Monday, July 25, 2022

A Brief Defense of the Dull

A couple of years ago, just before the Lost Time, I completed a work-related survey. It did not go well. Not that I was unenthusiastic about the work I do -- I like my job, like the people, and I respect the venerable institution in which we do what we do. I consider myself lucky in this. I know that not everyone is so lucky. I also know that not everyone with just a high school degree and a book-habit is likely to find such an accommodating employer hereafter. Bookstores are getting to be as rare as haberdashers and shoe-repair shops nowadays. So when I say the survey did not go well, I don't mean I had anything much to contribute in the way of "negative feedback." (Ghastly phrase. Something to do with guitar-amplifiers originally? Anyway, chillingly mechanical when applied to humans. Noise.) It was not the subject of the survey that put me off. Nor do I have an issue with surveys. It's true, I have no interest in finding out which Gilmore Girl I'm most like, and I don't answer the land-line at supper-time, but I don't mind answering a few written questions now and again about something that matters to me. No. It was the language used in the questionnaire that put me right off.

You probably know the sort of thing I mean. Not my first rodeo either. Business jargon as usual perhaps, but shocking to see it deployed in a bookstore setting nonetheless. Begin then with a loaded question:

Q: "A coworker comes to tell you that the Revolution has arrived and says, 'It is time to burn this mother down!' What do you do?"

Just here I should point out that this was not an actual question on the survey I completed. The tone however is not far wrong. Pause for a moment and consider what kind of interactions our inquisitor seems to think go on in the break-room and or in the staff restrooms. Had a lot of jobs. Worked in a lot of bookstores. Never had this conversation. To my knowledge I've never worked with an actual Fidelista from an early Sixties episode of Mission Impossible. To my knowledge. So to call such a question merely loaded is to understate the case, but then, as you can see, understatement was otherwise not a feature of the survey.

By way of answers, there seem always now to be five. I have only just learned via the Intertube that this model is known (more rightly than they knew) as a "closed-ended question." The survey employed something called the Likert Scale -- named for the creator of this model, American social scientist Rensis Likert. (Pictured above, leaning on a library card-catalog, to give a rough idea of how long this sort of thing has been around.) Evidently a "psychometric scale" of this type is not meant to solicit suggestions or practical information, but rather to "measure people's attitudes." Glass houses, may I say. Anyway, the answers to the above question runs something like this:

1) Our blood flows through our veins only to be spilt for the Glorious Leader!!!

2) Give me a gun and I will shoot the traitor dead.

3) I would ask my immediate supervisor to shoot the traitor dead.

4) I am unworthy of mercy and long for death.

5) I will one day watch the world burn, and I will laugh.

Now that first answer in particular does not in any way seem to address the question being asked, but this answer, or something very like it, seems to be the first choice for every question. Hmmmm. But then, none of the answers that follow are recognizable as polite conversation, are they? Nobody not in a re-education camp has ever talked this way. And whatever the question, I've noticed that the two final options seem to be there only to weed out potential insurance risks and or actual sociopaths. Come on, survey-makers, who picks:

4) Yes, I am fascinated by box-cutters.


5) I am responsible for the death of many small pets.

Who ticks those boxes?! 

These surveyors, please note, are never directly confrontational. Clearly the problem isn't me, it's Lauretta in accounting, or that new kid in receiving with the covered tattoos and the shifty eyes. It is always a coworker or worse, a "colleague" who's makin' trouble, the bastard. The willing survey-taker is never  cast as the provocateur in these scenarios. Just another dumb bunny led by bad company on a merry dance down into the netherworld of theft, drugs, and unjustifiable revolutionary violence, that's me. It's all about being influenced. Also note, no one in these surveys is a good influence. The nearest they come to decency is the narc and the snitch. ("Betty saw Joe light a spliff in the parking lot and asks you what she should do.") Who doesn't love a tattletale? But remember, other people are always the occasion of sin, so even agreeing with the obvious lackey might be wrong. There are no right answers, only measurable attitudes. Best not to talk anyone at work then, I guess?  That would seem to be the underlying message. Maybe don't talk at all. By the time one gets to the end of the survey, it would seem one is not safe from the dreaded influence anywhere. Communism, delinquency, disloyalty, everywhere. Honestly, after I took the survey I kind of thought we might all be better off if we never left the house. (That was me. My bad.) Still, one has to eat, and capitalism is presumably an absolute good in survey-country, so maybe I can just hum the National Anthem all day. That won't be weird, right? (But I'm good, right? I mean, I took the survey like they asked. And just so you know, in case I failed to make this clear, dear surveyors, I swear I don't burn things down or randomly shoot pigeons for fun, or plot the violent overthrow of... stuff. I'm just another harmless old dear in a bookstore, takin' another perfectly harmless survey, right? Right?! Did I get it right?! I will never know. All such surveys ever say at the end is a rather chilling, "Thank you, Mister Bond," just like in the movies, right before someone cold-cocks James and suspend him over the sharks.)

Seriously, who writes these survey questions?! Who talks this way? Who ever did? Who thinks we common folk talk this way on our lunch breaks? What person who has actually ever had a bookstore job thinks we talk on our lunch breaks? Even before we all had phones, we read books in part to avoid lunch conversation. And what genius with an MBA thinks that these wretched surveys will tell them more about us than they tells us about them? What might be learned if we were to be asked a civil question about a plausible hypothetical? (Q: "What would you do if you saw someone taking change from the till? Kicking a customer? Running with scissors? " A: Tell. Who wants to work with violent, sticky-fingered dolts? Thanks for asking.) Mostly what the content and format of these anonymous surveys and self-evaluations and the like tell us is that we are evidently not to be trusted. The clearest message from whichever consulting chop-shop cobbled this nonsense together is that someone thinks someone needs to be keeping a better eye on someone, like maybe the humble if clearly unstable masses. What their research must show is that maintenance workers, retail cashiers, and book clerks are all just waiting for the opportunity to murder all the graduates of the Harvard Business School in their sleep. How hard must it be to be them, poor darlings. One eye open, Scooter. You too, Midge.

"Conflict is viewed as the active striving for one's own preferred outcome which, if attained, precludes the attainment by others of their own preferred outcome, thereby producing hostility." - Rensis Linkert


Anyone else remember Chick Tracts? (It seems they still exist, by the way, like colonialism, the John Birch Society, and syphilis.) Amazingly, the late cartoonist/publisher/childhood-nightmare-goblin Jack Chick only passed to the boozoom of Abraham in 2016, aged ninety-two. He invented his evil brainchild, Chick Tracts back in 1960 with Why No Revival? He followed up that blockbuster with the much catchier A Demon's Nightmare in 1962.  If you haven't seen these things, congratulations on having grown up in a better world made possible largely by unions, feminism, democratic socialism, and the blessedly pernicious cultural influence of fags and Jews in Hollywood. (You can thank us by voting in off-year elections and frequenting your local, independent bookstores when you buy your copies of Karl Marx and the latest gender-fluid wizard fiction.) If you grew up anywhere near a Baptist missionary society, you will remember Chick Tracts; those little cartoon booklets warning of the various routes to Hell in boldly draw black and white. They were obviously designed to fit in the back pocket of a child's dungarees and or to be left atop the urinals in low places. The thrust of nearly every Chick Tract was that Catholicism, television, secularism of every stripe, the Easter Bunny, basically anything that wasn't straight-up fringe-whacky Baptist fundamentalism was all part of the vast, Satanic conspiracy to lure the unwary off The Path to eternal life in the great-church-basement-Sunday-school-in-the-sky and straight to cartoon H-E-double L!

In the world view of the classic Chick Tract, nothing not Chick is harmless. Nothing. Santa Claus? benign old Coca-Cola ad-copy, or just another lie from The Pit? Well, you teach an innocent child that those Christmas presents came from the North Pole and not from the bloody suffering of Our Lord and Savior and you are just lying to them babies, sewing the kind of doubt and that eventually makes atheists. (I am reminded of Shirley Temple explaining that she ceased to believe in Santa Claus when he asked her for an autograph. Pretty sure Shirley didn't end up a godless communist.) The truth is important to the true Chick Tractarian, so long as they remember there's just the one: the devil gonna get ya if you don't watch out! As dear Richard Hofstadter put it, "... many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination." Could be Santa. Could be a UFO. Probably Satan. The late Mr. Chick was the paranoid imagination of American fundamentalism, writ small, in words of no more than two syllables, and with helpful illustrations throughout. Seems that in addition to overthrowing capitalism as mentioned above, the overriding goal of the rest of us is to be "a snare unto thee," Jack. 

"In truth, Jack Chick was the Leni Riefenstahl of American cartooning. Like the Nazi filmmaker who made Triumph of the Will, Chick was an artist of genuine skill who put his talent in the service of an odious ideology." - critic and journalist Jeet Heer

One used to be able to differentiate the conservative from the crazy. The conservatives were an overtly, proudly dull lot. Nothing more straightforwardly coded visually, in conversation and attitude than a genuine, old school Republican. I speak here of my experience growing up in a small Republican town in western Pennsylvania, back in the day. My Republicans taught school, sold insurance, ate at the diner and left a nickel-tip. They generally looked just like Democrats but smoked better cigars and kept their shoes clean at work. They still missed MacArthur if not McCarthy. They were polite in public, however they spoke to one another while golfing or at the Elks Lodge. They drank as much or more than Democrats, but they always used a glass. The only Lincoln with which they were much concerned was purchased once a year at the dealership. My people were not of them, but neither thought anything much of breaking bread with the other or working together at the poles. When we mocked them it was as much for their reserve as for their politics. Republicans then, bless 'em, were boring. That was the point of them. That was the summation of their policy and of their personalities. Taxes are too high. Things used to be better. Change is bad. Got it. Real Republicans were uniformly, reliably uninterested in and uninteresting to the rest of us. Not a few were perfectly nice people, otherwise. Some still are. (The old school Southern Dixiecrat was an altogether more colorful and overtly dangerous beast, and luckily avoided by me except on the rare occasions that the Texas relations came north.) 

So whence this surprisingly wide-spread conviction now that people like me, people who work in a bookstore and drive a twenty-four year old car with a "check engine" light that never goes off, just another queer ol' liberal, that I am looking to overthrow the existing capitalist world order and end Christianity? I mean, I wouldn't necessarily mind either terribly, but why would anyone think I'm likely to do it? Are revolutions and anti-clerical riots and religious massacres usually engineered by homebodies who spend their evenings frying chicken and reading the letters of Edward Fitzgerald? Even when I was marching a great deal more than I hope ever to march again, I still usually took the bus home before dark. In short, I am nearly as dull as a genuine Republican and probably always was.

I still remember one lady in line at the bookstore for the big release day of one of the Harry Potter books. Big crowd, much enthusiasm. This was when I was living and working in Orange County, California, or as we called it in my house, The Land of Exile. (See where this is going yet?) Everybody was just so tickled by the sense of occasion and pleased to see all the wee ones dressed up in their wee costumes and even I had to admit, it was kind of a fun day. Due to limited supplies -- it was a small bookstore -- each customer was limited to two copies.

"I wish I could buy EVERY COPY!" the smiling lady shouted. Applause. (Surely, you know what's coming by now?!) She inevitably continued, "So I could BURN THEM ALL!" And only then, when she had a copy clutched to her empty rib-cage and was braced for her inevitable martyrdom, did she begin loudly explaining, for some reason directly to me, the dangers of witchcraft on impressionable young minds, the power of Satan hiding in Harry's cupboard, etc. The crowd groaned and tittered. Nobody moved. Of course she didn't buy a book. They never do. Eventually she just let the book fall from her white-knuckled hands into my lap, stopped shouting just long enough to catch her breath, and was ever so gently shown the door by a coworker. I am pleased to say she was roundly, if rather shyly booed. 

Even then, even there the crazy lady was notable for being unusually vociferous in public.

You'd have thought that after the Byzantine Emperor signed on, and later European colonialism plundered the globe, the Christian church as a body wouldn't insist to this day that the lions are snapping at their asses. Hard to spot an actual Pagan outside of a Renaissance Faire now or an atheist in say, Congress, but it seems the heathen are just waiting around every corner to make some faithful soul bake a "gay" wedding cake, and really, isn't that just another kind of crucifixion? That anticipation of persecution seems to be baked into Christian (and American) exceptionalism. Jesus is King, Capitalism is the only workable economic model, and America is the best country on Earth, and yet I am evidently trying to spoil everything. Me. I get it, sort of, because every story requires an antagonist, and in this world view I guess that's me. I'm gay, working class, I read actual books, I'm married to an actual black man. Scary, right? Some people need that. Fear seems to be the corollary to their faith. What are these fundamentalist Christians anyway without their sense of constant peril and potential martyrdom but just so many Episcopalians at a picnic? Likewise the billionaire capitalists scream like pinched babies every time anyone tries to part them from a nickel they earned -- fair and square -- from factories full of cheap child labor overseas and or the intellectual wage-slaves in Silicon Valley. Socialism! I guess if one has even the rudiments of salvation in hand, and or a proper stock portfolio, it can all be snatched away. The SUVs, heaven, golf, tax-shelters, the flag, The Bible, guns, real estate earthly and celestial, it can all be had by the likes of me the minute I get in there and wrestle it from their cold, dead hands. (Never a wrestler, me.) Their father's kingdom has many mansions and I evidently want to tear them all down and put up abortion clinics and gay bars. (Cool.)

Clearly I am the problem?

When the Holidays roll around again and The War on Christmas resumes, as a retail worker I will be right back in the trenches, lobbing faith-neutral Season's Greetings and getting the full force of many an aggressively pointed "Merry CHRISTMAS!" right in the face. And I will deserve it. I will have had it coming, for taking the you-know-who out of you-know-what. By foolishly assuming that the population of a mid-sized American city in the twenty-first century may not all have been saved, id est, washed in the blood of the lamb, aka numbered among the saints, etc., I will once again have struck a nerve if not a death blow to The Shining City on the Hill and all who sail on her. I obviously subvert the American way.

And come the height of the shopping season, when I am busily hustling the goods in a retail shop, and ringing up team-approved sports gear, and selling cookbooks by television millionaires, and locating the latest James Patterson for Papaw, and finding socks with irreverent slogans for that hard-to-buy-for sister-in-law, in my heart of hearts I will somehow be subtly undermining the 1% and the Republic for which it stands. When I am pitching in at the wrapping counter in order to get grandma's unwelcome present of papal sayings and the latest Ann Coulter off in the mail on time, I will also be pining for Mao and counting the hours until the next meeting of the gay coven. (Have you ever met any of the actual queer witches? Wax, tarot, cat hair.) 


See, I am not nearly so dangerous, or interesting as the Right would have me be. None of us are. How could one do, honey? Maybe once upon a time, but now? Now the dull Republicans have gone the way of the dodo and the cuckoos are in charge. Compared to that shit-show, my crowd is downright upright and maybe even (gasp) a little boring. Maybe just me. Like Iris Murdoch's aging writer in The Black Prince, "I seem doomed to quietness," and I am very much reconciled to my fate. The nice part of not being terribly invested in paranoid fantasies of gold hoarded up in heaven or at Wells Fargo is that one is free to enjoy more of the real world, no? It's not always so nice, reality, but as Groucho said, "it's still the only place you can get a decent meal."

So come The Holidays (provocative!) I will still be working, offering Season's Greetings, selling books. I will still be driving my ancient car and cursing at the slowness with which they are repairing the West Seattle Bridge. I will read Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory aloud. I will listen to Johnny Mathis and read Dickens and I will again "honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year long" and I will doubtlessly fail as I always do.

I will try not to let the triumph of paranoia and dithyramb of the dolts and the demented drown out the carols and shatter the punchbowl. I will not be much of a problem, whatever those assholes think. It ought not to matter to them what I do, but weirdly it seems to. My existence is evidently enough set them aquiver with suspicion and rage. So be it. It seems even in my dullness my life is now a radical act. In my utter predictability, even in a cheery mood I am a provocation and a spur. Cool. Maybe it's time to make more noise? Let's nettle 'em. Who knows what we might yet do to absolutely ruin their Christmas just by enjoying our Holidays. I plan to decorate gaily. Ours will be a fully interracial Christmas dinner. I might take some paid vacation and not spend any money or do anything on black Friday. The nearest I'll get to church will be my library. Yeah, I'm going to read more than the one book. None of the ones I do read will probably have a single passage in red. I will be mixing textiles, maybe eatin' shrimp, and watching Santa Claus Is Coming to Town without irony. I might even light a cigar, in memory of my beloved, brilliant Groucho, but also in tribute to all the noble dull who went before me. And maybe, just maybe I will try to do more to live up to my reputation. Maybe add a little of The Internationale to my Christmas music mix. Maybe a Beatles tune? You say (I) want a revolution, Well, you know...

Monday, July 18, 2022

Listing Slightly


Who might ever have anticipated the bounty of the internet?! I'm sure people did. Someone clearly looked at the collegiate inter-library-loan system and thought, "One day, this is how people will read newspapers, watch porn, and learn how to make their own cheese." Among the many gifts of modern interconnectivity is the triumph of the list. People have been making them since at least the first ancestor put up a grocery list on the cave-walls at Lascaux. (As a species we will ascribe deeper meanings to perfectly common things. I look at a The Great Hall of Bulls and I see a note on the refrigerator, "Don't forget the venison.") So lists like the poor are always with us, but it took the internet to really make the simple list into something called, "content." 

I should like to tell you that I disdain this sort of thing as contemptible and I suppose I do, but I also read those maddening 100 Best Books surveys*, and watch the 10 Worst Wedding Disaster videos, and I still make lists, in my head and on scrap-paper all the damned time. And at Christmas? What is a child's Letter to Santa Claus usually but a list? What is Santa's greatest weapon if not his list? I love Christmas, and I must admit, I like a good list. More even than reading one, I enjoy making a good list. Five best film Scrooges in order? Alastair Sim, George C. Scott (yeah, I know it was TV, don't be such a snob. If the 5 Scrooges was a girl group, he'd be Scary Scrooge.) Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, Albert Finney. Really liked Christopher Plummer too of course, though in that movie Scrooge is more of a supporting player. Now unlike other people's lists, mine are based on years of careful statistical analysis, rigorous peer-review, and complete objectivity. See? How can one trust anything on the internet? For all you know that might be true. It isn't, of course, but who's to stop me saying so? So yeah, internet lists are stupid. How stupid, or rather, stupid how? Well, for one they tend to an arbitrary number, either to make things look evenly balanced or because we're used to a particular countdown to the top or because rational people don't count by fours or fourteens. Secondly, at least one item on, or conspicuously absent from every internet list is meant to provoke. No other reason in the world for me not to include Bill Murray's Scrooge on my list -- save that I don't much like Bill Murray and I know everyone else does. Finally the unacknowledged truth to ruin every such list is the fact that taste is subjective and opinions prove nothing. A very wise friend has taught me to never argue taste, which is both good advice and a rather elegant way of calling other people's taste into question, no? So, you love Bill Murray's Scrooged? Good to know. You go right ahead. I never argue taste. (Oh, snap.)

I think my least favorite internet lists are those that purport to justify a sneaking suspicion, like 5 Signs He's Kissing Someone Else Under the Mistletoe, or 10 Things You Don't Know About Santa Claus, or The 10 Secrets You Need to Know to Roast a Perfect Turkey. Seems we should worry, we know nothing, and we've been doing nearly everything wrong. I know these look like straw-men, but you know as well as I do that you've seen all three of these and more than once. That's another thing about these internet lists, they never really go away, do they? I know better than to be baited and yet I don't and I am. Take the three I've just mentioned. Is there anything more tiresome than this old hook or any of a dozen seasonal variations on the classic "Is He Cheating?" scare. Evidently it is still 1963 and we are all of us married bourgeois heterosexuals and someone has been staying late at the office. (Yeah, but is he cheating, you ask? I'll ask him when he's finished, honey. He's a little busy right now and nobody likes a man who talks with his mouth full.) Next, are you really going to quiz a jolly ol' elf like me about Santa facts? That seems a wasted effort for everyone. You don't know what I know, but bitch look at me. (I only now realized there's no picture of me attached to this. For any who don't know me then, I look like Santa Claus if Santa was slightly nelly person who wears clogs because boots are hard to kick off.)  As for those kitchen-shaming headlines that always suck me right in, okay, we did try the cooking the turkey breast-side down thing and it did keep the white meat moist, but I missed all that crispy skin. Trivial, you say? You bet. Harmless? Probably not altogether. So what's the point? Engagement! Interaction! Top 10 Ways to Stop Scrolling. Clicks! Audience engagement used to mean getting the nippers to clap to bring Tinkerbell out of her suicidal depression. Now I suspect there really is science involved, even if it's just, you know, the social sciences, the red-headed step-children of real (read hard) science. 5 Ways Focus Groups Lie! 10 Algorithms You Need to Fear! 7 Signs Santa Might Be Gay!

Booksellers are notorious list-makers. It's a tool of the trade, friend. Most people come into an independent bookstore looking for that book they want -- even if they can't remember what it's called, or who wrote it, where they heard about it, or why they wanted it. Keeps us busy, most days. Then there are the beloved browsers who need us not at all, who are content to wander until they find enlightenment or release. We appreciate them too as they basically ask nothing of us but directions to the restrooms, and if they are really our sort of shoppers, maybe a basket. We love people who require a basket. Perhaps our favorite customers (we miss you most of all, Scarecrow,) are the people who want suggestions, either for themselves or for gifts. Honestly, we want to talk about books. We really do. You make us feel truly seen. We have thoughts. We want to tell you what to read. So what do we do? We make lists. Five Books You'll Love Because They Aren't Bridgerton! Three Books Grandma Won't Think Smutty! Ten Mysteries Better Than That One You Read in the B&B! Seven Horror Novelists Who Aren't Stephen King! Four Books We're Embarrassed You Haven't Read Yet! Twelve Books You Didn't Really Ask For! Seriously, Read Better Books! WHY Am I Shouting?! Keep Your Voice Down, It's a Bookstore!

Enthusiasm can get the better of us. Usually this happens because it's been awhile since a customer asked for a recommendation and we are kind of pent up. (Why are you people not asking me about Little Dorrit?! I really need to talk about Little Dorrit. If I'm being honest, I started a book club just so I could one day talk about Little fucking Dorrit.) It's not all delightful chat, working in a bookstore. Let me not to the meeting of true minds admit impediments, but people will ask us for recommendations they have no reason or right to assume we will be able to make. I really don't know what "the best book" is on thermodynamics, honey, or what "a good one" might be about genocides. (Yes, actual questions.) Do I really look like someone with an advanced STEM degree? I'm wearing an apron, sweetie. And a word of advice, never ask anyone who has brought it up what might constitute "a good one"on genocide because that person will tell you and it will not be good.  Cooking with a wok, raising chickens, World War Two, what to buy for your cousin who used to be in an actual gang, and yes, I can probably come up with something. Walk with me. We'll check the shelves. You might be surprised. I might be surprised. But we all have our limitations, it's true. That's why hopefully there will be more than one of us to ask. Me? What do I think would be a good book for an exceptionally bright nine year old who doesn't like sports? Cities of the Plain, maybe? Does Joey like gladiator movies? Has he read Foucault? Work with me here, Aunt Margaret, I am trying. 

The holidays are the best time for bookstore lists. It's open season for recommendations. We are limbered up and ready to go, go, go. Let's see where the season takes us! Last year? Last year it was trees. Everything was about trees. Makes no goddamned sense, but hey, you want trees, boy howdy we got trees: mother trees, other trees, the souls of trees, anthologies of forest stories, poems not by Joyce Kilmer about trees, books about Japanese forest-bathing, The Man Who Planted Trees if you're looking for a classic. I can and will make you a list for the tree-hugger in your life, and lucky you! (Hey, at least it's not your cousin who likes guns.) We actually keep lists at the Information Desk. Come the holidays every year we have employee meetings in the General Books Department and everybody brings at least three books to recommend for the holiday shoppers and then we compile a list

We also reprint lists from literary websites like Book Riot and Lit Hub. We keep the Christmas issues of the book reviews. By the day after Thanksgiving we are swimming in lists. We kinda know what we're doing by now. If you liked X, you should try Y. The lists are specially helpful when it comes to books I will never read like all the things that actually sell the best: children's books, Young Adult novels, SFF, hiking guides, local history, birds. As I may have mentioned, none of us reads everything. I look at the gardening section, or needlecraft, or home improvement, and I see chores. I look at sports and think, "balls." Clearly I need my coworkers. I need a little help. I need those lists.

Obviously I'm going to defend the lists I use at work as being different in kind from the clickbait, but at least half of the lists I make for myself are just exercises in self-soothing. (Three New Cringeworthy Compound Words? Self-soothing. Eco-anxiety. Cringeworthy. ) What are my favorite children's books? Well, that possessive apostrophe should tell you that they are all old, but yes, I have a list. What are the worst trends in book design this year? Oh! Another hyphenate I hate, color-blocking! I'll say no more, but yes, I've made a list. Irish writers who should never be degraded in a St. Patty's Day display? List. Contemporary cartoonist I want to like but can't because they cannot draw? List. Great books I know you won't be able to read because the dog dies? List. Writers who should never have gone to Iowa? List.  Books that tell me we cannot be friends? List. Books I want to recommend to bright teenagers just to be spiteful but don't? List. Novelists I wish were Muriel Spark, or at least had read Muriel Spark before writing a novel? List. Poets who should never read in public again? Long list. Academic associations who should be producing style guides for writers? No list.

Making lists is sometimes a way not to lose my job, or my shit. 

And sometimes it's just fun. So to close, just a quick, completely subjective and thus completely pointless list without further explanation: 

Brad's Ten Totally Not Controversial Facts About Christmas

1) In 1989 Mariah Carey cowrote and recorded the only Christmas single in my adult lifetime to quite rightly become a seasonal standard, and I don't even like Mariah Carey

2) Christmas wrapping paper is supposed to be gaudy, that's the trick of it. It goers under a Christmas tree, people, not on the gift-table at a first wedding in Newport.

3) Nobody cares if you do or do not like fruitcake. This does not make you interesting in either case.

4) Gift-cards can be a thoughtful present. Remember, people you love can have terrible taste.

5) The only people who think it would be fun to sing-along to Handel's Messiah should not be singing Handel's Messiah or they would already be singing Handel's Messiah down front.

6) Not everybody can afford an eight foot Scotch pine or the lights to cover one, you elitist jerk.

7) You are allowed to still love Rankin/Bass without irony and without being problematic

8) We now say "Happy Holidays" because we live in a diverse, secular society, not because we hate Christmas or Christians. Honestly, some of us still like Christmas.

9) David Sedaris' book, Holidays On Ice, which includes Santaland Diaries and Dinah, The Christmas Whore, is the only Christmas book by a contemporary American writer that anyone will remember when we are all dead and buried.

See? Did we really need ten? No. You may be right. I never argue taste.

*Deciding the best books by a popular pole of readers is like baking with toddlers. Someone is invariably dropping something indigestibly grubby into the mix. Spoils the whole batch.

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Night Oberon Tapped the Nutcracker

 I have a story. Starts one place and ends in another, the way stories do. If it isn't quite a Christmas story -- meaning it hasn't much of a moral and neither Santa Claus nor the baby Jesus makes an appearance hereafter -- at least there's Christmas in it.

 I noticed him because he looked very like me. Not so interesting as you might think. Lots of people look like me now, or rather, I look like a whole lot o' people now because -- older: white beard, close cropped hair, glasses, wider than high. After a certain age it takes real effort to stand out in a crowd, effort that requires energy, which requires effort, which require energy, which most of us aren't willing to waste on things like audacious new looks or putting in the real work at the weight-bench. Kudos to them what do. Nothing I personally like better than ropey gym daddies and eccentric centenarian fashion plates like Iris Apfel! Bless 'em. Most of us in the range of sixty settle for statement frames for our bifocals and the occasional bold plaid. I can't remember the last time I looked at my footwear and thought I needed to step up my game. There are a lot more of us than not, which is what makes the exceptions notable. So we all play a role, don't we?

This uniformity of age isn't about sex or gender either. I've known a lot of professional men in their fifties who look a lot like famous female basketball coaches; boxy suits, gray crop, dark turtlenecks, thin necklace. I've known a lot of women in their sixties who look just like me without the beard, particularly in winter gear -- which is designed to do three things well: retain heat, make it hard to find one's keys, and neutralize secondary sex characteristics. Even the distinction in summer resort wear tends to relax after a certain age, at least if you still run with the right crowd. I've know just as many women who swim in T-shirts and boxers as I have men who host deck-side cocktail hours in kaftans and diaphanous wraps. Gendered clothing is bullshit. The young people taught me that. All good, so far as I'm concerned. Better in fact, as anything that undermines patriarchy and allows me to wear a loose-fitting cotton and a wide-brimmed sunhat is a personal plus as well as a blow against hetero-normative conformity.

So the man -- and yes, it was a man -- who looked like me was only noticeable because he didn't look like me now but rather looked very like me when I was about nineteen years old. That's what struck. Back then I had oodles of auburn hair, a bright orange beard, and a twenty-eight inch waist. I wore corduroys so tight a dime couldn't fall out of my pocket and collared sports shirts in colors not associated with any professional club. Not a combination you saw every day back then and certainly not someone I've seen much of since. 

He was in a crosswalk half a block in front of me so I can't speak to specifics like eye-color or the full extent of his beard, but at less than fifty yards away it really did suggest time travel, or one of those television visitations so popular now in the final season of an hour drama when the past drifts into a wide shot. I didn't run up on him because I don't run. Also, it's worth mentioning that I wasn't attracted to him. Would that have been creepy? Yes, I think it would have been. I just kept walking and so did he and we walked in different directions. We didn't make eye contact or anything like that. He was there. I noticed him, was struck by the similarity, and then I lost him. He didn't evaporate or anything, I suppose he just turned a corner. End of doppelgänger moment. End of story.

What I wish is that I'd been close enough and quick enough to snap a picture of him for my beloved husband, A. That was the boy he met, pretty much the one he took home. T-shirt rather than a pink and green Izod, tight jeans instead of tight cords, and I'm going to say sneakers rather than canvas flats but I really didn't look at his feet. I wish the beloved husband had had that glimpse of me then in the crosswalk now. Hasn't seen that kid in years. 

It takes a certain cast of mind to mistake the living for the dead, to see previous incarnations passing in the street and I don't think I have whatever that is that allows for this. Based on this brief experience I think it must be wonderful. I was surprised and pleased as long as it lasted. I've known people who saw lost lovers in subway stations, long-gone friends at the foot of the bed, or their dead mother at the foot of the stair, telling them that they will be alright. When my best friend Peter died I believe I actually looked for him in crowds, not as he was at the end which was heartbreaking and awful, but as he had been when I met him and when he was still going out dancing. I've scanned more than one dance floor in more than one club looking for someone who moved like him. Never saw him again.

Some people dance naturally, as if utilizing a second language. Seems they've always known how, unsuspected until required. Block-parties, weddings, bars, there are usually at least a few people who hear music and move with it. My paternal grandma knew how to dance, my dad did too. Didn't pass on to my generation. We three inherited our mother's shy feet. I've also known a few professional dancers and I noticed that in social settings, whatever the music and whatever the state of their sobriety, they use their bodies like instruments, the way they've been tuned and practiced, the way a classical violinist might play a reel or an opera singer might sing jazz. (One of my all time favorites things, by the way, divas who swing.) Once a real dancer, always a real dancer. All the world's a stage, and every club has an otherwise unseen proscenium arch. The training will out one way and another. However free and easy the mood or the music, there will always be bits of remembered choreography in their muscle, just how far they will kick a foot and no further, what they do with their hands. When I was young I went out with little knots of theatrical kids, musical theater types, ballet and modern dancers, and they all uniformly, unselfconsciously did this. Always dazzled the locals. (I learned to take off my glasses when I went out dancing with dancers. If I was going to have any fun at all, I couldn't hear the music and watch them at the same time. Always an audience, me. If I was stood too close to that kind of talent and let myself look too long I'd just stop stock-still and watch.) 

Peter danced a little the day I met him, right up the aisle of our freshman orientation at college. (We went to that theater school you went to when you didn't get into the good one.) Peter danced the same way the rest of his life. He took class, danced in musicals, dated dancers and his dance teacher and he loved going out. He was good. He had the steps. He used his whole body. He was a beautiful dancer, sexy, but he did not change. If he had the music he wanted he was on the floor. Didn't need a partner but he could lead or follow as the need arose. But if the song was wrong, or the floor was too crowded, or he wanted to drink he would walk right off the floor without a moment's hesitation until something he like pulled him back. If he couldn't dance to it, it wasn't worth trying. He knew what he liked and he knew what he could do, and do to anyone watching, and he did not much vary from the first time we went out to the last.

He's been dead a long time now. Never saw middle-age or a white hair. On the infrequent occasion when I see gay men of our generation out dancing nowadays, I remember a night a quarter of a century ago when we were still young. I went to a party hosted by an older gentleman, very much of the Castro clone type from his brush mustache to his Disco boots. Really he was of the generation just previous to ours culturally if not chronologically, but already in those endangered days he was a bird increasingly rare. At some point rather late in the evening he took command of the music and put some early Sylvester or something like that on the turntable. The man turned it out! Snake hips, big, gestural arms, pony-kicks, it was like a tutorial on how nobody danced anymore. The little ones scattered. We all stood and watched. I wonder had he lived long enough Peter would have been just such a figure. Cameo, or Kool and the Gang, Whitney, and Pete would rise up and show the children how it was done in the day!

He always started the same way: right hand on his chest, elbow out, left hand in the air, head down, back arched and relaxed, arched and relaxed, and kicking, kicking, kicking. It was tight. At some point that long S would start in his neck and work its way down his spine and back up. His legs were incredibly strong but not long and he kept everything centered in his chest. He would drop forward from his waist and let his legs keep his balance, knees bent while he rolled his torso. He'd let his ass drop onto his heels and pull up with his hands still flat on the floor. To be honest, it was always about that ass. That was always when the sailors in San Diego really noticed him, when a big man would bump up against his backside in the after-hours club in Pittsburgh, when the guy he'd been flirting with at the bar held up a fresh drink. That ass was everything.

I watched him dance in at least six cities, in every kind of club, parties, my living room. Same dance, just as good the last time as the first. Best he ever was? We were freshmen in college and for our make-up final -- theatre majors, remember? -- we had to do a full character: make-up, hair, costume, and then go to our instructor's Halloween party. Our host was there to greet us, dressed in a perfectly tailored half man/half woman number. Exquisite human. We got our final grade from him at the door. Fun. Not for everybody though. I can still remember the poor soul ahead of us who came as Raggedy Ann. Failed. (That may have been the first time I heard the word "basic" used as a withering put-down.) I was The Mad Woman of Chaillot. Picture hat, shawls, boas, Edwardian dress and button shoes all borrowed from the stock room. To hide my beard, I'd made a sort of turtleneck/snood. Worked. Grade? "A bit operatic, but then you're near-sighted, right? Next time have a friend blend you. B+." Peter went as Oberon. People didn't actually wear glitter going out much then. Peter sparkled. He was naturally handsome in a rather Mephistophelian way; sharp nose, sharp chin, wide mouth. He'd done his make-up in browns, umbers, and forest greens. Stunning. He got an A at the door. The fact that he was only wearing green tights and little collapsed leather boots didn't hurt. I remember his teeth chattered when he took his parka off to be judged. We didn't stay long at the party. Then we went OUT!

We went to the club. We got in easy. Nobody checked our IDs, ever. The place was understandably packed. We danced. At some point on the dancefloor, we were joined by a whole troupe of actual, professional dancers. (Here's where the Christmas comes in!) There was a Canadian company in town already touring the Tap Nutcracker. One very handsome if far from tall fellow dressed as a Valentino sheik gave me a whirl. At some point he leaned right into my ear and asked if I was a "real" woman. Back then people still asked that sort of question. We knew no better, kids. To answer him I pulled down my Kate Hepburn turtleneck and out sprang my long, red beard. He seemed to like me all the better for it. Around Peter's Oberon the fairies circled worshipfully. He was golden then; actual glitter, broad shoulders, muscles everywhere, tiny waist, the aforementioned big booty -- in tights. By the time I retired from the dancefloor dripping with greasepaint and sweat, Peter had picked a fairy queen. Big guy, no costume but a cute leather harness the same color as his perfect skin so that the buckles and studs looked like they occurred naturally on his magnificent frame. Those two danced hard. People moved back to watch. It was magical, truly.

I'm not being coy when I say that I don't remember how the night ended. I honestly don't. I can imagine. My sheik was too drunk to offer rides on his stallion, so to say. Oberon went off with his tap-dancer-leather-daddy. Saw myself home in a cab. It was still magic. I can still see the two of them dancing, and the glitter Peter shed on that magnificent man's chest.

The problem with doppelgangers and time travelers and that whole lot is that one never sees the person one looks for. All I saw was me. Me as I remember me, but what of it? My past is not a place I go to in search of myself. Found me ages ago and grew into him. Didn't do a bad job of it, though I might have paid more attention to keeping the vehicle oiled and in good trim. Non, je ne regrette rein. 

Nobody I've ever known loved Christmas more than Pete. Literally, actually, altogether loved Christmas, did our Pete. I say "ours" because he was never mine, never just mine. Instead we were best friends so we fought like old married people and we laughed more together than was either rational or necessary. I made terrible fun of him, in part because he would never have sex with me and because he loved me like a brother, but also because he was vain, and dizzy, and reckless, and maddeningly sweet. And he knew just how to kick me right in the ass too. Trained dancer, remember. He used fewer words than me, but then he didn't need them the way I did, do. Christmas was his absolute jam. Wherever he lived, whatever the state of him, he had a beautiful tree -- up too soon, down shockingly late -- plus decorations, records, Santa hats, reindeer horns, punch-bowl, Christmas cards taped up on the wall.

After college he always had tiny studio apartments. Just where he slept after all, mostly. Peter was a going out guy. And in each and every one of his tiny studio apartments he had Christmas parties. All of his Christmas parties, all of his parties were dreadful in the same wonderful way; too many disparate people, in too small a space, never enough food, too much booze, noise, and mayhem, and the tree knocked over. Every time. Peter knew everyone and invited them all: neighbors, cooks, club owners, dancers, drinkers, landlords, tricks, the prostitute from 3B and the fireman from when the building almost burned down and the doctor from the clinic and the sweet Polish couple that managed the building. ("Dammit, Piotr, too many peoples!") And when it was finally breaking up, out came that damned Carpenters album he loved above all things. At least everyone knew when it was over, except Peter, bless 'im.

He also loved shopping in malls and fancy shops and for cards and perfect wrapping paper. He sang along to carols on the escalators and wished a Merry Christmas to the girls at the perfume counter. Out was where he always wanted to be, where he lived. Out into snow or sunshine, out to eat, out to drink, out to cruise. Peter didn't come out so much as stay. (And yet I never met anyone better suited to live alone, as happened even when he briefly had boyfriends, with one of whom at least he lived for awhile.) He liked having things just so and as he preferred them when and if he came home. He liked having his own room, possibly because he came from a large family. He liked seeing other people's Christmas trees and decorations, but he judged them rather harshly. That was not where one put the candlesticks, bitch. He could be particularly harsh about other people's creches. 

It sounds an exaggeration but everywhere he went he danced; down aisles, and up streets, and around what he didn't want to discuss. 

I can't talk about our last Christmas. That was horrible. My fault mostly, but also there was so much wrong by then anyway. He stopped speaking to me. Then his mother died and he had to. Then he was back in his old apartment on Polk again and I was at the other end of California. Horrible. The worst part of being present at the end is that the end is what one remembers. Always thereafter have to get around the end to see past it and that is very hard to do. It's been twenty years and I still have to make myself not go to the one memory of all my memories I least want when I think of Peter. Bitter but so.

Of all my dead he is still who I would most like to see, even if only in passing on the street. Peter as he was in his glory; Oberon in green tights, Peter in a wide-necked sweater and a swimsuit, sat smoking on a pier in San Diego in November, Peter in a Christmas sweater and chandelier-drop earrings that weighed more than they were worth, Peter dancing. Peter dancing. Peter dancing.

When Christmas comes again I will make the effort again. Dickens made Christmas, among many things, an occasion for ghosts and visitations. I will sit in my quiet house in Seattle where my friend never was and I will look at the photo I keep of sweet Pete in a tin reliquary from Mexico, shaped like a heart, and I will try very hard to see Peter dancing, Peter Dancing, Peter dancing. How his eyes still dance in that picture and oh, how lovely he was.

Monday, July 11, 2022

This Refection of Oysters


Abundance of choice, it ain't always a good thing. There can be too much on the menu, a lesson learned from of all people, shoutin' chef Gordon Ramsay. He used to do those television horror shows where he went to filthy restaurants operated by horrible people and then blew them up. When he was done, every restaurant of whatever kind was transformed into something he called a "gastro pub." It was all delightfully savage, not unlike those hoarding programs but with overly elaborate burgers in the last act. One of the mistakes made in every episode was the twenty page menu. Have to assume this is because everyone opening a restaurant in America has spent happy days in The Cheesecake Factory and Denny's. Get it? Sandwiches, pizza, sushi, deli, pancakes, waffles, suckling pig; in other words trying to do too many things and in the end doing nothing well. They all do it and it never succeeds, just like karaoke singers who select Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Ambition rather needs to be particular to succeed, don't you think? Lots of eight-year-olds want to grow up to be doctors. The wise twenty-three-year-old has already settled on proctology, or thoracic surgery, or puppeteering. (I knew a guy. Hey, things change.) My own ambitions tend to the small and practical: find the remote, dust today, go back to sleep after I get up to pee, or to the large and vague: write, remember, finish things. Maybe I lack the requisite fire.

Also, work. Real ambition requires real work. I enjoy reading cookbooks. That doesn't make me a cook, does it? I am not that ambitious. I will never work hard enough to acquire the necessary knife-skills for fancy stuff like butchery or uniformly slivered things. Not going to happen. I know this in part from reading cookbooks. I have a few rules: 1) The phrase "season to taste" is a red flag. If that's all the direction you get, it's not a recipe, it's kitchen gossip; a conversation between cooks and I am eavesdropping. (Also? All they are usually talking about is salt, but how rude not to say so.) 2) "One simply must use tubular turmeric, not angular turmeric, which is fine for more common Indian dishes, and at all costs avoid ovoid turmeric..." 3) Mandolins in the kitchen are either distractingly folksy if musical (rest in peace, Dash Crofts) or deadly when slicing while on blood-thinners. 4) No good comes of "mulling." That last is really more cocktails I suppose, but like good middle eastern food, charcuterie, and flower arranging, the whole point of living in a civilized community is that there are professionals to do that sort of thing. Also? Marry a good cook if you can. I did. Simplifies things. Yes, I will dice those onions for you, and then you will make the stove-magic, and I shall toss a simple green salad and feel very good about myself indeed. Know what you're willing to do to make dinner. That's another of my long-term relationship tips. Or, we could order in again.

Which rather gets us back to overabundance, doesn't it?

Before we've finished reading the current selection for my Big Fat Book Club I am already be thinking about the next, naturally. Gotta keep making the donuts. Also, deciding which book to read is hard, even given the stated framework of only reading books of substantial length and established reputation. Got in a bit of a pickle with the last but one when I decided to read a well reviewed contemporary novel that I had not first read the whole way through myself. Turned out, nope. Lesson learned. So for the foreseeable future I plan to stick to established classics. So far we've read three that were very familiar to me, all by authors I love, and Bob's your uncle. I knew who I wanted to do next so the question was only which.

In my head, Dickens is by now one book. I own three uniform sets, two pretty, one practical, as well as individual volumes of this and that. I have letters and journalism and biographies and criticism and the scripts for his public readings. I have celebratory editions and reproductions of  firsts. All together this is Dickens. There is a famous unfinished portrait of the author, titled "Dickens' Dream," painted five years after the writer's death by Robert William Buss*. In it we see Dickens drifting in his favorite chair, surrounded by a great cloud of his characters. So it is I think of the work: Sairey Gamp at the elbow of Tony Weller, Little Nell's deathbed hard by Lady Dedlock's foggy end, Mr. Peggotty higgledy-piggledy with Pecksniffs. It's not so much that I can't keep them all straight as it is that they are all of 'em now a part of the big show. Yes, I've read them all at least once, the novels. (Notoriously, I have described in detail very moving scenes that I ascribed to the wrong novel. It happens.) Dickens is abundance above all others. 

Plot, plots, virgins, villains, disabilities, and dull men, small arts, large themes, the city, poverty and excess, the weather, education, economics, funny walks, funny faces, funny -- it might be easier to name what isn't in him as so very much is. He lacks for nothing as I read him. However impatient I may become, it is never with what he withholds intentionally -- he does like a twist more than may suit me -- but rather with what even he couldn't say outright and continue the most popular author in English. Had he said just what he meant, he might not even have been publishable. Victoria's was notoriously a more seemly era. Watching Dickens get around restrictions of language and subject is one of the real pleasures of reading him in middle age. He wants very much to tell. There is much to say. He usually finds a way, but the way isn't always straight. Even his contemporaries, nearly all of whom loved and envied him, often found him excessive. Many thought him vulgar. Not a few since think him slap-dash and have even questioned his sanity. To my mind, the faults in Charles Dickens, the writer not the man, are so much a part of the pleasure to be had of him as to be hardly worth the teasing out and ticking off. Yes, he crowds. He nudges. He goes on. He weeps like a paid Greek mourner. He laughs and roars and isn't always as funny or effective as he intends. But who else ever meant more to so many and deservedly so? Who else rewards rereading more? Short of The Bible and Shakespeare, was there ever one man who made so many memorable names, and scenes, who else broke so many hearts? (And more of his jokes land than Will's now, and require less deadly explanation.) 

So all of this, the good and the muddle, make it all the harder to choose. For example, on rereading I have become an unlikely defender of The Old Curiosity Shop. I am not an allegory guy. I've read the mockers and heard Oscar's famous joke. I am now prepared to defend the novel as superior to its critical reputation and among the greatest sermons Dickens or anyone else ever preached. A friend recently participated in what from all reports was a most satisfactory online book club reading of David Copperfield with a paid host. As with Dickens himself, Copperfield is perhaps the dearest to me of his novels. I understand the famous host's selection entirely, but am a little undone by the idea of competing even in a very small way with that great crowd of already satisfied and paying readers. Our Mutual Friend was the book I had most recently reread myself. My shelf quite literally teamed with volunteers.

Then I picked. Not but a day after I had, we had our second virtual meeting for our current book and of all things, Bleak House came up in the course of the conversation. The minute it was mentioned, a light began to flash in my head warning me that my decision, not yet announced, was wrong. It should be Bleak House, surely? So after the meeting and for the next two days I reread bits of Bleak House. But so many people will already have read Bleak House, if they've read anything at all beyond A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times. (The short ones used to be assigned in high school. Are they still?) 

Should I have had the fish? Now I look again at the elaborate menu, maybe I should order the suckling pig?! Hot punch and syllabub?! 

Little Dorrit it is. 

In the first place I did not remember the opening chapter or the characters in it at all. It has been a long time since I read it last, and two good dramatic adaptations in the mix as well, to confuse me further. I was encouraged by the unfamiliarity. This will be fun. Then there was the weirdness. I like Dickens when he's weird; dreams and doubles and old dark houses and a gloriously furious tantrum, and then there was Mrs. Clennam's stoically self-denied lunch and that decided me again. "This refection of oysters" is a delicious archaism and quite perfect in context. And it ought to be the title of something, ought it not? And so now it is and I am happy again in my choice.

Fewer members are likely to have read Little Dorrit, or reread it recently, myself it seems included. It is late enough in the canon to be rich and dark in just the way that has brought so many moderns to the side of Bleak House, but it is not yet so far as that from the hullabaloo of the earlier comedies -- and less time spent in Chancery the better, I think. Instead we have the Marshalsea, the equally terrifying if much less complicated Hell of debtor's prison, and a fascinating setting for some of Dickens' most acid observations on money and class. Little Dorrit also sports one who for my money is Dickens' best male protagonist in Arthur Clennam, and of all the choir of Dickens' angel-virgins, in many ways the most immediately sympathetic and strong we find in the titular character. The great noise of crowded characters penned together, the eccentricities of speech and surprising description, the sheer force of Dickens at the very height of his powers, all contribute to the soundness of my choice. Shall we read a Dickens next? We shall, and this one among the many, I've decided. 

As to why we would read Dickens, might as well ask why we should read. If you don't, or won't, or can't I am frankly inclined to have no truck with you. I don't say you are a bad person or in any way inferior to those who do, only that I am full of sorrow to think that anyone, for any reason should turn away from such a feast. Self-denial? The avoidance of richness? How very Squeers. But again, I am letting characters in from the wrong book. Apologies. 

*When he was a younger man, Buss was briefly employed as one of the illustrators of The Pickwick Papers. The original illustrator, Robert Seymour, infamously killed himself after an argument with the author who had rejected some of the illustrations. Buss hadn't any experience with etching on steel plates and so when his drawings were eventually reproduced even he admitted they weren't very lively. At the time Pickwick was already a blockbuster in serial publication. He was replaced in turn by Phiz, aka Hablot Knight Browne. No hard feelings this time. Buss remained devoted to Dickens, ultimately producing the great, unfinished "Dream" after Dickens' death.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Three Or More


Dad only did it the one time, raise pigs. There were three of them all from the same litter. He brought them home, built a pen, and told us explicitly not to name them. These were not pets. These were or would be hogs. Meat. Not pets. The pigs were money, an investment, not pets like the dogs, the cats, the ponies and horses. Don't get too attached. Think of them like the chickens. None of us much cared for the chickens which were dirty, dumb, work. Think of the pigs like that. The pigs were work. It was Dad of course who eventually named the pigs Curly, Moe, and Larry.

Always hustling, my dad. Always looking not for a way to get over but just to keep on. He worked in a factory. He sold cars in the yard, sold dog feed, heavy wooden picnic tables, dog houses, eventually antiques and junk. Had chickens for awhile and sold eggs. And just the once, three pigs.

"Smarter than dogs," he told us and we -- I -- did not believe him. The pigs would eventually follow him very much like dogs, huge filthy dogs, wherever he went outside. He would talk to them and they would answer. No idea what they found to talk about. Perhaps they discussed mortality, utility, sacrifice, the weather. I wanted nothing to do with the pigs, or Dad's rescued raccoon, or the hunting dogs, or the bloodhounds he had for awhile. I wasn't a dog person. Not an animal person. That was my Dad, likewise my brother, my sister. Animals understood them and they loved the animals. Dad grew up on a farm mostly. He was never without at least a dog. For years he rescued rather sad, often elderly horses. He and my sister loved the horses. He got me an irascible pony once. We did not get along. We did not become pals. Even my mother, a town girl, eventually, briefly had a dog until the beloved Buster got hit on the road. "Never again," she said and meant it. We had a barn so cats just were. 

I don't much feel the need to defend my rejection of domestic animals. It seems to me that there are plenty of people in the world to love a dog. I have friends to this day who will never be without a cat for very long despite the vet bills, the ill tempered harassment in the wee hours, the stains, the stinky food. I like people with children, I like children, I like dogs, generally. I can appreciate the symbiosis without feeling the necessity myself. I am glad of all the good parents I know, all the people devoted to their pets. (Blame the false equivalence on the pet people. I'm not the one talking "fur-babies.") I respect the people willing to devote themselves to animal causes and the people devoted to the care of other living things. I understand the mutual benefit, I've just never felt the need. 

I know Montaigne had a dog. I'd bet Shakespeare was more of a cat person -- though how would we know? Just an instinct, but I've always pictured a cat trailing ink across the desk, hanging out in Shakespeare's rented rooms in London, maybe haunting the wings in The Globe. Blame Robert Lawson, the author of Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Ben Franklin and His Good Mouse Amos, Mr. Revere and I (about a horse,) The Fabulous Flight, etc. Very popular children's books in my childhood, popular theme, narrating animals. Still works. People, grown people, love that shit. As an adult I'm not much for talking dogs, or crime-solving cats, but I get it. Animals make humans, actual and fictional more interesting. For me, and for me as a bookseller it's like heterosexual romance, or dystopian science fiction, or gastronomical engineering. I don't begrudge people much. You want to better understand laundry? Study beetles? Buy a book. Enjoy. And I am willing to concede, at least anecdotally that people with children know a love unlike any I will ever experience, that people with pets are, if not generally better than the rest of us, then perhaps at least less likely to be crazy. (Exception noted: the animal hoarders. I think we can all agree that that's just gross. If you can't use your kitchen because: kittens, chicks, dog shit, you are a bad person.) 

Also worth registering that in my experience every relationship involving a parrot is inherently creepy. Yes, birds are funny and parrots are smart (like pigs?) but that is some ugly, aggressive, codependent, imprinting going on right there. The only pets I've encountered that I have actually wished away altogether if not straight to Hell? Two gray parrots who made life miserable for anyone not their human -- the human who happened to own the bookstore where I worked for a time. Made hot, cranky toddlers sound like singing angels, those wretched birds. Messier in every way too. I remember listing used books online and describing "parrot damage." Never again.

Someone asked me what was my best Christmas in retail. I've never hesitated before. 1986. I was managing a little branch store near the Stock Exchange in San Francisco. We were only open during the day because after the Exchange closed and the banks closed an hour later, the whole neighborhood emptied out like there was a daily evacuation order. There were a few bars and restaurants that stayed open later, but generally the place was a ghost town after six. Every year there was an internal debate about extending the bookstore's hours for the holidays. All booksellers are cockeyed optimists. Whatever our individual politics (generally more liberal than not) or religious feeling (?) as a rule we have great hopes of the Christmas Season -- something we have long since learned to stop calling December. Even people who don't buy books buy (bought?) books in December. Think about it. What else is dry, fits in a suitcase, is both more personal and less likely to disappoint at least in theory?  One asks a bookseller what's popular, what Aunt Gertrude might like, what to get a six year old one does not know well and a bookseller will have an answer. Dads like books. Girls like books. That's the way people think (thought?) and who are we, those of us in the trade to dissuade people making such potentially profitable assumptions? 

For any who weren't there or do not choose to remember, the eighties were hideous: the big hair, the big glasses, the leg-warmers and tracksuits, the triumph of bubblegum pop, the VHS revolution, the greed, the Reagans, AIDS. Everything is eventually laundered by nostalgia and I'm sure there are people reading this who will defend Nu Shooz and Murder, She Wrote and aerosol deodorants. There are people somewhere in the world who still love the cave woman novels of Jean M. Auel. As I hope people might have stopped saying by now, you be you. 

What I remember about the eighties generally is by no means all bad. I found a fella, made a home together, got a job I liked, made friends, marched, volunteered, lived a pretty good life in the most beautiful city in America. I also remember a generation dying unnecessarily all around me, fear, prejudice, yuppies. Those were new then; the young urban professionals. Hard now to imagine a time when the world didn't cater to the every whim of young people with money. Back then the country was still unapologetically being run by old white men. Still is, but back then they didn't bother to pretend otherwise, or to much care what the rest of us might think about that, or the damage done. They owned The Shining City on the Hill, the president, Ford Motor Company, manifest destiny. And the yuppies? The yuppies weren't so much the children of those old white men as aspirants to to their money and power. And lots of people -- lots -- thought that was a good thing. Honestly, millions of young people read The Official Preppy Handbook and completely without irony started dressing and thinking like WASPS because that was the way to get ahead; become the power that oppresses you, conform to the dominant culture's rules, adopt the shibboleths  and display the totems of the class that broke your grandpa's union and kept your parents out of the country clubs. For God's sake, there were black yuppies, immigrant yuppies and Jewish yuppies, gays. It was mind-blowing to think that the children of the hippies and the daughters of the failed Equal Rights Amendment all went to work in suits and sneakers and voted Republican after Nixon, but they did. 

And in the bookstore I was managing, the yuppies were my customers. There were still the honest office workers; bank tellers, secretaries, maintenance and construction workers who bought our books and browsed our magazine racks on their lunch hours. Working people buy what they need where rich people browse, and ask for discounts. Still true. Oh, executives from Haliburton might order 500 copies of the latest management manual to help their minions Get to Yes or Un-limit their Power or be more like that ruthless jack-'o-lantern, Jack "Chainsaw" Welch. There was good money in that sort of thing, those corporate indoctrination orders, but not to be counted on. The yuppies were the big news in the eighties. Yuppies spent their own money on ridiculous alcohols and smelly cigars and designer crap and yes, expensive books. Yuppies bought books to display on their glass and chrome coffee-tables. They bought expensive computer books and fine editions and elaborate gardening books for their mothers. They bought Tom Clancy and Judith Krantz and self improvement books and futurist screeds and books about the economic rising of Japan and oh so much. And they paid retail and did not bat an eye. The yuppies were perhaps the last generation who attached status to books, who conspicuously consumed print and read on the train. (And when in their thirties and early forties they finally had children, they all taught their kids that reading was important, like soccer practice and flute lessons; regularly scheduled leisure. Books were an activity! Arrange them by color! Then the internet happened to us all.) 

Weird to think I might miss yuppies even a little bit, isn't it? In the first place they are of course still with us only now they are very much the old white Republicans they strove to be, even the black ones, the Jewish ones, the gays. What I miss about them is the money they spent in bookstores, specially when they were drunk and they all seemed to drink a lot. Thus what I've always described as my favorite retail Christmas, the year before Black Monday, the last real hoorah of yuppie excess, Christmas, 1986. Amazon wasn't even in Bezos' garage then. Computer screens were black with acid green print that burned one's retinas. People Christmas shopped by going to stores. Those were the days!

I was alone that last extended hour after we would normally have been closed. 

The idea of holiday hours was already quaint. It assumed a working population that still had a quitting bell and Christmas bonuses. Working in the Financial District and who our customers were made holiday hours silly, but we did it anyway. I didn't have the heart or the budget to make anyone else stay for that last hour from seven until eight, Christmas Eve. I stayed. I smoked, I'm ashamed to say, and read and I probably started planning post-holiday returns. At the last minute they came, three young male masters of the universe, yuppies to the tips of their black leather lace-ups. Drunk. Happy. Late. They had money and they were ready to spend.

Not exactly wise men in the state they were in and much as they might have fancied themselves kings, they came not bearing gifts but in search of them, last minute, unthinking of the hour. (Later, the whole "just in time" management thing? that had to have been a yuppie. It was a lifestyle; the way they ate and drank, the way they made and spent money, presumably the way they made love.) There were three of them, so let's call them Curly, Moe, and Larry. Moe was their obvious leader, bossy and a little mean. Curly was a little fat and the only one who was anywhere near to being as funny as they all thought they were. Larry was put upon and a little homely and probably the drunkest of the bunch. Moe came into the bookstore because we were the last shop in the neighborhood that was still open. The other two came with. I'd never seen then before and I'd never see them again. They weren't very nice. I was... the help. They kept asking me my name and then forgetting it. They thought it was weirdly hilarious that I was working by myself on Christmas Eve. Moe decided then and there that he wanted a book to give for a present, something nice. Didn't care what really. I went through my usual paces, trying to get some idea of who the book was meant for. A girlfriend? A relative? A boss? Doesn't matter and it didn't much at the time. I made a few suggestions. 

Here's where the magic happened. 

Everything I suggested? Moe said "yes." So I made more suggestions; art books, novels, history. All good. He'd take one of each. Everything Moe got, Curly and Larry had to have it too. Three of everything. (That's how long ago it was, the bookstore had three of nearly everything.) I got bolder. I suggested the most expensive books in the shop and told them that these were the most expensive books in the shop. They actually found this information exhilarating rather than off-putting. If I didn't have three, they would fight over who got to keep the one I had. 

I don't remember what they bought. Doesn't matter now, as I've said it didn't much matter then, at least to them. Expensive. That was what mattered. They actually spent more than a thousand dollars apiece. On books. In 1986. For a lark. A thousand dollars in that little store was a good day. This was a very good day indeed. After probably half an hour, when the boys started running out of steam I called them a cab and helped them load in their purchases. Took awhile. No idea if the books ever made it home with them. No idea if come the morning they ended up giving anyone anything out of all those shopping bags. I didn't even wrap the books! Who knows, who cares? The books were nice. The boys were not. I call them "boys" now because I am old. At the time they may have been older than me. I was pretty young to be managing even a small, satellite bookstore. They certainly behaved like boys, kids with credit cards and no curfew. I must tell you that at the time, I did not feel bad selling those books to those drunk guys. It was exhilarating. One doesn't have much chance to be ruthless in my line of work. I killed it. It was the eighties.

Hogs. Meat. Money. 

My father didn't drink. Always said he knew too many mean drunks, like his brother. One Christmas when he was still working at the car lot, before he took the job at the mill, my father got drunk. Actually, the owner and the other salesmen took him out and got him drunk, on purpose. By the time they brought him home we all crowded agog around Mum in the doorway as they unloaded Dad, our first dishwasher, stuffed animals bigger than his kids, a miniature pool table, lord knows what all. Mother the family economist was not pleased. We were thrilled and probably a little scared. Kept the dishwasher and the miniature pool table as I remember. The owner of the car lot evidently knew a guy. Great price, honest. Nothing but bargains. Never saw Dad drunk again.

I should finish the story of the pigs. As pigs do, they all got to be enormous. My father could clean and butcher game. Don't know that he'd ever butchered a hog. He did not talk about it the day it happened. It was winter, I think. While he was at work and we were at school, Dad arranged with the Amish to come out and kill and butcher the hogs. I remember coming home to find the business largely done. Most of the meat was sold. The Amish took cash, the skins, the offal and the blood. I remember the blood in a big zinc metal tub that it took two men to lift. I'm sure we ate at least some of the meat and none of us any the wiser, except maybe Dad. I did not choose to think much about the meat we ate.

Like I said, Dad never raised pigs again. It was a lot of work and it wasn't cheap. Moreover I don't think he much cared for the killing even though he was an avid hunter and we regularly ate what he shot. He was always quite reverent when he talked about the woods and the animals he killed and brought home. He detested waste, and cruelty, and the disregard of nature. (He could never understand how I could look at a perfectly good dog and not want to know it better or how I'd never learned the names of flowers.) That I suspect was his obvious mistake with the pigs, getting to know them too well. Maybe not. Maybe I'm the one being overly sentimental. I don't know that he saw any contradiction in wanting to understand an animal, to be kind to it, and also intending to eat it. If this was indeed something he discussed with the hogs I will never know. I should think my father too much of a gentleman to worry a pig. If he asked their pardon that last morning I'm sure he did so in such a way as to spare their feelings as much as his. In my father's world view, we are individually responsible for the harm we do, even if the harm seems to us necessary. When he arranged the death of Curly, Moe, and Larry the hogs, he did so in such a way as to make their deaths as quick and efficient as he might. Again, he didn't spare their lives but he tried in his way that they should not suffer unduly. I think he thought being there himself would only make it worse. And yes, maybe he thought to spare himself what he could. I can't think any the less of the man for not wanting to be there when the hogs died. I believe he loved them.

We do rather too little of this, our species, love the things we eat, respect the thing that feeds us. We expect consideration without extending it to other living things. We not only assume the right to eat the world around us but also to be understood to be better than everything we eat. We refuse our own complicity in waste and exploitation, consumption, and are deeply shocked by the very idea of consequences. Not because we are unaware, mind, but because our awareness somehow elevates everything we do. Top o' the food chain. We are not humble, humans, are we? (If humility were natural to us, religions wouldn't need to jaw about it so.) Most obviously, we are maybe too removed now from our food. Not an original thought, I know, but think about the distance we will go to not acknowledge that our chicken was a bird before it was nuggets, that people picked our tomatoes, that gasoline and plastic came from the ground, that if the end of us is indeed nigh it will be a suicide. It is easy to forget what our fathers knew. His life was not much like mine. Rather, I've made mine as unlike his as I could.

Seems I'm just as slow as the rest to know the value of the things I've been given or at what price they've been purchased. (Does that make me a yuppie?)

We also, some of us, move through the world as if every dog should love us, every clerk defer, and every hog be happy to be our ham. And it is not just to the natural world we feel ourselves entitled. Art and culture and literature are things to which we can lay claim so long as we can afford the subscription, the canvas, the rights. As Americans we are taught that we deserve anything for which we are willing to pay good money: Picassos and extra plum sauce and automatic rifles. Everything is be owned. If there's anything we can't have it is because someone must have got it first. Or they're keeping it from us, the bastards. No easy thing then to not be everything we might remember disdaining in others.

Even though it is basically what I've just said, it isn't right to call the yuppies pigs, because it is unkind, and not just to the pigs. That was the thing about the eighties, it made it harder to be kind, as well as hip to be square. Maybe every generation comes of age when it decides it needn't be new  -- or nice -- anymore. As I was coming up everything old was not just new again but it all came back with harder edges, less give. What was the "Reagan revolution" after all but reruns and reaction? What was Ronnie himself but an Eisenhower emptied of character, content, humanity? As a young man I watched indifference to the suffering of others become a winning political strategy, an economic theory of expanding inequality put ruthlessly into practice, the triumph of selfishness as a moral and ethical good. I mean there were always cranks and capitalist fanatics, but who knew they were setting the economic agenda for my adult like? In the eighties American went mean rather than mad, or rather admitted we were always mean, and did it with a smile. Suddenly everything we were and had been led directly, naturally and inevitably to Ronald Reagan, deregulation, dead fags, flag lapel pins, the end of communism, and the barbarism that would culminate in Trump. Hard to be unaffected. Seems I wasn't.

So it is I think that for years I could unselfconsciously describe that last Christmas before Black Monday as my best. Made a lot of unexpected money that night. Also, in a small way, got over on the yuppies, right? Oink. I am no little ashamed of having told that story so often. Maybe make this the last time.

The very next Christmas after Black Monday, we stayed open late again and to even less purpose. Again I was left largely alone. Made no money at all. That last hour open on Christmas Eve exactly one customer came in. Wasn't a customer actually. It was just a guy who came in to get warm. I think he was a bus driver. I remember a uniform. He asked if it was okay to just hang out a little. I said sure, but I'm sure it annoyed me a little. Nobody had a phone on them them. Bookstores did not play music. It was deathly quiet. I smoked. I coughed. He cleared his throat. Finally I told him I had to close because I did. He said thanks and slipped out. I closed out the register, turned out the lights, locked the door and caught my bus home.

Which Christmas was worse, now I think about it. 

So now I have to reconsider my answer, don't I? Also? I had thought that my worst Christmas ever was when I was furloughed during the pandemic. Wasn't sure there would be a bookstore or if they'd have me back. I spent Christmas Eve at home. All day. Didn't talk to anyone. Barely spoke to my husband. Nevertheless we ate well. We were warm, safe. Plenty to read. So maybe I got that wrong too.

Maybe we are no better off than when we do the least harm and take only what we need. I might have learned that at home. Maybe I forgot. Maybe we all do, now and then. The past is dangerous place. Go in thinking you know just where you'll come out again and that isn't necessarily true, is it? Now I wish that I had at least told that bus driver Merry Christmas. Maybe I did. Don't remember. 

The other day I saw a guy in my neighborhood, a guy roughly my age, walking three dogs that I sensed were either not usually his responsibility, or at least that this task was unfamiliar. They were small dogs and at least one of them, a dachshund, looked rather elderly. The walker wasn't being obviously impatient; he wasn't tugging their leashes or yelling at the dogs. He just trailed after them as they roamed the sidewalk. The man did look tired. It was very early in the morning and he was not dressed for other work, or the weather. Typical of Seattle in the summer he was wearing flip-flops and shorts with a heavy hoodie. It was cold out, a little wet. I guess the guy looked like somebody doing somebody else a favor. Not a dog person. I'll say that. What made the scene memorable was that he had one of those blue plastic bags people use to pick up poop and he already had it on his free hand, which he held almost above his head, like he was either unsure of the usual procedure or was trying to remind the dogs of why they were there. 

"How 'bout here?" I heard him ask every time one or more of the dogs stopped to sniff something. "How 'bout here?" They seemed to pay him no mind, the way dogs don't. The last thing I heard him say when they turned my corner and went out of my view was, "I have things to DO." 

Don't we all, brother. I do sympathize. Still not a dog person myself. At least the guy was trying. I admire that. (And that bush in my front yard that the dachshund found so intriguing? That's rosemary. The one next to that is a hydrangea. Trying, see?) 

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Hideous Angels


“Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.”

-- William Shakespeare, Macbeth,  Act 4 Scene 3

Kids make ugly shit. It's adorable. Seriously, I don't have kids or participate in the raising of anybody else's and yet if I could I would furnish at least one room in my house exclusively with ugly shit kids made: paintings that look like chemical spills, clothespin dragonflies, wonky solar systems, Papier-mâché volcanoes, birdhouses FEMA would condemn, ashtrays that look like turds -- and I don't even smoke anymore! I would enlarge their terrifying animal drawings and make wallpaper. I'd cut windows to a kid's notion of geometry and make a clock with the numbers crowded in one corner. I would have furniture made to look like a four-year-old's ideal of a perfect bed and flat chairs with too many legs. It would be glorious and beautiful and useless and a little terrifying, just like children, just like childhood.

The aesthetics of children before they've reached the age of reason have been studied by wise and learned scholars and there would seem to be a consensus that there is more that is good, or bad in a better way than most of us will ever make again. Once all our houses are square with triangle roofs and we can spell correctly and write without inverting our R and trailing our S we have lost if not so much as we've gained, then at least something wonderful and forever. Parents are wired to find their own children and all their works fascinating. For a brief time this is objectively true.

So appreciating kids' arts & crafts without keeping a kid clothed and fed isn't as crazy as it sounds. Why this stuff can be so aesthetically satisfying to me isn't to do with prodigies or savants. For a long time, at least when I was reading, drawing, or writing, I was "exceptional for my age." That is exactly the kind of accolade out of which one ages naturally. (After a certain age one may hear that phrase again but now for still being able to touch one's toes or remembering the name of the sitting President.) Looking through the stuff of mine that my father saved I was touched that he'd kept so much. I was struck by just how nearly good -- objectively and not for my age -- it all was without actually being at all interesting. Drawings, stories, "book reports," it was none of it unstudied or spontaneous. I could see immediately the books and the shows from which I drew, how hard I'd worked at making everything as much like my models as I could. Admirable but not interesting. Ironically the very thing my father saw in all my art, namely the effort, the thing that made him think it worth preserving, was the very thing that makes nearly none of it now worth keeping. Whereas a little "bird" in colored pencil handed me one day by the six-year-old son of a coworker at my desk, I have secretly kept ever since. I still take it out occasionally to study and admire. No actual bird was ever colored so, had such disproportionately large purple feet, or both eyes on the same side of its tiny head, and nearly no real bird was ever so beautiful.

I went to elementary school so long ago that teachers were actually supplied by the taxpayer with construction paper. Imagine that. Safety scissors -- mother's comfort and artist's bane -- glue pots, pencils, paints, appeared as a matter of course for projects large and small. True, our textbooks were ancient and not of the best. (In the late sixties we were still learning to read from a Dick and Jane dressed in sturdy, Depression era leather shoes and those inelastic wool socks that pooled at the ankle. Might as well have been depicted in ruffs and farthingales.) That said, there was then a abundance in public education the like of which we are unlikely to ever see again; music instruction, art, library books, paper actually to burn, and popsicle sticks enough to reproduce the abbey at Mont-Saint-Michel at third scale - if anyone at Highland Elementary had ever heard of Mont-Saint-Michel which they had not.

We felt bad for the kids who didn't get to go to public school, which happened even then. We understood that their parents were god-struck maniacs without televisions (!) who kept their car radios tuned to the screaming preacher channel, and dressed their girls like Granny in the Tweety Bird cartoons. (Little House on the Prairie, the TV hit, came a little later, in 1974 and made gingham cool in the preteen set.) This was back before John Birchers were packed onto the Supreme Court and suddenly it was okay for my property taxes to pay the tuition at some church-basement Baptist kindergarten. You know, the kind of non-public school where the kiddies learn that Jesus was not a Jew, and America is God's Kingdom. Back then, if you wanted to keep your children down on the farm as it were, you had to pay the preacher's not-so-secret mistress yourself to teach the little ones that only communists read comic books and listened to those colored dance records. The kids in public schools? We were the lucky ones. We got more stuff, including opportunities and even ideas. It's not as if we weren't taught conformity. We were. But it was less draconian, if not subtle.

For example, hand-turkeys. I now think that one of the ways kids unlearn what makes their art interesting and individual is when they are taught to all make the same thing the same way. Some of this is good and necessary. You want your kid to make upper and lower case look like everybody else's upper and lower. You want your kid to sing in tune if possible, and to take turns, and spell. I don't know, but maybe every parent secretly wants their kid to not go the same direction in a dance recital because, come on, isn't that the best? And I should think everybody wants their kid to bring home a hand-turkey in November, but maybe the wise ones want it to look a little weird, no? 

You trace around the fingers of your non-dominant hand with a crayon or a marker. (Back in my day, there was a residual distrust of the sinister, so I'm pretty sure we all had to make our turkeys face right. Lessons on lessons.) Some people would be made to then cut your handprint out and stick the outline on another piece of paper. Maybe just draw over it on the same paper. Different methods, similar results. The outline gave you the shape of the turkey: fingers were feathers, thumb the neck and head, feet added under. The result was then colored, decorated, decked in all the turkey's native glory. If the teacher was uptight the browns had to be brown. Those of a more liberal inclination allowed for not just yellows and reds but purples, pinks, blues -- all of which I would point out are present in reality when the light falls right. 

I remember my own turkey as sadly traditionalist in both its coloration and shape, the kind of thing you would expect in a recognizable hand-turkey, the kind of bird that would please the teacher and not need explanation at home. ("Oh! What a good turkey!") I also remember a few peacocks sneaking into the flock, maybe a couple of dinosaurs. Not everybody stayed inside the lines. I very much did. I was all about being good then. It's a little disappointing to think how much that mattered to me once, but give the kid a break. I suspect he already sensed he was going to disappoint elsewhere someday and not just his spelling. 

We also cut out Pilgrim hats. Historically regrettable, but easy shapes; hat, hatband, buckle. We made flags for anything patriotic, jack-o-lanterns, stars and Santa hats for Christmas. Later we made planets, and I made a papier-mâché triceratops so massive it broke in half getting it into my mother's car for the ride to school. Grim ride. Bad day.

I said above that I would be into decorating a whole room with this sort of thing and I meant it, but I don't know that I would want anything I made in it except maybe the broken dinosaur. That thing was impressive and it was not anatomically correct even before the masking-tape surgery that put its head awkwardly back on. Ambitious, that's what it was, but also sadly mud-colored and boxy. It was made with actual boxes after all. Later it made a lovely blaze on the burn-pile. I remember that. That was exciting. (It was too big to keep in my room if we ever wanted to get to the closet again, and it was sad to see after the accident anyway, badly balanced and always tipping forward on its face. Poor beast. It was time.)

Of all the things I made as a child, the only one that survived in any public way and for many years was one hideous angel. I should mention that we were angel people. In my experience, families are either angel people or star people. Star people allowed for some variation from the straight up five pointed glass star to stars with halos to stars with actual lights. I would include abstract tree-topper families in with the star people simply because that business of diminishing globes ending in a sharp point always suggested a star as the point of departure, at least to me. Yes, the onion roofs on Russian churches and the Kremlin also come to mind, but really, I think those toppers were more to do with Bethlehem's one  famous traffic signal than with inverted icicles or snow or that sort of thing. Maybe I'm wrong. We were angel people. What do I know? 

One year our angel lost her head. Happens. She was old. I think she'd also lost a hand, at least one hand. Glue was applied but she was never right again. With all the confidence of an already "artistic" boy, I determined to make her replacement. Have I mentioned the stunning variety of uses to which we then put the cardboard tubes out of paper-towels and toilet-rolls?!

Rilke said, "every angel is terrifying." Mine was. She was beautiful. This is her story.

Angel hair. Anyone else remember angel hair? It was spun clouds of fiberglass thread. It was pretty and pretty deadly. And real tinsel? Remember that? Tinsel was very thin metal then, "icicles" too, and that stuff would actually cut you and potentially kill your cat and we all used it and we all thought it was just lovely. Asbestos snow. Actual asbestos. Styrofoam was big then too. Don't see a lot of that anymore, which I'm sure is a good thing. For years my Dad got tiny settlement-checks as part of the big asbestosis case. (Factory work not snow inhalation.) One likes to think we are learning, but in my childhood all but the manufacturers were largely unaware of everything that could kill us. People smoked everywhere. We decorated cakes with silver BBs and we ate them and no one knew or much cared what they were made from or that their only flavor was "hard." Pipe-cleaners had made a comeback too even as actual pipes were disappearing. Bristled wires in various fun colors. We used pipe-cleaners for everything. So flexible. Any art supply, any discount store back in the day, there were Styrofoam balls big as your head and small enough they had to be bagged, and every size in such abundance that there were tall wire cages and big bins to keep the stuff from drifting down the aisles. Styrofoam wreaths, Styrofoam Santa, reindeer, trees! We painted it, stuck things into it, we even thought it looked good naked; just Styrofoam "snowballs" piled up like civil war ordinance. 

My angel had angel hair, sort of an up-do with a red ribbon. Red. Christmas. Made perfect sense. Cotton balls would have been a safer choice but that would have looked more colonial than ethereal. She had a bow at her throat too, same red ribbon. It was a motif. (Need I point out that all true Christmas angels are girls, despite so many boy angels named in the text? Weren't quite ready yet for Christmas drag and one needed a full skirt up which to shove the top branch.) Almost goes without saying that her body was a toilet-paper tube, the basic building-block of juvenile American engineering before Lego. Her robes were a plain white paper cone, white paper wings, white pipe-cleaner arms with loop hands folded in prayer. Gold pipe-cleaner halo, of course. Her head was a Styrofoam ball of just slightly too big a size. I painted her face on: arced rather than arched brows, closed eyes represented by rickrack lashes, two dot nose, and a bold red lip to match her ribbons. If there was more of Dolly's Jolene than the evangel about her, that was for the adults to keep to themselves. 

Among the many flaws which escaped my attention her inaugural Christmas, I would note that the difference between treated and untreated Styrofoam -- the former had a flat, glossy surface, the latter did not. Guess which one I put paint on? This meant that the cosmetic details of her mug quickly ate into the surface a bit, giving her a weirdly skeletal look. My model for making my angel was after all not an angel, but the ghosts we'd made in school for Halloween. Thus the inspiration of the decorative ribbons to indicate the change in holiday. Red. Christmas. Not blood. Who said anything about a garotte?! Anyway, I think she had buttons too. Not a ghost. It's a dress. See? Buttons, in the front so you could see them, just like dresses.

Hers was a fragile beauty at the best of times. Her face continued to fall in over time. Bad posture plagued her all her life and she often looked drunk. Presumably the sway of The Holy Spirit rather than the influence of strong spirits. Whatever one puts on top of an actual as opposed to an artificial tree is subject to the bend of the branch. Unlike the commercially produced angels and stars, there really wasn't much thought given to grip or balance. And so her many attempts to end her own life, poor dear. Up she went. Down she came, repeatedly. So many interventions. So maybe she was drunk. Sad certainly. And remember, all the brightest angels fell. 

If you haven't tripped to the fact yet, yes, my angel went onto the top of the tree. It could be argued that perfectly good parents might have thanked their son and even praised his effort without then feeling the need to place this particular project atop the family Christmas tree. Further, having done so once, with the best of intentions in the world they might then have contrived to lose the thing before Christmas rolled around again, no questions asked. No one would fault the parent employing such stratagems to spare the general discomfort of visitors, but no. Until the day in my own adolescence when I could not look at that by then bedraggled and sadly crippled thing again and took her down, my angel stayed. I think I tried to throw her away. (Teenagers are beastly.) Rescued from the trash, she lived on some time in semi-retirement on a lower branch and then on an end-table until one night she was finally done away with in the dark of night, much to my parents' grief and fury. Grief and fury were kind of the go-to response to me in my teens. I get it. It would be years before I understood the value of what I had discarded in embarrassment. 

As precious as all this may sound, you should know that ours was never a family immune to sarcasm or quick to let go of an inside joke. You made a funny looking ashtray at summer camp, we laughed at the ashtray and kept it forever. Didn't mean such objects were unloved. Quite the contrary. Every lopsided pin-cushion, every wonky clay mug, if one of us made a thing, the thing stayed even when we laughed at it, because we laughed at nearly everything. They kept my angel because they loved her, faults and all. Hideous as she actually was, with all the jokes about angels working the corner and walking the stroll and all looking better in the dark, she was loved for who she was and not just because, so to speak, she came home on my arm. 

Our house was nearly as full of strays as the yard and the barn. Kids, old people, animals, junk, none of us, none of them, none of it need be perfect to be welcome. Useless and unlovely were never reasons to not be sat right out front where everybody could see. Animate and not, it was all of it life and that was and is never less than messy. Some dogs can only run sideways. Some old friends lose the thread or fart when they walk. Some chairs tip. Some angels are ugly. If it wasn't funny you'd cry, wouldn't you?  Cry if you have to. There's a lot of yard if you need privacy and room to walk in. Look around you though. Have you ever seen the like? That cat is not right. The feet on that baby, she's going to be a runner! Just look at Aunt Ruth, will you. New glasses make her eyes the size of pie-plates. If Uncle Buster's pants rode up any higher that belt would be a necktie. Red's a funny bastard, ain't he? 

See that angel? Brad made it! What do you think of her bowtie?! He don't like it anymore but I think she looks great. Riding a little low on her left side now, but she's hanging on.

See that angel?

It is in the nature of angels to be largely unseen. Every actual appearance is presumably intended to startle. There is some justice then in having made and unmade an angel better loved than looking. Chesterton said somewhere that angels could fly because they took themselves so lightly. Never meant to linger, but then neither is childhood, neither are we.