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What We Keep

In a manner of speaking...

Every so often there’s this voice you hear. It’s your mother, it’s your aunt, it’s your cousin, the one from Little Rock. It never really is, but you could swear…

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. “Is that Mama Mouse?” It wasn’t 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 mother’s voice.

It’s the accent really, the one I didn’t sufficiently absorb because I didn’t 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 grandmother’s 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 won’t 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.  Read More 
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That Old Academic Feeling

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, it’s set at a women’s college in Oxford and is the only one of Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novels that doesn’t have a corpse. Instead it has a seriously creepy somebody with a grudge against women dons. Or maybe a woman don herself. That’s the trick, because it’s not that easy to figure out.

It’s 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.  Read More 
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Snowy day...

The critics
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 don’t 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 don’t 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 – 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 wasn’t there, you didn’t 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 week’s poker game, just outside the local rate area. The friend was notorious for forgetting to take the chicken meant for the the players’ dinner out of the freezer until they arrived and reminded her to. Thus a person-to-person call for Mme. Poulet deFrost.

You can’t 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 wasn’t 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. Read More 
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The Workers in Words

Today’s 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 couldn’t just cut the last paragraph of the flippin’ story, which was too long – 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 wouldn’t 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 character’s 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. Read More 
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Just up the road...

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 Happy’s 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 Kelly’s 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.
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Garden seduction

Passionflowers
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 don’t know why. I lose patience, ask them why they can’t be more like the iris, and if they don’t 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 can’t 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 won’t 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 don’t whack it back with a machete every two days. On the other hand, bougainvillea, which actually did eat my garage in California, won’t 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 don’t like summer heat and they don’t 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 don’t 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 it’s 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? I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure where I’ve 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 that’s enough.
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My ex-Uncle Dick

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 aunt’s 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 father’s 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, “My good man, who do you drive for?” he tipped his hat and told her, “For Richard Wormser, the noted author.”

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 Dick’s grandfather said sternly to the substitute pointing a bayonet at his midsection, “So much as touch me with that instrument, my good man, and I will cut your pay in half!”

I didn’t believe that for a minute, even at thirteen, but he remained a man of mystery and story — maybe not as interesting as I imagined him or maybe more so. Rooting in the paperbacks in our bookcase routinely turned up one of Dick’s 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 WORMSER’S 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. Read More 
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The Voices in Your Head

In the post-Christmas packing away, while looking for something else (which I still haven’t found, of course) I came upon three cassette tapes in a chest in the living room. One contains folk songs and train wreck ballads sung by husband and sent to me as many years ago as a cassette tape implies, while we were courting from opposite sides of the country. He knows I am a sucker for hearing him sing (I have always, alas, been easily seduced by boys who sing, although not lately and not since him). The other side has a selection of love poems.

The second tape is poetry from me, to him. No songs, as I cannot carry a tune in a bucket, possibly why I am so susceptible to those who can.

The third is an interview with my mother, conducted by me before her death, sometime in the late nineties, about family history. It isn’t just the history and family tales I value that tape for, although the description of how to kite a check, an emergency banking technique impossible now due to instant communication, was worth the time in itself. It’s the voices. There is a carnal, earthly sense to the human voice that you can’t get from a sheet of paper. When it tells you a story or sings you a song, it is there, in your head, not outside you on the page.

My ex-husband’s widow kept his voice on their answering machine for years after he died. It may be there still and I know, oh I know, why she did it. They come back to us in those old recordings. If you close your eyes, they are here, next to you. The human voice says things that print cannot. We keep them, transferring them to each new technology lest they slip away. Each time they have something new to say to us. I have mined my mother’s stories for endless fictional details but the stories are always better when she tells them.

Sit your relatives down while you have them, and find out the family secrets. The older they get and the older you get, the more likely they are to spill the beans. Give them a glass of wine and sit at their feet. Turn the microphone on. Read More 
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Turning the Sun Around

Among the pleasures of the holidays, we found candy and poems on our doors in the Hollins English department, just before the students left, offerings from someone unknown who nevertheless knows that a poem and a chocolate bar are just what you need to grade those last three exams.

We are making every effort to turn the sun around, lighting up trees and houses, but as soon as the lights come down I will start dreaming of spring, and especially of summer, when the grad students come back. Summer’s pleasures are many and sometimes surprising. Last summer the video for the annual student conference featured a cameo by Neil Gaiman, which an enterprising crew of grad students talked him into by lurking at the end of the book signing line at the Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. That conference rolls around again in March and we are already packing our bags for this year’s event as there are always a score or so of Hollins students and faculty in attendance.

Come summer we will have our writer in residence, the wonderful National Book Award-winning Han Nolan (and in 2015 Terri Windling!) who will read student manuscripts and give individual sage advice. Accompanied by our scholar in residence, the learned but compassionate Lisa Rowe Fraustino, who will read students’ scholarly work and give advice on turning that term paper into a conference submission or that conference paper into a journal submission. And for the artists and art-lovers, Judy Schachner, creator of Skippyjon Jones, will lecture and give a workshop.

Outside of academics, we look forward to the wild things: families of rabbits romping on Front Quad and the ducks who sometimes nest outside the faculty lounge in Turner. The great blue heron who fishes in the creek. And if you hang about on the bridge between campus and the student apartments you might see Ratty in the water. So far we haven’t spotted a boat or a picnic basket, but we are sure they are there. Read More 
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Stealing from Margaret Wise Brown

Sometimes I feel guilty because I never post anything useful on this blog, while others are sharing recipes that will make you love brussels sprouts (they never do, alas), new uses for odd items, and occasionally unnerving crafts. So today I have one. I made these books for my children when they were young, blatantly ripping off Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown went to Hollins, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind) for a goodnight book based on their own rooms. Actually, she probably would mind, but this is legit if you just make it for your kid and don’t try to publish it. (Trust me, don’t do that.)

All it takes is a blank book, some photos of kid and room, and a practical grasp of rhythm and rhyme. Hand lettered text alternates with pictures.

Here’s a sample of the one I made for my son. The complete book runs down the right hand column. Read More 
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