Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dog?

We're doing a lot of spelling around here. S has decided that she's a writer. Naturally. The other day she came home from a birthday party with a goodie bag that contained enough candy to keep her awake until she's 7, as well as a small notebook and a pencil. She spent the better part of an hour scribbling doodles in the pages. "Mommie, I'm writing," she said to me and I felt a swell of pride. Of course, that was deflated as soon as she turned to her doggies and said, "I can't play with you right now. I'm writing."
Is that a pang of guilt or am I having a heart attack?

She asks endlessly how to spell things. How do you spell boots, and carrots and cat. Then she asked how to spell dog. I was transported back to my own childhood. My parents worked and my little brother went to daycare at this little trailer park, where a woman lived with her four kids. I'm not sure how many she took care of. I think my mother paid her $30 or $35 a month to keep my brother during the day. I went over there, too, in the summers. I remember that she had a husband but he was a truck driver and therefore never around. When he was around, he was moody and withdrawn and slept a lot.  The kids were two boys and two girls, all about my age. And there were several kids she cared for. Now when I think of it I don't know how she did it. The trailer was a tiny thing, two bedrooms with little more than a galley kitchen and a small front room. The kids' bedroom had two sets of bunk beds in it. I remember this woman joking with her friend one day on the phone. She had a big blonde beehive of teased hair. She was not a big woman but she was thick-waisted, and wore tight, tight clothes and heavy make up, and smoked, but everyone did back then. I think her name was Karen and she was telling her friend that her daughter was writing a birthday card to her father. The girl was asking how to spell everything.  When she asked how to spell Dad, Karen had told her, "D-O-G." 

So, here's Karen on the phone with her friend saying, "You wouldn't believe his face when he opened up the card and it said 'Happy Birthday Dog'." 

Somehow that story is even funnier now.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Deluge III

Last one on this, but I can't resist.

Mid story, the Cardinal, who is a major character in the story, lectures Miss Malin about the conceit of wanting to be God, or rather, the conceit of wanting to create a world. Although he doesn't say it, this is what writers do, or try to do. In this way he (and the narrator who created him) lectures all writers in every genre.

"Every human being has, I believe, at times given room to the idea of creating a world himself. The Pope, in a flattering way, encouraged these thoughts in me when I was a young man. I reflected then that I might, had I been given omnipotence and a free hand, have made a fine world. I might have bethought me of the trees and rivers, of the different keys in music, of friendship, and innocence; but upon my word and honor, I should not have dared to arrange these matters of love and marriage as they are, and my world should have lost sadly thereby. What an overwhelming lesson to all artists! Be not afraid of absurdity; do not shrink from the fantastic. Within a dilemma, choose the most unheard-of, the most dangerous, solution. Be brave, be brave! Ah, Madame, we have got much to learn."

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Deluge II

I love this story. Early on we meet Miss Malin, an aged spinster, who was never very pretty and had not a penny to her name as a young woman, and who had the guts to be extremely prudish to boot.  Jane Austen would have had nothing to do with this woman. Miss Malin would have been a throwaway line at best to her. But Isak Dinesen is made of sterner stuff. Her narrator compares Miss Malin to:  Sigrid the Haughty, the ancient Queen of Norway, who "summoned to her all her suitors amongst the minor kings of the country, and then put fire to the house and burned them all up, declaring that in this way she would teach the petty kings of Norway to come and woo her." 

And I dare say that would make an impression on any man who comes calling with a box of chocolates and a dirty mind. It's no shock to learn, then, that Miss Malin never married. (It is a shock to learn that Sigrid the Haughty did marry, after all that.)

Then we learn: 

"Yet Miss Malin had not escaped the common fate of human beings. She had her romance. When she was twenty-seven, already an old maid, she decided to marry after all. In this position she felt like a very tall bitch surrounded by small yapping lap dogs. She was still prepared to burn up the petty kings who might come to woo her, but she picked out her choice."

"Malin, for her part, picked out Prince Ernest Theodore of Anhalt." We learn then that he's fabulous in every way that a man can be fabulous in the early 19th century. He's a handsome, monied nobleman. A great soldier and a sensitive new age man, such as there was at the time, meaning when a woman died of grief over him, he probably composed a poem or two about it. 

So, how did this poor ugly spinster rate a guy like that? Read on. 

"This young man had obtained everything in life--and women in particular--too cheaply. Beauty, talents, charm, virtue had been his for the lifting of his little finger. About Miss Malin there was nothing striking but the price. That this thin, big-nosed, penniless girl, two years older than he, would demand not only his princely name and a full share in his brilliant future, but also his prostrate adoration, his life-long fidelity, and subjection in life and death and could be had for nothing less,--this impressed the young Prince."

So here we have the audacity of the character, and the audacity of the storyteller, in one stroke. And it's all explained away by the Prince's love of riddles. All his life he has loved riddles and puzzles, and this woman is both. "When, therefore, he found this hard nut to crack, the more easily solved beauties faded before his eyes." 

Never mind that men don't really act like this. It doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that Miss Malin isn't the subject of this story. She's one of several characters, each of whom has a compelling and startling story to reveal. This is just a couple of pages out of a 78 page story. The narrative is astonishing. It's worth reading twice.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Deluge

It has been raining for four days in Boston and so I picked up a copy of Isak Dinesen's "The Deluge of Norderney," which so far is wonderful. The prose style is dense and languid. There's so much backstory that we seem to be continually jumping from present to past and then careening back to the flood itself. I could never construct a narrative as tight and yet as chatty as this one, but it would be fun to try. Here's a tidbit of the flood itself:

"The farmers were awakened by the plaintive bellowing of their animals. Swinging their feet out of bed, int he dark, they put them down in a foot of cold, muddy water. It was salt. It was the same water which rolled, out to the west, a hundred fathoms deep, and washed the white feet of the cliffs of Dover. The North Sea had come to visit them. It was rising quickly. In an hour the moveables of the low farmhouses were floating on the water, knocking against the walls. As the dawn came, the people, from the roofs of their houses, watched the land around them change. Trees and bushes were growing in a moving gray ground, and thick yellow foam was washing over the stretches of their ripening corn, the harvest of which they had been discussing on the last days before the storm."

And that's just page 4. More to come....

Monday, July 21, 2008

Donut Crap

Yesterday was a scorcher. Late in the afternoon, we all found ourselves lolling in the kiddie pool and watching the approaching storm clouds. Larry went inside the house and emerged a few minutes later holding a fistful of almonds, with predictable results. Sammie asked to try some, then the G-man said, "What are you eating?"

Rolling his eyes, Larry said under his breath, "Dog crap." G perked right up. "What? Donut crap? What's donut crap? I want some donut crap, too."

I shot Larry the spousal glare of death, but he just smirked. G wouldn't give it up. "What does donut crap taste like? Please? Please can I try some?"

I pinned Larry with another glare. I may even have cocked a finger gun at his face and said, "Bang." 

Larry said, "He doesn't know what crap means." To which I said, "That's why he'll say it indiscriminately." This made Larry sigh. Then he handed G the rest of his almonds. Whether it was an act of penance or an attempt at distraction is hard to say. But it worked.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Now that Larry's working at home, we have to share a lot. We share a phone line and a printer. We share the house, naturally, but it's a lot smaller with two people in here. And we share clients, which creates a lot of interesting situations. For example, I can say to him over morning coffee, "Have you heard from Joe lately?" And when he says, "I got a note from him yesterday," I snap back, "What? He answered your email and not mine?"

Exceedingly petty? You bet.

Also, I'm now the tech guy for all of Larry's computer problems, even though he has a PC and not a Mac, and even though I've never owned a PC, not once, and can't stand them. Larry is the smartest guy I know. He can remember anything, fix everything, and figure anything out. But Larry is a two-finger typist. His understanding of computers is moored in that stage where he thinks the keyboard will crumble to dust if he pushes the wrong button.

So when Larry was designing a newsletter for the aforementioned Joe and couldn't figure out how to turn it into a PDF file, mostly because he doesn't own a program to do that, I got to spend three hours coaxing him through the process of downloading said software. 

Larry: This is so stupid.
Me: Okay, okay, now click on the word "download."
Larry: It's not doing it.
Me: Yes it is.
Larry: This is so stupid.

Then I gave up, moved the file to my computer and spent even more time finding a way to make a PDF file that wasn't too large to send via email, while Larry stood behind me saying over and over again, "This is so stupid." 

And for the record? My printer is stupid. Gmail is stupid. The whole freaking internet? Stupid. 

A couple of weeks ago Larry wanted a powerpoint presentation transferred to his computer. I put it on one of my little flash drives and handed it over. Easy peasy, right? Nope.

Larry: Where does this go?
Me: In the little port-thingy on the side.
Larry: Now what?
Me: Now you open it.
Larry: This is so stupid. It won't open. How do I open it?
Me: It's your computer; How do you usually open files?
Larry: (pointing to the window for the hard drive) I don't know, they're always over here.

At this point, I was standing behind him. I slapped at his shoulder and said, "Move, move." But he wouldn't yield the chair. A little window popped up, listing all of the files on the porta-drive. The one at the top was a MP3 file, and it asked him what to do with it. And to choose what program would open it. Larry panicked. 

Larry: What do I do?  What do I do?
Me: Click ignore.
Larry: No!
Me: Why not?
Larry: It says it'll do this to all the files.
Me: Move. I'll do it.
Larry: No!

Then he wanted to know what it was, what a music file was doing on the disc, anyway. Actually, I knew it was a stray track from my audiobook of dirty boy D.H. Lawrence's novel, Lady Chatterly's Lover. Great book. But I was hardly in the mood to listen to two depressives having sex or nicknaming their genitals or whatever while trying to pry Larry's keyboard out of his hands.

Fortunately, the phone rang. In our new domestic situation, this solves all disputes. On second thought, maybe we should have played the file. It's possible that our computers would engage more fully, if that's the phrase, if we nicknamed them John Thomas and Lady Jane. Worth a try.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Proper Garden Party

Having attended recently a large and elaborate outdoor birthday party for a small child, I thought it might be fun to read from an old etiquette book about the proper way to entertain outdoors.

This is from Manners and Social Usages, by Mrs. John Sherwood, published in, well, the book has no date on it, but I would guess the early 1880s. The section begins with ways to ensure good weather, and to deal with bad and then proceeds to deal with amusements and food.

"A hostess should see that her lawn-tennis ground is in order, the croquet laid out, and the archery tools all in place, so that her guests may amuse themselves with these different games. Sometimes balls and races are added to these amusements, and often a  platform is laid for dancing, if the turf be not sufficiently dry. A band of musicians is essential to a very elegant and successful garden-party, and a varied selection of music, grave and gay, should be rendered. Although at a dinner-party there is reason to fear that an orchestra may be a nuisance, at a garden-party the open air and space are sufficient guarantees against this danger.

"If the hostess wishes her entertainment to be served out-of-doors, of course all the dishes must be cold. Salads, cold birds, and ham, tongue, and pate de foie gras, cold pates, and salmon dressed with a green sauce, jellies, Charlottes, ices, cakes, punch, and champagne are the proper things to offer. A cup of hot tea should be always ready in the house for those who desire it.

"Ladies always wear bonnets at a garden-party, and the sensible fashion of short dresses has hitherto prevailed; but it is rumored that a recent edict of the Princess of Wales against short dresses at her garden parties will find followers on this side of the water, notably at Newport, which out-Herods Herod in its respect to English fashions."

Strange that there's no mention of barbecue grills, Jello salads, or Wiffle ball. These must appear in a later edition. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


We're working hard on the boy book these days. This week is the chapter on competition, and in it the doc talks about what the deal is with boys and competition. Why do they compete over everything all the time? Why is playing games such a nightmare? Why do they cheat?

Of course, the G-man provided inspiration for some of this. But I see now that Sammie the bamster is pretty competitive, too. Her need to win is tempered by other things, such as getting along with the other players and being very nurturing to them. When we play a game, she often likes her stuffed doggies to help. This means holding them up and talking baby talk for them in a squeaky high voice. The dogs themselves have plenty of questions about how to play. The dogs are easily confused, you see, and they make a lot of baby talk complaints about how hard it is to wait your turn. And she patiently answers all these questions in her own voice and coaches them through the game. Rarely does she get annoyed with them when they ask too many questions (unlike a real parent) but she does allow herself the occasional weary sigh as if to suggest that being a mommy isn't just fun and games. I nod to her in agreement. Kids, what can you do? (Larry says she's crazy, but I say to him: this is girlhood; suck it up).

But when it comes to winning, well here she doesn't mind dropping the gloves. Zingo is her favorite game these days and it's a kind of bingo game with pictures instead of letters. Best thing about it is the little pez-like dispenser that spits out two tiles at a time and then you match the icons with those on your card. A round is over in two or three minutes and because it spits out two tiles at once, there's no turn-taking. Brilliant. The idea is that you have to know the images on the card and then grab the tile that matches one on your card before the other player. We don't do that. I give her first dibs on everything. Why not?

Still, she takes great pride in beating me. Great pride. She counts how many tiles she has left after every turn and shouts "I'm winning, I'm winning!" Once, I accidentally had more tiles than she did during the game (miscalculation on my part). She counted up the tiles for both of us, looked at me for a long moment, horrified, and then said, "Well, I think I'm still winning."

She has never lost this game. Never. And yet she cheers for herself every time she wins as though stunned by her great fortune. She pumps both fists into the air and jumps to her feet, shouting "Zingo!" It's true joy. I tell her how great it is. Then she turns right back to the game, very business-like, and says, "Okay, you have to win, too." That means we're going to keep playing this round until my card is filled up, too. And when it is, she throws fists into the air again (and I'm expected to do this, too) and together we shout, "Zingo!"

That's the girl style of play. I'm going to nurture my doggies while kicking your ass, and then we're all going to be happy and celebrate together. Or else.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Third Policeman

The back matter for this novel describes it as, "Flann O'Brien's brilliant comic novel about the nature of time, death, and existence. Told by a narrator who has committed a botched robbery and brutal murder, the novel follows him and his adventures in a two-dimensional police station where, through the theories of the scientist/philosopher de Selby, he is introduced to 'Atomic Theory' and its relation to bicycles, the existence of eternity (which turns out to be just down the road) and de Selby's view that the earth is not round, but sausage-shaped. With the help of his newly found soul, named Joe, he grapples with the riddles and contradictions that three eccentric policemen present to him."


What the back matter doesn't mention is that it's a very talky narrative. Hugely entertaining chatter, but for long stretches not much happens. The writer can spend a whole page talking about how roads have personalities, making jokes and puns of every stripe along the way, but at the end of the page, the folks in the scene, if that's what we're calling them are in exactly the same spot that they were in the beginning. A thriller, it's not. Luckily, I'm not reading this, I'm listening to it as an audiobook, narrated by Jim Norton (lately a Tony Award-winning actor), who is as hilarious as the text. And that's saying something. My favorite bit so far is when the narrator reveals that he has forgotten his own name, and he reels off a list of possible names to his new best friend who is also his soul, Joe, who makes fun of the names by making up stories about the lives that might go with such names.

"Signor Beniamino Bari, Joe said, the eminent tenor. Three baton-charges outside La Scala at great tenor's premiere. Extraordinary scenes were witnessed outside La Scala Opera House when a crowd of some ten thousand devotees, incensed by the management's statement that no more standing-room was available, attempted to rush the barriers. Thousands were injured, 79 fatally, in the wild melee. Constable Peter Coutts sustained injuries to the groin from which he is unlikely to recover. These scenes were comparable only to the delirium of the fashionable audience inside after Signor Bari had concluded his recital. The great tenor was in admirable voice. Starting with a phase in the lower register with a husky richness which seemed to suggest a cold, he delivered the immortal strains the Che Gelida Manina, favorite aria of the beloved Caruso. As he warmed to his God-like task, note after golden note spilled forth to the remotest corner of the vast theatre, thrilling all and sundry to the inner core. When he reached the high C where heaven and earth seem married in one great climax of exaltation, the audience arose in their seats and cheered as one man, showering hats, programmes and chocolate-boxes on the great artist."
What a fabulous cartoon. For that, you have to get off the treadmill to laugh in earnest. And that's only half the bit. Joe has another name at the ready and another funny story. Following this the narrator walks along and meets a man and tries to figure out who he is. He asks a bunch of questions of the odd little man with the pipe and he gets strange answers. Finally, he says to the man, "What is your objection to life?"

The reply is this:

He blew little bags of smoke at me and looked at me closely from behind the bushes of hair which were growing about his eyes.
'Is it life?' he answered. 'I would rather be without it,' he said, 'for there is a queer small utility in it. You cannot eat it or drink it or smoke it in your pipe, it does not keep the rain out and it is a poor armful in the dark if you strip it and take it to bed with you after a night of porter when you are shivering with the red passion. It is a great mistake and a thing better done without, like bed-jars and foreign bacon.' 
Funny, right? It's even funnier out loud.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Asthma Camp Update

Here's the thing about expectations: they're often so very wrong.

I was sweating out my time up at asthma camp, in part because I was afraid to interview 9 to 13 year old kids. I mean, what are they going to say? How am I even going to approach them with a microphone? And these are kids struggling with severe asthma, who've spent nights in the hospital, who sometimes can't breathe, can't run and play with the other kids. Some of them have multiple ongoing problems in addition to their asthma, such as poverty or morbid obesity. One of the participants in camp arrived with a Ziplock freezer bag, a big one, overflowing with meds. 

And here I am with my microphone and cheesy pseudo-hip, I-was-a-kid-once-too type questions. Disaster, right? And the last radio story I did involved Broadway actors, some of whom could barely hold it together long enough to answer even one question coherently. And these are kids. Could be a short day for middle-aged housewife type reporters.

No so. 

I wandered around the craft cabin and found the girls working on some sort of teepee. They were coloring and gabbing. When they noticed me, one of them nodded at my microphone. "What's that?" I told her. She brightened.
"Yeah? You gonna interview me?" 
I said, sure. And before I could unfurl the first question, she was going on and on about the friends she'd made and how much she loved it. And I mean on and on. Within five minutes, all the girls were up and doing the cheer they'd made up. Then they each wanted to be interviewed in turn. One of the girls told a story about how she was laughing so hard during the canoe ride that she farted. And she was laughing so hard while telling it that we were all holding our noses in anticipation. Two of them grabbed my microphone and sang songs. 

"Too bad you guys are so shy," I said. They looked annoyed.
"We're not shy," one of them said.

Best quote was when one girl told me that she didn't miss TV. I said, "Really?" I couldn't help it. Then when I was interviewing the boys during their cookout, I said to one of them, "Hey, one of the girls told me she was having so much fun that she didn't miss TV." 
He smirked at me. "She's a liar," he said. Then he got up, walked away from our interview and over to where the other boys were sitting. He said, "Hey, some girl said she didn't miss TV." They looked up from their plates. "What?"

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The S&G Journals

I bought the kids journals this summer. Well, it's the G-man who writes and writes and writes. About ten minutes after he learned that letters could be strung together into words, he was writing away, working laboriously page after page. We have some of these pages. Goodmarneengmynameis
is the usual greeting, followed by his full name, and whatever was going on in his mind. One details his distress that it's a holiday, and mydaddyworksfarrawayfrommetooday. He wasn't big on spaces between words. Still isn't.

My big plan was to give him a composition notebook that he could write in during the summer and tell stories and draw pictures. He's forever doing that, detailed line drawings of large insects engaged in battle with rocket ships circling planets. He goes in for surreal space opera.  
He loved the journal. He wrote his name on the front, and his grade. He put Spiderman stickers on it and on the first page he wrote, "My favorite sea creature is" and then he drew a picture of a jellyfish. I was all misty-eyed when he showed it to me. Sammy got  a little journal, too, and she put Dora stickers on hers. She likes to write squiggles and pretend they're stories. And she draws like you wouldn't believe. Birds. Birds and princesses.

They're having a lot of fun with it, and I'm jealous. So I dug through my old pile of blank notebooks, and found one that I got for 25 cents at Building 19, a composition notebook with graph paper instead of lined paper. I put stickers on the front, like they did. And I cut up some of my playbills from the plays we went to see this past spring and glued pieces of them on the covers. It now looks like something that could house mash notes from 7th grade. I carry it everywhere, like a secret friend. I even took it to asthma camp. This is what I want to do this summer with my notebook. I want to draw ridiculous pictures of Purple and Brown and space aliens and birds. I want to make lists of favorite sea creatures, and bad rhyming couplets, and squiggles that I pretend are great stories. I want to have fun.