Saturday, August 25, 2012

Summer worker

Busy as a bee pollinating on a hot August Saturday.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Book review: The Last Witchfinder: A Novel

The Last Witchfinder: A Novel by James Morrow. New York: Harper Perennial. 2007. 560 pages.

The last dodo. The last passenger pigeon. The last wilderness. The last fill-in-the-blank usually evokes a sense of sadness, loss, and finality. The Last Witchfinder, the over-the-top epic about a sister and brother dedicated to opposing world views in a time of rapid advancements, celebrates the last — we hope — of ignorance at a truly devilish level. Unlike the harmless dodo, the pretty passenger pigeon, or the soul-searing wilderness, the last witchfinder is an repulsively compelling creation, a stubborn holdover from an irrational time, when as much evil was committed in the name of the Good Lord as Satan could hope for.

Jennet Stearne and her brother Dunstan arrive on the scene in England just as the Age of Reason is taking root. Their story isn't told by the standard omniscient human narrator. Instead, it's recalled by a more lasting, if questionably reliable, witness to the Enlightenment and all that's happened since — Newton's Principia. That this novel requires a little more imagination and suspension of belief is obvious when a book takes the place of a human author, while the humans are the mere subjects. Sometimes Morrow's odd device breathes a little academic vitality into the narration, but more often the Principia's interjections and commentaries are too intrusive, forced, awkward, and lengthy to be effective. The imagination carries one only so far.

Jennet and Dunstan are molded differently by their shared experiences. Their father, a witchfinder, makes his living by producing the proofs that condemn marginal or eccentric members of society, usually women, to gruesome state executions. His sister-in-law, a half-informed but intellectually curious devotee of Newton, becomes a threat to the beliefs of the past that fuel his existence. When she is condemned as a witch, Jennet makes it her mission to use Newton's work to disprove the concept of demons and witches. Her brother, his father's son and blinded by his lust for Abigail Williams (the star witness at the Salem witch trials) and religious ecstasy devoid of spirituality, clings aggressively to the past, seeking witches where there are no hints of any and becoming the last witchfinder even as the practice is dying in the shadows of the Englightenment.

Morrow uses some of the same devices found in early English novels like Tom Jones (Henry Fielding) and Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne), with chapter summaries and narrator intrusions and commentaries. At points, The Last Witchfinder is engaging, amusing, interesting, imaginative, and thought provoking. In his effort to emulate the likes of Fielding and Sterne, however, Morrow overdoes the diversions, ancillary incidents and characters, and irrelevant details. Never quite clearly defined, Jennet's mission is too easily sidetracked by too many improbable adventures and events, and the center section bogs down in its lack of focus. It's only when Dunstan, in his crazed unspiritual righteousness and deformity, returns to the scene that the plot picks up and the story comes back to life. The final meeting between Jennet and Dunstan is electrifying.

In a society that seems to be becoming more anti-intellectual, The Last Witchfinder is refreshing to the mind. Its premise and execution are flawed, but much of Jennet's journey is at least disturbing, interesting, and fun.

18 August 2012
Copyright © 2012 Diane L. Schirf

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story (long)

Finally I treated myself to the complete Anne of Green Gables DVD set — the 25-year-old VHS tapes just don't display the Prince Edward Island scenery to its best advantage on a flat-screen TV.

Besides reading most of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne series, I've seen the Sullivan Entertainment Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea more times than I can remember. Anne is the ideal for an INFP like me; I like to think that once upon a time I had her potential, minus the ambition.

I've seen that regular Anne devotees don't like The Continuing Story installment and read that due to a copyright dispute Sullivan couldn't use material from Montgomery's later books as he had for Anne of Avonlea. Many fan, perhaps unaware of this issue, hate this series because it deviates so widely from the established story and has some nasty continuity errors (e.g., Anne and Gilbert would have been well into middle age by World War I).

I don't hate The Continuing Story because it deviates from the Anne story and its timeline. I hate it because it's a weak story that has nothing to do with Anne of Green Gables. Even if you can imagine that it's not about Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe of Avonlea and that is just another movie set during World War I, the plot is such a convoluted, implausible mishmosh and the visuals so flat that it's a bad showing all around. It doesn't help that, while Anne and Gilbert are supposed to be in their early 20s, Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie were in their early 30s when the series was filmed — well past the freshness of college and first jobs.

If all else shone, the continuity issues would be the kind of details I could overlook as poetic license. But nothing in this series works — nothing. All the elements that coalesced to make the previous installments conquer and capture millions of hearts across the globe are missing from this unrelentingly grim, joyless mess.

Plot: Conflict is at the heart of any plot, and as a girl and later as a young woman Anne's tendency to daydream, act on impulse, and lash out in temper led her into any number of scrapes, some more serious than others. Her romantic fixation on Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" sets off her trouble at the very beginning and later leads to a fateful accident and rescue. When she isn't daydreaming, writing, or sharing her hopes with Marilla or bosom friend Diana, she's sparring with Avonlea's busybody and gossip in chief, Rachel Lynde. Part of the reason Anne is beloved is because we like to see ourselves in her and because we recognize the dramas of girlhood which become more significant when she begins her teaching career in Anne of Avonlea. Despite the Rachel Lyndes, the Pringles, and the Katherine Brookes of the world, Anne, her imagination, and her vision prevail. That's what we love — the idealism and the conviction that imagination doesn't have to be suppressed or obliterated by conventional society, that it can thrive despite the human and social obstacles.

Anne and Gilbert are past the broken-slate stage of life, and The Continuing Story needed a more mature plot and conflict. Sullivan takes us from the small-town squabbles of Avonlea (first series) and the politics of private-school teaching (second series) to the conflict to end all conflicts — World War I. Our heroine, whose most nerve-wracking moments to date have been reciting poetry to sophisticates and islanders at the White Sands Hotel, awaiting test scores to see if she beat Gilbert Blythe academically, facing down the Pringle clan, and more of the same, now finds herself dodging bullets, shells, and spies in a torturous plot that plays on none of her beloved qualities.

Near the beginning Anne meets a publisher who wants adventure books written for women (although not by women). That's what The Continuing Story tries to be — a woman's adventure story, with a wife braving the front in France during WWI to find her MIA husband, a sort of Ernest Hemingway SuperLite. Despite the shelling, the bullets, the amputations, and the sense that there's supposed to be ever-present danger, there's no dramatic tension in sight, and the story drags on and on and on. I watched the second chapter for what seemed like a long, dreary time, then decided I needed a break. When I checked the time marker on the DVD for the remaining time, I saw that I had watched 10 minutes. Ten minutes! It felt like at least 30 or more. This is not exactly the desired denouement for a good war or adventure film.

There's a plethora of implausible coincidences (for example, Anne manages to run into Fred Wright and Jack almost the moment she reaches the French front), but every attempt at dramatic tension falls flatter than a crepe — so flat that even if you had been told every spoiler ahead of viewing The Continuing Story, it wouldn't ruin the series for you. It's that dull and lifeless.

Setting: As you'd guess from the plot, you're not going to be spending much time on Prince Edward Island or even in eastern Canada — most of the film is set in New York, London, France, and Germany. The indoor scenes could be anywhere — indeed, they were filmed in Canada — so there's no sense of New York, London, or any other location. These vintage buildings, and the tight outdoor shots designed to hide geography and sets, made me yearn for the strong sense of place and community both the books and previous series were known for.

As for embattled France, it too consists of tight shots that make Gil's field hospital and the various camps look just like what they are — sets. The uniformly low, gray skies add to the effect, and so do the scenes of soldiers, nuns, Red Cross workers, doctors,and nurses running willy nilly back and forth — it's as though they're there to add senseless movement and energy and to keep the already small spaces filled. Instead of looking like people caught in the chaos and terror of war, they look like extras whose director hasn't given them direction, leaving them to flit about randomly.

New York, France, London, and Germany are sandwiched between establishing and concluding scenes set closer to the places Anne's admirers have come to love. In an interesting, ill-conceived twist, Sullivan seems determined to obliterate the one place that is dear to everyone — Green Gables. In five short years, an absentee Anne has allowed what "people in Avonlea say [is] the prettiest acreage on the north shore" (Marilla) to become the kind of rundown shanty you might see in Pennsylvania when the farm's been abandoned for decades. IF you're thinking, "Anne would never have let this happen to the home Matthew and Marilla kept up so meticulously, you're right. How could such a desirable house and farm have become so decrepit in a mere five years? How could Anne let it? The shutters are loose and askew, the fences are broken, and — best of all — there's not an inch of paint left on the weathered boards of the house. Renters! Then, when Gil and Anne try to save Green Gables, they accidentally set fire to the once-airy, now mysteriously dark, forbidding house. It's as if Sullivan wanted to obliterate the very heart of the work that made his name and fortune. This brings us to . . .

Characters: Anne Shirley, bright, imaginative, inventive, dreamy, inspired by Tennyson and devoted to Gilbert once she realizes she loves him, is recognizable only because she's played by Megan Follows. First, Sullivan has her being cozy with Fred Wright (yes, bosom friend Diana's dull but good husband) as well as an unlikeable adventure writer named Jack whom she meets in New York and, improbably, in several other places. He may be an adventurer and spy, but Jack manages not to be any more interesting than Fred — which should be irrelevant, because Anne is just now starting life with Gilbert after years of separation. The Anne we know isn't that light or feckless.

The Anne who once yearned for puffed sleeves and pearls now sports tailored suits and dresses with gaudy geometric patterns — stylish, yes, but not reflective of her tastes. No matter where she is or what her circumstances, Anne always looks like she just stepped out of a popular fashion catalog. She doesn't look like someone scraping by. Beyond the clothes, hats, and trim hairdo reminiscent of Katherine Brooke's, Anne retains nothing of her old self. When she isn't being distracted by Fred or Jack, she's so single minded in her search for Gilbert that all sense of personality is lost. Imagination, the literature of romance, the attachment to community, even her smile, are lost to the grimly unrelenting bore she becomes. War changes people, but from the beginning Anne isn't Anne.

Once Anne declared her feelings for Gilbert, fans wanted to see them together as two strong-willed, bright people in love with all the joys and conflicts that come with it. To avoid that possibility, Sullivan makes Gilbert disappear for more than half the movie. Indeed, Jack the uninspiring adventure writer seems to get as much screen time as our Gilbert. For huge swathes of footage, Fred Wright is more front and center than the male lead. Even when Gilbert does reappear, Anne leaves him to talk to Jack. Gilbert has been transformed into a earnest young doctor, a two-dimensional shadow of his adolescent self, when he had not only a mind and a heart, but a personality.

In the meantime, bosom friend Diana has become such a tiresome snob that her own high-and-mighty mother, Mrs. Barry, has to rebuke her. Mrs. Lynde, Moody Spurgeon, and Jose Pye (now Mrs. Spurgeon) make token appearances, with Josie magically become a shrill, self-righteous patriot.

Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story is ironically named; there's nothing about this story that is recognizable, let alone familiar. When I watch Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea again, I won't envision a future state where Green Gables is a wreck, Gilbert has the charm of a post office, Diana is a fashionably dressed fishwife, and Anne foregoes Tennyson for a nun's habit and a spy's mission. I have an imagination, and I can imagine this abomination away. Like a certain Dallasstoryline, it was all a bad dream — a nightmare that never happened.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cooling off at the movies: Moonrise Kingdom

With a day off from work, temperatures in triple digits, and no air conditioning in my apartment (I’m a holdout), I decided Independence Day would be a great opportunity to go to the movies.

Choosing a movie is always hard. I don’t like urban, gritty, violent, inane, Disney, or Disneyesque movies, which doesn’t leave much these days except the occasional period drama or book adaptation, and even some of these (like the 2011 Jane Eyre) disappoint me.

J. mentioned Prometheus, but after reading the description I had an unpleasant vision—right or wrong—of Solaris with George Clooney. When I looked on Flixter, a movie called Moonrise Kingdom had scored more than 90 percent positive with both critics and moviegoers, and the plot seemed innocuous. So that’s what we set out to see.

Normally, going to a movie on July 4 is the last thing I’d think of, so I was surprised to find a good-sized crowd at the ShowPlace ICON Theatre on Roosevelt Road. I thought most people would be watching TV or entertaining in their air-conditioned homes or, if feeling especially heat resistant, cooking out in their yards or favorite parks. But many like us apparently decided to escape the relentless sun and heat in the dark coolness of a movie theater.

When the ticketing system asked us to choose our seats, we were surprised to find that the only seats left were a few in the front, those for the disabled, and a few scattered singles. Our only choice was to be on top of the screen. We wondered what was up because we’re used to these theaters being at most one quarter to one half full, even for a big movie like the first Sherlock Holmes directed by Guy Ritchie. When the lights came on at the end, we saw that there really had been a nearly full house.

First, I should admit that I’d never seen a film directed by Wes Anderson. I mention this because so much of the commentary online is focused on how Moonrise Kingdom is (or isn’t) a typical Wes Anderson film. I can’t agree or disagree with either position. Even if Moonrise Kingdom were just like every movie that Anderson’s made, at least it’s not a sequel or a period piece written, acted, and filmed according to today’s sensibilities. That alone gave it a leg up in my world.

If the title Moonrise Kingdom weren’t enough of a hint, the maps showing the location throughout and the stylishly clad narrator (Bob Balaban) who describes future events are strong clues that this is a fable that requires us to lay aside our expectations of realism or at least reality and to fire up what imagination remains to our adult selves.

Set in 1965, the story is centered on two misfit pre-teens, Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman). We’re taken on a tour of Suzy’s house and family as though it were a dollhouse and they the inhabitants whose lives are exposed from almost any angle — a sly acknowledgment of their unwitting role as subjects and our omniscient one as viewers. This is no ordinary house in an ordinary location. It’s part of a series of isolated and insular New England coastal islands, a world unto itself.

It’s raining to beat the band, and each family member finds a way to fill his or her time. The boys don’t watch TV or play Battleship; they listen to an educational recording by Benjamin Britton. At first Suzy turns her vision inward, reading one of her fantastically titled library books, then she picks up her binoculars to look outward toward the normally expansive world of water, now confined by rain and mist.

From this restricted and restrictive world of Suzy and her trapped family, we’re transported to the great outdoors and the equally restrictive, even hostile world of Suzy’s counterpart Sam — the Khaki Scouts. When the officious Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) discovers Sam has gone AWOL, his Scouts consider the unpopular missing boy a “fugitive” and arm themselves accordingly.

For the rest of the movie, it’s Sam and Suzy vs. the dysfunctional adults around them. No matter how troubled the parents, scout leaders, police, and other authority figures may be, Sam and Suzy emulate their furrowed brows, he while smoking his short-stemmed pipe, she while sporting an eye makeup combination last seen on one of James T. Kirk’s alien conquests. The misadventures, some epic, that follow are never bust-a-gut, slapstick hilarious, but with a few gratuitously sad exceptions they are delightfully amusing. The audience soon finds itself guiltily on the side of a friendship so unfamiliar to the 12-year-old couple that they want it to be love and for it to last forever.

Too many directors fail to use the visual, kinetic possibilities of film, but Anderson isn’t one of them. His color palette evokes the popular Hipstamatic and Instagram apps, which in turn mimic the grainy, off-hue, decaying prints taken by cheap cameras decades ago. The characters and the camera are kept moving—away from one destiny and toward another. Many of the visuals, even the maps on which the fugitives’ progress is tracked, are memorable.

Each time you see Moonrise Kingdom, you’ll probably spot some new visual, verbal, or aural nuance. The performances are spot on, although I confess I didn’t recognize Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp. Newcomers Hayward and Gilman are the showstoppers, while Norton as painfully earnest and ineffectual Scout Master Ward never misses a beat.

For such a quirky film, the ending is predictable and conventional, yet still satisfying, while leaving the possibilities open. As Samuel Clemens knew, that’s the way childhood fables should end.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Book review: Hungry for the World: A Memoir

Hungry for the World: A Memoir by Kim Barnes. New York: Anchor Books. 2001. 256 pages.

It takes a certain amount of ego to write a memoir, especially if your life hasn’t been influential or extraordinary. Kim Barnes may have been counting on her life appearing to be the latter when she wrote Hungry for the World, which focuses on her serial relationships with men—from the father of childhood to the lovers of youth to the husband of maturity, circling back to her father, now a grandfather. Throughout, she obsesses over the girl she was and the woman she must be. Her journey is set in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest, in a wilderness penetrated by wanton hunters, felled by loggers, and drowned and despoiled by industry, and in cities and towns filled with more drugs and vice than jobs.

Barnes is a woman in man’s world, even more so after her parents convert to the Pentecostal faith. As he turns further inward, her father seeks self-denial and self-punishment by moving his family from the forest they love into town, where, when he isn’t driving his truck route, he’s sitting around in front of the TV, smoking and apparently contemplating his relationship with God. The more Barnes struggles to understand her father, the more distant he seems. He’s less parent than mythical figure. He’s wise in the woods, taciturn, unrevealing, and unforgiving in town. Barnes is torn between her natural desire to live like a man—free, unencumbered, and in control—and her duty to follow in the path of women like her mother—subservient to God and man. But she is “hungry for the world,” although “world” here goes no father than the localized experiences of school, work, lovers, alcohol, drugs, and the demands of David, the older man who craves her “trust” while demonstrating with every action his unworthiness of it.

Barnes seems to think her youth was exceptionally tawdry, but there’s nothing here that would surprise or shock anyone who came of age in the 1960s or 70s, not even her relationship with David, the controlling, damaged Vietnam veteran whose thrills depend on his ability to subdue and obliterate Barnes’s personality, preferences, and will—not unlike her father and his church with its patriarchal beliefs.

Many women may find the author’s story and its resolution in spiriting, or, as a cover blurb gushes, “refreshing . . . a moving story of human regeneration.” For me, the telling of her story is so self-consciously literary that there’s nothing moving about it. For all the flowery msuings and metaphors, Barnes conveys few emotions, only a stated sense of shame about the past and a sense of wonder, albeit detached, about the present.

Kim Barnes is a talented writer, and Hungry for the World abounds with passages whose wording transcends the ugliness of the not-so-extraordinary subject matter and limited, self-aware, and self-important perspective. The problem is that Hungry for the World is more a self-conscious literary exercise than a genuine, heartfelt attempt at memoir. All the pretty phrasings and all the reflective section endings don’t lend this memoir the emotional power and substance it might have had if Barnes had been able to let go of the one thing she, like the men in her life, seems hungry for—control.

8 July 2012
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Relics: Hung out to dry

While staying at the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast, I spotted a relic that I remember fondly and that may be making a comeback in some progressive communities—the clothesline.

At our home, Saturday was wash day. As our only licensed driver, Dad was the designated launderer. Our Saturday mornings began with the emptying of the clothes hamper under the counter in the bathroom into plastic clothes baskets and the collection of bed and bath linens. Sometimes alone, more rarely with me for company when I was very young, he drove to a laundromat in town, where the women cooed over the little girl they assumed was his granddaughter, thanks to his middle age and shock of white hair. As I grew up, I went less often if at all—too cool to hang around with Dad at a boring place like the laundromat, I’m sure.

Behind the shed in our backyard, underneath the cherry trees, we had five or more clotheslines strung across—enough for most of our clothes and sheets. Knowing my dad, I suspect hanging clothes out to dry in fine weather was a matter of economy—conservation of money as much as of energy, although he did consider the environment, too.

When I was little and somewhat willing to help with the chores, I couldn’t reach the lines (conveniently). By the time I was tall enough, I had better things to do than to help my parents with what seemed like a chore, but would today be a pleasure to me.

When I was in 8th or 9th grade, I started to wear blue jeans to school. They weren’t the pre-washed, distressed designer duds of today, but were dyed a dark blue that penetrated every fiber. I spent countless hours at the kitchen sink trying to rinse the stiffness and the blue out of them. They, too, ended up on the clothesline after leaving a messy trail of water through the trailer. I even hung them out in freezing weather, when they froze and I risked cracking them.

Clothes hung out take longer to dry, especially when the clothesline is in the shade. It’s not as convenient as tossing a load in the dryer and hitting a button, and there are other downsides to line drying under trees besides the amount of time it takes. Occasionally a bird or two would ruin our laundering efforts with well-placed defecation. In our case late spring/early summer meant picking tent caterpillars off nearly every item. I loathe everything about tent caterpillars, especially stepping on them.

If left unscathed by birds and bugs, clothes dried outdoors pick up an indefinable scent of sun and fresh air that no fabric softener, dryer sheet, or other chemical treatment can replicate. It truly is like absorbing sunshine into your clothes.

Even as we tear our hair out over energy sources, climate change, and problematic technologies like wind farms, we’re missing out an obvious way to save money and our clothes—clothesline drying. It costs nothing but the price of clothesline and a few moments of standing outdoors. Our mothers may have loved the affordability and convenience of dryers, and homeowners’ associations hate the sight of something so downscale as clotheslines. But sometimes convenience takes away the satisfaction that performing a simple task as simply as possible offers. And you can’t chat with your neighbor if you’re both isolated in your basements, feeding your machines.

Perhaps a few more clotheslines combined with fewer homeowners’ association rules might improve the neighborliness that seems to have been lost in the last half century—the neighborliness that brought my parents and their peers many a lifetime friendship, no matter where the neighbors moved or where they hung their clothes.

More about clotheslines here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Lark and Pear, Sawyer, Michigan

I can't imagine anything more delightful than a tiny, colorfully painted and named coffee shop bordered by woods. Alas, the Lark and Pear in Sawyer, Michigan is closed and for sale, and I never made it into it.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Relics: "Ding ding," or the full-service filling station

If you grew up before the 1970s, you probably remember full-service gas or filling stations. When you pulled into the station, your car’s tires ran over a hose stretched across the driveway that emitted a sing-song “ding ding’ for each axle, alerting the attendants, or “gas jockeys,” that they had a customer. One of them would come and fill your tank and, if you wanted, clean your windshield and check your oil and your tire pressure. Until the oil crisis of 1973, gas appeared to be plentiful and cheap, and drivers like my dad would call out, “Fill ‘er up, Joe!”

Many of the attendants were uniformed young or middle-aged men with their first name sewn on their uniforms. If you went to the same gas stations out of habit as my dad did, you might even come to know a little about them, like which towns or neighborhoods they were from and how many children they had—and if the kids went to school with yours. It could feel like a little more than just a simple transaction.

We lived near a gas station, and mostly I’d carefully step over the hose so I wouldn’t bring out the attendants to yell at me. If I did set off the “ding,” I’d run off or pretend I hadn’t. I’m sure it fooled no one and that they were used to people stepping on the hose accidentally (or kids like me not so accidentally).

Today many gas stations are the model of self-serve convenience and efficiency. Some allow you to bypass the cashier when you use your credit card; in Illinois, the posted penalties for taking advantage of this by driving off are stiff. Many people do go in to the store to pick up drinks and snacks; we’ve become used to refueling on the go. I’ve seen a few of these gas station stores promote their stock of beer (“beer cave”), which is striking given that the primary market can’t, or shouldn’t, buy and consume it on the road like they would a soda or a bag of chips. As for the cashiers, I’d guess the commitment is low and the turnover high. I wonder how often they come and go and if they become fixtures in the neighborhood.

As for full-service gas stations, they’re not gone completely—thanks to state laws, they’re holding on in New Jersey and Oregon. I wonder if I—or my dad—would recognize them.

Here’s a 2012 farewell to the last full-service station in Lufkin, Texas. And here are some more memories.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Dreary 1970s Chicago

In the credits and the background of The Bob Newhart Show, Chicago is invariably dreary, with uniformly gray skies. It's as if the show were set in a perpetual early winter, after the autumn is bright with color and before the winter is bright with snow.

This is how Chicago really looks in spring and parts of summer:

or this:

and, all right, occasionally this:

Monday, May 28, 2012

Chicago Portage National Historic Site and Riverside, Illinois

Saturday J. and I walked the path through the Chicago Portage National Historic Site area. The last time we were there, we volunteered to help the Cook County Forest Preserve District clear out invasive plants, a hot, sweaty, satisfying task.

This time, we took a leisurely stroll and enjoyed beautiful, mosquito-free weather. Afterward, we visited Riverside Public Library, walked along the river, dined at The Chew Chew, and topped off dinner with ice cream at Grumpy's Café. I did run out of steam thanks to my latest issues, but not before relishing a perfect day. I need more of these.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"A letter to the normals from a person with severe chronic pain"

I found this posted without attribution on the Patients Like Me site and repeat it without comment.
Having chronic pain means many things change, and a lot of them are invisible. Unlike having cancer or being hurt in an accident, most people do not understand even a little about chronic pain and its effects, and of those that think they know, many are actually misinformed. 
In the spirit of informing those who wish to understand: These are the things that I would like you to understand about me before you judge me. 
Please understand that being sick doesn’t mean I’m not still a human being. I have to spend most of my day in considerable pain and exhaustion, and if you visit, sometimes I probably don’t seem like much fun to be with, but I’m still me, stuck inside this body. I still worry about work, my family, my friends, and most of the time, I’d still like to hear you talk about yours, too. 
Please understand the difference between “happy” and “healthy”. When you’ve got the flu, you probably feel miserable with it, but I’ve been sick for years. I can’t be miserable all the time. In fact, I work hard at not being miserable. So, if you’re talking to me and I sound happy, it means I’m happy. that’s all. It doesn’t mean that I’m not in a lot of pain, or extremely tired, or that I’m getting better, or any of those things. Please don’t say, “Oh, you’re sounding better!” or “But you look so healthy!” I am merely coping. I am sounding happy and trying to look normal. If you want to comment on that, you’re welcome. 
Please understand that being able to stand up for ten minutes doesn’t necessarily mean that I can stand up for twenty minutes, or an hour. Just because I managed to stand up for thirty minutes yesterday doesn’t mean that I can do the same today. With a lot of diseases you’re either paralyzed, or you can move. With this one, it gets more confusing everyday. It can be like a yo-yo. I never know from day to day, how I am going to feel when I wake up. In most cases, I never know from minute to minute. That is one of the hardest and most frustrating components of chronic pain. 
Please repeat the above paragraph substituting, “sitting”, “walking”, “thinking”, “concentrating”, “being sociable” and so on, it applies to everything. That’s what chronic pain does to you. 
Please understand that chronic pain is variable. It’s quite possible (for many, it’s common) that one day I am able to walk to the park and back, while the next day I’ll have trouble getting to the next room. Please don’t attack me when I’m ill by saying, “But you did it before!” or “Oh, come on, I know you can do this!” If you want me to do something, then ask if I can. In a similar vein, I may need to cancel a previous commitment at the last minute. If this happens, please do not take it personally. If you are able, please try to always remember how very lucky you are, to be physically able to do all of the things that you can do. 
Please understand that “getting out and doing things” does not make me feel better, and can often make me seriously worse. You don’t know what I go through or how I suffer in my own private time. Telling me that I need to exercise, or do some things to “get my mind off of it”, may frustrate me to tears, and is not correct. If I was capable of doing some things any or all of the time, don’t you know that I would? I am working with my doctors and I am doing what I am supposed to do. Another statement that hurts is, “You just need to push yourself more, try harder”. Obviously, chronic pain can deal with the whole body, or be localized to specific areas. Sometimes participating in a single activity for a short or a long period of time can cause more damage and physical pain than you could ever imagine. Not to mention the recovery time, which can be intense. You can’t always read it on my face or in my body language. Also, chronic pain may cause secondary depression (wouldn’t you get depressed and down if you were hurting constantly for months or years?), but it is not created by depression. 
Please understand that if I say I have to sit down, lie down, stay in bed, or take these pills now, that probably means that I do have to do it right now, it can’t be put off or forgotten just because I’m somewhere, or I’m right in the middle of doing something. Chronic pain does not forgive, nor does it wait for anyone. 
If you want to suggest a cure to me, please don’t. It’s not because I don’t appreciate the thought, and it’s not because I don’t want to get well. Lord knows that isn’t true. In all likelihood, if you’ve heard of it or tried it, so have I. In some cases, I have been made sicker, not better. This can involve side effects or allergic reactions, as is the case with herbal remedies. It also includes failure, which in and of itself can make me feel even lower. If there were something that cured, or even helped people with my form of chronic pain, then we’d know about it. There is worldwide networking (both on and off the Internet) between people with chronic pain. If something worked, we would KNOW. It’s definitely not for lack of trying. If, after reading this, you still feel the need to suggest a cure, then so be it. I may take what you said and discuss it with my doctor. 
If I seem touchy, it’s probably because I am. It’s not how I try to be. As a matter of fact, I try very hard to be normal. I hope you will try to understand. I have been, and am still, going through a lot. Chronic pain is hard for you to understand unless you have had it. It wreaks havoc on the body and the mind. It is exhausting and exasperating. Almost all the time, I know that I am doing my best to cope with this, and live my life to the best of my ability. I ask you to bear with me, and accept me as I am. I know that you cannot literally understand my situation unless you have been in my shoes, but as much as is possible, I am asking you to try to be understanding in general. 
In many ways I depend on you, people who are not sick. I need you to visit me when I am too sick to go out. Sometimes I need you help me with the shopping, the cooking or the cleaning. I may need you to take me to the doctor, or to the store. You are my link to the “normalcy” of life. You can help me to keep in touch with the parts of life that I miss and fully intend to undertake again, just as soon as I am able. 
I know that I asked a lot from you, and I do thank you for listening. It really does mean a lot. 
Thank you.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bully, AT&T!

The TV commercial that I love to hate is back.

You may have seen it (although I'm probably the last person without DVR). It's Daddy's Career Day at elementary school, and an unshaven, unkempt cable guy awkwardly starts to tell the class the basics of what he does. Quickly, a chubby-cheeked, cherub-faced little girl challenges him with a loaded question, then points out with a wry face that he's wrong—her mother says AT&T can do what he's just said can't be done. The rest of the class looks ready to jump in. The teacher does, mocking him about some other feature that cable doesn't offer. Finally, the beaten cable guy says, "Who wants to hear from a fireman?" The teacher quickly raises her hand and says, "I do," encouraging her enthusiastic charges to do the same. "Yea!" they scream as the cable guy sheepishly slinks off, yielding the floor to the smirking fireman.

It's just a TV ad, just big AT&T vs. big cable (presumably Comcast). It's just a vignette, a slice of life, a more engaging, memorable way to highlight AT&T's supposed advantages over their competitor than laying it out through direct narrative. But I loathe every moment and detail of this commercial. Why?

There's nothing overly controversial in the concept, copy, or execution, 60 seconds that no one's going to chat about at the water cooler.

Does the behavior sound familiar, though? It should. It's no more and no less than bullying. No one likes the cable guy—he's unattractive and inarticulate, and he represents the clearly unpopular cable company, while AT&T is the cool kid in school. Not only do the children belittle him, but they're aided and abetted by their teacher, the adult authority who of all people should be quick to take responsibility for stopping bullying before it takes root. Instead, she smirks and gives the man the equivalent of the old-fashioned hook pulling him offstage.

Haven't we (or AT&T and their ad agency) learned anything since Columbine turned the spotlight on bullying and the potential consequences? Since each incident of school violence and each teen suicide that flashes that spotlight again? Every time something happens, hundreds of people express their horror and their aversion on news sites that cross international boundaries.

Yet there it is, still winked at in a commercial for giant AT&T. I squirm each time I see it, perhaps because many times and in many places I've been the cable guy facing a bully or even a room full of bullies. Despite all the awareness campaigns and all the impotent outrage over every senseless death and injury, bullying is deeply embedded in our culture—it's in our schools, businesses, and workplaces, even in our churches.

And on our TVs. If we don't have DVR.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Bookman's Alley

A couple of weeks ago J. saw an article about Bookman's Alley, a used bookstore that's been a fixture in downtown Evanston for more than 30 years. Neither of us had heard of it before, but it sounded charming. The owner, an elderly man, has been persuaded by his family to close the store due to his health issues, although so far he's not shown signs of being in a hurry. I couldn't go last week thanks to a bad foot, so we went Sunday, April 1, before he changed his mind and we missed out.

Bookman's Alley
First, the "Alley" part of the name is not a cute conceit — while Barnes & Noble overlooks a busy shopping district, Bookman's Alley is nestled in the middle of a nearby Alley, with only an unpretentious wooden sign at the head of the alley to direct the lost and ignorant.

Bookman's Alley exterior
The building itself is low profile — three quarters of a square with a courtyard for parking open on the alley side. Inside and out, it's seen better day, but to me it represents a respite from the unrelenting suburban consistency and blandness of big box stores like Barnes & Noble. It has character. It's unique.

Like most bookstores, Bookman's Alley is organized by subject, with worn seating scattered throughout many of the cozy, compartmentalized sections. i even found a tiny room in the back partitioned from the rest and stocked with oversized books.

Displayed among the books and hanging from above was a variety of bric-a-brac, ranging from a stuffed toy frog and other creatures to this beautiful printing press. Just checking out the décor would take hours. Asthmatics: You can't escape the unmistakeable scent of used books.

Lately when visiting used bookstores I've been drawn to the poetry sections. I need more books like a hoarder needs newspapers. At Bookman's Alley, I picked up The Collected Poems 1929–1936 of C. Day Lewis and Seventeenth Century Lyrics from the Original Texts chosen (no comma) edited and arranged by Norman Ault.  You won't find these treasures at Barnes & Noble, or possibly anywhere else, at least not together. I wouldn't have known they existed. The trick now is to find the time and opportunity to enjoy them.
Choosing vintage postcards

While I was waiting to check out, a young couple introduced themselves to the proprietor, who admitted he didn't recall them. The man finally asked if he remembered their parents, whom he named. The old man lit up with recognition. Yes, of course he knew them. It sounded like this young couple had been united in matrimony at Bookman's Alley a few years before — what a marvelous idea!

After leaving the books and the lovers, we ate at
Blind Faith Café followed by a trip to Cold Stone Creamery for cake dough ice cream. Not a bad way to spend or end a Sunday or a weekend.

Photo: Bookman's Alley

Press at Bookman's Alley in Evanston, Illinois

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dream: Keeper of the kine

I found myself on a TV show, although I couldn’t tell if it was a single episode or a series, as a character called “keeper of the kine.” How I’d become a television cowherd, I had no idea.

I was in an empty classroom between classes, being tutored by a college math instructor (real person) on a small part in a musical being staged just so he could spend time with me and get me alone on an iceberg drifting from part of the stage to another. I was supposed to kiss sea otters along the way. Worse, I (and others) was supposed to lip synch because I couldn’t sing. None of it made sense to me, and I was appalled by the effort and expense this man was putting into making an impression on me—and I didn’t even have a major role.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dream: Open floor plan

I was returning to my room in a dormitory when I made what I thought was an innocuous suggestion to J. After becoming defensive and angry, he locked me out of my room—I realized too late that he had the key.

I didn’t want to call the police because doing so might affect a deadline he was trying to meet. In a panic, I climbed to the floor above my room and saw that it was completely open on top—there was no ceiling, just like in a dollhouse. I couldn’t imagine how I’d lived there without noticing or knowing that. As I looked down, I saw a figure dragging J. away while looking up at me and grinning evilly. It was someone I used to work for. I wondered about his new role as dormitory head.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dream: The basketball tournament

As part of a basketball tournament my younger niece was participating in, I found a display at my Aunt D's house. Most of the coaches had provided their players' photos and statistics on boards, but my brother had sent a large box of disintegrating old books and a small box of photos that had been ruined when someone colored out whole areas with a crayon.

Some of the photos were of a beach vacation at a place where the summer light lasted all night, and I kept thinking of Niagara Falls. The photos made me long to be at that half-lit, surreal beach again, which I thought I remembered but didn't.

When I looked again in one hallway, all the displays were gone. The next hallway was also empty. I was going to call my parents to pick me up, but had put my mobile phone aside.

Toward the back of the otherwise empty house, I found some women waiting for an elevator. One of them told me my aunt's house was huge, even after she'd closed off much of it. This part was used for this elevator, which transported these women undergrounds so they could get to their organization in the farmhouse across the field. All of this intrigued me, but I wished I had my phone so I could leave.

Somehow I found myself carrying a bucket of ice for this organization across the field. Instead of delivering it, however, I dumped it out into one of the field's rows, where it mixed instantly with the dirt to become mud.

I continued to dream about the land where the sun never sets and my aunt's limitless house.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dream: Date with a vampire

A vampire had threatened to get me, only I didn't know how. Soon I recognized him near me in different guises, first as a child, then as an elderly woman who changed into a beautiful young woman. I wasn't afraid to use my strength even against such incongruous characters, but each succeeded in biting me, usually in the arm, but not enough to break the skin. I felt strong but also like he might be toying with me.

I'd gotten into an elevator with a cousin who was sitting in a folding chair. The elevator started to go down with him, but my feet weren't touching the floor. I panicked, although at times my feet did touch. The elevator stopped between floors, with the chair now folded up against the door and me suspended, yet not suspended. It was nighttime, and I began to fear that we would never be found.