora emailed after I posted the “Tour de Lance” entry saying, “all I want to know is is there anything you haven’t done or experienced?!” I fired back “Yes, there’s lots I’ve never done. Sky diving (wouldn’t dream of it), hot air balloon sailing (would love to try it), driving a race car on a closed track (ditto), really learning a foreign language (intend to start soon.) Come to think of it, you’ve given me an idea for another blog entry!” So here goes, in no particular order.

  • learn to drive an 18-wheeler. That desire has been around for a while and became a major urge as I watched a driver maneuver a big rig from a steep, narrow side street down a steeper, narrower driveway. He then had to jockey the trailer so he could back up to the Record-Journal’s loading bay to deliver paper bales. There was much swearing involved, but he did it. I tried to get the paper to pay for tractor-trailer school for me so I could write about it. Management didn’t want to cough up the $1,800 (if memory serves). At this point I couldn’t pass the eye test, so the idea is moot.
  • take a barge trip along the canals in Burgundy with side trips to explore the little towns. Actually more travel in general would be great. I’d love to see New Mexico and northern California. The latter trip will probably happen this summer. Elsewhere, I’d love to go to Madagascar, but that won’t happen until things settle down. Japan has always called, likewise Greece and the islands in the Mediterranean, most especially Santorini. I’d return to Hawaii for a trip to the Big Island, which I’ve never seen, and to Canada, but this time I’d go to Quebec, which is also terra incognita.
  • write a novel. It’s something I tried once but put away as hopelessly trite. (Couldn’t compete with Mom and didn’t want to try.) Maybe I’d try it again if someone offered me enough money. Actually what I’d probably do is write fiction, call it a memoir, and then go on Oprah and “out’ myself. That way I would guarantee myself sales well into the future, even if my credibility is blown for all time.
  • corollary: publish a collection of poetry. I stopped writing poems shortly after I entered law school and have made only one  attempt since. That was a year ago and it’s still waiting to be revised. But that old stuff is hanging around.
  • run a marathon. If I started training now, I could probably be ready for the Marine Corps marathon (one of the flatter ones) in October 2010! And having barely survived the Virginia humidity with a five-mile run, I seriously doubt 26 will ever happen.
  • stay organized for more than two days. See “Clean Desk = Sick Mind” January 10. I can dream, can’t I?
  • drink a car bomb. Won’t happen because the beverage contains three liquids I can’t abide: Guinness, which looks like molasses and tastes like it’s been drunk before; Bailey’s, which contains just enough real dairy to set off my lactose alarm; and Irish whiskey (you have to spell it with the “e” if it’s comes from Erin), which like all brown liquor sets off the rest of my digestive system. Plus, my parents spent way too much money on braces for me to be slamming a shot glass against my teeth.
  • do an evil-level Sudoku without erasing. Workin’ on it.