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


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.)