Saturday, July 31, 2010

Digging for Treasure

This visit home is, or rather was, something of a working vacation, at least for the first couple of days. What this meant was flying into Pittsburgh -- after ridiculous if entirely predictable delays with my connection through Atlanta -- and then staying for a day or two in McKeesport, PA to shop a remainder warehouse for the bookstore where I work. (Anyone who has been in the books business as long as I have, and is still at it, will have come to appreciate the value of discounted books, and publishers' discontinued -- or remaindered -- titles in particular. Once just the stuff of discreetly labeled bargain tables, remainders now are or ought to be a considerable part of what a successful bookstore sells. Not sure how anyone keeps the doors open nowadays without them.) To be honest, I haven't bought remainders for a bookstore in a very long time. My concentration for years now has been used books, all but exclusively. But, as I was coming back to Pennsylvania anyway for a little family time, and as this time I was traveling alone, it seemed an admirable idea that I stop in McKeesport first and do a little business before heading North to my folks house.

The warehouse is in a town that has seen better economic days. The factories and mills, for the most part, closed about a generation ago. The businesses that have survived have all seemed to adapt to existing spaces left vacant by disappearing manufacture and the like. One can drive through such places for the length of what was once a manufacturing corridor downtown, and see nothing but sandwich shops, bars, and real-estate signs. Some few businesses, have simply started from scratch. Book Country is just such a business. The building used to house a bakery operation on a fairly large scale. Now it houses thousands upon thousands of books. Everything in the place is something a publisher has sold off, unsorted, in lots to companies like this one for sale to retail. Booksellers like me, or more often people who do this sort of thing regularly and with considerably greater expertise, like my boss, come out, pick the books they want for their inventory and bargain tables, designate the quantities they want to sell, and then, working with one of the wonderful staff people at the place, have the lot picked, packaged, and shipped off.


I met the owner, had a grand lunch across the street at "Hoots" with Jerry, the sales exec., and then set to work in the sweltering warehouse, with my helper. The temperature inside on a sweltering July day in Western PA was... unpleasant. But the work was actually rather fun; like shopping, but in a sauna.

My only issue beyond the sloppy wet heat, and the dust and dirt to which such a big, open operation is naturally prone, was in trying to buy books in quantities appropriate to the bookstore's needs. As a used books buyer, quantity is not usually something I have much opportunity to think about. I only hope I did well enough with the numbers. (I did talk a couple of times on my cellphone with dear N. at the store, who runs the remainder tables at the bookstore, and with my boss, but... we'll see.)


I was buying paperbacks and a few hardcovers from Oxford, Harpers and the like, so it wasn't that hard to pick out recognizable and saleable titles, but did I buy enough? or worse, too much? I don't suppose I'll know really until the books arrive and those who know better review what I bought and then decide if I'm ever to be let loose in such a situation again.

Meanwhile, I must just say how impressed I truly was by the dogged good cheer of everyone working at the place, and by the genuinely hard work everyone on the floor does every day. I worked there just two days, with helpers, hardly lifting a thing, with water bottles offered me every few minutes and company on the stoop when I had to go out and smoke, and I frankly thought I might die. Meanwhile, these good people do this year 'round. Good people. Hope I get to see them again -- though maybe on some nice, cool, September morning next time.

Daily Dose

From The Terrible Girls, by Rebecca Brown

YOU

"You ran home as fast as your ridiculous little shoes would carry you."

From Lady Bountiful and the Underground Resistance

Friday, July 30, 2010

Vacation Reading #5


"Crossing the Border," by Ogden Nash. Getting older, you know.

Daily Dose

From Insignificant Others: A Novel, by Stephen McCauley

ALTHOUGH

"Although I'm usually eager to believe rumors of anyone's infidelity or graft, I would bet the source of the rumors was his office, the only one in the entire building without glas walls into the atrium."

From Champ

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Vacation Reading #4

video
"Squeeze Play," a poem by Phyllis McGinley, explaining the process of artistic inspiration in the work of a famous Abstract Expressionist.

Daily Dose

From The Sealed Letter: A Novel, by Emma Donoghue

ON

"On what arbitrary pivots our lives turn."

From Chapter 5, Surveillance

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Vacation Reading # 3


"A Word to Husbands," by Ogden Nash, pretty much sums up any advice I could offer to the newly married.

Daily Dose

From Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

A SUMMER

"A summer. Two summers, perhaps, and a winter. Time out of mind ago -- at least not out of mind but shrunk to a necklace of moments when we did this or that, when we said this or that, were here or there."

from Chapter 11

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Vacation Reading #2

video
"Henry Kin," from Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses, a favorite of mine.

Daily Dose

From On Whitman, by C. K. Williams

AT ANY RATE

"At any rate, whatever the debt Whitman directly may have owed to Emerson, in his preface to the first Leaves of Grass, he takes Emerson's 'poet' and enlarges him to what he calls 'the Greatest Poet,' offering a program similar to Emerson's, though on a scale to make Emerson's seem timid."

From Emerson and the Greatest Poet

Monday, July 26, 2010

Vacation Reading #1

video
"The Purist," by Ogden Nash.

Daily Dose

From Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, edited and an introduction by Italo Calvino

FANTASTIC

"The fantastic tale is one of the most characteristic products of nineteenth-century narrative. For us, it is also one of the most significant because it is the genre that tells us the most about the inner life of the individual and about collectively held symbols."

From the Introduction

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Vacation Readings

Last year, when I went back to see the old people in Pennsylvania, I worked long and hard to prepare a series of essays by other hands to fill this space in my absence. The response was less than enthusiastic. One friend said the idea was clever, but that he hadn't read any of the classic essays I'd posted, as they were not by me. Flattering, that, I suppose. I heard similar things from other regular visitors to this site. Considering all the typing etc. that went into that effort, I've decided to go a different way this year.

So this time, instead of reproduced masterpieces of the essay, I thought I would read to you, every day. Of necessity, these readings will be very short; just the briefest poems and excerpts, but funny, so as to keep with the spirit of my time away -- hopefully.

The primary function of this blog has been to amuse, however lightly, so this little vacation project will do the job while I'm away.

I've selected quite a few things from the little volume of Comic Poems from the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets. Most are only a minute or two in the reading. Among the authors selected, I've included old favorites of mine, like Hilaire Belloc, Dorothy Parker, Phyllis McGinley, and Ogden Nash. Amidst the nonsense, there is, as always, a good deal of good sense as well. You may decide for yourselves which is which.

Hopefully, this brief visits with the humble reader, will suffice while I'm off visitin' with the folks.

All you're likely to get, anyway.

Be back soon enough.

Daily Dose

From American Romances: Essays, by Rebecca Brown

SUSAN SONTAG

"Why didn't she, when she finally did come out after all those years, say something such as 'I stayed in the closet for decades because if I'd come out earlier, I would have been ghettoized as lesbian and not able to do the work I wanted to do. That I can come out now without losing the respect I have earned as a thinker is partly due to the work other lesbians and gay people have been doing for decades.'"

From Note 3, for Invisible

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle


Summer-inappropriate-outfit for reading outdoors -- unless one is in Seattle. Looks about right, here.

Daily Dose

From Roderick Hudson, by Henry James

ROME

"It was a large, vague, idle, half profitless emotion, of which perhaps the most pertinent thing that may be said is that it brought with it a sort of relaxed acceptance of the present, the actual, the sensuous -- of life on the terms of the moment."

From Chapter 9

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Caricature


My old boss, Richard Labonte: The Great Gay White Beard of GLBTQ Letters.

Daily Dose

From Absence of Mind, by Marilynne Robinson

DATA

"William James says data should be thought of not as givens but gifts, this by way of maintaining an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know."

From Thinking Again

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"David's Library"

video
Having recently replaced by tattered old copy of Q's Oxford Book of English Prose -- thanks to a handsome present of a gift-certificate for a favorite used bookstore from my dear Ms. T., a.k.a. the Work Wife -- I thought I would share a favorite passage from David Copperfield, as selected for Oxford.

Daily Dose

From David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

NARRATIVE

"'There, my dear!' she said. 'Now you know the beginning, middle and end, and all about it.'"

From Chapter XLVI, Intelligence

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Bon-Mots of Sydney Smith and R. Brinsley Sheridan, edited by Walter Jerrold

BENEVOLENCE

"Benevolence is a natural instinct of the human mind -- When A sees B in grievous distress, his conscience always urges him to entreat C to help him."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Another (Blue) Bookstore Doodle


Again, the paper was blue, not the baby.

A (Blue) Bookstore Doodle


Nothing naughty in the title, just the scrap-paper we had at the desk.

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Laurence Sterne

NOW

"Now, where am I got to?"

From a letter to David Garrick, Esq., dated Paris, April 10, 1762

Monday, July 19, 2010

Clerihew of Some Anticipation

HILARY MANTEL

Hilary Mantel
Honestly can't tell,
Just how long it will take her to write the sequel.
(Well worth doing, I'd think, all things being equal.)

Daily Dose

From The Energies of Art, by Jacques Barzan

WALTER BAGEHOT

"Pick up Bagehot anywhere and you soon fall upon a piece of exposition, an argument, or an aside that displays the mind uninhibited by category or convention, by fear of the reader or of being wrong."

From Bagehot, or The Human Comedy

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, Volume II

KNOWN

"Why, my Paper is done, talking about these dead and gone whom you and I have only known in Print; and yet as well so as most we know in person."

From a letter to John Allen, March 19, 1866

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Caricature


Sometimes, it takes a few decades to get a thing just right.

Daily Dose

From Tell Me Story: An Anthology, by Charles Laughton

ME TOO

"I like stories better than anything else that is made by man."

From the Introduction

Friday, July 16, 2010

Wet Your Lips & Make Love to the Camera

I am suficiently excited about this that I'm willing to play the model myself, though obviously I'm not going to be workin' the runway any time soon. I don't usually wear T-shirts in public, but I did want to show off the new T-shirt I collaborated in making for the bookstore where I work. When I proposed the idea, roughly a year or so ago, we brainstormed a list of online descriptions of condition for used books. We may end up producing shirts with a variety of these condition-descriptions on the front, but this one was the winner of the preliminary popularity contest, and thus ended up on the prototype, and on me. My one request of the wonderful people in the promotions department? They had to make at least one T-shirt 2XL.

Here it is.
On the back, besides the obvious, there is a yellow dot on the spine: just like every used book shelved next to the new books in the store. Clever, ain't we?

Anyway, I like it, and think others will too. Soon these will be for sale in the store and online. I'm proud of that, though you'd hardly know it from that ugly mug, now would you?

Daily Dose

From The Works of Laurence Sterne

THE GREAT PURSUIT

"The great pursuit of man is happiness; it is the first and strongest desire of his nature; -- in every stage of his life he searches for it as for hid treasure; -- courts it under a thousand different shapes, -- and, though perpetually disappointed, -- still persists, runs after, and inquires for it afresh, -- asks every passenger who comes his way Who will shew him any good? -- who will assist him in the attainment, or direct him to the discovery, of this great end of all his wishes?"

From Sermons. I. -- Inquiry After Happiness

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Small Tribute (Inexpensively Framed)


Here we have novelist Ivan Doig accepting the (inexpensively)framed original of his caricature by yours truly. Behind him, the delightful Mrs. Doig. When the author showed her a copy of this drawing, her response was, "Ha, gave you hair."

Ivan Doig was reading last night from his new novel, Work Song, at the bookstore where I work. While I couldn't attend, I'd promised him the original of the drawing that I'd posted some time ago here. I couldn't be better pleased that Mr. Doig seems pleased.

Doing my little sketches, I'm always aware that not everyone is as pleased as Mr. Doig seems to have been. As of today, for instance I'm still nervously waiting for a reaction from at least two recent subjects. Wish me luck.

Daily Dose

From Prose and Poetry, by Stephan Crane

CONRAD

"As for the ruck of writers who make the sea their literary domain, Conrad seems in effect simply to warn them off the premises, and tell them to remain silent."

From The English "Academy"

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Caricature


Just a little reminder, things can change... but not headcheese.

Daily Dose

From The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, by Marilynne Robinson

PRIGGISHNESS

"This fine old English word, of no known etymology and therefore fetched from the deep anonymous heart of English generations, is a virtual poem in the precision with which it expresses pent irritation."

From Puritans and Prigs

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Clerihew of Daughterly Devotion

LADY ANNE ISABELLA THACKERAY RITCHIE

Lady Ritchie,
Could be bitchy,
When anything bad
Was said of her dad.

Daily Dose

From Nobody's Home: Essays, by Dubravka Ugresic

RUSSIAN

"All Russian literature rides on trains."

From Europe, Europe

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Dobson's Eighteenth Century Essays, selected and annotated by Austin Dobson

HELP

"But he did not trust so much to natural sagacity, as wholly to neglect the help of books."

From Dick Minim the Critic, by Samuel Johnson

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Caricature


Say, I knew him when. I actually know nothing about the movie, other than it's a real feature, will indeed be in the above mentioned film festival, and that the kid who used to work for me in another bookstore years ago, Mark Cirillo, is no less than the star, thank you very much. (Don't trust the tag-line, that's just a scene I'm kinda hoping will be in the movie.) I saw him play a naked corpse once, and he was really, really good. After that, I've caught him a couple of times, in small roles, playing live people and he was awfully good in those things as well. Now he's in an independent feature film. Congratulations, Mark! Here's wishing you and the movie every success.

Daily Dose

From Novels and Stories, by Shirley Jackson

A CHARM

"No sense worrying, she told herself again, as though it were a charm against witches, and got up and found her coat and hat and put them on."

From Pillar of Salt

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Found in a Book

This is just a little something, found in the battered little leather bound volume of Hume's Essays I purchase down the road. Parsing what I could, and accepting that this little slip may in fact have had no better connection to the volume than any other place-mark, I like to think that the undated book may once have been of sufficient import to its owner as to have been insured as part of a parcel. Possible, yes? The book itself is small, and was probably never so very expensive as to warrant insurance of itself, so I prefer to think of it as part of a larger, though still portable library, sent after someone from my own home state out here to what was at the period most likely still just the West and not yet the state of Washington.

It's a lovely thought, isn't it?

The wear to the covers and the tears on the spine, while making the book worth no more than the four dollars and fifty cents I spent for it, also suggest a devoted yet respectful reader, or rather a whole history of them between its original and its present possessor. There are indications throughout the text that the ribbon has rested between more pages than just the ones where I found it. Two or three very delicate annotations, all in pencil and quite discreet, not however in the same hand, likewise indicate multiple owners. That the book has survived even in the shape it is in for what may well be more than one hundred years, tells me first that "The New Universal Library" of which this is one volume from E. P. Dutton & Co. was meant to last, and secondly that the Essays of David Hume were assumed likewise to be required by future generations. I like the confidence expressed by both assumptions and the fact that it has been justified, if only by me.

As for the little coupon from the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, as it stipulates to both "Automobile" and "Horse & Wagon Floaters," whatever that may mean, as being on offer, I like to think my own grandmother may well have been a client of the company as well whoever dropped this slip into the book. My grandma was almost exactly six months old the day the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and lived to see the Space Shuttle circle the planet. I suspect the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, as such, is probably now something less than the memory of my grandma is to me. Yet this scrap of paper, slipped in a book, testifies, however inarticulately, to the fact of that company's existence, much as the photograph of my grandparents dancing that I keep in my office reminds me of where I came from.

It is, as I've recently discovered in reading so many ghost stories, less the connections to our past that are familiar or that can be proved than the suggestion of connections previously unsuspected or hitherto unnoticed that remind us to attend to whatever presence the dead reveal to the living. True, reading ghost stories has also reminded me that to make too much of minor coincidence; the recurrence of a name, the reminder of a past home, the change in a familiar photograph when studied again for the first time in who knows how long, to see in such things signs of anything, is more symptomatic of, in the kindest construction, a fallacious, even dangerous self reflection rather than any visitation of spirits either benevolent or otherwise. Still, as I'm very much in the mood for ghosts, let me just quote briefly from the passage in Hume's Essay X, Of Superstition and Enthusiasm, where I found the insurance slip:

"Every thing mortal and perishable vanishes as unworthy of attention; and a full range is given to the fancy in the invisible regions, or world of Spirits, where the soul is at liberty to indulge itself in every imagination, which best suits its present taste and disposition."

So if my grandmother, or some previous owner of this little book, or even the presumably defunct Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania meant to communicate nothing to me tonight, even if they could, clearly David Hume at least would seem to be suggesting it was a good thing I picked up his book to read with my supper rather than the Algernon Blackwood stories I'd intended to read, but somehow could not find in the stack by my bed, though right there it was when I looked again just now.

Clearly, I had more need of more rational companionship than I had tonight of ghosts.

Thank you, Mr. Hume, wherever you are.

Daily Dose

From The Beckoning Fair One, by Oliver Onions

WHEN

"... when a man has an overmastering impulse to get back into bed he ought to take heed of the warning and obey it."

From Chapter XI

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Collected Stories 1891 - 1910, by Edith Wharton

HIS MIND

"His mind was like a forum, or some open meeting place for the exchange of ideas: somewhat cold and draughty, but light, spacious and orderly -- a kind of academic grove from which all the leaves had fallen."

From The Eyes

Thursday, July 8, 2010

No One Lies in Lily Dale

Speaking of ghosts, while I was home last week, lost somewhere between influenza and the next world, I had occasion to put down the ghost stories I was reading and watch a documentary about a place where every house is haunted. I'd seen the listing for this new HBO feature, "No one Dies at Lily Dale", and intended to watch it straight away, but it had to wait until a gloomy afternoon with the shades down, the curtains drawn, and me in bed in the middle of the day, feverish, shivering, dripping and miserable, sourly bundled in comforters and robes. One must be in the appropriate state of mind sometimes -- undone as it were -- to be open to certain experiences. Peeping at the TV from under the covers, woozy and damply chilled, felt somehow... right.

My curiosity regarding the subject of the film goes back to my early fascination with Houdini, specifically the old Tony Curtis biopic. As a boy, I thought Tony looked lovely in his turn-of-the-century trunks, all padlocked and wet. Harry, as it turned out, was a muscled little cuss himself. My innocent curiosity led me on. (Best not to question this.) While I never became one of those boys with a magic kit and a deck of cards always at the ready, I did become quite interested in Harry Houdini, and read his books, as well as books about him. As a result, I read a good deal about spiritualism too. As an adult, and a skeptic, I've naturally read about Lily Dale as well. Houdini, as the HBO documentary briefly mentions, himself once went there. As the camp's historian describes the incident in the film, Houdini knocked on many doors in Lily Dale, but no one answered.

Perfectly understandable.

At the time Houdini went to Lily Dale, spiritualism was booming. There were a number of communities like Lily Dale, or "camps", as they were called, scattered all across the US, and followers of the movement across the globe, Houdini's great friend, and eventual antagonist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among them. As a professional magician, Houdini's skeptical curiosity about both the claims and methods of the spiritualists proved irresistible, and at the high point in his fame, after the death of his beloved mother, he devoted a fair part of his time offstage to visiting spiritual mediums, attending seances, and talking to both practitioners of the trade and their followers. Eventually, he wrote a number of newspaper articles, and even books, like A Magician Among the Spirits (1924,) exposing the fraudulent tricks of the mediums. He easily reproduced many of the supposedly supernatural phenomena the mediums used to gull their customers: making "spirit" photographs of himself in conversation with Abraham Lincoln, demonstrating how the mediums used accomplices to gather information for sittings, or to work the darkened rooms, even how some mediums used their feet to manipulate the various crude effects, like the floating "spirit" trumpets, apparitions, "ectoplasm" and the like. By the time Harry Houdini came knocking on the mediums' doors in Lily Dale -- then the grandest and most successful spiritualist tourist camp in the country -- the great illusionist and other skeptics had already dealt what proved to be a near death-blow to the "physical medium." No wonder then they locked their doors and drew the shades when Harry came to call.

Spiritualism, however, did not die, Houdini did. The spiritualist movement, having largely abandoned any attempt at "physical mediumship" beyond the occasional, rather quaint spell of table-rocking and the like -- as briefly and rather awkwardly demonstrated in the HBO film -- survived, as a minor American religious movement. Mediums, now generally describing themselves instead as "psychics," likewise carry on, though nowadays operating almost exclusively as cold readers.

I have some personal experience of this particular phenomenon. In college, in my dormitory, there was a boy, a dancer, who fancied himself a "psychic." The building we lived in was a converted hotel and by the standards of a small, Midwestern city, old. This kid, without meaning any real harm, I'm convinced, managed himself to convince any number of his fellow students that the place was indeed haunted. Harmless fun, for the most part. Various of my fellow theater students began sensing something dark in the corners of their rooms. There was a good deal of shrieking and running down the halls at midnight. The boy-psychic would often be called on to come and "read" someone's room. Invariably, spiritual "disturbances" would be found. Thrilling. Eventually, after much meditative humming and the like, and a brief conversation over candlelight with the ghost or ghosts, the room would be declared "clear," and the entertainment would be over for the night.

One evening in the lobby, I witnessed all of this good natured spookery being taken in a new direction, when a number of kids gathered around this dancer while he did "individual readings." Handing him a ring, or some other personal possession that they normally "kept close" to them, each of the boy's new friends would sit opposite him on the couch, and after a few seconds spent "feeling the vibrations," the consultation would begin in earnest. General astonishment. Amazement. I watched at least three of these readings before requesting my own. I was careful to control myself with a rigid discipline. I confined my answers to monosyllables whenever possible. I intentionally blinked and allowed myself only the smallest movements only when I was quite sure to be unobserved by the boy during the reading. I even smiled at inappropriate moments, before rejecting his conclusions, though always in a seemingly encouraging way. My reading was his first complete failure. General Astonishment. Disbelief. Then I read him. And then I did another. And then I told them what I'd done.

It was exhilarating, and more than a little cruel. I don't say that either of us was specially expert, or that my understanding of doing this trick was specially sophisticated. What I counted on, as all amateur practitioners of the technique must, was mostly the willingness of my sitters and audience to overlook and promptly forget all the guesses I'd got wrong, all the vague questions and not very specific predictions, the broad conclusions from the small details I'd been told and that the sitters invariably then forgot having mentioned. To "read" someone in this unscientific, spiritually unsophisticated way, really only requires patience, a little practice, concentration, particularly on any change in the sitter's expression or posture, and most importantly, a willingness, or rather a genuine eagerness on the part of the sitter to believe. I don't doubt even now that that kid who fancied himself a psychic was completely sincere. Maybe he was extraordinary, in some way, you know, just not the way he thought. (I'd still love to meet a genuine psychic myself.) He had never questioned, so far as I was ever able to tell, but that what he was doing was making some mystical connection with his sitters and or the spiritual realm. What I did, he eventually explained, despite my own explanation of the cold readings we'd both done that night, must somehow have been influenced by some malevolent "presence," presumably beyond whatever malevolence I was exhibiting myself. When he retired from the field, I actually felt kinda bad. I made no friends among his followers either, though a few of my friends who had actively participated in all this did seem a little shamefaced that night. I don't think the dancer did any more readings in the dorm thereafter, at least not in public, to my knowledge.

Some part of me then, despite my own experience, despite my own reading on the subject, watching "No One Dies in Lily Dale," rather hoped to have the little hair I have left on the top of my head be made to stand up at some point by something like the inexplicable. As I've said, I was feeling a special connection that day to the dead.

What I saw though was a melancholy business. Today, Lily Dale, rather than the thriving resort it was before Houdini's day, is a shadow of its former self, just a quaint little village in upstate New York, seemingly populated entirely by mostly well meaning souls who make their obviously rather modest living by charging admission to the camp, renting rooms to the sparse crowds of summer visitors, and performing a few shows a day at the stump, when they aren't holding private consultations at picnic tables or in their parlors. It was all just so very... sad.


The famous stump, now fenced, was the spot in the woods where once the spiritualists held their high hootenannies with believers in their hundreds. Onto this natural Chautauqua platform would rise one of the leaders of the movement, and from that perch would come all manner of revelation, presumably. Now, prognostications are confined to the ground, where the hardworking "Miracle Mongers," to use Houdini's cruel phrase, must mingle with their meager audiences like performers in a rather musty night-club act; calling out ailments, etc., like diabetes, until they get a nod from the fat lady, or rather until they pick one of the nodding fat ladies to diagnose in this way.

The film concentrates on roughly half a dozen of the locals, mostly ladies of a certain age, as they work the little crowds or practice on their porches. The personal interviews with nearly all these folks are quite sweet. One never gets the sense, even from the most hopelessly inept of these "certified" practitioners but that they, like the dancer in my dorm, are utterly sincere. Even the gentleman who cures illness by holding a green pepper near people, seems touchingly proud to have "helped." Another fellow, an impatient, almost brusque little bald chap, while by far the least likable and least successful of those offering private readings, seems not so much smug as sad when the camera finds him left to console himself on the stoop, without receiving so much as a thank you from his client, though presumably she paid up-front. He tells us that not everyone is ready to hear what he has to say. He then offers a wan, rather toothy smile. This, after he's got things quite wrong, even as to the voice and vocabulary of the deceased, obviously relying on a rather unsophisticated template of a generic male and in so doing producing a specially disastrous failure with a young woman seeking a message from the fiancee who may or may not have done himself a deadly harm before they could come to get married. The client angrily tells her friends as they walk away, that the guy was obviously "a fraud."

I don't know that that was a fair statement. Of all the Lily Dale residents one meets in the film, he did seem the least enthusiastic performer, but I at least never had the sense, even from him, that he thought for a minute that what he was doing was put on, or that he, or any of them, gave the slightest suggestion of obvious fakery or attempted tricks of any kind. Even the brassy chick from Vegas, making her first guest appearance at the stump, hilariously hobbled in the gravel by her stripper-heels, proves to be a surprisingly sincere, even vulnerable individual under all the makeup and false tits and hair. When we see her later in private consultation with a resident operator, to whom she confesses her confusion about what to do with her ne'er-do-well adult son, even the Vegas gal seems strangely without personal resources, and willing, grateful in fact, to take in the blandest greeting-card-wisdom as one thirsting in the desert.

For the most part though, everyone living in Lily Dale seems jolly enough. One woman, in an unguarded moment, does admit to the occasional conflict in the community, though a second later, she's quick to reassert something more like universal harmony as the general rule. In my favorite scene in the film, this lady and her two sisters, village psychics all, join a small gathering of savants for what would once have been called a seance. Circling the dining room table, heads bowed in the fading summer light, this might almost be a Quaker meeting; the silence slowly punctuated with murmured prayer. Then the other guests are announced. One by one, various invisible visitors are noted as present. The roll-call is surprisingly extensive in the small dining room. One wonders if various dead relatives might be on the porch impatiently waiting their turn.

"I'm getting a David," one lady says, "but not your David," she adds helpfully, referring to another lady's deceased husband. "Though, your David's here," a third lady is quick to assure the widow. "Yes, I know," the widow rather irritably acknowledges, clearly not needing to be informed as to her late husband's whereabouts by some helpful third party.

Were the spiritualist activities in the town confined to just this sort of harmless after dinner demonstration, the daily recreations in the woods and the services in the clapboard meeting hall, the decision of the documentarians to treat the whole enterprise as a ever so slightly risible exercise in religious Americana would be understandable. These folks are Constitutionally entitled to rock tables, talk to the dead and see angels in the hedges. But Lily Dale, remember, is not just some New Age retirement settlement, but a business, or, as one visitor calls it, a kind of "spiritual Disneyland." (Though, from the look of the place, it might be better to think of Lily Dale as a kind of Colonial Williamsburg of Spiritualism; a minor historical site preserved from more prosperous days, where instead of churning butter, they churn the dead.) Beyond the entrance fees and the hotel rooms and the price of rock crystals in the gift shops, Lily Dale is a working psychic mill. Though money is never seen to change hands in the film, everyone in for the day or the week for consultations with the unseen, pays for the privilege. The grandmotherly lady with the fluttering eyelids presumably doesn't invite passersby into her pink living room without collecting admission. Some of these old birds even have their rates helpfully posted at the door.

The film's director, Steven Cantor, never saw a pseudo-religious lawn ornament, or even a lawn-gnome, he didn't choose to photograph in the dewy light of dawn, or a music-box-angel that didn't deserve a close-up. Cantor's recurring emphasis on this ubiquitous kitsch in Lily Dale is as close as he comes to commenting directly on the vacuity of the spiritualists' theology, at least as touched on in the film. Only a brief scene of Christian fanatics protesting witchcraft at the gates of Lily Dale, suggests that there is an alternative view of all the relentless sunshine and sugar-water being served inside. In the psychic readings, public and private, into which Cantor inserts his camera, the filmmaker maintains an almost cinéma vérité neutrality. The clients are interviewed before and after, and allowed to comment without prejudice. The only negative review of these readings comes from the one dissatisfied customer I mentioned above. She is encouraged, by her friends, and then by the one -- resident -- expert in these matters, an in-house historian of the movement who smilingly acknowledges the possibility of just such an empty experience as that which she'd had with the toothy little bald guy, nevertheless she is encouraged to have another go. When she does, she doesn't so much endorse the second reading as satisfactory, so much as less unpleasant. In her final scene in the film, what she seems finally to come away with from the experience is the same conclusion about the need to "move on" with which she came to Lily Dale. So, did this woman have some spiritual connection to her dead fiancee at Lily Dale? Far be it from Cantor to be so unsympathetic as to intrude further on her grief by asking directly.

In maintaining something like the appearance at least of journalistic neutrality then, Cantor is free to return to his wind-chimes and sweeping, overhead shots, so suggestive of souls in free flight. Steve Cantor can't seem to help himself, whatever the evidence of human misery he's recorded on the ground, from finding Lily Dale charming. But this isn't journalism, of course. While such a dusty little operation as Lily Dale may admittedly not deserve anything like an expose, neither does it deserve this reverent silence as to the veracity of it's claims to spiritual comfort, or it's history as the summer quarters of this antique sideshow still called spiritualism. Cantor, in choosing to not explore the history of the place, or question either the residents or their paying clients too far as to the substance or even the palliative efficacy of these "readings," or the tragic circumstances that brought these paying visitors to Lily Dale, ends by endorsing the experience as unique. In not providing the viewing audience with any perspective antithetical to either the shallow optimism of the spiritualist "theology," other than a few ranting fundamentalists at the gate, or any explanation of the thoroughly shoddy methods employed in the readings, the filmmaker frees himself to remain utterly credulous as to the psychics' claims, and indulge his taste for pretty aerial pictures, while condescending without much subtlety to the sad people who've come in search of consolation, and the resident believers in auras, angels, and universal love.

That is the film's failure. My own disappointment in not seeing anything supernatural happen at Lily Dale isn't unexpected, but I was frankly shocked to watch a documentarian with a connection to HBO -- perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most economically powerful support of the form in the US today -- produce such an insubstantial exploitation of American spiritual naivete. Glancing mockery of the taste or mental stability of the participants aside, what Cantor's film ultimately comes to is a valentine to a persistent, and more than a little pernicious, failure of contemporary American society to deal honestly with either the immutable nature of grief or the inscrutability of death. We do not like, in this country, to be seen to have failed at anything; medicine, parenting, love, life, or even the persistence of personality after death. It goes against the grain to admit the end of anything so ruggedly individual as us. So, buck up, people! It's all good. Even death can be an opportunity. Spiritualism then, as seen in Cantor's puff, is but the natural reductio ad absurdum of this insistent, sunny economic optimism that has already proved that it can kneed traditional Christianity into such a doughy mixture that it easily accommodates greed and pride, yoga and animism. Commercial spiritualism, at least as seen sincerely practiced in Lily Dale, in Cantor's film, comes from the same benign capitalist impulse that make saints into Santa Claus for Coca Cola, and Milton's angels into hummel figurines. Death then is just another stage in our personal growth. Seems silly the to get so worked up about it, doesn't it?

Where's the harm in Lily Dale, then?

Well, there isn't, much. No one goes there but in search of what's on offer, even, evidently, Steve Cantor and HBO. No one is getting rich in Lily Dale. No one is telling lies, even the filmmaker, except maybe to themselves. That I was hoping for something a little more enlightening, or at least harrowing, let's blame on my cold. Takes a lot to make me optimistic about immortality when I'm shivering with a fever and can't taste anything but salt.

Daily Dose

From Selected Journals 1841 - 1877, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

THE FACE

"The face, how few inches, yet all the hours, all the passions, sentiments, truths, destinies, use it as their index, inscribe their decrees."

From NO, 1855