Thursday, April 30, 2009

What bookstore employees REALLY think

I used to tell a story about the time I decided to read Dorothy L. Sayers's translation of The Inferno. I went to a chain bookstore (not Bookstore C) and asked the young man at the service desk. Full admission: I expected him to say, "Dantay? Do you have a last name?"

So I was pleasantly surprised when he said, "Sayers translated it too? I didn't know that. I prefer the Musa translation myself." Then we passed another store clerk, who asked if he could help, and my first helper explained, and the second clerk said, "Well, the Ciardi translation reproduces the original rhythms of the language and is really beautiful to read out loud." Musa? Ciardi? I wondered where the heck such scholars had been when I was in college, pursuing studies of handsome blond lifeguards.

When I started working at Bookstore C, I had fully two weeks of training. One thing I was told over and over was not only that "This is the Bookstore C way of shelving fiction/checking inventory/tidying the newsstand," I was warned that People From Corporate Might Visit Anytime -- clearly a way of keeping employees on their toes.

A few months ago I saw a customer standing in the Religion section looking baffled, and I asked if I could help. "I'm actually looking for Journey to the West," he said.

Wow! One year my Literature Club project was Journey to the West, and I personally happen to be steeped in Monkey lore. "Do you mean when Monkey traveled to get the ancient Buddhist scriptures?" I asked the customer.

"Why, yes," he said, "and I hope you have it in paperback."

I stopped in the middle of the aisle. "Gee, the paperback edition was published in 1987 and is out of print, "I explained. "We don't have the hard cover edition in stock but I can order it for you and, hmmm, it would be here in three days."

So we had a nice little discussion about Wu Cheng-en and Tripitaka and Arthur Waley and Monkey and Piggsy. I am certain he went home stunned and told his friends that Bookstore C sales staff are amazingly knowledgeable. Not knowing, of course, that he was speaking to one of the five people in Westchester County who ever heard of the book in the first place and who, in the second place, figured that he was A Person From Corporate Who Might Visit Any Time And Take Names.
Incidentally! There is actually a Journey to the West blog! Wouldn't it be cool for someone to do a blog of the journey itself? It could go on for years. Unhappily, that's not what that blog is -- it's a blog about producing the television show. The image above of Monkey and companions is from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

“I would visit my mother’s grave and feel sorry for myself”

One of the first things Lydia’s dad told me about his family was that his mother’s mother — his Grandmother Brooks — had died in the flu epidemic of 1918-19.

All of us are descended from people who died. But sometimes there’s something in a death that makes it different from other deaths. Death in the Great Flu Pandemic was such a death.

Mae Bickford was born in 1887. She married Edwin Brooks and died, sometime before the first birthday of her third child Elizabeth, who was born in early 1918. My mother-in-law Betty never knew her birth mother and was close to six when her father married again.

When I used to meet single women lamenting because they couldn’t find a husband, I would think of Laura Benedict, that singular woman who married Ted Brooks, a widower with three little kids, and became from all accounts a wonderful mother to them.

What I found notable about Mae Brooks’s death was that I heard about it in the early 1980s, and I had never before talked with anyone who spoke of a connection to the great flu pandemic. I grew up in the Ohio village where five generations of my family had lived, and I knew century-old gossip about this local family and that — but no stories of the Spanish flu.

Where had it been hiding? I once walked through the Riverside Cemetery in Poland, Ohio looking for the tombstones of young adults who had died in those years and didn’t find anything remarkable one way or another.

Where the Spanish flu hides in Ohio’s folk legends I still don’t know, but a really interesting story is that of the virologists who found the virus, H1N1. Toward the end of the 20th century it became something of a hidden treasure, sought in exhumed bodies buried in the permafrost of Norway and Alaska. Medical detectives pored over old records looking for forgotten graves. That they found the virus is a scientific miracle!

My mother-in-law Betty confessed to me once that when she was a young teenager visiting Rochester, she would sneak off to the cemetery to mourn by her mother’s grave. “I don’t know what I was mourning for! I loved Mother [Laura Benedict] and it seemed disloyal,” she confessed.But now that I have seen my own daughter grow up, I can certainly mourn for Mae Brooks, who never knew that joy. In 1986, Ted and Betty and I took toddler Lydia to Mae’s grave during a visit to Rochester.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Youngstown’s bishop to go back where he belongs

The I Will Shout Youngstown blog reported today that Bishop George Murry of the Youngstown (Ohio) diocese has decided to move — wait for it — into Youngstown.

The bishop is taking two important steps. He is giving up a house on 2.5 acres, with five bedrooms and two family rooms. In terms of sustainability, a single man living in such a place is insupportable. While a bishop by definition has neither wife nor children, I suppose he has some sort of corporate ménage … but five bedrooms? Two family rooms? In a prestigious public school district? C’mon.

An equally praiseworthy step is: Bishop Murry is moving back into the city. The bishop’s home has been in Liberty Township, north of Youngstown in a different county. Many of the tycoons who once lived on Youngstown’s north side (within the mile immediately north of the cathedral) moved their families to Liberty Township years ago.

The bishop's new home will be on Gypsy Lane, the boundary between Youngstown and Liberty Township. Most Gypsy Lane houses look across a wide, tree-shaded street at a municipal golf course. I note that Bishop Murry rides a bicycle, and while it's something of a walk from Gypsy Lane to St. Columba's Cathedral, it would -- will! -- take no time at all for a cyclist.

Now comes the BUT. But -- wouldn't it be less symbolic and more real for the bishop's home to be truly in Youngstown? Gypsy Lane is, after all, as far away from the city as you can be and be in the city.

Wick Park, about a half mile south of the bishop's new home, is a glorious area of green that survived the worst of Youngstown's downturn. It has many grand houses and institutions surrounding it -- admittedly, grand houses that have seen better days -- but who better than the Diocese to take on the project of restoring a mansion to LEED standards? Imagine if the Diocese of Youngstown created a green rehabbing training program. It would put the energy of a large, rich institution, and the charisma of Bishop Murry (which I understand is considerable) into a job-training program that would be invested not just in Youngstown's future but in the whole country's future. It could be a model copied around the United States!

Nobody understands better than I how a person can hunger for green, open space. And rank hath its privileges. But rank hath its responsibilities too … and in my humble UU view, this bishop, any bishop, belongs close to the cathedral, in his city.

Youngstown is not a splendid diocese. It may be that the Liberty Township home is Youngstown’s diocesan equivalent to the treasures of the Vatican. But Youngstown (like Flint and Detroit and Buffalo and Erie and Cleveland) has been struggling since the 60s with the butchery of urban renewal programs that ripped out their cores. Quality lifestyles wait in those cities for people to go claim then. The Catholic Church in action can be an amazing force for good, and I hope that its enlistment in this battle is as meaningful as it seems to me this spring day.

And that 2.5 acres? It’s too much to hope that the diocese will turn it into a market garden. But Liberty Township is fairly flat … and imagine a diocese-wide composting program. Oh, the possibilities of it!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Oh, all right — New Jersey reconsidered

As I was going on about New Jersey being, you know, FLAT, a small still voice kept noodging me: What about north Jersey?

I know, I know … actually, the day I went to Princeton, I drove up through the Wallkill Valley as the long way home. In glacial time, the Hudson flowed through the Wallkill Valley and went out to sea through the Passaic River channel, and I wanted to see how familiar the Wallkill Valley would be. The answer is, not much: no Palisades, for one thing (there are inland Palisades northwest of Nyack, incidentally, and if you go to Haverstraw to see how a developer can ruin a waterfront, you’ll find the development huddled into the dark, late-afternoon shadow of an east-west Palisades ridge).

(I’m sure the Haverstraw development is nice for the people who live in it … but there’s no public access, a guard at the gate, walls so you can’t see what’s inside. Actually, there’s another Hudson River site with exactly the same characteristics! It’s called Sing Sing, and it has an even better view than the Haverstraw site.)

A few images like these were waiting in my camera. The setting sun gilded dead trees standing in a marsh in the Ramapo Mountains. Do you catch a slight magenta cast to the image? It’s the way it really was. Between the evening sun, the living trees in the background with sap running close to the surface, and the dark sky reflected in the water, the overall light was in the magenta-to-blue range.

So my apologies to Bergen County: you’re not Big Sky Country. Yes indeed — Bergen County woodland is just as beautiful as if it were in New York State.

A brand-new view from my bedroom

I just walked into my bedroom. This is what was just outside my window, glowing in the midday light.

What a gift! I asked myself why it surprised me ... after all, that apple tree has been standing there for decades. But the view is the result of the blossoms being full (which they weren't yesterday and may not be tomorrow) and the sun being in just the right place in the sky. I rarely go into my bedroom mid-afternoon, so yes, it's possible that I have lived here eight years and never seen it before.

There's a moral there, isn't there? [Memo to self: save for sermon topic someday.] For six months a year I have total privacy in my bedroom because of the fullness of the apple tree's crown. It's wonderful -- I can sleep naked with the window wide open and know that no one sees me but the breeze. But I really did not expect those shimmering branches to be hanging right outside. I am surprised by joy.

Did you know about the "great cilantro divide"?

I didn't. I just knew that the day I discovered cilantro is one of the great days in my life.

But I am fascinated by people's different responses to taste and scent. Consider several of the facts raised on this posting and several that link to it. For instance: Using gas chromatography on cilantro shows that its identifying profile has a couple of distinct spikes. People who hate/loathe/detest cilantro do not perceive one specific spike. In other words, in the complex blend of taste and smell that identifies cilantro, its haters miss one that either a) masks what's bad or b) adds something pleasurable for the rest of us.

I followed this up because I have always been interested that in northern and western Europe, the coriander seed is traditionally used in cooking and baking, but cilantro -- the herb that grows from the coriander seed -- was not. And yet most Asian cultures use the herb a lot. Obviously the herb must be grown in order to get fresh seeds, so it's not that the herb was unknown in the north and west. Is this only a cultural difference or is there another reason? Clearly there could be a genetic link to not perceiving that one substance that creates the spike.

Well, how about the wide use of cilantro in Mexico?

I don't know. It may be that cilantro was introduced into Mexico in what's termed "the Columbian exchange" -- when, after the European invasion of the Americas, American organisms (the tomato and potato, for instance) traveled to Europe and European organisms (dandelions, smallpox) went to the Americas. If all these suppositions are true, then cilantro found in Mexico a population genetically disposed to like it.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tom's breakfast at sea

Yesterday Kathy and I had breakfast at Lee's -- the first time we had spent together, the three of us, in many years. Lee's husband Tom cooked a breakfast that would have done for a dozen people. He served an unnamed breakfast dish dating from his days as a merchant seaman.

Mix together wheaten cereal (Wheatena is fine) with corn meal and cook thoroughly. It needs stirring, of course; you won't like it if it's lumpy. When it's well cooked you will feel the wheat grains on your tongue but not the corn meal grains.

Serve steaming hot with a large dish of grated Emmenthaler cheese. Stir the cheese in so it melts into the grains. There's your complete protein.

It's a very savory dish and would go well with a side of fresh fruit. It's clear why a ship at sea would have these ingredients because it doesn't depend on fresh dairy or fresh anything for its goodness. Incidentally, it reheats just fine. Whatever you do, don't mix the cheese in and let it stand or put it in the fridge -- it will go solid.

Susan Boyle and my crawling skin

The world has fallen in adulation at the feet of Susan Boyle, the 47-year-old Scotswoman whose rich voice stunned Great Britain’s cynical television viewers last week.

And it is a marvelous voice, and Susan Boyle (who apparently has spent the last many years looking after an aged, sick mother) will knock audiences dead if she gets a career in song at this point in her life.

But I find creepy — in fact creepy-crawly — the behavior of people who have seen that You Tube episode in which her voice was first heard by millions. Within less than an hour earlier this week, close to a dozen people had forwarded me that piece of video. I just read the blog of a UU minister who wrote that she had been listening to Susan Boyle’s voice all day.

Is this really about her music?

Of course not.

It’s in reaction to the expressionless, cynical sophisticates who were the judges, stagehands, and audience of the show on which Susan Boyle appeared. But isn’t it every bit as patronizing as their amazement?

Honestly, I can’t think when was the last time that more than one person forwarded me a piece of music because the performer was so talented. I have been sent nice pieces of music, sure, but not over and over and over. The metanarrative here is that everyone knows — and everyone knows that everyone knows — that it is impossible to be taken seriously as a female performing artist unless one is beautiful.

Consider the last couple years at the Metropolitan Opera. Renee Fleming as Thaïs and Natalie Dessay as Lucia and La Sonnambula — all characters who are beauties — were promoted at least as much for their looks as for their talent. In the world of classical music, woe to the young woman performer who cannot be made to appear beautiful in her publicity photographs.

So I guess the metanarrative of the frantic emailing was “See! See! See! A woman with unplucked eyebrows and she still has a wonderful voice!” And while that starts out as the opposite sentiment from that of the television show judges, it winds up coming from exactly the same place … and I guess that’s why it seems creepy-crawly. Particularly the minister who listened to Susan Boyle all day. When do you suppose was the last time that minister listened to a single song for hours on end?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Anthony Trollope! And thoughts of young brides

Thanks to The Writer’s Almanac and Today in Literature, I am reminded that Anthony Trollope would be 194 years old today, were he alive. With all due respect to Lord Peter Wimsey, Trollope is definitely someone who would make interesting conversation were he to drop into the Station Café. I quote from Today in Literature:
… Although Trollope’s fifty or so novels have retained their popularity for some, many others have relegated him to the Stuffy Victorian Fiction shelf, approachable only by way of a BBC miniseries. In her .. New Men in Trollope’s Novels (2007), scholar Margaret Markwick says that, in theme at least, the novels are more modern than they might at first appear. Subtitled Rewriting the Victorian Male … many excerpts .. show that Trollope had some challenging views about men, women, and marriage. The passage below is excerpted from the 1866 novel The Belton Estate, which a young Henry James — twenty-four, and still fifteen years away from his first novel — reviewed as "a stupid book, without a single thought or idea in it ... a sort of mental pabulum”:

The theory of man and wife — that special theory in accordance with which the wife is to bend herself in loving submission before her husband — is very beautiful, and would be good altogether if it could only be arranged that the husband should be the stronger and greater of the two. The theory is based upon that hypothesis, — and the hypothesis sometimes fails of confirmation. In ordinary marriage, the vessel rights itself, and the stronger and greater takes the lead, whether clothed in petticoats, or in a coat, waistcoat and trousers; but there sometimes comes a terrible shipwreck, when the woman before marriage has filled herself full with ideas of submissions, and then finds that the golden-headed god has got an iron body and feet of clay.

My old friend Eileen was married at 16 to an ex-Marine. Both subsequently accumulated many degrees, served in the Foreign Service in several different countries, and lived a life totally different from the one those first facts might suggest. But I recall Eileen reflecting on marriage at such a young age, saying, “We were married twelve years before I admitted that sometimes Bobby could be boring.”

I can’t think of young brides and boring husbands without thinking fondly of Lady Glencora, married off at 15 to Plantagenet Palliser, heir to the Duke of Omnium and with apparently no thought in his head more florid than the possibility of being Chancellor of the Exchequer someday. Lady Glencora’s main qualifications to be Planty Pal’s bride were these: a) she was heiress to the greatest fortune in England and b) she was an orphan, the ward of men whose idea about money was that its highest purpose was to be wed to more money, the tenderness of its young owner’s spirit be damned.

Lady Glencora’s own passion is for the ne’er-do-well Burgo Fitzgerald and at some point soon after her marriage she hopes to run off with him … but wait! She learns she is pregnant. At this point, my thinking switches from Trollope to John Galsworthy, damning Soames Forsyte forever with the line: “He raped your mother.” How did Lady Glencora get pregnant anyway? What was it like for her?

I have been the mother of a mid-teen girl more recently than I have been a girl in her mid-teens, but from either point of view it was a baffling time. When I was 15, I would go from giggling with girlfriends to being felt up by [male] family friends. I preferred the first reality but lived in a world where the second kept intruding.

Not only with aggressive men — fathers of children I babysat for — but with newspaper headlines about, e.g. Errol Flynn. Somehow, I didn’t think my parents would be like Beverly Aadland’s mom: “My baby was a virgin when she met Errol Flynn.” Fond though one can grow of Plantagenet Palliser over the course of the six Palliser novels, when it comes to debauching 15-year-olds, the old dear just wasn’t in the same class as Errol Flynn. Yet that’s what the heirs of great men did in those days.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

That magic night not far from Wawa

Long, long ago in days of yore, I was On the Road. See America before it burns, I told my friends. So Dig, Doug, and Duke the Dog hit the road in an eleven-year-old Ford Econoline van, with Crosby, Stills & Nash on the radio and Kent State still happening on the backs of our eyelids.

In those days I thought it too self-conscious and inauthentic to experience something and write about it at the same time. Everyone else on the road was writing and photographing, but I wanted The Pure Experience. There wasn’t enough experience in the whole world for me to experience, so I really wanted to experience what I was experiencing, if you get my drift. Writing, photographing — all those mediations might get in the way. I thought, while other people have their yellowed journals, I will have the purity of memory.

What can I say? Maybe I was right. The memories that survive are more vivid than any photograph. We were on the road many months; I didn’t get eaten by bears, and I fell in love with Canada forever. And I gained priceless insights into human nature too.

At some point we reached Wawa, Ontario, which has probably not changed much in the intervening decades. We continued to head north and by late afternoon arrived at Neys Provincial Park, near the northern end of Lake Superior. I was fascinated by traveling on the Canadian Shield, which is some of Earth’s oldest rock, and finding unusual plants in the woods in the region. At close to 45º N, it was as far north as I had ever been.

We stretched out on the beach to watch the sun set across the lake. I noted that the lapping waters were actually slightly tidal, since Lake Superior is just large enough and lies north/south. Duke lay sprawled across my feet.

We were joined by some other Americans. In conversation we learned that they had all gone to Forest Hills High School together and were now doing some post-law-school traveling. From a cloudless sky of blue and gold, the sun set. Brilliant Venus hovered in the west.

One of the lawyers told us about Velikovsky, the plotting by Macmillan Publishing and Harvard, and the unreadable Erik von Daniken. The Forest Hills gang talked about conspiracies and what really happened.

As it grew darker, the moon appeared. A red-gold full moon, huge at the horizon, getting smaller as it climbed … and, we noticed, getting still smaller. An eclipse! With Venus setting, and other stars appearing, we sat mesmerized watching it. Finally the last shadow passed off the face of the moon. Clusters of shooting stars came and went. We’d had a small campfire going on the beach and someone brought out marshmallows. Then some damn fool back in the parking lot turned on his headlights.

Jeez! What a jerk. Stripes of bright light pierced the night sky. We were all drowsy, so nobody went back to ask whoever it was to turn off his lights, but we muttered about it.

Then the lights started to dance. Curtains of green and pink lights danced in the darkness over our heads, sweeping through the sky. The lake was still, with an occasional splash, and the dancing lights were bright enough to silhouette pine trees along the shore. After a few more hours, the Northern Lights faded away and so did we, asleep on our blankets getting covered with dew.

The early fingers of dawn woke Duke and me. I went back to the van to get a towel to dry off, and feed him, and we returned to the beach as others stirred. The sky was still cloudless and the sunrise was as picture-book perfect as the sunset had been. And Venus once again appeared, as if to greet it.

If I had to pick out a piece of time, in my life, that was absolutely perfect, I would choose that night: sitting on the northern shore of Lake Superior letting the solar system speak to me.

And as we said goodbye to the Forest Hills lawyers, one of them said sorrowfully to me, “Oh, man! If only we’d had some acid! -- wouldn’t last night have been great?”

Thomas Hoving’s Call to Action

At some time in each of our lives, we read a book that causes us to jump out of our seats, and MOVE! We must act now! For some of us, the prompt is climate change. It could be hunger, or the plight of our schools, or saving the river.

For me, the book was King of the Confessors, Thomas Hoving’s book on the Bury St. Edmund’s Cross. Not only was the book riveting — I read it through the night and part of the next day — but as soon as I reached the last page, I knew I had to do something.

A brief explanation. King of the Confessors is Hoving’s telling of the history and ownership of a 12th century altar cross made of walrus ivory and decorated with nearly a hundred carved figures and about as many inscriptions. Its past is a checkered one, as is Hoving’s own relationship with it. The book is a whodunit and a howdunnit: How Hoving heard about the Bury St. Edmund’s Cross, its history, its possible maker, how he bought it for the Metropolitan Museum, what other purchasers thought of the cross, and so on. Yes, I guess you have to be something of a medieval maven, but the object could have been anything with a tangled history. And the mind that made Thomas Hoving a brilliant curator also made him a brilliant storyteller.

My memories of this are as clear as if it were yesterday. I found the book in a used book sale and bought it for a buck because of my lingering interest in English history. Also, I have a much-loved old Nonesuch record of a mass written for the feast day of the translation [when his body was moved from one tomb to another] of St. Edward, King and Confessor, so there was that apparent strong association. Although I was to learn that Edward the Confessor has nothing to do with the story -- "King of the Confessors" has another meaning entirely.

By the time I was ten pages into the book it was clear that I was going to send out for pizza for dinner -- forget about cooking. Despite the fact that the story and its telling were fascinating, I found myself going back and going back to read chapters again, simply because they were so interesting and so much fun! I finally finished the book early the next afternoon, and I knew just what I had to do.

I called the school and made up some story to get Lydia out of class right away and on that lovely spring afternoon, we went to the Cloisters to look at the cross. Believe me — it was worth it. Even if the child protective people come after me for doing it, je ne regrette rien! (The statute of limitations on lying to school secretaries has expired now anyway.)

Bless Lydia — she seemed as interested in the cross and its story as I was. We explored other parts of the Cloisters and its collection and had a nice talk with a craftsman who was cleaning figures in a frieze telling the history of mankind. And on a sunny spring day, with flowering trees in blossom and a light breeze coming off the Hudson, there’s no better place to be than the Cloisters anyway.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hudie's Potatoes

Thinking of being in the kitchen making stock, I recalled another kitchen adventure — cooking dinner for 20+ at Lydia’s coop last summer. Dinner at the coop has to be vegetarian with a vegan option, and I hadn’t cooked for a crowd for a while. It was great to use big pots again!

On my way to Chicago, I stopped in Ohio to visit Cousin Manda and Uncle John Aiken. Manda’s sweetheart (and now husband) David Hudak was there, and he told me about potatoes his mom used to cook, which I tried out on the Chicago crew. They loved it! Here’s how Hudie told me to cook potatoes.

New red potatoes are the best. Quarter as many as you need.
Thin-slice as many onions as you want.
Use a big, thick (iron if possible) pan with a tight-fitting lid.
Fry the onions slowly (I use canola oil), with lashings of salt and pepper.
Stir in the quartered potatoes. Maybe add more pepper and mix it all well.
Turn the heat down to low and cover tightly.
Check for burning occasionally and stir, to keep the mixture from sticking.
After maybe fifteen minutes, add LOTS AND LOTS of fresh paprika
(I used a whole bottle when cooking for 20+).
Keep cooking. Add more oil if necessary. Paprika is just horrible when it scorches (and the smell is even more vile), so you can’t ignore it completely even though your main attention can be elsewhere.
When the potatoes are cooked through, season to taste. More pepper doesn’t hurt.
The dish should be bright red, with a delicious crust on every potato piece. The paprika taste is subtle but present and it all smells wonderful. This is great for dinner with other colorful food, also good with eggs in the morning.

Red food makes me smile, and it made Lydia’s housemates happy too.

The body of knowledge that will make you someone different

The Austrians call them “round birthdays” — the ones that end in zero. But they have never served as milestones for me. Well, turning ten might have; since I was by far the youngest in my school class, many of my classmates were eleven while I was still in single digits.

There were particular skills I wanted to acquire and bodies of knowledge to master, and if I could only be the person who did or knew that single thing, then I would be who I aspired to be.

Mismarried at 21 to the son of a wonderful cook, I yearned to make meat stock like hers. Patiently, my mother-in-law tried to help. She told me what she did. She wrote down her directions. She went food shopping with me so I could be confident I was getting the right bones. She sat in the kitchen while I cut up the onions and watched me brown them. Her son echoed her praises as we ate the final product.

In the decades since, I have made stock hundreds of times. I have read books on the subject and tested the efficacy of ways to remove the fat, to clarify the broth, to make it a richer brown. Ground pepper or whole peppercorns? Celery or not? You can always learn more about food chemistry. I have made soup for my parents, for my husband and child, for lovers, and for myself. And let’s not forget the Midnight Run! Soup by the five-gallon pot. I can say to myself: I know stock. There will always be surprises, but yes, I am a woman who makes good stock.

There was other knowledge I longed to master. Over the years, the poet Cavafy’s name would appear. Perhaps only as if going by on the breeze. I suspect Lord Peter Wimsey once spoke of Cavafy. (He would have.) I didn’t think about it much, but whenever the name Cavafy drifted by, I would realize that there is a sort of person who knows Cavafy but that sort of person is not me.

Then, ten or so years ago, the Literature Club of Hastings-on-Hudson chose Classics as its topic of the year. We told each other we would know what a classic was when we encountered it. We all had great fun that year choosing our subjects. There was a momentary possibility of a fight over Marcus Aurelius. [You will never read that sentence anywhere else.] Loving Daniel Deronda, I considered George Eliot, but then decided that exploring the unexplored is what Lit Club is all about. I can’t recall who I actually chose as my subject that year, but ten days before my program would open the Literature Club season, I changed my mind. I thought: Cavafy!

Too impatient to wait for interlibrary borrowing, I drove from branch to branch across the county, gathering information and books. I read Cavafy, and about Cavafy, obsessively, and fortunately, found this odd person attractive. At the Lit Club meeting we read Cavafy together, and Anna Cornwell explained why his language is almost untranslatable. And just like that, I became someone who could speak of Cavafy. If Lord Peter Wimsey comes into the Station Café, think of the conversations we could have!

Now a new translation of Cavafy’s works has been published. People have come into Bookstore C specifically looking for it! Herewith D.S. Loney’s musings on Mendelsohn's translation. Now dropping Cavafy’s name into conversation will no longer be the province of a few. His name and work will be on everyone’s lips but (like aspiring to designer lipstick) not on mine. Except for the intrinsic pleasure of it and come to think of it, with Cavafy, there’s a fair amount of that.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why Bookstore C? and keeping score

When Lydia first moved to Chicago, she worked at a big used bookstore of the sort one finds near a big university. In her LiveJournal, she referred to her employer as Bookstore X. After several months, Lydia left temporarily to take up an internship at White Wolf near Atlanta. She was told Bookstore X would keep her job for her. But they didn't! Fortunately, she walked across the street to O'Gara & Wilson and got a better job. But she refers to her employer now as Bookstore Y because there already is a Bookstore X.

Well, I once worked for Bookstore S (for sui generis, here in Hastings-on-Hudson but no longer, alas, in existence). So, I decided, I now work at Bookstore C, for Chain bookstore.

Bookstore A would imply a bookstore that's primus inter pares, and I don't know what that would be -- the once-upon-a-time WordsWorth in Cambridge, perhaps? The old Scribners? I know -- it would be the campus bookstore I frequented during college. Not the college bookstore, the independent bookstore. I remember -- probably incorrectly but lovingly -- that it had a wall of Signet Classics. I bought a new paperback of Defoe's Diary of the Plague Year for 35 cents. And of course there were no orange or green spines because Penguin paperbacks were not sold in the U.S. in those days.

Bookstore B could be either Barnes & Noble or Bankrupt Borders. So Bookstore C it will have to be. I am not sure bookstores have the wonder in them they used to have back when they were rare. And boy -- the thrill of spotting an orange or green spine in a used bookstore! But that's another story.

This dude dies 'n' goes to hell

Last night, I was working at the cash desk in Bookstore C, and a young man of about 20 came in, accompanied by his posse. Booksellers and customers looked around uneasily as this crowd walked to the poetry section in the back of the store.

In a few minutes the group came to the cash desk, and I could see that the young man -- clearly their leader -- was buying Dante's Inferno. "Is this for a class or are you reading it for the heck of it?" I asked, wondering which answer would surprise me more.

"It sounds interesting," he said bashfully. "One of my teachers said he thought I'd enjoy it."

Some of his friends muttered as he said that. He turned halfway around to them. "Seriously!" he said. "This dude dies 'n' goes to hell 'n' this is the story of what happens. Mr. [teacher's name] read some of it to us in class the other day and it sounded cool."

He and his dozen friends left the store. I thought, y'know, I like that -- the gang is out on Friday night and they take time to drop by Bookstore C so one of the guys can buy Dante!

Still My Brother

Philip Brooks Laurenson 1947 - 2009

Ted is leading Phil's memorial service today in Chicago.
He will be buried next to his parents
(my in-laws, Lydia's grandparents) in Canton, Ohio.

The Way

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.
It’s lost and gone.
Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.
Then I’ll make here my place
–The road runs on –
Stand still and set my face
–The road leaps on.
Stay here, forever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh, places I have passed!
That journey’s done.
And what will come at last?
The way leads on.

-- Edwin Muir

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lost in New Jersey

Today I had my once-every-three-years visit to New Jersey. Of course I am in New Jersey more often than that! I look at it every day from my apartment -- and it's what lies between me and Pennsylvania. But I mean going to New Jersey to be in New Jersey. When I'm in New Jersey, I am A Stranger in a Strange Land.

New Jersey offers no difficulties when I travel I-80. The Delaware Water Gap, and that great little bakery on its main street, lies ahead. As the highway winds down into the Delaware River Valley, and the cliffs rise up around me, driving becomes magical. But that's the Delaware Water Gap! Not New Jersey.

Part of it may because New Jersey has boroughs. Or "boros" -- ugh. But mostly, I think it's because a great deal of New Jersey is flat. Really flat. I wonder why out west places can be flat, and they are Big Sky Country. I've tried thinking of New Jersey as Big Sky Country. Does it work for you? I didn't think so. No, New Jersey is just ... flat.

And it seems that it therefore all looks alike. Stop at a traffic light, and all four corners of the intersection are the same. Here in Westchester, one of the four corners will be downhill and another will be uphill, and there will be a huge glacial erratic or tree stump near another corner. Not only that! Look at a New Jersey map. Route One cuts straight down the state like a Roman road. It's straight and it's flat. Oh, and there's a Staples and a Dunkin Donuts every two miles.

Perhaps the words "glacial erratic" provide the key. The familiar ever-varying terrain of Manhattan, the Bronx, Westchester County, and points north was all shaped by glaciation. The hills and the skewed valleys and the dropped rocks everywhere are the results. Only the northernmost part of New Jersey was glaciated. Then central New Jersey, Staten Island, Long Island, and Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket are formed by the glacial moraine: gentle hills filled with gravel and a sandy outwash plain.

Come to think of it, Long Island is fla..., um, Big Sky Country too. And all four corners of every intersection look alike!

(De-) Mythologizing our stuff

It’s been 18 years since my parents’ house was sold and the contents came to be with me in Hastings-on-Hudson. I lived in a five-bedroom house and everything fit. But when I moved to my small but wonderful apartment in 2001, a lot of their things had to go into storage. I have paid tens of thousands to store antiques and books! A lot were my dad's, and I saved them because they were his, and because well, maybe someday Lydia would be interested in birds. But she isn't a bird person, and Daddy has been dead nearly twenty years. It truly is time to move on.

What I decided (after years of lugging these books around) is that unless I am prepared to make selling them my career or avocation, I have to let someone else do it. Lots of our generation are looking to make a killing. Surely our parents' jewelry, furniture, china, books, silver, whatever has some value, right? It did to them. They counted themselves prosperous because they had it all.

There's a lesson here somewhere, and remind me to find it when I have time. All this stuff has value in the aggregate as holder of myth, image, story. You put all this stuff together in one house, attractively held together by an individual's self-image, and it tells you that person's story. She was cultivated, he was an intellectual, he was this, she was that. Take away the person -- or someone who is willing to act as caretaker to the myth -- and there's no myth. Just stuff. That's why books wind up on ABE for $7.91 (including $3.99 S&H) and dealers in old stuff have rooms full of silver teapots.