Friday, June 27, 2008

Climbing Steps in Quebec

Right now I'm hearing horses clip-clop by on Rue St. Anne in old Quebec City. We're at the Hotel Champlain and just got back from dinner at Marie Clairisse, a restaurant half-way down the stairs on one of QC's many ups and downs. We sat outside on a crowded little terrace and had sturgeon/mackerel appetizers, a bit of red wine, and entrees ranging from salmon steaks to lamb to bouillabaise. The breeze kicked up and blew all our cloth napkins into our faces. We all slammed our hands down and made sure the flask of merlot didn't tip over.

This is the summer of QC's 400th anniversary and the cobblestone streets are full of visitors, both French Canadian and English-speaking Canadian and Americans. It's very merry and picturesque.

We spent the day driving around Ile d'Orleans, the "Garden Island" in the St Lawrence Seaway. It's a high, fertile oval with an abundance of small towns, old churches and rocky beaches. At a little art gallery I bought two meticulous drawings by Nicole Ouellet, a Quebecoise. The drawings, of sunflowers and of a barn at the top of a hill in winter, touched me. We picnicked in a little gazebo, eating fresh pain, fraises et fromage, and later stopped at a chocolaterie.

On the return trip, we stopped at the Parc de la Chute -- Montmorency, where Audrey and I panted and moaned our way up 487 steps to get a great view of the 272-foot high waterfall, 100 feet higher than Niagara Falls. My thighs and knees, I readily admit, are aching. The air is crisp, fresh and breezy.

Now we're relaxing and Ralph and Ted are tellling stories about their mother Hazel, who, we all agree, must have been a hot number. They have a streak of French-Canadian in their blood, which makes them very good husbands.

There must be a poem in all this somewhere, but for the moment I'm not thinking about literary concerns. We're just eating, drinking, walking and sleeping. We keep stopping to take each other's pictures: I'm pretty sure we'll all look sun-kissed and grinning, but I don't have the cord to post any the shots yet. It's a good life. Bon soir.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Roses for a Sunday Evening

My friend Dr. Teddy dropped by last night with the amazing news that her mother, who we thought would have been dead weeks ago, is not only still with us but serenely declared, in her new adult foster care home, "I'm happy." There is a message here -- about the depths of mercy and possibilities not just for a good death, but for a redemptive final chapter. We sat on the back porch sipping our frosty gin and tonics and puffing Sherman ovals (just two each -- we are very particular about our cigarettes, both in quantity and quality) and smiled at each other. It's enough to make us believe in religion.

And Teddy brought these roses, from her garden. They remind me, I told her, of Sunday nights back on Gibbs Avenue in Canton in the 50s, where after the evening service on a summer night like this, the whole small congregation would troop over to Flossie McLaughlin's tiny house on Sherlock Place to see her roses. They were much like these -- prolific and delicate and sweet smelling. These sit on my kitchen table, gently scenting the whole room with nostalgia.

There's one more thing about this photo. I put the roses in a vase given to me 40 years ago when we'd moved from Canton to Akron, a difficult parish my father served for just two bumpy years. As I noted in a blog post earlier this month, my maternal ancestors' homestead was there in Akron -- they had been a prominent family with a big house and a lot of land. We lived across the street from what had been my great-grandmother's house -- a place my mother had visited many times as a child. I went to a junior high school named for my great-great-grandfather, Samuel Thornton. My grandmother, Amy -- one of Sam Thornton's dozen of grandchildren, had married a man from Akron named Austin Vandersall. By the time we moved there, however, the Thornton house was long gone, replaced by a row of tawdry storefronts. The neighborhood was in deep decline and the reminders of my ancestors' prosperous days were fragmented and ambiguous. It particularly affected my mother to be there; I think the street was full of ghosts for her.

Anyway, back to the vase.

It was given to me by a woman named Sarah Russ, who at the time (1962) was nearly 100 but still sharp and engaged. I still have the note she included, rolled up in a drawer. It says, in a shaky script: "Long ago my sister Anna taught a class of little girls in our Sunday School. I think your grandma Amy Youtz, who later became Amy Vandersall, was a member of that class. My younger sister Nellie was about the same age but she was in another class. Here is a vase my older sister Anna gave to her at Christmas. It was just like the ones she gave to the girls in her class. We thought they were pretty. I would like to give this one to you. Rev. A. Vandersall was our minister when I was a little girl. He gave me the nickname of Sadie. I liked him and I liked the name, so I used it for many years. I seldom use it now. But, in memory of him and your grandma, and in memory of my sisters Nellie and Anna, I will sign this...Sadie Russ."

I've always appreciated this small act of kindness from an old woman to a young girl struggling with a depressed mother at a time we were haunted by history.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

This is how I define "sumptuous"

...and what fine luxury -- right in our back yard.

Long Day, New Poem

Ted and I have a ritual of ringing my mother's Chinatown dinner bell when we think the longest day of the year is over. The wait proved to be a muse. Read it fast. I'll pull a Rappleye and "poof" it after a day.


Okay, readers, here's a new draft. It, too, will go poof in a day.

*poof #2*

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Last Day of Class

One thing I love about academia is that every once in awhile, you get to start over. This builds in an element of optimism and refreshment that is simply not replicable in any other profession that I know of.

I loved my spring semester students: they were grownups, grad students who did what I asked and more. They were wonderful writers, deep readers, critical thinkers. They were talkative and funny and they seemed to bond with each other. I can't believe I get paid for this -- they were great. The class, called "Green Ink: Writing the Earth" took them into substantial considerations of their own memories and relationship with nature, and they read classic essays by Emerson, Thoreau, Fritjof Capra, Wendell Berry, William Cronon, Barry Lopez, Lame Deer, Joy Williams, Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey, Joyce Carol Oates, Ursula LeGuin, and many others. They attended and critiqued a conference featuring Whole Communities founder Peter Forbes, whom they found pleasant enough but unsatisfyingly general. They met Michigan poets Keith Taylor, Alison Swan and Terry Wooten. They remembered and examined many experiences with their changing worlds: a lake losing its water in Northern Michigan, a run-in with zebra mussels, a patio that became the focal point of a dying marriage...they were heroic in their writing.

And after class tonight, I stopped by East Village Magazine and had a couple of fingers of Irish with my friend Gary. Two days before the Summer Solstice, the sun took its time setting over our really beautiful blue collar town. I'm very fond of this old burg tonight. Now it's time to gear up for the big shift to the City of Angels.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Birdie 911: Behaving Like a Human

So, taking out trash I came upon a little bird sitting on the walk. Just sitting there, making hoarse little chirps. You know there's something wrong when a little bird doesn't move. I went immediately into "high-voice" koo-kooka-choo, Hey little birdie, where's your mommie? etc. etc. and still the little critter didn't budge, except for a little hop and then another, though his little bright eyes looked terrified. I saw no blood and his wings, folded around fledgling fluff, appeared fully formed. I deposited my bag on the curb and when I turned around, baby birdie was still there, a little puffball, black and white, a nuthatch I think. I bent down slowly so as not to alarm him and just as I did, a big UGLY yellow cat with a half a tail -- one of the feline thugs of the neighborhood -- slithered out from behind my house.

I stood up and hollered, "Don't even THINK about it!" He sneered but moved his evil boniness off behind the garage.

I suspect there was a narrative arc, as we say in the writing biz, in process, but non-human animals don't engage in spoken word to fill the gaps. They don't give a damn about audience, purpose or any other rhetorical niceties. It's all show-not-tell -- they just want to eat. But I didn't want Thug Kat (K seems to suit him more than C) to have this particular baby for dinner right in front of me. I wasn't in the mood.

I went back to the house for a handful of thistle seed and a soft black towel. The birdie didn't go for the seed, but he seemed quite comforted by the towel, and let me pick him up gently and move him to the back of the house, where I thought I'd hide him in some shrubs. At first he didn't like that idea and climbed up my arm. As much as I felt impelled to do an Albert Schweitzer I didn't like the idea of a wild bird climbing up my body, so I nudged him down, reining in my cognitive dissonance, and got him to step off the towel into a branch of the overgrown privet. He seemed at home there and let out a bunch of little mommy calls. Unfortunately I didn't hear a response, though it's common to hear repeated nuthatch spondees on the trunks of old spruce and maple around here.

My neighbor's grown daughter Amy came running out because I'd left the front door open. She wondered what was going on. There've been a bunch of breakins on our street and I think she worried my open door signaled one in progress. It's good having neighbors who care.

No, I told her, only a poor little birdie, maybe fallen from the nest. But by the way, that piece of rhubarb pie you gave me Sunday was fabulous -- still warm, and a flaky crust! She wanted to see the birdie and we located it, up a few more branches. Nuthatch, she confirmed. Big enough to defend himself I think, Amy said. After rhubarb pleasantries, standing around peering into the shrub, we left the birdie there.

What's a person to do? There's no safe place: cats, I know, climb trees. I suspect I held off the cycle of life for only a brief interval. Did I help? I suspect I only helped myself, salving a moment of reflex compassion. On the other hand, I was a human animal, doing what I do, just like Thug Kat doing what he does. It's interesting the universe accommodates both leanings.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Only a Cold Hearted Sourpuss Would Object

I'm a married het for same sex marriage. I'm happy for the gay and lesbian couples in California who are getting married today. I do not understand the protesters who see these joyful acts of commitment as threatening to anything. What's the problem? It's love. The more the better. It's a civil rights issue. These judges are not "activist judges" as one dour critic put it this morning on NPR -- they are judges paying serious and responsible attention to the Constitution.

But more to the point, weddings are just so much fun -- tribal events that involve neither war nor death. My first wedding was great -- in my back yard, with lots of hugging and champagne under the leafy maples. My late father in his ministerial robes read I Cor. 13 and gently launched us; my niece, now a prospering physician, was our bashful flower girl. it was a fabulous day and made me happy to be alive. My second wedding, on the cliffs of San Pedro, was one of the best days of my life: full of hope and the milk of human kindness -- my handsome smiling husband in his straw hat and his arm around me -- a day of flowers and great food and sweet affirmations: everybody in purple leis, dancing in our driveway while the July 4 fireworks popped sensationally over the LA Harbor. We renamed the holiday, henceforth our anniversary, Interdependence Day.

Sourpusses who would deny this outpouring of l'amour to others are hard-hearted and mean. Here's to love and lots of it.

Nerve-Wracking NBA Final: Oh Nuts

10:22 p.m. Halftime: I think I've shelled and eaten about 150 peanuts so far in the Laker-Celtics game. It's not helping. Yeah, dang, I'm rooting for the Lakers. It's not going their way. I think I might have to switch to like, C-Span. I can't stand this -- they can't hit anything.

I was rooting for Rocco Mediate, too. Sigh...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Progressive (Not Liberal) Lenses

Ah, the joy of optical insurance, which allows me new glasses each year. I have astigmatism, myopia, presbyopia and a few other opias I can't think of at the moment. Every year my eyes rudely show my pitifully advancing old age, squinting inexorably up the eye chart to a line they can actually make out. I think I'm up to the inch-high letters. Do they get any bigger?

So this year, in the flush of my ophthamological modifications, I decided to buy my first pair of "reading" glasses, though for me they are for the most part "computer" glasses (websites call them PC glasses) since that is when I need them most.

With all my opias, combined with my boundless vanity, I've insisted every year on getting "progressive lenses" so as not to look like my mom in glasses. Hers had those big lines across the middle and caused her (as I thought of it then) aged and vaguely embarrassing habit of raising her chin when she had to look at something up close -- like my own face, which she examined with unnerving curiosity, scanning for evidence of failure and dissolute living. (As an optical scan, my mother's gaze was like a laser, leaving little scratches like paper cuts on my emotions. She saw things there I could hide from everybody else. It was infuriating. The powerful bifocals of her later years exaggerated the torment).

Whoa! I didn't know this was going to be about my mother! Damn. I thought I was going to make a few cute comparisons between "progressive lenses" and the current political scene, in which people suddenly are using the "P" word, as in my stylish glasses, much more than the "L" word. I must say the moniker "liberal lenses," while certainly appealing as alliteration, doesn't have the same across-the-board appeal.

Here's the thing: on progressive lenses, especially for those of us who require trifocals, the "sweet spots" for each kind of vision, as my nice eye doctor puts it, are by necessity of design quite small, and require considerable training of the brain. It takes fine discrimination and practice to see the world through progressive lenses. Sometimes, though, my eyes tire of the effort and I just want to see things one way -- up close -- the distant view consigned to fuzzy indistinction. It's arduous to keep track of the near and far view simultaneously. See? There IS a metaphor here. Focus, I tell myself, focus!

In conclusion, look! Everybody wants to be progressive, right? Isn't that All-American, as All-American as flag lapel pins and putting your hand over your heart during the pledge? (The HEART, Barack -- not the upper colon -- you gotta pay attention when you're running for office in a cliche-ridden society!) And everybody wants to think that he or she can see equally well up close and at a distance -- it's all in how you tilt your head, right? Left?

I think even my mother would agree. As long as I'm eating enough (locally grown) roughage, that is, and taking a daily constitutional. Now there's something progressive to get exercised about.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

On Not Being A First Wife

Wm. Kittredge: Middle Aged Love

Reading about the recently deceased Stewart Mott and his mother Ruth Rawlings Mott, I got to thinking about what it means not to be a man's first wife. Ruth Rawlings was C.S. Mott's fourth wife (according to the New York Times, though Wikipedia says she was his third -- I trust the Times more). At any rate, she was his last wife. At the time of their nuptials, he was 59 and she was 33. They were married 39 years. They had three kids and she outlived him by 26 years. Perhaps what I've heard about their courtship (below) isn't true -- that strumpet part and the window-climbing part -- but still, she appears to have had a vivifying effect on the rich old guy, who lived to be 98. The official biography says they met in Baltimore, a long way from Applewood's accessible leaded-glass defenestrations.

I'm my husband's third wife, and he is my second husband. (I was my first husband's second wife and he has since remarried his third wife, for whom he is her second husband. Thus it goes in the 21st century: eight of us all told in this marital geneology, five women and three men. Among us, interestingly, we produced only six kids).

Anyway, I happen to have had a chance to know my present husband briefly when he was on his second marriage, when I ran across him in Tonga. While we scandalously connected under the palm trees and never forgot each other's charms, he had a reputation for being arrogant, noisily opinionated and confrontational. He was. I fell for that street smart Alpha Dog in 1976, but I can see how it caused trouble in his rambunctious life back in the States.

When I met him again in 2001, he was 59, the same age as C.S. Mott when he married Ruth. I quickly ascertained that my old friend had seriously mellowed. He had been through ruinously hard times of professional and romantic turmoil. He had survived, but was, to quote an environmentalist I heard speak this week, deeply "adapted and mitigated." And the man he is today dramatically better suits me than when we first collided in our youthful heats. We've talked about this a lot: what if we'd decided to give up everything at the time to marry each other then? I think it would have been disastrous, despite our intense physical attraction.

I'm grateful not just to him or to the vagaries of life that polished his rough edges, but also to his first two wives. While they might look back on their marriages to my husband with exasperation, he learned from them and that made him a better husband for me.

Likewise, my own wildness has thankfully subsided. I used to want everything from a man, and when he failed me in even small ways (I broke up with one guy because I didn't like the way he chewed his food) I'd quickly dump him. I was the original mindless recycler -- piling men away in bins and never caring where they went from there. I thrived on adding up "experience" and cottoned far more to the conquest than the follow-through; in that regard, a therapist once suggested, I was playing out an extended agitated depression and frantic approval-seeking. I've calmed down. I'm still sometimes subject to bursts of post-menopausal flurries, but in general now I'm in a much more appreciative, less edgy, less judgmental place than I once was. My husband has learned to listen and, god forbid, open up his feelings to me. (Cue the Morris Albert) I've learned to relax and be grateful, to let him be. (Well, okay, in general. I'm still evolving.) I love his mature masculinity. I contend the ripening of many men in their fifties and sixties makes them finally able to be good companions for, um, women of a certain age. They don't care as much about fighting and proving. They appreciate tenderness.

Sometimes we're hit by waves of the mortality blues, and we turn to each other and say in quavering voices, "I wish I could be young for you again." Those are bittersweet moments that remind us to Be Here Now. I feel lucky my husband loves to touch my old dame curves. And I told him I'll sit in his lap from time to time as long as he will have me.

So, here's to being a third wife to a second husband. Three cheers for the fullness of conjugal contentment.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Silver Spoon Boy of Flint is Dead

AP Photo

It's hard to write about anything else but the shocking death of Tim Russert. But another death today caught my eye: that of Stewart Mott, robustly eccentric son of Flint's legendary benefactor and auto baron Charles Stewart Mott.

Flint has nurtured a host of original and interesting characters -- Billy Durant, Michael Moore, Paul's Pipe Shop owner Paul Spaniola, River Man Riley McLincha, East Village Magazine publisher Gary Custer -- just to name a few. Stewart Mott, who died last night at 70 in New York, is another fascinating example. I never met him but I'm charmed by some of the details of his life. He apparently was a rebel and a hippie and a man-about-town, delivering bon mots along with his passionate contributions to the causes he cared about, including, prominently, Planned Parenthood and gay rights. He supported Eugene McCarthy, protested the Vietnam War and incessantly nettled his GM forebears.

Born when his father was 62, Stewart was the child of C.S. and Ruth Rawlings Mott, the young strumpet the lusty patriarch supposedly sneaked into Applewood, the family mansion on Kearsley Street, through a window. She was C.S. Mott's fourth and final wife. (I'm exceedingly grateful to that spunky woman -- her foundation, separate from the C.S. Mott Foundation, generously funded the three-year Green Arts program at UM - Flint which has been one of the joys of my recent professional life.)

Perhaps he was as much his mother's son as his father's. According to the New York Times, this sometimes wackily philanthropic Mott son cultivated "a farm with 460 plant species (including 17 types of radishes), a chicken coop and a compost pile, atop his Manhattan penthouse." I didn't even know there WERE 17 types of radishes, and the zest for life that must have led to that curious project is pretty irresistible.

Here's some more of the Times obit: "Stewart was overweight as a child and nearly drowned at 9 when he ventured out on thin ice. After running away at 11, he struck a bargain with his father to come home half the summer if he could work the other half at family enterprises. His experiences included a Flint department store, a pecan-and-goose farm in New Mexico and a refrigerator plant near Paris."

"After his Chinese junk kept sinking in the Hudson," the Times continues, " he abandoned it for terrestrial accommodations. He wrote a thesis on Sophocles for a never-completed Columbia master’s degree in Greek drama." He even taught English for a year at Eastern Michigan.

Finally, I particularly enjoyed that Stewart Mott drove a Volkswagen, partly to irritate his GM father. According to the Times, "In 1969, Mr. Mott gave a huge party at Tavern on the Green in Manhattan to celebrate his father’s 94th birthday. The older man earlier that day accepted a ride in his son’s Volkswagen. He said it was bumpy."

I'm sorry this Flint original is gone. He sounds like fun.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Buoyant, Ghostly Weediness at Chevy in the Hole

I just know I'm going to write a lot more about this: 2008 is the 100th birthday of General Motors, and that blessed event, beginning a whole century of exuberant innovation, huge-scale manufacturing, massive migrations from the South, flamboyant Big Money, and the collapse and abandonment we've had several decades to adjust to, occurred right here in Flint.

Specifically, it began at what we now affectionately call "Chevy in the Hole," a huge compound of factories in bottom land of the Flint River just west of downtown.

The site is now a giant brownfield. I find it irresistibly ghostly and haunting.

I took my "Green Ink" students there on a bike tour a couple of weeks ago. Increasingly, it seems right NOT to drive a car when paying tribute to this fallen behemoth. Pausing to catch our breath on Bluff Street overlooking the acreage, we didn't have much to say as we took in the concretized channel of the river and the silent expanse where some of the fights of the 1936 Sit Down Strike took place and where millions of cars were banged out on noisy and oily assembly lines. Several mallards noodled along in the brown water. A red-winged blackbird sailed by. A remarkable single cottonwood did its leafy hula. It really is a cemetery.

The brownfields of Chevy in the Hole are not really brown: there are many green things growing in the cracks and edges. I asked our tour guide, Christina Kelly of the Genesee County Land Bank, what they were. "Just weeds," she said.

My biology professor friend Tracy Wacker, with her usual bracing candor, said "The definition of a weed is a plant growing where somebody doesn't want it to. Looked at that way, none of the plants at Chevy in the Hole are weeds, because nobody cares if they grow there."

This is just the start of what I have to say, but in quick summary, when Tracy and I walked back to Chevy in the Hole yesterday, scrambled around a chain-link fence and poked around in the humid overgrowth on the cracked concrete and the river bank, she called out the names of least 30 different plants: rumex, chicory, bachelor's button, black nightshade, common mullein, curlydock, dogwood, catalpa, coreopsis, lanceleaf plantain, milkweed, dames rocket, buckthorn, bull-thistle, crown vetch. That's about half of them.

One of the most prolific species butting into the ruins is a lusty compound-leafed interloper named, ironically, Tree of Heaven (shown above). It is everywhere. It stinks. The reason is that it contains compounds that keep other plants from growing. Its deep and feisty underground runners make it almost possible to kill -- cut it down, it comes up two feet away. Okay, really, I can't resist this metaphor. I'm chewing on it avidly, like a local betel nut spiking my adrenalin.

But there were also small and hopeful willows, that yellow coreopsis -- a native plant -- and that dogwood. The cemetery is birth to some kind of regeneration -- quiet, slow, shy, fascinating. In the silent breezes there's something to notice. In the persistent weediness, a whisper of history receding, a hint of something lusty and green coming back in its place.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Flint-bred Indie Film Maker Mike Ramsdell shows "Montclair"

Mike Ramsdell said he didn't pick Flint, his hometown, as the setting for his first movie because it has a stigma. He wanted an "Every Town," and so he picked and named the movie "Montclair," for Montclair, New Jersey, where several of his actors and his co-producer live.

He's right, I think. Despite whatever universal yearnings and life cycles we all pursue in Buick City, thanks to that other Mike -- Moore -- our town for the foreseeable future will trigger particular images in most people's minds: rabbits for "pets or food," our elaborate mourning dance with GM, evictions, homicides and empty storefronts. And his movie is about people in their twenties and thirties -- there doesn't seem to be a single character in the film who's older than 40, except one -- and we all know that's the crowd that usually leaves Flint to raise their kids elsewhere.

But it's too bad, in a way, since Ramsdell is the son of Betty and Dick Ramsdell, two people who have played and are playing a huge role in the attempts to revitalize Flint and change its image. His father Dick, a former high school teacher, is the energetic manager of the Flint Farmers Market, one of the most vital and promising spots in town.

So, it was good that Ramsdell brought the film to the Flint Institute of Arts for three showings this weekend. He appeared at two of the showings to introduce the 90-minute ensemble movie, in the tradition of the Big Chill, and to answer questions from the audience. The showings were part of the FOMA series coordinated by Ed Bradley, a former Flint Journal reporter among the many who took the recent buy-out.

I was just getting involved in the affecting story, intertwining the struggles and joys of five or six main characters, when the DVD screwed up, and we all sat in the FIA auditorium while Ramsdell and the FIA crew tried to straighten it out. The lights came up, the audience of about 50 murmured restlessly, and then the movie came back on again, only to screw up again. After a few more minutes, whatever caused the problem got fixed and there were no more missteps.

It's not a perfect cinematic experience. Several of the plot threads are unconnected and leave the reader wondering. A recurring "Greek chorus" bit from a balloon salesman, whom Ramsdell said is not an actor, but an actual Montclair balloon entrepreneur, was amusing but grew a bit old. The sound was muddy at times and the soft focus in many scenes, while effective in some circumstances, made some sequences too dark and murky. I didn't understand several plot twists and wished for more resolution. Ramsdell's answer to an audience question about loose ends -- "we had to cut a lot out of the original script -- maybe if you read that you'd understand it more," -- was less than satisfying.

Still, I found the plots touching and absorbing. The thirty-somethings struggling with professional and personal hopes and disappointments were believable and well-developed with warmth and humor, especially Bruce, the overweight aspiring comedian trying to get started on a new life after his wife divorced him. He's helped by a kind landlady and a yoga tape; the scenes capturing his initial despairing lethargy and later, his tentative and finally exuberant efforts to start again are among the best parts of the story.

It's worth noting, too, that the women characters in the story are presented with particular empathy and depth -- a refreshing change from the recent rash of Judd Apatow films which address some of the same issues but sometimes fall short of understanding real women. As Ramsdell's father said with a smile, "He grew up with four sisters. He knows a lot about strong women."

Overall, it was sweet having one of Flint's own return to the beautiful FIA to show and talk about his work. I hope his new film, a documentary about global hate, does well.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sam Thornton, the "French Balloonist" and my blue Granny

Ancestors' lives, all finished and receding, dangle out there like ornaments on a tree, the fragments of facts about their lives compelling and tantalizing.

Today I found out that my great great grandfather Samuel Thornton once sold an island in his property around Turkeyfoot Lake in Summit County, Ohio to a French balloonist. Actually, if I've got this right, it may have been Frank Purdy Lahm, an aviator and associate of the Wright brothers. He was born in Mansfield, Ohio and educated in France. Or it might have been his father, who also had French connections.

Also, preparing for my visit with my second cousins Anne and Cyrus, I found among my mother's stuff a letter she received in October, 1924, when my mother was 14, from my great-grandmother Matilda Youtz, one of Samuel's many daughters. (It had a 2c stamp on it with a head of Washington) Grannie Youtz writes, among other things, "I get blue and lonesome about dark." An arrow to the heart. I recognize in that simple, plaintive confession a melancholy I know too well, the sadness of dusk. She was about 80 at the time.

She's considering taking in boarders and she writes, "enuf boys here for a room but all these night workers and I will not take use for star boarders." Cyrus tells me there was so much factory work going on in Akron at the time some beds went to one man during the day, and to another at night. The "star boarders," he thinks, might have been so-called because they worked all night, under the stars.

The Here and Now is so much more complicated, the data pouring in from all directions, confusing and fluid. Yet, I find myself still turning back to what I know, what the senses have to offer. I'm still alive, unlike all those others, whom I thank for their idiosyncrasies and struggles, their stories.

Thunder and heavy rain, soothing.

P.S. Cousin Cyrus picked up the tab, very nimble at 91 in extending the courtly gesture. And yes, the gas was WAY more than the lobster.

Check out Mitch Gann and Castle in Clouds

Good morning, dear readers. I've added two interesting new blogs to my "Perhaps of Interest" list at the right below. Check out my colleagues "Mitch Gann," ace rhetorician and union leader Jim Anderson, and master techie, writer and mom Krista Heiser at Castle in the Clouds.

Mitch uncovered a recent study saying "disagreeable" personality types have a better chance of retaining their intelligence into old age. Krista watched her son put "nock nock" jokes on the blog she created for him. Great stuff.

I'm off to convene with distant cousins from the Thornton side of my family tree at a Red Lobster in Monroe, Michigan. Where else but the birthplace of General Custer? I wonder what will cost more -- the lobster or the gas? I'm thinking the gas, by far. But I'm looking forward to meeting these folks, who're driving from Ohio for a predictable round of reveals about our complicated ancestors.

Crankily and intelligently yours -- Macy

Friday, June 06, 2008

Our Land, Our Stories

What does the power of language have to do with saving the earth? There's a terrific two-day conference at UM - Flint next Wednesday and Thursday, June 11 and 12, addressing this topic. It's called "Our Land, Our Stories" and features Peter Forbes, founder of the Whole Communities movement, and three writers I've helped to pick: poet Keith Taylor, essayist Alison Swan and storyteller Terry Wooten.

Students attend free (catering by Lunch Studio and Good Beans) and for others, both days are $55 or the second day, the one featuring the writers, is $35. Among the panels scheduled for Thursday are "Nature as Muse, Nature as Metaphor," "Call of the Wild: Environmental Advocacy" and my favorite: "Green Grief: Elegy, Despair and Hope." Terry will perform at lunchtime Thursday. Keith, Alison and Terry will discuss "What does it mean to write 'green'?" at a 6-7 p.m. Q&A, and then there will be a reading featuring Keith and Alison at 7:15. It's gonna be a great green day!

The registration deadline has been extended till Monday, June 9, but the reading on Thursday evening is free and open to the public without registration.

Here's the link for more info:

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Go-Slow Club

Humid day when I have to drive in to work, I notice that people in the 25 mph section of Court Street actually are driving...25 mph. I'm in a lazy mood myself, but not THAT leisurely, so, surprised, I brake and pay attention. In the right lane, a rusty old New Yorker, a youngish white driver, long hair and a hat, with a big floppy yellow dog in the back seat. In the left lane, another rusty heap, an old Galaxy with three black teens, windows wide open, the kids' liberated elbows sticking out.

Me, sleepy, overweight, middle-aged woman in my 11-year-old Accord, in no hurry to get to the Castle of Learning. The other drivers wouldn't know, of course, but I got this car in my long-ago divorce and it's about to hit 90,000 miles. It's comfy and familiar. I'm in no rush to replace it -- it runs fine and it's been paid off for years. Just spent $45 to fill it up -- $4.07/gal. So, I'm in my Michigan Radio cap and I'm slouching behind sunglasses just to hide even though it's thickly overcast. Trying to get ahead of a family history toward macular degeneration. Righteous because I ate steelcut oatmeal with almonds and raspberries for breakfast, trying to get ahead of a family history of colon cancer. Reflecting gloomily on mortality because my dear friend's mother Virginia is dying in a hospice at this very moment: in these last days blind, practically wordless and still remarkably durable, she lives on and on, each hour a painstaking grain of sand draining inexorably out, my friend exhausted at her bedside, while just outside politics and spring mindlessly continue.

So I don't care if we all go slow. I'm willing to take my time. As we angle from lane to lane, puttering along, it hits me the other two probably are driving slowly to save gas. Nobody ever goes the speed limit on Court Street; people usually dart from lane to lane, shooting ahead if anybody dares to dawdle, honking, gesturing, giving the stink eye. Not today. I think my mates on Court are maximizing every drop. More out of sociability than any need to speed, I slowly move into the "fast" lane behind the teens. I pull up next to the guy in the rusty New Yorker. I'm ready to give him a smile but he stares obliviously ahead. The dog, though, grins happily and gives out a little woof.

And I savor this sappy moment of fondness for everybody in the human race, beleaguered and constantly adjusting. But most of all, I'm fond of this communitarian crowd who might be slowing down. I like it like this.

Yeah, yeah, I'm back. So what?