Sunday, August 17, 2014

Read This

Because it's fantastic.

It's an excerpt from a short Talk of the Town essay called "Howard's Apartment." It was written by Maeve Brennan, who wrote for The New Yorker as the "Long-Winded Lady" from 1951 to 1984.

This piece was published on November 11, 1967.

The setup: The Long-Winded Lady is house-sitting for a friend in a two-room Greenwich Village apartment on the third floor of a brownstone.  Her friend's apartment is in the rear of the building.  There is a party going on in the front apartment.  She hears the party in bursts, as the door opens and closes with each guest's arrival.  She is alone, listening to the party, and thinking of herself as a Goldilocks-style intruder in her friend's apartment when a rain storm sweeps in:

As the rose leaves fluttered, welcoming the downpour, the ailanthus trembled all over, and the flat red-and-black side of a large apartment building half a block away shone with color. Wherever the rain fell there was color, and the rain fell everywhere.  At the first moment of the storm, when the lightning flashed and the rain came thundering down, I stood up from the green velvet sofa where I am sitting and walked across to close the door to the terrace, and when I turned back, the room had become dim - nothing left of the brightness that had filled it all day. Now the room is vague and insubstantial and shows itself for what it really is - the accidental setting of an enigmatic but disquieting dream that I have dreamed before, in past rooms, and will dream again in rooms I have not yet seen.  It is a dream without people. The rain has gathered the room and me into the invisible world where there is no night and no day, and where walls and mirrors and trees and buildings are formed of advancing and retreating sound.  At this moment it is easy to see how mountains and oceans are created and erased by a shift in the light, and to understand that the solid earth may shrink without warning to the vanishing point underneath our feet.  The rain falls steeply, making cliffs as it falls, and its force has turned the room into a cave that is real only because it is hollow - a sounding place in which here is only one sound.  In the profound silence that rises here now, even echo and memory fade away.

A good friend of mine hunted down the 1997 reprint of the 1969 original collection of Brennan's Talk of the Town essays.  My copy, as per the publisher's note, includes a few essays that were not collected back in 1969.    I have kept the book next to my bed, along with Brennan's short story collection, The Springs of Affection (same friend).  The 1997 book is again out of print and there is no  e-book version.  This is proof that there is something really wrong with human beings.  

I have read both of my Brennan books in spurts, like you might eat some particularly expensive, complex cheese.  Each story or essay gives me so much to think about I can only manage a few pages before I have to stop and sleep.  In case you're wondering, this is high praise.

I'm not good enough at writing to put into words what makes these essays so good.  They are personal to Maeve Brennan, but also universal.  The incidents about which she writes are small New York incidents that are also common to us all.  E.g., a man on the subway offers her his seat and she, startled, says no thanks, I'm getting off at the next stop.  She starts thinking about what a nice, polite man he is, and how lucky his wife is, and then realizes she has two stops to go, and feels terrible because he will have misunderstood why she declined his offer. 

I find myself stopping at about every third sentence to wonder about Brennan's biography.  She came to New York with her Irish diplomat father when she was 17.  She became a New Yorker - to her toes - but not a fancy one.   (Although the Irish claim her, quite reasonably, as one of her own, q.v.).  From the essays you get the impression that she spent most of her New York time alone, on subways and sidewalks, in low-rent hotels, coffee shops, and bars. She was very beautiful, as the photo on the cover of my paperback shows, and she wrote about fashion at Harper's Bazaar before the New Yorker took her up.  Her romantic life was, however, a disaster.  She died alone, mentally ill, and camped out a lot of the time in one of the women's bathrooms at the New Yorker's old offices.   I visited those offices once, in about 1992.  I wish I had known she might have been lurking there. I wouldn't have known who she was, of course, and she might have whacked me with a shopping bag or otherwise terrified me, but I would treasure such an encounter now. Reading her essays tonight it occurs to me she was talented to the point of doom, like van Gogh.  If I was running the world, she would be as famous as he is.

I like to do you who stop by here favors sometime, and I am counting this post as one such.  If the excerpt I chose didn't blow you away, I hope you'll still look for the book.  It's full of other marvels, not quite so opaque, or that at least that you will come back here and look again some other time, maybe when things are strangely quiet.

Thanks to my friend who thought I would like Maeve Brennan.  Right again.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

In Which I Ponder Hummingbirds and Final Dissolution

Not so peaceful as it seems...
There’s a conflict situation at our hummingbird feeder. I suppose I am to blame since I hung up the “food” (four parts water to one part sugar.  Hummingbirds are mainly constituted of low-rent kool aid).  I think the birds themselves, however, must also bear some of the responsibility.  Probably actual flowers, which deliver less of hit, are more nutritious and maybe include IQ-boosting nutrients.

It’s funny/peculiar that this hummingbird conflict is between the red and the white – throated, that is.  Like the Lancastrians v. Yorkists, various Russians v. one another, Red Baron v. Snoopy, what have you. 

The red-throated hummingbird flies at the white-throated one as soon as white throat makes a move to the perch.  They wheel and circle one another at a fabulous speed, seeming to be made of liquid.  (Which, as noted, they are).  They don’t make contact with one another, at least not that I can tell.  Perhaps there is some evolutionary line in the sand that stops them at intimidation only.

I have read that a hummingbird weighs as much as a cork, as much as a penny.  They are in that category of real animals that ought to be fictional – like narwhals, luna moths, possibly giraffes, possibly people.

Nature makes me think about religion.  I have been thinking about nature and religion particularly this week, not only because of the hummingbirds but because I had surgery on Tuesday – an actual one, like in the movies where they wheel you down a hallway on a gurney into a room with a lot of people waiting for you with gowns and shower caps.  (“Ovary-free in 2014” is a slogan that keeps running through my mind, though where I would print it and what it might do for me.)

As luck would have it I have inherited from my father’s side of the family the now notorious BRCA2 gene.  This gene is probably why three of his seven sisters have had breast cancer… so far. 
 I was advised that having my ovaries removed drops nearly to zero my chance of ovarian cancer, which makes sense and which otherwise was statistically about one in three (although no one in the family has had that yet).  This is also supposed to cut my risk of breast cancer in half.  So, out they have gone.  Sadly, it now seems to me, without any ceremony. 

I learned years ago in my first serious job after college, in the fundraising unit of an engineering college in upstate New York, that most people (at least those people worth pursuing for fundraising purposes) spend the first half of life piling up money and possessions and the rest of their lives getting rid of them.  The key for the fundraiser is to strike at the right moment on the downhill side.  Assembly.  Disassembly.

It occurred to me that the same can be said about every other essential thing in life.  Half, maybe two thirds building up (kids, ourselves etc.) then the rest in launching or losing those things.  My kids are teenagers.  My daughter can drive.  I am often not sure if she’s even in the house these days.  I sent her a text yesterday asking her to get me some Altoids at the drug store (I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth since surgery) and she wrote back that she was still up in her room.  My hearing is more than half gone.  My eyes fading. I can’t read anything with small type without removing my glasses.  “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans ovaries, sans everything.”   Well, not quite sans everything, yet, but any fundraisers out there might want to start their engines.

The thing is that we people, hummingbirds, giraffes etc. get only one spin of the wheel.  Once around.  At least that’s the only part we can perceive.  One up, one down, and out.  The wheel itself, however, keeps going.  Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “there lives the dearest freshness, deep down things.”  All that used up leaf litter is not really at the end of the line, just the end of the line as a leaf.


Is this any help?  I don’t know.  I have to take my son to a guitar lesson now. There are, at least,  (mercifully) distractions.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Top Ten Witch Names

I was just reading the Guardian online when I came across an article about recommended debut books. The article was written by a young woman (as per her picture) whose first name is Hephziba.

Really? I thought.  Is it possible, that someone born in the last forty years could have been named "Hephziba?"  Even in England? Was there a curse involved? An evil fairy at the christening?

So, having had a completely useless, non magical day, I'm hoping to pull out a last-minute productivity save by compiling my own list of the top ten witch names.

10. Baba Yaga

9.  Hester

8. Tabitha

7. Joan Sparkfingers

6. Endora

5. Strega Nona

4. Luciferella

3. Glinda

2. Enya

1.  Hephziba.

I'm going to bed now. I may revise this. Let me know if you have suggestions.


Monday, June 30, 2014

The People Who Normally Live Here Aren't Here

Shackleton is at Y Camp for two weeks.  The Infanta is with her boyfriend's family in New Jersey for 10 days.  (Somehow, she has become 16, acquired a driver's license, a job, and a boyfriend.  How has this happened?)

Whusband and I had a strange dinner last night after we dropped Shack at camp.  Just the two of us,  looking at each other and wondering how we were supposed to act.  Whusband accidentally set one place too many (the Infanta hardly ever eats at home these days).   Now even Whusband has left here.  He went up to the old farm today to oversee some workpeople who are battling the carpenter ants that have not quite completely disassembled the ugly front porch there.  (I was kind of rooting for the ants but Whusband insists that the farmhouse not be allowed to fall into its cellar hole quite yet).

OK. I still have Maisy. Also, the World Cup, which filled the afternoon hours after I got home from work.  And this blog.

Oh dear.






Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Kindness of Reviewers

I had forgotten that this big shot Amazon.com reviewer had agreed, months ago, to look at my book.

Then this appeared.  Grady Harp hath spoken.

Soo.  Big help to find such kind words on what was maybe the worst day at my regular job in the last seven years.

Monday, June 09, 2014

It Had Seemed Like Such A Good Idea...

The bird realized on the third day, that is, one day too late, that she had chosen badly, disastrously, really.   This building, with its inviting beams, joined at just the right angle for a sparrow-sized nest, was not abandoned.  The people and their dog, that's right a DOG, had apparently just been away for a couple of days.

Why had the big, overhead door been left open? Whose fault was that?  Not hers.  But she had been beguiled by  that beckoning, yawning space.  Now, with three eggs settled into her carefully woven nest, a sweet little nest that some philistine collector might purloin at any moment, they were all stuck.  She couldn't move the eggs.  She couldn't sit on them - not for very long at least.  The people and their cars were in and out and in and out, and the DOG - a yapppy little one, at all hours of the day and half the night.  The garage door flew up and down frequently and terrifyingly.  Car doors slammed.  Voices and car radios, boomed - it was a nightmare.

And today, a fresh horror.  The big human mother had been in to sweep the garage floor, raising clouds of dust and dead leaves and whacking away at spiderwebs overhead and in the windows with a broom.  She wielded the thing like a battle ax.  She hadn't seemed to notice the nest or if she had, she hadn't let on. But the sparrow's heart, which normally throbbed at 460 beats a minute, had double timed it and nearly exploded out of her chest.  The cheap corn broom had come close, so close.

The bird was pretty sure the eggs were safe for now.  The people had not spotted the nest.  There would have been a fuss.  They had seen her, though.  The woman and the boy, twice now had come upon her, and she'd flown out in a terror.  The woman was tall.  The bird was going to have to be careful or she'd get a talon stuck in her great head of human hair. The woman had remarked to the boy something about how creepy it was to have a wild bird get really close to you.  "They're fine in the trees and stuff but it's weird when they get close."

Ha! the bird had thought as she had winged it to a tree at the edge of the drive where she watched and waited anxiously. Right back at you, fatty.

It was still warm. The eggs might be OK with her hopping off and on, for awhile at least. But if these monsters persisted in occupying the garage she couldn't go on like this until her eggs hatched.  Oh the bird life, oh the wretchedness.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

This Was Posted on Twitter by a Famous Literary Agent

David Mitchell's agent (David Mitchell is my absolute favorite living writer) put this on Twitter this morning so it must be OK for me to put it here.  Even on a Sunday.  I hope you are all enjoying a weekend of spectacular June weather as we are in Vermont.