Syracuse, Day One

Blog went on a brief hiatus because my friend Betsy McMillan and I did our annual writers’ weekend away. It was a much better trip than last year’s slog to Ithaca. It featured a direct shot across I-90 with minimal construction, no accidents, and one cop who was letting everyone go by at 80 mph. The rest areas made it look as though the entire East Coast was on the move.

The hotel stood just up the road from the biggest fairgrounds I’ve ever seen. The thought of all those parking lots full of cars was terrifying.

I struggled with the luggage cart because a wheel stuck, and a nice man helped me. After dumping my stuff, I went directly to lunch. An energy bar between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. doesn’t cut it. The enormous salad came with mahi, no second mahi, the spiciest I’ve had north of the Mason Dixon line. The other half of the salad rested in the fridge for the weekend and then went in the trash.

Before getting down to work, I took a walk through a subdivision with the friendliest people ever, waving, smiling, saying “Hi.” Well-kept lawns and flower borders, a largish boat or two, cars either new or vintage muscle. Realized later that I never saw a “for sale” sign for the entire weekend.

I managed to start organizing my current project but was not sure whether of any real progress.

We both had haddock for dinner, mine well cooked and flavorsome but drowned in sauce, which soaked the mushroom risotto. There were FIVE birthday parties, each one accompanied by singing wait staff and a tower sparkler that eventually filled the restaurant with acrid fumes. Those beasts are not supposed to be used indoors. I began to wonder if the management had paid off the fire marshal.

Began reading The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith. Decided to read Isabel first then move to Precious. Maybe I’m more attuned, but there seems to be an actual connection between Isabel’s personal situation and the “mystery.”

In lieu of a blog post, I responded to the responses on Facebook about Pem’s story on the family and James’ Pharmacy.

Once I lost radio reception on the drive, I began listening to Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. Did not realize that landscape architecture was the poor stepchild of the profession.  The book is filled with ideas big and small, an enormous sweep of history. I’m still not convinced about the organizing principle. Combining the stories of two men who never knew each other but who had a major impact on Chicago before and during the 1893 World’s Fair seems to be working, but I’ll reserve judgment. The Mudgett/Holmes sections are gruesome beyond belief.

Structure Update

The “archdruid” David Brower

The structure outline for the writing group continues with forays beyond The Pine Barrens into John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, another book-length three-parter in The New Yorker, which also became a book. McPhee showed its structure as ABC/D.

D was David Brower, the archdruid (i.e. head tree-hugger) of the title. B gave Brower that name because of his fierce leadership of the Sierra Club and later the John Muir Project. Brower appears throughout the essays. He climbs the Sierra Mountains, tours an island off Georgia, and rafts the Colorado. In each case, McP. covers the confrontation between Brower and A, B, and C, who seek in different ways to develop or exploit the natural world.

In each case two men with titanic egos clash and occasionally agree. Based on the finished product, McP. should have showed the structure as D vs. A, D vs. B, D vs. C. In D vs. A, Brower confronts Charles Park, a geologist on the hunt for copper and other minerals to mine in the Sierras.

D vs. B has the archdruid battling Charles Fraser, who has bought a major portion of pristine (well, except for some abandoned cars) Cumberland Island. He wants to install housing and water parks and lots of people where the ‘gators and mosquitoes roam.

The action-paced D vs. C pits Brower against the cigar smoking, whisky drinking Floyd Dominy, then Secretary of the Interior. He was building dams along the Colorado River. McP.’s account of their rafting voyage would make a terrific film.

There’s far more to Archdruid than the perfect form to suit to the subject matter. As confirmed by “A Roomful of Hovings,” each of McP.’s essays chronicles efforts at preservation in many different contexts and times, and in as many ways as his subjects can offer.

Austen Tribute

In honor of the two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, here is a recap of some of my favorites:

Reading anything by Austen is rather like dashing under a cold shower, perfumed, but nevertheless chilly. Emma is particularly caustic in its descriptions of the grasping parson, the air-head older sister, the garrulous spinster, and the hapless, helpless father.

The 2012 Jane Austen Society newsletter implored (ordered?) visitors to stop leaving ashes of their loved ones at the museum:

… it is something we cannot allow. It is distressing for visitors to see these mounds of human ash and particularly so for our gardener. Also, it is of no benefit to the garden!

This is an update from a 2013 post: The Bank of England has put Jane Austen on its £10 note. I am thrilled that my second favorite author will reside in wallets and purses all over the British Isles. I was a bit dismayed, though, that she will be replacing Charles Darwin and that part of the motive for the change is tokenism. A woman is being removed from the £5 note to be replaced by Winston Churchill.

To end with my favorite quotes, one appearing in a letter to her nephew Edward about his “sketches”:

How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?

And from Emma:

It was a delightful visit – perfect, in being much too short.

What I’m Watching Now (Queen of Katwe)

Another in the series. Queen of Katwe is one of those movies that made such an impact I could hear the voices of the stars in my head for days afterward. Also my dreams were filled with the technicolors of the robes and head wraps. There was one scene in which a woman tied a tignon, though by another name. That will lead to a rewind.

Queen of Katwe is the true rags-to-riches story of Phiona who lives with her mother and younger brother and older sister in dire poverty the poorest section of Katwe. David Oyelowo, who plays the organizer of a chess club for children, and Lupita Nyogn’o, as Phiona’s mother, provide the solid and brilliant platform that launches Madina Nalwanga into the stratosphere. As Phiona, she is by turns terrified, hesitant, despairing, intense, joyful – all seemingly portrayed with utter ease.

The only questions: Why is chess included in the pantheon of ESPN sports? Why didn’t Disney allow for grittier details in the early scenes in Katwe?

Eloise Rises

Eloise with Weenie and Skipperdee (on the chair).

We learn via NPR that Eloise is making an appearance at the New York Historical Society. She is the far more intelligent and powerful version of Dens the Menace who comes with pets and a penthouse at the Plaza hotel in New York City.

Here’s what I wrote in 2009 after reading a review of a book describing Kay Thompson’s “long bossy, punishingly fabulous text.”

When I first discovered her, she had been on the scene for some years, but she will always be six and she will always live at the Plaza Hotel, except for side trips to Paris and Moscow. She has a nanny, but her parents lurk in the periphery. Her mother “sends for her.” Eloise is self-sufficient, and her aim in life is to avoid boredom. Boy, does she. She slides down the banisters at the Plaza and keeps the help and the guests on edge. Most of Hilary Knight’s drawings capture frazzled bellhops and doormen with dog Weenie in tow – or carrying pet turtle Skipperdee (as I recall he usually traveled via bird cage). My favorite episode: Eloise was in Paris, and Skipperdee became ill. (How did anyone know?) Anyway, Eloise shipped Skipperdee home by diplomatic pouch. Now that’s power.

NPR now adds tantalizing details about Eloise and her creator: Thompson hated children and may have stolen a Knight painting that had hung at the Plaza. How Eloise.

May her reign, er, residence at the historical society be without incident.

Raven

So proud to know Raven Wilkinson. I don’t normally read AARP magazine, but a friend emailed saying that my dear friend appears in the June/July issue. It’s the best sort of article, entitled “Friends for the Ages: the power of cross-generational, age-defying bonds.” It pairs AARP-eligible folks with their younger peers. Style guru Iris Apfel appears with Alexis Bittar, while chefs Jonathan Waxman and Justin Smillie share details of how they went from employer and employee to friends.

Raven, who is still gorgeous at 82, shares the spread with the etherial Misty Copeland. She says of Raven, “It’s interesting that she, a black ballerina, made me stop looking at myself as just a black ballerina.”

So proud to know Raven and so happy that other people now have a chance  to appreciate her intelligence and sensitivity.

Happy 200th, H.D.T.!

Henry David Thoreau

Today we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. My mother adored his writings. She copied or underlined pages from all his works, most often Walden (or Life in the Woods) and Resistance to Civil Government, commonly known as Civil Disobedience. Here are some of her favorites:

  • Poetry is a piece of very private history, which unostentatiously lets us into the secret of a man’s life.
  • Water is the only drink for a wise person.
  • The swiftest traveller goes on foot.
  • A taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.
  • The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
  • It is as if I always met in those places (wilderness) some grand, serene, immortal infinitely encouraging, though invisible companion and walked with him!
  • …I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, not merely what he has hear of other men’s lives.
  • The poet has made the best roots in his native soil of any man, and is the hardest to transplant.

Mother cited Thoreau as a model for the difference between being “cheap” and “frugal.” She and he were both the latter. Preparing for a lecture at UMass Amherst, she noted that Thoreau influenced her style of living. She expanded on “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” by saying that she lived by the motto “use it up, make it do, wear it out, or go without.”

I mentioned some drama in the office where I was working. She wrote “[you] have to assume – that most people lead lives of what Thoreau called ‘quiet desperation’ – these days – in this complicated world the desperation is no longer “quiet” – hence the hysterical [people.]”

In response to a piece in the NYTimes, she planned to look for “An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” She added her own observation: “The world seems fresher, fairer, cleaner, more beautiful, more joyous early in the a.m. – sun coming up – absolute quiet.”

She included Thoreau in a list of writers of “an unadorned clean readable prose.”

To end with my favorite quote modified for the twenty-first century:

The people who are often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where they are excommunicate themselves.

Listening to S-Town

The empire began with the podcast Serial. Producer Sarah Koenig and a stable of lawyers investigated the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend.

In the second season, Koenig moved on to the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant who was held by the Taliban for five years. Controversy still rages about whether he was a traitor who deserted or, as he claims, a whistle-blower who was trying to draw attention to conditions in the military and treatment of Afghan civilians. That season was not nearly as compelling because most of the information came through audio pulled from a documentary about the case. Plus Bergdahl may be suffering from mental illness, but he isn’t nearly as sympathetic as a seventeen-year-old who was represented by a dying woman.

Now Serial has teamed up with the folks at This American Life to produce S-Town. It has the charming tagline: “John B. McLemore lives in shit town.” My dear cousin Skylar James recommended it, having binge-listened on a long drive.

I listened to the early parts of the first episode and thought – oh, my God, they’ve resurrected William Faulkner and dropped Yoknapatawpha County into Alabama! My sense was heightened by the theme music, “A Rose for Emily.” And to anyone who hasn’t read that story, do. it. now. And then remember S-Town is true.

Reading or listening to this sort of thing in large doses resembles gulping cane syrup so I decided to listen to S-Town over a period of weeks. Binge listening to those accents, even when broken up by producer Brian Reed’s neutral tones, was just too much. They were over the top just like the subject matter, which roamed around from potential murder to antique clock repair to homosexuality to possible elder abuse to tattoos, the latter provided by a guy named “Bubba.”

Overall, though, S-Town is more than worth the pain of listening to Bubba and Co.

What I’m Reading Now (The Pine Barrens)

This is the cover of the 1981 edition. It is so much more elegant than later renderings.

Another in the series. This one should be called “What I’m Re-Reading.” The veterans’ writing workshop is on vacation for the summer, but I send resources just to keep folks engaged.

Back in December I sent around John McPhee’s essay on structure. As a way to go deeper, I decided to read the material that he references. The first was The Pine Barrens, which I own because I had bought a copy of the 1981 special edition for my father.

I had used a section of it in an earlier workshop session where we discussed geographic organization but hadn’t read the book through in years.

Two things became obvious immediately. McPhee displays his genius at balancing the global and the personal to demonstrate the Pine Barrens unique position in America. We learn why the soil is so acid and theories about why one section has pine trees that top out at five feet. Then we meet Fred Brown who has earned his livelihood for all of his nearly eighty years by picking cranberries and blueberries, gathering sphagnum moss, hunting, fishing, and serving as a guide for city folk who visit. We meet people who remember the Mexican captain who had crashed a plane decades earlier and started an enormous fire, one of many that occur every year. And we have a brief glimpse of the lady who can place an order for “deer meat” out of season.

McPhee has also contributed a mighty argument for the protection of fragile ecosystems, an argument that he first published in 1967. The biggest one is that the Pine Barrens sit on acres of the purest water on the planet. With the updated edition, we learn that purity is under threat. “Civilization” as begun to encroach. It is hoped that in another ten years Bill Curtsinger’s exquisite black and white photographs will not be the only evidence of a place within a few miles of New York and Philadelphia that maintains elements of the “aboriginal forest” that existed before the arrival of the white man.

Note: When I called the library to ask about another of his works, the reference librarian asked about spelling his last name and said, “You mean as in Nanny McPhee?” I thought, how sad that Emma Thompson and Colin Firth are better known than the great writer.