Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Monday, April 28, 2008
Having survived French bureaucracy, endless home improvement, goat races, hunters, Massot's dogs, summer visitors, and other hazards during A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle brings us more of the same in Toujours Provence.
This time Mayle takes a more illustrative approach. Beginning with a pharmaceuticals marketing brochure that depicts a snail whose "horns drooped" and whose "eye was lackluster," Mayle educates us about health concerns and approaches in Provenceincluding house calls. Anecdotes relate Mayle's love of picnicking Provence style (with chef, wait staff, and linens); his quest for singing toads, truffles, and napoléons (the coins); his pursuit of Pavarotti and pastis; and, of course, his passion for the regions fresh foods and fine vintages.
With a few exceptions, such as the history of pastis and the more sobering story of summer drought and forest fires, much of Toujours Provence will seem familiar territory to readers of the first book. For the most part, Mayle is in fine form, writing that Bennett, "looking like the reconnaissance scout from a Long Range Desert Group . . . had crossed enemy lines on the main N100 road, successfully invaded Ménerbes, and was now ready for the final push into the mountains." Some anecdotes, like "No Spitting in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape," end brilliantly, while others, such as "Napoléons at the Bottom of the Garden," fall a little flat.
Judith Clancy's delightful artwork is back, but what is missing from Toujours Provence are the quirky characters we came to love or at least wonder about. Most are mentioned or make a brief appearance, but mainly they are relegated to the background. Even Mayle's neighbor Massot (". . . it would be difficult to imagine a more untrustworthy old rogue this side of the bars of Marseille prison"), to whom half a chapter is devoted, is here more caricature than character. We know no more about him, or Faustin and Henriette or Monsieur Menicucci, than we did at the end of the first book. By now, Mayle's circle has expanded , but no one he meets, from the toad choir director to the flic, is nearly as interesting as his neighbors or his builders from the first book.
Like an adequate movie sequel, Toujours Provence carries on in the same vein as its predecessor, with a slightly different or reduced cast and a little less originality and wit. Perhaps more appropriately, I should say it's like a wine slightly past its peakstill worth drinking, but somehow not quite as enjoyable.
Monday, 28 April 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.
Like Cranford and Wives and Daughters, Cousin Phillis is a variation on the themes that seemed to have preoccupied Elizabeth Gaskell: the changes wrought by mechanization and the different spheres in which men and women live and operate.
When the narrator, then 19, meets Phillis, her physical world is small, contained, and regular, predictably following the seasons as agricultural life does. Her intellectual life, however, is vast. She is comfortable with Latin and the principles of mechanics; she attempts to read Dante in Italian. As Jenny Uglow notes in the foreword, ". . . she does not crave 'independence,' but connection . . . She yearns to use her mind and give her heart." She wants to be a woman.
By contrast, the men around her are reshaping the world with their thought, their inventions, their ambition, and their work. Even the narrator, who admittedly lacks his father's inventive genius and Holdsworth's drive, is doing more than Phillis ever could simply by serving as Holdsworth's assistant.
With her flourishing intellectual curiosity and her growing sexual awareness, it's natural for Phillis to discard the pinafore that represents the restrictions placed on the Victorian woman-child and to desire a man whose tastes, abilities, and drive seem to parallel her own. The result is not surprising. As a woman, her opportunities are limited, while those of the man stretch across two continents and grow greater with each rail laid. It's clear who is destined to be disappointed.
As with the other novels, Gaskell captures a world within her own memory that in many ways had already ceased to exist. The narrator, older and married now, recalls in vivid detail an experience colored by the passage of time and by the changes that have transpired. The bogs, "all over with myrtle and soft moss," could not fail to be altered irrevocably by the railway line, nor could the Hope Farm, with its cozy "house place" and "the clock on the house-stairs perpetually clicking out the passage of the moments." Phillis's father learns that she cannot be kept in a pinafore and all that it represents, and the narrator "feared that she would never be what she had been before." No one is.
The narrator leaves us with enticing mysteries. What has prompted him to write about Phillis? What has happened? What does he want to accomplish by telling her story now? What is he trying to recapture? What happened to Phillis? What happened to the Hope Farm and its way of life that he so beautifully recalls and the tenor of which is so effectually altered by events?
Cousin Phillis is a tiny treasurealways evocative, never overwrought. We see Phillis and her natural evolution from child to woman with the narrator's wisdom of maturity and the clarifying, yet softening filters of time. The narratorand Gaskellleave Phillis trapped in time, changed, newly aware of the broadness of her desires and of the obstacles she faces, and determined to "go back to the peace of the old days" a hope that is nearly impossible to achieve. There is no going back, as Phillis must surely know.
Sunday, 27 April 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
For at least 14 days I've had symptoms of PMS. My period was due to start about April 24 (which meant that I had to cancel my first appointment with a different gynecologist for the 25th). At around 11:00 p.m., there were signs that it was starting. Those signs continued for almost 60 hours in combination with the PMS, making me doubly miserable. At last, it looks like it means business.
This happened last month, when my period dropped hints that it was on its way and then arrived unapologetically late. I don't like to contemplate this, but even I can't deny that this is probably the beginning of the end—perimenopause. I don't feel like a crone, and I'm not ready to be one.
Billions of women have undergone this rite of passage, but what I'm starting to understand is that it's going to be unpleasant—not because of the discomfort, which can be considerable, or the changes, which can be dramatic, but because my body is doing these things behind my back and without my permission.
Perimenopause and menopause are inevitable for women who live long enough, but I don't see how you can prepare for it, any more than you could for puberty. If the one marks the beginning of the entry into adulthood, the other marks the beginning of the end. As an animal, my useful (reproductive) life is over. Logic can't always overcome the underlying finality and sadness of that simple truth.
Yesterday J. decided to stop by on his way to work to take a walk with me (part of his determination to be more active), but while driving he talked himself out of working. I was waiting for him with tea in an insulated cup so we could combine activity with something comforting.
In spite of the darkness (the lights were off), we walked around Promontory Point and to the 57th Street underpass. Along the way we spotted four parties with fires blazing in the stone circles. The fires worried me because they were large, and the wind was floating sparks from them everywhere. I half expected to see the Point in ashes this morning. At each fire, J. stopped to contemplate the beauty of the flames and then pointedly reassured me each time that he is not a pyromaniac.
Because he had decided not to go to work, I made him watch Buster Keaton's The General. It's a brilliant movie—comedy with a touch of adventure, and chase scenes that have never been equaled. Every obstacle is an example of Keaton's inventive genius, and every exquisitely timed stunt a testament to his physical prowess. His character's love interest is played by Marion Mack, who is more than the obligatory eye candy. She turns in a delightful performance that ranges from expressive (when she thinks that her man wasn't even in the line to enlist) to as stone-faced as Keaton himself as she grimly feeds the General's boiler with delicate sticks of wood. When Keaton strangles her in frustration, then kisses her violently mid-pursuit, it's more than a comic bit; it's an erotic moment that should be remembered as one of cinema's great kisses—anger turned to passion.
The General is not just a gag-filled chase; through visuals and only a handful of captions, it tells a satisfying story. To me, it's one of the most nearly perfect movies ever made.
This morning a nightmare woke me up. When I did, I could feel the earth trembling and wondered if there was more shaking going on along the New Madrid fault.
Then I realized the trembling was a sensation caused by the pounding of my terrified heart.
Saturday, April 26, 2008
I returned to an unfamiliar dormitory and found a long line of people on the stairs leading to the basement, waiting to get into a concert. I looked up; a dry-erase board announced: ZEUS—1, perhaps with some other cryptic notes. I knew this notation meant that he was alone (no other band members) and performing for one night only. I also knew “Zeus” was Sting from The Police, although at the moment I couldn’t think of the name “Sting.”
I spotted two men in the building who looked familiar. One was unmistakable; he towered over everyone, and his hair was curly. In the dream the other man was familiar, but I could not think of who he might be.
“Are you Gabe?” I said to the tall man, noting that he had not aged at all and wondering if I were in a time warp. He admitted that he was, and I asked him, not at all hopefully, if he recognized me. He didn’t. I was not surprised. I explained how I remembered him and about my repeated attempts to return to college, even after graduating. I asked him if he were attending classes. “No,” he said. “I’m here for a secret project that I can’t tell you about.” Instead of thinking he was there as a scientist, I concluded he must be a psychology researcher working in a dormitory and speculated why this would be secret. I also realized that there was a secret message in “I’ll Be Watching You” that had nothing to do with stalking, but I knew I could not articulate it. I may have tried.
By now I wanted dinner, but the café workers had pulled a chair halfway across the entrance. I did not understand this obvious hint, so a testy middle-aged woman came over to tell me the café was closed and to pull the chair more firmly across the entrance. I thought, Already I am paying for meals I don’t eat. I am irresponsible.
I thought of going somewhere else—the bookstore? another dorm?—but realized now that I was nude. No one earlier had noticed, or maybe I had become suddenly nude. I wanted to leave but to go outside across streets and lawns and through buildings without wearing a top seemed risky.
I started to think about why I was there and the classes I still struggled with. I might never pass or perform to my satisfaction; I might never escape.
Friday, April 25, 2008
Thursday, April 24, 2008
It’s been reported that, with every wave of Tibetan rebelliousness, the Chinese people grow more impatient with the Tibetans. They were ignorant savages until we gave them civilization! Without China, without us, they’d still be in a technological and cultural dark age. Who are they to question Chinese authority? How dare they? Why can’t they be more like us?
Meanwhile, the rebellious Tibetans think, “Without China, we’d be free.”
Americans in the Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago of the 1800s who read about the Indian wars in the west undoubtedly had a similar reaction. Those savages! Complaining about the desecration of their hunting grounds and their sacred this and that. Why can’t they live on farms and in towns? Why can’t they be more like us?
I suppose this is natural—we tend to be most comfortable with people just like ourselves. This explains Chinatowns, Little Italies, exclusive country clubs, high school cliques, and team pride. We like who we are, and we secretly wonder why others don’t aspire to be just like us—even when, like the Tibetans and the Indians, they clearly like who they are, too.
That’s why the public’s reaction to the government intervention at the FLDS ranch in Eldorado, Texas, is interesting. Given the unproven allegations of child sexual abuse and the group’s theological beliefs (including polygamy), I didn’t expect much sympathy from the public. Almost everything about FLDS is different—their religion; their dress and manner; and their work, community, and family lives. I expected many Americans to dismiss them as a dangerous cult, a threat to the normal order. Yet many people who are posting online seem sympathetic to them without worrying why they can’t be “more like us.”
Whether we admit it or not, I think part of that is because they have a certain resemblance to the middle class. Their dress may be old-fashioned, but it’s not exotic or foreign. They believe in God, although their theology is unorthodox. They practice polygamy, but so have others before them. Without the sexual abuse charges, they seem more eccentric than menacing.
Of course, it’s also easy to take their side because, unlike the Tibetans and Indians, they aren’t a different ethnic group that happens to have land and resources that the rest of us want. This makes it much easier for the man and woman on the street to feel for them.
I would like to think that part of it, too, is post-911 privacy and rights usurpation backlash. For years the U.S. government has taken advantage of our fears to insinuate itself into our lives and to ferret out our information—even data on the books we read and buy. At last there may be a sense that the government has gone too far, that George Orwell was only a couple of decades and a few details off. If hundreds of children can be taken from their mothers based on one unproven allegation made by phone by someone who can’t be found, what could happen to you or me and our families?
Like the Tibetans, like the Indians, we are not Borg. We will not be assimilated. Resistance is not futile in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
What do the colors mean?
blue: for links (the A tag)
red: for tables (TABLE, TR and TD tags)
green: for the DIV tag
violet: for images (the IMG tag)
yellow: for forms (FORM, INPUT, TEXTAREA, SELECT and OPTION tags)
orange: for linebreaks and blockquotes (BR, P, and BLOCKQUOTE tags)
black: the HTML tag, the root node
gray: all other tags
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Inevitable every year, spring is being persistent, manifesting itself through manmade and natural signs.
Pregnant women. Years ago someone pointed out to me that, in spring, the world is full of pregnant women. Until then, I had not thought much about this, but, judging by the number of protruding bellies I've seen in the past few weeks the long, cold, lonely winter was not all that lonely for many.
Garden kitsch. In the seasonal products aisle of Walgreens, a frog chirped as I walked by. After every fourth chirp (two sets of two chirps apiece), his mutant pink tongue rolled out enticingly (or threateningly). As mankind displaces wildlife like frogs, the unspoken answer seems to be to replace the live creatures with mechanical plastic replicas.
Little brown jobs. While walking through The Flamingo garden, I startled what birders know as a little brown job (LBJ). Just as I realized that it was not one of the ubiquitous European house sparrows but one of the many interesting migrants of the Central Flyway, it flew off. Nuts.
Love is in the air. In J.'s neighbor's back yard, a male grackle fanned his tail seductively and performed a rudimentary dance that clearly said, "Look at me! Look at me! Aren't I handsome?" The female must have been duly impressed because an activity ensued that was definitely not suitable for children or more sensitive viewers. I don't know about bees, but this pair explained why birds were singled out as an example.
The Flamingo pool. The cover has been removed, the winter meltwater drained, and the muck mopped out. Painting should be next. The pink-and-white deck chairs are piled up and waiting.
Come sail away. A few hardy sailors took their boats out Sunday, undoubtedly determined to pretend that it was a warm spring day, despite the chill and wind.
Garden goods. J. called me from a nursery; he is feeling the call of the perennials.
Puppet Bike. My favorite Chicago attraction is back on the street.
Insects and spiders. An insect parked itself on my window the other day for several hours, perhaps thinking it was a pickup joint. The spider brigade that uses my windows as a full-service hotel (with restaurant) has not reappeared, but Hodge and I do find individual members of the advance guard checking out the indoor comforts.
Increased workload. In the winter, when I dread bundling up and facing the cold and could put in extra time, my workload is lighter. The moment it's warm and light enough in the evenings to enjoy the outdoors, suddenly pent-up projects are found to keep me busy after hours.
That's all I can think of for now. I can't wait for the sighting of the first butterfly.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
The tearing down of many old buildings in his area upsets J. I understand why, although I point out to him that people are free to do what they like with their property, and nostalgic is not equivalent to historic. Unless a Civil War sniper used the run's tower as a base to influence a battle outcome, or Abraham Lincoln slept there, it's just a toboggan run. Even the town in which Swallow Cliff Woods is located can't save it. I'm sure much of what I loved best about Western New York of the 1960s is gone. I take some comfort in knowing that nothing but time, age, or disease can rob me of my memories.
During the drive, I was reminded of why the south suburbs have grown on me—they are not yet overdeveloped. That this will happen is inevitable, and the signs are there, like a bulldozed field and a developer's sign across the road from a farmhouse and barn. On the other hand, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County Web site claims that it owns 67,800 acres, or 11 percent of the land in Cook County. Much of that space, like Swallow Cliff Woods and Waterfall Glen, are in the south suburbs.
It had rained earlier, the sky was overcast, and there was very little spring green in evidence, but for me it's lovely to be in the woods at any season.
Of course, to get to the woods you must climb the stairs up the hill to the top of the toboggan run. My left knee hated it, my lower back agreed with my knee, and my cardiovascular system let me know that it hadn't been prepared properly. I took several breathers even as older people passed me. J. beat me to the top and documented my labors in photographs. He wondered about the haul down later; I told him that the descent would be easy.
At the top we spoke to a couple who are about our age. The man recalled using the run as a child in the 1960s, and the quickness and terror of the initial drop. Still panting, I thought about how thousands of children must have climbed the steps effortlessly, over and over.
The man said the reason given for the destruction is cost, although he seemed skeptical. His wife, more practical, pointed out that the Forest Preserve District probably pays expensive insurance premiums. This observation didn't mollify the men, but they didn't dispute it. We also discussed the unpredictability of employment, as snow is very irregular in this area. [Later, I found this article with the reasons.]
As we talked, a number of people walked up the steps; a few made repeat trips. We had noticed piles of pebbles and rocks on the stone ledges; the man explained that regulars use the stairs for exercise and track the cumulative number of trips with these rocks. He said that he and his wife are among these regulars, sometimes making five round trips, sometimes three. Often they bring their dog, who is "more interested in the woods than in the stairs. Can't imagine why." Later, as we were descending, we observed a determined man with nearly white hair make two round trips without showing any signs of tiring or quitting.
We had some time before sunset, so we walked one-quarter to one-half mile down a wide trail in the woods—wide enough for the horses whose droppings we stepped around. At one point, I heard a dense chorus of chirps that didn't sound quite like birds or insects; it may have come from frogs, although I don't know. Alas, I've never had much opportunity to develop my woodcraft skills.
During the return, the woods seemed quieter except for the regular roar of jets on their final descent into Midway Airport. In the relative silence, we heard the very loud drilling of a somewhat distant woodpecker. It's a sound that never fails to thrill me.
J. spotted a tree next to the trail that had two thin trunks of a different bark growing around it. These trunks, which seemed to have clumps of "hair," looked parasitic to my uneducated eye. I had a strangely emotional reaction to them, a primitive one of horror, as though I were seeing more than a woody plant (or parasite) embracing (or strangling) a tree. I shuddered inwardly while J. took photos for reference in case I wanted to figure out what it is.
In the car while we were debating where to eat, I spotted a sign about a "Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens." J. backtracked a bit. We walked around this area in the dusk light, observing mallards and a lone swan, probably a trumpeter.
From the neatness of its shores, I judged Lake Katherine to be manmade. The lake, fed by miniature waterfalls, and the surrounding nature preserve consists of 125 acres that began with open space reclaimed by Palos Heights in 1985.
Near the waterfalls, J. noted a sign warning against going onto the little island midstream, which is inhabited by northern watersnakes. While these snakes are not venomous, according to the sign their bite can cause significant bleeding. As if that were not enough to deter the more macho and determined adventurers, the sign writer added that disturbed watersnakes will poop and vomit. J. knew that the triple threat of blood loss and snake poop and vomit was not enough to stop me, but the growing darkness and the unsure footing on small, slippery rocks in the water were. I leaned forward for a while and peered into the misty dimness, willing northern watersnakes to appear. They didn't.
A peaceful place, Lake Katherine and its grounds are marred only by the electric towers that loom against the southern sky. In the fading light, with mist rising thickly from the water's surface, I could try to imagine the towers and all that they represent away.
We undid any benefits conferred by the exercise by eating at an Italian family restaurant, beginning with onion rings (my strange craving) and a combination plate of mushrooms and mozzarella and zucchini sticks, a Blue Moon Belgian White and fetuccine alfredo for me, and a soft drink and tortellini for J.
Stuffed (and carrying lots of leftovers), we came here, drank coffee infused with blueberries, and pretended not to ache.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
I was somewhere public, with people from the past, and was so despondent that I could not stop crying. The more I cried, the less anyone noticed me or my pain, which left me crying all the harder.
I saw people getting ready for a big social event, including a boy I'd known in college. He was a quadriplegic now, but even years later he could not be bothered with me.
Another boy I had known had come along in the back of a pickup truck. He scarcely knew me then or remembers me now, but in the dream I understood from him, without words or even looks, that I was to get in. Wordlessly, my high school girlfriends made him promise that he would return me in time for the big party. One of them began to fuss over me, dabbing my mouth, face, and even privates with perfume, because I supposedly had the date of my life for the party, but I knew better than to hope, and I drove her off.
The truck ended up on Amsdell Road. The boy, facing me without looking at or even seeming to notice me, was singing in a bland, flat tone into something that resembled a WWII army field telephone. Briefly I wondered if it might be a portable karaoke machine. I didn't recognize anything he sang and could not follow the words.
Although he ignored me, I had a sense that he was waiting me out, that I was supposed to tell him why I was so heartbroken. I couldn't, nor could I tell myself.
I spotted a clump of trees along the left side of the road, a sight that made my heart hurt. On the right side someone was putting out copper goods so densely that the road had become almost too narrow to be passable. Ugliness was all around, and I cried again at the ruin of one of the few pretty roads that had been left.
The boy continued to observe me without looking and to wait. I thought that maybe I should explain the perfume and the overzealous friends, and that I expected nothing like that. I didn't.
I wondered if he was ever going to bring me back. Even as he sang almost tunelessly and continued to ignore me, I almost didn't want him to. I thought he might be taking me to a far better place, as ugly as the journey might seem.
Friday, April 18, 2008
I don't remember everything that I dreamed about, although it involved a man with a fetish for three-breasted women. (Could I attribute this to a dinner of cottage cheese with garlic-and-herbs seasoning?)
After the dream, which was more complicated than this one detail I remember, I was restless. For an hour or more, I could not return to sleep, and then I was still semi-conscious. I woke up at 5 o'clock, set a vintage timer for an hour, and somehow without sleeping slept through its long mechanical bell ring.
I never felt the 5.2 earthquake. I didn't even know about it until I was perusing the Chicago Tribune's Daywatch at work.
A bit of shaking might explain why Hodge, who usually runs from me in the morning, was unsure and clingy today.
Although I didn't feel the 'quake, for some reason I feel vaguely disturbed and unsettled. And don't have anything to cling to.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
I walked into a college classroom, where everyone was excited because one of my stories had been published in a magazine. When we leafed through it repeatedly, none of us could find it. I did spot a recipe with my name, but did not recognize it. Then I saw the name "Diane" with a different last name; after some puzzlement, I figured out that she was the artist behind the full-page illustration. My name and story were on the right-hand page. I didn't know the story, nor did I read it. The magazine appeared to have a gardening/housekeeping theme.
I was starting to wonder what the class was about and why I was in it. Again I had the sensation of, "Haven't I had enough of this type of education?"
At home, which looked more like a large chemistry lab, I was getting ready to demonstrate something to a group that had not yet arrived, but water was coming out of various parts of the faucet. I called a maintenance man, who wasn't busy and also wasn't concerned about the waste of so much water. "I'll get to it, maybe tomorrow, maybe, if there's not a gas leak or anything like that," he said. I could not understand his nonchalance.
In the meantime, I was alone.
Thank you to my communications acquaintances at Shades of Gray for supporting my nomination as Secretary of Blasting Education to Smithereens and Reforming It, based on my questions:
But if we're going to start over, here's the fundamental question:
What is the purpose of education?
Is it to create a literate, knowledgeable democracy informed enough to make good decisions and to understand the complicated ethical, technological, etc., questions of modern times?
Is it to churn out corporate worker bees who buzz around trying to make the most money for the least possible effort?
Is it to get our precious child that incredibly cushy, high-paying job that we can brag to all of our friends about, even if it's not making him or her very happy?
Is it to encourage great minds to be great (doing research, philosophizing, governing, curing, etc.), and adequate minds to contribute what they can to society?
What is it? Who decides?
Of course, it's easy to come up with the questions ("Why is the sky blue?" "What makes the sun shine?" "Why do apples fall out of trees to the earth?"). Answering them is the trickier part.
I guess I've got some work to do before I can accept my theoretical nomination in good conscience.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
He saw me the moment he walked in—and behaved as though it were normal for me to be there.
I did not know what to do; I did not know his name. I began to try to catch a cat that I had seen, an activity that he seemed to find unexceptional. I began to wonder who I was to him.
Several times I climbed a ladder that ended in an upside-down V nailed to a rafter and commented that it seemed difficult and rickety, possibly to hide my inability to get off the ladder onto the rafter. The upside-down V was beyond my physical ability to master.
Now I was outside in what I thought to be my old backyard at home, with a single old tree in it. The actual yard had had no trees, but I wondered what had happened to the rest of them as if it had.
My dad came along and offered to drive me. We did not follow a surface road, but a miniature one made of wood that wound through the treetops. It seemed narrower than the wheel base of our van, which made me nervous. At one point, it rose at a 90-degree angle, so that it was like driving up a dry waterfall from the base. At another point, the road split off into an upper and a lower branch. The latter was low and close, but we took it anyway. My dad executed all these moves adroitly, but I was petrified from fear.
There was a house near the exit of the estate, and a crane was swinging another one into place across from it. I took these to be the homes of relatives and did not know why they should clutter our pristine grounds.
Dad and I were riding a train between the cars, but it did not appear to be especially dangerous. It may have been a city or commuter train. It wasn't safe, however, and I knew the journey was to be a long one, so I moved inside to find a place. The authorities captured my dad and as I was trying to say they had to be gentle with him because of his advanced age, I saw them shove him a bit, then debate that they should not be rough with him because of his age.
I do not know our destination.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Today there are still jokes about how Anne Boleyn lost her head, but life as a wife of Henry VIII was no laughing matter. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory gives a fictional account of Henry's most famous queen from the perspective of her sister, Mary. Gregory tries to capture a sisterly dynamic understandable to contemporary readers. Anne and Mary are opposites in appearance and temperament; loyal to one another out of obligation, not love; and, we are told, lifelong rivals. Oddly, that rivalry never quite materializes here other than in spiteful and venomous words and feelings. While Anne seethes with ambition and resentment, Mary is too passive a personality to be a match for Anne, nor does she try to be. As portrayed, the conflict between the sisters is more petty than powerful.
Gregory's choice for Mary to serve as narrator, as though it were her memoir, detracts from the sense of history. A Tudor-era aristocrat like Mary does not seem likely to set her story down in such detail after the events have passed. It might have been more effective to frame the story as a researcher's discovery of Mary's journals and letters. When handled adroitly, this type of framing device can make the characters and story more immediate and less obviously fictional. Another alternative would have been the omniscient third person, which might have been more convincing. As it is, I could not suspend my disbelief in Mary's voice, with its anachronistic nuances and sensibilities. She sounds more like a modern author than a 16th-century woman remembering the recent and difficult past.
Therein lies another problemMary never explains why she wrote all of this down, why she delves into such detail, or who she expects the reader to be. It might have made more sense if she had said she wanted her legacy to be the true story of her and her family's role in Anne's rise and fall, that she wanted her own name to be remembered, or that she was writing for her children and Anne's daughter, the Princess Elizabeth. We never know her purpose, which is strange because we learn from her that the Boleyn family does nothing without a reason. Given how poorly Mary's memories reflect on all the Boleyns and Howards, including herself, it become even more of a mystery why Gregory chose this format.
The Other Boleyn Girl draws readers in the same way that 1980s night-time dramas drew in viewers. Never particular about morals and influenced by time and events, Anne becomes as ruthless and desperate for power as any soap villainess, with her family's encouragement and support. Mary, once favored by king and family, is tossed aside when she proves to lack the will and desire to usurp the queen's place. She chooses her own path, never losing sight of her rivalry with Anne and never envious of Anne's sacrifices and sufferings.
Historical inaccuracies aside, including details about Mary and her children, Gregory fails to capture the larger world in which the Boleyn drama was enacted. She refers to France and Spain and their rulers, and the pope, but the complexity of the world outside Henry VIII's court and its politics is relegated to the background, brought forward in snippets only as needed. Henry himself is portrayed as hunting, gaming, and dancing from morning until night, with only an occasional concern for the kingdom's business or for the intrigues of his enemies and allies. The world here seems narrow and confined because it is only the world Mary seesMary, the other Boleyn girl who pretends to remain naive and who tries to focus on her own life, only to be drawn again and again into Anne's drama.
Gregory tries to use the story of the Boleyn girls to illustrate women's issues during the 16th century. As Mary notes, women are only pawns in the marriage game, played to achieve position, power, and wealth. It's clear, however, that men who lack power are pawns as well; George Boleyn and Henry Percy are forced into miserable marriages. The lesson here is less about the vulnerability of women to the whims of men than about how people of both gender were played for power.
Despite Gregory's comments about the charges against the Boleyns, found in the book's end matter, Mary witnesses (and, significantly, remembers in detail) enough clues to know whether Anne and George were guilty of the crimes for which they were beheaded. This is disappointing, because Gregory's hints, if not her stance of ambiguity, ignore the logic and the politics behind the charges.
Even at the end, Gregory misses an opportunity. Mary does not hear Anne's last words and does not include them in her work. This makes no sense, as they were recorded and can be read today. Gregory fails to weave in the available documented details that would have added real-life drama and interest to the story. Why would Mary not reflect on the final message of "the other Boleyn girl," given her inside knowledge of Anne and her willingness to write about her and the other Boleyns?
With its compelling historical setting, The Other Boleyn Girl had the potential to be an engaging if inadequate and flawed historical fiction. Don't rely on it, as I have heard some do, for your knowledge and understanding of Henry VIII, his court, or the Boleyns.
Saturday, 12 April 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
I paid for this outburst for years; no bully who had witnessed it could let me forget it. I'm not sure if the lesson was to keep one's feelings or one's weird music preferences to oneself, or both. It may have been after this that one of my classmates embedded chewing gum in my tangled locks.
What business did I have with Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, anyway? I was quite possibly the only student in the school who had ever heard it, let alone of it.
My outburst may have been the result of emotional stupidity (the opposite of the famous emotional intelligence that successful people are blessed with), but appreciation for Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune came from a love of reading. The Girl Who Ran Away by Joan Robinson was the culprit. In the story, an English girl sent to live with an aunt instead makes shift to live in a nearby copse for the summer—thus avoiding the unpleasantness of older relatives while being close enough to feel secure.
One day, Charlie hears a flute playing a tune that climbs the scale, then descends—Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Entranced, she finds the musician, a young man staying in a caravan (trailer) in the woods, and they become friends. He is a young adult, and she is still a child, but their meeting obliquely reveals the possibilities of the adult world of romance. When I hear Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, emotionally I am transported to a late summer's day in the depth of still, sun-dappled woods, a misfit, outcast child wanderer meeting a man, that is, a man thought of as a man, for the first time. It's beautiful, wistful, and melancholy, a point in time that makes me forget the past and yearn to know the future.
Perhaps the bullies were right to mock me. If you have had the patience to read this far, though, I think you are not one of them.
As a child, I directed my limited book budget primarily to two types of books: horse stories and mysteries (you can imagine my feelings if the mystery involved a horse).
A great story, like The Island Stallion (Walter Farley), combines a noble equine enigma with mystery of place—an isolated, lost world known only to the horses and to the boy protagonists. The concept of a place that is remote and unknown to man haunts me. In a recurring dream, I take a walk in the tiny woods next to the trailer park. Just beyond the thicket behind our yard, I suddenly see an unlimited vista of trees, ravines, and meadows, unseen and untouched by humans. In the dream I am surprised yet joyous, wondering how I could have not known of such a marvel and how long I could hold onto the incredible sense of euphoria and magic before it disappears. Did Lewis and Clark ever have a moment when they wondered if the land was infinite, infinitely lovely, and lonely?
The island stallion is hidden, and so is The Mystery of the Great Swamp (Marjorie Zapf). As Jeb works his way into the seemingly endless Okefenokee, I am lost with him, hearing only the hush of the great wetland punctuated only by animal calls, the movement of the trees, and the slithering of snakes into the water. In this dangerous world of primordial beauty, it's not surprising that a great secret dwells undiscovered. I wish it could have remained unknown.
I believed in the island stallion. I believed in the mystery of the great swamp. I may not have believed in them literally, but I believed that such things were still possible. When I stopped believing in the possibility, the best part of the child's imaginative spirit died in me, I think.
Some of my favorite books proved to be straightforward mysteries, but there was always something special that appealed to me. In Mystery by Moonlight (Mary C. Jane), the protagonist discovers a comfortable little shed where she can be by herself to think and to write. Jane's description of this place, amidst autumn leaves and under a moonlit sky, made me long for something just like it. The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost (Phyllis A. Whitney) and Mystery in the Pirate Oak (Helen Fuller Orton) also create places that were so outside my limited experience that, while ordinary enough to most children, they seemed mystical to me. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) was another magical place, and I felt profound empathy for the three lonely children who discover its restorative powers. Even today, I could wish to find such a place, too—and a soul mate who appreciates it as much as I do.
While Avonlea is a wonderful place in Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maud Montgomery), I saw myself in the intelligent, imaginative, wistful, stubborn, and misfit Anne. Unlike me, Anne gives free rein to her dreams. Unlike me, Anne is blessed with more than one kindred spirit she can trust—she wins over even her opposite, Mrs. Lynde. When people look at me, I wish they could see and appreciate those qualities that make Anne so loved. And I wish I could show those qualities, and I wish I could trust.
The final three books are mysteries, but with a clear, understated, haunting element of magic. In The Magic Tunnel (Catherine D. Emerson), an ordinary mass transit ride ends in an extraordinary place—the New Amsterdam of Peter Stuyvesant. How wonderful life would be if, at least once in a while, an ordinary trip could turn into such an adventure. The vividness of the encounter piqued my interest in history, too.
Today's plastic snowstorms are no more than a part of the household bric-a-brac, but The Snowstorm (also known as The Snow Ghosts) by Beryl Netherclift takes us back to an eerie, silent, snow-filled world of Victorian children who seem to be trying to lead us to something important.
The Secret Pencil (Patricia Ward) appears to be ordinary enough when Anna, on vacation with her family in Wales, finds it, but then it starts to write enigmatic messages when the mood strikes it. It's up to Anna to determine what they mean.
I have not re-read any of these stories for many years. In a way, they all end sadly. The mystery is solved, and all that is left is a return to everyday life and a memory. Even Anne, with so much promise, is dimmed by the cares and constraints of adulthood until she becomes almost dull. The snow ghosts disappear, and the snowstorm returns to being a decorative object. The pencil, once communicative, has nothing left to say, and no amount of wishing will animate it again.
I have changed, too. I'm an adult, with too many years of having the real world, with its practicalities, prevarications, and needs, beaten into me, and I fear that I might not be able to read these stories with the marvelous childlike sensitivity, feeling, and wonder that has been bludgeoned out of me over time.
Magic, literal or emotional, is ephemeral. A child like the one I once was is open to its possibilities, but there is always a sense that it will end, just as summer ended for Charley and the young man. Perhaps if we could cling to it (just as if I could hold onto my vision of the infinite, unspoiled wilderness), it would no longer cause the thrill of discovery and the longing ache of loss. Whether magic comes in a book, a dream, a vision, or a kindred spirit, love it while you can and remember that feeling as best you can because you may never experience it again. It is that possibility, that probability, that makes my longing and my melancholy stretch as far as my forest.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
It's been many years since I read the Sherlock Holmes canon, so I may not be the best qualified to judge the worthiness of Sherlock Holmes and the Thistle of Scotland as a pastiche. From what I recall, however, L. B. Greenwood has made a valiant if not entirely successful attempt to give new life to the great Victorian detective.
The outline of the mystery, which involves an impoverished earl, a contracted marriage, and a valuable historic gem, is pure Holmes. On the day of Lady Caroline's wedding, her only dowry, the famous Thistle of Scotland amethyst, is stolen from her hairin front of a room full of family, guests, and servants. The clues are odd and apparently unconnected: a white thread, deliberately damaged books, ugly trousers, uncurled hair, and the very elusiveness of the victim. Only Holmes could make sense of so many random clues.
Greenwood draws on as many Holmes canon elements as possible, including Mrs. Hudson, references to a previous case, Holmes in disguise, a train trip, ancillary puzzles, the Baker Street Irregulars, and (of course) a vainglorious Scotland Yard inspector. There are more Holmes elements than in any one Conan Doyle storyindeed, there are too many. Here, they serve as utilitarian devices that lack the evocative charm that Conan Doyle gave them. The brash young inspector is bland, without a distinctive personality. The train trip confirms a clue, but Holmes is not aboard to make chilling observations, such as how easily crime can be committed and hidden among the peaceful farmhouses of the countryside. The cabs roll along the streets of London, accompanied by mundane detail about how they are hailed and how expensive they are. Conan Doyle (who, I understand, was not familiar with London) evoked London's foggy nights and murky underworld so vividly that the city feels tangible and realso much so that people still look for 221B Baker Street. It's as though Greenwood grasps the vocabulary, but not the grammar. The words and the physical references are correct, but the subtle nuances that would make Holmes, Watson, and the rest live again in the imagination are missing. Instead, they are flat characters in a somewhat efficient if not engaging plot.
Holmes himself lacks the sharp wit, intellectual arrogance, and emotional detachment that made Conan Doyle's character enigmatic and compelling. He questions the servants too gently, he doesn't brood in the way Watson always finds so disturbing, he fails to chide the doctor for his inability to make sense of all that he has observed, he offers no philosophical insights into human behavior, and he doesn't express smug elation when he reveals what happened. Even worse, he doesn't explain how he makes the enormous mental leap required to make sense of the clues, and focuses on how the clues fit his solution rather than on how they led him to it. There is no real evidence against the culprit other than possession (why the amethyst was not disposed of after the theft is not adequately explained, so even this makes little sense). The ending is rushed, and I felt cheated by the somewhat scattershot buildup to and presentation of the solution.
Sherlock Holmes and the Thistle of Scotland begins solidly enough, but Greenwood tries too hard to be clever and not hard enough to be evocative. The fate of Lady Caroline is more of a bow to 1980s feminist sensibilities than the logical culmination of the story as told. The broadest strokes are found throughout, but Conan Doyle's subtle touches are missing. Most important, the great detective himself is missing. The man who says, "Five-and-three? Dear me! I foresee that this case is going to cost a fortune in cab fares," is not the coldly incisive, yet strangely vulnerable Sherlock Holmes I remember, the genius who challenged Professor Moriarty and the misogynist who succumbed to the combined beauty, charm, and intellect of Irene Adler. The surface is here, roughly executed, but the substance is not.
Tuesday, 8 April 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.
There was no damage.
There were no scorch or water marks, no burnt timbers, no structural damage of any kind. Even more interesting, the rooms, including mine, were bare. I loved this place and became afraid for it.
We would leave and return, each time to find the house on fire. It was always empty, and there was never any damage. The fire was always extinguished mysteriously and quickly.
Something must be causing these fires, I reasoned, perhaps an electrical problem. Some people volunteered to stay at the house to keep watch over it. Although they lived in it, too, I became suspicious of them.
I got into the car, cramming myself into the corner to make room for the many others I thought were coming. "We're going to pick up your cousin, J.," the driver, a registered nurse I work with, said. "That's it." I heard and understood her but did not believe her. I did not want to leave, and looked back fearfully at my beloved, empty house.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
I remembered that I have a degree and wondered why I was there. I looked on a schedule and found that I was enrolled in two full years of classes and that the first course was on "Potato." All of this was clearly a waste of time and money, and I dreaded canceling my classes, telling my parents, and packing and moving home again. Had I not been through this before?
I went to my room, which was like a warehouse. A stream of water was pouring from the ceiling. In a panic, I went to someone—perhaps my mother?—and told her about the water and that something must be done right away. She looked at me angrily and said, "It's all much worse than you realize. It's more than you. Take a look around." I did, and now there was water pouring down in this room, another warehouse. It was bare, and all the ceiling tiles were missing.
I returned to my room; I had a hunch I would find the same conditions there. It felt a little like an apocalypse or that we were traveling backward in time, and the condition of the building reflected a regression from the contemporary to the more primitive.
I could see that my life was ruined and felt the waves of despair begin. Again.
Friday, April 4, 2008
Overheard at the new Treasure Island in Hyde Park:
He: Oh, we forgot to get bagels.
She (acidly): Then get them.
I don't think she was hissing about the bagels.
Observed at the corner of 55th and Hyde Park Boulevard:
Man with cell phone to right ear and cigarette in left hand, woman with cell phone to left ear and cigarette in right hand—bookends.
They walked together, mostly, except when one or the other would veer off. When the other finally noticed, he or she would turn casually to catch up, without interruption to the phone conversations.
Nothing but love.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
To my surprise, they called upon audience members to come forward and play a game. They showed video of passing scenery shot from an aerial perspective; the object was to guess the location of the destination before the video arrived at it.
A young man was the first to be called. His video began in what like a tiny country village with a prominent, almost medieval church. I thought that it might be France; the destination might be somewhere like Arles. The young man was no more successful than I in his guesses. Suddenly, the aerial journey ended at an urban island that everyone guessed to be Staten Island. It was too large, I thought, and I was sure it must be Long Island even though I was puzzled by the skyscrapers.
The young man tagged me to play next (so much for my inconspicuousness), but the IT people said that I wasn't part of the audience.
I don't know what happened next—perhaps I failed at something—because I was told I had to duel someone, using real weapons. I was given a long pole with a semicircular blade. This seemed too easy, and I wondered what the catch was going to be.
For a long time I did not see my opponent or know what his weapons were, but he proved to be a large, bald man with brass stars and other throwing weapons. I did not want to hurt him, so I poked him gently with the blade. It made no impression on him. I wondered with suspicion if the blade magically softened or deteriorated at the edge with each blow, which would have been a nasty trick. I became more cautious.
In the meantime, the man threw his stars—but not at me. They never seemed to strike the intended targets, who were people I know and like. Finally, he walked toward me (I was frozen in terror, I'm sure), then veered toward a young man. He used the edge of a star on the young man's face and neck. Paralyzed and horrified, I was powerless to stop him. I thought he was going to slit the man's throat, but he made a line in the skin that barely bled. I did not know what to think or do, and I felt guilty.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
I've been a blood donor since I was first eligible. I was turned away once in Hamburg, New York, because my blood pressure was high. As I dripped sweat onto the floor, I asked naively, "Would riding a bicycle three miles uphill make it high?" Undoubtedly bemused, the nurse directed me to rest for a while, then we tried again. This time, my blood pressure was its usual laid-back self. Later, in my 20s, I was rejected once for low iron, but that proved to be a temporary condition.
I donated primarily through the Red Cross and later the University of Chicago hospitals. More recently, I've donated through an agency that performs workplace blood drives. My blood is healthy; the trouble has been getting at it and drawing it. My veins are either too deep or too small, and there seems to be only one, on the outer edge of my left elbow, that's consistently viable. We tried apheresis once, but it took too long.
At some point in the 1990s, after a donation the agency sent me a letter saying that my blood had tested positive for hepatitis B core antibodies and could not be used. This seemed unlikely to me, so I asked my doctor to order a screening. He couldn't find anything, and I wrote a rather tetchy letter to the agency with the results enclosed.
If I remember right, I donated a few more times without problem, then in the early 2000s the screening once again revealed the presence of hepatitis B core antibodies. By now, I was a little upset because it was clear to me the screening was flawed. I did not try to donate again until November 2007; I was under the impression that I still could.
I received a stern letter from the agency saying that, although the screening was negative this time, I have been permanently deferred as a blood donor due to two positive screenings [with negative screenings in between].
The letter was not well written, and it wasn't clear to me if this was this particular agency's policy, a generally accepted practice among blood donation organizations, or legally mandated. I did a little digging and found the following on another organization's site:
There is also evidence to suggest that a high percentage of positive HBcAb tests in healthy blood donors are false positives. The hepatitis B core antibody should not become positive because of vaccination. Donors are deferred after 2 positive occurrences.
This sounded to me like a generally accepted practice that makes no sense.
In the meantime, the agency had gotten my Social Security number wrong, and the voicemail I'd left with the corrected number had gone unnoticed. Finally, I got hold of a living being and told her that my pint had been dispensed with as no good, so my Social Security number didn't matter. "Oh, no, it's important that we have the correct number on file," undoubtedly to send to the CIA, FBI, Red Cross, the remnants of the KGB, and anyone else who might be out for my apparently tainted blood, what with the hepatitis B core antibodies that I sometimes have and sometimes don't.
I had a thought. "Can I talk to someone [a nurse] who can explain why I've been permanently deferred?" The conversation with the nurse was enlightening, frustrating, and almost amusing.
She told me that blood from a donor with hepatitis B core antibodies can't be used as it causes problems for the recipient. Right—I understand that perfectly and have no desire to make someone whose health is compromised worse. According to her, the presence of these core antibodies is not a bad thing for me, as they provide protection against hepatitis B. Right—I am familiar with the general principles behind antibodies.
I pointed out that I either have them or I don't, and it looks to me like the screening process produces a number of false positives, making it rather useless. "Yes," she conceded, "the screening does produce a number of false positives." She went on to say that it is only a screening, not a test. The screening can be affected by a number of factors, such as medication and viruses. It is the FDA that requires donors with two positives to be permanently deferred. "But," she said (and would repeat several times, even after agreeing that most likely I don't have hepatitis B core antibodies, "it's not a bad thing for you that you have core antibodies . . ." "I thought you agreed that it's very unlikely that I do?" "Yes, but it's not a bad thing because . . .," etc. "Something caused the positives."
After several sets of this back-and-forth serving match, I said, "Essentially, you're telling me that the FDA permanently defers a huge pool of healthy blood donors based on a flawed screening process that yields a high number of false positives."
Yes, that's what she was telling me, and that's what I gleaned from my own research.
Part of my rational mind understands the FDA's conservatism. With the best intentions, we don't want to make a recipient's condition worse.
The other part of my rational mind, however, knows that I'm the ideal blood donor—healthy and with no risks of blood-borne diseases from transfusions, travel, or lifestyle practices.
The nurse from the agency said they would call me if the regulations are changed and that I can still donate bone marrow and organs. Meanwhile, despite the constant pleas for blood donations, I'll have to keep my healthy blood to myself. For that, I am genuinely sorry.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
We knew we were in terrible danger and that the only way to avoid the monster-god's notice was to roll a ball between us so that it would not lose contact with the ground while rolling but would hit one or the other of us (not the child) at the end of each roll. At the same time, any kind of movement might attract his attention. All of this frightened me because the condition not to be seen—rolling the ball—included the condition to be seen—movement. It was a dilemma.
I faced the monster-god, which made the situation more horrible for me because I could see his reactions, if any. I would have to communicate them to the man somehow.
The man raised his arms, at which the monster-god raised his. I trembled in fear. The ball never rolled; it bounced, and the monster-god seemed to follow its erratic up-and-down movement. It never went straight; it veered off in different directions, which the monster-god seemed to notice. The more I saw of this, the more I was convinced that I was being toyed with and that I was doomed.
I feared the man and child, too.