Saturday, December 29, 2007

Happy Birthday to My Sister

She was born at 4:27 p.m. this day in 1939. She repeats that detail today in our phone conversation. Her birth came at the end of one of the worst years in the Twentieth Century, yet she represented the start of our parents' creation of a family. They were painfully naive and awkwardly finding their way. Her birth was hard, and her life also has been fraught; she is, according to her horoscope today in the Akron Beacon Journal, which she reads to me, "a stalwart pragmatist." She knows the word "stalwart" well enough to say it, but spells out "p-r-a-g-m-a-t-i-s-t," and seems to enjoy my description of what I think it means: strong and practical, sturdy in the world.

She took herself to Belgrade Gardens for her birthday -- a Hungarian chicken restaurant in Barberton, Ohio where she lives. Disappointed that this capacious family enterprise no longer serves wine, a treat she allocates for herself once or twice a year, she ordered Diet Coke and fish, which she said was too crusty and hard to eat. But there was a bright spot: across from her, an unaccompanied gentleman watched her closely.

Finally he said, "Excuse me, ma'am, but were you a bell ringer for Salvation Army at the Norton Acme?"

She said indeed she was. She was a champion bell ringer this year. One day somebody wrote a check for $2,000 and said explicitly it should be added into the take of the woman he described to be my sister two days before Christmas.

"Would you care to join me for dinner?" the gentleman said, and my sister said, "Yes, I would."

"I hear it's your birthday," the gentleman eventually said. "Would you allow me to buy you a piece of pie?"

"Sir, I'm very full already," my sister said. But she told me it was coconut cream and it was delicious.

My husband and I have just climbed out of our giant oval tub after a long conjugal bubble bath on our last afternoon in San Pedro for awhile. It has been a stressful interlude, for a lot of reasons, but this afternoon I am at peace. I lie back on our bed, loving the sound of my sister's voice in my ear. She sounds so happy. My husband, still steamy and pink, naps serenely at my side.

"And he paid for the pie," my sister says. She and the gentleman sat there and talked -- about world events, she says, and how things have changed since the Forties. And then she came home, to her three cats and a four-pack of wine coolers in the frig -- her treat for the holiday. She wants to make sauerkraut and ribs for New Year's Eve, just for herself, and asks if I remember our mother's recipe. I don't offhand but look it up on Google, find one that sounds right, and read it to her over the phone. She writes it down, reading each item and instruction back precisely, as the cursor blinks congenially in front of me, and our mother, long dead, is a loving presence between us.

My sister seems to have been perfectly content to spend this day by herself, pursuing her own adventures.

I love my sister.

Good Reading: Figured Dark


What a pleasure, this cool late December Saturday morning after a week of awful world news, to take up a book of good strong poems and a cup of strong black tea. The book is Figured Dark by my friend Greg Rappleye of Grand Haven, Michigan, out this fall from University of Arkansas (see link to his website, "Sonnets at 4 a.m." at right). These are poems of winter darkness, but they also deliver poignant humor and hope. Perhaps because New Year's Day and its desperate celebrations loom, this morning I'm especially struck by the ghostly "At the Museum of Whiskey History":

I find my dead, sneaking shots of Old Crow
on the line at Kelsey-Hayes--
bootleggers, priests, procession swellers.
Here's Uncle Ted saying Cheers to you all
after beating a black man senseless
behind a blind pig...

and by the poignant "My Mother Thinks She's Peggy Lee" in which a plucky child, trying to entertain his mother, pretends to be Arthur Godfrey and Art Linkletter, over TV trays and SpaghettiOs. He introduces a "scabby little cat" and "our next guest--my baby sister!" as the mother, drunk on Asti and orange juice, falls asleep on the couch.

I'm touched by "After the Divorce," in which the speaker bleakly ends, "Winter soon/a winter that is more and more/my home."

And I'm especially moved by Rappleye's "Lost-Love Ghazals" in which, after plowing respectfully and mournfully through the repeating form, he plaintively rejects the rules: "Why bury my name in some final couplet?/Bereft of name, I will not love you anymore."

"No elegies," he writes in the elegiac "After the Diagnosis": "This winter is just one more darkness/we must learn to walk through."

Rich rewards await the reader in this powerful collection, compelling in its considerations of the folie a deux of suffering and celebration. To quote one of the book's best poems, Greg, " 'You paid for this,' whatever happiness is."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

And Today's Delight...


A walk to the Korean Bell on a crisp, blue-lit day. Sat on the grass above the gun emplacements and contemplated the wide, serene silhouette of Catalina Island off the point. Walking back I could see the skyscrapers of downtown LA from the top of Carolina Street, and the blue-black backdrop of the San Gabriels.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Whew

Another Christmas over with.

Almost no traffic on Sepulveda Blvd. this morning for Ted's regular checkup, and a gratifying chance to meet his doctor, Michael Borovay, a bouyant and cheerful fellow who was right on schedule, fast with his mini-laptop in accessing Ted's data, and quickly responsive to our questions. I don't know if the world cares about the details of my specific life experience, but it means a lot to get good service from anybody these days, especially a physician.

Borovay said one of his daily rituals is to find one thing every day that delights him: today, he said, it was discovering that he could access a particular drug program online. I've been in a funk so I decided to try it. And came up with more than one without even trying.

1. Breakfast at Rex's Cafe on Pacific Avenue: the place smells fabulous and the wait staff were smiling and attentive this day after Christmas -- the "bus man," who I think might also be the owner, said "Feliz Navidad" at every table and shook our hands. They thoughtfully serve bagels and toast dry, and the fruit bowl that comes with omelets contains actual fruit -- pineapple, melon, blackberries -- delicious.

2. Walking back to the apartment in bright California sun, stopping at the thrift shop, past the old cemetery on 24th and up the hill.

3. Listening to my new Aretha Franklin compilation, at this exact moment "Never Gonna Break My Faith" with Mary J. Blige and the Harlem Boys Choir.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gloom in LA

Arrived at LAX last night in pouring rain. Good for this desert everybody seems to treat like an oasis -- a solid inch of rain fell downtown yesterday. Bad for Ted who ended up driving my holiday rental car through rush hour, dark and rain. Angelenos are not particularly good at driving on wet pavement; it was nervewracking, especially on that stretch of 405 between the airport and the Harbor Freeway. Lucky me, nightblind and tending toward hysteria, to have a steady LA driver to pilot me home.

It's always discombobulating to be here at first, despite the advantage of being on Eastern Time in buzzy Pacific Time. At Von's, the local grocery chain, I bought two bright red cyclamen plants in green ceramic pots and walked right off without them, so after getting back to 26th Street, parking the Saturn Ion in a cherished convenient spot on Peck and carting in my sacks of provisions, I had to give it up and shoot right back again. Praise be, I made it back before anybody else could snap up the spot.

I hear "positive psychology" is the new thing, so I'll cite the benefits. The drive along Paseo del Mar is as spectacular as always -- the route we take just to pick up a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a jug of wine, etc. etc. Today the bottom half of Catalina was boldly etched on the horizon, purple mountains' majesty doncha know, thick clouds obscuring the top half. Saw two pelicans right off the bat. I am alive and so is Ted. Beneficent universe, a big Yes.

And I'm also jet-lag grumpy, end-of-semester grumpy, just-got-a-brutal-rejection grumpy, tired-of-Huckabee grumpy, week-before-Christmas-grumpy, tired-of-people-throwing-tantrums grumpy, homesick-for-fresh-Jon-Stewart grumpy. Haven't had a period in 11 (count 'em) e-l-e-v-e-n months, which means I'm 30 mere days short of being officially "through" menopause. Almost-through-menopause grumpy and don't say anything smartass or I'll slap ya upside the head.

After the last rejection, by some blunt and tactless folks at a new lit mag in Ann Arbor I will never submit to again, and will discourage my students from sending to, I'm wondering why I even bother. It's hard to convince oneself to submit when the judgement process opens one up so wildly to potentially hurtful feedback. No wonder blogs and indie publishing efforts are proliferating. Meanwhile, back to doing whatever it is that I think I have to say. I hate the doubts that have to be exorcised after this kind of setback.

And speaking of that, I'm grateful to East Village Magazine which has granted me its back page for the past eight months. There's one unadulterated pleasure.

So, here's to the coming Solstice, and a bit more light.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Child Labor

Judging by the obnoxious and persistent knock at my front door at noon today, I expected the person on my fieldstone porch to be a burly UPS man bringing me some big holiday box, or at the least, a pair of hardy Jehovah's Witnesses -- they're always strapping and unflappable.

Instead, when I pulled open my heavy, squeaking door, what I saw was a tiny child, no more than four or five, with short braids and an elfin smile. When I said hello, I saw her take in a small breath and ready herself for her script. That one tiny movement, how she pulled herself together to perform, made her not just adorable, but poignant and alarming. She pushed out her arms to display two small packages loosely encased in bubble wrap, one in each hand.

"Would you please buy a candle for only ten dollars so my daddy can give me Christmas?" she said, perfectly enunciating.

At the end of the walk, a tall lean man in a heavy coat and a black knit cap waited, faintly smiling.

I'm used to door-to-door solicitors here -- it's a "nice" neighborhood and as you'd note if you read my entry in October titled "Bad Candy," I don't always feel good about these transactions. On good days it's kids raising money for something -- teenagers from Central High School, say -- wanting empty cans and bottles for cheerleading camp or their trip to Washington, D.C. I always turn away the JW's, usually with some pagan and brusque remark like "I have my own God" or "Save your breath for somebody else."

But this kid was cute. And it was cold -- ten below freezing. I looked at the man at the end of the walk. He had his hands in his pockets and shifted from foot to foot. I looked back at the little girl, who remarkably held her smile. She had frigging dimples. I don't know how I looked to her: frowsy with Saturday lethargy, but aroused by this small event. Why not give her what she asked for?

But I was angry at the man at the end of the walk. The little girl shook off a miniscule shiver.

"Stay here," I said. I closed the heavy door. I can't say I closed it in her face -- of course I didn't. But I did close the door. I stood in my little foyer for a second to decide what to do. I got my purse and pulled out ten dollars, five ones and a five, and opened the door.

"Come up here -- I want to talk to you," I called out to the man.

"It's okay, just give the money to her. She's okay. She really my daughter," he said.

"No, I want to give the money to you." I don't know why it seemed crucial to me to get him up on my porch. I wanted to look him in the eye. He ambled up with just the right amount of, shall I say, humility. I felt distinctly icky.

"I don't feel good about this -- you're using this little kid," I said. "Here's the money but I don't feel great about giving it to you."

Like the little girl, his smile didn't waver. He took the bills and put them, and his hand, right into his pocket.

"We've hit a spell of financial trouble," he said.

"Okay," I said. The little girl stuck out her arms again, offering me both candles.

"Just one," I said. She seemed reluctant and kept both arms up with their cargo.

"Just one," I said again. "Save the other one for somebody else."

I took my candle and closed the door, firmly this time. When the two of them walked back down the walk, they didn't say anything.

I wish I'd looked out the window to follow them. Did he take her hand and say, "Good job, darling"? Did she say, "Why wasn't that lady nice?" Were they for real? Will that child be okay?

Seventeen days before Christmas, I hate my brittle suspicions.

Just Thursday night I hosted a party with the best of everything -- great wine, ten kinds of desserts -- and there was so much left that afterwards I put five bags of it in the freezer. The house that night was warm, and a welcoming log burned in the fireplace. On the face of it, no worries. We had all night. We stood around in our nice clothes talking about writing and gossiping about the university and making jokes. I have a lucky life. So why this miserly heart on a cold December day?

I wish I'd gone to my freezer and pulled out a bag of leftovers from the party for that little girl -- several dozen chocolate cookies, miniature cream puffs and tiny pumpkin pies, say -- something frivolous and fun and delicious. The little girl could have eaten them later, when she got home.

I put the candle on the mantle. It's nothing fancy, but it smells like lavender. That's the smell we're all supposed to love, that makes us feel serene. It's not working.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Catch Bonnie Jo Campbell This Week

Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of Women and Other Animals and the novel Q Road, is making a UM - Flint appearance this week. She's graciously agreed to visit three creative writing classes on Wednesday and Thursday, and she'll be doing a reading open to the public at 8 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 6) in the Riverview Room of the University Center. It's gonna be a good night!

She's got by far the best biographical statement of any writer I've had the pleasure to welcome to Flint: yes, she learned to castrate small pigs as a child, and yes, she traveled with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus -- she sold snow cones, just like "Big Joanie" in the first story of Women and Other Animals. And "Shotgun Wedding," is one of the best short stories I've read in a very long time.

So make the scene! Refreshments by Ken Good Beans.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

By the Way, His Name was Knight

(By the way, his name was E. Knight Worth. He went by "Knight," and my mother's print of "Galahad," which one of her girlfriends gave her when she got engaged to my father, was one of her prized possessions. I have it still.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Smell of Sawdust -- My Father's 100th Birthday

When I was a kid in Ohio, we lived just a few miles from the runway of the Canton-Akron airport. We used to make fun of our father, who’d stop whatever he was doing every time a plane went over. He’d look up and invariably utter, “Isn’t that amazing?” We thought his unsophisticated awe was embarrassing. We, after all, were kids of the Sputnik age.

Our father never quite got comfortable with a telephone, either. He’d jump whenever it rang and hesitate before picking it up as if it were a poisonous snake. While he died before the era of a PC on every desk, computers likely would have flummoxed him.

But lately I’ve been missing the stubborn old coot. He would have turned 100 today, and even though he and I tangled endlessly through the years over everything from dancing to the GOP, I’ve begun to think that the world is deeply poorer without men like him. I wish he were back, with his contrarian self-sufficiency and plethora of skills.

My father was born on a farm in Central Indiana. In 1907 they had no cars, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing. The first house he remembered burned to the ground. He grew up in a punishing seasonal cycle of efforts to keep the farm afloat: a few cattle, horses, chickens and hogs, about 80 acres of corn and alfalfa. Once he was bitten by a rabid mutt and had to take the train to Indianapolis a dozen times for painful shots in the stomach – a terror that filled his adult nightmares and fueled a lifelong fear of dogs. There was not much fun. It was a crushingly difficult life and he craved adventure and aimed to escape. At 18 he rode the rails to North Dakota to work another harvest for a German farmer – a journey that morphed into an epic family myth. But he came home after just one season to his own extended family. A mix of Quakers and Nazarenes, they were opinionated and devout, and they encouraged him when he received the call to the ministry. Halfway through divinity school in the depths of the Depression, he had to drop out when his father was hit and killed by a car in front of their farm on Route 40. The family struggled to survive but lost their land, a crisis that plagued my father with grief and guilt for the rest of his life.

Eventually, though, he did become a minister in a succession of parishes in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. In one of his assignments, he was a “circuit rider” among four small churches in the Coshocton County, Ohio villages of Nellie, Blissfield, Layland and Shepler. He bought a motor scooter to travel between them, not always avoiding ice, floods on Killbuck Creek, turkey vultures on road kill and slow-moving tractors.

I’ve often called him “fundamentalist” for want of a better word, but he was also an intellectual, poring over original Greek and Hebrew texts for his sermons and even reading Saul Bellow and John Updike to try to understand the secular world. He studied the theologians Reinhold Neibuhr and Martin Buber. One of his favorite writers was the Quaker Elton Trueblood.

In 1950, concerned about not owning any land as they moved from church to church, my dad and mom scraped together a few hundred dollars for a single acre of Ohio land. It had problem drainage so my father brought in topsoil and designed and installed an elaborate system of drainage pipes. He drew up plans for a small house and built it from the foundation up, doing the masonry for a stone fireplace. He planted a modest orchard of pear, plum and apple trees. And then there was the garden – a quarter acre of potatoes, melons, tomatoes, strawberries, corn and beans that kept our family healthily fed for years. He was self-sufficient and shrewd.

For fun, he started designing wall “sconces” to hold candles and antique oil lamps. His favorite woods were cherry, knotty pine, wormy chestnut and walnut, and there was nothing that roused his passions more than a pile of seasoned lumber. Forever scarred by the Depression, he paid cash for everything, and it turned out that his sconces were also puzzle boxes, with secret compartments where we eventually found astonishing rolls of greenbacks he’d squirreled away. While he was suspicious of “art,” he created it, including a screen carved with grape leaves, the symbol of plenty, for one of his churches. The trustees, scandalized by such idolatry, made him take it out: he and my mother used it as a headboard for years. (I wrote about that notorious "raredos" here months ago. )

The other day I tried to tell my students that writing was like building a house. But before I’d gotten very far, I realized they weren’t getting my point.

On a hunch, I asked, “How many of you have ever built anything?’ Only one lone hand went up.

It hit me hard that they haven’t grown up like I did – with the smell of sawdust never far off, the apple trees tended with care, and boxes and jars of fresh beans and corn frozen and canned for the winter. My father left me with many gifts, but today it also feels like something rare and irreplaceable is gone.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Made It



It's official -- 50,335 words.

And probably less than halfway to Novel #2. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience -- thanks to Jim Anderson, Dave Larsen, Janelle Wiess, my NaNo buddies -- our daily emails to each other were inspiring and motivating. Special thanks to our beloved colleague Cathy Akers-Jordan, our ardent supporter and statistician. And to Stephanie Roach, who gave us all NaNo Iron-On Badges!

Oh! And thanks to Ted, who laid a new black MacBook on me in the middle of the month (my birthday, a day on which I wrote 2,000 words thank you very much) and who demanded to hear what I'd written, and who understood his response, invariably, should be "Great stuff!" no matter what.

And finally, here's to the joy of making sentences, day after day. As our other colleague, Scott Russell, said the other day, "I write because I like to." It's been fun.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ten Pound Hairball, a Coney Killer, a Cleaver and a Combine

Okay, I'm not kidding, I just heard a "report" on CNN about a woman who had a 10-pound HAIR BALL removed from her stomach. I swear, they even had a photo of it. How could Tony Harris keep a straight face? How could this happen? Was she eating it? Did she ever make any of those "ack-ack-ack" sounds my old cat Tater used to make when he'd get a (comparatively) petite furball caught in his gullet? Oh, man I'm glad I'm at least four hours from my Thanksgiving dinner. What a gross out.

Guess it's a Slow News Day.

And not only that, how about that "coney island" shooter in Lincoln Park (Okay, let's just say it's Detroit since Dee-Twah has just been named the "most dangerous city in America" by Congressional Quarterly. So, Kastroit Mydini went in through the back door of the Dix Coney Island, dressed, one of the survivors said, like "The Marlboro Man" in a long black coat and cowboy hat. He pulled out an AK47 and shot two people, killing the cook, Shpetim Maliqoski and wounding a waitress. The story seemed complicated -- he was looking for his ex-girlfriend, apparently; the cook's involvement is murky.

To take the story straight into Raymond Carver country, Mydini then fled in his sister's Lexus and, after a chaotic police chase, ran into a 60,000 pound combine harvesting sunflower seeds. Mydini was dead at the scene. In what was left of the trunk, police found the AK47, three samurai-style swords, a meat cleaver, a hatchet, a carving knife and two fake handguns.

Meat cleaver? FAKE handguns? Who, as I often tell my students, needs fiction? Apparently the decision by our august Supreme Court to consider the D.C. handgun ban is just the tip of the iceberg of our national insanity. What else will they need to consider to rescue us from our absurdities and pathologies?

In case you're wondering how I know all this fabulous information (coneys, combines and fake handguns are just about enough to make my day, so to speak), Ted and I are sitting in the Northwest Airlines World Club at Detroit Metro airport awaiting our connecting flight to Portland ME for Thanksgiving. We're staying in the Captain Daniel Stone Inn and hoping Augustine, the major domo of the adjoining eatery, will save us some stuffing and cranberry sauce. So far, it's a fun day. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Putting Hope on With Our Shoes

I woke up today, my birthday, with a keen sense of delight. My husband was next to me in our big brass bed, the world outside was bathed in warm late autumn sun, and gold leaves from the silver maples on Maxine Street swirled around like gold leaf (ah!) in the air and on the street. Most of my birthdays for the past 58 years have been brown, gloomy and rainy. This was a rare pleasure.

It is easy to despair -- lord knows there is ample reason. The dark side of life certainly threatens and looms, sometimes taking over everything.

But today I am happy.

With only two more years to go until my seventh decade, the simplest way to describe my mood on the morning of my 58th birthday is to say "phew, I've made it. I'm still alive." And then my husband nuzzled me and gave me a kiss. Who can stay glum in the face of a morning kiss? This is more than just surviving. This is the 99.9th percentile of contentment.

I rolled over and turned on NPR, another of my daily rituals. The first thing I heard was a commentary by "Speaking of Faith" host Krista Tippett. Its tagline was "Deep gladness meets deep need," and here is some of what she said:

"Our emerging national conversation about sustainability has a decidedly "eat your spinach" tone. We're steeling ourselves to enter the realm of sacrifice and penance. But as I've explored ethics and meaning in American life these past few years, I've been struck by the heightened sense of delight and beauty in lives and communities pursuing a new alignment with the natural world.

Innovation and sustainability often begins, I've found, with people defining what they cherish as much as diagnosing what is wrong. I think of Majora Carter. The cutting-edge program she founded, Sustainable South Bronx, began when she and that people of that borough began to reclaim their riverfront for refreshment and play.

I think also of the author Barbara Kingsolver, who found in a year of sustainable eating that when it comes to food, the ethical choice is also the pleasurable choice. And she says that as we face the grand ecological crisis of our time, one of our most important renewable resources is hope. We simply have to put it on with our shoes every morning."

I loved that this was the first thing I heard on the morning of my birthday.

With the temperature in the mild fifties, I set out to walk to work. On the way, I stopped to talk to Ray and Nancy Sinclair, who are building a beautiful entryway on a house between Calumet and Court. I enjoy watching Ray's progress -- it is a pleasure to see the work of any master craftsman, and he and I have known each other, superficially but fondly, for 20 years. And on the bridge between Chavez and the UMF campus, I ran into Nic Custer, one of the talented offspring of the Custer family of East Village Magazine, and again it was enjoyable to stop and chat before moving on to work. My 26-year history with this town, the warmth of long association with good people, was deeply satisfying to me today. And, of course, it's simply wonderful to stop and chat.

As I consider my life over the past year, enjoying the beauties of the harbor at San Pedro, and cherishing the loveliness of my neighborhood here in Flint, my rich life with my students, my marriage to Ted, I am deeply grateful. And I pledge to put on hope with my shoes every morning.

Friday, November 09, 2007

NaNoWriMo Second Week Blues


Chris Batey, the duke of NaNoWriMo, predicted it would happen: the first week's exuberance fades fast and even though I'm at 17,000 words, the daily grind is already taking its toll. An email communique from eensybeensyspider, maven of the Flint NaNoWriMo group, urgently advised serious hydration. My UMF NaNo buddies and I are cranking it out, baby -- about 65,000 words among us so far -- there's a little novel right there. Our characters are already talking to each other, just as we are beginning to mumble to ourselves. I may be panhandling for MD-40 money by the time this is over. In fact, I'm only writing this now to avoid the empty screen -- I haven't written a NaNoWriMo word yet today.

What the hell. It's all about quantity. So I'm signing off for now to go shovel words into another boiler. As the saying goes, with a mound of horseshit this big there's gotta be a pony in there somewhere. I've got a single bottle of Heineken Dark at my side, and I'm cranking up the iTunes jams. Bye for now.

Wimpy Congress Finally Stands Up, but...

So, it's a good thing Congress finally got enough cojones to override GWB's veto of the water bill, since as Robert Hass said last year in his Green Arts visit to Flint, water is likely to be what we'll fight the next war over.

But does anybody else find it unsettling that it had to be water that finally got Congress together, and not health care for poor kids? Who are these people running our country?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Whiplash

Talk about yer time whiplash. Over the weekend, I realized that almost-mayor Dayne Walling was seven years old when I arrived in Flint. And now, I'll be in my sixties when The Don's new term is up. Man, that's a frigging lifetime -- between Walling's childhood and my looming senescence. And I will have spent it all in Flint.

I think it's time for a reststop in San Pedro. I feel timeless there, when I can sit on the hillside and watch the harbor. There, it seems like nothing's moving -- not even the clock -- except for the container ships, plowing like giant rhinos through the water.

Dayne Walling's Horoscope for 11/7/07

According to his MySpace page, our sadly defeated challenger is a Pisces. Here's his horoscope for today:

"There is a dynamic change that's building, but it may take days or even weeks for the direction to become clear. What's most important for you now is to trust in the process rather than in any one aspect of your life. Don't assume anything; wait a few days to see where all this is going."


Hang in there, Dayne!

Flint's Dashed Hopes -- Out with the Trash

While I'm not a particularly political person, events occasionally conspire to rouse me, and in several cases, I've allowed -- even welcomed -- a sign to go up in my front yard. There was Gore/Lieberman (what a quaint and uncomfortable memory -- can any of us actually stomach that Lieberman was on that ticket, now that he's turned into a Republican?) and then, of course, there was Kerry/Edwards. I didn't want to throw out those artifacts of hope -- tossing them on the curb with my weekly bag of ArtVan ads and Lean Cuisine boxes seemed like bad voodoo, bad karma, giving up. So I put them in the garage, where they're gradually getting crisscrossed with spider leavings, their bold fonts fading.

And now, of course, there's the sign for Dayne Walling, the plucky Flint native and Rhodes scholar who missed being elected mayor of my city last night by fewer than 600 votes.

Actually, I never got a sign -- I asked for it twice, and I donated more to young Dayne than I've ever given to any other campaign or candidate, but they never got me one. Maybe that's a sign, so to speak, of why they didn't squeeze out the votes they needed, but I didn't really care. There were 18 Walling signs on two blocks of my street the day before the election, and none for the incumbent, Don "I ain't changin' nothin" Williamson. Half of the folks who bothered to vote yesterday -- the people who want recycling, art, music, more jobs, a clean Flint River, professional and imaginative city management, the people tired of Flint's history of violence, abandonment, cronyism and, well, municipal idiocy -- are in a funk today, in a hangover of dashed hopes, once again.

On a trip to Ann Arbor several years ago, Ted and I bought a blue and white sign from MichiganPeaceWorks that said, simply and assertively, PEACE. It stood stolidly in my tulip bed through several cycles of Michigan humidity, pounding rainstorms, freezes, thaws and snowstorms. Finally noticing it was a looking a bit disheveled around the edges, I decided it was time to retire it. Yes, I saw the symbolism; waiting for peace is a trial of patience guaranteed to outlast mere laminated cardboard on wobbly rusting legs.

So, that sign's propped up in the garage, now, too. I know, I know, change takes time. There's always an opportunity for a new plan. But today I'm not ready for that. Today I'm just pissed off. And today I'm thinking, maybe this is the week to put all my naive hopes out with the trash.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sorry night for Flint

This stupid, stupid town has deprived itself of grace once again.

For all of us who've hung on here year after year hoping for a break from corruption and vulgarity, and who've wondered if we dared to dream that our city could find a path to something new and fresh, tonight is a damn depressing night.

I'm going to bed.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Word Fiends and Word Friends

Yesterday in the ochre light of late afternoon on the first day of Standard Time, I put a bottle of Bushmills in my backpack and walked up to the East Village Magazine office to proofread my November column. There the indefatigable Gary Custer was hard at work amidst his rock piles of old issues and abandoned out of date computers. (It's a good thing we don't have earthquakes around here -- Gary would be at risk of getting buried alive by his own opus). His bike was propped against one of the piles: Gary leaves a very small carbon footprint. His remarkable beard was even bushier than usual and his concentration was finely honed. From the crammed back room an announcer called a football game. Cheers periodically erupted. Gary cleared a spot on a table and brought me a cup for my bracing two fingers -- he declined to join me, preferring to keep a clear head until the mag goes to press. Good man. We debated whether my column should begin with the word "Let's" or "Let us" and whether we could get the word "cornucopia" all on one line. Changed one "like" to "as" to keep things proper. There are few things more fun to me than this -- a shot of Bushmills and close reading of the clean page and its latest Patty Warner image. To me it's a deeply satisfying process, and participating in Gary's idiosyncratic and passionate devotion to his work is one of my life's great pleasures these days. He's been at this exacting labor of love for 31 years. His first issue was July 3, 1976. I hope he gets to have a few sips of that Bushmill's soon.

NaNoWriMo is a roller coaster. Cranked out my requisite words this weekend and felt a bit possessed. Writing one scene brought me to tears, and at a certain point one of my characters demanded to speak, resulting in a 1,000 word section in his voice. This is wild. One, I've never written in a man's voice and two, I thought the damn thing was gonna be in my usual first-person thinly-veiled autobiographical voice. It's unnerving.It's fun, though, swapping messages with my fellow word fiends, Dave, Jim, Janelle and Cathy. Dave amusingly reported a "huge, hairy lumberjack" has lumbered (ha ha) into his story. Can't wait to read it!

The analogy of what's going on is that I'm putting all the puzzle pieces on the table...there are a growing number of pieces, but it will be a long time before I start putting them together on the tabletop. Five days into it, it's still fun. Only 25 more days to go. Gulp.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Hoping for a Smart Kid Mayor

I want my town to have a new mayor. In all my 26 years in this often stupid city, our succession of mayors has been not the least of our embarrassments. The current guy, Don Williamson, Daddy Warbucks rich and vulgar by nature (he used to go around town wearing a red, white and blue hardhat) is a smoke-filled-room ward boss type from the last century, glorying, like W., in his garbled grammar and folksy tyranny.

And his challenger, Dayne Walling, is a young kid who grew up only three or four blocks from here -- a Central High School graduate who got a Rhodes Scholarship, went to Oxford, and then came back to Flint with the confounding notion of running for mayor. He's only in his early 30s with a smart and pretty wife and two kids.

I want him to win. I've never gotten involved in local politics before, but this time I've found myself clicking on his "contribute" button several times. And tonight I walked (how lovely to walk) to a reception for our Congressman, the indefatigable Dem scion Dale Kildee, at Dayne Walling's home. It was fun. I know his mother -- I'm at that age now where she and I could hug and I could say, "You did good, Reba, I knew you'd make a good kid" and he could come up and tolerate us saying how he'd better make his mother proud before he turned away to hustle some union guy. I'd like to think there's a chance for grace and class and maybe even, real innovation in this post-industrial town bisected by its curving brown river. I hope this plucky kid wins.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

First Night: The Case of the Missing Purse

With my previously banked startup cache, I'm up to 3,910. It's a different way than I've ever written anything -- what's liberating about it is the express freedom to simply write, keep writing, and write some more, without stopping to edit, judge, fret. What came out tonight offered a few discoveries, but like a momma cat who just gave birth, I'm feeling secretive and protective. Tried to get on the NaNo site but it was apparently being barraged with first-nighters, so I'll use this spot instead (along with Cathy's cute contribution of an office chart for all four of us NaNoWriMo freaks -- thanks, Cathy.)

Amusing start to my NaNoWriMo life. Had to work late -- till 6:45 p.m. today -- and when I got ready to come home, looking forward to my two hours or so at the computer, I realized I didn't have my purse. I quickly deduced I'd left it in another campus building at an earlier meeting, and after Safety sent an officer to check the room I'd been in, they called back and said it wasn't there. I retraced my steps, frantic, thinking about all the credit cards, checks, and my low-tech but much thumbed and beloved address book. When I got to the other building to see for myself, it was locked up for the night. So I pounded back to my office and begged Safety to let me back in to see for myself. And raced back a second time. A tolerant officer let me in the building and we looked together -- no purse, much unladylike cursing. All I could think of was, DAMN, what about NaNoWriMo? Does this ruin my very first night of November writing? Then, out of desperation, I made him let me in to the adjacent Advising Center (an office I'd once spent many long years in, incidently) to see if anybody'd dropped it off and it was lurking on a secretary's desk. And then I made him let me go into the Director's office, who'd been at the meeting with me. AND THERE IT WAS!

When I finally got home, my purse securely swinging from my left shoulder, I was still in an adrenaline rush, and I brought that with me to my first night of NaNoWriMo. The 1800 words for tonight flowed out fairly speedily. I was so grateful to be writing instead of calling credit card companies and loathing my stupid self!

So there you go, a happy ending. Shouldn't every story have a happy ending? Isn't this nervewracking "missing purse" event somehow just the right kind of ultimately harmless drama to propel my first night of story telling?

I am wondering about happy endings. Humans really don't have happy endings. We get old and die. Or at least, die. But I'm still feeling exuberant, so I don't want to let it stand there...I'm banking on some happiness between now and the day I die -- the "aho lahi" as the Tongans used to call it, the "Big Day." I don't know if my novel is going to have a happy ending. But the mood I'm in now, with my reclaimed purse hanging beautifully on the back of a chair in my bright and lovely kitchen, is that I think it will. I think it will.

NaNoWriMo Napalm Flying

So this is it: November 1. Today I'll write 1700 words. But not here. I've got a file started that's labeled "Nanowrimo," the quarky acronym for National Novel Writing Month. I've already banked 2,000 words in there, which isn't many considering that's just a couple hundred words more than I've pledged to write EVERY DAY for the next 30 days. The guy who dreamed up this wacky stunt wrote a book called "No Plot, No Problem" and all 90,000 of us who've signed up this year have promised not to even THINK about revising what we write. That's for December. Or the rest of my natural born life. For now, the goal is quantity. Supposedly the novel will magically begin to reveal itself. Why not? Writing is the one constant of my life, a beloved meditation and non-chemical Prozac. It makes my brain feel good and keeps me balanced and happy. And I'm trying to kick myself beyond Night Blind and into something new.

Want to know what it's about? None of your business. Ala Anne Lamott, I've picked all the doubting voices by their tiny mouse tails, put them in a jar, and screwed the lid down tight. They're in there squeaking and trying to get out, but I can't hear them.

I'm embarking on this crazy project with three of my English Department colleagues -- Jim, Dave and Janelle. I wonder what kind of shape we'll be in by Nov. 30. I predict blubbering and aphasic, with little calluses on the tips of our achy typing fingers.

Today's NaNoWriMo inaugural pep talk came via email from Bigtime Famous Novelist Tom Robbins, who wrote one of my favorite novels from the Seventies, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Among other cleansing admonitions, he wrote:

"When you sit down to begin that novel of yours, the first thing you might want to do is toss a handful of powdered napalm over both shoulders---so as to dispense with any and all of your old writing teachers, the ones whose ghosts surely will be hovering there, saying such things as, "Adverbs should never be...", or "A novel is supposed to convey...", et cetera. Enough! Ye literary bureaucrats, vamoose! Rules such as "Write what you know," and "Show, don't tell," while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works."

Now, I'm a writing teacher myself and I've railed against adverbs and shouted "Write What You Know" myself many times. So I'm tossing away my own chestnuts, not to mention the voices of numerous writing gurus of my own. Hey, good riddance.

So here goes. I'm flinging the napalm -- and all good sense -- over my shoulder. Yeah, baby, I'm gonna be a word machine.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bad Candy

I feel dismal and annoyed with what happened on my street tonight between 6 p.m. and 6:55 p.m., when I gave away the last tiny red packet of Skittles, blew out the pumpkin-colored candle in the front window, closed the curtains, turned off the porch light, and hunkered down to finish off the bottle of red wine (Ars Poetica, from The Boot, if you must know) with my friends Teddy and Dennis.

Between 6 p.m. and 6:55 p.m., about 150 people came to my door. Cars lined the street, crawling along as their passengers darted out (in the rain, the last 15 minutes or so), dashed up my sidewalk and pounded on my door. Pounded.

More than half of the trick or treaters tonight looked to be 15 or older. I'd say only about half bothered to show up in costume. One kid, who looked about 17, didn't even have a bag. I asked where his costume was and he said it got ripped. He wanted me simply to hand over the candy. Why did I care? Yet I felt intensely irritated. Some were over six feet tall and didn't even make a pretense of being a father with kids -- they just wanted candy. It felt...thuggish.

Teddy, an optimist and teacher to her marrow, suggested refusing candy to anybody who wasn't wearing a costume. I said, with a combination of anxiety and moral torpor, naw, just give it all away. Halloween ain't the time for conscious B-Mod. It's JUST CANDY, right?

So, we simply surrendered to the hectic mania. What kind of weird transaction is this? What reflexive game am I playing out? It's a strange ritual, absent of wit, creativity or innocence.

What am I saying? Halloween historically isn't exactly about innocence.

And this was, of course, an itchy exercise in class disparities. My neighborhood is considered "fancy," one of the best in town. The comers were not from here. We're almost all "liberals," with yard signs for the mayoral candidate who's a Rhodes Scholar and Democrat -- young, white, well-fed and good-looking. But I have a sneaky suspicion political distinctions, however much they salve our late-night doubts, are irrelevant to last night's comers. The conscientious residents of Maxine Street were only People With Candy. Free candy.

I don't like where this is going.

I realize now that what I missed was...the mask. The illusion. The facade. It was Halloween, for god's sake. The naked truth about Flint, with its 8 percent unemployment rate, violence and acres of brownfields and deserted houses, isn't very amusing. But why should poor people (if they WERE poor -- I'm depressed by and wary of my own assumptions) have to put on funny outfits to get free stuff from relatively rich people? This all seems embarrassing, undignified and disheartening.

Anyway...The cutest costumes I saw were worn by two of the only people I actually knew who came to my door -- one guy in a blue smock covered with bunches of cotton balls, the other guy, a car board glitter sun. Dopey, innocuous sun and sky, parading up my walk: a gay couple in their 20s. Three cheers for gay men! Relieved by something to laugh at, I gave them a lot of chocolate.

Bizarre.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Hutch of Womanhood

Furniture makes me feel grown up. Even that word -- furn-i-ture -- sounds substantial, reliable, and reassuring. I suppose at my age this should be far past relevant, but anybody over 30 knows there's nothing about one's years on earth that guarantees maturity. I'm always on a scavenger hunt for signs and symbols that I've made a dent on life's confusions. Furniture, for whatever idiosyncratic reason, seems to say "yes, you have."

This matters today because Ted and I recently added a large, significant piece of furniture to our household. It's a tall oak china cabinet in two heavy pieces -- what my mother called a buffet and what Ted and I have been calling a "hutch." The latter seems the right moniker -- it's big, yet designed for peaceful, cozy purposes, like housing the remnants of my Great-Grandma Youtz's flowery china and my collection of cordial glasses. And, of course, "hutch" is also the word for a rabbit's house. What a language! How can anybody who speaks English not be a poet?

Anyway, there was once a time when I was proud that all my "stuff" fit into my '67 Bug. Those were days of heady road trips across the U.S.A., as I freely flew down freeways, 10 and 40 and 80, east to west to east to west, enjoying my unencumbered youth. I think what I had was a bunch of hippie clothes and a "stereo" in three pieces: the turntable and two speakers that slid onto the right and left. There would have been a couple of boxes of books (Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, Leaves of Grass, Emily Dickinson) and a box of "records" -- yes, children, that's what we called them -- Grateful Dead, The Band, Joni Mitchell, Crosby-Stills-Nash-and-Young, Cream, Janis Joplin, Beatles, of course. And a few keepsakes like a small black ivory elephant my dad brought me from the U.N. and a vase given to me by Sadie Russ, a 98-year-old woman in Akron, Ohio who had been friends of my long-dead grandmother.

I still have all that stuff -- well, not the Bug or the stereo, but most of the rest. Eventually the open road, actually and metaphorically, lost its luster as it so often does when one's knees and neck begin to go, and I wanted not a million choices, but anchors to one spot, one house, one man. I wanted to get to know one tree intimately and watch it grow. I wanted to get to know one man and I wanted him to stay awhile. I wanted dishes and cloth napkins and rugs and a real bed with an actual headboard.

I learned that furniture doesn't keep a marriage together, but can outlast it. One of the hardest things I had to walk away from in my first marriage was a dining room table with leaves to seat a dozen. We'd had years of memorable dinner parties there, and it meant something to me. I gave it up. But it is somewhat easier to replace a table than a husband: when I left that marriage, one of the first things I did was buy another one (a table, that is!) -- smaller but solid, suited to what I hoped would be my intrepid solitary life. The emotional reward was mixed but irresistible.

Later, my present husband and I bought a dining room table and big chairs that please me immensely. They haven't been seasoned by the rowdy soirees of my thirties and forties, but they were made by Mennonites in Pigeon, Michigan -- built with deliberate, loving craftsmanship, I like to think, that took some time. When we bought it I told Ted, "Some day I'll need the 'hutch' to go with this." He remembered, and this year, in the sign of the Scorpio -- mine -- he delivered.

It matches the table and chairs and has glass doors and a mirrored back and built-in recessed lights that make my granny's china sparkle. The other night I left the lights on dim, just so that if I woke up in the middle of the night I could come downstairs and look at all my keepsakes shimmering in the dark.

It doesn't change the world or feed a baby, but it makes me feel rooted and substantial. I have a hutch. I must really be a woman now.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Owl at Night in a Silver Maple

There's no hour of the day or night more ambiguously quiet -- or more lonely, depending on the night -- than 2:30 a.m. I'm restless in my bed when Ted's not here; I pile on quilts, preferring the ancient beautiful one my mother and her friends made decades ago. I buy 400-count sheets and drink decaf green tea before turning in, but still, even with these rituals and totems of peace, I often toss and turn without my mate.

Maybe last night it was the full moon that woke me up. Does the moon seem smaller sometimes now, more imperiled and too easy for humankind to reach? I want to believe there is something we can't overrun.

And in the damp, shiny dark after a day of rain, there was an owl in the silver maples, rare in these parts and miraculous, mournfully who-whooing. Sadness for our brief lovely life overtook me. I got up, pushed open the window as far as I could, hoping to catch even a brief silhouette of the bird, a flutter, a connection in a lonely hour. But all the dark offered was his melancholy call, who-who-who, until 3 a.m. when I fell back into a fitful, moonwashed sleep.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I Blame the Lilacs

Aren't lilacs just too damn sentimental and audacious for their own good, climbing over everything and exuding their promiscuous spring perfume, making everybody feel light in the head and full of anachronous longing? I mean, really.

Yeah, I'm mad. Pruning down my lilac bush for the winter, I was awkwardly wielding the big clippers somebody gave me for a housewarming gift ("Hint hint," I thought they were saying) back when I moved into this respectable, lilac-strewn neighborhood. I reached up, twisted the wrong way a centimeter too far, and pulled a muscle in my lower back.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. So this is what it feels like to be old.

I've come up with amazing new ways to get my legs into my jeans, leaning back on the bed and gingerly sliding a foot in, cussing and aiming for the pantleg from a not-so-pain-free distance. Putting on a pair of socks is a major operation, not to mention tying my beloved New Balance walking shoes or other more graphic tasks of personal hygiene. I have to plan my time, since, for example, the Lehrer News Hour starts out pleasantly enough with Margaret Warner but ends with ten minutes of me moaning and groaning trying to get out of the recliner. Lifting a carton of soy milk off the top shelf of the frig proved perilous, and opening the trunk of my car called out an expletive deleted. I'm a slow-mo woman this week, walking like Montgomery Burns and muttering at every required and ordinary movement.

It'll be good to have my body back again. Was I young once, physically nimble enough to take advantage of the lilacs?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

One bird

The flutter of a silver wing at breakfast, and there was a tufted titmouse, one of my favorite birds, perched on the power line just outside the window. We peeked shyly at each other for just a second before he darted away.

Only one, when they usually travel in flocks. Was it just me or was he a little disheveled, a bit flustered around his topknot?

Yet it was a joyful sliver of morning. With this little bird on the list of disappearing species, a heartbeat of hope.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

My Imaginary Family

One of my favorite features in the Saturday Flint Journal is "People," the thin little pull-out tabloid almost lost between Sports and Classifieds. It usually features some local yokel on the front (I was once one of those featured yokels -- me and the mutt of the month competing for readership, and I think the mutt won). "People" is a rich storehouse for a hermit like me with no family within 200 miles. I really don't miss having a family to speak of -- in fact I'm grateful for it most of the time, but I get perverse vicarious delight from reading every word about engagements, weddings, wedding anniversaries and geezer birthdays. Not to mention the Pet of the Week.

Today's is Dixie, a two-year-old beagle/terrier mutt. Somebody slapped a yellow bandana on her for her desperate closeup. Her long pink tongue sticks out, and she's smiling in that doggie way as if she knows how much this matters. The way she's sitting there, her little white paws on a hard floor at the Humane Society, breaks my heart.

On the engagement and wedding pages, I look at all the panicky smiling couples in their fancy clothes, their heads touching, the guy's hand tenderly and tastefully on the girl's waist, the women in complicated upswept hair and lacy headpieces, the guys looking slightly strangled by their unaccustomed tuxes. Stiff little flowers, rosebuds with sprays of cliche baby's breath, seem to interfere with hugging. But everybody's smiling. Looking at all of them, the Nicoles and Scotts and Caras and Lances and LaCreshas and Fruquwas (that's the guy) and Sarahs and Dereks, I think, yes indeed, there is somebody for everybody.

And then on the next page, there are the anniversaries: names from another era -- Harold and Phyllis and Shirley and Kenneth and Gordon and Tom...and these couples suggest the toll the years take, a whiplash of time from the hopeful naivete of decades before. The couples are thick and wrinkled, bespectacled and silver-haired -- and still smiling, thanks, I think, to "Cheese." I think they look surprised, and relieved, that they've made it this far. I wonder if they still like each other. The contrast between the two sections -- the young beginners, the weathered survivors -- is almost more than I can take before my second cup of tea. It makes me want a drink.

But the best of all is "Generations" -- the photos where somebody whose 15-year-old kid just had a baby in the family tradition lines up with great-grandma, grandma, mom or dad and a tiny papoose, usually in the arms of the oldest relative, little aware of his or her place in history.

Today's "People" yielded a Generations bonanza: SIX GENERATIONS. Unbelievable! Great-great-great grandmother Lucille, 98, holds little Devan, five weeks old. Arranged around the aged granny and thumb-sucking infant are great-great grandmother Norma, great-grandmother Brenda, grandfather James and mom Nicole. I try to calculate how in the hell this could have happened -- everybody procreated before the age of 20, I guess, and everybody lived. What relentless family-making!

I'm amazed. My GRANDFATHER was born in 1870 and has been dead since the early 50s -- my mother was born in 1910 and didn't get around to giving birth to me until 1949. I come from a long line of extreme late-bloomers, some of whom never actually bloomed. I, for instance, never had kids myself, and I'm still waiting for the break that will bust open my expected celebrity to snare me a mythical -- if truncated -- twig on my family tree.

So my historical family, the people we call ancestors, are largely mysteries to me. And what I know of them, through various myths, memories, scars and resentments, are filtered through "he said, she said" second- or third-hand accounts at best.

My Ancestors Aren't Listening

And, to continue with the above...

The energetic and wonderful New York hip hop playwright Will Power, who's a visiting professor at UM-Flint this semester, came to my fiction-writing class this week. At one point, he said he calls to his ancestors when he's writing, and they often answer back. His ancestors, he suggests, consistently wish him well and enhance his creative juices.

I'm confounded. I'm trying to figure out how this works. As I just wrote above, in the family category, almost everybody before my generation has now kicked off. My brother and sister and my cousins and I are what count as elders now. And coming after me, in my immediate family, a single nephew and three nieces. Two of the nieces are in adult foster care, and the other, carrying a big weight of historical expectation if you buy such logic, is a beginning doctor in the first year of her residency.

I'm pretty sure my ancestors are mute.

And I have no reason to believe that if they knew me, that they'd like me or wish me well. They were very religious and didn't seem receptive to nonconformists like me, especially women like me. In their way, they were nonconformists but intolerant ones -- their nonconformity was rooted in passionate belief that everybody should be like them.

The stories I've heard about my ancestors depress me. I'm feeling cynical today, but even the most colorful ones, like my Grandfather Vandersall, a traveling evangelist, seem screwed up and unhappy. What would they say? I keep thinking, from the Great Beyond, that they might utter, like Philip Larkin,

"Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can
And don't have any kids yourself."

Saturday, September 29, 2007

"Feast of Love" -- Not So Bad After All

To be honorable, Ted and I went to see the movie this afternoon, and in our view it wasn't nearly as bad as one would think from the L.A. Times review yesterday. (Or that website that said it sounded like a Thanksgiving porno movie. Horn aplenty? -- well there's lots of sex in this movie, but that's not its main attraction.) In short, we quite enjoyed it.

It wasn't all the way we would have liked -- Chloe didn't work for me (didn't say "Fuck and be damned" a single time!) and was prettier and more dewy than I imagined her, and I REALLY wished they'd have kept it in Ann Arbor. Nonetheless, we were both quite touched by it. We saw "3:10 to Yuma" yesterday and while we enjoyed the reminder of the great old Western's durability (and it was fun to know that it was drawn from an old Elmore Leonard yarn), the narrative was murky, violent and its ultimate "message" if there was one, was cynical or indeterminate, depending how you looked at it. This might be an impossible comparison, but we found ourselves talking about how we "felt" on leaving each movie. "Yuma" left us feeling ill at ease and mildly despairing -- also a bit exhausted by the de rigueur, noisy shooting of almost every main character, not to mention almost all the minor characters and the horses they rode in on. Feast of Love was quiet, wise and sweet, and we left feeling warmly thoughtful and loving.

We also compared "Feast's" character development to the "relationship" aspects of, say, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Big Love and the new Tell Me You Love Me, where people's dysfunctions are laid out week after week and nobody seems able to talk to each other or actually, dare I say it...grow. In this movie, people talked to each other, sometimes a bit too earnestly, but sometimes quite endearingly, and we both found that a great relief. My god, were these characters perhaps changing and being changed by love? Yes, and narrowly escaped the saccharine with doses of gentle humor.

So, now I say, fuck and be damned, it's worth checking out.

Friday, September 28, 2007

"Glimmerless" Feast of Love? Skip the Movie, Read the Book



You've already seen the previews, and today, in the Calendar section of the LA Times, is a full-page ad for the movie "Feast of Love." It looks and sounds so promising -- featuring Morgan Freeman, Jane Alexander, Greg Kinnear, Fred Ward -- and directed by Robert Benton, who also did "Kramer v. Kramer."

Most exciting of all, though, in my world, is that the movie is based on a 2000 novel by Charlie Baxter, long a Michigan resident and writing teacher at U of M, fairly recently departed to Minnesota. He was an old friend in my early days as a poet, and has had a long and much-beloved tenure on the faculty of Warren Wilson College, where I got my M.F.A. Baxter has written many novels and one of my favorite collections of essays about writing, Burning Down the House.

My husband and I loved The Feast of Love (Hollywood removed that pesky article) -- it was one of the first books we shared after reconnecting in 2001. I remember huddling happily in my little high-ceilinged kitchen at Divorcee Manor during one of Ted's earliest visits to Flint, listening to an interview with Charlie on NPR. Ted and I both loved his characters, including one named Charlie Baxter who begins the novel by suffering an "identity lapse"; the laconic Bradley, with a dog named Bradley; the inimitable Chloe, whose favorite interjection was "Fuck and be damned," and her ex-stoner boyfriend Oscar who, Chloe says, is "real good looking once you get his clothes off and into his characteristic behavior."

We also loved that the story was so rooted in the Midwest -- actually set in Ann Arbor; Chloe and Oscar make love once on the 50-yard-line of The Big House. First bad sign: in the Hollywood version, the story's in Seattle. Not the same, not the same. Not to us beleaguered and sensitive Michiganders.

As Ted and I feared, the movie apparently hasn't made the translation well in other ways from Baxter's rich and humanely developed characters. I'd heard rumors Baxter wasn't happy with the screenplay. Today's LA Times also ran a review, and a fairly damning one at that. (No chance of the Flint Journal doing the same, even with local connections, since they fired most of their local reviewers). Under the headline, " 'Feast' doesn't bring enough to the table," reviewer Carina Chocano says "Robert Benton's film about love and loss is free of catharsis and is neither funny nor sad." She adds, "Underneath the characters' surface diversity, they are flat and one-note..."

In the opening of the novel, Charlie's protagonist Charlie, trying to orient himself back to himself, poignantly states, "I am glimmerless. I write down the word next to my name."

"Glimmerless," as it happens, seems unfortunately to describe the movie. But it in no way describes the novel, which is abundantly three-dimensional, thoughtful, funny and sad. Sounds like this is one time to skip the movie, and read the book.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It's Happened At Last



Boo hoo... sounds of wailing and gnashing of teeth...

Today Night Blind finally slipped into the dreaded seven digits on the Amazon rankings. I knew the day would come. I'd been saved by those blessed single sales time after time, just when I got to 800,000 or even 900,000, somebody somewhere in the world would buy the book and swing me back into the Elysian Fields of five digits for a few exhilarating days, and then I'd watch, philosophically expecting the scoops and scallops of the long climb back up, up, up. But today there was no last minute reprieve.

Like a colonoscopy, the dread is worse than the event. To my surprise, I'm not in a funk. What do the Amazon numbers mean anyway?

Instead, I feel an invigorating and cleansing sense that something's over and done with. Almost exactly a year after its publication date, the book has made its venture into the market. And, thanks to the Internet and POD publishing, it is still in the world, its fruit available to be plucked. I suspect from time to time somebody will find the book and pick one up, and that will be fun to see. But perhaps I'm letting go of the obsession.

So (taps playing on a cheap boombox) one last dirge: here's goodbye to that dream that the book would magically climb into the world's embrace.

Now it's time to move along.

Thanks to everybody (there are more than 500 of you) who bought it so far; thanks to all who've written to say you stopped everything to finish reading it; thanks to all who've told me Gabriel Bonner was an irresistible cad; thanks to all who've said, "I felt like I was right there." Thanks to Theodore, gift of God, who made me do it. Here's to the dancing nuns of Brunswick, Maine. Here's to pelicans, a clear view of Catalina, seals barking at midnight, Fred, Ethyl, Einstein, Pink, silver moons, the early bird special at Chicago, a pox on Blackthistle, and thanks oh thank you goddess for the SST.

And thanks to the immensely supportive and not at all comatose Gary at East Village Magazine for harassing and needling me into writing, writing, writing again -- and for giving my new writing a beautiful home and lots of readers.

Thank you all very much. And now to whatever comes next.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Saturday Night with Robert Hass



This day started glumly with the specter of 40 freshmen papers to grade on a shimmering autumn day. I wanted to be elsewhere. Doing something, anything, else. All those oppressive theres for theirs and vice versa, mixing up the place with people. There were no theirs there, as Gertrude Stein would not have said. All those defiantlies for definitelies, adverbs all earnestly confused by silly spell-check. Their grip on rules is slippery at best, these children of the American high school.

But they were writing about the Farmers' Market, and as I read them I began to hope: they sampled cheese and apples and stared at red speckled beans and noticed the man with a funny hat and let the chocolate from a fresh croissant squish out onto their chins and looked into barrels of fish and made the vendors name them: whitefish, wide-mouthed bass, catfish. They made fun of the overweight rock band but sat in the sun to listen. They chose honey wheat bread and noticed a woman slowly going down the aisle (they spelled it isle, but still) in a walker. They bought cheap lockets and they held hands with their boyfriends and bought pints of raspberries and baskets of plums.

So I gradually perked up. At the end of the day, I went for a walk, wanting to go as fast as possible, wanting to breathe in the almost-autumn evening. Without my now-familiar backpack, I felt light and lithe. Back home, I poured myself two fingers of single malt and sank into a deep bath as, on the TV in the background, Tom Friedman repeated his mantra to Tim Russert: compete, connect, collaborate? Is that the third C? I'm always missing something.

Fresh from all this generally joyful sensory mishmash, it felt right to settle down with Liesl Olson's piece in the latest American Poetry Review, "Robert Hass's Guilt or The Weight of Wallace Stevens." I'm especially interested in Hass because he made a memorable visit here to UM - Flint in the fall of '06, coming to support and celebrate our "Green Arts" program designed around the Flint River Watershed. After reading from some of his new poems at a big community event, he genially lingered at the de rigueur party in my own living room. He seemed to love the Flint River in the same way he has loved many rivers, and just before his reading that night, he went off by himself to walk along the river, a beleaguered waterway that people are only beginning to see -- again -- as life and art. He said it looked as beautiful as a French painting. My students and I have never forgotten that.

Anyway, I didn't think Olson's treatment was much about guilt -- though certainly that is present in his work and that point would have been clearer had she noted his alcoholic mother; can any child of a drunk mom not feel guilty? It's best conveyed in "Our Lady of the Snows," I think, from his 1997 collection Sun Under Wood.

But the piece did help me understand the swing in his work between abstraction and an immersion in sense detail -- in a way, that is the manifestation of a kind of guilt, the pulling back from delight: he has been accused of "evasion," as she points out, by some critics, and in a taking the risk of "delimiting terror, in sizing it down." She asserts that Hass's poems often "begin with and return to the safety and pleasure of small things: a bath, a dragonfly, a late dinner, 'the little flare of dwan rose in the kernel/of the almond.'" That's part of what I love about his work, though -- the assiduous naming and sensory vividness played against and offered in answer to the Big Ideas, whatever those are. I've read his poems to my students to point out that explicit, sumptuous love of naming, and then have to sit back while they notice all the abstractions, too. Why did he do that? they ask. And I say, I don't know...think about it more. Now I could quote Olson in answering, "Pinning down the precise words of things is not always enough to satisfy what Hass is after, but it becomes the source of exploring language's power and its limitations, or what a word can do."

Olson's piece is accompanied by an absorbing set of 14 poems from Hass's new collection, Time and Materials. I remember when he told us the proposed title for this new book, his first in eight years, we tactfully turned away and groaned. It seemed so...plodding. But Olson says it "emerges with tremendous, expansive grace," and especially praises its confrontation with war. I can't wait to see the whole thing. Here are two tiny appetizers:

Iowa, January

In the long winter nights, a farmer's dreams are narrow.
Over and over, he enters the furrow.


After Trakl

October night, the sun going down,
Evening with its brown and blue
(Music from another room)
Evening with its blue and brown,
October night, the sun going down.

Thirty Years Ago...


...this was me, standing outside my second house in Tonga.

Finding an old photo can be a bit jarring. But I like the looks of this young woman. She was having high quality fun. Note the bare feet...ah, that was reckless, with so much sharp coral around. That black British one-speed was my constant companion and friend -- imagine the pleasure of piloting a bike all over a remote, impossbly green Polynesian island, 9.000 miles away from home. There were moments in those two years, I must say, when just being there was enough -- an unalloyed satisfaction.

Life doesn't often offer such pure pleasure. Here's to Peace Corps.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Letting the Honda Gather Dust

Carbon Footprint report: I haven't moved the car out of the garage for five days, and it feels good. I walked to work every day this week -- always going in on the same exact route through Mott Community College, and altering my return route every time. It seems at the end of the day I'm more in a mood to wander. There are many cute little corners to explore, like the one block of Eddy Street between Avon and Crapo, where several of the houses are exquisitely restored and maintained, with fences and flowers. On Avon between Second and Young street is a Greek revival house that's gorgeous; mounds of brilliant impatiens are in full bloom. If I go straight from Kearsley on Avon across Court, past Seventh Street where I lived for 15 years, I can turn down Wellington and go through Woodlawn Park where the tops the the trees are already turning red and gold, and come up out of the park into my own quiet and lovely neighborhood -- from there I'm only a couple of blocks from home.

I'm still getting used to it, though. The other day from work I happily picked up the new UMF campus bus which circles around to the Flint Farmer's Market. I loaded up on peppers, green beans, potatoes, yams, a hunk of stilton cheese, some fresh turkey tenders, a half dozen Honey Crisp apples, and happily picked up the bus back to campus, only to realize that my haul weighed about 20 pound and wouldn't fit into my beloved black backpack. Thankfully my amused colleague Stephanie agreed to take my bags of stuff and drop them off on my back porch. I'm glad it worked out so well. That night I had a fabulous supper of fresh Michigan food -- baked turkey, a sweet potato, green beans, and for dessert, half an apple with the mango stilton. I've never eaten better.

And the Honda stayed in dry dock for another day.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Henderson the Rain King" Considers His Shiftless Son in Malibu

I'm starting a longer piece on Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellows' rambunctious 1958 novel, but wanted to throw out an appetizer here while I'm working out what I want to say about the rest of it. As Bellow's antihero tries to size up his life, he also describes and bemoans the lot of his seemingly clueless children. Here, waiting in the dentist's office to get a bridge repaired (dental work figures amusingly -- and cringingly -- in the overall story) is how Henderson thinks about his eldest son Edward, a roustabout who has a red MG (bought by Dad) and "thinks himself better than me."
The most independent thing this kid had ever done,' according to EH, was "dress up a chimpanzee in a cowboy suit and drive it around New York in his open car. After the animal caught cold and died, he (Edward) played the clarinet in a jazz band and lived on Bleecker Street. His income was $20,000 at least, and he was living next door to the Mills Hotel flophouse where the drunks are piled in tiers."

Anyway, my favorite part of this section is where he remembers later visiting the shiftless Edward in California:

"I found him living in a bathing cabin beside the Pacific in Malibu, so there we were on the sand trying to have a conversation.
The water was ghostly, lazy, slow, stupefying, with a dull shine. Coppery. A womb of white. Pallor; smoke; vacancy; dull gold; vastness; dimness; fulgor; ghostly flashing. 'Edward, where are we,' I said. 'We are at the edge of the earth. Why here?' Then I told him 'This looks like a hell of a place to meet. It's got no foundation except smoke. Boy, I must talk to you about things.'"

Ah, the Midwesterner's aversion to the coast, to all things Californian. Has there ever been a more damning description? I can't help but smile. Yes, the dangerous, slothful beaches. The decadence. The insidious opposite of Henderson's raw vigor.

And what about those semi-colons? Why did he use commas in the first series, but dragged us through those heavy semi-colons in the second? I think, as Philip Roth wrote in a 2005 memorium analysis, that Bellows "breaks loose from all sots of self-imposed strictures, the beginner's principles of composition are subverted, and...the writer is himself 'hipped on subperabundance.'"

But my sister and brother Midwesterners, what of California?

Electronic Immortality for a Granny


My maternal grandparents near the end of their lives: Amy Youtz Vandersall and Rev. William Austin ("Aust") Vandersall -- in Findlay, Ohio

By coincidence (or mystical correlation) in the last week, I've been given two fascinating gifts. First, aimlessly Googling the other night, I came across a handwritten letter from my own long-dead grandmother, Amy Youtz Vandersall, in an online genealogy site. She'd written it to somebody offering information about tombstones of obscure ancestors, in 1931. Though I'm not particularly interested in the content of her letter, the shock of seeing my grandmother's handwriting, delivered through Google, was considerable. How amazing that this note of hers, on letterhead from the family homestead at 1208 N. Cory St. in Findley, Ohio, an address that carries considerable emotional impact on me because it is where my mother grew up, and where many of her hopes and heartaches originated, should appear on the Internet. If my grandma only knew!

And the very next day, I received an even more astonishing gift from my beloved cousin, Dr. Amy Vandersall (named for that same granny), a retired art history professor who now divides her time between Boulder CO and New Haven CT. What she sent me was our granny's Bible. My cousin Amy and I are both avid word people and, even in our relative apostasy (yes, that IS a pun), we're deeply interested in family history -- not just the lines on genealogical charts, but the stories, the heartaches, the sorrows, and the joys. We think our grandmother was smart in a way that society didn't welcome. Her brain probably tormented her -- there were not enough outlets, though she bore her husband (the traveling evangelist William Austin Vandersall) five smart kids and ran a scrappy little mission of her own. We think she was manic depressive, inheriting it from her father (who committed suicide) and passing it on to at least one of her children, who passed it on to at least one of his.

Anyway, I'm intrigued by the notations on some of the pages -- the margins of Bibles were spaces for not just spiritual, but intellectual engagement back then. For example, on the page shown, John 19, she writes ""It is finished" is one single word in the Greek perfect tense, "It has been completed." This fascinates me -- her curiosity a grammatical, linguistic one, not a comment about dogma. And in Matthew 16 she notes: "Thou art Peter = petros = a piece of rock - "upon this rock = petra = a mass of rock."

There are, of course, comments which do seem to be explicitly spiritual in nature. In the poignant and perplexing story of Jesus's encounter with the "woman of Canaan" in Matthew 15, where he says, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep," the woman says "Lord help me." She says her daughter is "grievously vexed with a devil." He replies, seemingly cruelly, "It is not meet to take the children's bread and to cast it to dogs." Undeterred, she persists, ""Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." My grandmother wrote (was she noting an actual moment of bitterness?) "few crumbs of thy mercy." But she added in the margin, ""So we must give God right in all he says vs. us and say, "Truth told" praying till we overcome." And of course, in the scripture Jesus answered "O woman, great is thy faith," and healed the child.

My grandmother had a difficult and, I suspect, tormented life, and she ended it in dementia, shuttled from one child's home to the next until she died in the Fifties. She was often cruel. Everybody did the best they could, I suppose. We never understood her because we never knew her before all her life's difficulties took their toll. In the photo below, sent to me by one of my distant cousins, Frederick A.Thornton, my grandmother looks so lovely (she's the one on the left in the back row -- she was about 24 when this was taken) And now, with this gift of her much-thumbed Bible, I can imagine and try to honor that woman, her fertile mind pulsing with energy and possibility. And I can offer sorrow for her sorrows, and acknowledge that there was also goodness in her DNA. Some of it has survived in me and all the rest of her descendants, and now we can offer her a bit of immortality in this amazing electronic world.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Walking Off the Carbon Footprint Blues

One of the sweetest Flint facts recently is that our PR-challenged old burg got named the 2007 Best City for Walkers by WALK Magazine. People laugh when they hear this.

But I know a lot of devoted walkers. I watch them fondly from the window of my second-story writing room: the judge in his mid-calf socks and white teeshirt, the woman in red with the black Scotty, the doctor cooling off after a run, the mother of twins striding along with her double stroller, the couple across the street who always hold hands. I like being in a neighborhood of walkers, and while I’m not the type to run out and say hello, seeing people stroll by is a quotidian joy.

I walk the ‘hood myself, but I’ve been craving a different kind of walking. I’ve been craving the kind of walking that replaces the car. With the price of oil over eighty bucks a barrel, the earth heating up and my cholesterol too high, why the hell am I driving two miles to work? Call me a Calvinist, but I like walking with a destination. So off I go, until the winter dark and ice settle in, on a daily round trip on foot.

To set the stage, here is what usually happens when I drive: back car out of garage, trying not to hit the chimney (again) or Mary Helen’s flower bed (again). Watch for walkers on sidewalk. Try to hit the green light at Court. Try to hit the green light at Mott. Cuss out other drivers who won’t go fast enough (45, way over the speed limit, but still) to hit all the lights green on Court. Turn on Harrison and curse the jerk who designed that narrow spot. Rush by new MTA Center, trying to ignore the seizure-inducing new digital readout. Turn into UMF faculty lot. Circle to top level, brakes squealing. Pull into same spot I’ve been pulling into for the last 20 years. Lock car, go down stairs, enter French Hall.

Elapsed time: seven minutes. Mood on arrival: cranky and aggressive.

It’s not that I’m all serene about walking. Getting ready requires work, and I’m a fussbudget. I run around muttering where’s my cell phone? Where’s that black umbrella? Driver’s license, Health insurance card? (I’m morbid by nature and afraid of dying anonymously) Where are my keys? Where’s my favorite cap from the Duesy Museum? I check the Weather Channel and hit the john one last time.

Finally, though, I tug on my leather backpack and amble down Maxine. Say hi to neighbor working on front yard. Count Walling signs: five so far. Williamson: none. Count For Sale signs: good, only two. Wait at light on Court and stroll across. Bid hello to Woodside Church, thinking how cool that it was designed by Saarinen. Savor moment of happy vindication for my gender at the pastor’s name on the signboard: Deborah Kohler! Walk through Mott, noting the Gorman Science Center with its lovely sycamores.

Proceed by Parking Lot 6 and Continuing Ed: note purple flowers with dark green leaves. What are those? Will Google later.

Warily approach pedestrian bridge into the MCC north parking lot. Hope it doesn’t have any Minneapolis-type cracks. (I’m a little gephyrophobic – word nerd alert – afraid of bridges, always grabbing my husband’s hand and holding my breath, especially at Zilwaukee) Check out the Gilkey Creek restoration below – a nice distraction -- the water’s sparkling. Make it across okay: Say thank you to the sensor at the automatic doors. Bid courteous good morning to Safety Guy. Walk through lot and exit through entrance ramp to assert my libertarian rights. Take a gander at the perfect mammary dome of the Longway Planetarium. What IS that color, anyway? Fuschia? Periwinkle? No, just turquoise, like an Albuquerque sky.

Walk by FIA, admiring the oxidized sculpture of kids dancing around the maypole. Note to self: join FIA on Internet quickly, before tonight’s opening. Scare squirrel on Kearsley. Cross Crapo on green, to assert my libertarian rights. Note beautiful stone house on corner of Kearsley and Thomson, watch out for oldsters at Kearsley Manor. Pass the stately Whaley House. Note to self: go tour it some Sunday afternoon. Cross Chavez and note with pleasure the new castiron railings on the bridge (take a breath, Jan) over 475, bedecked with daffodil bouquets and musical notes. Stride past the UMF dorm construction, ogling the giant dirt pile and noisy bustling trucks. Note hardhat construction guy walking around with -- my god, is that an actual blueprint? How attractive!-- rolled up under his arm. Note construction guys taking a break at the smokers’ picnic table. Go in the back door and up the stairs past the blocked off second floor of French Hall, hoping to see more construction guys. Have to settle for pounding and drilling.

Elapsed time: 39 minutes. Mood on arrival: mellow, full of sense delight and ever so slightly…saintly.

It’s a win-win thing, this walking to work. How nice to replace a carbon footprint with – novel idea! – my actual footprint, falling gratefully and gently on the earth.

(This is my new "Village Life" column for East Village Magazine. You get a sneak peek here. For more good stuff, check out www.eastvillagemagazine.org. They're undergoing some site repairs so it may call for patience.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Glamping:" New Definition of Wussitude

Vacation season is over, but OK, I have to do a separate entry on this one, which I've been chewing on ever since I saw an article on it in the LA Times August 19. There's this thing now called "glamping," (glamour camping) in which people with way too much money go "camping" without really having to rough it. Here's a quote from the article about one of the featured families, the Bondicks:

"After typing "luxury" into a Google search along with "camping" and "Montana," the couple settled on The Resort at Paws Up, a 37,000-acre getaway in the heart of Big Sky country. It's a place for affluent travelers who want to enjoy the outdoors but can't fathom using a smelly outhouse, a place where paying someone to light the campfire is a badge of honor, not the mark of a Boy Scout flunky.

The Bondicks, who live in a sprawling home on the edge of a state park outside Boston and hire a personal chef at home, shelled out $595 a night -- plus an additional $110 per person per day for food.

It's a hefty price to sleep in a tent, but the perks include a camp butler to build their fire, a maid to crank up the heated down comforter at nightfall and a cook to whip up bison rib-eye for dinner and French toast topped with huckleberries for breakfast."

A camp fire butler???

Friends, I'm over here sputtering for breath. I don't even know where to start. Why don't they just get him to put on a little suit and hold up a lantern in their front yard? Oh, man...

For one thing, I'm a known pyromaniac. Boy Scout flunky??? I think not, mes amis. Back in my camping days, I cultivated a fondness for fire-making rituals: preparing the ground, piling up a stone circle, gathering, sorting and sizing sticks of graduated thickness. I had to decide whether to build a cone-shaped or pyramid-style pile, and when and how to light it. I've been known to reward myself with a snort of camp Bushmill's for a one-match fire. (Lesson #1: don't put the bottle too close to the fire). Some of my campfires were works of art -- one thing I could do -- sort of proudly, oh, Wiccan or something. It was a matter of honor.

So, a camp fire butler??? If you were here, you'd hear my loud and lusty snort of disdain.

Friday Mix: Tony Snow's "Poverty," Pavarotti's "She," and Sad Goodbyes

On my mind, catching up:

-- Can you believe Tony Snow said (OK, this is old news, but, I still fume every time I think of it) he was leaving the White House because he couldn't make it on his $168,000 salary? So like the Bushies: doesn't he know how ludicrous that sounds, how actually wounding it might be to regular Joes and Janes out in America living on a quarter of that or less? Clueless, clueless.

-- How fabulous to hear that the late great Luciano Pavarotti referred to his voice as a "she." I have to talk to my creative writing students about this! I've always contended cultivating the reader is about seduction...now perhaps we could say that's true of the voice as well. I'm besotted by the notion of the voice as a woman within, making beautiful sounds out of the breath of our bodies.

-- Sign of impending autumn: last night I heard only two cicadas. A different kind of music: as my friend Sherry predicted, they sounded a little creaky and despairing, poor things.

-- Here's a tribute to two beloved pets: Jake and Helen's lovely old dog Kisha, who was gently put to sleep last weekend, and Teddy's Snoopy, whose fluffy coat we've all stroked happily as he padded around nuzzling us and saying hello at her many parties and dinners. She found him dead -- apparently peacefully -- on returning from DJ's party last weekend. It's hard to say goodbye to these animals who have graced our lives and been in our families for years. Who said you could judge a society by how it treated its animals? In these two homes, now missing and mourning their canine companions, love abounds.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Dark Day of Remembrance

I heard the news on I-69 coming back from seeing my therapist in Okemos. Back then, a tumultuous time for me even without world events, I didn't like listening to the news, so I was playing Mozart variations on the CD player, in particular the one from which we got "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." I tired of the bubbly melody and on impulse switched over to NPR. The first thing I heard was a man's voice say, "And where the World Trade Centers used to be..." and the world, as they say, changed forever.

Everybody's got their story, of course. I remember rushing in to UM-Flint and hugging my not-yet-ex-husband, though we had staked out individual outposts by then; I had installed myself in a small high-ceilinged refuge in an old downtown apartment building. (From my art deco windows I stared out at a huge ceramic elephant at the Happy Elephant Day Care Center across the street. The elephant never looked happy, but more often morose and stranded on his pedestal. The day care center, and the giant sculpture, are now both gone.)

I went to VG's and bought a carton of cigarettes, a bottle of whiskey, and canned peaches. The parking lots were almost empty, as was the sky. We'll all always remember that, I bet, that silent sky.

My husband invited people over that night for the comfort of marinara, one of his trademark dishes. It was a strange night, sitting in a house I'd abandoned after 15 years, with six or seven other dear friends. We drank a lot and watched CNN obsessively -- I'd been living without TV at my apartment and I was grateful to be where I could keep track, even with my ambivalence. I think I took a puff on somebody's pipe and the high was dispirited and made me clammy. When I left, my husband and I, still in deep confusion and mourning about our estrangement, tried to hug each other, but the intensity of the situation was simply too grave and too complicated. I wrenched myself away and fled back to my apartment to no TV, and no man in my bed. It was my great-grandmother's bed. Long before,I'd written a poem about my husband and me together in it; that night the bed connected me with both ancestral history and my immediate emptiness. It was a peculiar, sleepless night. I've often thought that was the one night I could have slept with my husband again, but it wouldn't have been fair -- the two immense sadnesses, the enormous and frightening losses, were too confusing, too inflammatory, like sleeping with nitroglyerin under the bed.

And I was in love with another man, and he was 2500 miles away. I wondered when and how I'd see him again. Every moment seemed suspended, every certainty undone.

The next day there was a spider in my shower. I couldn't bring myself to kill it. I gently scooped it up with a kleenex and carted it outdoors.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

High Heel Hangover

That was all well and good, but my calves ache today and my right kneecap in particular is complaining. I am not a young woman.

But what the hell. Here's to parties! When I left, Dennis was impressively swing dancing with Phyllis in DJ's dining room (DJ'd taken out the table) while other people watched, all smiley and cheering. That mini-tableau alone was worth it all.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Carolyn Heilbrun and A Pair of Party Shoes

This is going to sound really incongruous, but I wore high heels for the first time in years tonight, and it felt great and it was fun, and when I got home, thinking about it, my party in high heels led me back to the feminist scholar, mystery writer and author of the wonderful book "Writing a Woman's Life," Carolyn Heilbrun, who killed herself at age 77.

This is how it went: I was in the mood to get dolled up for DJ's annual cocktail party -- an affair that cross pollinates Flint's wealthy set with a band of artsy academics every September. The magic we secretly hope will happen is that the people with money will fall in love with the rest of us and give us some of it for our programs -- but it's not a heavy agenda and most of us on both sides tolerate it, especially after the booze and great food kick in. DJ and his partner Dave have a big house in the fanciest part of town and they cater the whole thing and we stand out on the terrace sipping martinis, gossiping and making bon mots while the moon rises. Some years I don't want to go. Some years for some reason, this bash makes me think about what I haven't done with my life and I feel old and I resent the part of the invite that says "formal" and I think morosely about the past and dreams that didn't come true, and I can't find the right clothes to wear and I fight whatever role I think I'm supposed to play.

But this year I'm in a happy, untroubled state of mind. So today I carted myself off to Merle Norman and got a pedicure and manicure (deep red polish) and then -- in a rare impulsive decision, tried on a pair of totally impractical open-toe black party shoes with three-inch heels.
And bought them. And wore them, clicking along, a sound I haven't heard my own body make in this millenium, adjusting my gait to the architecture of being three inches taller. I felt like a walking suspension bridge. I felt my calves tighten, working to balance my stride -- skills I proudly learned at 16 and abandoned decades later when the whole idea of getting uncomfortable for style -- something about sexuality tied into it, lengthening the leg for a man's gaze -- seemed silly.

I remember the moment I gave myself permission to give up high heels. It was in the 90s and I went to Ann Arbor to hear Carolyn Heilbrun speak. I'd avidly read "Writing a Woman's Life" and from my lucky front row seat, I noticed she was wearing exceptionally sensible black shoes -- thick soled and flat. And then she said something about it -- that she'd decided life was too short for sore feet. I felt liberated and relieved.

Most of us who admired her from afar were shocked when she committed suicide. Those who knew her, though, reported that she had talked about it openly over the years. As one Google site puts it, "Heilbrun had written about planning for years to kill herself by her 70th birthday. 'Quit while you're ahead, was, and is, my motto,'she stated in "The Last Gift of Time" (1997). 'Having supposed the sixties would be downhill all the way, I had long held a determination to commit suicide at seventy.' "

But then, according to the obits, she found life so rich and enjoyable in her sixties, and even at 70, that she decided against it. She was quoted as saying, "I entered upon a life unimagined previously, of happiness impossible to youth...I entered into a period of freedom, and only past 60 learned in what freedom consists: to live without a constant, unnoticed stream of anger and resentment, without the daily contemplation of power always in the hands of the least worthy, the least imaginative, the least generous."

What's weird about this is that when I donned heels tonight in a spirit of fun, I felt that my playful gesture was part of my own "entering upon a life unimagined previously, of happiness impossible to youth." It's easier now, in this time of my life, to claim my right to enjoy myself. I wasn't on the hunt, I didn't care if I was the belle of the ball. I was just dolled up on Saturday night, perched on my new black shoes, balancing my mature woman's curves and teetering playfully along, like walking on stilts, under an amiable September moon. I like to think Heilbrun would regard my fancy shoes, a whimsical extrapolation of her views, with amusement. I wish she hadn't stopped finding life amusing -- the world is diminished without her.

Anyway, walking out of the party alone, adjusting my eyes to the dark driveway, I almost bumped into a stylish old gentleman in a tuxedo enjoying a solitary cocktail. "It's a beautiful night," he said, and I said "Yes, it is," and as I clacked away he said, "Have a safe drive home" and I warmly said, "You, too." And then I liked how I thought I might have looked walking away from him, all woman, poised and purposeful, clicking down the street on my own terms under an orange cone of street light.