Saturday, November 12, 2022

The Culprit Life

 


"The truth of it is, that there is not a single science, or any branch of it, that might not furnish a man with business for life, though it were much longer than it is."

-- Joseph Addison


Nutrition is a science. It's true. I checked online. You can earn a doctorate in the subject, from actual, legitimate universities. These are good schools not affiliated with model-weed-farming, Wilhelm Reich, naturopathic chiropractic, astrology, or divining. You can get a Masters from Johns Hopkins, people. I emphasize this as I understand your professional nutritionists can be a bit tetchy when challenged on their bona fides. This apparently happens all the damned time. Somebody releases a study that says coffee will kill you deader than dead. Somebody else releases a study that says a latte is all that stands between you and dementia, and --- fight. Seen more than one degreed nutritionist pop off at folks trashing the food pyramid or complaining that what supposedly caused cancer on Tuesday turned out to be good for babies and old folks a week later. First thing the nutrition scientists are apt to do is shout, "SCURVY!" even though I don't think actual, degreed nutritionists, or Johns Hopkins come to that existed when Admiral Nelson was tossing lemons from the crow's nest or however that went. Folic acid would frankly be a better rallying cry, but again, it was the English hematologist Lucy Wills who made the connection between deficiencies and birth defects in 1928, so... not an actual nutritionist. Still. FOLIC ACID! CITRUS! Yeah, boy!

I feel for anybody trying to study humans scientifically without being able to use controlled studies (you know, science.) Even when the professional nutritionistas have convinced people to participate in a proper study, even when the participants signed an oath in blood to not, I don't know, eat sardines for a month, two days later everybody's eating little tinned fish with the heads on, even if they never liked sardines before. Why? Because, as a species we are some perverse, suggestible, capricious animals, that's why. Must be maddening. So in the absence of actually being able to make us eat our peas or not according to the requirements of a proper study, much of what the nutrition-alchemists are forced to do is describe the elephant just by touch: "I got a tail this end!" "Me too!" We should all stand amazed that such methods can ever distinguish between tail and trunk, or apples and oranges to put it another way, and yet they do this all the time and sometimes they may even be right. Remarkable.

Having recently embarked on the stony road to kidney and gallbladder health, I was shocked to see some of what's now BAD for me -- because uric acid and or calcium -- even though these things were healthy choices mere minutes before I was handed my new nutrition guide: spinach, tomatoes, almonds, avocados... the list was long and deeply disheartening. WTF?! And that was just the kidneys. When my gallbladder joined the rebellion and threatened to blow up my abdomen unless its demands were met, suddenly citrus, dairy, liver, the list of banned substances ballooned to uncomfortable size. Basically, if I didn't want to die in agony I needed hereafter to eat only unseasoned beans and drink room-temperature water. I might have a wedge of iceberg lettuce for dessert -- no dark greens -- if  I was very very good and hadn't eaten a grain of salt since February. 

It wasn't all a Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I ought not to eat fatty meats. Well, no, I suppose not. Obvious if mean. Refined sugar isn't a friend. I get it. Again, I resent this, but I get it. Cheese may be second only to the printing press in my list of Greatest Human Inventions, but even I know one is not meant to eat one's weight in it annually. The weird bit was seeing so many old friends of a leafy green and vegetable nature on the nutritionist's new forbidden index. Really? Broccoli may be bad for me now? Broccoli?!?! Welcome to Opposites Day! Spinach may now be the worst thing you can eat. But I love spinach. Nope. Spinach may kill you. Spinach?! Will spinach kill me? It may.

Oh, that word, "may." That may be the nutritionists' favorite word. Scratch that. May is their favorite word. Ohmahgawd, they used it everywhere. Stone may come from eating X, or it may come from not eating enough Z. Eating less Y may reduce the risk of serious inflammation, or eating Q may cause the development of a third eye. The sun may rise, the sun may set, but who knows why "may" sounds so wet? 

Likelihood and possibility are perfectly respectable scientific terms, and yet modal verbs like "may" make doubters of us all. Science cannot prove that by keeping a loaded gun in your house you will be shot. It is likelier by a large number, but who knows? Maybe it will be your wife who takes the bullet, or a baby, or the dog. Maybe nobody dies. Does that mean the science was wrong? Nope. Sorry Gomer, you're still likelier to lose a toe to violence (or the sugar, statistically speaking.) Is it possible that there is life on other planets? Why, sure. Thrillingly likely. But that alien autopsy video from back in the day, that was still incredibly stupid though, right? Yes, yes it was. Remember: possibility, probability, straight-up stupid. As Americans, we are internationally recognized as unappreciative of distinctions, subtle and otherwise. A nation founded by slave-owners willing to sign a document proclaiming that "all men are created equal" is obviously a nation on whom subtlety -- and of course irony  -- long lost. Black and white. Left and right. Good and bad. Happy and sad. True and false.

So as an American I feel myself very much entitled to have a tantrum when told that spinach may kill me, and that porterhouse steak? That thing almost surely will. Okay, but spinach?! Seriously? Shut up! Stupid nutrition science. (Just so you know, everybody kinda hates you, nutritionists. Seriously, you are the dry carrot stick of food science. Wylie Dufresne, Grant Achatz, molecular gastronomists and kitchen wizards  making free-floating bacon-flavored smoke rings that circle poached pears that look like Saturn -- that stuff is super cool and tasty too. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and the whole Food Lab thing? That is beyond legit. It's like Richard P. Feynman made me a soufflé. Nutritionists? You're not even the lunch-ladies. You're the lady in the office who printed the cafeteria menus with the unconvincing exclamation-points next to the baked apple.)

I'm being mean now, but all this dietary restriction runs "contrary to the natural bias of our flesh," as puritan bad daddy Jonathan Edwards might put it. Contrary to mine, anyway. I can't smoke anymore. I was never much of a drinker. If memory still serves, the pursuit of sexual variety requires both more patience than I now have and better knees than I am likely to ever see again -- and now you need to download at least one more app, right? That is not going to happen. I don't play half the games I already have on my phone. Meanwhile, it really isn't an exaggeration to say that I genuinely love food. I certainly love it more now than it does me, but isn't that just always the way? So the idea that what wants to kill me now isn't a virus or or a carcinogen or an obvious danger like meeting new people or riding roller coasters, it isn't just the bad companions from the dairy isle and the deli counter, the soft cheeses and the cured meats, but almonds and berries and leafy greens... Well, the world really is a more hostile place than even I had ever imagined. Even the garden wants me dead.

Speaking of new apps, there is an advertisement that I see everywhere now and directed very much at my demo, i.e. my body mass, age, and general demeanor. It's a new kind of diet thingamy that's supposedly based on psychology rather than the more usual business of averages: weight and age and exercise and such. In the ads there are always at least one or two customers who enthuse that the app has helped them to understand their "relationship with food" and why, for example they eat what they do and when and so on, as if any and all of this was some unfathomable mystery. Now I may not be able to explain why a picture of that perfectly lovely and talented boy Timothée Chalamet does nothing for me and honestly always makes me think of rescued racing greyhounds, while all Harry Styles has to do to put on a sequence jumpsuit and I go all gooey inside. Doesn't much matter why, does it? That's a mystery. None of our lives are adversely effected by this. Doesn't need thinking about unduly. Whereas why I eat what I eat and when I eat what I eat and the whole business of cooking food and eating food and reading about food and thinking about food, about all of this I have thought much. Doesn't mean everybody ought to, but I have. I don't need a bit of new software on my phone to remind me that ice cream isn't always about sweetness or that prosciutto isn't just ham or that sane people do not dream often of gravy or make lists of the best macaroons they have ever eaten. It is not then that I am unaware, or even that I am all that inflexible. What I am is sad.

Every morning since I had the kidney stone surgically removed at the beginning of the year, I start my day with the juice of one lemon and two generous tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. (Mix with a cup and a half of cold water and down it like the sulfurous poison it is, soldier.) As unlikely as this sounds, it is. I do not seek medical advice from internet shamen nor do I dose myself based on what a guy I know was told by his cousin who "got over" kidney stones when he took up chewing betel. This breakfast beverage was perhaps my first serious foray into the alternative, because that is how bad kidney stones can be. This was nothing. Does it help? I do not know. Can't hurt. The foods that went from good for me to bad for me, however unwillingly I did as I was told and quit. Now comes a gallstone and the new gustatory puritanism takes on an even darker shade of dull, but I do as I am told. I do not like doing this. I resent doing this. I am frustrated that in doing this I guarantee nothing as this all may or may not help. I am all the grouchier having done this to learn three weeks later that I have actually gained a pound. (!) But I do it.

And now in a few days I will go into the hospital to have my gallbladder out in the sincere hope that this may right the sinking ship of me and possibly even restore some little joy to my diet. In surgery I have at least the comfort of hard science. Do this and this will stop. Even here though, the march of the medical "mays" goes endlessly on. I don't know if the dear reader has any recent experience with even minor surgery, but preliminary to any actual cutting comes the recitation of all that may kill you. The surgeon may slip and nick an artery. And then you die. The anesthetic may stop your heart. And then you die. Your heart may stop of it's own accord. And then you die. Going off blood-thinners even just two days before doesn't mean you may not bleed to death anyway, or have a blood clot or clots, or  a stroke. You could get cooties just being in a hospital because that's where the cooties live. The surgeon is legally required to recite all of this and more. Then the anesthesiologist does it again, as does the nurse-practitioner after doing the check-up to see if you will live long enough to even get the surgery. Come the day, I will not be surprised if the janitor feels obliged to describe an embolism to me or the receptionists form a Greek Chorus and lament the inexorable workings of the Fates. 

Don't really get to actually see my regular doctor nowadays. Since the pandemic she seems to be practicing largely from an undisclosed location somewhere in the Andes. Making an actual appointment to be in the same room with her now requires the burning of rare incense, various arcane rituals, and the kind of planning that brought off D-Day. Still, we occasionally chat on the phone. (We talk about boys we like and how much we hate gym and how girls can be really mean about our bangs when we don't get them really straight.) I was supposed to have a check-up with my general practitioner a week before my surgery. Her first available appointment was three weeks after the surgery, so that didn't work out. (I went to a clinic at the hospital.) Because of the difficulty of arranging anything through my health plan, when I manage an appointment -- any appointment -- I try to keep to the point. No time to be wasted as it might be another full cycle of the moon before the stars align again. Quick! The portal is closing!

Will this kill me? (Mark Yes or No.)

Can this be fixed? And if so, when?

If I am very lucky, before the doctor or nurse practitioner disappears in a puff of blue smoke, there will be an "action plan." Admittedly an awkward construction, but since inaction is the watchword of modern insurance practice, I find the words strangely comforting. The plan then is to poke holes in me and yank the offending organ out o' me. Ought not to kill me. Fingers crossed. (Sooooo many things can, you know.) and when the business is concluded, I will hopefully be home that same day. Whatever else happens, I am sure of only one thing. Soon as I get home, I am throwing that filthy "vegan butter" right in the trash and then I will go straight back to bed and dream of chicken livers in onion gravy, roasted rosemary potatoes, rice pudding, and... spinach. That's living, brother!  

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life!
-- Emily Dickinson


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Can't Stop the World


For forty years it has lived on my bookcase. Prom, 1982. We are in our matching tailcoat tuxedos, white tie and waistcoats, matching red rose boutonnieres. We are standing because she refused to sit in the white rattan chair. That was the expected pose: girl in the chair, legs safely crossed at the ankle or knee, boy slightly behind with one hand resting chastely on her shoulder. We were not that couple. We were not a couple at all of course, though we obviously were a couple of... something. My left hand is behind her back because the photographer would not take the picture if I showed my wrist-corsage. Also why my fan is folded. Her hands are in her pockets which makes it a rare photo indeed because she does not have a lit cigarette. Everything about this photo was both an act of defiance and a compromise, just like my friend, who I learned just this afternoon has died.

Once, years ago, I put up a bunch of old photos onto social media and invariably a number were of her, my very best friend in high school and a bit after. When she asked me to take these down I immediately did. It had not occurred to me that she would object. Always a very private person verging on reclusiveness, I thought she nevertheless might find the pictures amusing and touching as I did. After all, those kids were long gone, but I was wrong. Her past was private. I had overstepped. A typical misunderstanding, may I say, and neither our first, our worst, nor our last. Didn't really matter much in the end though. We had known each other too long, and for a vital time in both our lives too well not to be forgiven everything, always. 

It may be difficult to explain to anyone young enough or secure enough to never have known what it was to be nearly always unsafe in the world as we were then. That is a good thing that has happened. People worked very hard, some worked their whole lives to make that so. She and I were not unloved before we met. We were lucky there, actually. If who were were came to compromise us both in ways that threatened our education, our potential employment, our housing, our safety and our survival, we were lucky to have homes and mothers who loved us and frankly to have refuge in an overtly hostile place. We both knew others who had no such luck. A good part of what became my friend's professional life would be devoted to the care of people less lucky. Each of us found in the other if not safety as such, then an escape. Together we laughed, always. There was courage in this even if we were unaware of why we laughed so much and so hard and often at nothing. 

Fuck. She was a funny motherfucker, you know? No one I ever knew cursed more, cursed harder, cursed more frequently or pointlessly or to more hilarious effect. Even as completely grown, largely respectable adults, we were often pretty incoherent within minutes of being again in one another's company. Didn't much matter what other people might think of of us and the spectacle we invariably made in the parking lots of family-style restaurants in our home town. Together we were always frantic children. Usually it was years between reunions. We both became stout, sturdy looking persons. Together we did not change. We swore and howled and raced at each other, threatening to wrestle. We called each other filthy names and pretended to fight like toddlers. We coughed and giggled and greeted each other always as, "hey, fucker" and then made animal noises to convey our undying simpatico. We snuffled and howled. We referred to each other as warthogs; ugly, tusked, tough, dangerous. Really only dangerous to ourselves and maybe to the assumptions of  idiots, bigots, and rednecks.

Fuck 'em.

She was my courage when I hadn't anything but words. She was really a rather timid soul beneath all of the guff, easily hurt, an easy weeper, always the first to recommend flight as the best resolution to any conflict. I was and largely remain all talk. Yet together we defied all sorts. That photograph from our prom is not just a portrait of her. That was us testing the limits of everything only because we were, for better or worse -- and it was usually worse -- braver for being together. Her actual girlfriend went to our prom on the arm of the gay boy I was not fucking because Jesus kept getting in the way, but my friend and I had planned out the whole night well in advance. Some of it worked out and some of it didn't. The phrase "off like a prom dress" entered our vocabulary that night for good reason. I did not get so lucky.

Throughout those intensely difficult days we ran together. I pulled her out from under porches and sat her up straight when she was high in class. She pulled me back from actual ledges. We worked together on plays, me onstage, she behind. Once I even bullied her into taking a part onstage when there was no one else to do it and I was convinced I could win in competition in the lead and I did. I was her alibi when she needed an excuse to slip away on that trip to sleep with a girl. We played at being each other's beard wherever and whenever needed. We seduced a boy together just because I couldn't manage it on my own. We stole a little, did a little damage here and there, played merry Hell with everyone's expectations. She pulled me out of the garbage can boys had stuffed me into.

Once she flew at a grown man who was being cruel to me and I sincerely believed, as did he, that she might have killed him. I talked a cop out of arresting her when really he did have every reason to. We went to New York when we had no business being there, stayed with her aunt in the West Village. We walked home from the Rocky Horror Picture Show and were followed most of the way by a slow moving sedan. She was the one who had the brilliant idea of going to the meat rack and asking leather daddies to walk us home which they did. Another trip we stayed in a fleabag off Washington Square and she went with me to The Gaiety strip club and we had a grand time talking to the boys in the "lounge." Another time when we thought we'd lost our tickets home, she wanted to spend the last of our money consulting the advertised psychic in the shopfront behind us rather than call home. Luckily we found our tickets. Later, in college, she went with me to rescue a friend who had been bashed outside a bar and then made the mistake of calling the cops who beat and raped him before letting him go.

Actually, our prom picture is one of two photographs; same subject, same friend, that I've kept and displayed by my desk ever since they were taken. The other is a black and white glamour shot in which she is wearing another unlikely costume, her girlfriend's silk robe. My friend's hair was always terribly important to her. When we were in high school, if the power went out, she didn't go to school. No blow-dryer, no go. In this other picture her face is surrounded by mounds of wavy hair. She's obviously meant to be cool. She actually looks a bit terrified. Telling again.

I cried with her when my high school love went to college and got a girlfriend. She kicked the shit out of garbage can with me when her stepmother invited her to visit and my friend's wretched father yet again made her feel like a mistake he intended to forget. Later, when every seven years she broke up with yet another girlfriend, then partner, then wife, I had the rare good grace to not note the pattern while sympathizing. 

Her life proved to be hard in ways we could not have imagined when we were young. Never an easy woman to know, though always easy to love, my friend became all but impossible at times. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to be her. For long stretches, including now at what's proven to be the end, we fell out of touch. She was never good at returning calls. She never wrote. She was often late or simply never showed up. Did not matter in one way at least. I never had a moment's doubt that she loved me just as I loved her and always will. She was my youth and I was hers and that was over a very long time ago for both of us, but it was always there between us. Any excuse and back it came, roaring and cursing and laughing so loud it choked us. 

It is important to keep the evidence of love when we can, as well as the memory. In front of me now, in addition to the pictures I've described there are some few small tokens of time spent together, just my friend with me. I will not describe these not because they in any way compromise my friend or would have any meaning to anyone else. Just a few trinkets from my old jewelry box; mementos of trips, and times gone long by, and private jokes. It's true that she would not like me sharing old photographs, but what harm can that do now? These little things I can hold in my hand I'll keep to myself instead. I've always told too much. I should keep some of her secrets. I have and I will. Let these stand for those. Let me hold on to just these. Her I remember here for any and all she touched besides me. I know there were so many. She helped people. Remember that of her. She was my very best friend once. I remember that. With her goes the last of what we were then.

Hey, fucker. Love you. Aaaaaarrrrggggghhhhh!!!!! 

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Preface to Plates: A Christmas Concatenation


(By way of introduction, here's the preface to my new book of short essays and stories. The title is Plates: A Christmas Concatenation. It sells for $16.00 and can be ordered through the University Book Store @ Toll Free: 1.800.335.READ )


 Everybody has that one friend. Sometime in July this person starts counting down the days until Christmas. Let's be honest, I say "friend" but nobody likes this person. If you are this person, nobody likes you. Well, nobody likes you when you do this. Nobody. And nobody needs another reason to not like anybody else these days. Think about it. In addition to the ever widening political divide, everybody's got a reason to find the rest of us annoying. There is good cause not to much like humanity as a whole nowadays, but individually it tends to come down to very particular behaviors: the woman who eats carrots every day in the breakroom, the guy who insists his growling dog is "usually friendly," the person who can't tell a story without directions. Life online is in some ways simpler because you basically get to scroll past the bus-stop smoker and the couple fighting over meth. Still, you can't get away entirely. There are still people who regularly encourage you to find out which Disney princess you are, the proud owners of reptiles, defensive readers of Brené Brown, the guy who wants to show you pictures of his corrective surgery, and the Christmas-count-downers. We all have access to a calendar, you petty sadist. We all know how badly we did mailing out cards last year, and the people on our list who ended up with a gas-station gift-card. There really is no good reason to remind us when we are standing in our underwear in front of the refrigerator, trying to survive an August heatwave, that time is running out to get our orders in for fruitcake. Seriously, if you do this, you are a bad person, but you can still change. Just stop it. You feel the urge to mention how fast Christmas is coming up, don't. Dickens believed people can change, so in the true Sprit of Christmas I guess I probably do too.

I'm not being a "hater." I actually have no problem with the trash who keep their twinkle-lights up on the trailer year 'round. Find such harmless cheer as you are able, fellow redneck. Life is genuinely hard. And anybody who's Christmas tree stays up through January, we'll just agree to disagree. When it comes to the holidays I am generally very much live and let live. Really the only two types I find intolerable are the white gays who want to explain Kwanza to me every damned year, and those "only X days until Christmas" people. (What in the Sam Hill is wrong with you?!)

Just so you know, I've become something of a Christmas queen myself. I've aged into a strong physical Santa vibe: belly, beard, rosy, jolly. Nobody to blame but myself, though it is my beloved husband who's been making all the pie and cookies for forty years that helped get me here. (Food Is Love.) I do an annual reading of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory at the bookstore where I work and I may be the only one in the joint who's happy when they switch to the Christmas music mix. The Holidays are sorta my thing. So it is that I find myself with such a strong backlist of seasonal scribblings. No, I did not sit down and think to write a collection of Christmas pieces. Like those last curls of wrapping paper too good to throw away but not long enough to be really useful, I find I have lots of stray thoughts on Christmas and not a few pieces rather randomly tagged as related, so here they are.

Many of the little essays herein started out as introductions or encores to my holiday reading. Anybody who's been may remember some of these. I've left out a few things I actually still like, because I found there was no way to disentangle them from their original occasion and setting. When I tried, they fell to nothing and seemed not worth saving after all. (Never explain a joke after, or rely on dated references, particularly at length. Yesterday is gone. Different time. Let it go.)  A couple things I've included aren't really to do with Christmas at all beyond the fact that I mentioned the day for one reason or another. I've kept these because they seemed to me in keeping with the spirit if not the letter of the law, as it were. Not every thought of Christmas is a happy one. Other pieces are light to the point of triviality, but I'm comfortable with that. Not a few are darker than would be usual in this sort of thing, more expressive of the emotion with which they were written than with any clear idea I might have intended to convey. I preserve these here, just as they are and without apology. Could be worse, I could be one of those relentlessly cheerful souls who actually sits down at the computer and think that what the world really needs is another little collection of insipid cheer; another heartwarming book about a family being saved by a puppy in a Christmas bow, another seasonal cozy mystery, new and inferior illustration for A Visit from St. Nicholas, more Christmas in July Lifetime and Hallmark pap. That ain't me, sweetie. 

If this hasn't convinced you yet to put this little book down and walk away, I should just warn you that I am a sentimentalist as well as grump. (You'll find this is still a very popular combo in Very Special Holiday Episodes of American sitcoms. You damned kids get off my lawn! For me?! God bless us, everyone! Hey, if it ain't broke.) So any I might not drive off by being a snappish atheistic smartass, I may yet alienate by going all gooey about the good old folks to home and grandma's kitchen, or by too warmly or too often remembering the dead. Again, no apologies. Seems we may all have a part to play and evidently this is mine.

I could say that I wish everything in here was better than it is -- because I do -- but I have learned to let that go as best I can. Best I could do with what I have. Hope you might like some of it.

One final note, specifically on my very short Christmas stories. Unlike the essays herein, I never thought to see these little fictions again. They first appeared as my snarky captions to a series of vintage Christmas photographs posted online by a dear friend with an excellent eye for kitsch and commentary. I made up these little stories to go with the pictures and hopefully to make my friend laugh. When it came time to gather more than a decade of my Christmas scraps together, I was reminded of these unusual and largely forgotten bits o' fiction. I do not have the imaginative gifts for invented stories. (Wrote a whole novel once that proved this to my disappointment.) So why reprint these little squibs? Well, there were more of them than I'd remembered, and I found they still made me smile. I decided as an experiment to see if I could read them without the photographs on which they were written to riff. Maybe I'm wrong, but I rather like them naked. So why not? Think of them as regular, sometimes bitter little laughs between my more usual pontifications, preachments, and poorly reasoned flibertigibittetery. And yes, that is a word. I made it up. I can do that. My book. Enjoy. 

And Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays if you are reading this sometime between Thanksgiving and the end of January. Otherwise maybe put it in the box of Xmas decorations and take it out when you're ready to put up the lights next year. I don't want to be one of those people.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Dickens' Gift and Sidelines




In the book world, tchotchkes abound. Every couple of weeks promotional stuff arrives: lapel pins, fancy bookmarks, canvas bags, kids' games and little puzzles, etc. Can be a bit hard to keep track of it all. Some of it clearly made more sense in a marketing meeting than it does in a bookstore. Who wouldn't want an enameled pin of a crashing plane? No explanation. I guess you have to read the book. For reasons that remain unclear, we recently got quite a haul from a Buddhist press. Among the usual bookmarks and bags, there was, inexplicably a beautiful little embossed wooden thumb-drive in a wooden box. Downloading enlightenment? No idea. There's a lot of that. People do love a give-away, but this stuff goes stale like butter-based pastry. Booksellers are notorious for not wanting to throw away yesterday's promo. We like shiny stuff as much as the next magpie. Junk drawers in desks across the independent bookselling business are full of crunchy rubber-bands, old staff recommendations, dead pens, and promotional pins for books we have long since forgotten, most justly so.

Twenty years ago there was something of a renaissance in book-related "side-lines." (This is what booksellers call anything sold because of books -- but not a book.) Some of this is eternal, like Seussian stuffed animals and refrigerator magnets with quotes from Dorothy Parker. For a hot-minute there we also had finger-puppets of famous authors in felt, famous authors' mugs on mugs, multiple lines of famous authors on greeting cards, famous authors action figures, inexpensive book jewelry, famous author candles, book bumper-stickers, famous author Christmas ornaments. Couldn't swing a cat-book without hitting a Virginia Woolf stuffy or a Charles Dickens puppet. And then, as was ever the way of such things, all of that rather ran its course.

I was given various of the items mentioned above. Find I didn't keep much, or if I did I've no idea where they might be now. I was never much for the side-lines. Which isn't to say that I am not susceptible to collecting the book-adjacent, if only in a small way.  

Of my favorite Dickens collectibles I have just the two Royal Doulton figurines, for example. The Artful Dodger was a gift. Tony Weller I found in a junk shop. There was a moment when -- child of the seventies as I am -- I really aspired to "collect 'em all!" but that never happened. Too expensive, honestly. Saw Pickwick and The Fat Boy in a real antique shop when we first moved to Seattle. Well out of my price range. I also remember bidding for a complete set on eBay, more than once, back when I did that sort of thing. Never won the auction, and just as well probably. Each figurine stands no more than four inches high, but all together there were twenty-four Dickens characters depicted in the Royal Doulton series and that's rather a lot for a crowded personal library. (I don't even have room for all my books about Dickens, let alone collectible glassware.)

The potters Doulton & Co. started business in 1815 with the usual assortment of jugs, jars, mugs, and drain-pipes. (Dickens would have approved. He was a great champion of modern drainage.) The author was himself introduced to the world just three years earlier. He left it the most famous novelist in the world in 1857, well before the ceramics firm received their "Royal Warrant" in 1901 as a vendor to The Crown. Can't find any information about the designers of the figures, when they went into production, or how they selected the characters -- some seem less obvious than others. Only thing I do know is that the Dickens figurines were discontinued in 1983 or 1984 and prices went up accordingly.

They are uniformly charming and beautifully made. Most are immediately recognizable to any reader of Dickens. A few, like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield may seem a bit generic. Other obvious candidates for reproduction in small, like Betsey Trotwood  and Mr. Dick seem not to have made the cut.

Full disclosure, I do have in my library three framed Dickens illustrations by Joseph Clayton Clarke, better known by his pseudonym "Kyd." He made a good living producing mostly cigarette cards and watercolor illustrations, many of Dickens characters, specifically to sell to collectors. I have prints of  Mr. Bumble, Sairey Gamp, and Trotty Veck from The Chimes. I also have salt and pepper shakers of the McCawber and Sairey -- a distinctly odd couple, may I say. I have a small ceramic flask depicting a seated figure of Fagin with a cork in his hat, and I have a genuine curiosity in a small ceramic figure of Dickens giving a public reading at his famous lectern, though it is actually a portrait of the great Emlyn Williams as Dickens in the actor's storied one-man-show, making it all the more interesting and obscure.

Important to remember that Dickens was very much of his time, and as a Victorian, and something of a dandy, he liked fine things and what we might see now as an excess of  bold checks, rich color, lace, fine china, watch-fobs, rings, furniture, and decoration.  Kept a charming white porcelain monkey-- still extant -- on his writing desk, for example. He was always fond of collecting things, people, pets. He loved crowds and crowded interiors. (The most alien aspect of Victorian taste may well be their mania for filling every available surface with pattern and detail and things upon things; Turkey carpets and on them more furniture than would fit and antimacassars on it all, cabbage-roses on the wallpaper and pictures to the ceiling and domed wax flowers and china cupboards and brass fittings and stuffed dogs and stuff, stuff, stuff, stuffed everywhere. Maybe it kept the rooms warmer? It was as if the highest aspiration of the rising middle class was to live inside one of Mary Todd Lincoln's over-decorated dresses.)

Dickens was also the English speaking world's first real celebrity, at least the first person famous for accomplishing something that didn't require conquest, theft, inherited title, or physical deformity. (You will find a convincing argument for this in Jane Smiley's short biography of Dickens published in 2002 as part of the lamentably ended series of Penguin Brief Lives.) As such his image, his characters, and his books were reproduced in all sorts of unlikely offerings ranging from pirated editions and unapproved dramatic adaptations -- some of which premiered before he'd finished writing or publishing the novels from which the stories were taken -- to unauthorized advertisements on sidings and packaging for wares as various as tea-tins, cigar boxes, pill bottles, pins, hats, toys, and all manner of whatnot. Copyright being a battle yet to be really won, and modern branding and licensing still yet to be dreamt of, Dickens made nothing from most of this. (He did occasionally try to approve and or improve some of the stage-adaptations, but it was a losing battle.) From nearly the moment the Pickwick Club first took to the road, images of that venerable gentleman began to appear stuck to soaps and cigars, advertisements and handbills. So it would be throughout the writer's life and long after. More than anyone before him, including Sir Walter Scott, Dickens' characters became part of the visual landscape of his time. Some, like Scrooge and Pecksniff, would settle in the dictionary as well. Shakespeare just here is the only real point of comparison. Other writers of Dickens day may now have a house museum and a statue, may even have a grave in the Abbey, and while they may have created a ubiquitous character like Lochinvar or Jane Eyre, none saw their invention everywhere quite like Dickens. (The best point of comparison would probably be later examples in popular film culture like Mickey Mouse or Charlie Chaplin's little tramp.)

Charles Dickens was unafraid of popularity, to say the least. Not for him the aristocratic reserve of Sir Walter Scott that kept his name off the Waverley Novels until near the end of his run and his money. It was all very well for a gentleman to be a poet and collector of quaint Scottish Ballads, but a vulgar writer of popular Romances? (Meant in the poetic sense -- his being historical fiction, not the modern pop genre of courting stories.) Dickens rose in the world by his pen, and only his pen. To be noticed, and published, and paid, to be recognized on the street and addressed by his nom de plume "Boz," meant Dickens could be somebody. To be somebody was not a guarantee. Lots of somebodies either lost everything and reverted to being nobodies, or they simply ceased to matter. Dickens knew the bitter experience of his father's failure to keep his family out of the Marshalsea Prison for debt. Dickens knew poverty and all the rest of his life he kept the smell of it somewhere about him, and the secret of his family's shame. He fought to dispel the corrosive myth of gentility, and the brutal conditions of the urban poor. He knew. He remembered, and reminded himself nearly every day as he walked the length and breadth of London, often at night, looking in at every dark doorway, up every alley, listening and watching and walking as if into the dark to tame it and make himself it's master and avenger. Fame meant money, and the public's affection, and the kind of respect that meant more than respectability. What he wanted and what he got was power.

George Orwell famously said, "Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody." Even a glancing review of English satire, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Dryden, Pope and Swift, even to Dickens' immediate predecessors like Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt, will show a predictably savage response from the satirized. Power resists puncture. Insults to assumed or inherited dignity, perceived or intended, can have grave consequences, particularly in a country whose Constitution was not so much written as gradually accumulated over time, more philology than philosophy. Enemies have always been easily made on the page and few writers in the history of the language filled more pages than Dickens. His output was prodigious, even by the extraordinary standard of his day, his published books containing thousands upon thousands of words. He wrote hundreds of letters, gave hundreds of speeches and public remarks. His recognized journalism, only recently collected, runs to many mighty volumes of nearly equal, perhaps even greater weight than all his published books. (I have bravely restrained myself from trying to buy these new volumes of Dickens' nonfiction.) He wrote to eat, to live, and he wrote constantly. In nearly everything he wrote he sought not only to entertain and enlighten but to damn, blast, and shame the devil. How could he not make enemies?

The answer is he did. Of course he did, and not a few well after he'd died. But Dickens -- better than any writer before him, again save Shakespeare -- had the trick of making no man a hero, including himself. Dickens is always on the reader's side, he is with us and we are, most of us, an unheroic lot. Virtue may triumph, as I'm sure Dickens believed it should and eventually might, but usually this happens only in small acts of bravery, often performed by unlikely, much compromised, put down or put upon people. Rarely is a protagonist, however good, saved in Dickens but by others. Dickens believed in us all, individually, believed that we might yet prove to be better than we might be. And he spared no one. He begins his most autobiographical novel with a question. "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." David Copperfield's answer, and Dickens' own answer is a resounding no. There are no heroes. There is help. Even the snobs and the critics, the rivals who might have resented him, even his avowed enemies were more often than not disarmed by this instinctive appeal to our collective better nature, even as he mocked the lot of us for our cowardice, snobbery, greed, and stupidity. His humor was as universal as his faith was deep if unorthodox and individual. God helps or he doesn't much. We may help ourselves, but we need other people. Hard not to blush. Perhaps it's too simple, but it is true. It is also hard to deny. It strikes me as a very English problem, hating Dickens. Must have been deuced difficult, going against the man who made Queen Victoria laugh aloud. What has he ultimately called for but kindness? Argue against that and you will look a git. Also? It's one thing to claim slander, but quite another to admit to being the butt of a joke that set a whole nation laughing. Fight that. Find a jury that won't grin. 

The fact is they'd never seen his like before. The most popular writers in the whole history of English had never had so big an audience. If everyone could be said to know him by the time he was thirty, it was because nearly everyone could afford to read him, and did, or had him read to them because of the revolution in serial publication and cheap editions. The industrial revolution was as much the triumph of print as of the piston and steam. More though. He didn't speak for the English, but to them. He still speaks to us.

Our author was also very careful of institutional targets. It is a truism as old at least as Rome that nobody loves a lawyer. In Bleak House he savages the Court of Chancery, but not the Law. As early as Serjeant Buzfuz and Pickwick's time in the dock for breach of promise, Dickens damns lawyers, but not the Law. Mrs. Jellyby is ridiculous, but Charity is not. Nickleby's theatricals are ridiculous, but Theatre is a noble thing. Bankers are invariably low-minded men, but The Bank of England is let stand. Capitalists are heartless, but Business is good. the Circumlocution Office is a den of boobies, but Her Majesty's Government, for all its sins, is not without its uses. Clergymen may be less than good Christians, but Christianity is God's gift. The list goes on. 

This respect for larger social abstracts, Dickens' sometimes too simple faith in his own England, and his own God, lent themselves to serious criticism even in Dickens' day. He was no radical in his politics and feared revolutions as much as the next self-made man with a mortgage on far too large a house. Later still when academia and the critics took to wearing new Party livery, Dickens, still popular in the Russian Soviets to the end of the last century, came in for a serious drubbing himself, and not without cause. He could never quite accept the idea of collective action. People should help one another, but not The People. That abstraction was dangerously ill-defined. Didn't trust it. Later still he was quite rightly taken to task for unthinking antisemitism, xenophobia, and racism typical of his time. And yet, unlike nearly all his contemporaries, and all of his critics, and some who were probably better people if not such great writers, Dickens survives. 

If everybody then read him and knew him, and so many loved him, it was also because he wrote nearly everybody into his books. If you can read Dickens and not meet therein your aunts, your neighbors, your clergyman, your boss, your elected representative, your dog, and your dad, if you can read through Dickens and never see yourself, I fear you may have missed not just the point but your own portrait (the gallery, it must be said, is crowded.) We are meant to recognize ourselves in even our enemies. There but. And he meant it. And nearly all his victims knew. The gentlemen of the Circumlocution Office knew who they were. They might very well resent the man's impudence and did, but what could they do? Does one admit to being a Barnacle? Even so dim a light as a Sparkler probably had the sense not to call himself so without smiling. 

In Dickens, particularly in the later novels, the sign of a genuine villain is not that he is unaware, or even unconfessed, but incapable of change. Miss Wade may be justified in at least some of her suspicions, but Miss Wade is immoveable, poor soul. Mr. Merdle leaves only ruin after him. No way to change. It's too late. It should be enough to know that Henry Gowan beats his dog, and it is. No coming back from that. Mrs. Clenham has faith, but very little charity. Let her sit with that, ultimately silent as the tomb. Flintwich remains as twisted as his neck and cravat. Riguard? A house could fall on him and he'd still be a devil to the end. But only the very worst people reject their salvation. In Dickens' theology redemption requires acts, and often as not small ones at that. God can even forgive, at least a little, so vocal a Christian as poor Arthur's mother, if she will just do a selfless thing. (Dickens need not forgive her, but Jesus might.) The novelist is free to punish or to pass over. Some escape. Most do not. The God of Charles Dickens is relentless mostly in his mercy, but not indefatigable. 

As the French landlady in Little Dorrit says, not knowing that among those she's addressing sits a murderer, "... there are people (men and women both, unfortunately) who have no good in them -- none."

Dickens reserves his deepest sympathy, always, for the broken. The most virtuous people may suffer, but their virtue is to some extent it's own reward. God may yet see to them (or at least the novelist probably will in the last chapter, if they survive.) But spirits can be crushed, minds wander, hearts may be broken beyond repair. One's circumstances may be cornered so tightly as to allow little room for righteousness. And yet, small rebellions may change the world. Poverty precludes all but the slightest charity, but generosity counts all the more for empty pockets. A clerk may do a kindness as well as a great lady, and it's likelier. Silly women may be good. Men may be mad, may mumble and maunder and still make sane men better by the truth. Nowhere is the faith of Charles Dickens, his own simple and thus peculiar Christianity, more evident than when he speaks, in the phrase from the Gospel of Matthew, for "the least of these." As close as the author comes to collective responsibility, the hopeless and the helpless must be cared for. Up to us. Close as he gets to grace may be in innocence. 

Didactic as some of this now strikes the eye of the modern reader, I would argue that not only is this always intended to good purpose, but also leavened by Dickens' delight in his language. He may thunder, he may lament, he may weep too loudly for any brightly lit, tastefully appointed classroom we are likely now to be in, but he does not bore and there is beauty even in his excess. We may not like it any better now than cabbage roses on our wallpaper or fussy embroidery, but that is a matter of taste. His was not invariably good. Doesn't mean there wasn't craft in the making of it, or art of its kind in the way it was made. His pity, like his humor is prodigious, almost inhuman and he has the vocabulary for both. We may simply have lost habit of such conspicuous, such noises joy and voluble grief. Not so the Victorians. The Victorians, whatever you may think you know about them, wept easily and often. For God's sake, the man made Gladstone weep over the fate of fictional children, and of sterner stuff few Britishers were ever made. Carlyle too! The most emotionally scotched of Scotsmen. 

Important to keep a point of geography in mind too. The whole tradition of the English comic novel -- itself nearly as great a contribution to the world's treasure as English poetry, and more easily translated -- had before Dickens and continuing well after him always tended to satire. Whatever it's pretentions to empire and the devastating harm done by that enterprise throughout the wider world, England is no more than an Island, and a not a specially big one at that. The English have no national epic, no written language to really call their own until Chaucer. (Personal prejudice, but this has always seemed to me a good thing. Better to find one's voice when there's something original to be said.) The language has never been beholden, never entirely settled and the better for it. So too, from the get, English fiction, and the novel in particular. By the time novels became really popular, far and away the most successful English novels tended to be as funny as the language. (What other language in history has gathered up so many delightful if unnecessary words? What other language best expresses itself in such dizzying variety and avoidance of direct address? What other language makes modernist revolutions as different as Hemingway and Joyce?) Yes, there were always the usual romances and heroics, fainting ladies and sturdy young juveniles, etc., but a language overabundant in curiosities and crotchets is better at being funny for being funny. Mutts are funnier, and dearer usually. Doesn't mean they mayn't bite of course. And when Dickens is plain, has anyone ever been so angry, so moving? More devastatingly direct? Only Hardy could make a declarative statement hurt as hard as Dickens.

Being every bit as pious as any of its more Catholic neighbors, The Church of England somehow managed to embrace the Reformation without abandoning any of the pomposity of its elder sister. (The point of the English Reformation was twofold, to obtain a divorce, and to make the liturgy just as dull in English as it could ever have been in Latin.) I suspect Dickens adamancy that he be buried in a simple plot by his beloved little sister-in-law (that perfect, pure, long dead child) had as much to do with his disinclination to Church, cathedrals, Bishops, and funereal pomp as it had to do with his devotion to that forever young lady's memory. (Of course, inevitably, they -- the nation, Bishops, Deacons, Deans, and politicians -- insisted and into the Abbey he went, his wishes be damned. Quite right too.) Yet Charles Dickens without English Protestantism is as impossible as a Catholic Bunyan. He believed much as Bunyan did. He professed and he protested much as Bunyan had, if not always with the same sunny earnestness, the surety of mercy or eagerness for martyrdom. Like Bunyan, he was loved and read by people who wouldn't have cared to see an Archbishop anywhere but at the end of a rope or kicked in the ass. Unlike Bunyan, Dickens could also make an Archbishop of Canterbury laugh. Quite a trick for someone who avoided priests and rewrote the Gospels for his children. Unlike Bunyan to one side and Swift at the other, Dickens walked with the crowd for the pleasure of it (save when they are blood-thirsty, though for a man who hated hanging, he went to not a few. A writer must have research and a journalist a story.) He may have been more comfortable talking to a sweep or a drudge, but he could manage a minute for the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Dickens is the first truly democratic genius in English letters, not for want of snobbery but for need of company. He might love The Lord Our God, or his Son anyway, and he might be flattered to dine with a Duke, he certainly was happy to kiss the chubby little hand of his Sovereign, but he wanted most to be loved, and needed to be loved as we all might require Grace, in abundance. Come one come all.

Why this furor to be loved? He was pretty confident that he had Jesus on his side. His children loved him even when he was impossible, even when he so cruelly turned their dim, dull, dear mother out. In later life he felt he needed, perhaps pathetically if not pathologically a young actress named Ellen Terran. He needed all of his friends, his contributors, his proteges, his sponsors. Above all, he needed his readers. More, he needed all of them to love him, not just his books. He read to them. He read himself to death for them, so that he might receive their love without the intercession of print. (He might have been happy being Homer, if one can imagine Homer in a loud, checked suit.) He was not always easy in his affections though, and his need was as great as his gift. 

The easiest explanation of this relentless need to be loved is in that autobiographical fragment he shared only with his wife and his friend Forster. In it he told the story of his father's bankruptcy and imprisonment for debt. He described, aged twelve, being put out to work in a blacking factory, pasting labels on bottles in an unheated basement, surrounded by other grubby, hungry, hostile boys. His schooling, such as it had been, ended. And when his father's finances sufficiently recovered to escape the Marshalsea Prison, it was Charles' mother who insisted her son be kept working. Rough. So why did he abandon the memoir? Why conceal it from all but his nearest and dearest? I suspect that beyond the revelation of his family's fall from middleclass respectability, his personal sense of rejection may have been too deep a wound to expose. That was the real secret. He had not been loved, at least not enough. To write the truth of that he would have had to admit to having been abandoned, the small wages he earned of more value to his family than he was. Knowing poverty made him ambitious and uniquely empathetic to the poor, but to have been forsaken? To be less than Boz the Beloved of the English Speaking World? Too hard to admit. He was proud of what he'd made of himself. That he'd come from nearly nothing makes us admire him the more. Not necessarily so to him. Instead Dickens hid this earlier, shameful episode, and his own history as the unloved boy. The memory persisted though and it takes no literary detective to catch him letting that grubby, miserable little boy peep out here and there in the person of innumerable orphans and lonely children. He came nearest to telling the truth in the early chapters of David Copperfield. (His father famously appears therein as Wilkins McCawber. There is also more than a bitter hint of Charlie's old man in Mr. William Dorrit, among other fools and failures, fabulists, bankrupts, and weaklings. And of weak, greedy, distant, dead, or careless mothers there was no end. Dickens hardly ever spoke or wrote of his own mother by name.) The abandoned boy became the gentleman who would save them all or at least shame those who left children in want and ignorance.

Dickens liked establishing a character's character, good and bad, in just a line or two as they walk on. Amy Dorrit, for example "...so little and light, so noiseless and shy," etc. The reader is meant to know these people as soon as introduced, and remember them. Everyone is meant to be memorable even without being given their names straight-away -- "his nose came down and his mustaches curled up." This has made for much criticism down the years, of Dickens "grotesques," his effects and affectations, and the supposed unreality of his crowded fiction. When psychology was coined well after Dickens left the scene, he did not get high marks from his professional and professorial readers. Such critics, I always argue, do not take public transportation or they world know better. The wider one's acquaintance in the working world the less need of exaggeration. Perhaps now that we find ourselves in an age of political caricature and supremely inarticulate representation, an age of bullies and bosses and vociferous yahoos, of shockingly powerful charlatans and electable goons, we might be better prepared to accept Dickens' quicker insights and sharp definitions as truer than modern psychology's insistence on mystery. Beyond his remarkable ear and superhuman curiosity, beyond his obvious pleasure in the technical exercise of description, there is an underlying determination to summarize individual character by describing who we are by the way we are. Was he wrong? All very well for example to call oneself good (or a gentleman, or humble, or a patriot, or sensitive, or a Christian, or honest) but quite another to do good, which is after all Dickens' definition. 

Reading Little Dorrit is to read Dickens at full cry. Good people do good, and not just to one another but even to those who may be undeserving. People may only seem to be benevolent because they look to be. Such fakes must be confronted and exposed. Silly people may tell the truth. Bad people can't always be made better. Some must be crushed. Some will escape. We must all be brave enough to do what we can to make things better where we can. Happiness is not guaranteed even to those who give it away, but the possibility of it is real. Only sentimental novelists are prepared to put all things right, bless 'em. The rest of us had better do better, damn it, particularly by the poor. 

And everywhere in Dickens' big book, as in all of Dickens, there is English not only as, incredibly she is or was spoke, but also as only Dickens might write it; as rich in words and usage as Shakespeare, as righteous as Bunyan, as powerful as Hardy, and as funny as anyone who ever wrote in any language. His is a style that can be as beautiful as fine porcelain and as delicate, and as ample as a sturdy drainpipe. To not read and reread Dickens is to leave the language, our language, mine, to the stingy and the stupid and the lazy and the bad. They've enough of everything else, they've taken enough from the rest of us. They'll not have this. In the end all we need of him are his words. That's the gift. The rest is sidelines. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

Nothing Like a Little Death


"Ay, but to die, and go we know not where."

 -- Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene 1, by William Shakespeare

Halloween is coming and I am not indifferent. No, I won't be dressing up. Yeah, wigs and masks are hot, but not now in a good way. At my age, even in costume, were I to actually attempt trick-or-treating, most people would assume either A) my car broke down on the way to a sad party or B) that I am in fact a somewhat laughable serial killer. I am also disappointed to say kids don't come to our door anymore for candy. This may just be another sign of an aging middleclass neighborhood where no one young enough to have kids is old enough to own a single family home. Also? It is my unhappy understanding that instead of being set loose into the cool and greedy dark, many American children now spend Halloween penned at well lit, properly supervised parties which sounds just awful, like church Christmas morning or new Easter clothes in which one may not eat chocolate. (Adults can be such assholes.) I still very much like the idea of Halloween though, even if I am no longer taking part. 

When I was little I loved monsters best. Reviled outsiders forced by circumstances not of their creation to periodically slaughter village gossips, mean drunks, and demanding little girls with daisies? I get that. Even at seven or eight I was pretty sure that sooner or later the angry peasants with pitchforks and torches would be heading my way. (Later I realized these would actually be townie jocks, redneck dopers, Elks, church ladies, gym teachers, and cops; what the Republicans now call "the base.") Well before I was grown I learned that the real monsters in life don't bite or wear capes or rise from the dead, they vote in midterm elections and ban books and always want to know who you happen to be fucking. Real monsters invade sovereign nations and bomb countries like Laos and Ukraine. Real monsters talk a lot about God and patriotism and make it easier for kids to get guns. Don't have to watch a lot of horror movies to learn that the most dangerous brute is usually the one leading the mob.

Real monsters are cruel. That's all. Easiest definition. The only thing really other-worldly about most real monsters is their uniform insistence when caught or cornered or called out that they are "the real victims." In the end bullies are always the injured parties, at least in their own stories. Luckily, real monsters die eventually, just like the rest of us. It is their tax-exemptions that can't be killed and their sources of funding that never seem to die. It is the persistence of selfishness* that survives every dawn, every fire, every sacrifice. 

So, no, I don't believe in ghosts anymore, or vampires, or werewolves, or zombies -- though January 6th shook me a little bit on that score. But I still love Halloween. I love lots of stuff that isn't real: chocolate Yoo-hoo, Mole from The Wind in the Willows, love songs. Watching scary movies I still like jump-scares, and John Carpenter scores, and practical effects. Doesn't mean I worry much at night about Michael Myers. Not to spoil anyone's fun, but so far as I am at all concerned, dead is dead. After-life? Well, that would be death, wouldn't it? I've seen death, more than once. Death is not scary. Pain is scary. Disease is scary. Despair is scary, and hatred. When we are dead we are done, all of us and everything. The next isn't up to us anymore. Yes, there is and ought to be more to the story of the body's decay -- "this sensible warm motion to become / A kneaded clod" in Claudio's shivery phrase -- but up again we do not get. Sorry. No faith in nor any hope of the resurrection. Just the one go 'round. I mention this not to discourage any of my many Pagan friends for example, who have very kindly offered me "readings" of various kinds including my "past lives," or the followers of newer religions like my Christian friends who still offer to pray for me. (Thanks for the good vibes, dear ones.) I've tried to make this point before, usually around Christmas, my other favorite decorating opportunity, but I think it's important to establish that one need not believe in ghosts, Holy or coarsely common, to enjoy a bit o' seasonal fun. 

I love a great ghost story. (RIP, Peter Straub.) Keeping in mind that none of these are mutually exclusive, there are more great ghost stories than there are romances in English literature, more great stories of horror and disquiet than of Christmas, kings, dragons, dinner parties, or anything other than perhaps clever detectives and beloved dogs. Great writers as different as Edith Wharton and Kelly Lynch, Joyce Carol Oates and Elizabeth Bowen have all done it. Henry James, and Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell, and Guy de Maupassant have all written great ghost stories. There are rafts of writers whose only surviving reputation comes from their ghost stories, some with wonderful names like Oliver Onions, and Clara Venn, and F. Tennyson Jesse (see the excellent British Library Tales of the Weird series.)

If I really want a fright, I read about the climate crisis, politics, and true crime, where again, there is often overlap these days. Almost any journalist providing new details of the workings of the last administration or the present Supreme Court can keep a body from a good night's rest. Read the true story of DDT, or the history of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Nightmares. You know what will keep you up reading all night? The history of the Bender family's disappearance from Labette County, Kansas in 1873 and what was found in their yard (Please see Susan Jonusas' new book.) Likewise the murder of women and children on a narrow highway in Mexico in 2019, and the LeBaron Mormon cult from which they came (see Sally Denton.) Try Beverly Lowry writing about the murder of a Mississippi matron in 1948, and the familiar failure of the American justice system to do it's job because race and sex. Horrifying.

That can all be a bit too real for what ought to be a fairly light-hearted occasion, I know. Years ago I did a fun display table at the bookstore where I still work. The premise was Scary Books for Grown Ups. The signage featured a drawing of dead honey bees. The books were all new nonfiction of the day, forecasting our onrushing doom. You can imagine. Turns out I could do that table every year since, sad to say. It's not like any of these subjects have really been addressed anywhere since, save in yet more new books. So yeah, still doomed and reading about it.

Which leads me to a fictional sub-genre I just can't. Putting together the Halloween display table this year, I asked for input from a couple of younger coworkers, as I am not up on newer straight-up horror. My personal taste tends to literary types writing weird stories rather than genre writers of whatever merit. So for me it's Karen Russell short stories, or indie-rock musician and novelist John Darnielle writing about a house haunted by what sounds like a very real murderer. That's my shiver. I ended up with a couple of great lists of new titles from my fellow booksellers and ordered in what we didn't have. All good. (Best way to cover the gaps in a bookstore is always more booksellers with more lists.) The place I can't personally go isn't to do with squeamishness, or violence. Bring on the body-horror! Stack the victims like cordwood! But if you are heading into the post-apocalypse you are on your own. What would I do if the world was ending tomorrow? I'd die, that's what I'd do. So would you, darling. We neither of us have been missing a lot o' meals, have we? You ready to run? I'm not. Simple as that. Dead. And who wants to live in a dead world?! Fact is I'm never going to cook on an open fire again, or sharpen sticks, or go camping, let alone go camping until I die. My idea of surviving an atom blast or a plague that wipes out three fourths of humanity is don't. Who really wants to stay alive but basically on fire? Stay home for two years and wear a mask?  Turns out I was up for the challenge. But a world without bookstores and pho and television and the people I love? I'll be checking out. So however great the reviews for a novel set in Kansas after electricity isn't a thing ever anymore, or the last fresh vegetable is a memory, and I'm sorry, I think surviving in such a world is a stupid choice. I can't sympathize. I can't be made to care about people willing to go on with nothing but survivalists for company and only rats and seaweed on the menu. Maybe if I had kids (maybe) but I don't so no.

It is such a lazy metaphor now, life after the end of history, like preachers still carrying on about the fires of Hell like we're all still illiterate peasants staring at pictures in a cathedral, or reality tv contestants "thinking outside the box." (The last person with anything interesting to say about life in a void was Beckett.) Now the Post-Apocalyptic is often a given. I suppose it's the easiest way to not have one's characters texting each other, or catching an Uber out of danger, while still being recognizably us. That nearly the whole of human history can be told without resort to modern electronics seems to require too much work. Research you say? Why write Gothic --or a Gothic cathedral -- when you can just go all Goth and gloomy some time "in the near future"? Also? Poor people. If the only way you can imagine poverty as a possibility is to end the world, either your parents are still paying your rent and you still think eating instant ramen is a healthy option, or you decided to write a novel without ever reading good ones. Shame on you. (And shame on me for telling you people how to write. Go on. Write your ragged survivors reciting Shakespeare or whatever. None of my business what you like.)

The unknown is only frightening when the rest feels convincing. That would be one of my rules. I make a lot of rules. You may have your own, and mine may change and do, but this is one of mine for scary stories. Put it another way: you needn't name your monster, but you'd better name the street. Know what I mean? I hate any story set in an unnamed city. One thing the Book of Genesis gets right is you make a man and the first thing he'll do is name things. First thing we did as a species when we invented languages? Names. We all need a name. And probably not but a day later somebody named a dog, and then a village. I defy you to name an unnamed city. That's not fair, but neither is trying to generate atmosphere with just indefinite pronouns and nameless climes and unnumbered houses. Untethered adjectives don't carry much weight, no matter how many one adds to vague objects and places. Unless your protagonist is actually a small child or the last man on earth, somebody or something will eventually tell the sorry soul that this is or used to be Cleveland, or the Forest of Dean or the Gobi, and that creepy gas station attendant? Did you not see the name stitched on his filthy coveralls? That was Phil. Of course it was.

Every good witch needs a familiar. That may be an actual rule, I'm not sure. (I'll ask.) Every haunt needs a house, or a moor, or a grave. No point to Jack the Ripper without a chase. That's just my Halloween way of saying every scary story needs more than a monster. Even crazy needs a frame. True, mad narrators can be particularly scary -- see The Yellow Wallpaper and de Maupassant's The Diary of a Madman -- but in the first example we know the name of that woman's imperfect husband, it's in the first sentence and it's John, and in the latter story a lawyer finds the diary and he tells us who wrote it, if never his name. Context, yes? Detail. Specificity. Pyewacket. (Too obscure? See: Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, bell not bell-tower is the one I mean.) Deciding what not to name, or show, or tell, is maybe more important in a scary story than anywhere else other than poetry, but monsters need scenes and settings to menace properly; places and dates and other people with names.

Very clever people have studied why we ride roller-coasters. (I miss roller-coasters!) Scholarly papers have been written about horror movies, and ghost stories, and video game zombies. While I am not so smart or devoted as all that, I have thought about this. Can't grow up with a poster of Frankenstein at the foot of the bunkbed and not. It may not be a specially deep thought, but I do think that what does not kill us can be great fun, so long as it lets us feel like it might and we know that it won't. It's the campfire makes the ghost story, the lamp that keeps the monsters on the page. Gide said, "I do not love men. I love what devours them." Maybe that's the answer, and as with so many of life's answers it probably sounds even better in French. We are fascinated by our own mortality even as we deny or ignore it, mostly. Also, it's no easy thing to feel for humanity as a whole. More a philosophical position than an actual emotion. See someone in peril though, witness whole populations endangered by circumstances over which their control is questionable, and there is a familiar tug at the heart. (The absence of that tug is psychopathy, no?) Could be me, might be us, how terrifying. Fiction is the manageable version of this confrontation with danger and death, that is its chiefest charm. We may not know how it will end but we know that it will, a book. We trust that unlike life in the actual universe, in the space of a story, someone is telling. Need a narrator now and again. Might go so far as to say authors are our last gods. Stories  make sense of us. Still, stories end. Books are designed eventually to close. (We are in charge of this if little else.) We read to live and death is part of life so why not read to die a little? It's fortifying. Up again we get, if only from the armchair.

Halloween happens whether we like it or not. I know people who can't so much as read a murder, people who've never loved a monster. Blood, like candy corn is not to everyone's taste. My beloved husband hasn't any issue with mayhem, but very little patience with the supernatural. (Likes candy corn though.) The minute the monsters aren't mortal he's done. He was in his day though very much a rollercoaster kind of guy, back before we both learned what it feels like to fall from not even a middling height. It's okay. Still likes a thrill, if now more often at second hand. It's important to remember that not everyone need take the same ride. Might outgrow the rollercoaster just as one once did the teacups. Guess I never outgrew monsters. I have much admired friends whose abhorrence of violence extends to even slapstick. Who doesn't smile when Chaplin kicks a cop in the ass? Well, my friend for one. Imagine then trying to explain why vampires are still kinda cool. Likewise pointless to try and convince anyone to read Shirley Jackson's great American horror novels if said reader doesn't jump at a bump in the night and maybe like it a little now and then. All I would suggest is that there is still great good fun to be had from the haunted corners of literature and it isn't exclusively for little persons.

Can't begrudge kids much. Poor little bastards are told when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, just like inmates. They're constantly being told to stop doing fun things like jumping off of things and to get out of other things that obviously invite getting into, and to not break still other things just as obviously designed to make noise when dropped on a stone floor, etc. And the worst part of childhood as I remember it, being told to "go play outside" as if that requires no more planning than stepping through the door. (My advice is bring a book. Outside is overrated.) Halloween proper really is theirs. They ought to be allowed to run a little riot in the dark once a year, and eat sugar, and scare the bejeezus out of themselves. Let 'em have it, folks. 

Meanwhile I don't have to justify buying a bag of miniature Milky Way Bars just for me, or rereading Arthur Machen, or reading a grand new novel about Spanish witches by Brenda Lozano, or re-watching that very good Dracula miniseries with the Van Helsing nun. (I love Mark Gatiss because he is me but better at it.) I can see to my own treats. Of tricks I've rather had my fill long since. (They seldom wait for one to finish too, as I remember, do they? Selfish I call that.)

*See: market capitalism

Sunday, August 28, 2022

A Gift


 This is a gift from my friend Henry Wallenfels, aged eight.