Saturday, December 25, 2021

Soonest Mended

My best gift this year? The beloved husband mended my favorite stocking cap. (His favorite gift this year, by the way? Not the fancy new "dental care system," aka electric toothbrush I bought him, but the vintage plastic lunchbox and matching thermos my mother sent him. He's been wanting one of those.) He didn't give me the cap, you understand. I bought it from a vendor at the Castro Street Fair in San Francisco some time in the nineteen-eighties. In fact, I bought half a dozen different such hats from that talented lady. "Martha Made It/San Francisco," the tag says. I still have three of these. Lost the rest at Christmas parties or they fell out of coat pockets or were inadvertently left under under theater seats. Don't know. Miss the missing ones still. Of the three surviving hats, this is my favorite. It is black with white pinstripes and I wear it like a skullcap with the brim rolled. (A friend calls these my "house turbans" which is not inaccurate, though I do wear them in the streets as well. Slattern.) The rolled edge at the back has frayed away and was threatening to unravel after it came last out of the wash. The beloved husband noticed this and all unprompted stitched up up for me. The stitching was the gift, though he would not think to call it that. I do. He is quicker than I to mend things and often without saying. His mother taught him to sew, as my mother taught me.

We were taught to sew, at least so far as to fix a hole in the heel of a sock, put a button back on, or hem a pillowcase as just a useful thing to know. Backstitch, running, and basting, in my case, nothing artful or fancy, but still, better than helplessness. Helplessness is natural in small children and it seems still all too common in most grown men. As in so many things including cooking, talking to service providers and repair persons, and keeping his temper, the beloved husband has the better of me, and much the more sure and lighter touch. I have less patience generally and the quicker temper, typically enough. Rather a shock I should think, anyone meeting us for the first time that in some things I'm the more stereotypical male. I am all too easily frustrated, particularly in practical matters, and fat peasant fingers on me, better suited to ditch-digging than to making invisibles stitches. He has hands like a pianist.

We were both lucky in our mothers. Not every mother asks much of her sons in domestic matters. Perhaps better say in my generation and before, sons were not taught a tenth of what their mothers knew, not even something so simple and necessary as sewing on a button. Would that more of us had been taught more, or had listened. That sounds smug, but trust me when I tell you I did not listen much myself. Amazing I learned the little I did, but then in my case the woman in question was and is formidable in her way. Wouldn't know it to look at her. Helplessness was not an option in her sons. 

That men do not listen to women generally is I think still broadly true. The evidence of this is everywhere. (Note Angela Merkel in every photo from every g20 conference, to pick just the one obvious example. Patience of a saint, that woman. Imagine sitting next to Putin for a decade, or worse! Enjoy your retirement, Chancellor.)

Few of the domestic sciences have a more storied history in literature than needlework, and less respect in the wider, man-spreading world.  For three years Penelope works and reworks that wretched shroud before Odysseus finally wanders home and hardly a word of praise does she get for it -- or anything even from Homer but the requisite admiration of her fidelity. (I'll bet that when she was done that winding sheet was exquisite as Austen's prose.) Women's work, to use an antique and condescending tag, never gets its due, except of course from other women. Of all the somewhat scant displays in the Jane Austen House museum, none is now more treasured that the coverlet Jane sewed and signed in stitching, now I think of it. I looked it up.  In a letter to her sister Cassandra, of what was Jane Austen proudest? Writing Sense and Sensibility? No. Of that she worries it might prove, "too clever."  Instead it is her needlework of which she boasts, "I am proud to say I am the neatest worker in the party." Note that she was writing to her sister. If she was going to brag, who better to? And yet it is the quilt not the novel that in the author's opinion recommends her even to Cassandra.

Mother tells me she never minded sewing. The domestic chore my mother likes least is ironing. Remember that in her youth this was a far more cumbersome business than now; what with starch-bottles, water for sprinkling, hot irons and cold. It was hard work. Yet it was not the onerous nature the task itself so much as all the time spent -- and entirely too much of that in ironing her older brother's shirts. For much of the time described he was a college student and then a seminarian. He required clean white shirts and sometimes more than one a day. That side of the family always ran hot and tended to damp and my uncle, even as a young man was  a substantial, if unathletic figure. In those days, it would have occurred to no one other than my mother that the man might have ironed his own damned shirts.

When the day came that I left my father's house for good and all, my mother made sure that I knew how feed myself, clean my own clothes and linens, and that should the need arise I might iron my own shirt. No woman would ever have to "do for" me as she had done for three generations of men and boys. By then of course we both knew just how right she was, no woman ever would, but the principle was sound. In my abbreviated college career I instructed half a dozen boys in operating the washing machines, explained to at least one that a fitted sheet was not "part of" the mattress, taught a grown man how and when to turn a fried egg, and explained to another what shoe-polish was for and how it worked. I remember a conversation with someone I barely knew about why one end of the ironing-board was rounded. 

I'd like to think that the rigidity of gender in my mother's generation has relaxed and that the assumptions that condemned my mother to all those steamy hours flattening my uncle's collars and pressing the generous spaces between his many shirt-buttons will never come again. Nonetheless I've known more than one mother of my own generation -- and after -- whose adult sons still bring them dirty laundry as if it were a gift, adult men who have never made a meal more complicated than a sandwich, and at least one fellow with an advanced degree who not all that long ago found he had no idea how to operate the iron in his hotel room. He needed a shirt pressed for the conference he was in town to address. (Evidently no one had ever taught him how to pack a suitcase either.) No idea how an iron worked. His solution? He ordered a new shirt online and had it delivered to the front desk. (Hard not to think that whatever the actual subject of his lecture, it might better have been Unexamined White Male Privilege and the Gig Economy or something like, but not a point I raised.) However evidently slow the progress of my sex, I am proud to say my mother did her part raise her boys from helplessness and sexist assumptions. 

Among my personal treasures in a quilt-scrap worked by my grandmother and adapted by my mother as a framed background for a collage of photos of my mother's youngest, meaning me. It is a lovely thing, not because I'm in it and all the more so for representing the kind and artful attentions of the most important women in my life. Not an un-troubling example I'll admit as it is about me ultimately. Again, typical now I think about it.

Now that gifts are very much again in mind, I am thinking of intangibles too, of what lasts, what does and doesn't get passed down through the generations. And I am thinking of mended things. When I was young I was surrounded by mended things: pots, pans, clothes, engines, animals, people.

Women mended all sorts, but men did too. Theirs were the vehicles and engines, windows and doors, pumps and stone walls and fallen fences. Every summer a man with a round stone came to my grandmother's house, just up the road from ours. I do not know his name. He was a knife-grinder and he brought with him a stone wheel that sat in a wooden frame. He operated the wheel with a peddle, not unlike my grandma's Singer sewing machine but also not unlike, his wheel, something from the Middle Ages. It might have been a battle-axe or a broadsword sharpened on that wheel. As it was he sharpened kitchen knives, and hatchets, saws, scythes, and hoes. He carried whetstones of various sizes and meant to varied purposes. He was when last seen already very old.  I saw him only the once, if I actually saw him at all. I remember him vividly, but as with so many memories of early childhood, he may have been one of my grandmother's stories that I've adopted as my own. Memory is in part appropriation too, or theft to put it more bluntly.

I'm sure that I don't remember the tinkers, but I know they still came in the summers too, offering to fix things, and to lay new blacktop on driveways. They were not trusted to finish what they started and were not to be employed by any of mine. Their reputation, and our prejudice outlasted their presence, and people back home still describe things as being "not worth a tinker's dam."

I do remember standing with my father in a room that smelled of boots and resin and old wood watching a man mend horse tack and saddlery. I remember he held a length of leather in his mouth while he talked. I marveled at that. I'd seen men all my life talk around the plug in their cheek or with a bobbing cigarette stuck to their lip, but never before had I seen someone stretching leather with one end anchored in his teeth. I wondered at the strength of his teeth, thinking they must be very like a horse's to do that. I was reminded of this while watching an excellent new movie recently and have to wonder, again, how much I actually remember and what I've borrowed from the movie? (Made by a woman, by the way.)

Of course I've seen a horse shoed more than once and thought the moment in no way special.

My grandmother's last gentleman-friend made brooms and raised bees. I knew more than one man who worked wood on a lathe or caned chairs. I've seen many practical things made as well as mended.

Mostly though I preferred the company of women even then because they had actual conversations about more interesting things; like people I might know, rather than dogs or vehicles.  What they worked on while they talked was better too, and smelled better too, like food and flowers rather than carburetors and, again, dogs. And women talked indoors. Always better, indoors than out; cooler in the summers and warmer in the winters, and nobody spat. And in their homes, everywhere around me was the evidence of working needles and sewn things: quilts and crochet, doilies and table linens, no curtains but what were measured and made at home, dresses, doll-clothes, sock-monkeys, fascinating, detailed, and artful things. I say that now, but no one then thought of these things as "artisanal" or "folk art" or in anyway superior to store-bought things. "Old timey" was already the phrase for much of this then -- a phrase I still find lovely -- but not yet so unusual as to be sold in boutiques and to tourists of which where I grew up there were none in those days. Quaint was not yet a craze or collectible. The bourgeois women I met later through their children all seemed obsessed at the time with something called "authentic colonial." Being then a junior pedant, I thought this a weird preoccupation as my hometown not founded until more than a decade after the Constitutional Convention. "Authentic colonial" in Western Pennsylvania would be better represented by three legged stools in rough, unvarnished wood and general Augean filth, I should think, but who wants that in one's breakfast nook? So far as I could tell, what these ladies meant by the term, and what they called antique in general were spindle-legged, straight-backed chairs on which no one was allowed to sit, polished spinning wheels no one used, and over-sized copper pots hung above their gas ranges. There was as yet no wider market, or at least none that any of us had heard tell, for anything so practical as a quilt or so old fashioned as a sampler. Fo my grandmothers' generation things were made when they couldn't or needn't be bought. Some things were beautiful, some weren't but even when the look of the thing was not the point there was often craft and great skill in the stitching of it. Barely noticed much of it. In those far off days piles and pounds of the stuff could be had at a rummage sale for a song. Antique shops then were for blue and white china and Queen Anne bureaus and "colonial" whatnots. What did I know? Looking back, I knew no more than that interesting old women lived in old houses full of interesting old things.

 All of which sounds terribly charming and folksy now, doesn't it? That is very much my fault.

I am reminded of Michael Pollan, journalist, food-activist, and ayahuasca enthusiast. Admirable writer, admirable fellow in his way, but also representative of a generation nearly my own and a class still pretty alien to mine that seems intent on a Rousseauian reclamation of simplicity, of fading rustic skills, the locally sourced, and bitter greens. The best part of this movement has reproduced lost apples, fought the insanity of single-use plastics, and proved objectively that we are a danger to ourselves and to life in general. The less attractive aspect of all this enthusiasm for "authenticity," the bit that sticks is the assumption of infinite leisure. How comes it that anyone has time to raise chickens in the city? 

I heard Pollan on a panel in some online something. He was blithely telling an audience of bourgeois white women that home-canning was really the way to go; the product so superior in every way to tinned peaches or frozen peas, healthier, better for the planet, etc., etc. Delighted smiles all around and applause. SO true. So very true. 

What no one on that panel pointed out was that the only reason my grandmother, who canned all her long life, had the time to read a book or watch her Wheel of Fortune was because she'd lived to see affordable tinned peaches and frozen peas. The reason she was able to live respectably as a widow for forty years was because she was able to find respectable work that didn't break her back and cripple her hands. No one mentioned that the hideous vinyl flooring in her kitchen meant she needn't scrub and polish the "authentic" wood floors underneath. 

In my experience the dignity of work is most often mentioned by those that needn't hold a brush or a broom, raise anything other than their voices, people who've never needed to mend anything, make a meal they weren't pleased to eat, or teach a child to work for anything better than the lesson of it. 

The word abandoned by the modern disciples of Rousseau is "savage." Ugly word, too often used to demean other human beings, but a good word to remember when discussing this reclaimed nobility in humble things and tasks. The lives of my people, of most people, poor people were and are savage. Poverty is savage. The physical requirements of daily survival the world over remain savage. It is not character or genetics that the word "savage" describes. It is the state of people's hands, the pain in their knees, the work required to raise and preserve their food. Life is savage. Want is savage. Necessity is savage, not people. 

Are we all really so far from savagery now that the little things people did and do to make sweetness where they could find it, beauty in practical objects, comfort against the cold or the equatorial heat, that these things they made for want of better are valued now for their authenticity, collected and appraised for their delightful simplicity, aesthetically pleasing despite the sweat they represent? Yes, a quilt can be art. I will grant you, but I would remind the collector that it was made from scraps because scraps were what were to be had. People carved because they had a sharp knife and just time enough of an evening to add detail to something needed. 

I am no better than the people whose new enthusiasm for old things and simplicity I disdain. My house -- and yes, I have a house -- is full to the rafters with things, many of them old as I grow more so every day. I've no more need of most of the things I possess than of a third ear. I collect canes and carved staffs, books and ornaments and weathered toys. I eat fruit out of season and meat when I want it. I recognize the luxury in which I live, undreamt of by my ancestors no more than two generations back. I see the value in these things, I invest value in them exactly as the rich might and do. I reckon only that I needn't learn the superior taste of a home-canned tomato because I ate them at one time because that was what we had. I know the work involved, and the cost, because I saw it. That's all. It makes me angry to think a man might lecture women about how little it costs to can a peach. Does he know? What was the state of his grandmother's hands? How hard did his father's heart work to feed him? Absolutes and abstractions are a privilege -- and there at last is a newly dirty word I feel comfortable using as such myself. I am myself privileged in using words just this way. I have the time. I was taught the value of that.

Mended things may be the best gifts. Twelve little stitches made with affection and strong nylon thread can save a hat more than a quarter of a century old. Don't know that sewing can save the world, or even the past. For that I think we need less canning, fewer seminars and instructional videos and online "package-openings," and maybe more labor unions, income and inheritance taxes, fewer dilettante in space, more billionaires in fear of eternal Hell, and more bankers in jail.

I am minded now this Christmas day of another quote about mending things. "Least said, soonest mended," as Betsey Trotwood says -- having spent a long, hilarious, and most confusing paragraph explaining in the third person the loss of all her money. Again it seems I have met with a wise woman and failed to listen or learn my lesson.  "'Which was injudicious, Trot,' said my Aunt, 'but well meant.'" Best that can be said of me, mostly, and of this. 

And now I should go and give my good husband a kiss for mending my cap.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Matte Black


Ah, the box. If you've made it to adulthood without a box or a bin marked "Xmas" and ignored for eleven months out of every twelve, congratulations. I envy your light traveling through life, I really do. Don't know how you've done it. Perhaps it really is just a matter of will power, cultural variation, religious or philosophical conviction, I don't know, nobility of character or unstable housing. Loads of reasons, now I think about it, but for a lot of us I should think there is now and may always be the box. For many of us it is disingenuous to refer to the thing in the singular. If we're being honest there's seldom just the one in the garage or the attic or in the building's storage locker. (Somewhat full disclosure: I have two big -- big as in hard for the movers to lift big -- boxes just of Christmas music. Gives you some idea.) 

We all know what's in the box though the point of it, of the box itself, beyond actual preservation is that it allows us to forget. Why I don't like those clear plastic tubs, frankly. Who wants reminding? Let it be a surprise every year. Just a quick inventory first week of December will bring it all back: lights, ornaments, wreaths, bells, Santa cows. (I had more than a moment in the nineties when it was a very cow Christmas. There were for some reason a lot of Christmas cows on the market; lights, ornaments, irreverent manger scenes, nutcrackers, cow, cow, cow, cow. Do not judge me. It was a theme. It was whimsical, dammit.) Two years running, when we were living in the condo with the cathedral ceiling in the living room, I had two trees: there was the pretty tree and the funny tree. The pretty one was all a glitter with blown glass and tasteful little twinkle lights and the funny tree... well, you already know. Moo.

Yes, it was all a bit much and now I very much wish we'd taken more photographs because we will not see it's like again, at least at our house. I say "our house" because he put my name on the mortgage, but he pays it and now we're legally married at last it really is in part mine, but Christmas was all me. The beloved husband was raised in the Witnesses -- and poor -- and the Witnesses, they are not at all for Christmas. Bless his heart, how has he put up with me?! Two trees? Seriously? Well, I've calmed down. I'm sure I have pictures somewhere, of the multiple tree Christmases, but this was well before the world went digital so there's probably just the one photo of each tree, either end of the sofa as I remember them. 

Side note: why did we all always take a picture of the Christmas tree every year? Back in the day it's not like it actually changed all that much from year to year: same ornaments, same big-bulb lights, same angel or star topper. Hell, we collected the "icicles," filmy silver foil strip by filmy silver foil strip and hung them back on the cardboard to be reused. So why the annual photo or Polaroid? Yes, sometimes someone was made to stand in front, but there was always the one shot of just the unchanging and interchangeable tree with only the time-stamp to distinguish it from all the others. Weird, that. Continuity of a kind.

Now anyone who's ever done display work in a retail setting sooner or later has faced the box as well. If you remember the box from childhood as a magical but simultaneously a somewhat disappointing business, you must trust me when I tell you it was a cornucopia of bright, fresh, and fragrant delights compared to retail Christmas decorations. The question, "Can we get another Christmas out of this?" was sadly answered, "Yes" entirely too often. Blessedly these are no longer decisions I have to make. Other, wiser, and more financially responsible heads determine these things in the bookstore where I now work, but I had my moment.

It was the eighties, in all it's vulgar glory and I was managing a branch store. For any who may not know, there was a time when independent bookstores were still profitable enough enterprises that one company might maintain multiple locations, sometimes even in the same city. The little store I managed was entirely too close to its larger and more glorious parent, easy walking distance actually. The lease on the little store was signed for fear of losing the lease on the larger or something like that and when that didn't happen the company ended up with a redundancy that could not be got rid of for some considerable time. The threat or promise of imminent closure hung over the little bookstore well before I became its manager and eventually, inevitably it came true and the little store was closed. In the meanwhile, year after year the closure was threatened, planned for, even begun and then abandoned again until... next year. No way to run a business, I hear you thinking. Well, you may be right, events certainly supported that argument eventually, but you weren't there, I was and we made the best of it while it lasted.

When I came in, you could see the hurried nature of the layout and planning. Children's books faced "Sex and Relationships" on the same narrow aisle. There's a ruthless logic there, but not an attractive juxtaposition of titles and not serving, shall we say, the same customers. That was addressed and we made the best we could of the space we had. I like to think that even under my admittedly immature leadership, the place was not a bad bookshop. Made many friends there. Sold a lot of good books. 

One thing I was not in a position to do much about was the box, or rather, again, boxes. Another thing about managing a satellite location, everything you have is inherited: fixtures, signage, cash registers, Christmas decorations. By the time I came to open those boxes they had already seen many a season. A quick inventory:

Red, faux-velvet bows tied with unraveling gold cording, green plastic holly wreaths once decorated with an abundance of tiny toy houses, bears, drums, plastic "tin" soldiers, and the like, sprays of loose, still plastic fir branches, and a couple of balls of tangled lights that may or may not have worked once. To say this was sad is to understate the case. The bows were meant to head each bookcase, the effect meant to be uniform and cumulatively cheery. Few were not flat, tattered, and bent into odd shapes, sticky with age and stuck together. The wreaths and the trimmin's were far from as full as they once had presumably been. Threadbare is the word that comes to mind; colors faded, paint chipped, and among the little toys there were arms and heads missing at a most alarming rate. The whole effect, both on the sales-floor and in the display windows, was depressing. Once it was all up it all looked like nothing so much as clearance at a Goodwill. But, who cared? the place was closing in the new year.

And then, it didn't. (Think I was actually there for four years, was it? Awhile anyway.) So when the next Holiday Season rolled around we again did the best we could. I invested in bulk potpourri and a hot glue gun. Better, but not great. I think it wasn't until my third year there that I really broke out. May be wrong about the timing, but break out at some point I did. Couldn't do anything about those wretched red bows, but the windows? Those windows were going to be gorgeous! And so, I thought they were. 

The solution was matte black paint. You may not remember the moment and I may have been a bit in advance of the trend but there came a time when the world was made better, and weirdly brighter by matte black paint. Lamp and or lampshade looking dated? Matte black paint. Inherited grandma's Hummels and they don't quite suit your new, hipper aesthetic? Matte black paint. Need to turn just about any sow's ear into a fashionably matte black silk purse? You knew what you needed to do. Give me spray paint and an alley in which to work and I could make anything ART!  

And so it came to pass: the matte black Christmas. I wasn't a purist. I recognized the need for shine and sheen and sparkle. Thus the silver and copper highlights, silver and copper bows on the matte black paper wrapped display "presents." Every wreath, every bough, it all got the full matte black make-over. I wish I had a picture. 

My boss? My boss was not... impressed. Apoplectic, that's the word that comes to mind. Fit to be tied if we're feeling folksy. The situation was not saved, but certainly settled down when in the very midst of this confrontation, a perfect stranger came into the store just to say that she thought our Christmas windows lovelier than Macy's. "Very chic," I believe she may have said. Vindication! Aesthetic triumph! Not fired! 

One thing that had not occurred to me at the time I swear, was that that matte black was of course a metaphor. I can see that now. San Francisco in the late eighties, beautiful and exciting as it was, it was also a city full of mourning, the sick, the dying, the angry, and the inconsolable. (Also present: the extraordinarily strong and largely thankless queer women who cared for their brothers, who had done, still do, too little in return.) San Francisco was furious and sad and exhilarating and terrifying and — I still miss it to this day. Still the most beautiful place I've ever lived. Still the best time I ever had. Still. Still. Now I am older than I then assumed I would ever see, actually twice as old as some of my contemporaries ever lived to be. So many gone before they'd seen a gray hair, reconciled with their fathers, written their books, painted their pictures, lived their lives,  held who their husbands or their children might have been. And nearly a whole generation before ours was going or gone, just... gone. I remember our thick black boots, our black tee-shirts, the black banners stretched across a bridge, the flat, black desolation that threatened to swallow us all, and the cold, black heart of the man who lived in the White House.

I was at the time a volunteer in a support organization that provided practical and emotional support for people living with HIV/AIDS. As it turned out, I was no better a volunteer than I was activist. I was young, selfish, lazy, more than a little complacent, and very much out of my depth. I was trained, but I was not prepared. As an activist, I was occasional at best, a body; I could walk, march, shout. I was happy to get on the bus, even climb on top of the roof of the drug company, I might get arrested but didn’t. I was happy to set out the chairs in the Women's building, and just as happy to leave before the meeting was over. I was happy to sit in the middle of the street, and just as likely to get back on the train and go home. I was not good on committees, never volunteered, loathed the disorder of the open floor discussions, left the real work to others. I was then as I am now always too eager to get home to my supper. 

As a volunteer I was not good at listening "actively," coping with my first racist client, dealing with dementia, attending weekly volunteer support meetings. God, how I hated those wretched "check ins": endless bus-transfers after work to somebody's inaccessible apartment on the other side of the moon, cat-haired cookies and floral teas and a pitiless insistence that all feelings were equally valid and worthy of expression no matter the hour and no, seriously, how ARE you? As if we simply had to BE some way or other about everything, and willing, ever eager to say so — and no, indignant, tired and bored were not acceptable options. 

My very first client did not have much to say to some silly white child in his twenties and I don't blame him. My third visit I called the ambulance that took him on his last ride to the hospital. My next, as I’ve mentioned spent our first, last, and only conversation confiding all manner of white racist paranoia about “those people” ruining his neighborhood etc. to which I was expected to listen patiently. I did not. When I refused to see him again, I was warned that this wasn't really up to me, not in the right spirit, not the way things were done, and so on. We’d need to process all of that. It seems I was being judgmental. Well, yes, and most emphatically NO, for once, I would  not see the man again. My next client died before I met him. My next was hard to see because he was living in a subsidized housing situation and I could almost never get anyone to buzz me into the building. He had no phone and so it was hard to say if he would be there when I came and it was hard to know if he would remember me if he was. 

I do remember a Christmas from those matte black days. Not one of ours, or rather nothing to do with me or mine. One of my last encounters as a volunteer before I left the organization. (I didn't quit by the way because of a client I quit because I simply could not ever again face another of those wretched, pointless "volunteer check-ins." By that time I'd stopped seeing clients and had decided just to answer phones and file at organization headquarters. Guess what though? Policy. Even just to answer the phones. Still expected to go to meetings and "process" my feelings so instead — I proceeded out the door.) The evening I'm thinking of was spent with another, older volunteer. He was a man much devoted to the cause and his community. As Johnson said of an older acquaintance, “I honored him and he endured me.” We were not friends so much as friendly. He it had been who’d gently suggested I might be better suited to clerical work. I had made a few friends in the training, but none in my assigned group thereafter. (Wonder why?!) When I decided to stop taking clients, and then to quit altogether, this very nice man invited me to his house for dinner. I went. 

His home was lovely with a lovely view of the Castro; that great Mecca of gay SanFrancisco, ground zero. The interior of his apartment was austere and very beautiful. I remember a great variety of white; curtains, furniture, Japanese paper shades. Even his Christmas tree was white. The meal was likewise simple and lovely. The plates and bowls were all white and in interesting shapes. Very chic. The conversation was pleasant and a bit awkward. I was no doubt full of complaint and opinions. He was a master of that much vaunted “active listening.” He clearly wished me well. There was nothing to suggest we would know each other thereafter. It was a gesture on his part, a kindness. I was nervous in that nice apartment. My voice echoed.  It was all entirely too quiet. I was probably too loud.

In the center of his home was a large and beautiful dining table. We did not eat there, for which he apologized. We ate in the kitchen. He lived very much alone. When I admired the table he admitted he hadn’t much use for it anymore, and then he said the one thing I've never forgotten. "More ghosts now than guests," he said. He said it very quietly.

Now the beloved husband and I spend our holidays just together. Our table too, though nothing so grand as that fellow's, is now crowded by more ghosts than guests. The matte black is gone, the trend long over, the moment passe, largely unremembered and un-mourned. That bookstore in all its iterations likewise. Doubtlessly my matte black Christmas decorations now live forever in some horrifying landfill. That time, those protests, my own rather feeble engagement with my community, those clients and those meetings — those shoes — and that righteous indignation, all gone. Gone too many if not most of those men I did not much help.

And now it’s Christmas again, or nearly.  Time to face the box. Time to be reminded, good and bad. 

I’ll be honest, I haven't opened the boxes. Not the first year that’s been true. Don’t know that I will. Don’t know that I need to. Enough perhaps that I remember, and try to remember it all; the pretty and the funny, youth and the city and my friends, the brave and the dead. Somehow, weirdly I am glad of it all. Something perhaps to do with this time of year, with the season, but none of it really makes me sad so much as grateful. What can I say? We do what we can, “keep Christmas” in our own way. Perhaps now, this is mine.

I remember.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Better Even than a Brocade Waistcoat


Do you remember your favorite gift, the one that unhinged you, made you dance kicking paper and ribbons over your head, made you cry with joy? I love those videos and commercials featuring delirious children clutching sometimes unlikely packages to their thin ribs and roaring like the victorious Hun after a slaughter. The now classic example comes from Jean Shepherd's book and Bob Clark's film adaptation of A Christmas Story, namely Ralphie's Red Rider Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. (How, by the way, is that not yet "problematic"? If it is, I can only defend it by asking the obvious and sad question: what could, alas, be more American than a kid in love with a gun? The film, also by the way, was filmed in Cleveland -- and Canada. I just find that interesting, but I'll let the subject go.) Anyway that's the level of riotous Christmas morning joy I'm talking about.

Now, I loved Christmas morning the way all good and greedy Christian American children are assumed to do, but I'll be honest and confess I don't remember getting quite that worked up until a Christmas much later, when I was a grown man and already married in all but legality to my beloved husband now of thirty-eight years, dear A. My Christmas mornings were uniformly good before, but my best didn't happen until I was in my early twenties. We were living in San Francisco by then --  already a gift to a young gay man, even in the dark days of the mid 1980s -- and I was already working in a bookstore. Just to review my good fortune at the time: married, San Francisco, bookstore -- check, check, and check. Lucky man. So what could possibly make all of that better come Christmas morning? Well, my red Rider Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, my surprise tickets to Disney World, my driveway Lexus in a giant red bow, was a book. Please try to contain your shock and confusion. Yeah, I cried over a book. 

From this came a system. Pretty sure this was where it all started. I would gush to my dear friend R. about books I could ill-afford and then dear R. would tell my beloved husband A. what to buy me for Christmas. Simple. Left to his own devises, the husband is actually an excellent and most accomplished shopper and giver of gifts. Back in the day this meant things like a beautiful Colibri cigarette lighter, fancy brocade waistcoats, framed art. He did good. Me? What did I get him? Predictably enough, books. In this same period I bought him every coffee-table photo book of naked men published that year. We're talking the late eighties and the early nineties and trust me, there were a lot of beautiful coffee-table books of beautiful naked men. Looking back it was the golden age of Colibri lighters, brocade waistcoats, and erotic male photography: Robert Mapplethorpe, Tom Bianchi, Stephen Underhill, Bruce Weber. (Some years later, dear A. finally had to tell me, "Enough already, darling, with the naked-man-picture-books." So yes, I married a man who can -- gasp -- have enough books. It's a mixed marriage, but we've made it work.) Obviously, I do not believe in "enough" when it comes to books.  

As catholic as my tastes are, and as profligate as my reading, there are some books, some very special books that are more than. I'm not a first-editions-guy. Appearances to the contrary, I'm nothing like a serious collector. What I am is greedy, not covetous. I've never looked at Versailles and thought about my powder room. I don't begrudge Olivia Wilde her Harry Styles -- though I do think she might share more. Only decent thing to do, really. More to the point, I don't gaze at the collection in the Bodleian Library and wish it were mine. Besides being ridiculous and potentially criminal, that would be stupid. Where would I safely keep a First Folio?! No. If I want something rare it is not because it is valuable but because it is infrequently if ever reproduced and or not affordable to me. I do like some obscure stuff, and practically and aesthetically I do prefer hardcover to soft, but I want to own the books that I foolishly, perhaps heroically believe I will read and even reread. Is this a madness akin to collecting? Related? Yes. The same? No. Collectors are people who believe in the immortality of their good taste. Readers accumulate. Either way, and after many years in the business of new and used books let me me warn my fellow bibliophiles again: when you die, my possums, no one will want your library. Your heirs will not preserve, and neither the state nor any academic institution will have any interest in graciously accepting your books as a gift to future generations. You want to give somebody a book? Buy them a copy now, or give them yours while you are alive. When you are dead, so is your library, however carefully or eccentrically acquired and curated. Your want to be remembered? Be kind. You want to contribute? Buy a kid who doesn't have one a warm winter coat. You want to be immortal? Well, darling, I fear you are either religious, bless you, or a serial killer. Authors may yet prove immortal, some books may be immortal, but the owners of books, even great books, even rare books almost never are. (Quick, the founders of The Folger Library, that preeminent repository of Shakespeare First Folios, what were the founders' first names? Answer: Henry and Emily, of blessed memory, and yes, I had to look that up.)

All that said, my personal Best Christmas Gift EVER was a slightly tatty, thin blue volume, a first edition from 1896, published by Leonard Smithers & Co., Bond Street, London. Caricatures of Twenty-Five Gentlemen. It was the first book from Max Beerbohm's inimitable pencil as a caricaturist. It is a remarkable thing to own, to have been given. As dear Nancy Mitford described moments of heightened emotion, "shrieks and floods," darling, "shrieks and floods." (A scant year later, I would receive from the same source and system a first edition of Max Beerbohm's first ever book, published that same year, when Max was all of twenty four years old and slyly titled, The Works of Max Beerbohm. Again, shrieks et cetera.) Why?

These were books I never expected to see, let alone touch, let alone let alone own. Max Beerbohm, then and now among my household Gods, is not the sort of artist who ever entirely goes away, but neither is he the kind of writer whose work is forever and always in print. He is what one might call a great minor writer. He tends now to anthologies when he sees print at all. So to hold and read his first books just as he made them, in the actual books his first readers held, that was very special and unexpected. (The beloved husband has instructions: in case of fire, save the Beerbohms, then me.)

That I think is the key to understanding what makes the recipient of a gift to "dance and gambol joyfully," and to remember ever after. It isn't the thing itself, which may or may not have monetary worth. It isn't even the surprise -- we've all had less happy surprises come to us wrapped in pretty paper and a bow: "How beautiful! And look! Inside? A... toaster?!" No, what makes a perfect gift is intimacy. "Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others." -- as Austen rightly observed. To know another well does not mean to read another's mind, but to listen, and sometimes to know who to ask.

I cried because the books are beautiful and for now, mine. More than that though, I cried because I was known, and loved. That it was made those books so rare. Surely that is the best we might hope not only of the season and of our family and friends, but also the best that we can offer and give in turn? 

Not every intimacy is meant to last. Some we are meant to share for no more than an hour or a Sunday afternoon. The joy is in the moment -- hopefully -- and in the memory made, and those can be renewed. That is their magic and the nearest thing to immortality I know. 

And so I tell myself, I will not forget. I will not. Until... I will. Until I in turn cease to be, and cease to be remembered, save perhaps for a kindness. And then, when that happens, it will be just as it has always been and should be. And someone, else, I hope, will own my Beerbohms.

Monday, November 29, 2021

A Caricature

Christmas Is Coming!

Time for my annual reading of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory! Sunday, December 12th at 2PM. Again this year, the event will be virtual so be sure to sign up at University Book Store.

Friday, November 19, 2021

The Ayes of Nancy Pearl

It does seem so pleasant to talk with an old acquaintance that knows what you know."

-- Sarah Orne Jewett, from The Country of the Pointed Firs

Don't know about you, but I'm a little tired of reading people's eyes by now. Turns out I'm not great at this, or put it another way, while eyes may "speak the same language everywhere" as George Herbert said, some of them don't seem to have much to say. All we are going to get for the foreseeable, but as someone working in retail, I do wish they'd speak up.  There can be a lot of blank stares, foggy glasses, shy people already disinclined to eye-contact, all something of a problem in yet another season of masks and winter headgear. I mean maybe if one were to lock eyes, as in some fabulous movie close-ups between Paul Henreid and Bette Davis, but there one had help from that swelling Max Steiner score to communicate, you know, undying love and suffering, etc. It seems even anger needs rather more than a knotted brow. Could be a friendly nod or a curt dismissal. That look could be quizzical, or cretinous or aimed elsewhere. Asking for help finding a book for Aunt Joan who likes thrillers with serial killers, or this person staring at me is a serial killer -- how would one know?! 

I miss faces, smiles, even chins. (Who knew we could miss a chin?)

Last week a gentleman at the cash register congratulated me on the bookstore "getting back to normal." I took his meaning and I thanked him, but... no. Every day now does bring back a bit more of what life was like before the pandemic. The bookstore is looking good and business is better, even if our hours are still limited, the mask mandate remains in place, etc. There is a growing optimism to which I am myself not immune. As always, books help. It is good to see old friends, familiar faces, loyal customers returning. But, truth be told, I still wish I saw more of Nancy Pearl.

Time was Nancy went for walks; long, vigorous walks of the kind recommended by doctors and in television ads for ladies' sneakers and supplemental Medicare insurance. Our Ms. Pearl would stop by the bookstore to buy a newspaper, sip her coffee -- presumably her reward for the long walk -- and, as they say back home, maybe shoot the breeze with whatever bookseller was to hand. (They don't always say "breeze" back home, but you know what I mean.) As I lived largely on the sales floor in those days, I was often the lucky fellow who got to hang out for a few minutes with America's Favorite Librarian. Now, if you don't know who Nancy Pearl is I can't imagine why you would be reading this, but if you were to look her up you would see that she is indeed a former librarian, a teacher, lecturer, writer, novelist, reviewer, television and radio presenter, an action-figure, and A National Treasure. Not convinced? Well, she is also the most recent recipient of the National Book Award's Literarian Award for "outstanding service to the American literary community." In other words, this little lady is a very big deal in the book world and where have you been?!

A decade ago I wrote a piece called Why Nancy Pearl Matters. Therein I tried to explain to the uninitiated why my friend was an important person to know. And we were friends by then. For all of her many achievements and despite my relative unimportance in the great scheme of things, we get along fine. From the day I met her I just thought she was one of the most charming humans I'd ever encountered in a bookstore and she seemed to like me okay too. Yes, she's a macher, but she's also a mensch, and frankly a dear. Such a person doesn't need my endorsement obviously, what with the awards and the bestselling books and the rest. (Herewith my congratulations to be added to the general applause.) Nonetheless I offer a personal note of an entirely selfish character:

I miss her sweet mug. I really do.

When I saw her all the time we talked about books, obviously. I read what she read sometimes, but more often not and we'd talk about that. I read books she recommended to me and I avoided books she wasn't glad of. We had books in common, loved and unloved. We talked about the news now and then as how can one not? And we talked about personal things too now and again, and topics of broader interest. We described our own moods which were not always the best and sympathized in an unsticky way like grown ups who happen to like each other but don't live in each other's pockets. Nice, and a model may I say of how to feel for someone without either gloating or being intrusive. So she's not always cheerful? Fine. Neither am I no. Neither is anyone else who isn't either drunk, feeble-minded, or heavily medicated. Sometimes we'd crow together, sometimes it was nothing but the blues. Sometimes we'd just nod. Maybe sometimes she didn't feel much like talking. That is the thing about this otherwise exceptional person, I liked her even when she didn't feel much like being A National Treasure. 

Then the world closed, and I was sent home for more than a year, and presumably Ms. Pearl did not get out so much. It happened. Nothing to do with us. since I've been back at the bookstore I saw her once, just long enough for one of those rather tentative we-are-both-vaccinated hugs. It was busy that day, she was with her granddaughter. It was good to see what I could see of her.

For me, things won't be back to normal again until I get to see Nancy Pearl get her newspaper. We don't have to talk. Her nod I would understand. That to me would be something like what I miss from the before now. As a friend, even just a bookstore-in-the-mornings friend, I am ridiculously proud of her, now more than ever. The woman has done more for literacy and libraries and books than any ten other people more famous even than her. She has empowered generations of young men and women to write, read, become librarians, become better. I am the very definition of an old dog and yet she has without trying taught me a great deal, and not just because I finally read that book by Merle Miller she kept telling me for years I had to read. Not to be overly familiar or to tell tales out of school, but Nancy Pearl has taught me to get on with it, whatever it happens to be, even when the getting on seems hardly worth the getting up in the morning. If that sounds suspiciously like an affirmation, I can only apologize. That is not the sort of thing with which either of us has much to do. Gossip we like. Grousing is good. But for all that, here she'd come yet again after her walk: coffee, newspaper, maybe lunch with a protegee or a colleague or friend. On a Thursday she'd probably be here to tape an interview for her television program. Maybe she was headed to the public radio station up the street to record a new books segment. Maybe she was just back from the back of beyond -- where she went a lot these past few years, lecturing hither and yon. She gets around, does Nancy. (When the Gods allow nowadays, but hopefully again soon.) Didn't much matter why and it wouldn't if I were to see her tomorrow. She reads, she chats, she gets about and she abides. It's the abiding I miss most.

That said, yes I also miss all the talking about books. It's not like I don't do this anyway and with a lot of other people nearly every day. One of the real pleasures of my job is the opportunity to talk about books and often with people smarter and or better educated than myself. (Hell, even the dumb questions can be fun if everybody decides to have fun with it and not everybody always does but there we are.)  I miss talking about books with my friend Nancy because when she isn't being paid to talk about books or talking to an audience about books but just talking briefly with the guy, meaning me, at the information desk in the bookstore some random morning, she's just as likely to say "meh" as "marvelous!" Who am I going to tell if the lady shades a famous author or waves away a bestseller? It feels naughty. Childish word, but then so is my delight when America's Favorite Librarian, the National Treasure was maybe... a little mean? I mean, perish the thought, right?! Delightful. And don't think I didn't live to egg this sort of thing on. That said, honestly what I miss most about chatting with Nancy about books, what I most look forward to having again are her ayes, not her nays. I'm not just saying. Why? Because her endurance, that quality I most admire in my friend, is fueled by enthusiasms, old and new. She doesn't have to with me. I'm not paying the lady. She doesn't owe me any favors. I'm not making a list or putting up a chalkboard. No show. That said, liking things, reading books, loving authors, these are the things she brings with her, even on a morning walk. Can no more be helped than the color of her eyes. That's what we have in common as much as our occasional dances with Churchill's black dogs. We share an enthusiasm and a faith. Same church different pews mostly, but we are true believers. We know the secret handshakes. Light the candles (seriously, more candles who can read in this light?) Maybe all we want to do is sit home and watch Let's Make a Deal (shut up! Wayne Brady is an ENTERTAINER!) Maybe today the last thing we want to talk about is what we happen to be reading (shut up! Go read what you want. Stop asking the poor woman to tell you what to read!!! You're a grown person. Make a decision. Take a risk. Jeeeez.) But when I look into Nancy Pearl's eyes I see a comrade. 

Could I stand to see more of the woman? Yes I could. Times are hard. The lady is still busy even in a virtual way (awards and such, remember?) Still, someday, hopefully some day soon Nancy Pearl will go for a walk, stop for a coffee, pick up a newspaper and maybe linger for a quick kibbitz, a little gossip, a complaint here and there. Maybe she's reading something good. Maybe not. Doesn't matter to me. I have faith. She'll be back. 

Meanwhile, congratulations again, Miss Fancy. Couldn't happen to a better. See you soon.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Reading for the Plot

"All generalizations are dangerous, even this one."
--Alexandre Dumas

Dumas tells a story. His father, the great general was tasked with taking a fortified enemy position that was well defended on three sides and all but inaccessible on the fourth, as that was built atop a sheer rock wall. First the general had his armorer make crampons. Next, he warned the men he took with him up the mountain that night that any who fell to their certain deaths on the rocks below must not cry out and reveal the assault. "Three men fell; their bodies were heard bounding from rock to rock; but no cry, not a groan, not a murmur, escaped them." (Day-yam!) The survivors reached the palisades and started climbing again, but the general thought of "a better and quieter way." He took each man "by the seat of his trousers and the collar of his coat" and he threw them, one by one over the high wall and into the snow on the other side. Completely surprised to find the French in their midst, the enemy promptly surrendered.

It's a good story, no? Alexandre Dumas tells a good story. He loves a good story. He is a good story.

Obviously, I've finally started reading Dumas' My Memoirs. This is the proper book, mind, starting with Volume I, 1802 - 1821, rather than the selection of same I read some years ago. The original was published in five volumes, starting in 1847 when the author was at the height of his fame and fortune. The final volume brings him no further forward than his thirty-second year, well before his greatest novels saw print. (At the rate he wrote, had he completed his memoirs even so far as his middle age, the book would have exceeded both his Musketeers and The Count!) Like so many things Dumas started: newspapers, histories, architectural projects, farms, collaborations, revolutions, associations, love affairs, he didn't so much abandon his autobiography as get on with other things. 

The need to make a selection rather than reprint all he did write was hardly indefensible. This first volume is largely Dumas' biography of his father, a man willfully forgotten by history at the time, and much maligned by his contemporaries. Volume One runs to 308 very tightly printed pages in this edition. An admirable act of filial devotion then, but it must be admitted that no father probably ever gave a son better copy. Still, Dumas never met an official document to this end that he didn't think worth preserving entire; defending his father's military service with unabridged orders and commendations, and arguing the legitimacy of his father's birth with every dusty scrap he can find. Hard to fault him as a son, but as a writer? An editor might have done him no disservice, though a reduction from five to one hardly does the author or his autobiography justice. And how many good stories were left behind? 

Every English major knows the formula: story is who, what, and where and plot is how, when, and why. Simple, right? Modern theory, and a century ago the Modernists in particular, challenged this system and the underlying assumptions made about the function of narrative, the agency of the individual, the intention of the author, etc. Interestingly, I can't find much in the way of modern criticism of Dumas. His contemporaries all had their brief say, but mine can't seem to be bothered. (If one searches the Internet for "Dumas criticism and reviews," one will find articles on very fancy watches, and "reaction videos" from first time readers, uniformly young, not infrequently bored and or daunted, or conversely proud as punch for having read a big book read literally millions of times before. I mean... golly.) So what did his contemporaries have to say?

Like virtually everyone who came in direct contact with Dumas, the great critic Sainte-Beuve could be described as a friend. Didn't prevent him from accusing Dumas of introducing "industrial literature" with his "factory" of collaborators and prodigious output of popular journalism, history, and fiction. As with so much that has subsequently been written about the novelist, the critique concedes the author's genius as a storyteller, but concentrates on his profligacy and production. Dumas great friend and contemporary Victor Hugo pays moving tribute in a letter of condolence to Dumas fils, but even there is understandably shy of offering an opinion of the literary value of the work. It seems everybody loved Dumas, as most of his readers love him still, but always with a barely concealed hint of condescension.  For he's a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny -- l'ultime bonhomme -- but was he a serious writer? Was he an artist?

Reading even the very few reviews of newer translations, I am struck by the almost willful refusal to take the man seriously. Reviewing Pevear's translation of The Three Musketeers, Terrance Rafferty (from whom I took the Sainte-Beuve quotes) calls Dumas "shameless" and "joyful" -- and a genius -- but can't imagine a larger purpose in Dumas' cynicism about patronage, aristocracy, and royalty, or recognize as deliberate or important Dumas' emphasis on personal loyalty and bravery in preference to detailing a supposedly important battle. Really?

It would seem that the rather quaint notion that popularity -- real, sustained, all but universal popularity -- presupposes inferiority. Dumas' rediscovered novel, Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine was published in 2005 and sold better than 250,000 copies in France. Published in English as The Last Cavalier it was a New York Times Bestseller, as have been all the subsequent Dumas translations by Lawrence Ellsworth. Dumas has had nearly two thousand translations in fifty-four languages and many of his major novels remain in print in both French and English despite the ongoing abandonment of the classic backlist by major publishers. None of which proves his ashes worthy of The Pantheon, I suppose but it might at least give pause to the people who seem determined see Dumas as a hack. 

Reading Dumas again in middle age, I feel the want of serious contemporary criticism simply because it might address not his reputation but issues in my own reading. I could stand some help. I mean, is he really only concerned with story? Are his plots so absurd? I don't see that. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “Character is plot, plot is character.” By that standard, Dumas' plots don't strike me as so absurd. True, unlike Mr. Fitzgerald, Monsieur Dumas hasn't the habit of brevity and it can seem rather artless when the reader and possibly the author seems to lose track of the protagonist for what can feel like very long stretches indeed, but can anyone really suggest that character is not the central concern of The Count of Monte Cristo or that Edmond Dantes isn't changed by his circumstances? (Novelist Julian Barnes defined the function of plot in opera as the fastest means to deliver characters to the point "where they can sing their deepest emotions. " That seems more in line with the general gist of the Romantics, don't you think?) So just how absurd are the author's absurdities? How excessive are his excesses? Are carved emerald pill-boxes and Ethiopian cowboy lassos as silly as they sound to me, or are these things intentionally rococo because Dumas has something to say about wealth, and "new money" in particular? Obviously The Count's treasure cave is also Aladdin's, but what are we to make of all this talk of The Arabian Nights? Is it all just good fun? Doesn't feel like it, frankly. Worth remembering the Scheherazade had more than one purpose in telling stories too. 

I don't have the answers to these questions. I have formed a few opinions, but that can neither be helped nor of much use without some sort of critical support from my intellectual betters and so far they can't seem to be bothered. My suggestion then as we read The Count of Monte Cristo and or the multiple volumes of the D'Artagnan cycle -- as anyone reads Alexandre Dumas pere --  is of course to enjoy all the seeming absurdities of pirates and schemes and opium dreams, but maybe assume hereafter that like any major novelist of his period, Dumas had something to say about politics, class, injustice, tragedy, love, and all the rest. (I mean, there really isn't another major European writer of the period other than Dickens and Andersen whose personal history gave them a better right to criticize the society that ultimately worshiped them.) More, it is an altogether more interesting experience for me reading and rereading Dumas as a serious writer and not just as the man who tells The Count and The Musketeers. If I assume he meant to say something it doesn't feel at all absurd to notice that he did. Put it another way, I feel I know at least a little now of the who, what, and where of Dumas, and now I'm more interested in the how, when, and why -- of Dumas.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Dear Dr. Imaginary



Dear Doctor C___,

Your call is important to me. No, honestly, it is. As I mentioned in my original message through the website days ago, this isn't in reference to anything life-threatening, at least not so far as I know. But then how would I know, come to that? Obviously I'm not the doctor. Let's assume not-life-threatening. No, I just had a question and you were to get back to me, which you did, again via messaging, suggesting we arrange a telephone consultation. Now that sounds simple enough. Over the past long while we've actually talked on the phone more than once. I confess that when you actually called me unprompted once, just to follow up, I was terribly surprised. I mean, there you were, on the phone, big as life and calling me without so much as a half hour wait, three previous booking agents, virtual chats with third parties, physicians' assistant interventions, nothing. I didn't want to say so at the time, but I don't mind telling you I nearly cried when you did that, that one time. It was like getting a call from the Queen for my hundredth birthday! It was special. I was actually quite touched. No lie. 

Today's been a bit different, more usual if I'm being honest. You suggest a phone call. I try to arrange one via messaging and the automated phone system etc., and well... here we are. I've got a message pending on the website, two failed return calls from a robot, and I am writing an imaginary letter you will never read because it may be "up to 48 hours" before I can expect a response. I have tried doing this sort of thing through the website before. An enquiry, followed by sincere response, followed by... very long pauses. I am always tempted to just start writing something lengthy and more personal just to fill the time. I don't know if you know this, but even were I to break this sort of thing up into entries that would not exceed the designated length, at some point the system simply won't allow for it. Just today I started to write about the green beans I rather thought we might have tonight with the buttermilk fried chicken the beloved husband is planning. I didn't feel I could afford to actually get up from my computer and go snap beans though because then I would be dependent on just the phone app again and it refuses to retain my password, despite insisting that the facial recognition software has already let me into the site. You know what I'm talking about. Happens all the time. Then I panic and can't remember my password and then the whole disastrous undertaking just cascades into tears and curses -- mostly curses. Today when the robot called me back it would not respond to "Hello?' and just insisted I "press any button," but I didn't have a keypad displayed when I answered the call and when I tried to get to it I hung up the call. Disaster! So now I'm sitting downstairs in my office, getting a bit chilly because I didn't wear my robe and still afraid that if I go back up I will miss something. A call was it? Who remembers now frankly, but the anxiety lingers on, my dear doctor and we both know what that does for a man with heart problems, but what to do?

What was I talking about? Oh, yes. Green beans. Now I know it's mad to even think of typing away about green beans while waiting for the doctor, but it may pass the time. And I should think it looks even worse typing away about green beans and buttermilk chicken wings on the actual site of one's  Health Care Provider. I'm not a complete fool. I would probably have deleted everything about the beans -- and certainly any mention of fried chicken -- before I hit "send" but then it wouldn't have mattered anyway, or even have happened because of the website's restrictions on messaging length, so I might as well just natter away here, talking to my imaginary doctor as it were, as doing so has the undeniable advantage of not requiring so much as a wink from you. 

At least here at my own desk, even if it's a bit cold and my day is wasting away to nothing, I am not actually on hold listening to smooth jazz or to a recorded robot voice, or pressing "1" sixteen times to avoid inadvertently switching into Serbo-Croatian or requesting a Pap smear or something.  

Which reminds me how genuinely amusing it is on the website when attempting to book an "e chat" that among my eight options -- not one less, not one more -- besides "I am dying of COVID19" one of the only other available listings is "heel pain." What CAN that mean?! I keep meaning to ask you when and if we ever get the chance again. Why specifically "heel pain"? Is that a major concern? Is it indicative of some larger issue? Is it better to ask in this subtle way because heel pain is actually the first sign of myocardial infarction or Dengue fever or something and you don't want people to panic before they've actually taken the time to virtually book what will probably only be a "televisit"? Is it actually already too late by the time there's heel pain? Is it more common for instance than toe pain? (I'd have put money on arches.)

Medical science is a genuine mystery to me, I must say. I've always assumed there was a fair amount of arithmetic and that was enough to put me right off the idea. Memorization too. And blood of course, though I'm not terribly squeamish. The beloved husband loves medical shows which I do not but even he has to turn away sometimes from some of the incredibly realistic looking and surprisingly elaborate surgical interventions. Now I think of it, I've never seen anyone rushed into the surgery complaint of "heel pain," Not once. I may have exaggerated the potential importance of that, but then the options really are quite limited and there isn't even an "other" option any more. Did you know that? There is not. The list is basically "I am dying of COVOD19," pregnancy, acne, smoking cessation, (...), (...), and heel pain. Pick your poison, people! It is remarkable how you've managed to narrow that list down. Even still, all of that must be awfully complicated to study and treat. Heel pain alone must be volumes. I would not be up to anything like. I can't even get beans snapped and the morning is long gone and the afternoons are so short now it's autumn. 

I do hope you had a chance to get out and see at least a little of the glorious Fall color on those two sunny days we had between the more usual Northwest weather systems. I was actually working during most of the daylight hours, so it was more a glimpse for me than a leisurely country drive or anything like that. Have I ever mentioned that I'm from back east? Only thing I really miss, the changing leaves. I mean I miss a lot of things, now I'm in my fifties. I miss bookstores, lots of them in one place if you're even old enough to remember such a thing or would much care. (When would you have had the time?!) I still miss smoking, believe it or not. Smoking was cool. I know it's horrifying, but it genuinely was. You'll just have to trust me on that. I miss actual receptionists. I know that sounds odd, but consider the context of me writing and it shouldn't be too hard to justify saying so. This will be one of those old-man-on-a-park-bench moments, but I genuinely do miss receptionists. They all had names like Molly and they were terribly harassed women mostly, with beautiful manners and very restrained voices and they just made the world go 'round whether it was a GP's office or a hair salon or the lobby of some intimidating building downtown to which no one willingly went even back then. If one wanted anything actually done in this world one was far better off if a friend could be made of the receptionist. Later they even let a few of the gays do this sort of thing. Was always glad to see a gay receptionist. At a certain point though the receptionist went the way of the telephone operator. I remember when every receptionist was transformed overnight into an office manager. Now there may well have been office managers before then, in addition to the receptionists, but then there was just the one title and the one poor woman doing God knows how many jobs and it was definitely not the same anymore. Office managers were far less likely to be made friends of. There was a change of atmosphere, a very real chill.  Who wants to speak to a manager these days? Never a good thing.

Not to moan, but what I wouldn't give for even an office manager now! There really isn't anyone in a doctor's office for whom one might drop off a cookie-plate at Christmas time nowadays, or even flowers, is there? Even that phlebotomist I particularly admired in your clinic, I think he would be a bit taken aback were I to just show up with a box of unopened candy. The nicest pharmacist the world, and I frankly don't remember the last one that made eye-contact, would go quite wide-eyed at some anonymous card-holder popping up in line with a numbered chit and a bouquet, and quite right too. 

I'll be frank, during my longish illness earlier this year, when I seemed to be in touch with nearly everybody in the organization except you, I encountered quite a few very nice people, and not just nurses either. There were Physicians' Assistants as well. (No luck with gastroenterologists, you'll remember, but one very nice surgeon who nearly redeemed that much villianized category of MDs for a moment there!) That said, the ones for whom I honestly felt the most genuine sympathy were those poor benighted souls on the telephone who actually had to book appointments once the valued member of ____ had actually negotiate his or her or their way through the Sleeping Beauty thorn bushes of the automated system. Finally get to the twenty-seventh person in the holding pattern and surprise! That person is unhappy, just like the previous twenty-six. It's hard to have any sympathy at all with the demonic capitalist assholes who designed the business model or the  pocketed politicians who maintain this plantation and call it "health care." Even harder almost to feel anything but burning hatred for the programmers who designed the public interface to run so very smoothly and attractively unless and until one needs it to, you know, DO something. Those motherfuckers all need to get ass cancer. Seriously. I know that's an outlandishly cruel thought, and why them and not the investors who raped the public hospitals and privatized charitable institutions and monetized human suffering on a scale undreamt of by the Popes, but remember why I am here just now, pretending to write to my doctor who's face I frankly can not remember for the life of me. The life of ME. (Sorry, again for the cursing, and the whole "ass cancer" business. Remember, I'm not a doctor. I should have said, "heel pain.")

Well, it's already dark out. I've checked again -- actually I've been checking every five minutes until I finally had to make myself stop and I don't think I'm getting any messages or responses or acknowledgment today, so I'd better just wrap this up and see if there's still any point in snappin' them beans. The husband's been home for awhile now, and here I sit.  Better just shut this down for now. I'm sure we'll talk again soon, at least here.

And it really was a pleasure. It really was. Don't remember the last time. I hope you take care and I'll wait to hear what you have to say about that question I asked. I'll be interested to know. I really will. I'd tell you to say hello to the receptionist for me if you still had one. In the absence of, tell anyone about the place at this hour that I am thinking about them and genuinely wishing them well. Can't be easy for any of us, what with all the heels.

With all due respect and genuine affection,

Member# _______, date of birth __/__/__

Monday, November 1, 2021

Sweetened Condensed


We've all seen them on those sad, sagging shelves at the very back of every thrift store: the disreputable, stoutly bound, untouched volumes of The Reader's Digest Condensed Books. My Grandmother was an enthusiast. Her generation of country women came to The Reader's Digest Magazine as to safe water in the desert. If there was a public library in her childhood, it was miles away and not always welcoming to folks from outside of town. Before marriage, her mother taught briefly in a one room schoolhouse, so Grandma Craft grew up with books beyond The Holy Bible, but books were expensive and few on a farm at the turn of the last century. Only so many times to reread John Bunyon and Wesley's sermons. Imagine the urbanity of reading articles taken from all the great magazines and newspapers of the day, condensed and edited for a conservative, largely rural population unused to subscriptions and news-stands. More, the monthly brought short, serviceable versions of new books and the occasional classic. In 1950 came the bound, then quarterly volumes of actual (sometimes much amended) books, each containing four, five, or even six new novels, autobiographies, histories! My Grandma read them end to end. 

A quick review of titles from the fifties and sixties tells a fairly predictable tale of long-forgotten popular fiction of the day -- and rest to the forgotten shades of Ernest K. Gann, Victoria Holt, and Taylor Caldwell -- but there are surprising selections as well such as Lampedusa's The Leopard and To Kill a Mockingbird in the same volume (summer, 1960.) By my own rise to adult readership in the mid 1970s there were the expected Micheners and Crichtons and Catherine Cooksons -- one of Grandma's favorites -- and curiously fewer titles than in previous decades likely to survive. Slimmer pickings no doubt among the bestsellers of the day when it came to the essential modesty of language and subject matter. (How does one subtract the sex from Updike or Erica Jong?) By the 1980s the whole enterprise seems to have declined into an extension of the overtly niche Christian market with only an occasional Ken Follett or a Nelson DeMille here and there to suggest so much as hint of contemporary popularity. The Reader's Digest Condensed Books have never had much of a resale market. By the 1990s any reader under eighty and outside of an Ohio Church of Christ would probably be stumped by all of the names in the table of contents.

Whoever hit upon that word "condensed" was something of a genius, though. Beyond the evocation of sweetened condensed milk; fudge, cookies, and cakes, there is the still reliable example of the farmer's almanac and the church album, the scholarly abstract and 18th century weekly reviews. Americans love concentrates and headlines, Tang, tablets, Tik Toks and soundbites. Just the highlights. Bullet-points, please. That other word "abridged," hasn't the same snappy associations. To abridge hints at interventions, the denial of rights, librarian's scissors. 

The blessed Helene Hanff described an abridged edition of Pepys as "having the schoolroom smell of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare." Good line, though not entirely fair to Charles and Mary Lamb as they were after all writing for children, not brevity. And so it is with modern abridgement for most of us; first encountered unaware in childhood, not much troubled by it thereafter. It would seem abridgement has largely had it's day, though a case could be made that adaptation to other media now serves something of the same purpose. The old joke was, "I'll wait for the movie."  Now it could be an interactive video game. Ironically, it could also be an epic television adaptation that will take years longer to produce and to watch than the time required to read any of the original books. (And if you really want a cold, sharp shock of great art reduced to a punchline, try any of the classics reimagined as board books, those familiar babies' toys in stiff cardboard and bright colors. It was a vogue there for a minute. Somehow I feel safe in assuming Pride and Prejudice in twenty words or less is meant to amuse mother, and not to actually set baby on the path to Pemberly. Well, we were not amused.) Yet abridgement persists.

Pick up any number of otherwise perfectly respectable looking paperbacks from among the classics of western literature and beware of the often very small print which may mention, almost in passing as it were that the book in your hand is not in fact Wuthering Heights as Bronte wrote it, nor is that Boswell's Life of Johnson, but an abridgement. Old or new, who knows who decided to do this pruning? The editor is not always acknowledged. Worse in every way was the edition of Hazlett's essays issued by the venerable Oxford University Press a few years back. The academic in charge took it upon himself to not just select but to actually abbreviate the author's most famous essays, including The Fight, one of the most celebrated short works in the English language. Too... what? Wordy? Evidently modern readers prefer ellipses to perfectly measured prose. (!)

Only in middle age did I realize that many old friends as remembered from childhood, including The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and even Stevenson's Treasure Island were not cockerels but capons when I read them first. As a child of ten or twelve, I don't know that reading these books in that way did me a bit of harm, though it's just as true that I was spared nothing but another happy hour or two in the company of d'Artagnan and Long John and that denial I have come to resent. 

Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister Henrietta Maria spent a busy few years between them literally kicking the shit out of Shakespeare. Their Family Shakespeare, cleaned out all the sex, filth, and joy from all thirty six plays. It was published in 1818. (It seems poor Ophelia for instance may have simply slipped in the bath.) Theirs proved an enormously popular edition and for a sadly long time. Before his not untimely death, the doctor also took his scissors to that unsightly long work by Edward Gibbon, making The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire finally fit reading for Anglican virgins. His most lasting contribution to literature and the language was the word "bowdlerize," meaning to diminish by excision and adulteration, which word entered the dictionary not a dozen years after the doctor's death, so... people knew, even then. To bowdlerize is bad.

So with much that's been done to Dumas in translation and abridgement. No one from Bowdler to The Reader's Digest ever did the one thing for which every kid once wished and kept just the fun stuff like cussing, fighting, blood, and sex. Inherent in the undertaking of abridgement are I should think two assumptions, the first being that many works are just too damned long. With this I can disagree only case by case. I've certainly found myself more than once lost in a Hardy landscape with no clear way out. Still, I knew where I was headed when I went in so that was certainly no fault of the man from Wessex. The second assumption, as to what might best come out in abbreviation, well there's the trouble. The impetus is always antagonistic not just to the author's perceived excesses but also to the laxity of the author's morality. The person who abridges is concerned not just with the reader's comfort but also overly careful of the reader's character. Not to give anything away, but in the abridgement,  d'Artagnen was made a much better boy. Other than Sunday School teachers, who wants that in a musketeer?! Nobody wants that, that's who. Pardieu! This doesn't just simplify the narrative, it oversimplifies the man. For The Count of Monte Cristo, it is much worse.

Edmond Dantes is an admirable lad, but the Count of Monte Cristo? In a full translation and unabridged edition the Count of Monte Cristo is one scary bastard. Until I read Robin Buss' translation I had no idea. Seriously. Never mind the hashish, the statuesque Amazon, the slaves. Honey, the Count is compared more than once to a vampire and smiles at a public execution so gruesome it nearly makes his friend faint. And the way he talks! If one didn't know better the modern reader might well describe him as a psychopath and or a lecturer at the Hoover Institute. It's terrifying, and meant to be. (His actual character I will leave to the patient reader to discover.) It is only in an unrestrained Dumas that the scope of the Count's vengeance, and the ruthlessness of his means give the ending the weight and meaning it deserves. This is not just a good man punishing bad people, friends. This is an admittedly long and very detailed examination of moral consequences. It's only abridged that this is in any way a story appropriate to children. As I think I've said, that's fine, but it's not Dumas.

Of all the great Romantics, of all the 19th century French novelists, Dumas suffers most from his popularity. I am convinced now that this in large part, at least in English has everything to do with fairly ruthless, consistent, and prudish abridgement. Yes, he told marvelous stories. He was also a serious writer. You won't know that unless you read him straight. No offense to the memory of Grandma, but sometimes half a loaf simply isn't better than none.