Friday, August 31, 2007

Preface to Walking to Work

There's a scene in B.F. Skinner's novel Walden Two in which the kids are required to wear large lollipops coated with powdered sugar on ropes around their necks -- they are told they have to wait to lick them, and if they give in, their tongue marks on the sugar will give them away. It was supposed to teach them discipline, of course, but although I've always admired Skinner's unsentimental observations of human predictability, how he cheekily forced us to acknowledge how we opt incessantly for the tastiest pellets, today this fragment of Skinner's highly structured utopia seems unpleasant and even mean.

I've rarely admitted it, but I'm sort of an impulsive and impatient person, maybe a little ADHD -- I tend to flit from one task to another without finishing any of them, then come back around later -- constitutionally I don't stay with one job very long except when I'm writing, which is one thing, curiously, that can totally absorb me. And it's gotten worse as I've gotten older: my concentration isn't the greatest and my mind is rangy -- I keep thinking of things I need to do, like unload the dishwasher or send an email to my brother or put a load of clothes in the laundry or fill the bird feeders. Tempus Fugit and all that.

As a child, however, I was exemplary.

My powdered lollipop was church. A preacher's kid, I had to sit still and behave, my mother at my side, smelling wonderful and in her Sunday best, enforcing order. She made me good at it. For 18 years I sat still in various pews. I counted ceiling tiles and browsed through the hymnbooks (I noted in one of my early poems that the last page of the hymnbook listed the dates of "all the Easters until the year 2000" which fascinated me -- I calculated that I'd be 51 that year and couldn't imagine what I would be like...when the year actually arrived, I changed my life dramatically and I wonder if the seeds were sown, a time-release germination, in all those hours of holding myself in). For years I hypnotized myself watching how the light came through the stained glass windows, until my dad finished his sermons and I was free. He was efficient and well-organized, rhetorically speaking. Sculpted to the expectations of his audience, his sermons usually ran between 20 minutes and a half hour, never more. Those were my training sessions.

I concede it wasn't all arduous: I loved the stained glass windows and the movement of blue, red, green and yellow light. The little scrawls and drawings I created on small pieces of recyled notepaper my mother provided were among my first stabs at self-expression. Eventually, if only out of boredom, I started paying attention to what my dad said. While I ticked off the minutes I formed responses I offered, precociously I'm pretty sure, over Sunday dinner. Thus I became a critic at a very young age. It was because of sitting still.

But as a middle-aged woman, I'm a flop at sitting still; I am restless and heated and transgressive. I lower myself into a chair at the breakfast table and then jump up five times to do something else; when I'm watching TV, I get up ten times an hour -- that might say as much about TV as about me, but still. There's a lot to do. And frankly, part of me lustily claims my right to not sit still. Not sitting still is one of my accomplishments.

And that brings me to the subject of why I've never walked to work, even though I'm only a mile and a half from the halls of UM - Flint and my desk with its humming Dell and all my piles of handouts and messily stacked books. Despite my bouts of whining "entitlement" despair about my so-called career, usually I can't wait to get there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Bug in the Dryer

The problem with my sorry excuse for a career, after a day of meetings in academia, is that I care more about the dead beetle in the dryer tonight.

No wonder I don't have tenure.

Maybe it was a cicada -- I couldn't tell for sure. Its wings were half burned off and it scared me a little: a dead thing in the basement, after all, and me home alone for the first time in months. Where had it been lodged -- what garment did it ride in on for its final scorching trip? I lifted it out with a dryer sheet and carted it upstairs in a fragrant little static-free packet, wanting to treat it with respect. I thought it needed to be back in grass. Oh, easy empathy for the stowaway husk.

But I've dug out Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, which my father read at about my age, and I've dug out You Must Revise Your Life by William Stafford, and I've opened Henderson the Rain King to the first yellowed page and read "What made me take this trip to Africa? There is no quick explanation." I start to smile and I'm so happy both books are at my bedside, I can't wait to read them again. My fluffy pillow in the red pillowcase and the big brass bed seem like objects of a good life and outside the cicadas whirr -- the ones that are still alive, that never ended up doomed in the dryer in somebody's summer shirt.

Monday, August 27, 2007

"We" do not include "You" but Gonzo Goes!

I'm crabby again. Flint's already getting on my nerves. Here's the latest chigger in my linguistic getalong:

At three separate restaurants since getting home -- in three different strata, (Olive Garden, Bob Evans, and the Red Rooster) our servers insisted on using the smarmy "we."

"Are WE ready to order?"
(What, YOU'RE going to dine with us? But I hardly know you)

"Will we be having a cocktail before dinner?"
(I don't know if your manager would approve, but before you take off your apron to join us, which you apparently plan to, yes, bring me a kamikaze, wouldja? I bet this job makes you thirsty as hell, and I'd be glad to tip one with you, but just don't put it on my bill.)

"Would we be interested in a sample of today's wine for 25 cents which will go to charity?" (Great idea, by the way -- see, I'm not totally nasty. Bring me one of each.)

"Are we enjoying our [steak gorgonzola/strawberry waffle/wilted spinach salad] so far?" (I don't see you eating, chump -- and I'd enjoy mine a lot better if you weren't violating my pronoun protocols)

"Are we planning on having dessert?"
(This is just too creepy, that you've crawled inside me but don't know the answer to that one...of course we were planning on having it, but we have a superego, too, honey, not big but as persistent as a mommie chihuahua, and we can look in the mirror, can't we? Follow my lead, darlin -- neither of us needs any more avoirdupois around the hips, and I mean that kindly)

"Are we perhaps interested in a takehome box?"
(Who're YOU feeding back home? I've got my guy right here, thank you)

Who trains these people?

I know, I know, I'm a spoiled brat. Lucky to be able to GO out to eat. And afflicted with a rash of verbal pet peeves. While the world falls apart, THIS is what bothers me?

OK, we're shutting up now and taking our new water filter out of its box. We're giving up bottled water for good. See, that matters.

And celebrating the at-last departure of one of the worst Attorneys General in history, the last holdout from the Texas mafia of the worst president in history. And THAT matters. Gonzo gone!

We're pretty pleased. Here's my 25 cents -- let me try that pinot noir. What charity again? Now we want to try the syrah. Here's another quarter. Here's to a new gov'mint someday soon. We like that zin. A quarter for some brunello? Oh, what the hell, bring us the whole bottle.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Back in Buick City

The first night, velvet humid darkness, the Midwestern weather of deep summer that's inscribed in my bones. Loud cicadas, trains in the distance. A huge comfort to be what is literally "home" for my body and my "soul." Don't know what that is, exactly, but whatever essential part of me, the part that combines all the other parts and works intuitively with the universe -- that part is rooted in a Midwestern August night when the air is so thick and fragrant it's like breathing golden honey.

Second night, a raucous thunderstorm, tornadoes in Fenton just a few miles south. As agitated as the goldfinches which swarmed to the feeder on the back porch just before the storm, Ted and I wandered from window to window, outside to inside to outside, floor to floor, watching the storm come in and over. Hallelujah, I got that drenching I'd been dreaming of in arid L.A. We drove to the Red Rooster for dinner through giant puddles, cars daring each other through about a foot of rushing water the sewers couldn't handle. After two glasses of petite syrah, wilted spinach salad and scallops in a lime sauce, not to mention shared chocolate torte and an hour of conversation with Teddy and Ted about the existence of God and the chances of morality in the post-God era, I dragged Ted out for a long walk in the neighborhood. I can't go out in the dark so it was a luxury with Ted. Gilkey Creek, overflowing, sang a rushing cantata as we walked along.

Homemade pizza tonight with Gary Custer, Ed and Casey, Nic, Jessica, Mike, Roxana and those three little aliens they called chihuahua. I know this isn't exactly a diary but it was sweet out there in the lengthening shadow of the 300-year-old burr oak. Sake under the stars. Ain't so bad to be back in Michigan.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Tidbits from an LA Summer

Packing up to leave in the morning, I have a few remaining glass beads to string on the necklace of this summer's memories. Here's one of my favorites:

We discovered the wonderful Rosalie and Alva's, where we spent three memorable weekend nights. In a cozy block on Eighth Street, comfortably up the hill from all the harbor melee and cruise ship fracas, across from a church and a Chinese restaurant, this longtime ballet school opens up to live music on weekends. It's got a 1921 Steinway, fabulous acoustics, and seating for about 50 people, and everybody there loves music. Our first visit we caught zydecosis from the amazing fiddler Lisa Haley, guitarist/songwriter (and Pedro native) Chuck Alvarez and former Monkees backup guy Skip Edwards.

The second night we donned earplugs for Ohm, a fusion rock/blues band made up of Chris Poland (yes, the former Megadeth guy, I'm not kidding) Ginger Baker's son Kofi, also an awesome drummer, and surreally fabulous Robertino Pagliaro on bass.

Finally, on our third visit we relaxed in our second row seats for jazz by Rick Zunigar, former Frank Zappa bandmate Sal Marquez, bassist Jeff Littleton and Raul Bonda on drums. Though it took Marquez till the second set to get his horns straight, it still was marvelous music.

Rosalie and Alva's doesn't have a liquor license, but there's no uncorking fee for taking your own, and sometimes Matt, Rosalie and Alva's son and the genius behind this labor of love, offers hors d'oeuvres. The cover charge ranges from $10 to $20 a head and is well worth it. We felt incredibly lucky and privileged to enjoy this spot and the superb music. I will miss it in the cold days of the Michigan winter and return to it fondly next year.

Coif Calamity at the Canton School of Beauty

Pour etre belle, il faut souffrir. To be beautiful, you must suffer.

I just got back from getting my hair done at Hollywood Beauty Center, where Esteeve, a bubbly Persian emigre who once closed up the store for Sacha “Barat” Cohen and did his hair for $250, made me watch “White Chicks” on a DVD player while he dyed away my gray and gave me youthful highlights. Last time I told him I didn’t think his other favorite movie, “The Professional,” was a chick flick and he should rethink his offerings. At least this time the movie had “chick” in the title. It’s the price I pay, along with the icky smell and the four hours of torment, for letting Esteeve make me “double – no triple – beautiful!” as he always says.

I do it to brace myself for the banks of fresh-faced students awaiting me at UM – Flint. Every year I am a little older than they are, of course, and by now, I’m so much older I’m practically a crone. I vainly think doing something to my hair will help. So I stoically cart myself into whatever hovel of female sado-masochism I distrust least, and reluctantly submit.

It’s a wonder I go at all. In the perilous business of getting “beautiful,” I got off to a very bad start. Today, sitting in Esteeve’s rowdy salon, the memory of my calamitous first encounter with official beauty flooded back.

I was nine, and I kept getting hints I shouldn’t spend so much time climbing trees and getting scrapes on my knees. I felt a melancholy ambivalence. I was proud of being a tomboy, and my mother seemed to like me like that. She was deeply skeptical, if not outright disdainful, of what she considered to be shallow blandishments and alterations like shaved legs, lipstick, padded bras, pointy-toed shoes and dresses that crimped and cut off a woman’s breath. Style? Nonsense, she would have said.

So the impetus for my beauty rite of passage probably came from Dad. An Indiana farm kid turned preacher, my father believed men should be men and women should dress like the Lennon Sisters. It’s not unlikely he noticed his little daughter was a bit haphazard in the “girlie girl” department.

I had naturally straight hair, and usually my mom hacked off a swathe of it for bangs across my forehead, making me look like a small Polish Marxist. I didn’t object or dislike my hair, but I was told if I went to the Canton School of Beauty, I could have curly hair, and, according to my dad at least, that would be a great thing. I could get “a permanent” and go to fourth grade with a whole new look....

For the rest of this account, go to and scroll down to "Essay: My Bouffant Bat Mitzvah."


Stardust: What a dumb movie. Not enough to satisfy either kids OR parents, in my view. Don't bother -- too many characters, too many ripoffs from other, better movies in the fantasy genre, an annoying lack of internal logic, tiresome deus ex machinas (shouldn't one per movie be the maximum by law?). I hate these movies that defy all the guidelines I proffer to my fiction writing students.

Several reviewers praised Michelle Pfeiffer as the chief witch, but I thought her overacting was mostly propped up by special effects. The more interesting role -- the only ten minutes or so of actual fun in the whole movie -- was Robert DeNiro as the cross-dressing Captain Shakespeare -- gruffly thuggish on the outside, and locked in his captain's quarters, prancing in front of a mirror in a pink corset, voguing and singing "I am the very model of a modern major-general" from the Pirates of Penzance. Eventually, he gets outed and whaaat? The crew still loves him. "We always knew you were a woopsie," one toothless pirate exclaims. "Arrggh," the Captain replies. Ahh, DeNiro as a pirate drag queen. Life is good. Wait for the DVD -- it's funny.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Further Reflections and "Judgement at Nuremberg"

All right, then, the Amazon numbers aren't everything. Writers, of course, always struggle with whether what we write is "good" or "good enough." Sometimes when I reread what I write, I loathe it. Sometimes I wonder who that woman was. And sometimes I reread something I've written -- like the last couple of chapters of my novel -- and I think, damn, that ain't bad. On a good day, "sales" or even "acclaim" doesn't matter. It's what I do. It's what makes me happy.

I found the start of a short story in this computer last week that I'd entirely forgotten about: a couple in the early stages of their marriage go to get their taxes done by a recovering alkie who's married a rich woman. When they arrive, there's a peacock on the roof and everything smells like a skunk. Oddly, I couldn't remember writing it -- but I remember the incident that prompted it. I have no idea where I wanted it to go. Nonetheless, the start I discovered interests me now, like inheriting a little heirloom from somebody else. Mysterious, this creative urge.

Bottom line -- I'm going keep writing because writing makes my brain feel good.

Last night, watched the 1961 Spencer Tracy flick "Judgement at Nuremberg." What a pleasure. Especially noteworthy was the surprisingly lovely and low-key Marlena Dietrich as the haunted widow Mrs. Bertholt. I loved the scene where she's serving Tracy (as Judge Haywood) coffee in little cups in her boarded up flat: trying to grasp what's happened and cling to her elegant life. Yet we know she can't face it: her husband had been hanged for atrocities. A marvelous portrait of yearning for the old civilities and the mourning and anger that comes when denial breaks down.

See, I've forgotten about my Amazon numbers already. Oops...

Off to see "Stardust" in search of coolness on another day bereft of sea breezes.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Falling, Falling Down the Amazon Rapids

I've known all along this could happen, like death, and I've tried to prepare myself. But as it gets closer and closer, every day without a sale, I'm no more resigned than I ever was.

My book is about to hit the one millionth mark. On Amazon. The sales rank, that is, NOT, my dear friends, the sales.

I've seen it happen to others, and I've even gloated with shameful schadenfreude as the books of people even MORE famous than me sunk into seven digits -- books that have won awards, books that were reviewed in the New York Times, even books of people I was once married to.

As the dreaded milestone approached several times, I was saved at the last moment -- the last time, when I'd hit 957,000, by a mystery buyer. Ted swore it wasn't him -- offended at the very suggestion that he would intefere with his woman's Amazon rank. And he made me swear it wasn't, well, me. I swore.

Now I'm at 805,000 again, and I just know this is the time it's gonna happen.

I have a couple of printouts to prove the book hit 5 digits several times -- hovering at glorious 45,000th in the halycon days right after it came out. It has plunged into that lush territory a couple of times since -- usually for about three minutes right after a single buyer ponies up. Not that I'm constantly watching, you understand. But it's like going through one of my childhood home towns, Nellie or Blissfield -- you have to be constantly watching or you'll miss it. (OK, I just didn't want to say "blink" this time. But what a nice concise verb, what a fun cliche!)

I don't know what I'll do when it happens. I'm better off without lurid Bushmill's binges, I've learned. Maybe I'm better off without my Amazon bookmark, without my trigger finger on the tormenting mouse. I know, I know, on to the next thing, the next book, the next act of audacity and hope.

It's just that, I still love my baby and I haven't quite cut the apron strings. Here's her pretty cover, if you want to make my day and buy, buy, buy:

And this helpful link:

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Beautiful and Deadly Harvest

Who can explain why something deadly is also so beautiful?

The castor bean plant popped its pods, so to speak, in the last few days, but I couldn't see any of the beans on the floor of the deck where I'd moved it to keep it away from children and passersby. My gardening friend Michael and I had been watching this volunteer plant for weeks and neither of us could resist letting it grow, out of curiosity and respect, even after we figured out it was a castor bean plant, producer of ricin, one of the most toxic substances known.

Yesterday when he came by and we looked at it, he said he thought the beans were still inside, and in the interest of safety we should probably remove all the pods and see what we could find. We did and they were. We harvested 28 beans. As we had learned from reading W.P. Armstrong's website, we could see that the design on every bean is unique, like snowflakes. We also read that while it was not dangerous to handle the beans, as few as three of them, if ingested, could kill a child, and eight of them could kill an adult human. We handled them delicately. I washed my hands thoroughly afterwards, but later, when I lined them up on the kitchen counter to take a mug shot of the lethal little beauties, fat with poison and dead ringers for the bloated ticks they're named for, I could swear my fingers itched.

While we were pulling out the beans, one fell off the deck and onto the driveway below. Michael immediately went downstairs and was gone a long time. When he came back, he had the errant bean in his hand, and, relieved, I slipped it into the white envelope I'd pulled from my husband's desk.

I can't explain exactly how I felt looking at these beans. They are beautiful to me -- partly because of their idiosyncrasy, and partly because of their potential. I need to destroy them, but before I do, I'm inclined to offer a tribute to this powerful survivor, an intimidating and formidable harvest from Mother Earth.

Now there's another volunteer plant in a pot out front. Michael says it's a passion flower, a copious vine, and we've decided to place it where it can climb up a big old evergreen trunk in the corner of the porch, without anything to stop it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Homesick for a Downpour

I miss rain.

It's hot. Yeah, yeah, it's a dry heat. And that's just it.

California hot makes you wake up with dry eyes. You get headaches. Your sinuses, their weird, bony cavities scorched down to their tiny hairs, ache and cry (a brittle rasping little yawp) for relief. Your finger tips pucker and your rings slide around on the flesh, which suddenly looks all knuckly, giving up its plump moisture somewhere else, probably the mysterious dark organs. You lose your appetite even for fresh asparagus and chardonnay.

Sleep is restless. You wake up at 3 a.m. your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth, and you're pretty sure you've been gasping for breath and snoring. Up naked, you wander your digs, the dry bottoms of your feet scritching across the unrefreshing vinyl. You're looking for water. In the dark like this you feel like an animal, maybe even an insect, a cockroach. You feel around under shelves in the dark kitchen, and when you find a bottle and crack off its lid and drink it, you let a little run down your thorax. You think you can feel the water actually moving into your body, rushing through a hundred parched capillaries, and then you feel your human body again, your heart and your elbows and the wrinkly part of your eyelids. It's a startling sensation, the body's machine taking hold, and it vaguely frightens you. To calm down, you stare out at the banks of harbor lights which almost always do the trick. But with no moisture in the air to make them twinkle, they glare back charmlessly, hard and arrogant and bright. You primally fear thirst. You know there's a lot of water out there but you couldn't drink it. You sneak back to bed, into the barren sheets.

In the morning, you feel irritable and parched; you have to apologize to your partner for your sapless remarks, the words catching in your throat, even before 9 a.m. The morning paper crackles, sere and staticky as you flip each page. Your horoscope doesn't mention water: it says you should hunt alone. Even bullshit has more juice than that. Even the news is dessicated and harsh.

You have work to do, but you don't want to do it. All you want to do is flop down on the crinkly dry couch and watch CNN, which is repetitive, droning and dry.

This is when all those other words wash over you: cloudburst, deluge, drencher, drizzle, flood, mist, monsoon, rivulet, shower, sprinkle, stream, torrent, volley, wet stuff -- and you know it's about time to get back to Flint.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

On Not Dancing at Avalon

When Glen Larson and Bruce Belland of The Four Preps wrote and recorded "Twenty Six Miles Across the Sea/Santa Catalina is awaitin' for me," neither of them had ever been there. The song shot to #2 in March of 1958, but Belland said he didn't make it to the island, bought in its entirety in 1919 by William Wrigley of gum fame, until 1961.

By 1958, though, the palatial Avalon casino, with its huge ballroom, had been going great guns for 29 years. The casino, which we can sometimes see on very clear days from Pt. Fermin Park in San Pedro, reminds me of the Pantheon -- a pantheon to dancing. People used to ride a boat over from L.A., dancing all the while, then dance up a garlanded walkway from the dock to the ballroom, and then dance up its ramps to the ballroom floor, where thousands of people could mix. And then they'd catch the boat back and arrive in time to turn up for work the next morning. Here's how it looked, empty of its revelers, when we recently trudged up those same ramps, wondering how women did it in high heels, and feeling every calf muscle. It's still a gorgeous, glimmering room, and you can step outside on a wide balcony and survey the whole harbor of Avalon.

Our tour guide said Wrigley, a tycoon of particular rectitude, declared many rules of behavior for the ballroom. No drinking, for instance. No smoking. And no "close dancing." Ballroom dicks used to walk around sweeping their arms between offending dancers to maintain propriety.

Gum was allowed.

Our guide asked if anybody wanted to dance, but nobody did. "You'll regret it when you get home," he warned. But the only place to get boogie-inducing courage was a bar way down on the beach, and the big glowing floor intimidated us -- not to mention all those other strangers, wheezing from the long ascent, in bermuda shorts and Hollywood teeshirts.

Big bands still perform at the casino -- which means, we learned, not "a place to squander hundreds of quarters on slot machines while drinking watered down rum and cokes," as I'd always thought, but rather, "a gathering place."

As a kid growing up in the Fifties who wasn't allowed to dance, and who still can't do much on a dance floor except shake my anarchic booty to old R&B, I find this all impossibly dazzling and exotic.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Touchy Feely Nixon

The gift shop is the only refuge for irony, the only acknowledgement of an immense pop culture legacy at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda -- there, you can buy mugs with photos of the 37th president bowling and a mouse pad showing him shaking hands with Elvis Presley. You can buy little tins of "Presidential Peppermints." You can pick up 50s-style coin purses, those soft rubber yonnis, amusingly sexual, that you open by squeezing open a slot at both ends -- they say "Nixon" in red, white and blue. You can get "Highly scented First Lady Travel Candles" and my favorite, under the label "1600 for men," a jar of "Power Muscle Soak" bath beads bearing the presidential seal.

But as soon as you walk into the cool capacious lobby, past a plaque recognizing creepily echoing names like Mrs. Charles G. (Bebe) Rebozo and Robert Aplanalp, you know that the Nixon library is about warm and fuzzy reconsiderations of history, about rehabilitation, about compassion for the dark and star-crossed Quaker prince.

Disturbingly, it works. Diving into the Nixon story, the way it's told in Yorba Linda, upended my blase hostility, unquestioned since the youthful certainties of my generation's righteous Sevenities indignations about Watergate.

I didn't want to go. I never would have gone there, but for the entreaties of our visitors this week, a pair of lively young academics. One was still in diapers during Watergate and the other wasn't even born. They shamed us into chauffeuring them 40 miles from San Pedro's cool breezes by gently insisting that they "wanted to know." My resistance to submerging into that grim time seemed shallow at best.

As one of my companions noted, all the docents look like Pat Nixon -- they are kind and solicitous and stiffly proper, eager to talk about Pat's rose garden and the reproduction of Nixon's favorite White House space, the cozy Lincoln Room, complete with his favorite slouchy brown chair. There is no mention of the moniker "Tricky Dick," no mention of that infamous First Dog Checkers, no mention of the good cloth coat, no audio clip of "I am not a crook."

Instead, a wall of framed letters from kids after Nixon's 1960 defeat to the much-hated JFK. From eight-year-old Bob Fahlstom of Evanston IL, "I feel very sorry that you lost. I'm a small Republican. I beat my brains out working for you." From Debbie Rathbun, age 7, "Dear Mr. Nixon..."Don't feel too bad, our class voted 23-8 for you. So you're still the president of Room 16." From James G. Mead, Age 7 ("but wish I was 21,"): Dear Nixon Your debates are the best. I think Kennedy is a hothead and he fell you with a lot of balony."

There is a bizarre mural by Hungarian artist Ferenc Daday, ironically a perfect example of a Soviet-era propaganda poster, depicting Nixon at Andau in 1956 after the Hungarian revolution. In the center, Nixon in a beige trench coat pats the head of a small girl who reaches up to him with a sprig of flowers. There are peasants leaning toward him, a triptych of women weeping in the background. The accompanying plaque says that during Nixon's visit, "he stayed up all night riding in a haywagon pulled by a tractor as he accompanied the freedom fighters on their rounds through the countryside to search for others who had escaped the Soviet crackdown."

Weirdly, it's believable. This same man who'd made a name for himself on HUAC, jubilantly nailing that commie Alger Hiss from Whittaker Chamber's pumpkin papers, believed that freedom from Communism was the great good, the all-consuming goal. He had a certain naive purity.

As has been widely noted, the Watergate section itself, remarkably, has been totally torn out. In that hallway, instead, are white walls randomly splashed with olive drab paint, some of it leaving long, morose drips. The exhibit was gutted in March by order of Timothy Naftali, the library's first federal director, a Harvard-trained historian. The action is part of a major change from being a privately run facility — the only modern presidential library not part of the federal system — to an institution run by the National Archives. The federal librarians had long known the earlier Watergate version was a whitewash, and perhaps their new attempt to document the story will wrestle more honorably with truth.

Most powerfully for me, Nixon's tormented guilt and the narrative of his doomed ascent from a struggling rural childhood, makes George W. Bush seem even more banal, more shameful, more infuriating. The library is situated on the 9 acres of Frank Nixon's original homestead -- the house, a small, tidy cottage that looks like something out of Bedford Falls, can be toured, and there's a big California pepper tree that Frank himself planted in about 1912 -- all seemingly part of that hopeful American dream, the hardscrabble Nixon family running their market, hanging together at the death of Richard's little brother Arthur. At his worst, Nixon spoke clearly and passionately, evincing a complex intelligence. His fall is all the more awful because of where he started -- not entitled to anything, not the smug beneficiary of wealth or connection. If you're looking for it, there's a vein of horrific implication about what this means in the Nixon library -- a Horatio Alger story that ends up wrong, a reverse image of a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington tale in which the individual's corruption and failure is unsparingly public and cruel.

Of course he deserved it. But it feels like something different from the cynical and doggedly unapologetic and presumptuous abuses of power at work today in the depressing presidency of Royal George.

" I think Nixon was a sad and pathetic man," one of my young companions remarked on our last swoop through the gift shop. I groaned and reluctantly agreed.

Personally, confronted with those glum walls in the scoured Watergate hallway and what their hard silence implied, even after contemplating the nostalgic Nixon home, even after breathing in the perfume of yellow roses (like an aerosol can in a bathroom, maybe?) I still wanted to deface something, draw a big peace symbol onto the blank whiteness or scrawl, "Nixon lied." I had my hand in my bag, reaching for a pen. My husband stopped me -- for my own good. He was right. I'm pretty sure there were cameras everywhere. Even without the catharsis of graffiti, I had to face the facts, so to speak: the telling of even the darkest history is always changing.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Happiness for Comedians

Milestones for two funny men:

1. Dr. Woody Allen!! It's his first honorary degree, and of course, it happened overseas. It's a "doctor honoris causa" from the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain. The citation lauded him for "having offered an original and personal view of the world from which we have all benefited, and in recognition of his work in the cinema, which represents a bridge between two cinematographic traditions: American and European." The only other recipients of honorary degrees from Pompeu Fabra have been Desmond Tutu and historian Miquel Batllori.
He said, humbly, "I've never graduated from much in my life" and recalled how he'd dropped out of film school at New York University. "The work involved going to watch films and write about them. I saw lots of films but in the end I failed," he said. Ha ha!
Here's Woody as "Virgil Starkwell" (best nom de thug ever!) in "Take the Money and Run."

So now Woody's not just a beloved nut, but an academia nut! He deserves it. His satires of pomposity and elitism are, in themselves, intellectual -- not to mention zestfully accurate and affectionate.

2. Steve Martin marries again -- to Anne Stringfield, a 35-year-old writer and former staffer at The New Yorker. Guests for the event last weekend didn't know about the wedding -- they thought it was just a party. According to (New Zealand? Okay, students, it was the first item that came up on Google. I'm guilty) "Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey presided over the ceremony and the best man was Lorne Michaels, the creator of 'Saturday Night Live,' a popular US television comedy show that Martin has guest hosted more than anyone else. Martin, 61, sported a mustache that he has let grow for his role as Inspector Clouseau in an upcoming sequel to the 2006 movie 'The Pink Panther.' "

Martin's 1991 movie "L.A. Story" is one of my favorites about the City of Angels, and it's the one that romantically co-starred his first wife-to-be, Victoria Tennant. In particular, here's a snippet from a dining-out scene at the main character's girlfriend's favorite restaurant, "L'Idiot" -- I think, um, it's on Las Palmas Avenue:

Guy with neck-support: I'll have a decaf coffee.
Trudi: I'll have a decaf espresso.
Movie critic: I'll have a double decaf cappuccino.
Policeman: Give me decaffeinated coffee ice cream.
Harris: I'll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.
Trudi: I'll have a twist of lemon.
Guy with neck-support: I'll have a twist of lemon.
Movie critic: I'll have a twist of lemon.
Cynthia: I'll have a twist of lemon.

And then we see a huge mound of lemons tumbling out of the kitchen...

Anyway, hearty congratulations to both of these cherished comics, who have made the rest of us so happy so often.