Thursday, December 30, 2010

Poetry Assignment

Vacation is dribbling away. Shackleton is doing a poetry unit and is supposed to read 125 poems before returning to school in just a few more days . You've met Shack, right? It's not true that he can't read, but I think he would rather get a cavity filled than read more than three words at a clip. So far, with only a few days left, we have read four poems. Well, five, if you count the one I just wrote (and illustrated!) for him.

A Poem for Shackleton

I think that I shall never see
A Poem as lovely
As TV.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

And God Bless Us, Everyone, Especially Adam Gopnik

The dining room at the Last House 12.25.10- Christmas Dinner, Done and Dusted. Half an apple pie remained...

Another Sunday night draws to a close and we have survived Christmas. Ours was nice at the Last House, thanks, snowy and cold as befits our latitude (see previous posts and comments if you have a moment). Kids = happy. Food = good. Company = fine. I hope yours was also lovely.

So, part of my long Christmas weekend involved catching up on The New Yorker. Issues of the New Yorker come at me the way those assembly-line chocolates once came at Lucille Ball... I love it, but there always seem to be a backlog - a few lurking under newspapers on the footstool, or in with the bills on the dining room table. And since I mostly read it in bed, it takes me a long time to work through each issue. (I am forever finding crumpled issues on the wall side of the bed, where they have slipped after I have lost consciousness. They rest there in the dust [slut's wool, they used to call it] until I get around to changing sheets, which can sometimes be a fair stretch).

I found one of these neglected issues the other day and read a lot of it in snatches between cooking, cleaning and wrapping. I believe the issue of August 30. It included a critic at large piece by Adam Gopnik about Winston Churchill and books about Winston Churchill. Q.v.

This was doubly enticing for me because I have always felt a certain something for Winston Churchill and, if you have been following along, you know I have included Adam Gopnik in my personal (short) list of brushes with greatness.

On the Churchill connection, Winston died the day before I was born - or basically the day I was born because of the time difference between the U.K. and the U.S. east coast. I have known this all my life because my mother dutifully filled in the blank in my baby book (which I started poring over as soon as I could read) that asked for the day's headlines on the date of my birth (January 25, 1965). "Churchill Dead!" Perhaps not the most auspicious day in the world's calendar. When I learned as a kid about the Buddhist theory of reincarnation and rebirth of the Dalai Lama I have to admit it crossed my mind. But, nah...

As I got older my admiration for Churchill grew with every quotation I read. In my 20s I actually posted on my desk the bit about:

"We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

My job at the time (writing for an alumni magazine in placid upstate New York) wasn't much like defending civilization from Nazi hordes, but, young as I was, I saw corollaries - and it was just so stirring! When I finally got to England a couple of years ago, I made it a point to get to Blenheim Palace, ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough (Churchill's ancestors) and Sir Winston's birthplace.

The friend who brought me to Blenheim also bought us Roy Jenkins' book about Churchill. I read a lot of it (OK - I didn't finish it, yet, but I have explained about that). There was a bit that I read there that I have thought about many times since: something Winston said early in his political career. Gopnik must have been struck by the same bit because he recorded it in his article:

Churchill, on a visit to a poor neighborhood in Manchester, [said], with his odd and signature mixture of real empathy and inherited condescension, “Fancy living in one of these streets—never seeing anything beautiful—never eating anything savoury—never saying anything clever! ”

I suppose that reveals a lot about Churchill's character as a young man and doesn't reflect so well on him today, but I know exactly what he meant and I agreed absolutely. How awful to be trapped someplace (geographically and socially) where the blindly uninquisitive reign. (Aside: That's why liberal arts education - education not in furtherance of anything, necessarily, beyond personal acquisition of knowledge - needs to be defended like England was defended against the Nazis.)

As I read on in Gopnik's article I was repeatedly gobsmacked by Gopnik's own brilliant writing. I mean, The New Yorker sent the right Critic-at-Large to review the reviwers of Churchill E.g.:

Revisionism, the itch of historians to say something new about something already known, has nicked Churchill without really drawing blood.

To be born both at the top of the tree and out on a limb is an odd combination, and that double heritage accounts for a lot of what happened to him later.

It may seem mysterious that jingoism should appeal so overwhelmingly to the working classes, easily trumping apparently obvious differences in interests between them and the economic imperialists. Why should conquering Burma be of significance to a Cockney? But imperialism is the cosmopolitanism of the people, the lever by which the unempowered come to believe that their acts have world-historical meaning.

Well. All I can say is, wow.

When I interviewed A.G. back in a former life, I remember him telling me that he had learned from another New Yorker writer, the late Whitney Balliet, to give the reader something extra at the end of an article, something more. (I am paraphrasing and may not have that exactly right) but I thought I got a lot of something more here. See what you think.

OK. Back to work tomorrow so I must get to bed! Here's my poor version of a little something extra for any stoppers-by here: a few shots of our Christmas weekend (sledding today).

Whusband drags an old deck chair to the sledding hill behind the Last House. The bluish speck is Shackleton...

Ta for now!

Oh - and one last thing. I just got an email this weekend from the BBC saying I had been granted a ticket to see David Sedaris read at Broadcasting House on January 16. I am taking a poll. Should I pull the kids out of school and take time off from work to go to London for a trip that would include January 16? I mean, there's other stuff we could do too...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Snow Divide

The U.S., at least these days, people can choose their climate. Has there ever been a time or place where it was so easy for so many to suit themselves? We've got every climate available anywhere on the planet here in the U.S. and no government authority can step between an American and his or her choice of weather.

What this choice boils down to is, in one way or another, snow. Where do you stand on the snow question? Do you want lots? Some? None at all? Are you a case of "It's nice to visit but I wouldn't want to live there?"

It came to me recently, lying in bed in my Vermont home in the small hours of the morning, wondering for the umpteenth time what the snow situation would be when it was time for work and school in the morning, that my own family has basically been riven by the snow question. Snow is a wedge issue for us and it has driven us, in a literal sense and figuratively as well, far, far apart.

I live in the same climate, basically, in which I arrived back in the 1960s. I was born in Albany, New York, grew up entirely in upstate New York (suburbs of Syracuse followed by suburbs of Schenectady) like many a General Electric Brat before and since. When I got old enough to choose a place to go to college, I picked upstate New York (Binghamton). Then I chose again and picked Montreal. I caroomed for a few years like a pinball through the Champlain valley between the Albany area and Montreal and then settled, after finishing my education, over the line in Vermont. And here I have stayed. My own children were born here. Our flag is planted in snowy Vermont.

I, however, am only one of three children. My older sister, I'll call her Bea, lives now in Florida. She has been living in the south, (Texas before Florida), for about the same amount of time that I have been in Vermont - 15 years or so. My younger brother, "Duke," went off to Texas for law school when he was 21. He pulled a stint in Louisiana, working for a judge, and a couple of years in Virginia but has been back in Texas for more than ten years and is there to stay. My mother, who was herself born and raised in upstate New York - a place she hopscotched across in the cities along the Erie canal for her whole adult life - decamped from Schenectady more than 10 years ago. First stop, Atlanta. Next stop and apparent final destination, the west Coast of Florida.

Only my father and I of the original set of five remain in the northeast. He still works for GE and he and his wife and their two dogs are installed where they have been for more than 10 years in a little village in Albany county. They live now not 15 miles from the college he arrived at as an 18-year-old, fresh off his family's central New York dairy farm. If he has his way, they aren't going anywhere. At least not any time soon.

As you can imagine, we rarely all get together in one place. When a few of us are gathered, however, the talk inevitably turns to climate. My father and I (he less obnoxiously so than I) regard the north as the birthplace of valor, the country of worth. We aren't leaving except feet first in a box. How do they live without four seasons? We ask one another, collusively. My Dad told me once that when he was growing up in Oswego County, New York, (a place infamous for gigantic lake-effect snows -- the kind the bring TV crews from New York City every couple of years to stand with their microphones and parkas before mountains of snow) that he was taught in high school to pity American southerners. It was an official part of the civics curriculum. The south, he learned, was enervated by that heat. Their climate was to blame for their backward nature. He would never say so now, but I think he took that to heart.

My Texan brother is as down on the rust-belt state economic gestalt as he is on the weather up here. When he reappears in New York sometimes he'll own that it is "pretty" but he goes no further. During his visits north, every time he thumps over a pot hole or sees re-bar poking through a bridge abutment, or the talk turns to income taxes, he feels his discernment has been rewarded. Northerners are the left behind. He is no longer one of them.

My Florida relatives are a bit more nuanced. My mother would like to get out of Florida for the summers, but she informs me, after every phone conversation winter weather report, that she doesn't miss the snow. "I don't miss it." Hmmm. I wonder to myself. I have my suspicions. No one wants to drive through the dark in a sideways snow storm - me most of all - but if you were raised ice skating in a city park every day as a kid, can it be true that you don't miss winter? What about the sunny days after it snows? I don't ask her about that. It might sound like I didn't believe her.

As for my sister, cracks in her Florida devotion are showing. After years of singing the praises of Florida weather, beaches, entertainments etc. she lets slip from time to time that she is pining for a little cold air and a little northeastern blue state tolerance and east coast pointy headedness into the mix. (She's a teacher and all that tax cutting is getting to her). She is in her late 40s and now looking down the road to retirement - a road that might lead north.

I don't know, however, if she could take it now. Your blood gets thin down there. I will confess that as my 40s move on, I have wondered whether she and I might not wind up one day as seasonal housemates. I mean, a little sun in January wouldn't kill me.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Little More Adele News...

No time for a proper post, but I am thinking of you.

Just stopping in at the end of an Xmasy weekend to post the new Adele video. You'll be hearing this song on your radios long about February and you'll be able to sing along already since you HEARD IT HERE FIRST. Oh, I just checked and actually this is not the (rather overblown and overproduced) video that they notified me about three days ago - I guess they're still sitting on that - but the song is right so give a listen). If you want to see the real thing,here's a link. But really, who cares what the video looks like?

I realize it may be wearying to a couple stoppers-in who don't share my enthusiam for Adele for me to keep blatting on about her. So, here's my little apologia.

***Caution*** Elevated Pretentiousness Levels Detected... (But If that last word didn't stop you it is probably safe to proceed).

First, Adele's songs and her voice a product of a genuine human being (as opposed to synthesizers, computers and a gang of producers). I have a 12-year-old daughter who keeps me right up to speed with the iTunes top 10 - e.g., David Guetta ("tryin to find a way to describe this girl without bein' disprectful. Damn girl, you's a sexy chick." (David, it's poetry but I am not sure you achieved your goal); Far East Movement,("Feelin' so fly like Cheese Stick," I mean "G 6"). So, I listen to lots of what is new and like some of it, dislike lots of it, and love almost none of it. Adele sings for some of the same audience but without a hint of the flash that is the first requirement and last refuge of so many of the modestly talented.

More important for me personally, is that at this stage in her career she sings from a spot right in the beating heart of that country I (and a lot of us) used to occupy. You know, that country that's not for Old Men? (or middle-aged women).

I don't want to go back to being 19 or 21, but once in awhile it's nice to revisit the young, in one another's arms, birds in the trees - Those dying generations - at their song and be pierced by it all - at least for the length of a song (or maybe an album). Of course I have "21" on preorder and I'll tell you what I think of it all once I get it. (Promise, until then I'll shut up).

Meanwhile, the first song is a winner - although the Understudy just informed me she doesn't like it - except for the beat.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

An Insomniac and her Dog

Maisy occupies the geographic center of my bed, forcing me to sleep with my head at one corner and my feet at the opposite corner - like a bar sinister on a family crest. Tonight, I mean, this morning, I gave up trying to sleep and switched on the light. My plan: read a couple of stories from my new library book, return to sleep.

After a story and a half, I put the book down and, as I considered whether I was really sufficiently sleepy to quit reading, I looked at Maisy.

She had rolled onto her back, achieving a gentle c-curve, like an eyebrow. Though I couldn't see her face, which was obscured by my leg under two comforters, I knew from the bit I could see, (pink stomach and forepaws), that her head was lolling, ears flipped to the smooth side, nose pointing nearly at the foot board. I couldn't see her rear legs either but knew that in this posture, they must be splayed in the relaxed and undignified way of the sleeping terrier. Her right fore paw flopped down at the joint. Her left fore paw, however, was sticking straight in the air - a raised hand.

"Yes Maisy?" I asked inwardly. "Do you have a question?"

"Not a question so much as a comment."

"All right. And what is that?"

"I know you already know this, but, I just have to say, you are for me the Sun the Moon and the Stars. I worship you. There's pretty much nothing I wouldn't do to be with you."

"I know, my dear. And believe me, it touches me."

"Like, you know that famous dog, the one that built a monument to in Edinburgh?"

"I think his name was 'Greyfriars Bobby'."

"That's it. He's the one that sat on his dead master's grave for six years, til he died there himself?"

"That's the story."

"I'd do that for you - just so you know."

"I know you would." (I don't let on that as the actuaries have it, she is not likely to outlive me - her sentiment is so fine). "Now how about letting me get back to sleep."

"Anything for you. Good night again."

"Goodnight. Do you think you could move to the edge of the bed."

"Anything for you... but that."