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.




What I’m Watching Now (Our Last Tango)

It was late when I decided that the various newspapers, magazines, and books could wait until the next day and launched Our Last Tango on Netflix. At slightly more than an hour, it seemed perfect and meant that I could still get to sleep before 1 a.m. – theoretically.

Even my mini-mini Spanish realized immediately that the title Un Tango Mas should translate as One More Tango. Either way, it is the moving story of a couple from Argentina who traveled the world and put the gorgeous and complicated dance on the map.

The action moves between the early days of Maria Nieves Rego and Juan Carlos Copes, who are depicted in photographs and re-enactments, and the dancers themselves in their later years.

Despite Copes’ arrogance and artistry, Nieves is the star of the show. Her expressive face and stylish appearance light up the screen. Even her cigarette smoking – with a holder of course – adds to the glamour. Yet from the beginning one knows that her tremor (is it Parkinson’s?) will prohibit her from doing any more of those intricate and sexy moves.

The younger versions of the dancers help establish the mood, but they can’t match Nieves and Copes for passion or execution.

All the way through I kept hearing the Bob Thaves’ quote about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, “that she did everything he did, …backwards and in high heels.” Nieves did the same – and put up with an unmitigated jerk.

Moth Mysteries

I first became aware of this year’s gypsy moth plague a few weeks ago when visiting friends who live about two miles away. Several trees in their yard had leaves with a lacy pattern. The tops were bare. Caterpillars adhered to the trunks. Plus there was caterpillar poop all over the outdoor furniture. I kept an eye on the trees in our immediate area but saw no signs of destruction.

Then a couple of weeks later I was driving north on Route 9 and saw entire swaths of Cockaponset State Forest looked as though the trees hadn’t yet leafed. Since it was the middle of June, that bare area just didn’t seem right. Then I realized – moth destruction. It  covered acres in some places and was limited to a tree or two in others.

Over the next weeks, I kept an eye out for the little beasts. Some trees had so many caterpillars, the trunks looked black. Other nearby trees of the same species had none. Again, I couldn’t suss out any pattern. Some places near the house had extensive signs of destruction while others farther away looked healthy. Young trees seemed particularly vulnerable, but even along one street where the trees were all planted a couple of years ago, some were almost dead and others had no damaged leaves. Along one stretch, the remains of leaves lay scattered on the roads and sidewalks and driveways.

As for diet, the caterpillars seemed to prefer certain types of maples but not the swamp variety or Japanese. Oaks got a pass as did sumac. Dogwood and birch weren’t popular, either.

On Sunday I noticed that most of the caterpillars had disappeared. A few carcasses lay on the ground, and one or two trees still hosted a handful.

Tuesday brought more of a surprise and another mystery. As I approached the tangles of honeysuckle, wild grape, and multiflora that cover an old farm fence, it looked like an enormous brown mass in motion. Then a few of them took flight. The moths had completed their metamorphosis. I began to wonder as I walked along. Why were the moths gathered around plant material that they had ignored when they were on their munch-a-thon? I did see some moths around the trees with the most damage, but they seemed to prefer those low hedges. Please, I thought, I hope they’re not laying next year’s crop.

One good sign: the birds in the areas where the moths congregated looked like they’d spent too much time at an all-you-can eat buffet. I swear I heard one belch.

Am I the Only One?

Sitting at a red light in the left turn lane. A car pulls up behind me. A fire truck, siren blaring and lights flashing, appears behind that car. There’s no one in the right lane, so I pull over. The car behind stays put, forcing the truck into the opposing lane. Fortunately the cars there are stopped, even the ones making a right on red because they’ve let two pedestrians cross.

Before the truck makes it through the intersection, the cars on the cross street have the green. The first driver pulls out. It looks like he’s going to sideswipe the truck. At the last second he slams on the brakes.

A little while later I’m at another intersection, this time in the right lane, preparing to go straight ahead. A police SUV rolls up from the opposite direction, lights flashing and siren chirping. I begin to pull onto the shoulder. The siren blares. No one else budges so the officer has to move into the left lane, which is supposed to be for turns only. Again, there was plenty of room for motorists to pull over.

Twice in less than an hour. Did Connecticut abolish the requirement for motorists to  yield to emergency vehicles?

What I’m Reading Now (Sanditon)

Another in the series. Actually the full title is Sanditon: Jane Austen’s Last Completed Novel. And it is by Jane Austen and Another Lady. My initial reaction was J.A. probably wouldn’t call anyone a lady who tried to mess with her writing. But since I’m reading my way through the canon, I thought it only proper to see how the unidentified “lady” completed the work.

Like all J.A. novels, Sanditon concerns the usual “three or four families gathered in a country village,” In this case the village is Sanditon, where a Mr. Parker hopes to establish a summer resort with the help of the dowager Lady Denham. The heroine of the hour is Charlotte Heywood who accompanies Mr. and Mrs. Parker to the village. There are the usual cast of characters – Lady D. and her ward, her impecunious in-laws, and a wealthy “half-mulatto” young woman who makes only a brief appearance in J.A.’s draft.

Though I’m only a few pages in, there is one major improvement in the “lady’s” edition. It has paragraphs where the unfinished version had none. Instead dashes mark the breaks in dialogue. Lines from Sir Walter Scott’s poetry are indented. Otherwise the prose runs for six or seven pages with no break to relieve the eye until the end of the chapter arrives. The format makes that sentence in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom look like a tweet. Stay tuned for further details.