Monday, June 30, 2008

Emblems of Perfect Happiness

Well, here it is the last day of June, and the kids and I are feeling that summer has just begun. Eleanor is finished with her summer school class. Walker and I are finished with Peter Pan, which played to sellout crowds every night and got Walker a mention in the local paper for being a "memorably chipper" Tootles. I just turned in my annual report for the Writing Center, due every year by the end of June. So we're ready for days without deadlines. Summer days. For me, emblems of perfect happiness.

Trouble is, the newspaper confirmed this morning that this has been a record-breaking June for rainfall, and today it's raining again. So we can't really do happy summer things, despite our new feeling of freedom. It makes me think of a poem I have a love/hate relationship with. I memorized the first stanza of this poem long ago, because I love it so much. But I hate the second stanza. I'd like to do like Emily Dickinson's sister, who blacked out an entire stanza of the poem "wedded" that talked about how Emily didn't want to be wedded.

It may seem premature to think of August thunderstorms right now, but we feel thunderstorm-scarred already this summer, having just replaced all of the electronics that fell prey to our own personal lightning strike. Anyway, this is Philip Larkin's Mother, Summer, I:

My mother, who hates thunderstorms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, let swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost.

And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone;
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can't confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

Maybe it's because Larkin was a Brit that he felt he couldn't confront those emblems of perfect happiness. The British have a peculiar attitude about things being too much--it's like the line in Peter Pan about the cake being "much too damp and rich for you." I always feel quite ready to enjoy the perfect happiness of summer days. July 4-8 is my absolute favorite time of the year, between parades and fireworks and picnics and my birthday (the 8th), when I almost always persuade someone to spend the day swimming with me. And the weather almost always cooperates.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Funny words

Walker and I are morning people. We're having a hard time adjusting to the theater life this week, with rehearsals for Peter Pan going until midnight. But the end is near--tonight is opening night. If the costumers can get Walker's Lost Boy pants to stay on (they're loose around the waist, and the decorative rope belt doesn't help) and if the pit orchestra I'm playing in can keep straight which parts we're playing and which we've x-ed out or put in vamps and repeats because the music the cast was given is SO DIFFERENT from the score and the individual instrumental parts (thank you, Samuel French Company), the show will be great.

All I've had time to read this week is the new Stephanie Plum novel, Janet Evanovich's Fearless Fourteen. It's just the thing for summer--fun, but no surprises. I don't think the writing was as good as in any of the previous 13. The tension between Stephanie picking Ranger or Joe Morelli was ratcheted down a level, and details like where the severed toes that are sent to Joe's house in the mail actually came from are missing (or else I missed them in my state of sleep deprivation). But it does have Lula making wedding plans, and incomprehensible video-game terms tossed around as if they're everyday conversation, which I find quite amusing:

"I'm going online as soon as I'm done with breakfast," she said. "I'm gonna lay waste to the griefer."
I looked over at my mother and she made a gesture like she was going to hang herself.
"What's a griefer?" I asked. I'd heard Zook use the term, but I didn't actually know what it meant. I also knew Moondog was a griefer, but I didn't know what a Moondog was, either.
"A griefer's a snert," Grandma said. "A cheese player. A twink."
I nodded. "That makes it all clear."

About as clear as Walker's comment that "King DeeDeeDee threw wattle-dees, and wattle-dees have the most chance of coming up, and wattle-doos have less chance of coming up. And Gordos are really, really rare." What this means, I don't know. But it SOUNDS hilarious.

The way I participate in conversations about video games is about the way someone who has misheard the lyrics to a song can talk about music. You know, that song by Glen Campbell "country boy, you've got your feet in the lake, but your mind is on the sea..." or "I believe in Delco....all the sexy thing" ("I Believe in Miracles"). Haven't you ever done this? Despite the fact that my kids' generation is learning the music of my generation by playing Guitar Hero (I made the avatar throw down his guitar when I tried to play "Barracuda," but my kids can get through most of the songs), there's still lots of room for misunderstanding on the lyrics, at least until we get the sing-along version of Guitar Hero! Walker still hears "Give me the strength to face the laundry in the dark" when he hears the song "The Truth Beneath the Rose" by Within Temptation. And isn't that just more fun than the original line ("give me the strength to face the wrong that I have done")?

If you like misheard song lyrics, you've got to go to

Monday, June 23, 2008

How Modern These Faeries Be

Ironside, by Holly Black, is subtitled "A Modern Faery's Tale," like the two volumes that precede it (Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale and Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie). The modernization is interesting and amusing; it only occasionally fails to be true to the tradition of fairy stories.

Ironside is well plotted and a fast read. Although I can imagine someone enjoying it without reading the first two, a big part of its pleasure is how well it weaves threads from the previous stories. In Tithe, Holly Black introduces her characters and brings their first adventure to a full and satisfying close. In Valiant, she introduces different characters and tells what seems to be a separate story, but it is not as compelling and doesn't come to a satisfactory end. The third book demonstrates that these stories are meant to work as a trilogy.

The faeries are as heartless and beautiful and compelling as traditional fairies should be, with an additional layer of appealing-to-teenagers coolness, a la Jane Yolen's updated fairy tales (Pay the Piper is the latest one I've read). They're clever, too, although this is the main area in which the updating falls short. It's amusing when Corny the mortal boy says, in Tithe, "I woke up outside the hill this morning. I figured that you'd ditched me and I was going to do a Rip Van Winkle and find out that it was the year 2112 and no one had even heard of me," but why didn't it happen? How can he also eat the fairy food and be able to return to the moral world with no problems (other than an isolated vomiting episode in Ironside). Black attempts to explain a little of how her modern magic works in Valiant, with the plotline about "never," an addictive-to-humans faery glamour tonic, but it all seems a little easier than usual for the mortals to overcome the magic of the fairy realm.

There's a lovely bit of traditional fairy trickery in Tithe, when Roiben is ordered to seize Kaye and "he grabbed her hair in a clump, jerking her head back, then just as suddenly let her go" because he hasn't been ordered to hold on, but this isn't developed any further in Ironside. In fact, the final play on words is so funny and infuriating that it made me scream with laughter and kick the book across the floor in annoyance. Luckily, that bit of trickery is not integral to the plot; it's just a revelation after the action has already taken place.

What is clever about the ending of Ironside is the way the heroine saves herself. She needs the hero's help and he needs hers, but the actual saving of her own skin is up to her. There's no cheap ending where anything is resolved by magic. There's no easy happily ever after. The ending isn't as tidy as it could have been. Early on, my daughter and I were both amused by this dialogue:
"You can't date the Lord of the Night Court."
"Well, I'm not. He dumped me."
"You can't get dumped by the Lord of the Night Court."
"Oh yes you can. You so completely can."
And despite various annoying (to me, anyway) descriptions of this Lord's black leather outfits for going out into the mortal world, the ending of the book is letter-perfect in its blend of traditional and modern:
Kaye groaned. "You really are a terrible boyfriend, you know that?"
He nodded. "A surfeit of ballads makes for odd ideas about romance."
"But things don't work like that," Kaye said, taking the bottle from his hand and drinking from the neck. "Like ballads or songs or epic poems where people do all the wrong things for the right reasons."
"You have completed an impossible quest and saved me from the Queen of the Faeries," he said softly. "That is very like a ballad."

An additional pleasure of reading these books is the epigraph for each chapter, drawn eclectically from the writings of people like Pablo Neruda, Andrew Wyeth, Oscar Wilde, Christina Rossetti, and Czeslaw Milosz. Some of them might even interest young readers in casting their net wider, as Cornelia Funke's epigraphs drawn from the writing of Michael de Larrabeiti for her chapters in Inkheart caused my family to seek out and enjoy The Borrible trilogy.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The American Way

I am a little bit reassured by today's report that the outside consultants who investigated whether the science teacher in the local public school system was teaching his peculiar brand of religion in the public schools have reported to the school board that "there is a significant amount of evidence that Mr. Freshwater's teachings regarding subjects related to evolution were not consistent with the curriculum of the Mount Vernon City Schools and state standards." Now the school board has to decide what to do about the man who would be a martyr. They're under intense pressure from Freshwater and Daubenmire's supporters, many of whom must have been educated in Freshwater's classroom.

What still disturbs me is that any child in our school system who claims to be "disturbed" by the teaching of evolution can go sit in the hall while it's being taught. (The same is true for kids who claim to be nauseated by dissecting a worm or a frog--they can go sit in the hall.) What's wrong with this picture?

This morning I was rereading Gregory Corso's poem "The American Way." Like most of his poems, it's very long and is best read out loud. Here's the section that caused me to look up the poem, after reading the newspaper:

They are frankensteining Christ in America
in their Sunday campaigns
They are putting the fear of Christ in America
under their tents in their Sunday campaigns
They are driving old ladies mad with Christ in America
They are televising the gift of healing and the fear of hell
in America under their tents in their Sunday
They are leaving their tents and are bringing their Christ
to the stadiums of America in their Sunday
They are asking for a full house an all get out
for their Christ in the stadiums of America
They are getting them in their Sunday and Saturday
They are asking them to come forward and fall on their
because they are all guilty and they are coming
in guilt and are falling on their knees weeping their
begging to be saved O Lord O Lord in their Monday
Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
and Sunday campaigns

Why is this poem reassuring? Because it was written in 1960, the year of my birth, and published the year after Nemerov's Boom! appeared. This stuff has been going on all my life.

My family just watched Inherit the Wind, with the recurring singing of "Gimme that old-time religion" on the soundtrack. We found it ironic how much the current situation in our small town resembles the situation of the small town during the Scopes Monkey Trial. It's discouraging to see how little some things have changed. We need to be singing some better songs. I dislike the one "patriotic" song that says something about being an American "where at least I know I'm free." At LEAST? I'd like to be able to say that my community is at least trying to educate middle-schoolers who can't tell the difference between a philosophic and a scientific theory, rather than allowing them to sit in the hallway and perpetuate that old-time ignorance. It isn't good enough for anyone.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


You probably thought we were just goofing off around here. Well, we have been reading books. As my faithful readers will recall, I'm not in favor of listing every book I read, but I'll mention in passing that I read M.J. Rose's The Reincarnationist, Stephen Evans' The Marriage of True Minds, and Catherine Ryan Hyde's Love In the Present Tense, all of which I enjoyed, and Alice Sebold's The Almost Moon, which I loathed. Like almost everyone in the world, I enjoyed The Lovely Bones, gruesome as it was, but The Almost Moon is just unpleasant, and the ending doesn't redeem it at all. The Marriage of True Minds was my favorite of all these books--it was a kind of romp, and it was about something I think about--how, especially with humane society and environmental issues, half measures are often not enough. Well, here's a book about someone who went all the way for what he believed. And his logic was so much fun to try to follow! Also he has fun with lobsters.

Why have we not been just goofing off? Because on Friday night a thunderstorm came through, and we weren't home to see or hear it completely destroy our modem, quite probably our router, one of two identical garage door openers, and our new television. The cable people have been out three times, and we've reached the limits of my knowledge about how our computers are connected to the modem and router and each other. Today the cable guy kindly connected one of the wires from the modem directly into my laptop so I could stop feeling so um, disconnected this week while Ron is at an IT conference and I'm here coordinating the home base for a lonely guinea pig (yes, Sandy succumbed on Father's Day), a sick cat, and an all-day smorgasbord for kids with hungry friends .

What to do? We went to the library and checked out a bunch of unimportant books that look fun. If any of them turn out to be memorable, I'll let you know. When I can.

Friday, June 13, 2008


I just read Alan Brennert's Moloka'i, about the 19th-century leper colony. It was a better book than I expected, focusing less on the horrors of the disease and the isolation policies, and more on how Hawaiian people, some of them based on historical characters, might have lived and died in Kaluapapa. His protagonist, Rachel Aouli Kalama Utagawa, lives long enough to receive the sulfa drugs that keep Hanson's disease from progressing or being contagious, so at the end of her life she is able to leave Kaluapapa and go home to Honolulu.

The description of Honolulu particularly interested me. Rachel lived there as a 7-year-old in 1891 and finally came back in 1948: "The difference between Old Honolulu and New, she would come to decide, was the difference between a beautiful woman who was simply being herself and a beautiful woman calling attention to herself: a little vain perhaps, but you couldn't say she wasn't attractive." I lived in Honolulu for one summer, in 1971, and finally came back during the summer of 2007. The beautiful woman calling attention to herself is still beautiful, and calling more attention to herself than ever, but some of the attention does detract from the beauty now. While I wouldn't want to say that there should be fewer hotels ringing Waikiki beach, I would say that fewer of them should be high-rises. The shadow of the high rise hotels blots out the morning sun on the beach and the trade winds that should be blowing around all the beach-side businesses. I also wouldn't say that there should be fewer restaurants opening onto the beach, but it would be nice if fewer of them were chains, turning some of the rarest real estate in the world into the same sort of homogenized mall offerings you can find anywhere. Next door to the hotel we stayed in last summer was a thriving Cheesecake Factory restaurant. I looked in every time we passed, to see if it was a novelty for Japanese tourists, or something, but the clientele looked overwhelmingly European-American.

Each Hawaiian island is a little bit of paradise, and even Brennert's characters, exiled and imprisoned on Molokai, appreciated that, despite their hardships. It's hard to find a face on any Hawaiian island that doesn't reflect some consciousness of how lucky that person is to be right where they are at that moment. Today's tourists are more conscious of the impact their stay has on the fragile environment, and today's tourist industry has more safeguards in place to ensure that paradise will not be lost through overuse and carelessness. But someone who goes to Hawaii for a brief vacation, a getaway, might not venture outside the resort areas to hear any of the Hawaiian folktales about Maui the trickster or the Menehune, or realize what it means that there was once Hawaiian royalty. Folks like that are haoles, as guilty as the early missionaries of discounting what the people who live there know about enjoying and preserving the islands. They'll drive around Oahu listening to "...paved paradise, put up a parking lot...." on the radio and won't realize how old the song is, or that they could be contributing.

Like anything of value, paradise requires you to take some time to appreciate it. Anyone who writes about the charms of Hawaii, me included, uses Hawaiian words to convey this--that Aloha "means both hello and goodbye." Almost anyone who has ever been there yearns to return. Before I read Molokai, I didn't realize that the Hawaiian burial service concludes with this farewell to the departed "go, but if you have a mind to return, come back." But that seems of a piece with the rest of the Hawaiian attitude. What haole wouldn't want to return to paradise, knowing its pleasures, and knowing that you'll still be graciously welcomed?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Everything that Rises Must Converge... least you'd think so, eventually. I thought I had moved away from regions where people are still fighting the War between the States by shouting things like "the South will rise again" out of their confederate-flag-draped pickups. Imagine my surprise when I read the following letter to the editor in the local big-city newspaper this morning:

Confederate soldiers fought against U.S.
I respond to the June 2 Dispatch article "But not forgotten." I strongly disagree with Richard Hoffman, a board member of the Hilltop Historical Society, who said "These are fallen Americans who fought for this country," in his description of the Confederate graves along Sullivant Avenue.
They didn't fight for this country, and it is offensive to anyone who lost a relative who died defending this country. These are the people who took arms against this country; that's a fact.
To ignore that fact is as ridiculous as anyone who would defend Germany on D-day and then tell you they were good people whom we should also honor.
Michael Yopko, Westerville

The letter sure woke me up, and made me start laughing. I pushed it across the table to Eleanor, who skimmed it and said "Dang, guys, that was about 150 years ago!"

Are people getting wackier and more entrenched in their strange beliefs, or is it just my imagination? A teacher at the local middle school just told me that her three children were harassed for the family's religious beliefs throughout their school careers, including an incident with a teacher who thought one of them needed to be "saved." "What is your family's religious belief?" I asked. I thought maybe her kids were going around telling people they were atheists, which would be a bit confrontational in this intensely religious community. But no. "We're Roman Catholic," she told me. I looked it up briefly (on google) and found that there are strange "Christians" out there preaching that Catholics are not saved and will go to hell. Huh. It's like the bible belt is encompassing more area than it used to. How American.

Maybe the whole country is getting as grotesque and gothic as the South, and we just haven't fully realized it yet. Maybe I'm thinking that partly because I just breezed through Stephanie Gayle's My Summer of Southern Discomfort, a strawberry daiquiri of a novel, easily consumed and with little effect. The main character is a northerner (Boston and NYC) who moves to the south (Macon, GA) and does predictable things, saying, at one point "in Georgia it's all about 'your people.' I draw out the phrase in my best mock Southern accent, which isn't very good. My throat clips the long vowels short." Isn't that just always the way when a northerner tries to mock a southern accent? As she gets to know her neighbors and allow her colleagues to know her, she begins to feel at home in the south. Her northern friends and relatives finally begin to accept that her new home is a place she enjoys, not simply a place where she is missing the pleasures of the north.

Well, geez. Or, in Eleanor's words, "Dang, guys!"

Monday, June 9, 2008

Summer in Ohio

It's been wonderful weather here--in the 90's, with a breeze. My northern children are not used to it. I'm not used to it anymore, having just gotten accustomed to having to wear three-quarter sleeves and jeans on Memorial Day weekend every year. I've lived in Ohio now for 18 years, and it took me an entire decade to start finding things to like. Stanley Plumly, who was born in another part of the state, told me when I first moved here that I would find lots to like. Well, Stan, you were right. Finally.

In fact, Stan was right about pretty much everything he ever told me because most of it was about poetry. He's a poet worth rereading. I thought that at this point in the summer, with all its potential still unsullied, I should look again at the title poem of his volume Summer Celestial:

At dusk I row out to what looks like light or anonymity,
too far from land to be called to, too close to be lost,
and drag oar until I can drift in and out of a circle,
the center of a circle, nothing named, nothing now to see,
the wind up a little and down, building against the air,
and listen to anything at all, bird or wind, or nothing
but the first sounds on the surface, clarifying, clear.

Once, in Canada, I saw a man stand up in his boat and pass
out dollar bills. It was summer dark. They blew down
on the lake like moonlight. Coming out of his hands
they looked like dollar bills. When I look up at the Dippers,
the whole star chart, leaves on a tree, sometimes all night,
I think about his balance over cold water, under stars,
standing in a shoe, the nets all down and gathering.

My mother still wakes crying do I think she's made of money.
--And what makes money make money make money?
I wish I could tell her how to talk herself to sleep.
I wish. She says she's afraid she won't make it back.
As in a prayer, she is more afraid of loneliness than death.
Two pennies for the eyes, two cents: I wish I could tell her
that each day the stars reorganize, each night they come back

Outside tonight the waters run to color with the sky.
In the old water dream you wake up in a boat, drifting out.
Everything is cold and smells of rain. Somewhere back there,
in sleep, you remember weeping. And at this moment you
you are about to speak. But someone is holding on, hand
over hand, and someone with your voice opening and closing.
In water you think it will always be your face that floats

to the surface. Flesh is on fire under water. The nets go back
to gather and regather, and bring up stones, viridian and silver,
what falls. In the story, the three Dutch fishermen sail out
for stars, into the daylight hours, so loaded with their catch
it spills. They sleep, believe it, where they can, and dry
their nets on a full moon. For my mother, who is afraid to
for anyone afraid of heights or water, all of this is intolerable.

Look, said the wish, into your lover's face. Mine over yours.
In that other life, which I now commend to you, I have spent
the days by a house along the shore, building a boat, tying
the nets together, watching the lights go on and off on the
But nothing gets done, none of it ever gets finished. So I lie
in a dream of money being passed from hand to hand in a long
It looks like money--or hands taking hands, being led out

to deeper water. I wake up weeping, and it is almost joy.
I go outside and the sky is sea-blue, the way the earth is looked
from the moon. And out on the great surfaces, water is paying
back water. I know, I know this is a day and the stars reiterate,
return each loss, each witness. And that always in the room
next door
someone is coughing all night or a man and a woman make love,
each body buoyed, even blessed, by what the other cannot

Isn't that remarkable--to look at a place like this, with its rusted barrels of impatience (oh, I mean impatiens) in the front yards, and see how the loveliness and the optimism--I mean, these are annuals in a place with barely a 3-month season--grow right out of the rust? On a sunny summer morning, when people in Indiana and Iowa are cleaning up after tornadoes and floods and everyone in the country is having at least an occasional sleepless night thinking about money and other things they can't have, reading this poem is like coming up from sleep into the kind of dream that buoys you into waking and leaves you in that state of potential from which you can accept any direction you end up heading.

Friday, June 6, 2008

That's A Morte

We never did find a substitute caterpillar for our visiting six-year-old. My response to his heartbreak over leaving it on our deck in the former peanut butter jar with holes punched (by ice pick) in the plastic lid was to observe that even if we did find him a replacement, caterpillars are not long-lived creatures and the relationship was doomed to disappointment. Since then, I've been informed that the key to keeping a captive caterpillar is to feed them every hour or so, like newborns. If you know a six-year-old who is capable of that, I'd like to know about it!

We've been preparing Walker for the imminent demise of his replacement guinea pig. See, when he was 9, he wanted a guinea pig, and we got two so they could keep each other company. He picked out a cute little short-haired pig and named him Legolas, which led to many merry confusions in our household (the most memorable was when Walker commented "Legolas is ambidextrous" and the rest of us looked at him and said "how on earth can you tell?" only to see that Walker was looking at a LOTR movie book and reading about the Tolkien elf's knives). When Legolas was three, we found him dead in his cage one morning. The other pig, Lady Night Heart, was not visibly distraught, but the kids thought she needed another friend. She missed having someone to pick on and outsmart, they said. So we got the loan of a companion guinea pig who was left over when the main guinea pig had died. This one's name was Sandy, and Sandy was already a middle-aged pig. Well, now Sandy is getting old and having some physical troubles. We hauled her off to the vet last week and found out that she's not in terrible pain, but probably is not long for the world.

In a typical case of life dovetailing with art, I came across this passage while reading John Scalzi's The Android's Dream this week:

"Why do you only sell unmodified animals?" Creek asked. "I'm just curious."
"I've got a PetSmart one shopping center over," Robin said. "All their animals are genmod. I couldn't compete. But they hardly sell unmodified pets anymore because unmodified pets die too easy. Genmod pets are designed with six-year-old boys in mind, you know."
"I didn't know," Creek said.
"It's true," Robin said. "I think that's kind of like defining deviancy down. You should be teaching a six-year-old that you need to respect living things, rather than making pets so they can survive a mallet attack. So, economics and morals. That's why. People who come in here respect animals and teach their kids manners...."

Part of respecting living things is understanding that death is part of the deal, eventually. Walker has been dealing with the issue in his own way, making up verses to a continuing song:

When a dart hits your heart
and it then fails to start...
that's a morte...

When a bear starts to tear
and there's blood everywhere...
that's a morte...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Not that I would have tried anyway, but I absolutely couldn't resist buying David Sedaris' new book in hardback because of the title. It turns out to be one of those Japanese translations into English. I was hoping it was going to be one of his stories from real life (although in a way it is, because it appears in the longest essay, a piece on how he quit smoking and why). As usual with a Sedaris book of essays, I laughed out loud while reading each one. When we had to wait in a doctor's office yesterday, I said to my daughter "so, you'd rather I didn't take this book?" waving the Sedaris book, and she said "it might be better not to." She's still emotionally scarred from the time I was reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in the YMCA waiting room during Walker's swimming lesson and I got to what you tell your children in Holland on Christmas Eve in "Six to Eight Black Men" and I couldn't muffle my laughter, and then I couldn't stop laughing, and then I couldn't get my breath and tears were running down my face...and I have a really loud laugh....

I have such a loud laugh, and laugh so often, that one time after a movie an old lady came up to me, touched my arm with a quavering hand, and said "you really enjoyed that, didn't you?" I said "yes, I did."

Anyway, according to a woman we once met in a parking lot on a barrier island in South Carolina, if your hair is on fire, it's okay to park in the handicapped parking space. This is what she told us when my family, feeling protective of my limited ability to walk any distance during our last trip to the beach when my knee was completely shot but I wasn't admitting it yet, confronted her about why she'd parked in the only handicapped space in the lot when she didn't have a handicapped tag. "But my hair was on fire" she said. "I was driving, and I smelled something, and I had to pull over." We didn't see her actually being engulfed in flames, but her "handicap" generated great hilarity for the rest of the trip. Anyone who was there would tell this story with more details and make it funnier. I do remember that later during the same trip, during a "pirate tour" of downtown Charleston, the tour guide described the way Blackbeard would tie firecrackers into his beard and light them. From the other side of a pineapple fountain, I heard my daughter murmur "guess he wanted to park at the handicapped pier."

Other than my friend Miriam, there's no one better at taking a story like that and making it into something that shows you what people are like than David Sedaris. In "Of Mice and Men," he even tells about how he read an unusual newspaper story and evidently embroidered it for his own purposes, coming back to it only to prove a point and finding that he couldn't, in fact, prove it:

"Then there was the story mailed to me by a stranger in New England, who'd clipped it from his local paper. It concerned an eighty-year-old Vermont man whose home was overrun by mice. The actual house was not described, but in my mind it was two stories tall and isolated on a country road. I also decided that it was painted white--not that it mattered so much, I just thought it was a nice touch. So the retired guy's house was overrun, and when he could no longer bear it, he fumigated. The mice fled into the yard and settled into a pile of dead leaves, which no doubt crackled beneath their weight. Thinking that he had them trapped, the man set the pile on fire, then watched as a single flaming mouse ran back into the basement and burned the house to the ground."

Later he finds that he has embroidered the story:

"I thought I would send him the news clipping as well, and it was here that my triumph lost its luster. 'Mouse gets revenge: sets home ablaze,' the headline read, and then I noticed the letters 'AP,' and saw that while the story had been published in Vermont, it had actually taken place in New Mexico, which sort of ruined everything. Now, instead of a white, wood-frame house, I saw a kind of shack with cow skulls tacked to the outer walls. It then turned out that the homeowner had not fumigated, and that there was only one mouse, which he somehow caught alive, and threw onto a pile of leaves he'd started burning some time earlier. This would certainly qualify as thoughtless, but there was no moment when he looked at the coughing mice, running for their lives from the poisonous fumes. He did not hear the leaves crackling beneath their feet, or reach for his matches, thinking Aha!"

But, of course, it's this story-telling ability that makes his well-crafted essays so eminently readable. It's like having a friend with good timing who can tell a story and make it hilarious. One time Ron found a mouse in the live trap we keep under our sink. Usually we take these mice to campus and put them right outside the building that houses the English department, but this night we were tired and didn't want to drive the mouse anywhere, so Ron walked it across the street and let it go. "You didn't take it far enough away," I whined. "It'll come back." The next morning, Ron opened the front curtains and stood there for a minute. "Look at that!" he said. We all came over and looked out. "Did you see that mouse limping slowly up the driveway?" he said.

Neither Ron nor Miriam, who have lived with me in houses near the woods with wolf spiders in the basement, have ever told a story like this about them:

"Big shaggy things the size of a baby's hand, they roamed the basement of my parents' house and evoked from my sisters the prolonged, spine-tingling screams called for in movies when the mummy invades the delicate lady's dressing room. 'Kill it!' they'd yell, and then I'd hear a half-dozen shoes hitting the linoleum, followed by a world atlas or maybe a piano stool--whatever was heavy and close at hand.
I was put off by the wolf spiders as well but never thought that they were purposefully out to get me. For starters, they didn't seem that organized. Then too, I figured they had their own lives to lead. This was an attitude I picked up from my father, who squashed nothing that was not directly related to him. 'You girls are afraid of your own shadows,' he'd say, and no matter how big the thing was, he'd scoot it onto a newspaper and release it outside. Come bedtime I'd knock on my sisters' door and predict that the spider was now crawling to the top of the house, where he'd take a short breather before heading down the chimney. 'I read in the encyclopedia that this particular breed is known for its tracking ability, and that once it's pegged its victims, almost nothing will stop it. Anyway, good night.'"

On a similar note, I've had the opportunity to eat a Japanese breakfast, and despite a well-deserved reputation for being adventurous about food, I passed it up. But not as entertainingly as Sedaris, who not only passes it up, but says:

"while shuddering I imagined a mother scolding her son. 'Oh, no you don't,' she might say. 'This is the most important meal of the day, and you're not going anywhere until you finish your pickles. That's right, and your seaweed too. Then I want you to eat your cold poached egg submerged in broth and at least half of that cross-eyed fish.'"

Although none of the essays are as side-splitting as "Six to Eight Black Men," I very much enjoyed "What I Learned," a Princeton commencement address, and, as always, I love the way the cumulative laughter builds as I read the book.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Summer afternoon rereading

Ron and I believe in rereading books. There are books we like to immerse ourselves in seasonally, or every few years, or just once more. Why else would we own books? One of the books I like to reread is John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We own a hardback copy of it, an old cassette version of the book on tape, which is what I just listened to in the car, and a DVD of the movie. When his newer book came out, The City of Falling Angels, I read it, and it was okay. But it doesn't have what draws me back to Midnight. I like the title, and the idea that whether something is good or evil can be decided by when it happens. This seems quintessentially southern to me. Southerners have fun alternating being mean and being nice, and blurring the line so you're less able to tell the difference.

Some of the kindest southerners I know have the sharpest tongues. One time I was listening to Ron's grandmother as she fixed lunch and went on and on about who was related to who else, and she unexpectedly finished up with "but, you know, he has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel." Then she turned around, put something on the table, and gave me a big smile. If you grow up in a southern family, the people around you can skew your sense of what is normal, and maybe what you can get away with. Think of William Faulker's A Rose for Emily or Flannery O'Connor's Why I Live at the P.O. Think of my parents, who enjoy my family and vacation with us at least every other year, but who have never come to a concert or a play my children are in, while they attended my seven-year-old niece's first piano recital this May and immediately offered her their grand piano.

When I was a teenager, I invented a game called "dead body." My friends would take me to a dark corner somewhere and dump me out of the car. I would lie there perfectly still, listening for any comments. Although we usually picked a place where someone could see the "body," few people evidenced much concern about what they'd just seen. My adolescent sense of the absurd was satisfied by the apparent lack of reaction from bystanders. Well, my adult sense of the absurd is always satisfied by reading about the Lady Chablis, the black drag queen who delights in shaking people up and seeing what happens. One of my favorites of her antics is when she convinces her white boyfriend's parents that she's pregnant, and they give her some money to pay for an abortion:

Chablis clapped her hands. "I took the money them white folks gave us to murder their unborn grandchild, and I bought that color TV sittin' over there and that videocassette player too. And with what was left over, I went out and got me the raunchiest little sequined dress I could find, so in case they ever do find out who I am, I can shake my ass in their face and tell them 'thanks from the bottom of our interracial baby's dead little heart!'"

I like all the characters, from Luther Driggers, who takes flies out on pieces of string, tries to make glow-in-the-dark goldfish, and makes people nervous by talking about putting poison in the water supply, to Joe Odom, who gives "historical" tours of every house he finds to squat in, whether it's historical or not. And, of course, I like the story of how the police came in and had a party in Jim Williams' fancy house on the way to arresting him for murder, and then they all got on the stand and swore they'd followed police procedure. Plus his story has a bang-up ending, what with the voodoo queen who reveals his apparent lack of feeling for the boy who died and the way he dies himself, at the end of the book.

The preface to my book on tape adds to all the absurdity by revealing that John Berendt first went to Savannah because he noticed that the price of an airline ticket to that city was the same as the price of a fancy dinner in downtown Manhattan.

Rereading the stories in this book is as fun as sitting around on the cushioned glider swing on my great-aunt's shady screened-in porch in Jonesboro, Arkansas, listening to the older folks tell about the doings of their friends and relatives. It doesn't matter if you've heard the stories before. Everybody's still gonna laugh and slap their knees for a while, and then they'll gather themselves up slowly and a few of them will turn on lights and notice where the kids have gone and a few will make their way back to the kitchen to bring out some supper.

Monday, June 2, 2008

and the livin' is easy (well, easier)

We had a whirlwind weekend, with a soccer tournament, a cookout at our house, and then an end-of-the-season soccer picnic at the coach's house. The weather was extraordinarily cooperative--it was sunny and in the high 70's. Now that I've acclimated to life in the north, high 70's actually feels like summer to me... well, as long as the sun is out, anyway. This morning Walker and I were combing our hands through the garden looking for a caterpillar. Our six-year-old cookout guest captured one yesterday and put it in a bug jar and left it, so I released it last night. We have not yet found a substitute caterpillar, although the word is that the six-year-old is prostrate with grief. I called off my part of the search when I had my hand under the leaves of a plant and then realized that they looked familiar--I called Walker over-- "doesn't this look like poison ivy?" "Yeah, mom, it looks just like the picture." So I had to come in and wash my hands with Dawn and then a urushiol remover. Hope it works.

The kids and I have two days to clean up and rest up from the weekend, before scheduled summer activities begin in earnest, so maybe I'll have some time for sustained reading. For the last few days, I've only gotten in a few pages at a time. One of our party guests said that she had trouble sitting down and reading, without thinking she needed to jump up and do something else. We talked about the way we all multi-task, and whether twittering is a good habit to get into. Well, as you can probably tell, I'm in favor of sustained activities. I think that, for me at least, trying to stretch my attention too many different ways is kind of like making horcruxes--I'd lose a little more of my soul with every new activity I tried to add.

At any rate, here's my review of the book I read in small increments, amid the weekend whirlwind. It's Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin. Now, Zevin wrote Elsewhere, which Eleanor and I found absolutely fascinating. So when I found a new book by her at the library, I put it right in my bag. As you might expect from the title, though, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac is nowhere near as fascinating as Elsewhere was. It's an entirely serviceable book; I didn't mind reading it, but it doesn't stand out in the vast realm of YA realistic fiction.

The main character, Naomi, falls down the school steps, knocks herself out, and loses four years of her most recent memories. She can remember middle school, but not high school. She doesn't remember her parents' divorce, and she's lost in French class, which she evidently began in ninth grade. The most interesting part of the book is her relationship with her yearbook co-editor, a "best friend" of the opposite sex. It took me--and Naomi--halfway through the book to put together that he calls her "chief" and she used to call him "coach" in one of their many private joke references. Most of the book is Naomi trying to figure out what kind of person she used to be, and then working on what kind of person she wants to be, in relation to her friends and family. She lives with her dad, and when they leave the hospital after her head injury, she looks for the red truck that she remembers. When he says he got rid of it she says

"You're joking. You loved that truck!"
Dad muttered something about the new one being more fuel-efficient. "It's covered in the memoir," he added.
It was, though I wouldn't find this out for many months. He wrote about the truck on page ninety-eight of his book. He claimed to have sold it because it reminded him of Mom. He didn't mention a thing about fuel efficiency. It was funny how Dad was more honest in a book that anyone in the world could pick up and read than he could be talking to me. Or maybe it was sad. One or the other. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Of course it's sad/funny to a person's closest friends or family members to find out that context is all; since we often have rushed conversations on the way to the next thing, we don't always get the entire context for how someone is feeling, especially in terms of how those feelings have developed over the years. That's what writing a journal is for. Or blogging. Or writing a book, whether it's confessional literature or a novel. To go back to an earlier post, lies can be a way of telling the truth, and giving someone a soapbox can be a way of seeing more of the person, without your own whirlwinds intruding on their space.