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our stories, our names

I visited my mother yesterday and today. She still lives with my brother in the home where he and I grew up. The streets around that house are the Ur-streets of my life, the streets all others grew out of and away from; in my history, their names are the names of ancient Kish. And now, fifty years later, to round a corner and hear the testy robotic voice of my GPS say, "Turn left on Kenmore Terrace!" -- I cannot convey that double vision. Kenmore Terrace, the steepest hill we knew of, where it was dangerous to let your bike coast without braking, where you were better off not risking "no hands" till you were most of the way down. (As my brother found out one day when I was so young that, for some reason, I thought blood was black, and was confused at the contradictory evidence he provided.) Turn left indeed, robotic stranger.

I went to kindergarten at Franklin School, a grand old brick building, and then attended Holy Name School through eighth grade. These institutions are now called Whitney Houston Academy and Johnnie L. Cochran Junior Academy. Once they were named after God and one of the greatest intellects of our country, and now they stand for a lawyer and an 80s pop singer. And what is wrong with the simple, noble word "school"? If you're not going to make your kids wear plaid uniforms and knee socks, or learn to be military officers, I say, leave the academy alone.

As you can tell from my attack of old-fogeyness, I am in the haunts of my childhood. Tonight I had dinner with a friend who asked me what the purpose was in getting my mother on videotape. "What are you going to use it for?" I don't need to use it. I just want to have it.

I first started thinking about it when I heard of Story Corps. They have soundproof recording booths in New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta, where you can enter with someone (a parent, a grandparent, anybody), ask them questions, and come away at the end with a CD of the interview. A copy goes into their archives. The Story Corps page says they are "an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 30,000 interviews from more than 60,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind."

Well, I knew I'd never get my mother into the booth at Grand Central Station. The woman is 93. She doesn't even go to the supermarket if she can help it. So I bought one of those little touch-a-button camcorders and a tabletop tripod. It took a while to make her understand what I wanted to do. "Is somebody going to come with a big camera? No, no..." Finally my brother, known for his abrasiveness, said, "Mom. She's just going to ask you some questions, and you're going to tell us what it was like when Lincoln was president." His annoyed tone seemed to reassure her.

"What's your earliest memory?" I asked. She thought, and said, "When I was five, I had to get my tonsils out. So they took me on the streetcar -- all the way to Orange! It seemed such a long trip. When we got back, I remember my mother lighting the gas lamps." She mimed someone touching a match to gas. I did the math, and realized she was talking about 1922.

She talked about how she met my father, and where our first names came from (she and I share a name), and I learned that her father was a cop -- she'd never mentioned that once in the last half-century. I got some of my questions from the long list Story Corps provides, and some from oral history sites online. One question was, "Is there anything you'd like to tell me, or ask me, now?"

She asked me about a day in high school when she picked me up in the car and I was crying, and I never told her why. "I wondered so often," she said. It never, never would have crossed my mind that she remembered that. As it happens I was painfully shy in high school around people I didn't know well, and around adults. Through most of my growing up years I felt as though I were moving through enemy country, and that I had to move carefully. One day as I was taking a driver's ed course, and focusing hard on not killing anybody, the teacher suddenly started yelling at me. "You never say anything! What's wrong with you! I never know what you're thinking!"

Well, if you have never been shy yourself you may have no idea what I'm talking about, but that effectively cut off my brain from knowing anything to say at all. I struggled under the contradictory imperatives of needing to speak and not being able to. We drove back to the school in a deeply uncomfortable, mortified silence; and when I swung into the driveway I came within an inch or two of running into a steel post, and had to jam on the brakes. Then I backed up and parked normally, and walked away, and never took another driver's ed class. I was aware the instructor hadn't perhaps handled things the best way, but still, the real lesson I took from it was, "Yes, you don't say things! You can't communicate! What the hell is wrong with you, anyway?"

I was too mortified and upset to talk about it with my mother -- and in fact, my relationship with my mother was frankly not that great to begin with. Which is one reason it never crossed my mind she would remember that day well enough to ask me about it forty years later.

This is what happens when you point a recording device at someone. I recommend it.
Today was the first really glorious day of fall sunlight – illuminated reds and yellows against a painted blue sky. It was my last day in Jim Thorpe, so I had chocolate cake for breakfast, at an outdoor café where a toddler at the next table sang "You are my sunshine" with partial lyrics of his own. Then I went looking for an artist I’ve been wanting to see. When I’d passed the window of his gallery I’d been struck by a print hanging there – the face of a slender woman in a turban with piercing eyes, wearing clothing from the 1920s. Apparently there were more prints inside, but the printmaker only opened on weekends, and I’d just missed him. I’d noticed, however, that the restaurant up the street had a huge framed picture on their wall – a carefully lined drawing of the row of old stone houses and the church beyond, quietly intricate and quite beautiful, and I’d seen a small signature at the bottom: "D.Price." That matched the name the woman at the Alchemy shop had given me the day before for the mysterious artist-printmaker.

So I returned, but again his door was locked, and it was dark inside. I went next door, to the Alchemy shop, thinking I would leave my name, or try to find some other method of getting in touch from Los Angeles. The Alchemy woman walked out of her shop and over to the printshop door, her little girl trailing her, saying, "I want you to meet him! He came into my place just minutes after you left yesterday!" She took the big brass knocker in her hand and applied it vigorously. Nothing happened. Unfazed, she said, "It takes a while for him to come down from his studio on the third floor."

Nothing happened some more, and she drifted back and forth to her store for a bit. Then suddenly the door opened, a man came out, and I was introduced with the words, "This is the woman I told you about." Then she went away, and I was taken inside.

Pictures everywhere; equipment; a back room with fantastic old furniture. The original of the stone houses hung from two clips on a wall. The 1920s woman, it seems, is "Madame Zara," who once lived on this very street, in a back room behind a barber shop, and told the fortune of the doomed President McKinley. She came to the artist in a dream. And she’s not the only one: there was a print of a house framed beside a poem he’d written, based on another eerie dream; my expectations for the poetry of visual artists are unfairly low, but this was a good poem, with a sting in its tail.

But one of my favorite pictures showed a piece of land with an old house and a couple of outbuildings, carefully drawn. Three rectangles superimposed over the piece delineated areas done in watercolor, while here and there were the sort of Chinese seals you see on old paintings. And under the ground, lines suggesting water swirled. He started to tell me about it, then stopped and said, "Do you want to hear this stuff?" I said I did, and he told me about returning again and again to see the outbuilding on the right, whose lines fascinated him. Then the entire property – built over a spring -- was bought by someone who wanted to tear the outbuildings down, and could not be talked out of it. Beneath the one that had so taken him, they found the grave of a little girl. At the same time, a friend told him about finding old Chinese coins on a small peninsula that juts into the Lehigh River. There had been oral stories of Chinese workers who helped build the canal, but there’s no mention of it in the history books. He was struck by how the memory of their contribution had been lost. So the picture as a whole is a meditation on lost things.

Then we talked about the presence of history in the town. ("Did you know the Confederate Army was on the way here, when Gettysburg stopped them? This used to be the center for coal going to New York and Philadelphia… When the war was over, they rang the church bell next door till it cracked, and later they melted it down and made a carillon out of it.") Looking outside his back window, I faced a wall of stones going up, up, up… to a footbridge that led from what must be his attic or roof to a line of sunlit grass beyond. Apparently you can walk across it and find yourself in the hills. Is this a way for an artist to live, or what? "Now I envy you," I said. He said he’d always meant to live in the country one day, till he realized that when you live in a small community like this, you are in the country.

I bought two of his prints. Then I said goodbye, and said goodbye to the Alchemy woman, and went to the wine shop next door and asked if they ship.

By then it was after 2:30, and I was losing the sunlight of this glorious day, and I had a long ride ahead. So I went back to my car and drove out of Jim Thorpe, heading for the northern Delaware River valley. I’d rented a GPS from Lamont the Enterprise Rent-a-Car Guy, because I tend to be paranoid, but I’d also mapped out a long and complicated route using Google, because I tend to be paranoid. The GPS kept trying to direct me to go the sensible way. The sensible way is not what gets you to the Grand Army of the Republic Highway!

During one sequence, where it clearly felt I’d left all logic behind, the GPS was directing me to turn left at every "point one" mile. It offered me left turns again and again and again and again, occasionally at dirt roads that surely would lead to improbable futures. At a certain point it sadly said "Recalibrating… recalibrating… recalibrating…" three times, as though it were one of those computers in 1960s TV shows that are thrown for a loop by being asked "Why?" or for all the decimals of pi.

I passed intriguing streams, small waterfalls, and more than one lake, including a fantastic blue expanse with the name of Wallenpaupack. I passed the most magnificent tree of my entire trip. In a fair world, I would have stopped to explore, but I had a destination to reach. And I made it. This is the most expensive night of my adventures. I write you from an oasis of low-key comfort in the Delaware Valley, where I’ve been plied with gourmet foods and one of the two best white wines I’ve ever tasted, after which I floated up to my room and then literally floated in the enormous Tub of Sparkling Splendor:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jane_bluestocking/6281211361/in/set-72157627955636512

Tomorrow, back to a long drive and accommodations that are more like real life. Meanwhile, I’ll lie in bed and listen to the church bell chime the hours and the fountain in the back garden splash away. And write down oral history questions for my mother.

read while on the road

Read while on the road (unusual in that I never seem to have time to read):

Lying by Sam Harris --An argument for truthfulness in virtually every situation. Bracing.

My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley --An autobiographical tale of a dog. By which I do not mean it was written by the dog. The story of a female German Shepherd in all her physical and psychological glory, as grasped dimly from afar by her owner. As a modern shelter dog owner, I had no idea what a very big deal the canine sexual cycle is. Also -- and I suppose I merely muddy the issue by bringing it up in a short mention here -- in reading this book, I began to grasp why beastiality has been such a widespread phenomenon. (There is none of that sort of thing in the book, I hasten to add. But in reading it, one realizes what a practical spectrum of need sex encompasses.)

The Birds by Daphne du Maurier --Found amongst a store of books in this guesthouse. I'd only seen the Hitchcock movie, and found this novelette significantly more disturbing. True, the movie had those fantastic building visuals of birds accumulating; but it was about one incident, and had an essentially happy ending. The du Maurier story is about the zombie apocalypse. And like all zombie apocalypses, civilization is the first to go; and the circle of safety, at the end, is very small.

The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne --A charming historical romance set just after the French Revolution. Delightful spies and a lively prose style. My only cavil would be, that when a character reveals they're not just any secondary character but a fine and clever secret agent with a double life, it is a satisfying surprise; but when all your characters do it, it is less surprising. But I am being petty in the face of excellent writing. Shame on me! (By the way, there's one character who, despite the physical description, my mind insists is played by Judi Dench. I can even hear her voice. When you read it, you'll know who it is.)

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller --Still reading this. It's a memoir of her parents -- chiefly her unforgettable mother -- in colonial and post-colonial Africa. What makes this African memoir different is, it's a comedy. I got to the reunion scene today while in a coffeehouse, trying to drink tea while preserving some scraps of dignity, and had to take extreme steps to keep the guffaws in.

on the road and far from home

I am in Jim Thorpe, a small mining town in the eastern Pennsylvania mountains. I do mean mining town; there are remains of a canal and what was once a thriving railroad; and there’s a giant lump of coal on display at the train station that comes up to eye level.

What am I doing in Jim Thorpe? And why is it called Jim Thorpe, instead of Mauch Chunk (“Mawk Chunk”), the name it was born with?

Many years ago I saw a newspaper article about a small town built on the side of a mountain in Pennsylvania, and I resolved to go there. Over the years I forgot the name of the town, but I figured, how many places can there be that are built on the side of mountains, at least in this part of the world? Extensive use of the Internet has led me to Jim Thorpe, though I’m still not one hundred percent sure it’s the spot. Nonetheless, it’s a town of old Victorian buildings surrounded by hills, and who can complain about that?

I’ve gotten carried away by fall since I was a child. The crisp air, the piles of gold and red leaves, the sheer electric charge of being alive. I’ve lived all of my adult life around New York City and Los Angeles, which means I rarely see fall color in the abundance my soul requires. So over the years I’ve taken autumn vacations when I could. I’ve seen spectacular autumns in Montreal, Cape Breton, Michigan, and once, when I could only grab a few days at the last minute, and thought it was too late for a northern autumn, Asheville, North Carolina. Someday I’d like to start in Canada and work my way southward with the color, stopping a few days here and there, until the season finally plays out. I’ll bet you can make it last for weeks.

This is one of the few autumns I’ve aimed for that didn’t quite hit the mark. The colors are subdued here in Jim Thorpe; they tell me it rained too much, and didn’t get chilly enough in time. The trees throughout town are still green, while the ones along the river are already bare.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jane_bluestocking/sets/72157627955636512/detail/

They tell me this because they’re a talkative and friendly bunch here. It’s a tourist town on October weekends, full of street musicians and amazing restaurants; but not a luxurious tourist town. The hotels and guesthouses are old inside, and they look old; and by that I don’t mean an artful restoration. The carpets are smudged and faded, the rooms are fairly cheap, and today I tried to sleep late while listening to a jackhammer that was so loud, I thought, "It sounds as though it's right outside my door!" (As it turns out, because it was right outside my door. I was later directed over the clots of uprooted sidewalk with great good spirits, however.)

All this brick and stonework is beautiful from the outside. This town has known any number of hard times, and I’ve never been anyplace where so many ordinary people know what a Molly Maguire is, but it is a general truth that suffering is a great preserver of architecture. As for the people, they're as much a mix of locals and tourists as you’d find in Paris – but unlike Paris, they’ll stop and chat with you in the streets.

Today I was in a coffeehouse, where a twenty-something kid behind the counter got into a long conversation with a tall, thin, very blue-collar guy in his 40s. (This is an eminently blue-collar town, and the layer of art studios and jewelry and clothing shops iced over the top cannot disguise it.) I thought, “This is a beautiful place, but I don’t think I have much in common with the people here – they’re too like the people I grew up with.” Then I realized Counter Guy and Blue Collar Guy were discussing Deep Space 9 and ST:TNG, at a level of detail I could never match. (Why a certain class of starship is smaller than the others. Why the other changelings were so much better than Odo at imitating humans.) Not even current SF, so clearly there was real love there.

Today I talked with coffeehouse people, a guy at my guesthouse, a guy running a jackhammer in the street, two women who just opened up a shop called “Alchemy,” a woman who works in the wine shop down the street, and a waiter named Jeff at the Black Bread Cafe, who decided on the spur of the moment to work with the chef to create a salad of figs, prosciutto, goat cheese, and greens that matched my heart’s desire. (“Is there anything else you’d like in that?” “Well, I don’t know… on the way here I was thinking about how long it’s been since I had apples…” And then four divinely thin slices of apple appear among your spinach leaves.) When I entered, customers at two of the tables in this restaurant were chatting with each other about what to expect if you go to northern California. They didn’t know each other; they’d just met. Last night I got into a conversation with the woman who gave me a roll of toilet paper. And the janitor she sent for. Who is her husband.

Today it rained, so I visited the old Victorian library, and later when it cleared a little I found a way to walk down to the rocks at the edge of the Lehigh River, swollen and rough from the rain. Then I walked through the streets, in the chilly evening, past the old stone and brick buildings, lit up with fairy lights as though it were Christmas.

It’s like being in a little pocket of the Twilight Zone – there’s no cell reception in most of the place, and no landlines in the building where I’m staying; a few days ago I had to walk to the other end of town and climb a long, steep hill to return someone’s call. I can’t even download books to my Kindle -- though somehow Sam Harris’s Lying, which I ordered weeks ago, appeared as I was walking to a café the other day. Perhaps because it’s short (essentially an essay)? In any case, I’ve taken that route several times since then with my wireless turned on, in hopes of finding that more books have shown their faces, but to no avail. (I read the entirety of Lying while at the café. Now, I have an intellectual crush on Sam Harris: I love him for his mind. And I’m known in my professional life as someone annoyingly on the side of truth-telling. But I had to disagree with some of what he was arguing. Like: “No, that wouldn’t be telling the truth. That would be being an asshole.”)

I leave tomorrow to explore northwards of here – Google maps tells me there’s a road called The Grand Army of the Republic Highway, and I must travel it. And then I’m off to my ancestral home, where I hope to get my 93-year-old mother on videotape. I’ll tell you more about this adventure if I have time; but now that I think of it, it’s not only the folks in Jim Thorpe who are talkative this trip. Back in Jersey I got into a conversation with an Enterprise Rent-a-Car fellow named Lamont, who told me that he wanted to get his grandmother on videotape. She grew up in the South, and he grew up in Jersey many decades later, “and we don’t even think the same. We don’t even think the same!” But he did get his father recorded, before his fatal heart attack, so that someday Lamont would have it to show his own children. “I’m glad,” I said, “I’m so glad you did that.” “Yeah, I’m glad too,” he said, smiling. And then he sent me off driving an SUV hybrid, for the first time in my life, and told me I’d do fine.

my kitchen education and domestic pleasures

First, the boring health stuff. I've been alternating even more than usual between work and fatigue; it seems I'm not capable of doing more than one main thing a day. Except for those days I don't even manage one. What this all means is that I have to dedicate the few alert hours I have to doing work that must be done immediately, or to getting groceries or the like.

I even bore myself when I say this. But this tendency to get things done in spurts is why I tend to post on one day, and reply to comments another.

I've been continuing my Adventures with Vegetables. I've alluded to this before, but basically, for years I'd think, "Why are there so few fat chefs?" There are some, but not as many as you'd think considering their lives revolve around good food. And it seemed wrong that my own tendencies should shuttle between two points: a "normal weight gain point" and an "acute suffering point." Why can't I have a life of moderate pleasures -- emphasis on pleasure?

learning to cook, aesthetic delights, Clarice CliffCollapse )

we should watch television!

I hardly ever watch television, except the occasional Game of Thrones episode as I'm working at the computer, or Ina Garten roasting ever newer vegetables to add to my roasting portfolio. But I have house guests! Granted, seperis is sleeping up in the guest room, but svmadelyn is awake. In fact, she has just informed me that psychic bond fic and wingfic are the signs of a healthy fandom. Harry and Gracie are luxuriating in the company -- Gracie keeps throwing herself at svmadelyn regardless of allergies, and Harry is in love with seperis -- whenever she reappears I hope she has no objection to his curling up against her with a contented look.

Where was I? Ah, yes, television. We should watch some. I wonder if I can get any of my skadillion DVDs to actually work.

thank you!

Thank you for helping me out with my vague historical query. You guys are fantastic. I wonder, does the small circle of people reading my journal actually encompass all human knowledge? If I asked about quantum physics or 16th-century French inheritance law, would you come through just as splendidly?

Really, you've been a huge help -- I have what I need and I know where to look for the rest! And meanwhile, the baby gift I posted about before has already arrived, a blanket with vintage cowboys that made a friend of mine exclaim with pleased surprise.

By the way, my friend who'll be getting the gift has named her child Franklin. I like this name for a lot of reasons -- the rich sound of it, my appreciation for Mr. Roosevelt, and the fact that I went to kindergarten at Franklin School. But I haven't run into that many Franklins, and as a result, for this entire week the song "Lord Franklin" has kept floating up into my consciousness.

In Baffin Bay where the whale fishes blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know.
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell..."


I won't mention it to my friend, though, as it's not a song of good omen. Especially not these days when we actually know the fate of Franklin.

vague historical question

I recall reading, years ago, about some port(s) in Asia where Westerners lived and traded in the age of sailing ships. The Westerners were not allowed to leave the port, or possibly a certain walled area in the port.

I know this is ridiculously vague, but can someone tell me more? Am I thinking of Macau, or do Hong Kong and/or any Japanese ports also fit this paradigm?

I'm not just interested historically -- I want to make reference to a place where foreigners were not allowed on native soil, and where there were strict rules about their interactions.

If I'm not thoroughly confused about this, what was the reasoning for confining the foreigners? Obviously they were considered a bad influence in some sense, but I'm not clear on how. Is this an early instance of the awareness of cultural contamination?

Seriously, this is so vague that I'm not even sure what I'm asking, but any help is appreciated.

gift question and update

I have a question. What would a good gift be for a friend who's just had her second son? I don't even remember what my gift was for Son #1, because I chipped in with a bunch of others, and not having any children myself, I trust those who do to make better gift choices than I would.

I guess they've got a lot of leftover things from Son #1, which makes me even more blank about what to get. Really, if these things were up to me I'd just get every newborn a hardcover set of The Narnia Chronicles and tell the parents to store it somewhere for eight years. But I guess that could be obnoxious.

In other news, the dogs and I have been having many adventures.

1) I've learned to cook vegetables so I don't hate them! (The answer is: roasting, in a little olive oil, pepper, salt, and basil.) This knowledge has resulted in a loss of 16 pounds. (For me this is a good thing, healthwise. My cardiologist is pretty happy about it.)

2) There was a Nipping Incident, fortunately involving a kind gentleman who did not report it, and Harry now goes walking with a nylon muzzle that makes him look like a duck. And he knows it makes him look like a duck. He's quite embarrassed about it. (I came home directly after the Incident, sat down in a chair and cried. Harry at once came over, sat beside me on the floor and leaned against my legs as though to transfer comfort and strength. He did not understand my bizarre reaction; as far as he's concerned, getting on the euthanasia list for nipping a mailman would be as silly as executing a frat boy for mooning a passing car during Homecoming.)

3) I've read the first two volumes of the Master and Commander books.

4) I'm finally writing a short story.

5) Gracie has not peed in the house for many weeks! ...Until this afternoon.

6) I may need to hire enforcers to stop me from buying things at zappos.com. They make it too easy, and that is dangerous.

ETA:
7) I love this hat. I even love the tag.

http://www.etsy.com/listing/71532394/vintage-1960s-heironimus-of-roanoke?ref=tre-4dde8e18599c8eef66871dd9-1

I don't think it would fit me, though; I don't know what 19 inches means, but my head's a size L.

8) Nooo! I cannot go from Zappos to Etsy. (It's not my fault, I swear. I was shopping for baby stuff.)

ETA2:

I've found a baby blanket with vintage cowboys. Thanks!

in which I beg your aesthetic indulgence

I thought I'd never get this damned room remodeled. So -- domestic and aesthetic strategies ahead! Full interior design warning! And much discussion of Life With Too Many Books.

now with before and after picturesCollapse )

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