Monday, December 31, 2007

Entertainment story of the year

Although I don't watch television often or keep up with popular entertainment, even I, through the Internet community, have heard of Paul Potts and Terry Fator. Potts, winner of Britain's Got Talent for his operatic singing, and Fator, winner of America's Got Talent for his unusual ventriloquism-singer impersonation act, are, to me, the entertainment story of 2007.

Beyond their previously unrecognized talents, Potts and Fator appeal to us because otherwise they are so ordinary, so like the rest of us. Neither would stand out for good looks or charisma. Yet when given the opportunity to perform before judges, a studio audience, and TV viewers, both came through like pros—and won over their respective crowds instantly.

How many Potts and Fators are out there—talented but doomed to obscurity for lack of opportunity? While the entertainment industry courts beautiful people with a modicum of talent (for example, Spears), people like Potts and Fator are rarely seen by a broader audience. The same may be true for non-performing artists, too—how many gifted artists and writers never get past the industry barriers that filter out talent and creativity in favor of the known and proven formulas?

I thought of this as J. and I watched part of a biography of Judy Garland on American Masters. Garland's singing, dancing, and acting talents were recognized early in her life, and she is, of course, a Hollywood legend. Even so, many of those at the executive level in the industry never seemed to forgive Garland for her lack of conventional beauty (with comparisons to Lana Turner) and her alleged weight problem ("105 pounds!" she exclaimed in a voiceover). As we watched Garland, with her lustrous eyes and trembling lips, sing her heart and soul, it was hard to imagine that she spent most of her life lacking confidence in herself, her evident and unique beauty, and her incredible musical and dramatic abilities. I wondered what Garland's life would have been like if there had not been studios and moguls to influence her and to come between her and the audiences who didn't care that she wasn't an emaciated blonde with a perfect nose, who loved her for who she was and for that voice.

Potts and Fator are fortunate to have been discovered directly by the millions rather than by the businessmen who control most of what we see and hear. Judy Garland was made to have her teeth capped and her every pound monitored. For Paul Potts, it is up to him whether he wants to have his teeth fixed or to lose weight. Whether he does or not, like Judy he will still have a talent that amazes and moves us, and we will still want to watch and listen and marvel and applaud. Perhaps Potts will build the self-confidence that Judy Garland was stripped of at every turn and for lack of which she died young and tragically.

Let us hope.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Review: Cranford

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Edited by Elizabeth Porges Watson. New introduction and notes by Charlotte Mitchell. ISBN 0-19-283209-3. Recommended.

Not a novel, not an anthology of short stories, Cranford is perhaps best described as a cohesive series of vignettes. Recounted by a young woman of about 30 from the city of Drumble [Manchester], these stories depict family, friendship, and love lost and found in a village dominated by poor but genteel spinsters and widows. ". . . all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women." Small, rural, and elitist in its way, Cranford is a place out of time, where faded fashions and proprieties still matter.

Gaskell begins Cranford with a series of descriptive statements. Some are accurate, while others prove to be ironic. For example, "Although the ladies of Cranford know all each other's proceedings, they are exceedingly indifferent to each other's opinions." While discovering Cranford and the Amazons who possess it, we also learn the dry perspective and voice of the narrator, who clearly loves the village while gently highlighting the foibles of its female inhabitants. "But I will answer for it, the last gigot, the last tight and scanty petticoat in wear in England, was seen in Cranford—and seen without a smile."

Like Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, Cranford is focused on gender roles and the different lives of women and men. The sexes share many characteristics; Captain Brown and Peter Jenkyns display the thoughtful, neighborly solicitude associated with women (with Peter going so far as to don a woman's dress), while Miss Jenkyns (the woman Peter impersonates) exhibits a manly will and resolution. It is the opportunities they have and the way in which they live that separates the sexes. Captain Brown, Peter, and Signor Brunoni have traveled and seen some of the world, and have even influenced it, while Miss Jenkyns, Miss Matty, Miss Price, the narrator, and their friends are constrained by their gender, gentility, and social code to hearth and home. Here, they perform their small household tasks, including ensuring that their maidservants are not disturbed or distracted by "followers," or interested young men. The social code that prevents any of them from working in "trade" also determines the hours that can be spent outside the home. "Then there were rules and regulations for visiting and calls . . . 'from twelve to three are our calling-hours.'"

In such a small, interconnected village, everything that happens is noteworthy, and every decision is important if the occasionally cruel social order is to be maintained. "The whole town knew and kindly regarded Miss Betty Barker's Alderney," whose fall into a lime-pit warrants Captain Brown's advice, "Get her a flannel waistcoat and flannel drawers . . .," so the narrator can ask the reader incredulously, "Do you ever seen cows dressed in grey flannel in London?" Miss Matty's decision not to marry against her family's wishes keeps the peace at great personal cost, and her wistful decision to allow Martha to have a follower recompenses her later when the outside world intrudes into her realm with its ugly realities—one of the many signs that Cranford must and will change. When Lady Glenmire renounces her title and takes the name of Mrs. Hoggins upon her remarriage, Cranford reels with shock and dismay, and it takes Peter Jenkyns, and his broader perspective from India, to reconcile the village and its de facto leader, Mrs. Jamieson, with the new ways.

The narrator, who divides her time between her father in the progressive world of Drumble and the slowly and reluctantly changing Cranford, finds herself under the village's influence. As an observer, she describes the complex set of rules that governs Cranford society and the social slights they necessitate, not without a sense of regret. She is aware of the absurdity of Cranford society's beliefs and behavior combined with expediency, such as the occasion of Miss Betty Barker's party for the Cranford elite. "'Oh, gentility!' thought I, 'can you endure this last shock?'" when "all sorts of good things for supper" appear. ". . . we thought it better to submit graciously, even at the cost of our gentility—which never ate suppers in general—but which, like most non-supper-eaters, was particularly hungry on all special occasions." More seriously, she pities Miss Matty and her lost love and life, and like her other well-meaning friends determines that she shall be happy.

With the arrival of Signor Brunoni and the ensuing panic over the perceived crime wave that seems to hit Cranford, the narrator loses some of her wryness and seems to become nearly as frightened by the rumors of strangers and robberies as her elderly friends. It is the new outsider, Lady Glenmire, who "never had heard of any actual robberies; except that two little boys had stolen some apples from Farmer Benson's orchard and that some eggs had been missed on a market-day off Widow Hayward's stall." Even while caught up in the panic, however, "I could not help being amused at Jenny's position . . .." When she speaks of Jenny's ghost, the narrator says, ". . . for there was no knowing how near the ghostly head and ears might be . . .."

Through the narrator, who seems to represent Gaskell's own perspective, Cranford pokes gentle fun at a time and place that had already become a fairy tale-like setting, where goodness outdoes pettiness, justice prevails over setbacks and hardships, and even the prodigal son (or prince) can return to set things right. In Cranford, Gaskell reminds the reader of a recent past that is both amusing and moving, a time to look upon fondly but without regret for the changes that Peter and the marriage of Lady Glenmire/Mrs. Hoggins bring about. The one constant in life is change, and in Cranford change is at least as much for the better as for the worse.

Saturday, 29 December 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

New toy: AlphaSmart Neo

I just ordered an AlphaSmart Neo for taking to the library along with the usual complement of tablet and pencil case. It may take a little getting used to, but most writers who have them seem to like them. Beats the weight and distractions of the old Titanium.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The noon of the moon

On the Wolverine to Chicago

This is a slightly odd thing. I'm on the train from Ann Arbor to Chicago, and I suddenly notice that the surroundings seem somehow familiar, then realize that I am sitting in the same seat as I sat in outbound. I know this because the tray table has the same distinctive marks, and the electrical outlet has the same plastic clip holding it. Both times I chose it because it was the first empty seat that I came to. I suppose Amtrak runs the same cars back and forth between Chicago and Pontiac, but still it seems funny to get the same seat twice on the same round trip.

I had a very good visit with my friends, and my state of mind is complicated by warring and opposite needs—one to be alone and one to be around people. Of course, I will be alone, but I'm not sure that this is good for me now.

I do feel better than I did, which demonstrates the power that hormones have over me. It's a relief to have some control over myself back and not to feel the arms of the abyss eagerly snatching me toward it and the temptation to succumb.

The other night in Ann Arbor seemed bright to me, even though it was cloudy and the nearly full moon hidden. I mentioned that I was surprised by the seeming amount of light pollution in the area, and my friend and I discussed the topic and the contribution of the full moon.

This morning, though, there could be no doubt. I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and was surprised to see that my borrowed bedroom was bright enough to navigate easily. I looked out the kitchen window and saw diffuse light, deep shadows, and a clear sky over a still, eerie winter landscape that I could think of as my own, as the only witness to it at that early hour.

When I looked out my bedroom window, I saw the moon high up in the sky, making the moment the noon of the moon. The areas of shadows and those of silvery light combined with the lack of color made me feel like I was seeing the world through the eyes of another species, or perhaps seeing a different world altogether.

The noon of the moon . . . I like that.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A little hysteria, Scarecrow?

On the Wolverine to Ann Arbor

Saturday night J. came over; the plan was to go to a good Italian restaurant on Taylor Street, but I diverted him to the Christkindlmarket because I wanted to buy something in particular and to see PuppetBike again. After we parked in an alley and as we were walking to the market, I told him what I was going to buy—only to find out that he had bought it for me after I had told him not to. Typical. It's a metal bowl from Nepal with a carved wooden stick. Running the stick along the smooth top edge of the bowl produces a soothing meditative tone (you can feel the bowl vibrate). The larger the bowl, the deeper the tone. The simplest principles can be the most fascinating.

Leaving J. with his friends, the pewter people, I headed off to see PuppetBike. This night, all the puppets seemed to make an appearance. Until it started raining, it was a pleasant night for watching the performance—the temperature was in the 50s. It also seemed to be a good night for tips, but I found myself too shy to step forward and hand up mine (which I wanted to give up specifically to Lefty the Tiger). After about a half hour of trying to talk myself into it and failing to do so, the music ended, the theatre door closed, and it looked like PuppetBike was about to ride off in the drizzle!

But PuppetBike didn't move, the theatre door opened, a new dance started, and J. came along shortly after. Seemingly to make up for my earlier shyness, I now handed Lefty and the others a steady stream of one-dollar bills that made my crush on the little tiger obvious. We didn't drag ourselves away until after 8:30, by which time the wind had picked up and the rain had made itself felt.

On Taylor Street, nothing seemed to stand out. J. wanted to try something new, so we avoided Francesca's. After a half hour of driving around, we found ourselves at Pompeii, which proved to be a giant version of the fast-food chain. Not at all what poor J. had in mind, but undoubtedly we were both hungry and tired and so we stayed even as he admitted his disappointment.

At my place, I served holiday spice tea as we opened gifts. One of my gifts fro him has not arrived yet, but to no one's surprise he unwrapped a Nepal bowl—from me.

For me, there were a breast cancer pin, a pewter ornament depicting a woman in an office (somehow even in pewter a computer fails to be quaint), a banana-leaf Santa, a very soft bear, writing paper from Ireland, a tin butterfly ornament, and the Nepal bowl. Then I unwrapped a four-gigabyte flash drive. That seemed odd—I don't have a particular need for a flash drive—certainly not one of that capacity.

It turns out that it was in preparation for the pièce de résistance—an electronic photo frame from Kodak. Before he came over, J. had called to ask me what version of the Apple operating system I use, and I had said, "What are you getting for me that you shouldn't?" It's a great idea that makes me almost wish I had children so I could display their photos in it. But then there is always Hodge.

J.'s rewards for the night out and all this Christmas cheer and generosity were two pieces of pumpkin pie and a long, violent outburst of blind emotion and tears such as I have not displayed since I was five years old. We had been discussing something he had given me for my friends that he wanted me to take on my trip, which I didn't feel was practical. He was being insistent, and I felt a little bullied and distressed by the idea that my practicality and resistance were turning a gesture that gave him pleasure into an ugly argument that was ruining his evening and that I can't assert myself without becoming fundamentally unpleasant, even despicable.

It hit me all at once—the physical and emotional tension and discomfort of the prolonged PMS, a lifetime of loneliness and alienation, an old and recent history of broken promises and betrayed trust, a renewed sense of the gap that exists between me and my life and normal people and their lives, and a combined belief and disbelief that somehow, at some time, I have thought, willed, or done something to deserve the unhappiness that always finds me. It's not the hopeless unhappiness of the poor, the war-torn, the ill, or the dying, but the hopeless unhappiness of the misfit piece, torn from the puzzle and tossed aside repeatedly in frustration and contempt.

With little warning, the dam of control that has been leaking slowly here and there gave way violently and completely, all the more be cause of the stresses that control creates and exacerbates. It frightened J., who doesn't understand its source; it frightens me still, because I know it could happen again and likely will. Apply all the logic that I will, the rational mind is devastated by the destructive power of the emotions. Once again, I will exhaust myself rebuilding, and yet no structure, even a psychological one is without its vulnerabilities. Instead of becoming stronger and stronger, mine grows weaker and weaker.

I may be beyond even Lefty's comfort.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Puppet Bike at Christkindlmarket

Last night, I met J. at the Christkindlmarket. I had wanted to go again when it wasn't so cold (this night, although warmer, proved to be worse because of the wind) and when I wasn't burdened with a backpack so I would be free to shop for a gift or two.

The timing turned out to be very bad indeed; I've had a rough time lately in many ways, I'm in the final throes of this month's PMS (just in time for vacation and travel!), and my mine and emotions are amok, so poor J. had to put up with not only a greater level of impatience, but several (embarrassing to me) outbursts of tears. They are neither controllable nor unjustified, but they have to be very unpleasant for someone subjected to them who doesn't understand them. I apologized several times. I don't know what to do because being home alone is worse, but it doesn't seem fair to make someone else suffer, especially at an event like the Christkindlmarket, which is supposed to be a fun holiday diversion.

J. had told me about many times about Puppet Bike and swears he has shown me video of it, but I could not seem to understand the concept until last night. As we were leaving the market, we encountered Puppet Bike. At first we were the only ones watching, but after we stopped to watch so did a steady stream of others. Last night it was Lefty (and partner?) dancing their hearts out on a puppet stage mounted on a bicycle. It's a brilliant idea, and it made even me smile weakly through the cold and tears. When J. and others handed them tips, the dancing pair would lovingly caress each bill, cradle it between them, and kiss each other sweetly. It was clever, cute, and refreshing. Now I understand a little better why J. gets so excited when he happens to find Puppet Bike.

J. is like a child in some ways—some bad, some good. In this case, he is nearly all child, living in the moment and charmed and enthralled to the exclusion of almost all else by a pair of dancing hand puppets with oodles of personality. It is on such occasions that I wish I could be more like him, turning off my mind, forgetting myself and the world, and simply enjoying a little pleasure. Instead, even as I did enjoy it, I found that the part of my mind that wasn't sorrowful or focused on my aching fingers and toes was thinking about practicalities, such as that the Puppet Bike person must be very cold, too. Then I began to imagine that, behind the happy, dancing, kissing puppets is a human being who has probably experienced pain, sadness, and all those things that keep us humble and slightly lost in life. So, while the holiday makers and their children around me were delighted by their discovery of Puppet Bike, I was hit again by a tsunami of sadness that had nothing to with anything around me.

I hope to see Puppet Bike again, maybe not soon, but later, when I am less sad (or in better control) and less prone to projecting my own state of mind and more open to a little transitory joy. Just a little.

It may be a while, but it cannot be soon enough.

Review: The Great Gatsby: The Authorized Text

The Great Gatsby: The Authorized Text by F. Scott Fitzgerald, with notes and a preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Highly recommended.

The west was conquered and the midwest cultivated, so in The Great Gatsby set in the 1920s we turn our attention back east, where to midwestern narrator Nick Carraway and his neighbor Jay Gatsby the green light at the end of the Buchanans' East Egg dock seems to represent the fertile promise of America, and the dreams and the money that are supposed to make them reality. Some dreams, like the dream of recapturing a romantic past that never really was, become nightmares.

Although he witnesses and participates in deception, including both sides of the Buchanans' infidelity, Nick wants to appear to be a reliable narrator, which he emphasizes when he says up front, "I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me." Later, Nick identifies himself with "the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him, too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life." Nick's authorial viewpoint sets the tone for his story and his observations of the brutish Tom Buchanan; his shallow and unsatisfied wife, Daisy; his class-climbing mistress, Myrtle Wilson; and the mysterious Jay Gatsby, the hero of the different unbelievable fictions he tells (when Nick asks him what part of the middle-west he is from, Gatsby responds enigmatically, "San Francisco.") A confused Nick hears solemnity in Gatsby's voice and sees sincerity in his look, despite the obvious prevarication.

The most influential literal voice is that of Daisy Buchanan. Lacking the romantic substance for which Gatsby has idealized her as the symbol of his youth—his real youth—Daisy becomes a siren with a siren call. Nick writes, "The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said." Her friend, Jordan Baker, tells Nick, ". . . and yet there's something in that voice of hers. . . ." Later, Nick mentions that the "exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain," and "I think that voice held him [Gatsby] most with its fluctuating, feverish warmth because it couldn't be over-dreamed—that voice was a death song." Nick says of Daisy, "Unlike Gatsby and Tom, I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs . . ." By contrast, Myrtle is earthy, with "an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continuously smoldering." Tom, whose affairs we are told have included a hotel chambermaid, seems mostly unsusceptible to Daisy's voice, while even Nick notes its influence and Gatsby is destroyed by it and by his desire for the real past that every story he tells effectually effaces.

A compact novel concentrated on only a few months in the lives of a few characters, The Great Gatsby is rich with symbolism. During his reunion with Daisy, Gatsby almost stops time literally by knocking Nick's clock down, but instinctively he catches it before it falls. "We all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor," Nick writes. Gatsby even apologizes as though he had broken the clock and as though it were a significant loss that his countless money can't replace. As the reunion continues, Nick says of Gatsby, ". . . in the reaction, he was running down like an overwound clock."

Throughout, time is a consistent theme; it is part of what Gatsby futilely endeavors to recapture. He can reinvent a past in which he was "educated at Oxford because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years," but he and his means cannot recreate the real past. As Nick observes, "Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one." He adds later, "Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion."

The Great Gatsby reminds me of The Count of Monte Cristo. Both Gatsby and the count start life as ordinary men and, through circumstances and the determination to achieve a much-desired goal, transform themselves into extraordinary men, ciphers to all but the most observant of their fellows. One seeks to revenge a past wrong; the other ignores the present and tries to reinvent the past as though there had never been a Tom Buchanan and as though Daisy had never loved him. Both efforts take time and unlimited patience and money, but only one is successful. The count revenges his past so he can live better in the future, but Gatsby fails because he does not understand, or want to understand, that the past is written and that the future begins with the present.

Somewhat lacking in heart—the only character who displays genuine emotion is Tom Wilson, Myrtle's despised husband—The Great Gatsby captures the jaded excesses of the post-World War I era and the American faith in time, money, and effort as the sources and creators of success. The novel also shows the greater power of circumstance and fate. I've read The Great Gatsby only once, but to appreciate its structure, symbolism, and richness would take several re-readings. Read once for pleasure, then read again to explore Fitzgerald's craft.

Friday, 21 December 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Dream: Fleeing from fire into evil

I was on a bus that fleeing a city on fire. The bus itself seemed to be on fire, with sparks flying out from underneath. I kept trying to get the driver to stop because I thought that the bus would set fire to the surrounding countryside. The sparks seemed to diminish as we progressed—but where were we going? And who were we?

At last we arrived at a destination somewhere, and I handed someone a cup or tin that was on fire to set in water, someone we all thought trustworthy. At the very last moment, I caught him trying to set it down on a flammable wooden table and snatched it from him, barely in time.

We found that one of our friends, a woman, had no head. Someone who seemed to be a leader said that, to get it back, she must pilot a certain craft whose engine had never been started. Until this craft was ready, we had to guard it very carefully against use. Meanwhile, there was something disturbing about the headless woman beyond the obvious.

Finally, it was the night before the craft's maiden voyage. We were stressed and strained from the close watch we'd kept on it for so long. In the wee hours, though, there was a commotion where the craft was housed, and, to our horror, we thought we heard the engine starting—condemning the woman to an existence bereft of her head. We flew to the craft—and found the woman herself trying to steal it. We learned we had been deceived by what seemed to be pure evil.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

2007 in review

Each year is good, bad, or indifferent in its way. Some are memorable for the number or depth of happy or unhappy events, for example, weddings, births, deaths. Others pass without leaving an impression. For most of 2007 I have felt stressed and stuck, yet at the same time I have discovered emotional resources within myself that were not available before. Perhaps finding them is part of the wisdom of age.

I am not sure why, but I have a sense that flatness of feeling, which sometimes seems a curse, sometimes a blessing, is the best coping mechanism that I have.

The good

My friends who tolerate my sadness and my odd sense of hopelessness, even when they are at their worst.

My home, where the views of the water and the moon are therapeutic and at times inspirational.

My dreams, which, although never satisfying, help me to experience a shadow of the wonderful feelings and sensations of the past and to understand my present-day desires.

My opportunities, such as going to the Renaissance Faire, White Fence Farm, and Waterfall Glen.

My rare encounters with nature, such as seeing hundreds of fireflies like jewels in the woods at Waterfall Glen, watching two tiny and friendly rabbits grow into aloof adulthood, and lying with held breath as red admirals alighted fearlessly on my ankle and arm.

My health—several age-related issues, but oddly at some point in the past few years I've become so used to a certain level of pain that I don't remember life without it.

My employment means I'm self-supporting and can afford a few comforts.

The bad

Issues at work, the source of much stress. On the positive side, at least I have plumbed certain traits in myself, including a combination of idealism and grim determination. On the negative, I have a sense that this changes and lessens me somehow.

My fears and lack of will that keep me from finding or making bends in the road (from the Anne of Green Gables series). I must find resolve soon.

A lack of purpose that keeps me adrift in a day-to-day existence without meaning or joy.

Personal setbacks that have squeezed some, even much, of the meaning from life. It can become a downward spiral if I lose control, which is a constant possibility.

With all of the professional and personal problems killing me slowly, 2007 has been a year to forget. For now, I hope 2008 is a year to remember—for the best reasons.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Christmas Carol: 1938

Although A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim is my favorite film version of the Charles Dickens story, I've found myself enjoying the 1938 movie with Reginald Owen several times. Filling in for the injured Lionel Barrymore, Owen delivers some lines a little too hurriedly, but captures the essence of the crusty capitalist before, during, and after his transformation.

As a side note, this film mentions that the poor take their dinners to the baker. This was of special interest to me because Elizabeth Gaskell notes the same tradition in Cranford. My edition of the novel explains that the poor used the leftover heat from the baker's morning production to cook. I don't know if this is in the original Dickens story, but it's wonderful to see a small insight into daily life like that in a contemporary book and then in a film produced nearly 80 years later.

This version of the film focuses on the differences between childhood and adulthood, children and adults. When the juvenile Ebenezer is left behind at school for the holidays, he explains haughtily to a departing friend that he is to stay to continue his studies and that Christmas and its traditions are for children. Barely out of childhood, he justifies his father's edict with the grim resignation of an adult. When his sister Fanny comes to retrieve him after his father's reversal of mind, Ebenezer responds with a delight that mirrors Fanny's own. This scene serves as a glimpse into Scrooge's formative years, when he is neither child nor man.

Earlier, both Scrooge's nephew, Fred, and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, had been portrayed as men-children. When he comes upon boys sliding down an icy hill, Fred cannot resist taking a few turns himself, attracting the notice of two of the Cratchit boys. Then, on his way home, Bob Cratchit turns a snowball attack on his formal adult person into a lesson on the fine art of making the perfect snowball. When one of the street urchins announces, "Here comes a topper!" Cratchit gleefully impresses his young friends with the accuracy of his aim—knocking the top hat off his curmudgeonly employer. Within an instant, Cratchit is transformed from impish boy into a careworn—and unemployed—father.

When the Ghost of Christmas Past tries to take Scrooge away from the reawakened memories of his childhood and youth, he demands to stay, like a difficult child. At a party in honor of Fred and his fiancee, Scrooge watches a game of blind man's bluff with the wide eyes of a child (and seems not to notice the couple kissing in the foreground). When the Ghost of Christmas Present tells him it is time to leave, he pettishly refuses, stamping his feet and pounding his fists like the child within himself he is rediscovering.

In contrast, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to the relentlessly dark world of adulthood. With the death of Tiny Tim, the ebullient spirit of Bob Cratchit and his family is diminished if not lost. Scrooge's own death brings out only the sarcasm and greed of the "men of business" who are his peers; Scrooge leaves no children behind to mourn him.

By the end, Scrooge finds his inner child, the spirit of openness, generosity, and even fun that makes the poorest of street urchins and the lowliest of clerks happier than he. In his new-found joy, Scrooge gleefully engages an urchin to bring him a prize turkey for the Cratchit table.

Christmas is a time for family and friends and for the unspoiled spirit and wonder of childhood. In this movie, Scrooge becomes a good, even a great man by opening his elderly heart to the child he had never been allowed to be. I would not be surprised if he broke Fred and Peter's record slides on the icy hill.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A holiday party and a winter's day

There's something about spending a single night away from home that makes me feel more disoriented than returning after a week-long trip. J. and I went to the last Hyatt party Friday night, and it was Monday before my sense of strangeness started to dissipate.

On Friday at about 6:00 p.m., I met J. at Moonstruck, one of my favorite places downtown. We started the evening with cing, which become less coordinated and more creative as the night wore on. As I stood on the second level, I couldn't help thinking of ballroom dancing in 1930s movies and how much has changed in what is a relatively short period of time. For a moment, I could imagine the sweep of tuxedos and gowns.

When most attendees were at their happiest and most uninhibited, Exhibit A shows me nursing a midnight coffee—proof that I am old or dull or both. For the first time at this event, I could not be persuaded to dance, although I am not sure what held me back.

On Saturday, after substituting breakfast for a swim in the pool that no longer existed, J. and I headed to the Rosemont elevated stop, where we saw a flock of perhaps 80 Canada geese divided into four parts nibbling on the small islands of grass along the Kennedy Expressway. It struck me as an odd sight, a glimpse of nature adapting to the unnatural and unpleasant speed and noise of the expressway.

The weather was perfect for spending an hour and a half at the outdoor Christkindlmarket—a little below freezing, not too cold, no wind, and with a steady flurry of snow coating everything. While J. shopped, I found myself fascinated by the snow-covered model train as it made its monotonous rounds. A few boys watched the train for a bit, then commented in a deprecatory tone of voice to prove that they were too old for such toys. I envision them in 20–25 years, telling their children about the model train at the Christkindlmarket, even if it is by then more of a feeling than a memory.

Near the train tracks we came upon a snow-covered bench occupied by tiny snow people, made of regular-sized snowballs with evergreen twigs for arms. I named them Peter and Héloise, as doomed lovers. They were such a charming couple that almost everyone who spotted them did a double take, then snapped a photo of them. One woman even looked at us strangely as though we were the responsible parties. I wish I were that imaginative! It was with great reluctance that I left Peter and Héloise behind.

When all I could feel of my hands was pain, I dragged J. away on the bus and home with me, where a well-fed Hodge greeted us. I lit candles, plied J. with Holiday Dream tea and a Homemade pizza and cookie, and put on the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol with Reginald Owen so J. could sleep through it. Fortunately, the pizza and cookie revived him in time for a second showing.

In the meantime, the weather had become truly frightful. At 8:00 p.m., when we went downstairs to wait for the cab that never arrived, the wind was whipping The Flamingo's awning furiously, and snow was coming down heavily and even less realistically than in a Hollywood movie. Since J. had to wait another two hours for the next train, I plied him with fair trade hot cocoa while we watched a Judy Garland, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra TV concert. I told J. that times have changed; today, Judy Garland couldn't get away with a bare stage, a simple dress, and pumps. She would have to have a full band onstage, scantily clad chorus girls and dancers, a light show, and fireworks. During this performance, though, the stage, lights, and outfit didn't matter. All attention was on that tragic face and that remarkable voice. You don't need to distract your audience when you have talent.

J. finally arrived at the train station, after a 20-mph taxi ride in blizzard-like conditions. I couldn't see Lake Shore Drive from my bedroom window. When I called him at 2:00 a.m. to see if he'd gotten home in one piece, the weather was still howling and blowing. Yet by 8:00 a.m. Sunday, it was sunny, clear, and calm, with the new coating of snow the only evidence of the previous long winter's night.

Wild words to live by

In the winter 2007 edition of A Feather in the Wind, the newsletter of Last Chance Forever, Director John Karger writes:

"We must always keep our brains tame, otherwise we are just wild animals out of control—and we must always keep our hearts wild, so we can recognize the wild and never destroy it."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dream: Life's poetry and prose

I was visiting a friend. D. W., whose childhood home was now nothing like I remembered. It was fantastic in every way.

I walked into a room that was like a bridge at just above water level over a beautiful stream overhung by lush trees and vegetation. For a long time, I basked in the beauty and the feeling the perspective gave me, and wondered at how anyone could live so nonchalantly in such a house without being mesmerized by this fantastic sylvan view and the feelings it evoked.

I found myself in the living room, which the stream bisected. While indoors, you could walk in the stream, or soak your feet in it, or just admire it. It was so lovely that I could not stop telling D. W. how moved I was by where she lived. Prosaic soul that she is, she was both bewildered and bemused by my emotional response to something she experienced as an ordinary, everyday part of life. She asked me when I had become so blubbery over such unimportant things, as though I had changed. I told her that when I had gone to college I had spent most of my time and money taking photographs, even skipping classes to do so. [Not in reality.] She gave me a pitying look even as I looked longingly at the stream wending its way through the living room and under the room I had been in earlier. It lapped around the house, which did make me nervous.

At this point, I had to go to the bathroom, so I started to look for one. The house was enormous, although it had a cozy feel, and I came to an odd wing with open bathrooms at several points—open, with no doors. Somehow I knew that this was where her brothers lived, so I was reluctant to use any of them and expose myself more than I already had.

They and their friends found me and asked about a sweater I was wearing that looked similar to one of their mother's. I took it off and looked at the tag; it was from a different store than hers.

Suddenly, I was someone from work, who said he was expecting a visit from a former employee who had been terminated. I liked the former employee and said so, although later I realized that this would make me look bad in the same way as my emotion about the house on water did.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dream: Danville, California

My friend and I had to get to the car and came to a tangled embankment that we had to climb. The harder we tried to climb it, the more tangled and difficult it became.

A little girl came toward us along the top of this embankment. She was confident in her movements, but I could see that the board she was reaching for was broken so I held my hand out to steady or catch her. Instead, my gesture made her slip and fall precipitously to her death. I could not get over my guilt, although nothing seemed to happen as a result.

I found myself in a strangely crowded street or neighborhood of workshops. I've forgotten many of the details of what happened, but I learned that my brother was selling the actual visas and passports of real people, and everyone here accepted this as a normal venture. With the certainty of righteous anger, I stood up and yelled, "You can't traffic in citizenships!" Some of the presidential candidates were in the area, and I appealed to them. Confused, they scoffed.

It occurred to me that all this was fictional, or should be. I looked around the area, which was compact, crowded, and surreal in aspect. I thought, "This is California, but where are the vineyards?" The names "Danville" and "Danby" occurred to me, but they seemed too mundane and American for the setting and for the kind of story that I thought I had to tell.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Advertising amok

Every time I see an insidious new form of advertising invading daily life, I think, "That's bad. No placement could top that." I thought that more than six years ago when I went to the bathroom at a good Thai restaurant in downtown Chicago and found myself confronted by a giant poster on the back of the stall door touting what I think was an unmentionable woman's product (you see, I've tried to forget). In the men's room, my English visitor found an ad for Men's Health magazine. Then and there I thought, "Surely no one in advertising can get lower, er, more creative than this."

With so much "information overload," as they call it, overwhelming potential customers, advertisers are openly desperate to get noticed. It's not enough that every bus and taxi is a motorized billboard; the next obvious step was to come up with vehicles whose sole purpose was to serve as mobile advertisements. I have no doubt that some organizations that tout their environmental and conservation responsibility and awareness use these "moving billboards" use these gas-guzzling carbon spewers in the hope that someone will see and remember them.

So, when I saw the little screens attached to the escalators at the San Antonio International Airport, I should not have been surprised. Yet I was. My first thought was, "Is there anything surface left to which advertising clutter can't be attached?" Bathroom stalls, the tops of escalators, human skin—what next? Ads strapped onto dogs walking in the park?

Later, the real absurdity of it occurred to me. First, almost everyone in an airport is in a hurry. Nearly everyone who's not an employee is a passenger trying to get to a flight on time. The only people with time to spare are those whose flights are delayed, and they are usually stuck at the gate. People leaving the airport usually want to pick up their checked baggage as quickly as possible and meet their parties or get to their transportation. So who is going to stop, stand at the head of an escalator, and assimilate a commercial that is probably irrelevant to their needs? We don't even watch commercials on TV at home, where we're not in a rush to be somewhere else. Why would we stare at an escalator when the more logical choice is to get on it—and move away from the ad? I suppose some people passing by might stop for a moment, perhaps for the novelty, but I doubt anyone is going to watch anything less compelling than a scene from a hit movie, TV show, or video, and then only for a few seconds.

In my imagination, however, I can picture how the agency sold this concept to the client: "Thousands of people pass through airports every day! That's XX million a year! And they're a captive audience because they have to be at the airport—they can't help but see your message!" The client, a desperate marketing person under pressure to generate leads and sales, succumbs to the presentation because the chances are good that print, television, radio, and other traditional media are declining in effectiveness, and anything that offers access to millions of potential impressions could be worth a shot.

At this point, I thought escalator commercials would fill my quota of bizarre placements for at least a few months. I was wrong. Thursday night I stopped at Walgreens, where, splayed over the security scanners at the entrance/exit, are cardboard sandwich boards touting a teeth-whitening product. Aha! What better way to get attention than with a five-foot ad for an impulse purchase product, an ad that assails customers both on the way in and on the way out—two points in time at which I can be made to feel shame over my aging, yellowing teeth.

But the evening was still young. Next, I went to the grocery store, where the floor tiles sport ads. If you drop your shopping list or bend down to check on your small child, you'll see a colorful reminder of which brand of baked beans is best. These ads don't bother me, perhaps they are an opportunity to walk all over advertising.

I was absorbed in looking for something in particular when I heard a voice. Obviously, a voice in a store isn't unusual; customers talk on their mobile phones; customers and employees chat with one another; and announcements are made over the public address system ("Will the owner of a blue Ford SUV move the vehicle from the fire lane?"). This voice, however, was different. It was small, it was tinny, and it was talking at me. I turned around, and there it was—a tiny screen with a woman promoting the benefits of a brand found in that aisle.

I don't know what advertisers will do next to top themselves. I don't want to know, but I'm sure to find out. I can say this, though; the insides of my eyelids are not for sale, and that's what I prefer to look at when you try too hard to get my attention.

And thank goodness for earplugs.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Review: The Fox

The Fox by D. H. Lawrence. Recommended.

One of D. H. Lawrence's fable-like tales addressing gender roles and relationships, The Fox is developed based on the symbol of a female-centric farm beset by a "demon," a marauding male fox. Owned and run by two women, the "small, thin, delicate thing," Banford, and "the man about the place," March, the farm is remarkably unproductive. One independent-minded heifer refuses to stay put, and the women, afraid of birth and responsibility, sell the pregnant cow before she can produce a calf. Because "Banford and March disbelieved in living for work alone," it is clear that their farming venture, the nature of which requires commitment and hard work, is fated to fail.

Into this setting, where "fowls did not flourish," comes a fox, a symbolic male, that carries off not only the hens, but March's consciousness. As a male intruder in this female world, "he knew her." The imagery is deliberately sexual; "her soul failed her," and, too mesmerized to fire her gun, "she saw his white buttocks twinkle." Having encountered the male, she determines to hunt him down. "She was possessed by him."

Months later, March again threatens to shoot the real fox, a young man who comes to the farm from the outside world of men and war. As with the fox, the other male, "March stared at him spellbound." Again, the symbolism is not meant to be subtle; Lawrence writes, " . . . the boy was to her the fox, and she could not see him otherwise" and "she need not go after him any more."

The fox and the man change March, who in the man's presence becomes "pale and wan," anxious not to be seen, "a shadow in the shadow"—almost like a fox herself. Throughout the novel, the man, Henry, has the same effacing effect on her. She is no longer the "man" of the farm, but a shrinking, passive, mesmerized female, speaking in a "plangent, laconic voice" when the real man is around. In her dreams, the fox and the man are powerful sexual images that take away her ability to articulate; the fox "whisked his brush across her face, and it seemed this brush was on fire, for it seared and burned her mouth with a great pain . . . [She] lay trembling as if she were really seared."

As the story continues and Henry and Banford vie for March's attention and loyalty, it is easy to see Banford and March as a lesbian couple, incomplete in the way the French writer Colette viewed such relationships. Henry, the man, carries the gun, hunts, and watches; he is "most free when he was quite alone." With Henry's arrival, Banford becomes more stereotypically female, strong-willed but physically weak, querulous, and manipulative. March is in the middle, the man to one, the woman to the other. Banford says of Henry, "He's a boy like you are." March is always indistinct to the soft-spoken, courteous Henry, who wishes to dominate her and to bring her into focus. When Henry kills the fox, March dreams of burying Banford wrapped in the fox skin—a thought that leaves her with "tears streaming down her face." She does not want to let go of either woman or man, or the feminine or masculine in herself.

Events and choices leave March with "nothingness at last"; having hunted for the fox and reached for happiness, she is left with a "realisation of emptiness" that can be resolved only by being "alone with him at her side." To be female is to sleep, a form of death, while to be male is to keep awake, know, consider, judge, and decide. In The Fox, as in other Lawrence novels, the man-woman relationship is one of strain between masculine values of dominance and possession and feminine desire to "stay awake" and for autonomy and self-determination.

Unpolished, repetitive, obvious in its imagery, and blunt about its messages, The Fox is flawed and pales beside Sons and Lovers and Women in Love. As a short study of the ideas surrounding gender, roles, and relationships that predominate in Lawrence's fiction, The Fox is worth the attention of both Lawrence student and aficionado.

Saturday, 8 December 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Dream: Water from above and Loblaws

My apartment, not this one, was dark and oddly free of clutter. I filled the sink to the top with water and detergent, then talked to S. A. online. He mentioned water, which made me think I should check on the water in the sink. It was still there, but there were enough puddles on the drain board, counter, and floor to make me think that there must be a leak. I couldn't find any cause, but the more water I wiped up with paper towels, the more water I found. Finally I looked up and saw water marks on the ceiling and wall behind the sink. I debated with myself what I needed to do first—go to the bathroom or call the manager.

Mixed up with this were memories and feelings associated with the tiled entry area of the old Loblaws in the old South Shore Plaza in Hamburg, New York, where we used to run into friends while grocery shopping. I tried to remember what it looked like and to recapture how it made me feel; in some intangible way, the lighting, the tiles, and the gum ball machines, combined with my impressionable age, made it a special area.

Then I found myself outside on a street watching electronic billboards with the stock prices of Loblaws and other grocery chains. I looked for Tops and Super Duper, too.

My dreams are becoming a little too closely and obviously derived from part of what is on my mind these days.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Dream: Stripey Pudge

I was in the hallway of a hotel, attending a high school reunion. I wondered if anyone would treat me any differently since I thought I looked better with the new glasses; perhaps they gave me a new persona. The fact I was alone in a hallway didn't bode well for socialization, however.

I spotted a group coming up the stairs toward me and recognized many of them, but I could not remember their names. One or two of the group recognized me and seemed to feel sorry for me as they invited me out for drinks. I accepted, but didn't know where to go to meet them, and then they were gone. Although I had dreaded it, I regretted the lost opportunity.

I found Pudge, who I knew to be Pudge although she was now an orange-white stripey boy like Hodge, and took her to the park where I could be depressed in peace. The first time I called, she came. Then I was distracted by someone and forgot about her. When I remembered her, I panicked because of the traffic around the park. I called, but this time she didn't come. I kept calling, and still she didn't come. I found her pinned by a medium-sized, collie-type dog. With difficulty, I shooed off the dog, which made its owner unhappy.

I found myself in a car with a driver and two people behind me. I did not recognize any of them from school and felt vaguely menaced by them. A man behind noticed my discomfort and said something to reassure me that wasn't reassuring. All the while I was wondering if I would ever see the people I really wanted to, one in particular.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Spencer Tracy as Jekyll and Hyde

I'm sure they've been around for a while, but I've only recently discovered free on-demand movies. I've never bothered with a DVD player or a service like Netflix, so this is a good opportunity for me to see old movies with frequent breaks to accommodate my inborn restlessness.

Over the weekend, I watched Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1941 version with Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, and Ingrid Bergman. I wish I could remember the novel, but it has been decades since I read it. Even if the movie is not true to the book, it stands on its own as an interesting story.

I found the premise somewhat confusing; Dr. Jekyll seems to think that good and evil could be separated, although I'm not sure how the yelling man at the church service fit into this. He appears to be mentally ill (schizophrenia) rather than evil, and there are many worse crimes against humanity than disrupting a church service or interrupting the minister.

Like other fictional scientists of the 19th century, Dr. Jekyll experiments with the fundamental concepts of existence. Frankenstein creates life, while Dr. Jekyll tries to penetrate the secrets of the human soul.

According to Wikipedia, "Spencer Tracy's performance in this film, out of all the performances he ever gave, was judged inadequate, and was one of his few critically roasted roles (Tracy was not considered frightening enough as Mr. Hyde, though he was quite good as Jekyll) . . . Tracy's performance was routinely savaged when compared with March's more monstrous version."

My reaction was a little different. Tracy is not convincing as either a Victorian or as a scientist too ambitious to consider the ethical ramifications of his work. He doesn't quite convey the single-minded devotion to his idea that is the hallmark of the mad, or nearly mad, scientist. The story line has him engaged to the Lana Turner character, although he is pointedly shown missing society dinners and functions with his fiancée and her father to indicate his commitment to his work. I'm not familiar with Tracy, but his Jekyll lacks an edge that seems vital to the character. He's so bland that he doesn't even seem to notice the very obvious advances of Ingrid Bergman's barmaid/prostitute.

In this production, Hyde is more malicious prankster than personification of pure evil. While he is not handsome, he is not homely, either. The choice to use minimal makeup and effects makes Hyde even creepier than if he were shown to be a physical monstrosity, as he was in other versions. It is the combination of his words, his leering eyes, and his toothy smile that Ivy Peterson (Bergman) finds disturbing. Then, with much racy innuendo for 1941, she learns the painful way that he is not only a rapist, but a sadist who punishes her for the hatred he feels toward the man she loves—Dr. Jekyll.

The Victorians believed in physiognomy, the idea that outer appearance reflects inner temperament and character. This movie is better for eschewing this approach because a normal appearance encourages us to let down our guard. Unconsciously, we still expect a monster to act monstrously; we don't expect a handsome, seemingly normal man like Ted Bundy to be a serial killer. Tracy's Hyde dresses and looks like a gentleman, with a touch of something unsettling behind his eyes. While he is a prankster, slyly tripping a waiter and instigating a brawl, he is much darker, too, not only raping, beating, and murdering, but also gleefully gloating over the fear and loathing he inspires. His crimes are the culmination of the sadistic thrills that feed his existence. Ivy would rather die than live with the uncertainty of the depravities in which he may indulge. As I watched the movie, I did not experience a specific, all-out fear, but a more subtle, insidious, persistent anxiety, similar to Ivy's.

Lana Turner is believable as the virtuous fiancée. She conveys the kind of sexuality that must have driven sexual tension in repressed Victorian society. When Dr. Jekyll says, "We love each other very much and want to be together," his vision does not seem to be one of home, hearth, and family, the Victorian ideal, but of a sexy Lana Turner in his arms at last.

Unlike others, I was unimpressed by Bergman's portrayal of the barmaid/prostitute, Ivy. In her first encounter with Dr. Jekyll, her rolling eyes and self-conscious smirks are hammy rather than naughty, flirty, or seductive. She can't decide between her own accent and a lower-class English one. She also wavers between a tough-as-nails woman-of-the-street persona and a weak, naive one that finds Hyde's depravities horrifying, perhaps even shocking. Her breakdown before Dr. Jekyll, as she asks for his protection, seems staged rather than spontaneous.

Despite the weaknesses in casting and performances, the flatness of the setting and atmosphere (which lack seediness and menace), and the glossing over of the ethical questions central to the story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde still manages to disturb me and to remind me that horror doesn't arise from what is seen and known, but from what is felt and anticipated. Hyde isn't a monster because he's ugly, physically deformed, and criminal; he's a monster because our imagination gives him the power to frighten us with what he might do, and an ignited imagination is more powerful than any reality—or any film.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Dream: Vultures on a bus

I was an African or cinereous vulture out of my element, hungry, and ill equipped to capture prey in the environment in which I and my mate found ourselves. We were desperate.

A bus came by; I knew that my human mother was on board. I got on to ask for her help, although it was difficult to explain the problem. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was a vulture on a bus full of humans and that no one had noticed. There was something magical about it, as though time were frozen for all but me and my human mother.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Dream: Saved by the Statue of Liberty

In the early morning, I looked down at the parking lot, which was full of mud and empty of cars. The mud was on the street, too, where the few remaining cars were parked haphazardly and were disappearing rapidly as little clusters of people came out and drove them off. I wondered if there had been an apocalyptic storm.

I noticed that I was looking down from an unusually sharp angle and what seemed to be a tremendous height, far greater than that of my 12th-floor apartment and probably far greater than that of the 18th floor. I felt even more disoriented and disturbed.

As it was early, I wasn't dressed. I walked into an unfamiliar, contemporary, posh white room, and then another, before realizing that all the apartments must be connected and that I had entered those of neighbors. I was lost. I heard voices and tried to avoid them but was terrified lest they come upon me in my nakedness. I wondered if they too were nude.

Then I was at a baseball park, where I was half of a renowned pitcher-catcher team. We were known for throwing home runs, as though that were a really difficult and desirable feat. But we were cheats. To keep the fans happy and cheering, we started to pretend we'd heard the crack of the bat and that we were watching the trajectory of a home run ball, time after time. As I did so again, guiltily, I saw the enormous head of the Statue of Liberty loom before me as though she had appeared to remind us of the great lie we'd begun that we could not seem to stop.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Flying over the moon

I don't like flying, so usually I try to fall asleep before or during takeoff and to stay that way if I can. It might have seemed even easier to do Saturday, when I returned to Chicago from San Antonio. I'd been up until after midnight, packing and digesting my niece's fifteenth birthday dinner (held at Chuy's), I'd woken up several times during the night, and I got up at 4:35 a.m. to catch my 6:50 a.m. flight (selected because it was the most cost effective). I hadn't slept well the night before, either, thanks to the pinched nerve and muscle spasms episode. And, as it turns out, I was also in the throes of late PMS, which drains me and my energy like a vampire. With all that going for me, you'd think I'd have passed out the moment I was seated.

You'd be wrong. I was fully alert during the entire takeoff process and couldn't even will my eyes closed.

As the Caribou Coffee slogan goes, "Life is short. Stay awake for it." I'm glad I did. Before I succumbed to exhaustion mid-flight, I experienced something magical—the sensation of flying in the dark over the moon.

The sun had not quite risen, and when I looked out my port window, the just-past-full moon was beside and below me, and soon behind me, among the clouds in the deep blue sky. For a moment, my heart felt as though it were within touching distance of its strongest desire. I was so moved that, after making sure he wasn't asleep, I tapped the shoulder of my seat mate, a stranger, and demanded that he "look at that." He did, and said, "That's pretty," before he returned to staring at the bulwark in front of us.

"Cold-hearted orb that rules the night . . ." And my heart.

Monday, November 26, 2007

I am not Borg, or growing older, part 46

Growing older is a learning experience if only because you have expanding opportunities to discover what can go wrong with the human body.

My latest learning experience occurred at my brother's house in San Antonio, Texas, toward midnight on Thanksgiving. I had feasted on a wonderful mix of American and Lebanese dishes sandwiched between two glasses of wine. We watched a DVD, and I felt good. Just before midnight, I became sleepy enough to go to bed, so I did. Somewhere between the couch and the bedroom, though, the left side of my torso imploded.

I tried to read myself to sleep, but was seized with spasmodic pain and couldn't find any position that didn't hurt. The pain seemed to be centered on my left shoulder blade and radiated to my rib cage and lower back. Even my left arm hurt.

I began to wonder if I was having a heart attack.

After 15 or 20 minutes of not getting any better, I used my mobile phone to call my brother, who gave me ibuprofen, a heating pad, and reassurance that I wasn't having a heart attack. An hour or so later, I felt well enough to try to sleep on my right side, and did—but not very well.

On Friday, I spent two hours with a massage therapist, who gave me a beating I still feel.

It's Monday, and I have muted pain, numbness in my arm, and an occasional spasm. What is it?

A pinched nerve. I didn't know that a pinched nerve can cause muscle spasms. Now I do. I'm here to tell you that you'll feel each one, even as they occur on top of one another.

I'm mystified by what caused or aggravated it, but I'll never know.

I'm thankful that it wasn't a heart attack. I'll be thankful if heals and never happens again. That is too much to ask for, I'm sure.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dream: The Delft cat and the silver man

I fell asleep around 11 o'clock, and by 11:30 had woken up twice, the second time in terror.

I was at my parents' new house, which seemed strange to me in some undefinable way. I saw the room I slept in only in the dark. As in many houses, the bedroom had only one window, and there appeared to be a storm going on. Finally I roused myself and looked with great effort at the strangest storm I had ever seen. Random flashes, but not of lightning, and wind. The setting and the storm seemed apocalyptic, and after noticing that I didn't like the flimsy curtains I wanted new ones to shut it out.

I found that the room was unusually large and that half was separated from my half by a large bench. There was a piano in the other half, which to my surprise I played expertly and beautifully. I found myself composing amazing works on it and marveled how. But I noticed the piano was also a fountain. While this was fascinating, I wondered where the many strong streams from it were going to and what damage they must be doing.

Later I found myself in this same half room with an older female relative. I learned that this was not part of my bedroom, but was a separate sitting room. A cat jumped upon a pile of yarn or material; the cat was blue and white in a distinctive Delft pattern. I remarked on the weirdness of this as I petted the cat and ruffled the pattern, but my female relative said that it's common. I was slightly afraid of it, although it seemed like a normal cat.

Perhaps it was the next night when a friend showed up with an entourage in my room. He wanted to take me somewhere with his group. I wanted to go with them, but inexplicably I closed my eyes and wished him and them away.

Then I was washing dishes in a kitchen that overlooked the street directly; it was straight down from the window. A couple I knew in a convertible stopped at the red light and chatted with me. This put me into a great mood, so when a silver-gray man came out from under a manhole cover, looking up at me with expressionless eyes and face, I smiled at him at first. Then, as he came toward me, staring with dead but determined eyes, I sensed that he was evil and that I should never have smiled at him. I dreaded his relentless approach even as his features became seared into my memory. I closed the screen door and locked it with a hook, then panicked as I tried to find an inner door with a dead bolt. My terror grew.

I woke up at 11:30, frightened and freezing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fisher-Price #969 Ferris wheel

One of my favorite childhood toys is a Fisher-Price Ferris wheel, which must have been a Christmas present when I was five years old. Fisher-Price is based in East Aurora, New York, and was a source of local pride. I remember my parents and their friends talking about how thoughtfully made my Ferris wheel and other F-P toys were, and how engaging.

I must have taken good care of my Ferris wheel because it survived my childhood unbroken, with all the decals intact, and in perfect working order. I also held on to all four of the "Little People" who came with it; the dog even has his plastic ears (it seems that some children chewed or broke the ears off theirs).

It remained in near-perfect condition until 1987, when my dad moved from Hamburg, New York, to Bellwood, Pennsylvania. In my thoughtlessness and haste, I must have packed it carelessly, and the United States Postal Service took care of the rest. The box arrived in Chicago in a banged-up condition, and a large corner of the Ferris wheel base had broken off. Recently, I glued it back together, but it was a messy break and needs restoration to return it to a semblance of its former appearance. I could have cried. I probably did. Whenever anything like this happens, I hear my mother's voice saying, "You don't know how to take care of your things!"

I've since discovered that the wheel is broken next to one of the struts, which is an aesthetic issue more than a structural one. I don't know how or when that happened.

The Ferris wheel has been in my closet since it was shipped in 1987; when I moved a few years ago, I was much more careful with it. In fact, I may have carried it to The Flamingo to prevent any accidents or losses. It still makes me a little sad every time I see it; it reminds me of all the lost and broken connections to my childhood.

I was reminded of it in August when I stayed at the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast, a 1960s chalet. The dining and living rooms are full of vintage decorations and toys. While I was admiring them, it suddenly occurred to me—I don't know why it hadn't before—to look for my Ferris wheel on ebay. Perhaps the proprietor suggested it to me. So, with an interest in seeing other Fisher-Price Ferris wheels and perhaps even in acquiring a second one in what ebayers terms "played with" condition, I created an ebay search.

To my surprise, I have been finding a number of these Ferris wheels on there. This makes sense; probably thousands of these toys were produced 40+ years ago, with many ending up in the attic or cellar, at estate sales, and in antique stores as children grew up and moved out.

What surprises me even more is the variation among them. Of the dozens I've looked at, only two to date have matched mine. For example, there's what is known as the "mean kid" pushing a bar that appears to turn the wheel. Mine sports a blue shirt and yellow baseball cap turned fashionably sideways, but most of the "mean kids" wear different color combinations such as green and yellow or green and red.

My riders, three children and a black dog, are also different from most. Some Ferris wheels seem to have come with adults, even grandmothers complete with granny glasses and hair buns. A few sets, which seem to be more recent than my circa 1966 edition, include people of color. The sets vary in size, color, and design; I suppose these "Little People" were made to fit a variety of Fisher-Price toys.

Another difference is where the music movement was manufactured. Most seem to have come from Japan, while mine was made in Switzerland. Most likely mine is an early edition of this toy, which, along with other Fisher-Price toys, evolved.

This makes my carelessness even worse, as my combination (blue shirt, yellow cap, Swiss-made movement, the particular "Little People" set) seems to be the hardest to find.

Many of the Ferris wheels for sale on ebay are missing all or parts of the decals; mine are starting to come loose as the 40-year-old glue dries out. While some undoubtedly fell off on their own, I can imagine how tempting it was for four-, five-, and six-year-old children to peel off the stickers. Indeed, some of the wheels have no decals left, and some sellers do not seem to be aware that the wheel and ticket booth had them at one point.

I have no intention of selling my Ferris wheel as long as I can help it. They seem to sell for $20–$40, at which point I hear my dad's voice saying, "For that piece of junk?!" The other day, one that was similar to mine, from a seller in Lancaster, New York, sold for nearly $70—to a man in Switzerland who would have to pay more than $30 for shipping! For a moment I wondered if he'd designed the Swiss-made movement.

Or perhaps he, like me, is trying to recapture some of the wonder and sweetness of childhood, when a simple toy could bring joy that is still remembered.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Alone

Another poem, this time based on the words "dark," "fire," and "shudder": Alone.

Review: The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe {and Other Stories of Women and Fatness}

The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe {and Other Stories of Women and Fatness} edited by Susan Koppelman. Foreword by Alix Kates Shulman.

In this anthology about "women and fatness," fat women eat, exercise, laugh, cry, love, give birth, and are abused and exploited. In fact, they experience the joys and tribulations of women everywhere, but what defines them, or sets them apart, is their body size.

The American interest in fitness seems to have begun in the late 1800s, when urban sophisticate May Welland of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence was compared to the hunt goddess Diana and noted for her slimness and athleticism. By the 1920s, thinness was firmly established as the fashion, with characters such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jordan Baker (The Great Gatsby) representing the slender, athletic, almost boyish ideal. In Koppelman's collection, Octavia Thanet's "The Stout Miss Hopkins's Bicycle" (1897) is an early example of how women suffered socially for their weight and how they began trying to manage it through exercise—an unthinkable notion for ladies of previous generations. One hundred years later, 1997's "The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe" (Hollis Seamon) also pairs two woman who to the world appear to have eating disorders—Suzanne Brown, who prefers the fullness of flesh, and Theresa, a teenager with apparent anorexia.

Some stories, like "Fat" (Grace Sartwell Mason) play purposely to the popular stereotype. Mrs. Payton Tierney substitutes a constant supply of rich foods for the love that no longer exists between her and her husband. Food is the problem and the solution as "The prison of her flesh received her" and the story ends in a surprisingly predictable way.

Stories like "Good-Bye, Old Laura" (Lucile Vaughan Payne) and "Skanks" (Rennie Sparks) capture the respective times and experiences of their teenage protagonists. Laura and Janine are complex characters whose peers influence their feelings about themselves and their bodies, with disturbing results for both. "The Hershey Bar Queen" (Elena Diaz Bjorkquist) is a teenage revenge fantasy, although the protagonist's food obsession and child-like simplicity and gullibility make the supernatural ending disappointingly ineffective.

If Mrs. Tierney, with her bonbons and distaste for exertion, is the stereotypical fat woman, the husbands in "The Feeder" (Maria Bruno) are alpha males whose wives fight back by taking control of their food, their bodies, and their weights—the thin wife consciously, the fat one less so. This story stands out for the disturbing image of a trapped, dying bird, wings broken, that is not worth saving to the insensitive husband.

"Perfectly Normal" (Lesléa Newman) is about the fat hatred and other prejudices of an anorexic wife. After making her promise not to get fat like her active, happy, lesbian sister, her husband sends her to a sanitarium before she wastes away even more. The combination of the wife's first-person perspective and the extremities of her opinions ("The least she [sister] could do was rip out the labels [of her clothing] so she would not have to be embarrassed" [about her size]) puts this story at the border of two-dimensional for the sake of making a point.

That is part of the problem with any focused collection like this; the focus on food, fat, and fat attitudes casts a blinding glare on the issues rather than truly illuminating them. It's interesting to see attitudes over the past 100 or so years, but questions arise, such as: How do those attitudes compare to those toward fat men, or to those who are different physically in other ways? If, as is claimed, only 10 percent prefer a fat partner to a normal-sized one, can the bias against fat be so definitively said to be social and cultural? Are those influences that widespread and strong? If the claim is true, are fat women really powerful erotic symbols to any but a few? It's mentioned that Lillian Russell, at more than 200 pounds, was a sex symbol of her time—but is that because she was fat or despite the fact she became fat with age?

In her defensiveness about fat, Koppelman writes, "There is nothing in women's fiction to affirm the calamitous claims of health risks made by the bariatricians, the exercise gurus, and the weight reduction mavens." Koppelman cannot be so single-minded as to confuse what appears in fiction with what happens in reality. Obesity, like other extremes, not only comes with serious health risks (for example, diabetes and all its complications), but also can limit the fat person's activities in ways that have nothing to do with societal bias (for example, I am too heavy for horseback riding, which I would love to be able to do). Koppelman's logic seems to be that, until a woman writes fiction about obesity-induced illnesses, they are not an issue for women.

The big question here is, "What does fat mean?" To the 5'7" patient in "Perfectly Normal," it means weighing more than 100–115 pounds. "The Hershey Bar Queen" weighs more than 400 pounds, as must the sideshow attractions in "Noblesse" (Mary E. Wilkins Freeman) and "Even as You and I" (Fannie Hurst). Suzanne LaFleshe weighs a little over 200. It's an important question because an active, confident, 200-pound woman, while fat by medical and social standards, may fall within the realm of normal deviation, while a girl like "The Hershey Bar Queen," enormous and obsessed with food, is a clear case of pathology. People fear pathology, whether it's morbid obesity, autism, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe {and Other Stories of Women and Fatness} is hampered by the restrictions and biases of its focus. A few stories stand out, but many are slices of life that lack depth, context, and subtlety. Another issue is that the book copy was not proofread; there are numerous typographical errors throughout, sometimes several on a page, so that the trustworthiness of the texts is in doubt—an unfortunate problem in a work produced by an academic professional like Koppelman. Still, it's worth reading for the handful of gems.

Sunday, 11 November 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Like the river

Based on the words "old," "river," and "photograph," I came up with a poem, Like the river.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Co-op Markets

Letter to the editor to the Hyde Park Herald on November 8, about Co-op Markets:


Although it shouldn't have been a surprise, I read with dismay of the Co-op's bleak alternatives. While it's amazing when anything in this world lasts as long as 75 years, the Co-op's financial failure is distressing because it seems to have come about because of one bad decision—to expand and to lock into a long-term lease. In other words, it was utterly unnecessary. I've also been disappointed that someone would run for a board position, win it, and then figure out that they didn't have enough time for it.


I've followed the disparaging comments made by a vocal (or verbal) few in the Herald, including those written by people willing to call their neighbors "stupid" for shopping at the Co-op. Call me "stupid" all you like; I prefer the Co-op to any chain store that I have been in. If my preferences make me "stupid," so be it.


The comments and attitudes are unfortunate because the Co-op provides an alternative to the abundant chains, which not everyone loves. As an example, a friend in Ann Arbor, her daughter, and I went to Whole Foods to pick up a special order. She and her teenage daughter found the experience so miserable, and similar experiences at other chains likewise, that they agreed to find a way to do as much of their shopping at their local co-operative—a tiny store, more the size of a convenience store—so they could avoid the chain stores like Whole Foods and Kroger altogether.


Then there's my friend who lives in the south suburbs, within walking distance of Jewel and driving distance of numerous stores. He loves the Co-op and wants to stop there nearly every time he is in Hyde Park. If we're pressed for time, I have to drag him out.


Then there are the people I overheard one day, who apparently were in the area for wedding. Some were hanging around Bonjour when they were joined by a couple who told them, "There's a grocery store back there. It's really good, a little like Whole Foods but different. You should see it."


It's also disturbing how eager the university is to get rid of the Co-op and to bring in a chain. The university clearly has a poor understanding of why college towns like Ann Arbor are so charming and popular with parents and students alike—the small boutiques, the unique stores, and the standalone cafes like Cafe Verde and Sweetwater Cafe are all part of the effect. Even with its diverse student body, the university seems to want to suburbanize Hyde Park, with Borders, Starbucks, Hollywood, and other suburban comforts on every corner. Now they want a chain grocery store, because apparently a local co-operative just isn't mass market enough.


Under normal circumstances, I'm not so sure the Co-op's time would have come. There have been tremendous improvements in the past several years, and now it seems it's all for nothing for those of us who are "stupid" enough to keep up our memberships and to prefer shopping there and for the employees, too.


All good things must come to an end, but such an end affecting so many people, including the "stupid" like me—it's unfortunate and sad, moreso because it was avoidable.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The magic of Disney

I seem to be in a curmudgeonly mood, so now is as good a time as any to confess that I hate Disney.

I've seen very few Disney movies (intentionally, and I've never been to Disneyland or Disney World. Yet I hate Disney.

Of course, the contemporary American can't help being exposed to Disney. The movies, merchandise—lots of merchandise—and advertising are avoidable only if you live in a hermit's cave and can miss out on the highway billboards, shopping, television, radio, or the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even then, they'd probably find you via direct mail.

Given my exposure level—minimal for someone who lives in a major urban area where advertising assaults the senses constantly—my antipathy toward all things Disney feels entirely natural. It's not something I've developed over time. What is it that I find so abhorrent?

Some of it is, of course, Disney's ubiquity and popularity. Far from being "magical," Disney is crassly commercial, catered to small children and to the parents who indulge them—and so ingrained in American culture that each generation passes on their love for what is essentially a mass commercial enterprise as though it were an unmatched, irreplaceable family heirloom.

There's more to my distaste, I suspect. When I think of Disney, the first words that come to mind are "conformity" and "control." Disney is as much part of the suburban American childhood experience as day-care, cars, and pumped-up self-esteem.

Most parents I've known have faced a moment when they think their head will explode if they have to watch The Little Mermaid one more time. Those with money will surely find themselves at Disney World in the near future. For a while, even athletes shilled for Disney, saying after winning a championship, "I'm going to Disney World!"

There's no doubt that something about the world of Disney appeals deeply to something in the American people. Perhaps it is that need for control. Beyond the character cuteness and cleverness and the carefully managed visitor experience lies a vise of control in which nothing is left to chance. It is the control of the alcoholic, who needs to be in charge and to keep reality at bay. The "magic" is not magic at all; it is control.

In this planned world, managed to the smallest detail, horrifying folk and fairy tales become watered-down, predictable, affirming stories of good and evil. They are just scary enough for a slight thrill of slight uncertainty and danger, but the handsome boy and the beautiful girl go on to live the American dream—invisibly, because Disney is about youth, not age. The villains suffer some form of punishment, but nothing like the punishment inflicted in real fairy tales. In one tale, the wicked woman is placed into a barrel of inward-facing spikes, which is rolled down a hill—a sort of rolling iron maiden that you won't find in a carefully sanitized Disney version.

Magic acts are based on control; the magician and assistant control the audience's perception of what they think they see. Disney is an elaborate magic act without equal. Small children don't see workers with plastic heads, and even jaded teens can become immersed in the more sophisticated rides and attractions. Giving up control means losing yourself in the magic—all of it an act, a pretense.

With Disney, the illusion, the appeal to the senses, and feeling of wonder are so complete that the critical brain is not engaged. Disney children grow into Disney adults who, not surprisingly, want to pass on that same feeling, which they remember as "magical," to their own children. No doubt Disney struggles to compete with all the sophisticated diversions that are available today, but its entertainment empire thrives.

People seem to go along with magic acts as long as the illusion is seamless. We don't really believe that a woman is being cut in two (and put back together) on stage. The better the illusion, however, and the more elusive the trickery, the more awed we are. "How does he do that?" Interestingly, there are always a few who seem disappointed when magic acts prove to be trickery. They say, "It's a trick! He didn't really saw the woman in half!" as though they think the act of illusion should be reality, as though they confuse the two.

That's the problem. Magic, not illusion, should be reality. Magic is something greater than ourselves, and therefore magic is spiritual. The parting of the Red Sea and the miracles of the New Testament are magic—great, inexplicable events that, whatever your beliefs, are recounted as though they had really happened, as though they were reality. Magic is real, magic is powerful, and magic is dangerous. Magic, no matter how benevolently used, even to feed the five thousand, is frightening because it is greater than ourselves, and we cannot understand it or its powers.

There's no room in our world left for magic. Our science has explained nearly everything, and we have faith that someday it will explain everything that remains uncertain. If someone parted a sea or brought the dead back to life, we would be determined to figure out the illusion or to find a rational explanation. We will not be satisfied until we prove that there is nothing greater than ourselves.

Disney is an illusion designed to prolong the illusion of childhood. But Disney is not magic. Instead of believing in the potential of magic and all its possibilities, we'd rather pay for a well-crafted facsimile because we are sure that that is all there is. Instead of seeking the magic—and power—of the imagination, we, like other animals, rely on stimulation of our senses. The popularity of the theme parks, the movies, and the products prove there must be a real thrill in this, and perhaps a yearning for more.

That "more" is magic, and it cannot be bought or sold—by Disney or anyone else.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Dream: Encouragement from Wayne C. Booth

I suddenly knew that I was in another class with Wayne C. Booth and that I was a failure in it, as I had been before (in this dream). As I was about to leave for home, which (in this dream) was Yonkers, New York, I found out that I knew nothing and had no credit.

Mr. Booth was kind and told me that if I went into an online folder (or something like that), it would make a difference. I also got it into my head that I needed to get a certain history textbook. But I had to leave by 4 o'clock or I would never get to Yonkers(?). As I wandered hopelessly looking for the right place to buy the right history book, I found myself in what looked like a club, an area of neighborhood stores, and the like. I realized that I would have to leave straightaway if I were to be able to go home to Yonkers, with no luggage, no clothes, no toiletries, perhaps not even a purse with money.

Confused, lost, and panicking on every level, even as I went from store to store, place to place, and finding myself at what could have been a regional airport, Mr. Booth was somehow there, reassuring me over and over again of his confidence in me as mine failed utterly.

I did not want to wake up until I had lived up to it, unlikely as it seemed.

Early November at Promontory Point


DCP_2474
Originally uploaded by dschirf
I am out of tune with the seasons—I thought most trees were bare by early November, but the colors seem to be around peak here. Enjoy.

Wadsworth horses

Slide show of the Wadsworth horses recovering at the Carney farm. (Scroll down.)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Week of October 28, 2007

To my knowledge, nothing this week flooded, leaked, crumbled, broke, or collapsed—not even me. I did have odd dreams, although I didn't remember much of them when I woke up. Also, thanks to PMS, I fell asleep soundly on the bus, even missing my stop one evening, and sometimes started to doze at lunch. I felt myself drifting off during a couple of department meetings, which may have been noticed because I had so little control. There were a few times when I felt overcome, almost sick with sleepiness. Then, at 10:00 or 10:30 p.m., when I tried to sleep, it wouldn't come. I wasn't exhausted, and it would take me unusually long to get to sleep. Then I would wake up two or three times during the night. Once or twice I overslept. All that should be relieved soon, but it's an odd feeling to have so little say over one's body and functioning.

On Monday, October 29, J. T. and I met after a Lyric Opera dress rehearsal and went to Red Light (Jackie Shen). At some point early on, perhaps during the small plates, J. T. started peering past me at something by the entrance. "I really can't see very well and can't be sure, but that looks like Mayor Daley and Bill Kurtis." I turned around to look, although I did not have a good angle and could not see well through the plants, but I did spot a forehead that strongly resembled that of one of Da Mare's family members, a niece with whom I had worked 10 years ago. "Looks like Daley to me," I said. I'm not from Chicago, and I'm not fond of the Daleys in general or Richard the Younger in particular.

J. T. remained uncertain. "There's no security," she pointed out. "This isn't a power place. And the mayor wouldn't stand at the bar like that." (Why not? I thought.)

A few minutes later, I looked to my left, and there could be no doubt now. Daley and Kurtis had moved to the center of the room and had been joined by Kurtis's producer-girlfriend, Donna LaPietra, whom J. T. recognized from a ZooBall dinner. They spoke to Jackie Shen, then were taken to a private room, which I could just see into. J. T. was beside herself that there was no security. I noted that three or four men had gone in shortly afterward, but she said, "Those are suits." Maggie Daley arrived some time later.

I'm recording this as this is the first time, I am sure, that Da Mare and I have dined at the same restaurant at the same time, perhaps even in the same restaurant. Most likely it will be the last.

Monday morning I read about the accident in Wadsworth, Illinois, that killed or injured 59 draft horses, many young, many Belgian. Every time I looked at the drooped eyes of the horses pictured, clearly in shock, I saw an inexpressible world of suffering and betrayed loyalty and trust. I cried every day at work. For many, including me, it did bring to light the use of horses in the pharmaceutical industry, the slaughter of horses in Canada and Mexico for French and Japanese markets, and, if that were not bad enough, the inhumane conditions under which horses are transported and killed. Like dogs, in our culture horses are working and companion animals. Their slaughter should be as repellent to us as it would be if it were poodles or Pomeranians.

Later in the week, I read about a fire in a foie gras company building that killed 15,000 ducks. 15,000! I imagine how those ducks must have felt, trapped, unable to flee, suffering unspeakably, and all for human greed. I also read about the slaughter of a dolphin pod, including babies, by the Japanese; the story was accompanied by a graphic, disturbing photo of the bloodied bodies these intelligent, sentient animals. All for human greed.

I cried for the horses, the ducks, and the dolphins partly because I cannot save them, I cannot comfort them, and I cannot reassure them that not all of my kind are hellish, heartless monsters. And because I know that what happened to them is the proverbial tip of the proverbial iceberg, that human cruelty is pervasive and unstoppable, that even now, at this moment, any moment, unthinkable cruelties are being committed without thought other than money and sadism against those with no voice, committed without conscience, committed without end.