November 18, 2014
In junior high school we were made, every November, to write an essay on what exactly we were thankful for. This required careful tailoring, as you absolutely could not tell the truth and be thankful that [name redacted] who tripped you into a mud puddle had got a concussion that morning. Or that your [relationship redacted] who wet the bed wasnít coming for Christmas after all and sleeping in your room. And particularly not that the headmaster had just missed catching you smoking pot behind the dining hall.
Instead there was a good deal of mush about being thankful for family, whether you were or not (I generally was but that sentiment lasted all year), and for the chance to do Good Works to Help the Poor.
Now that people who were idiots in junior high school generally arenít anymore, or are in Texas, my relatives have bladder control, and I can misbehave in private, I find that I do have a list after all.
My niece who recently got her learnerís permit will be driving the family to Roanoke for Thanksgiving. I will be thankful when they get here.
I ordered four angel Christmas tree ornaments for presents and World Market sent me four knitted frog hats instead. I am thankful for the opportunity to show them to my husband and son, while saying brightly, ďLook! I got us all matching hats for the holidays!Ē and see what they do.
I am thankful that my husband finally found something he actually wanted for his birthday, even if it was another dog. Who has an ear infection. (There is no free dog.) The vet gave him a prescription for Rusty, to take to our pharmacy, where they carefully labeled it ďRusty Dog Neuron (Canine)Ē just in case anyone thought that someone already afflicted with a last name like Neuron would name his kid Rusty Dog.
We were told that Rusty, having been abused early in life, did not bark because he had been beaten for it. We were also told that he was terrified of wearing a collar and of being up on the furniture. As I write, he is snoring on the bed in his new collar, and we heard a small woof at the postman the other day and another at the prospect of bites of a cheese sandwich. We are thankful that Rusty is getting his bark back.
October 9, 2014
Itís October again, and I start to think of the Ancestors, and those more recently lost, still beloved, still remembered.
The Day of the Dead is near, and I start thinking what they would like. Chocolate and gin for my mother. Bourbon for my father, and a good poker game with old pals. For my daughter, maybe the fourth pug we just adopted. The pugs are her fault, sort of. She longed for one and we finally gave in. We still have that one, elderly and imperious, and a bit deaf. The other three accreted somehow, so Iíll put their pictures and some dog biscuits on the altar for her, beside the miniature purse I bought at Target.
Time to bake, for the dead and for our friends, and the annual party we throw to remember our dead and theirs. Tamales, and empanadas, and Pan de Muertos and chocolate skulls, because the Day of the Dead isnít a timid holiday. Itís the day we remember that we are all bones under the skin, all dancing into the next world.
The leaves are turning, scuttering across the yard with the wind behind them, and the borders between the worlds are transparent at this hinge point of the year. The kitchen is full of chilies, and beer to go with it while we stir. Coriander for healing, and cinnamon for love and lust. Chilies are a charm against spells, important when the doors stand open to other worlds, but also for fidelity.
Weíll fill vases with marigolds, little bright flowers of the dead, and calla lilies for the Virgin and for rebirth. Weíll unpack the sugar skulls and art accumulated through the years; put the skeletons on the porch, satin finery over their papier machť bones so the spirits know theyíre welcome. No one is sure when the dead arrive at the party, but they do, unseen, in a breath of ginger cologne, a rustle of silk, a small warm wind.
September 9, 2014
Last week we met our creative writing tutorial students, always a dicey proposition: will they decide I am nuts, incompetent, otherwise peculiar? I never ask if they will be normal. They never are; writers just arenít. And as always they prove to be a charming bunch, frighteningly talented, and seem to find me acceptable.
We began the evening with introductions: all grad students and tutorial faculty were instructed to tell one thing about themselves that no one knew. Well, thatís an invitation to...something. I cast about for something not too intimate, not likely to get anyone arrested, not too braggy. Free association led to the student from last summer whose daughter claimed to have been a rabbit, and then I remembered that I was once a dog.
I was four or thereabouts and my role model was our Dalmatian. I had my own collar, and a tail made from a ribbon. I had a leash too, which I insisted on wearing when my mother took us shopping. That got her yelled at in public a lot, but she was an indulgent mother and just smiled sweetly at the horrified shoppers. ďShe likes being a dog,Ē she said in that disarming Birmingham accent. I would pant happily and they would edge away.
I donít remember how long I was a dog, but I do remember that there was enormous satisfaction in the companionship of our Dalmatian. I would nap on the living room rug curled against his warm flank, listening to his breath rise and fall. I was an only child and I think I sensed the need of a pack.
It wasnít until I got to college and fell in with the students in my first creative writing class that I found a pack again. At Opening Convocation last week, the president quoted Oscar Wilde in her address to the newest students: ďBe yourself,Ē Wilde is supposed to have said. ďEveryone else is taken.Ē The academic in me canít keep from noting that he probably didnít say that, but itís a fine sentiment anyway, if difficult to do. I think that until I was around forty, the strongest sense of being myself that I had was when I was a dog, except for those hours in writing workshop when we could come at it sideways, be ourselves by being someone else. To this day my writer friends are all a little mad. I have one who says her spirit animal is a buzzard. When we write we are allowed to be dogs and we will wear our tails proudly.
August 11, 2014
Every so often thereís this voice you hear. Itís your mother, itís your aunt, itís your cousin, the one from Little Rock. It never really is, but you could swearÖ
Once I thought I heard my mother (who was in California at the time) outside a Roanoke, Virginia, shoe store. Even my children thought it was her. They looked up at me from the pile of sensible shoes they had been firmly rejecting, wide-eyed. ďIs that Mama Mouse?Ē It wasnít of course, it was an enormous woman in a lavender velour track suit, but when she opened her mouth to ask the clerk for support stockings, out came my motherís voice.
Itís the accent really, the one I didnít sufficiently absorb because I didnít grow up in Birmingham like my mother, or Arkansas like my cousins, or the Delta like my grandmother, ancestress of us all. A touch of it and I am 12 years old again, climbing down tree wells in my grandmotherís front yard to retrieve the badminton bird that we have knocked down there again, or flopping out of the country club swimming pool when the afternoon thundershower rolls in, or sleeping five cousins to a room on an 80-degree night with all the windows open, while the parents and aunts and uncles drink bourbon and branch water downstairs and laugh hysterically over things they wonít tell us about.
It showed up this summer in my Magical Realism class, appropriately enough. I have read that spirits respond to certain harmonics, and mine like a Delta accent. We did cold reads the first class, and when she spoke she hit the note square on the head. I could swear the ancestors (mine and maybe hers) stopped by to listen. It happens often enough that my students give me stories, but this one gave me something else, something I have heard only infrequently from cousins since Mama died, and the aunts and uncles. A voice that moves with the shape-shifting ability of the South itself from humor to tragedy, and is the language to tell them both in.
April 10, 2014
Spring is here, the daffodils are up, and my college class is having its 45th reunion next month. So naturally I am re-reading Gaudy Night in preparation.
One of my favorite books about the joys (and occasional ghastliness) of the academic life, itís set at a womenís college in Oxford and is the only one of Dorothy Sayersí mystery novels that doesnít have a corpse. Instead it has a seriously creepy somebody with a grudge against women dons. Or maybe a woman don herself. Thatís the trick, because itís not that easy to figure out.
Itís an excellent book for those pondering whether you can have a life of the heart and a life of the mind. To write well must one be an alcoholic/drug addicted male with serial wives or a depressed female with head in the oven? Or is it possible to balance, if only precariously, on that angelic pinhead and have both work that matters and a love life that matters, without one being the servant of the other?
An awful lot of people have said no, or otherwise proven its impossibility through bad behavior, neuroses, psychoses, depression, and generally going up in flames. And it may be that one has less to write about, or make art from, lacking the flaming rows and institutionalizations of the notorious. But Gaudy Night is such a sensible and convincing blueprint, and Sayers herself was reputed to have achieved it.
March 4, 2014
Classes are cancelled so I am at a loose end, and ought to be industriously writing. I am not. I am watching robins out the window. They have arrived from whatever southern clime they winter in, little suitcases in hand, ready for spring in Virginia, and it has snowed on them. They look disgruntled rummaging around in the snow and I feel as if I should put out a bowl of worms.
The dogs are reluctant to go outside, preferring to line up on the sofa and wait for me to come sit with them, where we can bark at the mailman together. I donít even have to cook tonight since I made two dinners last night in anticipation of my Monday night class.
So why am I not writing? The farthest I have got is to re-read (for the twentieth time) a short story that needs something. I discover upon re-reading that I still donít know what it needs. It has dogs in it. Perhaps I should consult the pugs. Alas, they will just assure me that they like it very much, the best thing I have ever done, and how about a dog biscuit since they are worn out with literary criticism.
It should be so easy to write just now. No need to leave the house, a handy computer, a story that needs work. And so easy to revise Ė just delete, insert, cut and paste, move the first scene to the middle, drag and drop. Like magic. No retyping, no correcting with white-out, no renumbering pages. Technology at my fingertips.
Instead, I start making a list of things that technology has made it impossible to do. Person-to-person calls on the telephone, for instance. When I was growing up, my family developed an excellent system for not paying for long distance calls at all. If you called person-to-person and the person wasnít there, you didnít have to pay for the call. But you could hear everything the operator said to whoever answered the phone, and they could hear you. When I was in college, a person-to-person call home for myself meant that I had made my standby flight. When I missed it, I called for Mr. Charleston DeLay or Mr. L. A. Sunday, and told the operator that I would try again about 6:00, thus announcing my new arrival time. My favorite was a call made by my father to a friend who was hosting that weekís poker game, just outside the local rate area. The friend was notorious for forgetting to take the chicken meant for the the playersí dinner out of the freezer until they arrived and reminded her to. Thus a person-to-person call for Mme. Poulet deFrost.
You canít kite a check anymore either. When banks did their business by mail, a check for $50 from Person A to Person B could be deposited and used before it cleared. All Person B had to do was mail a check in return to Person A, who deposited it to cover the first check. You kept that up until someone actually laid their hands on $50 and put a stop to the whole thing. I learned that from my father too. Lest I seem to have come from criminal stock, someone always did eventually cover the check. And he considered a poke in the eye to the phone company (there was just one, and it otherwise did pretty much what it pleased) to be a noble goal.
He was a working writer all his life, but there were days when he said it just wasnít there and went out to prune the pear trees instead. I miss him dreadfully. I think I will take a page from his book and watch robins.
February 25, 2014
Todayís mystery question: Who is Etaoin Shrdlu?
If you know without googling it, chances are you can read upside down and backwards.
I worked for a newspaper years ago in the days of hot type, cast from molten lead on the Linotype, and spent a lot of time in the backshop staring at mirror-image copy in the forms from which the paper was printed. I had to read it upside down as well, because the backshop guy was always standing at the bottom of the page asking why he couldnít just cut the last paragraph of the flippiní story, which was too long Ė again. It took delicate negotiation to convince him to take out a less vital sentence in the middle of the third paragraph instead.
The backshop smelled like hot lead (and cigars) and the linotype machines fascinated me. They were monstrous and noisy, full of clanking wheels and levers and mysterious gears. They spat out slugs of metal type, an entire line at a time, properly spaced for the column width. etaoin shrdlu was what you got if you ran your fingers down the first two rows of lowercase keys, and often appeared as a placeholder for type still to be set, or as a test line when the machine was fired up. Occasionally it got left in by mistake, giving the phrase a certain mythic quality, like a reappearing ghost. It wouldnít have surprised me if there were ghosts in the backshop anyway, with so many accounts of political skullduggery, double murders, and body counts from Vietnam, cast in hot lead, here for one edition, melted down tomorrow for another gruesome tale.
The men who ran them were inclined to call me Hon and tell me dirty jokes, and occasionally came to work drunk, but they knew their craft. They were, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, the workers in words, as much as I was, and with a lot more experience. I think of those machines, and of peering over a form at lead type, now as I effortlessly move paragraphs around on a Word document or change a characterís name with global search and replace. You had to know what you wanted to say with those machines because revision was not allowed for anything other than misspellings or mislaid facts.
Goodnight, Mr. Shrdlu. I learned a lot from you.
January 28, 2014
One of the joys of having an office at Hollins is its location along Route 11, the old mother road from north to south that, bypassed by Interstate 81, is now the road trip highway for anyone looking for antiques, junk, food, and a foam copy of Stonehenge.
Go right out of the Hollins gates and you will find the wonders of Williamson Road, beginning with Happyís Flea Market, a warren of shops and outdoor stands selling everything from biker jackets to live ducks. Farther down there are multiple middle eastern and Latino markets tucked among the used car lots, pawn shops, and other dicier establishments.
If you go the other way, turning left, you will find Kellyís Real Deals antiques, marked by a lifesize horse on the roof. So far I have bought a sombrero and a headless doll (with really good clothes) there. Farther along is Foamhenge, really. A somewhat smaller scale reproduction, pieces occasionally blow over in the wind, but it is usually repaired promptly.
A little farther still is the Pink Cadillac Diner with pink Cadillac and better yet, a giant gorilla holding a biplane. I recommend the Happy Waitress grilled cheese sandwich, and not looking too closely at the truly frightening Humpty Dumpty statue.
January 21, 2014
Garden catalogs come in the mail in the dead of winter, full of seductive, expensive things that you have to dig a hole for. Or that somebody does, my husband observes, looking over my shoulder as I contemplate a white rhododendron with a pink center, like a lace valentine. I am easily seduced by things like that, although I have learned that I am not a good gardener to plants that are fussy, as the rhododendrons that we already tried proved to be. Ranunculus, for instance, do not like it here; I donít know why. I lose patience, ask them why they canít be more like the iris, and if they donít shape up, am not inclined to take them for therapy.
And then there is asparagus. Asparagus is a commitment, like getting married. You have to really mean it. An asparagus bed takes digging, and amending with much compost, and then you canít even eat it for several years if you want it to get a good start. Asparagus is delayed gratification, a marriage to someone who will be overseas for the next three years.
Into the bargain, we always long for the things that wonít grow where we are. In California I spent much time babying honeysuckle along, and yearned for lilac, a lost cause because you have to dig it up and pack its roots in ice to make it bloom, and I am not that crazy. In Virginia there is so much lilac I am bored, and honeysuckle is something that eats your garage if you donít whack it back with a machete every two days. On the other hand, bougainvillea, which actually did eat my garage in California, wonít take a freeze out here, and has to be grown in pots and then spitefully refuses to bloom the second year, sickening slowly with some kind of white flossy stuff on its branches until it succumbs and I am dumb enough to buy another hothouse pot from the nursery.
Lately I have been trying to get artichokes to grow, which while they make a lovely hedge in coastal California, out here is like trying to train your cat to do housework. They donít like summer heat and they donít like winter freezes. But my favorite nursery had them last year (the same one that sold me the bougainvillea) in their greenhouse, which unfortunately I donít own. So of course I bought them anyway. We got two apricot-size artichokes from them before they wilted in July.
I am trying to decide that all this means. Am I just pig-headed and/or in denial about climate? Do I think I can convince them that itís not really that cold in the winter, that a little 95 degree heat never hurt anyone? Is it a form of faith? Do I believe that if I try enough times there will be an Artichoke Miracle? Iím not sure.
Iím also not sure where Iíve put some things. I can find my car keys but probably not the agapanthus. This makes spring and summer a kind of revelation, a garden miracle on their own. Daffodils are reliable and spider lilies are out there somewhere. Maybe thatís enough.
January 14, 2014
An email from a pal this week asks me if I want a book by Richard Wormser that she spotted at a second hand store. Oh yes, send it on.
I always thought of him as my ex-Uncle Dick, my auntís former husband who left the family before I was born, but remained in touch with my parents and a source of story and legend. I only met him once but he was a figure in my adolescent imagination. He was a writer of pulp fiction and short stories, like nearly everyone else in my fatherís family back then. During the Depression, he drove my aunt, the only one with an actual job, to the train station every day in a horse and buggy, and when a woman in a chauffeured car pulled up to ask, ďMy good man, who do you drive for?Ē he tipped his hat and told her, ďFor Richard Wormser, the noted author.Ē
He wrote short stories for pulp magazines, and a slew of the Nick Carter adventures. He was hired and fired twice by Columbia Pictures, and he wrote B movies at Republic and Universal. In World War II he was a forest ranger, and patrolled the Southern California coast on horseback, a job I would have considered pure heaven.
He claimed that his grandfather had Southern sympathies during the Civil War, and so hired a substitute to fight for him when drafted by the North, while he slipped away to battle for the Lost Cause. Of course (you knew it was coming) they subsequently met upon the field of battle, whereupon Dickís grandfather said sternly to the substitute pointing a bayonet at his midsection, ďSo much as touch me with that instrument, my good man, and I will cut your pay in half!Ē
I didnít believe that for a minute, even at thirteen, but he remained a man of mystery and story ó maybe not as interesting as I imagined him or maybe more so. Rooting in the paperbacks in our bookcase routinely turned up one of Dickís books, the cover splendid with a half-clothed dame or a steely-eyed sheriff.
When my mother and I were setting out to drive me to college in Virginia for my senior year, I insisted that we stop on the way in Santa Fe where Dick was living with his current wife, because I had never met him and was longing to. He seemed reasonably pleased with the idea when my mother called him, and so we arrived at his house, which was fronted by a sign that said WORMSERíS DRY GOODS. I remember a wonderful Southwestern dinner, and a lot of stories about other people I had only heard of. I fell asleep at midnight but he and my mother sat up all night reminiscing and in the morning Mama had an awful hangover.
You need people like that in the family, the storytellers, the subjects themselves of stories told and re-told, apocryphal or solid, even if you just get to meet them once. They people family myth, that expanding landscape of bright color and dim truthfulness where everyone is wild or mad or heroic or all three.
Chocolate novios for Day of the Dead
Noon Whistle at the Lizard Works
Back yard bottle tree
The last hurrah
Delia Sherman and Ruth Sanderson, summer Children's Lit faculty
Children's Lit faculty Brian Attebery and Ellen Kushner at the end-of-term party