Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The English call it "bodging", Part 1

ChaliceChick posted a link to There, I Fixed It, a website of unlikely repairs. It doesn't really remind me of 26 Water Street in Poland ... and yet, and yet, there are certain similarities.

When I was 15, my parents bought a house in the center of the village. Oh happy day! Yellow Creek flowed behind the house. I was ecstatic! We could walk everywhere and the property had beautiful trees. Only then did my mother warn me that the house had been neglected for many years.

My parents bought the house from Mr. L, who for three years had been living in another town with the second Mrs. L. The first Mrs. L had been very sick, bedridden, for a number of years before her death several years earlier, and the house had been unloved during her illness and afterwards.

Some of the house's issues were honestly a matter of taste. Like the silver woodwork, for instance. Yes! All the interior woodwork was painted silver. Every last bit of it including the kitchen. All the ceilings had been papered with silvery designs on white, and every room had different, dark, surly wallpaper with silver in the design. My bedroom was dark green and mustard-yellow and silver paisley (30s vintage, perhaps); the dining room was striped navy, dark red, and silver. But wait -- both rooms were papered on only three walls and the fourth wall was knotty pine paneling in its full orange spotted splendor.

Then there were issues of age. The house started out as a one-room cabin for the Methodist preacher. It was added to, a room at a time, as he married and his family grew. So every room was differently proportioned, no two doors were the same size or design, the windows had been installed one at a time, no two fireplaces matched, there were relics within the walls of abandoned structures, and each room's floor was at its own level. Of course there wasn't a plumb line or level surface in the place. And we won't mention closets.

So there's taste and age, and then there's neglect and weirdness. Take oven cleaner, for instance. Beneath the kitchen sink we found dozens of cans of oven cleaner. The housekeeper had apparently tried every brand manufactured over more than a decade, to little avail. I once ventured into the house to find my mother, aunt Billie, and Mr. B all gathered around the open oven, trying vainly to imagine what could have happened in the oven to make it like that.* Whatever had happened had happened often. Billie suggested that a baked alaska had exploded, which seemed overoptimistic considering the L family's probable cooking skills.

So that was neglect. Somewhere on the cusp of neglect and weirdness came the installation of the house's water supply -- possibly in the house's fiftieth year -- in which every left-hand faucet was for cold water and every right-hand faucet for hot. But the first truly weird thing we encountered was the kitchen cabinets.

The house was such a shambles that at first we lived partly at the farm and partly at my grandmother's, on College Street. I was the first to actually try to organize the kitchen, and it occurred to me that the kitchen cupboards were shallower than they should have been. We saw that at some point, cupboards had been built directly in front of, and screwed to, the built-in cupboards. So the additional ones were pulled away, and we found cupboards directly behind them, with the doors nailed shut. Removing the nails, we found shelves still stocked with plates, cups, baking powder, and a few other things in tins and jars. The old shelves were exactly the same size as the ones that had been added and we could never guess why they had so carefully been replaced: a totally meaningless change.

*When as a Hastings trustee I learned that the heaviest pollution on the waterfront's old Anaconda site was where a vat of PCBs had exploded in the early 40s, I saw a possible answer. Mr. L was an industrial chemist. Home manufacture of PCBs?

As you boil your bed sheets in bleach to get out the mildew, ponder this

And keep pondering as you scrub the mold off your bathroom walls and maybe from behind your ears: our reservoirs are still not at 100% of capacity.

Well, the Schoharie Reservoir (at 91%) is the farthest away. Maybe they didn't get our 19 days of rain up that far north. But lookit: the Croton system, just a half hour's drive from here, is two percent empty. I'm baffled, because we can all remember when it's been full to 100% of capacity.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Delighted with Peter Morales's election win

Over the weekend, the Unitarian Universalist Association elected a new president. Peter Morales — a latecomer to the UU ministry and a former newspaper publisher — was elected with about 58% of the vote. It was the first UUA election in which absentee ballots were cast, and I was happy to cast one of my congregation’s. (The UUA is an organization of congregations, not of individuals; this was specifically established at one point in our history.)

At the end of the General Assembly at which he was elected, President Morales (the UUA’s first Latino president) presided over his first board meeting. Notes from the meeting have appeared on many blogs, and it seems that relations were a little stilted. I’m not operating with any inside info here, but UUA Convener Gini Courter, who was reelected herself, endorsed Morales’s opponent Rev. Laurel Hallman, the favorite of many who might be perceived as an east coast establishment within UUism.

I am sure that the Hallman endorsers will deny that there is an east coast establishment inside the UUA. When I moved to New York from Ohio and San Francisco more than thirty years ago, I could see (and feel!) a real difference in Unitarianism in the east. And that’s not mentioning New England, which is even more different. There are sound historical reasons for these differences and it doesn’t do right by our history to pretend they aren’t there, even though congregations in the far west are just as likely to be in the eastern tradition as they are in the midwestern.* Incidentally, nobody including me is painting this as a sectional upset or anything like that.

I supported Morales precisely because he was out of the mold. The two candidates did not have opposing visions, but their emphases were very different from each other. It seemed to me beforehand that we would be defining our history to date — especially late 20th century events — by the choice made in this election. At left: Peter Morales as a Knight International Press Fellow in Peru.

Peter Morales won my heart with a speech he made in 2006, describing a study reported in the American Sociological Review a year earlier. I will spare you the numbers, but the point was that between 1985 and 2005, Americans lost relationships. That is, they went from having three people to whom they felt they could confide close personal matters, to having less than one. The sociologists doing the study were so shocked by the results that they didn’t publish for a long time, while they reexamined their data.

Or, in Peter Morales’s own words: Hear the cry of pain in these numbers. This study reveals a level of human isolation that is unprecedented in American life — and perhaps unprecedented in human history. Americans are lonelier than they have ever been. The close friendships that are so essential to us are being eroded at a frightening rate. One in four Americans has no close personal relationship at all. Zero.

At the risk of tedium, I will continue quoting. Let me throw just one more statistic at you. At the end of the Second World War about half of all American households had three generations in them. … Today there are almost no three generation households left. The two or three percent of multi-generational households that exist are almost all poor recent immigrants. … Today, one out of four households in American is a single person household. Let me say that again. One quarter of American addresses today has only one person living there. …You and I are relational creatures. We become fully human in a network of relationships. We desperately long to belong. We need community the way we need food and shelter [but]... we have created a society that systematically rips apart human relationships. Yet our need for deep relationship never goes away. Above, standing at left: Seminarian Morales with other members of LUUNA, the Latino/a UU Networking Association.

This oppressive and painful reality presses in on me no matter which of my most important hats I wear. As myself growing older, as the mother of an only child, as a student in ministry, and as an elected official, this social reality is terrible. And the future of today’s reality is even worse. I don’t believe people evolved to live the way Americans do now, and the longer I see myself as a person preparing for ministry, the worse the issue appears.

Peter Morales saw that study and he knew, from his own life and ministry, that it told a real truth. He’s within a very Anglo tradition, yet he comes to it from outside that tradition, which is perhaps why he can see it so clearly. He sees UUs as having good news and wants to lead us to a greater understanding of what we’ve lost, where we can take ourselves, and who we can be for people who need us.

*Mark Harris of Watertown, my UU history prof, told me that one defining characteristic can be that eastern congregations have communion sets. Communion sets! As an Ohioan, I was shocked.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thinking of der Lenny*

Millions of words have been written on Leonard Bernstein's magic, and the mythology doesn't need my addition to the bulk. But I remembered today an LP record my parents bought for me when I was in grade school, Leonard Bernstein and What is Jazz?

In two sides of one LP, Bernstein used the text from several of his broadcasts. I particularly recall his explanation that the blues used iambic pentameter. First he played Bessie Smith singing,
"I woke up this mornin' with an awful achin' head.
Oh, I woke up this mornin' with an aaaawful achin' head.
My new man had left me just a rooooom and an empty bed."

He appended some lines from Macbeth, singing
"I will not be afraid of death nor bane.
I said, I will not be afraaiid of death nor bane.
'Til Birnam Forest cooomes to Dunsinane."

It worked! And it must have been a good lesson for me to remember it all these years.

*As the adoring Viennese called him.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It's too easy

I just can't bring myself to quote Mark Sanford's icky email to his mistress, Maria of Argentina. The point is being made that nowhere does Sanford use a feminine pronoun, so ... given the text, could it be that "Maria" is a guy? After all, Sanford is a Republican.

No, what I want to tell you about is the Ohio kind of illicit lovin'. Dr. Harding's eldest child Warren became an influential newspaper publisher in Marion, Ohio, then a state senator*, a state lieutenant governor, a U.S. Senator, and finally, President of the United States. It helped that he married well.

Wasn't he handsome? He looked like a President. Unlike a good president, however, it was said of Harding that "If Warren had been a girl, she'd always have been in the family way, because that man just couldn't say no." It must be acknowledged that when 15-year-old Nan Britton wrote him fan letters and mash notes, Harding counseled her to wait until she grew up and found a nice young man her own age.

But he didn't take his own advice! No. The Ur-Monica, minus the thong, Nan subsequently claimed to have enjoyed (I use the word lightly) knee-tremblers with Harding in his Senate office and later, in White House closets. She also claimed that her daughter, father otherwise unknown, was his.

And she produced love letters to prove it. They sizzle -- that Ohio kind of sizzle! "Oh, my girlie -- tell me my kisses don't disgust you." Show me the woman who could resist such talk! Please note that Nan Britton let fragments of his letters, like that one, out in public to prove their love. To the right: Handsome Harding, looking left, a vile canard. He'd never do that. But what of Harding's wife Florence? Some averred that she'd killed him. Alas for conspiracy theorists, he probably died of just the same thing that took William Jennings Bryan, a busted gut.

*Imagine Harding in Albany today.

Google + Blogger = censorship

Censorship. What a dirty word and what a surprise.

Octavian Coifan, a leading blogger in the area of perfume and fragrance, was told today by Blogger.com that it removed from 1000 Fragrances a posting found offensive by the House of Guerlain.

Guerlain, one of the oldest surviving fragrance houses in the world, is currently owned by LVMH (stands for Louis Vuitton, Mo√ęt Hennessy), a holder of luxury brands. LVMH's lawyers apparently made a complaint to Google and Blogger.

I and many of Octavian's other fans read the offending piece a few days ago. No matter how I try to view it with marketing eyes, I cannot see it as offensive. Octavian was comparing a new Guerlain fragrance to one manufactured by another company. He compared the scent itself as well as the packaging and the advertising, and showed the two bottles and two advertisements.

It doesn't matter, in one sense, which was first; the market will choose the survivor. If the other company (named in Octavian's piece, but I forget it) believes the Guerlain product infringes on its own, it has every legal right to take Guerlain to court. Taking out a blog and blogger doesn't affect the first company's rights at all, and that company certainly has both grounds for a suit and the money to pursue it.

Fragrance blogs are what you might expect of enthusiasts about anything. The blogmeister is very knowledgeable, and many followers, equally so. Their blogs discuss the histories of fragrances, stories of ingredients and inventors and copies and names and top notes and formulations and trends, and and and. Blogger and followers blog and follow because they live for the topic! It would be the same for wine or beer lovers, model train enthusiasts, or camera-crazed photographers, Kindle users, BlackBerry users.

Like many, many perfumistas, Octavian loves the older Guerlain fragrances. Like many perfumistas, he dislikes what has happened to them as LVMH has substituted cheaper ingredients. Many bloggers discuss this. Guerlain is not the only offender, and greed is not the only cause -- the European Community is also forcing substitutions because of contact allergies among consumers. Many bloggers discuss that too. So why is LVMH singling out Octavian?

And more pressingly for the thousands of us who have blogs on Blogger.com -- why did Google and Blogger buckle under to LVMH? Followers of newspaper blogs know that newspaper business offices are excruciatingly vulnerable to pressure from advertisers. Given the difference in financial stability (etc.) between Google and LVMH, I'd have thought all the power was on Google's side, and ours.

Mike Ullman -- formerly of Canfield, Ohio -- was Directeur General, Group Managing Director, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (luxury goods manufacturer and retailer) from 1999 to 2002; President of LVMH Selective Retail Group from 1998 to 1999. I knew him when: he was in eighth grade and I in tenth, working backstage at the Youngstown Civic Children's Theater.

9.30 p.m. in Jo'burg, Mbabane

Our household Peace Corps volunteer touched down in Johannesburg a couple hours ago, and I hope the PC fed her team of 10 and put them to bed after a flight that started at 5 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday.

After writing my weepy blog entry Monday morning, I did what you might laughingly call "roused" Lydia. We got out of the house in time to miss the Chinatown bus* to DC, so she got onto a Metroliner, for a much more relaxed ride. One last phone call: did I leave several checks behind? How about my Peace Corps handbook? No and yes. And another call yesterday from Dulles: is my phone charger there? No. And off she went for her two-year adventure.

Next up: three months of language training in-country. Country = Swaziland. There will be no Peace Corps blog; everyone does it, she probably won't have internet** access, and she has two other blogs to maintain if and when.

*"What is the Chinatown bus anyway?" I asked as we hit 138th Street. "The Chinatown bus" is a definite thing -- cheap bus lines that link Chinatowns around the east coast. Who knew that Buffalo has a Chinatown? $55 one way. This is not a ride that goes to a bus terminal. Look outside your nearby Waffle House, though, and you might see it. The Fung Wah bus has "longest history chinatown bus".

**One suggested purchase that did make it into Lydia's luggage was the Solio, a solar-powered charger for various electrics up to but not including a computer.

Monday, June 22, 2009

4.15 a.m.

The room is only just not dark. Through the open window, the Hudson Valley sighs, a long drawn-out exhale that accompanies a single drift of rain. (Rain, entering its sixteenth straight day.)

Another long drawn-out exhale beside me, and my daughter Lydia stirs in her sleep. In the near-dark I can just see the long ripples of her hair against the lighter sheet. One breath of her Lydia mandarin-cinnamon smell drifts past me.

Somewhere not too far away, late-home revelers laugh and call out. The sound echoes through the neighborhood and is cut off as they remember that their neighbors sleep. A single car growls uphill.

I rise and go to the window, moving the lace curtains aside to let the warm-cool damp breeze into my face. Through the apple tree's ghostly branches, I know the Palisades can be seen during the day but it's dark and misty still.

4.29 a.m. The dawn chorus begins. One, two, three separate birds call out to their mates, and morning is officially underway: June 21, 2009.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Shame, scorn, and the UU quest

Imagineering Faith was Rev. Christine Robinson's sermon at First Unitarian in Albuquerque last Sunday. I find it a remarkable sermon, because it examines feelings common to many UUs, and provides the first sound explanation for those feelings I've ever encountered.

As someone who was brought up in a Unitarian household (both parents became Unitarians) I am a rare bird in most any UU congregation. At least three-quarters of American UUs came to it as adults. In my own congregation of about 170, there are eight of us UUs from early childhood.

The path from being a UU child to being a UU adult is not necessarily a smooth one. Lots of our Sunday school classmates wandered off in other directions, and most of us rediscovered the religion for ourselves when we were grown. A congregation of questers and doubters, most of whom do not agree on the same definition of anything, is not likely to produce kids who ask no questions but move forward into its adult ranks.

But back to Christine Robinson's sermon. Why is it meaningful? And what's this about shame and scorn? I invite you to read it for yourself, but in a nutshell: Robinson suggests that shame is the feeling that something is wrong with you. Not that you have done something wrong: that's guilt. Shame is about who we are. Shame damages us forever.

Scorn, says Robinson, is the kind of rhetoric used to engender shame in another person. She goes on to observe that the kind of political commentary enriching Rush Limbaugh and others of his breed uses scorn as its weapon.

Robinson goes on to point out how, as children -- whether we were active UUs or simply the kind of children who would grow up to be UUs -- we were likely to be questioners, having doubts, not fitting into the sets of beliefs that those around us seemed to hold. For our friends or for most of the adults we knew, their faith was totally natural -- but we didn't have it. And what those transactions induced in us was shame.

Shame breeds anger. And that anger in many UUs and religious "liberals" is all around us. Attributing it to shame, and attributing our shame to having to deal with a world of faith when we ourselves did not have faith, seems to me to be a masterly understanding of many UUs. And that anger against people of faith -- and even people who simply use the language of (usually) Christianity -- is a corrosive element in many of our congregations.

A few months ago, my minister was absent one Sunday and his stand-in a) wore a stole over his suit, b) used the words "God" and "faith," c) prayed, d) spoke a benediction at the end of the service, and e) lifted his hands, palms out, when he gave that benediction. Some members of the congregation were unhappy; one or two were furious and rude. As my congregation's unofficial intern, I subsequently apologized for the rudeness he encountered. He said, "We must learn to be gentle with one another, and we have not always been so."

UU-ism has changed a lot in my lifetime. When I was in school, Unitarians were often WASP-y intellectuals, mirroring our early New England spiritual ancestors. Newcomers were generally escapees from orthodoxy, like my parents -- one from an Irish Catholic family, one from a Scots Presbyterian family. They admired and embraced the tradition and were relieved to have left their families' certainties behind.

Converts anywhere carry their own baggage, though. No matter what discovered universe you embrace, you are also an ex-something. Early 20th-century religion went deep into the personalities of its children, so mid-century UU congregations had large numbers of ex-Lutherans, ex-Catholics, ex-Presbyterians; being an "ex" was significant to them. Across the U.S. there was also a significant cohort of European Jewish immigrants, prosperous, well-educated, often atheists, and generally wary and in shock. Often the significant characteristic Unitarians shared with each other was the sense that they didn't belong anywhere else. This nourished anger too.

So it's no surprise to find, in the old 1964 blue hymnal, shame and anger institutionalized. I periodically return to the blue hymnal for readings no longer in broad use, but what I find are works by apologists like him who wrote "Let us cherish the state that her mighty ends may be achieved." There is little worship and praise and exaltation; there is sackcloth and ashes and guilt. Shame is just down the road. So is anger.

So how have we changed in that half century? People coming in the door now may be in a mixed marriage seeking a place to bring up their children to value both traditions. Equally often, these parents will come from families virtually without religion. They are not escaping from generalized oppression. So what is their anger about?

Here's where Robinson makes an interesting leap from political culture to religion. The Limbaughs, she notes, have used scorn as their significant weapon. We -- their opponents -- are not just wrong, we are bad. We are not just bad, we are evil. Rhetoric leaps high as the speakers' ratings must; without high ratings, these entertainers will wither and die, and shock gives high returns on investment. So the language of scorn and hatred escalates. The wounds go deeper into everyone's hearts, and even people who are not out on a theological limb feel shamed and the anger spreads.

I think we UUs have gone wrong by not acknowledging anger that lies among us and doing something about it. Our hymn We Are a Gentle, Angry People for some unfathomable reason celebrates this anger ... but does nothing with it. It simply states that we are angry, one of the most impotent statements you can imagine.

How much better off we would be, and how much better people we would be, to get to the root of this anger and do something with the knowledge. I like Robinson's sermon immensely, because she does confront the reality, she examines its meaning, and she begins the discussion.

Christine Robinson's pic comes from the Albuquerque UU website, and the offending stole is shown at the UniUniques website.

My hair #1: The golden anniversary of the man with the golden hands

Admit it -- you have no idea what this entry will be about. Am I letting you into my inner kinkster? Unfortunately not.

Clyde told me this morning that he is celebrating his 50th year in the hair dressing profession this month. Last year he sold Chou Chou to Vera [Omigawd! My hair! What will happen to My Hair???] and decided to take it easy by working only three days a week as an employee.

In addition to being a genius -- and I don't use the term lightly -- with scissors and color, Clyde has had an ... interesting life. Some of his friends are famous, some are glamorous, all are smart and interesting. Clyde is not (his his words) "some asshole hair stylist." More than that, he's a good friend who lends me books (most recently, Francis Collins) and CDs (such as his old pal Stan Getz).

Are he and his intellectual wife Ervene going off into some retirement sunset? No, although their passports are waiting to for even more use, what Clyde is doing with his time these days is creating a new modern arts museum in the lower Hudson Valley. It's his story to tell, not mine, but they have a building and a scintillating board and you will be hearing more from them in surprising ways.

I will tell more about both Clyde and My Hair in the future. But you can listen to the man himself at Clyde's Corner. Clyde can still be reached at 914-478-HAIR. I know the number well.

More on Nancy Drew, Women of SCOTUS

As a style item, this doesn't go with the black robe. But oooh, wouldn't you love to see The Hons. O'Connor, Ginsberg, and Sotomayor with this accessory?

Monday, June 15, 2009

I should have named this blog "Other People's Expertise"

Here is a game the archaeologists are playing -- they have their own Facebook group for it, but you need not be a member to check it out. It's called When on Google Earth, and the site is self-explanatory.

But if you're too busy traveling to ancient ruins yourself to check it out, here's what it is. The winner of the last round chooses an archaeological site somewhere on earth and publishes the aerial view from Google Earth, then other archaeologists compete to identify it.

If you'd like to have a go, here's Number 46. You can backtrack through the list of previous rounds to see previously chosen sites.

The geologists, highly experienced observers that they are, created their own game -- Where on Google Earth -- first, but they don't have anything like the organization of the archaeologists and thus don't have them gathered on one site. In fact, I'm not able to figure out where they all are -- it would take days to put the series together. But they're interesting anyway.

Chris Rowan of the U of Edinburgh started What on Google Earth on his own blog. I haven't read anything other than the initial entry, but there are 63 comments -- all from geologists and other observers who (from an aerial photo) are trying to identify the cause of a geologic phenomenon visible on Google Earth. It's interesting to read through the comments, occasionally revisiting the photograph, and reading their collaborative thinking.

Sex and the single beetle

Flowers change color after being pollinated, British science writer Ed Yong tells us today at It's Not Exactly Rocket Science. In fact, several hundred flowering plants have this ability. His post includes pictures of a tiny legume whose change is very dramatic. Not only does it change after pollination, but if the plant subsequently senses that it's not pollinated usefully, it returns to its original color and form to attract additional pollinators.

I was reminded of a lecture on various pollinations in one of my early botany courses. The prof showed slides, but I found even better images showing the flower's progression. The Giant Amazon Water Lily blooms pristine pearl-white during the day. That night it opens wider and lets out a scent that calls to beetles everywhere. The beetles flock to the lily and have an all-night orgy, drinking and mating and mating and eating almost to exhaustion. They haul themselves away as sunrise approaches, and after sunrise the flower has turned a tattered red-pink. But think how efficiently it has been pollinated!

If that water lily ever reminds you of yourself, and you drag yourself into work and someone says, "Boy -- you look like I feel!" tell them they should be so lucky.

The images come from the Cotswolds Wildlife Park and Gardens, where they successfully grow Amazonian flora by heating the water. Unfortunately, the site does not include an action photo of the beetles.

The simple farm boy with just one chance

Hands up everyone who has seen the Rosetta Stone ad for foreign-language-learning software. By "the" ad I mean one which has run perhaps two years, showing a dark-haired lad holding his baseball cap as he scratches his head, the other hand holding the Rosetta Stone software, while the blurb tells you that he was a farm boy, she was an Italian supermodel, and he would have just one chance to impress her.

I say "the" ad because Rosetta Stone has run this ad month after month, year after year, almost exclusively. There is one other ad -- male grad with proud dad and Rosetta Stone for Chinese -- which I have seen fewer than a dozen times.

Why does this ad irritate me so much? Every time I turn a magazine page and there he stands, scratching his head, I feel like tearing out the page. I think dark thoughts and consider writing to Rosetta Stone management, suggesting they fire their ad agency.

Here's what I think is the real story. The head-scratcher is in fact Mr. Rosetta Stone. He's also the grad, and he hauled his own dad into the Chinese ad. Or maybe the ad "agency" is Mrs. Rosetta Stone and that's her son. Whatever the real story is, it's lousy campaign management. Yes, it does draw the attention of cranks like me. But will it make me run right out and buy Rosetta Stone? Hasn't yet. Isn't going to.

This morning I happened on Distributor Cap NY, a blog focused (I think) on advertising and media, and a piece about diminishing returns. The blog piece is about techniques used to market, for instance, Tide, then switches its focus to political parties*. The issue in politics is the Republican repetition of idiotic memes about both the Democratic party and the Democratic president.

*Incidentally, the blogwriter thinks it's really stupid that for the last generation, Republicans have called their opponents the "Democrat" party.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why Blogger needs emoticons

There I was shelving fiction when a pleasant-looking young guy with a beard approached. "Do you have the Sleeping Beauty trilogy?" he asked.
"You mean by Anne Rice?" I asked. "Only under another name?"
He consulted a note. "Yeah, that's the one. My friend told me I'd like it."
I took him to the R's. "Well, here's volume 1," I said as I pulled the book from the shelf.
"I'd like all three books," he said.

So I excused myself and went into the stockroom. Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy must be among the books most shoplifted from Bookstore C everywhere, and I wanted to check whether any were shelved safely in the stockroom. Unsurprisingly, I found volumes 2 and 3 and took them out to the customer.

"I thought they were all in one book," he said.
I explained that the three purchased together were the same price as the single volume.
"Well, then I'll only take the first one," he concluded. "What else can you recommend?"
"What are you looking for, exactly?" I asked, puzzled.
"Oh, a couple good books ... I'm going on vacation and I need stuff to read. Maybe some thrillers. You must know what's good," he added.
"Are you looking for more things like Sleeping Beauty?" I asked.
"You know, I don't really like Anne Rice's other books," he said, "but my friend told me I'd like these books. But, you know, whatever," he explained precisely.

"Do you know that the Sleeping Beauty books are BDSM porn?" I tried.
"BDSM? What's that?" he said, clearly puzzled.
:: oh, brother ::
"Bondage, dominance, S&M ..." I said.

Now this is why I could use emoticons right now. Because honestly, words fail me. But if I could simply run through an entire range of emoticons, I'd maybe convey what happened to this guy's face when I said that. "Smileys" are not what I have in mind. He opened the book at random and read for a minute. He turned absolutely crimson. He cleared his throat. "Well, I will take volume 1 and see why my friend thought I'd like it," he said. "What else do you suggest?"

So I took him through fiction and hand-sold a couple other books and sent him on his way. When I went back to the R's a half-hour later, volumes 2 and 3 were gone as well.

That's the cover of the Penguin paperback of volume 1.

We all know why we prefer independent bookstores, right?

I shouldn't bite the hand that feeds me, but let me tell you -- as if you didn't already know -- why you should always, always, always support the indies*.

I work in one of the big chains -- hence, "Bookstore C" -- and I have pleasant stories to tell about customers and the other staff. But here's the A #1 Big Colossal Giant Supersized Humongous Capital P >>> Problem: almost every single decision about the store is made by Bookstore C Corporate.

This plays out in many ways and, given the desire to keep staffing at a minimum (and believe me, the difference does not show in my pay) it works well. For instance, every display you see in Bookstore C is designed by Corporate. If you walk into one of our stores and there's a display of, oh, bookmarks, that display will have been designed by Corporate, and is in every single Bookstore C in the U.S. and Canada that week. The sign and the spinner come from Corporate, and every single bookmark on the display was chosen by Corporate, AND Corporate will send along photos of where every single item on the display will be placed. Nothing is left to chance! Nothing.

So here we are in the Hudson Valley, and the start of the Henry Hudson Quadricentennial celebration was last week. We have a display of related titles, chosen for us, with a sign sent along for the display, but -- here's the catch -- it's missing that great little book about the Palisades that the Beczak Environmental Education Center published. Of course. Small publishers don't count, even though the catchment area for this branch of the store includes more than half of the people who look at the Palisades every day of their lives. Important note: There is no big-publisher book about the Palisades.

So where Bookstore S**, right here in Hastings-on-Hudson and now alas gone forever, carried books by every writer around***, it doesn't seem relevant to Bookstore C Corporate management that my branch has all these writers living within a few miles. Bill Holstein published a book just a few months ago, Why GM Matters. Bookstore C did not feature this local writer's book, nor did it ask him to do a program or sign books or anything else. If I sell a book by James Howe or Alyssa Capucilli or Roni Schotter or Steve Kanfer (just as a f'rinstance) I comment to the customer that the author lives in Hastings or Yonkers or wherever. Why doesn't Bookstore C promote this?

Last week I noticed a customer carrying a list and scanning the shelves anxiously. Could I help? "I'm looking for books by Helen, Helen, um, Helen Bar--, Bar-- oh golly," she said, "let me check her last name. I keep getting it wrong."
"Helen Barolini?" I hazarded.
"That's it!" she exclaimed happily. "Do you know her work?"
"Not only do I know and love her work, but I'm having dinner with her tonight****," I said.

The customer was just about overcome. She took my hand. "Tell her I love her," she said. And -- since Helen's wonderful books are not big-publisher books -- we went to the computer and she ordered Chiaroscuro, A Circular Journey, and Their Other Side. The book of Helen's that had created such devotion? Umbertina, which of course Bookstore C doesn't carry either.

Here's the other side of the picture. My first day at Bookstore C, I noticed a stack of Ann Coulter books on the front table. In the section, the newest and second-newest Coulter books were in double stacks face-out as well. In the several months since I started working there, there have been stacks and double face-outs of Bill O'Reilly's latest book. Currently the front table has two huge stacks of something with Ronald Reagan's name on the front cover, and also of two Glenn Beck titles. One day I was cleaning shelves near the Coulter books and my hand-held personal computer terminal beeped when I scanned them. Unsold, they'd sat on the shelves so long that the central computer told me to return all but one. That very day, another dozen of the same title arrived.

Well, hey -- has Bookstore C Corporate noticed that New York is a blue state? That Westchester County is a blue county? That my branch of Bookstore C is located in a town that has virtually no November election because if you win the Democratic primary, you get the job? It's not relevant for Bookstore C Corporate. Those unsold books by Reagan and O'Reilly and Beck and Coulter sit there gathering dust; personally, I have not sold one of them. These books adorn best-seller lists, which don't take into account what will be mammoth returns from Bookstore C. If our local managers selected books, these stacks would not be here.

I did not look for this when I started working at Bookstore C. It just became apparent to me after a while.

Umbertina cover from the Feminist press CUNY edition.

* Friend-from-ninth-grade Jane, who was at Copperfield's in Santa Rosa for twenty years, insists that she can never work at a chain for these reasons.
** Bookstore S = sui generis, Good Yarns Bookshop
*** Is there a lesson here? In order to survive, must bookstores ignore small publishers and local connections? The answer seems to be yes.
**** The Literature Club's 100th Anniversary dinner

More about the Spokane floods

A blogger at Highly Allochthonous gave a perfect description of the Spokane Floods I blogged about last month. Anne Jefferson, of the University of North Carolina, has been on the ground all over the region and took very descriptive photos of the landforms. Her image of the "high-water marks" left from ancestral Lake Missoula is terrific. If you thought the brief piece I wrote was interesting, go read Anne Jefferson's. I definitely need to go back to the Pacific Northwest to spend more time on the ground. No, there's no explaining this passion to go looking at landforms.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sotomayor and the New York State Senate -- win/win for the Republicans

Has anyone noticed the Puerto Rico link between the New York Senate Flying Circus and SCOTUS nominee Sotomayor? Plot out the story arc and see where it goes.

Up in Albany, we have a few Democrats -- who happen to be Puerto Ricans from the NYC boroughs -- crossing the aisle to put the Republicans back in power, with obvious quids-pro-quo. These PRDs happen to be [flounders for word which will not put me in court] accused of various election and campaign fund frauds and assault (one of them has charges pending for assaulting his girlfriend with broken glass). Despite the fact that these two guys are really, truly unsavory, and their path to power is out for all to see, the Puerto Rican caucus is with them all the way.

And over here we have Bronx-raised Latina Judge Sotomayor, whom the Republicans are looking to paint in the darkest of colors.

What a party the Republican leadership must be having this week! With the most public of payoffs, the state party has retaken the state Senate and ended all hope for action on anything for the rest of the session. As a side benefit, they will manage to tar Judge Sotomayor with an implication that this is what it is to be Puerto Rican in the Bronx.

Bronxite Roy Cohn has crawled out of his grave and is dancing around the cemetery.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Raymo, the gentle giant

High school classmate Ed e'd us all today to tell us that Raymo had a massive stroke and is on life support. It's strange to be with someone daily for twelve years, then never see them again. Ray and Eddie and I were classmates for twelve years, which then, seemed like forever; which it was. Ray was 6'3" and a bear of a guy, but he wasn't called Bear, he was called Raymo, who knows why.
His mom died when we were perhaps in our early 20s; she sat in the bleachers through every basketball game he ever played in. It was a tossup whether our team was as good as its record, or maybe Raymo's mom scared the opponents into losing! She put body English and every other kind of English into her fandom. Despite her ferocity, Ray was far from ferocious, he was a good sport and a good sportsman. He followed in his dad's footsteps as an ob/gyn, practicing in North Carolina after med school at Case Western Reserve and a residency at Mayo.

I had a real affection for Ray after a bad sixth-grade day. It was right before the end of the grade period and we had a substitute teacher. One of her tasks was to check our reading lists. On a separate notebook page, we had to keep a list of each book we read, one book per line. Most kids had at least a couple of books, some had ten or twelve -- I had six pages filled with books. One by one, we went to the teacher's desk to show her our lists. She looked at mine, pushed her chair back and stood up, her face grew crimson, and she yelled, "What is this? What are you trying to do?" Clearly she thought I was trying something on. The rest of the class fell silent. Then Raymo raised his hand and volunteered, "Oh, she read those books -- Diggitt always has book lists like that!" and then the rest of the class started to agree with him and spoke up too. Sometimes I have wondered what the sub would have done to me if Raymo hadn't spoken out. Unlike certain other alpha males in our class, Raymo was almost protective of me, even though we didn't know each other in anything other than a distant, across-the-classroom way. That's just who he was.

Follow-up: Raymo died Friday, June 5. The 6th was our graduation anniversary.

Wow! Randy Newman! Randy Newman. Wow.

In a blog about the antivaccine hysteria, what did I find but It's Money That Matters by Randy Newman. Always a good concept to keep in mind when you speak of the credulous.

But what put a smile on my face was Randy Newman. Randy Newman!

I will never forget the very first time I heard Randy Newman, 39 years ago. Have You Seen My Baby? Late afternoon sunlight slanted into the Dolores Street kitchen in San Francisco as I fixed dinner. I was listening to KMPX. KPFA? The DJ was a woman named Dusty Street, with the sultry stoned voice all cool SF ladies had then. She played the song. She said, "Oh, wow." She played it again. She said, "That's really far out." She played it again. "Mmmm, wow," she said, "let's hear that one more time." She played it again.

All thoughts of dinner forgotten (well, I turned off the stove) I left the apartment, walked quickly over to the J Church streetcar, transferred on Market to the Hyde cablecar, and went straight to Tower Records on Fishermans Wharf to buy the record. Twelve Songs. Oh, wow. Wow.

When I went to London I left my records behind because after all, I was only going for a few months. Then, I got my first one-year work permit and knew I would be staying, so I bought another copy of Twelve Songs. God forbid that I be without Randy Newman. When CDs happened it was probably the first CD I bought. Wow. Actually, I think I now own a couple copies of that CD too ... and let's not even think about his other ones. A dozen? Eighteen? I have them all.

Whatever alienation I was feeling in May 1970 abandoned me long ago ... but there's something about Randy Newman's words and his music and his attitude that takes me someplace otherwise unfamiliar but strangely, weirdly comfortable. Wow.

Full disclosure: I wrote this last month on the actual anniversary of hearing RN, then forgot to post it. Today I sat in endless rush hour traffic outside Yankee Stadium(s). I punched the button for WFUV just as It's Money That Matters started up. A sign!

Fraud Watch: Elsevier makes an announcement

Last month I wrote about the sci-tech-medical publisher Elsevier: how it had "published" several more-or-less fake journals in the service of Merck Pharma. Elsevier now acknowledges that those publications "should not have been called journals" and that it "... will review practices related to all article reprint, compilation or custom publications and set out guidelines on content, permission, use of imprint and repackaging to ensure that such publications are not confused with Elsevier's core peer reviewed journals and that the sponsorship of any publication is clearly disclosed."*

Elsevier's corporate position could be no other than this. They're demanding that we presume their innocence.

Since the fraudulent publications [those identified so far] were published between 2000 and 2005, negotiations leading up to publication probably began in the late 1990s. Thirty years ago, several STM publishers were already making arrangements with pharma houses although so far as I know, none sold their souls quite so blatantly. Hard to believe that in those decades, nobody within Elsevier looked enviously at those big bucks and said, "I want me some of that." Hard to believe that in any well-run company, project after project came and went, and nobody at any level from freelance copy-editor to the president stopped to wonder about the rules they were edited by, or who the editors were, or the niceties of production, or where the money came from for manufacturing and who approved those budgets, or why journals never had any need for order fulfillment, or where those numbers on the bottom line came from, or what they meant. Nobody ever wondered.

Controller: "Now this, this $500,000 -- what's this half million in income from?"
Random Elsevier Employee: "Merck bought a half million dollars worth of copies of a journal. That's so cool."
C: "What journal? We have to keep track of these things!"
REE: "Um, Journal of House Finch Cardiology, March of oh-one, I think it was."
C: "Journal of House Finch Cardiology? We publish that? I never heard of it. Does it have an outside owner? Is it a nonprofit? Do we own it? Do we pay the editor-in-chief any kind of stipend? We never had any start-up costs that I recall. How many editorial and production employees are assigned to it?"
REE: "I'm not sure. There's a lot of freelancers out there."
C: "And subscribers? We don't have any subscription income coming --" shuffles through papers "-- in from JHFC. Are we claiming a subscriber base when we sell advertising? Because it's illegal to claim subscriptions if we don't have any. We can be audited, you know."
REE: "I don't know. That's above my pay grade."
C: "Ah! That's all right then."

That conversation never happened. Anywhere inside Elsevier? At any time over the past twelve years? Honestly, that doesn't sound like the people I know in STM publishing, who are some of the most intelligent people in publishing, and who are often the first people to notice that the king is buck naked.

*It was reported at TheScientist.com today.

It's a Youngstown thing, Part I

Pyrohy, pierogi, pirohi ... I could go on. There's at least a dozen more names and subtle differences, depending on which side of a hundred-year-old border your family came from. This shows the team of pyrohy (Ukrainian) makers at Holy Trinity (Ukrainian) in Youngstown.

:: sniff :: Personally, I always bought pirohi at Holy Trinity in Struthers. Looking around, I see that St. Stanislaus (Polish) has sauerkraut-filled pierogi. Now those are the best. Yum.

When, at age 20, I finally got my driver's license, I spent literally hours every possible day on the road exploring the area where I'd grown up. Wherever I had seen a curious sign or an interesting-looking building, I'd go search it out. These central European dumplings were a part of the scenery, produced by the church ladies for meatless Fridays. In those innocent days I deep-fried (or at least fried) them and served them with very hot mustard.

Thank goodness Lord Peter didn't kill off Mr. Campion

In today's ChaliceBlog, ChaliceChick connects to a piece of copyright law and the example it refers to.

This reminded me of comparisons that have been made between Margery Allingham's Mr. Campion and Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey gets his own Wikipedia entry and Sayers was a more successful writer, but Allingham's character is just more interesting -- at least to my eyes.

Both men were of about average height, slender but decently muscled -- well, Wimsey was probably more godlike, I admit -- blue/green/grey eyed, blonde/sandy/straw-colored hair, spectacles, and a generally witless look. Both were good dressers, although Sayers went into greater detail on clothes in general. Both men were younger sons in titled families: we never know Campion's real name but we meet all of Wimsey's family and they figure in many books. Both men are trusted (in unspoken ways) by the governments of their day. Both men are rich and clearly do not worry themselves about money. Both men live in Piccadilly: Wimsey at 110A Piccadilly, Campion at 17A Bottle Street.

They have their differences, though. Lord Peter drives a Daimler, Mr. Campion a Lagonda. Lord Peter was damaged by his participation in France in World War One, Passchendaele, perhaps? Mr Campion's service was interesting, high-level but unspecified.

Both have a lower-class sidekick: for Lord Peter it's the ever efficient Bunter, who saved his life during the war, is an excellent photographer and good cook, and is at least nominally a butler (he announces guests too). You would never, ever expect Magersfontein Lugg, Mr. Campion's man-of-all-work, to buttle, however ("all-work" doesn't go that far) and I don't think he cooks, but he probably does a good fry-up. Lugg has his ear to the ground in criminal territory and may be an alumnus of Wormwood Scrubs. He sneers a lot, and Mr. Campion sometimes refers to him (to his face) as "Mother Lugg's little boy"; they are mock antagonists.

Their ancestry is different too. Wimsey's ancestry goes back to the Norman Conquest and the ancestral property, at Duke's Denver, occasionally figures in a plotline. Campion, on the other hand, is either named Rudolph or his older brother is, which signifies something non-English, even if it's not clear what. He may be royalty. Wimsey is C of E (as aren't we all?); Mr. Campion attended St Ignatius College, Cambridge, which, although non-existent, is clearly Catholic (and Campion is the name of an English saint and martyr) BUT Cambridge is right in the middle of the Fens, with Cromwell's home of Ely not far away, so the clues go in several directions.

Their choice of free-time companionship is subtly different. Wimsey has a good relationship with Detective Parker, who becomes his brother-in-law Charles. He has male friends, some of whom are even Jews, which undoubtedly signified the cosmopolitan in London during the 1920s. Sayers's own stamping grounds, in a London ad agency and Oxford, provide Wimsey's friends. Well-born women, sometimes of puzzling morals, are in the background and it's acknowledged that he has kept mistresses. (Not in so many words! He has bought clothing for women.) Mr. Campion's choicest friends, who do sometimes assist him, in small ways, include people with names like Guffy Randall, whom we later learn is a lord. Oates and Luke are friendly acquaintances in Scotland Yard but neither man marries his sister Val, a famous fashion designer. Mr. Campion's heart was broken by Biddy Padgett.

Which brings us to their women.

Harriet Vane is as famous as Wimsey herself, even before she becomes Lady Peter (and the nicety of the naming is noted) ... She is a possible ... murderess! who attended Oxford, and is a writer, and ... has lived in sin. Check Sayers's entry in Wikipedia and you will see why Harriet might have killed her lover. Wimsey's mother approves of Harriet; it's a deft touch that given her public past Harriet chooses to be married in cloth of gold, referring us back to Wimsey's Norman ancestry.

I just adore Lady Amanda Pontisbright, about as pleasing a female character as I have ever encountered. Mr. Campion becomes acquainted with her when he is about 30 and she, 16 or 17. She is red-headed, dressed up in a garment she made from old curtains, and wants desperately to rent him a room in the mill house where she lives in penury with brother, sister, and American cousin. Amanda is fascinated by electricity and hydraulics and possibly Mr. Campion -- at one point she asks him bluntly, "Do you ever think about Biddy Padgett?" (indicating that although she's a kid in the sticks, she has connections) -- and he admits it. After the bad guys are disposed of and the excitement dies down, Amanda falls asleep, having asked Mr. Campion to wait for her to grow up. With affection and amusement, he watches her sleep, and there ends Sweet Danger. Incidentally, Amanda does grow up and becomes an aviation engineer and if you want to find out what Mr. Campion did about it, you'll just have to go read some Margery Allingham.

I bring you this analysis because ChaliceChick's blog links to a copyright case about ownership of two very similar characters, and Allingham always claimed she hadn't read Sayers. In her defense, the Wimsey/Campion type is not a literary device. Those guys really exist -- not as detectives but as types. Sometime I shall blog on Sir Peregrine Henniker-Heaton as proof that those people really can be witless in the extreme.

Several months ago, housebound for several days and out of fresh mysteries, I fell back on a dust-covered stash found after a desperate search. Back-to-back, I read Sweet Danger and The Nine Tailors, and I found the latter so imponderable -- and Harriet's not even there to dull it down further -- I wondered what prompts the Wimsey addicts into their addictions. My conclusion on Nine Tailors: Sayers had an affair with someone who was into ringing changes and, feigning interest, she took good notes. What other reason could there be for page after page of change-ringing lore? (Wikipedia is hardly a match for the pages she takes up with this stuff.) Sayers was the daughter of a C of E clergyman and the picture she paints, in the C of E clergyman character, is Dickensian, the fuss-budget to end all fuss-budgets, and perhaps revenge on her father.

There's no question: Sayers is the better writer. Everything about the Lord Peter books is more richly done. She's great at presenting that time and those places and people like that. But it's often suggested that Sayers fell in love with Lord Peter -- though she always denied it -- and she lingers over him and his life in ways that make me itchy. (There is a brief bedroom scene where Peter and Harriet make love in Latin. Well, I probably would too, if I could.) Who can read about Harriet without feeling Sayers's longing to be Harriet? Ick.

But the Allingham book was much more fun to read. Just plain fun. if Sayers had tried a copyright suit against Allingham, it's clear to me that the end products are so different, subtly but adding up to two characters instead of one, that a judge wouldn't have found for Sayers.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

He wore a button reading Trust Women

I am trying, trying to find the sense of reason and justice in this piece from spiked, of London. Brendan O'Neill, its author says, "..the best way to make the case for the right to choose is not to criminalize the speech of the anti-abortion lobby, but to inject public debate with more and more convincing arguments for abortion rights. In short, we need more 'extremely vivid' speech, not less."

It's true that George Tiller, who wore a button reading Trust Women, was murdered by a nutcase. The world is full of them. We now accept that psychosis is responsible for John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy -- murderers like that. And yet, those guys were predators. When the urge to kill was upon them, they found someone who fit their (usually) physical requirements of a victim, and killed. Gacy and Bundy and Dahmer may have had voices in their heads. They did not have cable shows, websites, and talk radio -- much less sweet-faced old ladies on street corners and allegedly Christian preachers -- telling them that killing that specific person was A Good Thing. There's a difference.

George Tiller wore a button reading Trust Women. It's interesting that the radical right is working so hard to make empathy an obscenity, because their lack of it -- person by person -- prompts their politics. None of them, from O'Reilly and Limbaugh and Gingrich down to the picketing women, seem to have thought what it would be to be another person. Empathy: none.

In me there is a universe. There's a universe in you. My intellectual and religious positions are that your beliefs are as deeply considered and as deeply felt as mine. You know your truths as surely as I know mine. At a not-so-deep level, the view of the ultra-conservative is solipsistic. Your personhood and mine are not real to them. (Empathy: none.)

Because you cannot believe in the personhood of the fetus and not believe in the personhood of the pregnant woman. Down deep, the pro-lifers must not believe in either, because the inverse is not true. It is possible to recognize the pregnant woman's personhood and not believe in that of the fetus. I can't possibly extrapolate your beliefs from mine, nor your experience from mine. I know what it was to have a happy pregnancy with a dedicated partner, to be healthy and to have a healthy outcome. I can't imagine what it would be for those factors not to be present but if they weren't, I would sure not want the government, or leaders of any religion, or a bunch of lobbyists , to decide what will happen to me and my body in that horribly stressful (and possibly fatal) time.

So that's why I keep thinking how George Tiller wore a button reading Trust Women. Because nobody else can know what's best for you. I have a hard enough time making my own choices; I dare not assume the right to make them for another person. What I can imagine is the panic, the desperation, the crushing despair to come if all is not going well with a pregnancy after you've bonded with your baby. Why would the grief be any less than that of the mother whose newborn dies in her arms?

Imagine being surrounded by that grief, despair, panic, dread, every working day. You could not go on if you did not have faith in each woman to be the own best judge of what's right for herself. I am sure it wasn't the career path he'd set out for himself, for who would choose it? But he accepted the burden.

If you also trust women, go to Planned Parenthood and make a donation in George Tiller's memory. What better way to make it sacred and preserve what he died for than to underwrite Planned Parenthood's goals? You can direct your donation locally, nationally, or internationally, and choose the services it will provide.

Monday, June 1, 2009

I'm sharing this with you because I like you

A blog about leeches. And it has links!

Blood on his hands

There are lies, damned lies, and people damned by their lies. One of the latter is Bill O'Reilly. Watch him here. The man makes more money with every word he speaks, and in this video not one of them is honest.

Call me narrowminded, but ferrets are as far as I can go

The Scientist tells us that geckos (which I thought was spelled with a double-k) have hit Philadelphia. Interesting though they undoubtedly are, they're not cuddly and I want cuddly animals around me.

I never liked snakes. Family legend has it that my grandparents moved back to Poland, Ohio, after settling in Micanopy, Florida, because Grandma Lydia didn't like snakes. I had a grudge against snakes because when I was eight and away at camp, I was startled by a snake, fell, got a bad gash, and got stitches instead of a picnic; I also found my all-time favorite rock, which got stolen years later, which just goes to show.

When my daughter Lydia was a baby I decided that I didn't want her to be, you know, a girl about snakes (like me). Her room had big posters of snakes, and I got inflatable snakes, and carved wooden articulated snakes*, and best of all, at the Boston's Institute for Women's Work** I found a stuffed crocheted multicolor snake to wrap around baby Lydia's crib bars. Its head leered at her as she slept.

When we visited our friends Ed and Julie, Lydia stayed in his daughter Liz's room, along with Slither the Snake. Lyd really liked Slither. Lyd liked all snakes. When we went to Star Island every summer, she'd head off to the marine lab just to meet the new snakes. I'd find her down there between organized activities, maybe with a green snake wrapped along her arm. It's refreshing to learn that something you planned about your child actually worked.

I finally got off the bus when she came home from a seventh grade weekend in the Catskills. Someone had had a boa constrictor and Lydia brought home a photograph of herself with it wrapped around her shoulders, going up the back of her head through her hair and coming down in front inside her glasses. I don't know where that photo is and I don't want to know. I'd rather deal with gekkos.

*To prove that no good idea goes unpunished, people seeing these snakes assumed that I really liked them, and gave me more snaky things.
**It closed long ago but was on Boylston Street diagonally opposite the Public Garden.

Statistics now prove that Mother was wrong. You can look it up

Today’s NY Times tells us there’s a 100% correlation between women nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court and having read Nancy Drew as a kid. Yes! Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg and now, Sonia Sotomayor all read Nancy Drew when they were grade-schoolers.

In my family, it was a given that Nancy Drew was trash, a waste of time, and … something only badly-bred little girls read. To prove the point, Mother would draw on her sister Betsy, director of circulation for the Youngstown Public Library System, to confirm that none of the libraries in the system bought Nancy Drew books. Or for that matter, the Hardy Boys or Judy Bolton either.

So my memories of reading all those series are of books smuggled from friends and also from the libraries of older residents, people who had bought the series for their children who were now grown up and moved away. The series books I read were the oldest ones, all published by Grosset & Dunlap, of course, with covers barely hanging on and loose yellowing pages, musty smelling.

The most powerful memory called up is of visiting the Wynn family. Across US 224 from our farmhouse, a lane headed straight north for about a mile. Near its end, it dropped into a small grove of trees and there the Wynns’ ramshackle farmhouse squatted. Its lawn was full of rusting tractor parts and cars on blocks, and the front screen door was missing its spring, but I went back and back and back because I was always welcome to draw from their vast library of Nancy Drews and the others.

With my mind full of hardened criminals anyway, the walk to and from Wynns' was scary. Flat Ohio fields stretched away on both sides, and as the summer sun baked down, the only sounds would be the endless buzzing of bees, the occasional caw of a crow over the fields, and a far-off tractor. The sound of highway traffic would mute before I was halfway there. But I’d brave the silence and the solitude because the walk home with an armload of Nancy Drews was such a pleasure.