Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Visitors' Notes for Salmo, BC: Third Series

Daily Dose

From Travels in the South of France, by Stendhal


"That was the address on Montaigne's house. I found it had been torn down four years ago and a police barracks now stands in its place. Well now, gentlemen of Bordeaux, could you not spend even twenty-five francs to have the stonecutter engrave the following words on one of the square stone blocks in the barracks' wall that replaced the houses from Number 10 to Number 23: 'ON THIS SPOT STOOD MONTAIGNE'S HOUSE. IT WAS NUMBER 17 AND WAS TORN DOWN IN 1833.'"

From Bordeaux, Monday, March 12

Monday, August 30, 2010

Visitors' Notes for Salmo, BC: Second Series

Visitors' Notes for Salmo, BC: First Series

Daily Dose

From Travels in the South of France, by Stendahl


"The chief concern of this traveler-writer seems, in every town he explores, to find a cafe with good service."

From the Introduction, by Victor Brombert

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Note on the Forthcoming Visitors' Notes for Salmo, BC

I was born and raised in a small town. That's why I don't live in one. Dear Ms. T., a.k.a. the Work-Wife, is an athletic, outdoorsy sort, and she and the legitimate husband spend a fair share of their leisure hours cycling hither and yon through nature; taking in the sights, camping, fishing, etc. Now and again, dear T. has to curse at the occasional murderous local in a pick-up truck when forced off the road, but generally speaking, she and the legitimate husband have a lovely time on the bike.

A bike trip of almost unimaginable length and complexity is planned for the end of September. I've been shown the route, which seems to involve going to British Columbia, Canada and then cycling up and down and around there for many days without ever reaching a luxury hotel, a bookstore or a good French dinner. I can't understand it. Never the less, they will doubtlessly have a grand time of it, and return with breathtaking photographs of every sort of natural wonder. This is what lovely, fit people do. (Personally, my favorite shots are always of the legitimate husband in his nice bicycling pants, but, again, I've never really quite gotten into the spirit of this kind of thing. I'd be just as happy seeing similar snapshots if they were only taken in the backyard. Good looking fellow, the legitimate husband. That's just me of course, but then, my own husband quite agrees.)

On the itinerary for the upcoming jaunt, among other dots on the map, it would seem that the cyclists will be putting in for the night at some point in a little town called Salmo, BC. For some reason -- and I really don't quite know why -- this name just tickled me. Couldn't get it out of my head. Naturally enough, I started ribbing dear T., just the littlest bit, about her exciting planned vacation in Salmo, BC. Dear J., a.k.a. the Work-Husband, looked the place up online and I must say, it does look charming, and really quite a beauty spot. See for yourselves at the official Salmo, BC website. Not my idea of a destination, but I should think just the sort of thing dear T. loves, what with all the lovely trees and streams and things.

I was inspired to start a little series of doodles, not you understand to do with the real Salmo, BC, but rather with the Salmo, BC that the name conjured up for me; a small Canadian village -- population 1000 and change -- not unlike the slightly larger town back in Pennsylvania where I came to manhood some time in the last century. Well, having produced one doodle on the subject of the Salmo, BC as seen only in my twisted little mind, I'm afraid I went a little mad and just kept thinking of other possible attractions in such a little place. I shared these doodles with dear T. of course, and others at the bookstore and eventually, I'm pretty sure, drove poor T. nearly to distraction with them.

I thought before I shared them here, I'd better give fair warning that I really know nothing of the real Salmo, BC. As I've said, I'm sure it's heaven. So really, consider all that follows as something like a visit to the small town in which I hope never to find myself overnight, in Canada, the U. S., or anywhere else for that matter.

Meanwhile, I'm pretty sure dearest T. and the legitimate husband will have a great trip. They certainly deserve no less.

See ya in Salmo!

Daily Dose

From The Adventures of Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens


"There are some promotions in life, which, independent of the more substantial rewards they offer, acquire peculiar value and dignity from the coats and waistcoats connected with them. A field-marshal has his uniform; a bishop his silk apron; a counsellor his silk gown; a beadle his cocked hat. Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine."

from Chapter XXXVII, In which the reader may perceive a contrast, not uncommon in matrimonial cases

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Great Short Stories of Detection Mystery Horror, Part II: Mystery & Horror, edited by Dorothy L. Sayers


"I do not know that I was ever in a greater perplexity in my life; and afterwards, when I thought of it, there was something comic in it too."

From The Open Door, by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant

Friday, August 27, 2010

New Ghosts in Old Wrappers

I've been hunting ghost stories for more than a month now, looking for the materials for a series of Saturday readings we plan for the bookstore in October, and I've grown a little weary of haunting. My fatigue comes not so much from all that I've read to date, as from the knowledge of all the stories I still might read and haven't. Even limiting myself to just those short stories written in English by English or American authors in the last century or so, I've come to appreciate just how impossible it would be to read even only what might be called the best of the dead. The ghost story, or more broadly the horror story or the supernatural or suspense story, would seem to be the one kind of story that for more than one hundred years nearly every writer, major or minor, wrote, and wrote well enough in many, many instances to be numbered among the best and anthologized in one collection or another. It would seemingly at this point be easier just to list the few writers who never wrote, by even the widest definition, a scary story.

I honestly had no idea.

I loved monsters as a child. I watched classic horror films, read DC Horror Comics, and made glow-in-the-dark models of The Phantom of the Opera, The Wolfman, Frankenstein's Monster. I read anthologies of ghost and horror stories gathered from the pages of the Alfred Hitchcock magazine. I can still remember the Edward Gorey cover on the first book of classic ghost stories that I bought. (In a way then, starting my collecting of Edward Gorey, though I didn't know it at the time.) My parents, while they found all of this rather morbid and unhealthy, did not stop me from pursuing my fascination with the grotesque. They simply suggested, now and again, that they liked the pictures I drew of Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx better than the pictures I drew of Lon Chaney as the Hunchback of Notre Dame because, well, Chaplin seemed nicer. (Groucho my mother always remembered as being somehow a little dirty minded, but she was reluctant to draw my attention to this at the time, in the hope that that sort of thing was still going over my head. It was I suppose, though not for much longer. Imagine a world in which Groucho Marx posed the slightest threat to a boy's character and you will have some idea of just how remote my childhood must now seem.)

Every boy, in whatever age, must have some experience of monsters, even if it's only in a story told around a campfire. Being frightened and surviving the experience is a necessary part of surviving childhood. And an appreciation of the tragedy of monsters suggests, to my way of thinking, a wider sympathy than not in the young. I don't know that there's any more lasting harm in a ghost story, or a horror movie, than there is in being read The Old Testament, which after all has to be among the most consistently terrifying and bloody minded collection of supernatural tales ever told.

By the time I had moved on to actually reading the originals of Dracula and Frankenstein, I had grown out of most of my earlier monsters, and ghosts and ghost stories I eventually put away as nursery entertainments, only coming back to these when I became devoted to Henry James and read The Turn of the Screw and discovered just how much a master could make of a haunted house. Ever since I've read the ghost stories I've read not for the ghosts so much as for the writing.

Now, however, I find myself hunting up ghosts old and new, not with the idea of frightening the kiddies so much as of giving a grown up audience a bit of a shiver. As a result, I've been concentrating on only those books and stories that seem likeliest to yield a more subtle disquiet, something more suggestive of mortality than immortality.

And so I've turned not only to contemporary sources, like the anthologies we sell and The Library of America volumes I bought just this year, but to every old book of ghost stories and the like I could find. I've even caused some Algernon Blackwood to be reprinted on the store's Espresso Book Machine. Just this past week I came across not one but two such old numbers, both from wartime Britain, on a lunchtime stop in at my favorite neighborhood used book shop. In the first of these, edited by no less than Dorothy L. Sayers, I've yet to browse much. The same old Saki story, "The Open Window," seems to have been selected not just for these two but for every anthology almost from the day the damned thing was written. It isn't a bad story -- Saki didn't write any -- but it isn't actually much but funny, and so serves my purpose not at all. (I did luckily manage to find elsewhere the Saki story I most wanted to read, and at least two others, so the first of of Saturday readings will indeed be an evening with Saki.) And in the other book, from Faber, I've only just come across "The Apple Tree," by Elizabeth Bowen. It's one of the few true ghost stories by an early Modern that I found to have all the requisite supernatural elements but with a central conceit so unlike any other story I've read that I really hope it might make it into our final list. I do think it would need a woman to read it aloud to have it's full effect, but that may yet be something that happens.

But whatever I find in these two recent acquisitions, I must admit that adding them to my stack of stories yet to be read has rather tipped the balance, if just for the night. I just don't know that I can read another ghost. Still, they are rather wonderful looking old things, these two new/old books, aren't they? If ever there were books that looked likely to yield up something to haunt this last hour before bed...

And so I suppose I'm going to take my monsters with me to bed again. Never too old, or too tired, for a good ghost story.

Daily Dose

From The Oxford Book of American Light Verse, chosen and edited by William Harmon


Thomas Stearns Eliot
Wrote dirty limericks
Under the rose,

Using synecdoches,
Zeugmas, and rhymes he de-
Plored in his Prose."

A Poem, by Anthony Hecht

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Reading from Ruskin

Daily Dose

From Hollywood: A Third Memoir, by Larry McMurtry


"Later that evening, though, I did glimpse Andy Warhol, wandering through the Piazza Navono. He wandered through the crowd like a pale ghost."

From Chapter 16

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Quisling of the Day

Don't you just hate self-hatred? I mean, unless someone's really earned it? Meet Ken Mehlman, who came out today.

I don't think sympathy is really in order, do you?

Daily Dose

From Little Green: A Novel, by Loretta Stinson


"By first light, she had to get up and get out or go crazy."

From Sister Morphine

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Daily Dose

From Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively


"I put my faith in language -- hence the panic when a simple word eludes me, when I stare at a piece of flowered material in front of a window and do not know what name to give it. Curtain. Thank God. I control the world so long as I can name it."

From Chapter 4

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively


"Let me contemplate myself within my context: everything and nothing."

From Chapter 1

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cat Overboard! From The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon

Daily Dose

From The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire, by Simon Winchester


"The Kittiitian who was in the unhappy position of being his Government's official representative in the Valley on Independence Day decided to make as little fuss as possible: he got out of bed at four, raised the independence flag in his living room, saluted it while still in his pajamas, and then crept back to bed."

From Chapter 9, The British West Indies

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Back to Heaven Again: Wesla Whitfield Sets the Standards

I have a coworker as fond as I am of making lists. These aren't "to do" lists. I make those too, though I've seldom managed to do much with such a list before I misplace the note. But I've always kept lists, in one form or another, of things like the books I've read or want to read, the movies I want to go see or rent, what cities I would visit if I could. Mostly though, I make lists of favorites. Making and keeping such a list, or just finding an old one in my files, can clarify, if just for the minute or two it takes to make one, or to read an old one, just where one stands or once stood on a given subject. (Finding a very old list among the childhood papers I recently brought back from storage at my parents' house, I I'm reminded that at twelve, for example, I listed, among the potential rewards of wealth and fame, "getting to kiss Leif Garrett," -- an ambition long since abandoned without regret. Tempus fugit.) But most lists I make; of favorite mystery novels, or out of print English lady novelists that may be reprinted on the bookstore's EBM*, I make for reference at work, and as a means to make recommendations to customers.
My coworker and I took to discussing this sort of thing now and then, when he passes on his security rounds by the used books buying desk. Most, not surprisingly, have been to do with books, but not all. Our favorite movie westerns, for example. We both put The Searchers at the top. We exchange these lists now and again, on a slow Saturday, just to amuse each other, get to know one another better, and also on the chance that one might find something on the other's list that will be new. I stumped him with one name on my list of favorite singers:
Wesla Whitfield.

I don't want to distract from the pleasure of listening to Wesla singing the Gershwins' "Our Love Is Here to Stay" by nattering while she does this so perfectly, so please, do watch the clip.

Lovely, isn't she? That's the Mike Greensill Trio she's singing with in this clip. There's quit a bit of information on Wesla and the Trio, on Wesla's website. Check it out for forthcoming gigs, recordings and the rest.

My friend at the bookstore had never heard of Wesla Whitfield. I never had either, fifteen years ago when I happened to pick up a CD called "Beautiful Love." I liked the look of her, and the playlist of standards. I didn't realize that I was going to fall in love.

Wesla's the kind of contemporary jazz singer that didn't used to be, back when jazz was the popular music of the day. She's a student of popular song, and now a master, of course. Someone like Rosemary Clooney came up as a girl singer with a band. Later in life, when Rosie made her comeback and started recording all those classic albums with Concord Jazz, there was a beautiful logic to the thing: Clooney came full circle, back to the music she'd grown up on, knew best, loved most. But for a later generation of great singers, singers like Susannah McCorckle, and later, Dawn Upshaw or Ian Shaw, and Wesla, the era of great popular jazz, of melodious ballads and swing, had already passed. For the great singers after rock & roll, after bebop, to sing these standards straight, as it were, was a very different challenge. For Clooney to sing what was after all the music of her generation was a kind of homecoming. For a singer like Wesla, a commitment to this music pretty much guaranteed a career in cabaret, little clubs, small recording labels, not being famous, study. It takes guts to sing this beautifully now.

There is a kind of studious, academic jazz, the kind of music that Wynton Marsalis has done so much to teach and preserve, that is more admirable, usually, than not. There are jazz singers, too, who obviously love this music and can sing it with a proficiency that would frankly startle many of the composers who, back in the day, were experimentalists after hours, as it were, and who, with few exceptions like Betty Carter, didn't really work all that often with truly great jazz singers who also happened to be great musicians themselves. As I said, all this is admirable, but not really my cup of tea.

The singers I love best, love the lyrics. Call them, narrative singers, for want of my knowing a better term. The Gershwin these singers love best, is Ira. Me too.

The greatest generation of jazz singers, from Billie and Ella to Sassy and Carmen McRae, however fast and loose they were prepared to be with the words they sang, when it came to the best lyrics, they respected the songs they sang. What did it really matter if Sarah Vaughan forgot the words to "Perdido," and said so, or rather sang so, in the middle of a performance? It was fun, that. But listen to her singing the Gershwins' "I've Got a Crush On You," or "Biddin' My Time," neither exactly deathless poetry, but both with clever, whimsical, sweetly sentimental lyrics, and one can hear the pleasure she took in the words. Listen to her sing one of my very favorite songs, Gershwin or otherwise, "Someone to Watch Over Me," listen to Billie or Ella or Carmen sing it for that matter, and one will hear just what could be done with a great lyric.

Listen to Wesla Whitfield sing "My Shining Hour," and see if it isn't exactly that same thrill. Like those great ladies, Wesla can sing seemingly anything from The Great American Songbook, as it's called, and make it either swing or cry, as she chooses, and sometimes do both, as only the greatest can.

Wesla understands the structure of these songs, musically and lyrically, and respects it. She can be playful, and like a true jazz singer, sing wherever she wants, behind or before the beat, in a run up or a slide down to the point in the score that she's so effortlessly working toward, but she never fails to tell the story, tell it well, and tell it right. That doesn't mean she acts. She's not an actor who sings, mind. There's an afflatus that swells into parody in a certain style of cabaret singer, an unchecked need to emote that makes every song not a story but autobiographical confession that can be embarrassing or just delightfully knowing depending on the performer -- say Liza Minnelli as opposed to Julie Wilson. These are the performers who sing, not singers as such, and certainly not jazz singers. Wesla's voice is too good for that sort of thing.

There are a few great singers, like Dawn Upshaw, who are classically trained but whose musical curiosity is such that they sing, among other things, standards. Unlike the great opera divas who have infrequently recorded the occasional stiff, grotesquely over-orchestrated tribute album to Irving Berlin or the like -- and don't get me wrong, I love me some Kiri Te Kanawa -- Upshaw has the taste and delicacy to record songs within the range of the composer's original intent; singing soft ballads softly, for instance, without threatening to blow them up. But Upshaw, though she can swing a little, has a musical reserve that can be frustrating for a jazz fan. There's always, in even her prettiest ballads, the suggestion of the recital hall, and never a hint of the tin pan, let alone the alley.

And then there's Wesla Whitfield. She's said in an interview that while she was classically trained and even sang in the opera for a bit, she found the chorus boring, and while her voice retains something of that classical purity, she's never been a prisoner of her training. As I said, she isn't really a classic cabaret artist either though. She doesn't need to have an act. She has the kind of voice she can trust, and the rhythm to back it up when she wants to swing. More than this though, she has the confidence to sing straight. She understands not just the music, but the words, and with that comes the bravery to just sit there by the piano and sing.

She's probably the nearest thing to perfect I know when it comes to doing just this. When someone suggested in an interview that she was America's greatest living jazz singer, she responded by saying that that was, not to put too fine a point to it, "bullshit." I understand and respect her dismissal of the idea. There are other singers now working within the tradition who do more; who work on the wire, as it were, and go higher, faster, or who can pull off the kind of astonishing tricks of balance and grace that can leave their listeners rather breathless with admiration. That kind of jazz singer is exciting exactly because of the risks they take. That isn't the only kind of jazz that's admirable though, or pure. There's also the music made in less likely places, little concert venues and clubs and festivals like the ones Wesla usually plays with her band, The Mike Greensill Trio. These are the quiet little spaces wherein the singer and the song are the whole reason to be there, within which one lovely voice, backed by a great pianist, a bass and drum, can remind one just what there is to love about listening to a great love song. Though sometimes she sings in bigger joints with an orchestra, and Wesla has the voice to do that superbly well too, for me, what she does best she does seemingly in conversation with only her Trio and with the great songs, and with me.

For my money, Wesla Whitfield is the best. Call what she does whatever you like. She sings. As Longfellow said of such, "God sent his Singers upon earth With songs of sadness and of mirth, That they might touch the hearts of men, And bring them back to heaven again." For me, Wesla Whitfield's singing is my idea of Heaven.

*EBM = Espresso Book Machine.

Daily Dose

From Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty


"Dogs don't watch themselves from some imaginary point on the outside; they are not split into subject and object..."

From The Photographed Dog

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Creating Colette, Volume Two: From Baroness to Woman of Letters 1912 - 1954, by Claude Francis & Fernande Gontier


"With Paris liberated and Maurice safe, Colette had her usual reaction after a crisis: 'Now I want to eat.' She wanted boeuf a la mode and herring in white wine; 'merde for tomato salad and pasta.'"

From Madame Maurice Goudeket

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: A Memoir, by Bill Clegg


"I won't remember this guy's name, but we become fast friends."

From The Jesus Year

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Roadless Yaak: Reflections and Observations About One of Our Last Great Wild Places, edited by Rick Bass


"I'm not asking much -- just a little. All I want to know is that some places will be safe forever."

From The Community of Glaciers

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson


"There never was such an overturn in this world."

From Chapter XXXIII, The Fall of the Chieftain

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dear Four Walls

Here's where, visiting my parents, I sat each evening to smoke and read a little, until it grew too dark and my cigarette could not keep the bugs away. I didn't have music with me. Dear A. had offered me his ipod, but as I was already carrying my expensive little camera, and more importantly, a laptop borrowed from the bookstore, I did not think I could be trusted with yet another toy to keep track of, and so I declined A.'s offer, and then regretted doing so rather bitterly.

When I still lived in my parents' house, music was where I went to be alone, to be happy, to get lost. Music, for the most part, for me then as now, was a solitary pleasure. (I can not make music, of any kind. Before my voice changed, I had a lovely, piping sound, but that was the last time I was able to make a consistently pretty noise. I never really learned to read music, or to play an instrument of any kind. I was sick the day we chose instruments in junior high, and so ended up with an oboe. I had some lessons, but the instructor, a sad, sweaty little man who drank, always forgot to buy new reeds, so often as not I just sat there doing the fingerings and making little soundless kisses.) The music I loved then, I still do. Mine was never a very thoughtful record collection; more an accumulation than a collection. Still is. But even then, I did not listen to or own much of the country music by which I was surrounded growing up, or the pop and rock favored by my contemporaries. Predictably enough, I listened to showtunes.

Then, when I was still just a kid, I was surprised one day to discover a collection of my father's old jazz LPs. Now, my father sang Hank Williams at the top of his voice when we delivered dog-food together in his old panel truck, watched "Hee Haw" every week, and loved The Grand Old Opry. Imagine my shock. Here was a whole other world of sophistication, and wit, and singers who pronounced the final "g" in verbs. I sat and listened and memorized those records. Dad never listened to anything like that anymore, but, bless him, he never threw anything away, either. Because of him, I found June Christy, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, still my favorite voice in the history of recorded sound. Those records taught me how to listen, how to be happy to a beat, and how to hear a love song. From there, I discovered a whole world of jazz singers, lost my heart to the ladies who swung, and came to understand the little I do about what makes music.

I was late to serious music. Hardly heard it growing up, and did not have any education with which to address it. I came to it via radio, making cramped and embarrassingly phonetic note of what I could only hope was roughly the name of something I'd heard. Before the Internet, and once I was away in the world, I had to depend entirely, buying records, on the kindness of the queens who invariably staffed the classical counters in record stores. They helped me, not without condescension, to find the music I listen to now almost as often as I listen to jazz.

Sitting on that old busted chair, on the narrow porch at the back of my parents' little house, I would watch the summer sun fade to nothing behind the woods. Just about every night while I was out there, I sat and listened to the bugs and the frogs and the night birds as they woke up and started singing. More often than I can remember, and for no reason I could think of at the time, a song would drift into my mind, as I sat there. Not the sort of song one hums, or that I could ever sing, but always the same song. I couldn't quite remember just what it was, just the tune. It wasn't one of the jazz standards I usually hum at work, no doubt to the justified annoyance of my coworkers at the buying desk. This was a strange, lovely melody, barely remembered, and not at all the music I associate with being back in Pennsylvania, or with my childhood there. It was curious, but I didn't really question why or from where the song came to me, or what it might mean. I just listened to it in my head, while I sat outside and smoked.

And then, when it was truly dark, I occasionally watched my folks through the glass door, moving about their house. They'd be setting the kitchen table for the next day's breakfast, or just sitting in their matching recliners, reading the same newspaper for the third time, or watching TV, or dozing. My mother might be ironing a shirt by the kitchen table, or making us all popcorn with which to watch a movie. I saw her "taking her sugar," as she has to now many times a day, or preparing her insulin injections, which my father actually gives her, as she's still squeamish, after all these years, though "just of the needles." Dad had to learn how to do this for her, even though he obviously can't stand the idea that it hurts her even a little bit. She assures him it doesn't, but he thinks it must, and she always looks away when he uses the needle.

Seeing them together as they went about this unhappy business of injections, I would usually turn away too. It is an intimacy in which I have no proper place. Just once though, realizing that for a moment, they'd forgotten that I was sitting just on the other side of the glass, smoking in the dark, I did watch. I watched as my father took the syringe from my mother, watched as she pulled her nightshirt above her knee, and turned away. He rested one hand on the back of her neck, to steady himself, as his hands shake a bit now, and rested it there also I think to reassure her. When it's done, as I had noticed already, invariably, he gives her a kiss.

I watched them then, as they are most nights, when there's no one else in the house, when no one's visiting. It felt... comforting, to see how they still care for one another, every day. On reflection, I'm not unhappy at having seen them doing what they have to now, together. These are the people from whom I learned responsibility, tenderness, how to be in the world. I see now how they taught me.

I think, just sitting and observing my parents at home, all those nights together, I saw them again, better, even than when we were all in the house together. I'm glad of the chance.

It was only when I got back to Seattle, to my own music, that I remembered the song.

I have a friend who has been learning German and now regularly carries on conversations on the Internet in this language. I speak only the English I have. I envy anyone with more languages than the one, just as I envy any one who can make music. German was never a language my friend thought he would ever care to learn. He is Jewish, both his parents survived the Nazis, though not without a terrible, all but unspeakable, loss. My friend is a writer, and he followed the translation of his work the whole way to Germany, a place he never thought he would go, and eventually found himself not only in the very country he was raised to never mention without a curse, but in a language he has come to learn and love. Imagine that.*

I mention this last, because the music I heard on that back porch was a song with words I could not understand, until I read a translation online by Emily Ezust. Richard Strauss was not a composer I had even heard until I was no longer young. Then I discovered Naxos, the inexpensive line of classical recordings and became a little obsessed with lieder. Schubert, of course, was where I started, but eventually any and every composer of songs featured on that marvelous label fell into my greedy catch. Strauss has lately become something of a companion to me when I come downstairs at night to write and scribble. I haven't the vocabulary or experience to explain why, and while I've read a little on the composer's life and come to a tentative understanding of the man and his difficult compromises with the Nazis, I must admit I don't really think much about any of that, when I'm sitting here listening over and over again to Hedwig Fassbender, the bright young mezzo-soprano singing "Hoffen und wieder verzagen," or "Nebel," or the song, as it turned out, that drifted into my head again and again as I sat smoking and watching my parents at home, "Befriet." Her are the lyrics, by one Richard Dehmel:

Du wirst nicht weinen. Leise, leise
wirst du lächeln: und wie zur Reise
geb' ich dir Blick und Kuß zurück.
Unsre lieben vier Wände! Du hast sie bereitet,
ich habe sie dir zur Welt [geweitet]1 --
o Glück!

Dann wirst du heiß meine Hände fassen
und wirst mir deine Seele lassen,
läßt unsern Kindern mich zurück.
Du schenktest mir dein ganzes Leben,
ich will es ihnen wiedergeben --
o Glück!

Es wird sehr bald sein, wir wissen's beide,
wir haben einander befreit vom Leide;
so [geb']2 ich dich der Welt zurück.
Dann wirst du mir nur noch im Traum erscheinen
und mich segnen und [mit mir]3 weinen --
o Glück!

And here they are in Emily Ezust's translation:


You will not weep. Gently
you will smile, and as before a journey,
I will return your gaze and your kiss.
Our dear four walls you have helped build;
and I have now widened them for you into the world.
O joy!

Then you will warmly seize my hands
and you will leave me your soul,
leaving me behind for our children.
You gave me your entire life,
so I will give it again to them.
O joy!

It will be very soon, as we both know -
but we have freed each other from sorrow.
And so I return you to the world!
You will then appear to me only in dreams,
and bless me and weep with me.
O joy!

I can honestly say, only when I happened to listen to this song again tonight, and then listened to it again and again to be sure, did I really recognize what I had been hearing in my head back home. And only tonight, did I look up the lyrics online. I was shocked to see these words. I don't think I'd ever seen them before, as strange as that may be. I must have done, when I was doing my little researches on the composer, but the words seemed utterly new to me, reading them tonight. Made me shiver.

It's unlike me to think in this way, but I must say, I can't help but think that music, and the right music seems sometimes, often, to come when we need it. I recognize that the pleasure I took in observing unobserved my elderly parents -- this very year celebrating their 55th Anniversary together -- was not consciously tinged with such sentiments as expressed in these words, but at some level, Strauss's music was with me there, and was right, somehow. How? I don't begin to know. I don't know that I need to.

(I wonder, would the parents of my friend have heard this song? Would they have listened to the songs of Richard Strauss? Does my friend know this song? Strange, confusing, complicated thoughts.)

Neither of my parents will have ever heard this song. Neither, I fear would much care to. Listening to it again now, having recovered a little from the strangeness of the thought, I am more than a little in wonder. I've decided not to question it any further.

Instead, I close my eyes, and listen, and I see my mother ironing a shirt, my father reading his newspaper, my mother at the kitchen table, my father's hand resting on her neck, her hand on his. I wish them many, many more nights together, just themselves, in that little house. Whatever the difficulties of growing old, they are together. May they always be so.

When the day comes, as it must, when I am never again with them, in that place they widened for me into the world, I will always have them as they were, just on the other side of the glass. What a marvelous gift! When I close my eyes, when I hear Strauss, I will always have them with me.

Happy Anniversary, Mum, Dad.

I have written here before about my friend, Lev Raphael's book detailing this journey, My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped. I would encourage everyone to read this wonderful and moving memoir.

Daily Dose

From The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, edited with an introduction by W. H. Auden


"Beginning with the best intentions in the world, such societies must in all probability degenerate into a receptacle for every species of tittle-tattle, impertinence, and malice. Men whose trade is rat-catching, love to catch rats; the bug-destroyer seizes on his bug with delight; the suppressor is gratified by finding his vice."

From The Society for the Suppression of Vice

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On the River With Huck & Jim

This little house isn't anymore. It wasn't really a house even when we called it so. It sat behind my grandmother's house, just up the road from ours, in what had been an orchard once. we grandchildren took it over and made it ours. No one objected. In it we kept old toys and small furnishings and the mysterious and abandoned objects of earlier generations: things like a stereopticon, and oil lamps, and a trunk of old party dresses. There might be an old push-mower in the corner, a rusted scythe hanging on the wall, and various rakes and the like in it, mixed with our things, but we could ignore these neglected practical things so long as we might sit on a broken wicker sofa and play with cards so old they'd gone soft, or race hard rubber cars on the dusty floor, or sit in a pile of musty old horse-blankets, a summer breeze coming in at the little windows and out through the open door, and read.

That was what I remember best doing in the little house, reading, by myself, with the smell of apples in pine baskets around me, and old horse-tack hanging on the walls above my head. Reading the OZ books again and again, reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with a supply of lemonade in a glass pitcher my grandmother brought me and warned me not to break or I'd not be welcome back. Treasure Island, with the Wyeth illustrations, in a copy once owned by my Uncle Dick, killed in the war, I found in my grandmother's house, and read here and again before my grandmother's fireplace, while we made popcorn in the pan with the long handle, over the fire.

Too, I fought "the battle of the round-house," within that single, dusty room.

And in this house that wasn't a house, that may once have been a cabin, I went first down the Mississippi with Huck & Jim.

As I say, this little building is long gone. The apple trees are wild and untended now, as is, I don't doubt, the grapevine that grew on the trellis above the "tip," just back at the edge of the woods. I used to hang out over certain destruction to get at those cool Concord grapes and carry them back -- if they lasted that long -- to eat while I read in that shed, that being, after all, all it really was even then.

I found this old photograph, one I took myself as a child, and I remembered that little place for the first time in many years; the dust in the sun, the strong smell of long vanished horses, the sweet smell of the grass, and the afternoons I spent safe in that close, keeping company with some of the first and best friends of my youth, of my life. As Twain said:

"It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened."

Such places are made, and lost, it seems, before we remember to look back at them.

Daily Dose

From The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, edited with an introduction by W. H. Auden


"Yet, unattractive and shallow as one may feel so many liberals to be, how rarely on any concrete social issue does one find the liberal position the wrong one."

From Auden's Introduction

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Out Back

To call what I do with my little camera, "photography," seems silly. I am very much just a point and click man. But this time back to the old place in Pennsylvania, I thought I'd best keep my camera with me, as some of what is there may not be there much longer.

Despite my well earned reputation as an enemy of exercise and an opponent of the outdoors, I did grow up surrounded by what city and suburban folks call "nature." I walked out into it every day. I had no choice then; nature was what stood between me and wherever I would rather be. Still, even as I longed to live in a place with sidewalks, I understood that real quiet was something that couldn't be had in a city. Solitude, I've found, is something into which one may drop even on a crowded bus, but silence, of the buzzing, windy kind, I do miss now and again.

And so I went for a walk and followed the old way, skirting what we now know to call, "wetlands," and back into the woods. This much, I must admit, I miss. I still don't know that I would travel any distance to be again in such a place, but to walk out after supper and find it again, there is a distinct pleasure in that.

When the Big Box store comes soon, and it will, and all this is gone, even I will feel the loss of it.

Daily Dose

From Shakespeare Criticism: A Selection, 1623 - 1840, edited with an introduction by D. Nichol Smith


"Shakespeare is the Spinozistic deity -- an omnipresent creativeness."

From a selection of criticism by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Friday, August 13, 2010