Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Well, here we are deep into On Hold Week, the static period between the big stars, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. It has its own bland traditions.

For one, we're treated to TV and newspaper roundups of major figures who have died in the past year (in the words of a long-ago Utah radio personality, those who have "shot on over.") These quickie features are always good for a brief jolt: either a sincere "Awwww," or the less positive, "Hunh! I thought he had died years ago!"

For another, the Food Channel gears up with increasingly hopeless ideas for "Celebrating Turkey Leftovers." We just won't face the truth: the Turkey stars on big feast days because it looks impressive, it smells wonderful, and it makes lovely gravy. Nowhere in that list do we find the words, "tastes good." So, yes, we have to deal with the leftovers, but no, we needn't be hypocrites, pretending that something that was blah to begin with becomes gourmet grub with the addition of raisins, crumbled rum-soaked fruitcake, or stale paprika.

And surely one of the inevitable two-star hits during On Hold Week is the Predictions List. Everyone seeking 15 minutes of fame gets in line to forecast what the year ahead will hold. Doesn't matter the subject: fashion trends, number of hurricanes, stock market thrills, re-arrangement of sexual partners in Hollywood--someone will forecast the future for us.

My own history of predictions is unlikely to threaten Nostradamus. Still in high school, I passed through the living room one evening to find my parents watching the Ed Sullivan Show. I rolled my eyes, as required of adolescents, and glanced at the act in progress. Some musician was singing mournfully while squirming as though someone had dropped a community of red ants in his tight-fitting pants.

"Well, there's one we'll never hear from again," I sneered. Elvis Presley. Man is more popular now, years after his death, than he was while alive. Strands from a recently discovered hair brush of his were auctioned off for enough money to buy West Texas.

A few years later, just out of graduate school, my roommate and I wanted to buy a television set of our own, instead of continuing to make do with some rabbit-eared reject we had bought at Goodwill.

"Should we maybe get a color set?" Anne asked.

"COLOR! Color TV? That is absolutely decadent! That's just a passing fad to jack up the price! Why would we shell out for some silly indulgence like color!" Um-hum.

About five years later, the word "VISA" began to be heard in the land. A plastic card. Someone's idea to replace "layaway," whereby you gave the store so much money each month and THEN,when it was paid for, you got your winter coat or the striped sofa.

"Do they really think people are going to CHARGE things on this plastic card and pay these VISA folks huge interest? It will never happen," I assured anyone within the sound of my voice. (As it happened, "the VISA folks" drank toasts every year for about fifteen years to my hefty interest payments.)

As for cell phones, well, of course I was wrong on that one, too. Not only wrong, but short-sighted. Dense though I was about color TV and credit cards, I certainly got the knack of them rapidly and indeed avidly. But the simple cell phone, which tiny children now use successfully to call "Gamma" and instruct her to "b'ing cookies," is still pretty much a mystery to me. Mine has about fourteen functions, two of which I understand. (Never the same two in a given week.)

But I did predict one advance correctly.

Perhaps twenty years ago, I was serving on a university committee having something to do with what we then called "correspondence courses." These were courses students could take by mail, doing the work at their homes wherever they might be, mailing in papers and tests and receiving in turn comments and suggestions from the instructor. At one point, I said to the committee, "You know, computer access is increasing everywhere. If we were imaginative and offered courses by computer that would be help college dropouts finish their programs, I think we'd do a great service. In particular, women who were raising families, or working women who had never gone to college, might really benefit from such opportunities."

Frowns. Heads cocked to the side in puzzlement. Slow, deep sighs. ("She's at it again. Women's issues!") A totally unconvincing "maybe." Two "ummm's." And the agenda rolled off on its own course.

Yesterday I checked online. The university mentioned now has five hundred
"distance learning " computer courses--including middle school, high school, and university classes plus others of a non-academic nature and a number of free courses. Hundreds of women have obtained high school diplomas through these offerings, and more have finished college work they began but interrupted. I didn't have a thing to do with any of that, but at least my crystal ball was unclouded for once.

Happy New Year to us all!

Monday, December 22, 2008


Much as I am addicted to probing and poking my own psyche, I can't for the life of me figure out when I stopped reading novels, or why.

All I know is that quite a while back, I realized I was buying novels people recommended, thick, hardcover books in mint condition, then not reading them. One year I checked Amazon.com's file of all the books I had bought from them during that twelvemonth. (I'll never do that again!) Most of the novels were still unread.

Lately, though, things seem to be picking up. No explanations for that, either. But I have two real stunners to put on my personal "BEST BOOKS OF 2008."

In 2005, Ann Patchett wrote Bel Canto, and soon even the monotones among us were singing its praises. You know all those grandiose movies that put ten or twelve stars on an airplane or cruise ship or lifeboat and then create a catastrophe during which you really get to know the characters, who are no more interesting in crisis than at any other time? Well, Bel Canto isn't like that. Except that it does center on a hijacked houseparty, including an opera superstar and the Japanese billionaire who has loved her from afar, plus his translator. And a pair of guerillas. Well, forget about plot. This novel is comparable to a Puccini aria in its power to render you limp with admiration and delight.

So this year, Patchett gave us Run. Most people say the book is about families; Patchett says it's about politics. I think it's about how how things come to belong to us, and we to them, or not.

Early in the storyline, a poor Irish boy steals a small statue from a church because it looks so much like the girl he loves. A couple of generations later, two sisters (now in America) want to take the statue back from their sister's widower, because he has no daughter to be the "logical" heir. The widower, formerly mayor of Boston, has an older son who somehow doesn't belong in the family he was born to and clearly knows that, and two adopted sons who clearly do, and to whom the statue unarguably belongs.

Who belongs to whom in this life, and why? How do you make something your own? How do you get free of something another person wants desperately to give you, such as a view of the world, a passion for politics, or faith? For my part, I wanted a week's worth of evening reading from Run, but the book is much too absorbing to be confined to such discipline.

In 1980, Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping. It won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Best First Novel, and was nominated for the Pulitzer in fiction. Of course, somebody decided to make a movie of it, which was not a good idea. But happily, Christine Lahti was cast in the lead, assuring a thoughtful, beautifully rich performance of a character almost no reader could quite grasp.

Robinson did not publish another book of fiction for 24 years. In 2004, she gave us
Gilead. Of all the books I have read in my life, this was the one I most truly did not want to end. I read slower and slower, knowing the last page was coming up. The book glowed with spiritual light. Now that will give you entirely the wrong idea, but how else to say it? Spiritual, note; not religious, even though the central character is an aging pastor of the small midwestern town of Gilead. Knowing he will not live long enough to have serious conversations with his very young son, he writes the boy an extended letter, revealing his own heart and the heart of the
battered little town. Gilead won the National Book Critics Award (2004) and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2005.

Last summer, Robinson published Home . It is not a sequel to Gilead but another point of view of the same town and characters. In the first novel, the dying narrator is John Ames; in Home, the voice is that of Glory, daughter of the aging Robert Boughton, the lifelong friend and alter ego of John Ames. His ne'er-do-well son Jack and the betrayed daughter Glory (both almost middle-aged) are once again at their father's side. The resulting dynamics are not happy, but they are instructive. One British reviewer called this book, "The saddest story you'll ever love." The London Times simply declares Robinson "the world's best writer of prose."

It just occurs to me as I write that these two exceptional novels share the same themes: love and death. Well, of course. Decades ago, a tall, shy redhead sat in my creative writing class and wrote exceptional stories far beyond the level one has any right to hope for from an 18-year old. I had the luck to know her for four years, before her young life was destroyed by a drunken driver. In the last story she ever wrote, she has a character say to her dubious boyfriend, "I write about love and death because love and death is all there is." She wasn't the first writer to discover that, but surely one of the most untouched by cynicism and bitterness. Hers was a great talent, and a greater heart; and today, the day before Christmas 2008,as I unintentionally look back through the long decades to that ranch girl and the few precious writings we had from her, I am cheered to think of her. I indulge the easy belief (it costs me nothing) that, had she lived, she would have written on a level with Ann Patchett and even Marilynne Robinson.

For more about Robinson, see Marilynne Robinson, At "Home" in the Heartland:NPR

Happy Reading! Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"DEAR MR. GABLE" sang Judy Garland

I'll get back to "Best Books of Bellabell's 2008" before the Big Ball drops in Time's Square, but in the meantime, let me ask you this:

How do we feel about fan mail?

Have you ever written any? Movie buff though I was, I didn't pen any adoring letters during my childhood or adolescence. But in my mid-twenties, the recorded voice of soprano Eileen Farrell made me hyper-ventilate and even shout a bit during a particularly demanding finale. So I wrote a short, grateful letter to the glorious diva. Have no idea now what I wrote. I do know what she wrote back, however. Still have the brief, kind note, with its dark blue engraved letterhead and her written signature.

Movie historians insist that Joan Crawford answered every piece of email she received. I can believe it--don't want to, don't want even to think about why she did, but I do.

New Age composer-keyboardist Mike Rowland turns out CD's with titles like "The Fairy Ring," and "Mystic Angel." Frankly, the music is what cartoonist Gerry Trudeau once called "air pudding." You'd never mistake it for Mozart. But it gives a serene comfort I've never found in other "tinkle-bong-bong" offerings. For me, it is the perfect relaxation/meditation/go-to-sleep music. And when my sister-in-law laying dying in Arizona (too young! too young!), I kept Rowland's music playing softly in the background for several days. Everyone who passed through the room stopped,listened and commented on how soothing it was. So after wearing grooves in the CD's, I finally wrote Mike Rowland a fan letter. Because I tried too hard to make it natural and unassuming, it was awkward and a little tacky, but I felt I'd paid a small debt.

Recently I saw a fine local production of the one-man play "I Am My Own Wife," the true account of a German transvestite whose efforts to save artwork of Jewish victims during World War II were both admirable and questionable. The lone actor played a full stage of roles, some 15 or more characters, and kept the play credible and absorbing from start to finish. So I emailed him a note of congratulations. But I don't think that counts as "fan" mail, "fan" being derived from "fanatic" and I not even remembering now the young actor's name.

But I am truly a fanatic on the works of Alan Bennett; and his slim novella, The Uncommon Reader, has tickled me so much I really want to thank him. But this man collects writing awards the way some Brits used to collect wildflowers.
I'm sure fan mail is, for him, just one more thing to assign someone else to deal with, whether through his publishers or by agreement with the local Postal Service (and heavy tips on Boxing Day). Bennett has been known to suffer fools gladly--well, no, not gladly. But gently. For 15 years, a wildly eccentric old woman, a stranger to the writer, camped in Bennett's front yard in her battered yellow van. After dealing with Miss Shepherd and her demands and dementia, surely Bennett views fan mail, yea or nay, as a small nuisance.

But, do we write such letters primarily for the sake of the recipient, or for our own sake? I begin to think the latter. We write so that we may benefit from the actual expression of gratitude, which, until such expression, is only appreciation, an intellectual exercise. Whereas gratitude is an emotion, a resident of the heart, which it warms and comforts.

If you were going to write a fan letter, who would it be for?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Publications ranging from the New York Times to the Plumbers' Pipeline are offering us their candidates for the best books of 2008, so I decided to ante up a list as well. I don't tag these the Best Books of
2008; merely as the best books of my 2008. No particular ranking.

Claire Tomalin's SAMUEL PEPYS: THE UNEQUALlED SELF. Now, if you've read any part of the famous Diary by this 17th century eccentric, you're probably saying, "What's left to write about?" Pepys recorded the smallest details of his life, including much more than most readers care to know about such matters as his bowels, bladder, and boudoir behavior. Why a biography by someone else? Well, for one thing, because a cool, ojective but intently interested eye can tell us so much more of the fascinating story. (We all see our own lives, as Twain said, through a glass eye darkly.) And because if you read only the Diary, you are apt to think of Pepys as nothing more than a minor clerk of old Londontown who, sexually speaking, had eyes much bigger than his. . . well, never mind that. Actually, Pepys was a rather major figure of his day, and is still studied by, of all things, Naval historians (the battleship buffs, not the belly-button brigade). In sum: a rich view of a full-throttle life through a wide-angle lens.

Claire Tomalin's JANE AUSTEN; A LIFE. Here we have just the opposite problem from the Pepys' life story: although Austen wrote reams of letters, few have survived
the burnings of dim-bulb kinfolk who kindled when they should have scrapbooked. But scholar Tomalin, with the fervor of an unmedicated obsessive-compulsive, has woven the remaining threads into a thorough and thoroughly readable tapestry. A lot of nonsense and sentimental twaddle has circulated about Jane Austen as her popularity has grown with the decades and her novels been revamped as vehicles for various actorettes of the moment. This writer sees the great novelist with a clear and unsentimental but admiring eye. Having now read three or four of Tomlinson's biographies, I can only conclude that the historian has an intellect as keen as Jane Austen's and a style worthy of her subject.

While we're on British soil, so to speak, one of my great favorites this year is THE UNCOMMON READER, by Alan Bennett. Bennett is England's leading contemporary writer--that's not an opinion; it's a ranking, by sales and popularity and awards and height and whatever else can be measured. He's written The History Boys (six Tony awards), The Madness of King George, Prick Up Your Ears, A Private Function, Beyond the Fringe. . . . Anyway, THE UNCOMMON READER would make the dandiest Christmas present imaginable for the truly devoted readers among your circle. It's quite short--readable in an hour--and it is fiction. And it is about Queen Elizabeth II. To tell you any more would be to ruin the fun. And it is fun--and full of insight. I hope against hope that the BBC or "Masterpiece" or whoever will make us all a wonderful plum pudding for next Christmas by filming this gem--featuring Maggie Smith, or Helen Mirren (the third time would be charming), or Bennett's longtime friend and star of many of his short plays, Patricia Routledge. (Yes, yes, Hyacinth Bucket and let's forget that.)

All right; let's leave the Brits to entertain themselves and come to a very American book: CHARLES SCHULZ AND PEANUTS, by David Michaelis. Everything about Charles Schulz seems movingly American, from his birth in Minnesota to immigrant parents, to his love of baseball, his engrained work ethic, and his huge worldwide success coupled with his lifelong sense of personal failure. Now, let me be frank here: I prefer biographies and memoirs above almost all other genres at this point in my life; but some may find that this book tells them more about Charles Schulz than they want to know; (it's almost 600 pages.) Michaelis gives us great detail about the cartoonist's early life, and puts a Freudian slant on much of his later angst, which he also paints with a full brush. Moreover, Michaelis gives us a rich selection of carefully chosen Peanuts cartoons; I was astonished at how three or four panels could illuminate a whole thread of Shultz' life. At the very end of his life, having written his own name on a piece of paper, and speaking of himself, he said, "That poor kid--he never even got a chance to kick the football. What a dirty trick. . . ."

You were a good man, Charlie Shultz, but you never got to know it.

All right; that's a start. Stay tuned--and let me know what you are reading.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I came upon this poem just this morning. Have never read it before. Written in 1932.
I liked it enough to want to share with you gentle readers.

(On another annoying point--Nash being annoyed by the non-voters: several of you have emailed to let me know you are unable to post comments on the blogsite. I'm really sorry about that--I would love to read your responses--and I have the same problem; I sometimes am unable to post on my mentor Emily's wonderful blogsite, "Hamartia and Cheese Sandwiches." Who understands the whimseys of the goddess Cyberia?)

Election Day Is a Holiday

People on whom I do not bother to dote
Are people who do not bother to vote
Heaven forbid that they should ever be exempt
From contumely, obloquy, and various kinds of contempt.

Some of them like Toscanini and some like Rudy Vallée
But all of them take about as much interest in their right to ballot as in their right to ballet.
They haven’t voted since the heyday of Miss Russell (Lillian)
And excuse themselves by saying What’s the difference of one vote in fifty million?

They have such refined and delicate palates
That they can discover no one worthy of their ballots,
And then when someone terrible gets elected
They say There, that’s just what I expected!

And they go around for four years spouting discontented criticisms
And contented witticisms,
And then when somebody to oppose the man they oppose gets nominated
They say Oh golly, golly, he’s the kind of man I’ve always abominated,
And they have discovered that if you don’t take time out to go to the polls
You can manage very nicely to get through thirty-six holes.

Oh let us cover these clever people very conspicuously with loathing,
For they are un-citizens in citizens’ clothing.
They attempt to justify their negligence
On the ground that no candidate appeals to people of their integligence,
But I am quite sure that if Abraham Lincoln (Rep.) ran against Thomas Jefferson (Dem.),
Neither man would be appealing enough to squeeze a vote out of them.

--Ogden Nash (1932)

Monday, November 3, 2008


The English playwright William Congreve taught us that,"Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast." In turn, the English music-hall singer Anna Russell taught me that silly music hath charms to loosen the uptight breast.

In my most recent blog, I mention the university Faculty Follies, to which students flocked to see their instructors make fools of themselves through song, dance, and general desecration of the performing arts. My first appearance in the Follies was a duet, "The Indian Love Call." But the next time I succumbed to peer pressure and prepared a little number, it was a solo; and as things turned out, that song has followed me throughout my life like a trail of toilet paper eternally glued to my shoe. For which, as it happens, I'm quite grateful.

Backstory:< Anna Russell (1911-2006)was a British-born musician with excellent training and talent but a sense of humor too large to be confined to the regular concert or operatic stage. She turned instead to composing and singing hilarious spoofs of serious music, and made a long, successful career for herself in America, Canada, England, South Africa and anywhere else her wit and play on words would be appreciated. Around 1960, she published The Anna Russell Songbook, which my pal Beverly gave me as a Christmas present.

The Songbook was sub-titled, "Music For People Who Want to Sing But Can't." The non-musical voices were neatly categorized: thin wispy voices; high, clear English bell-like voices; low monotones after the French style; the loud, cracked music-hall voice "with two or three good notes at either end of the scale, and nothing much in between." That last herd included moi.

The song Anna indicated as best (ahem)for my voice was titled "I'm Only A Faded Rose." The narrator mourns that she was once "a rosebud, so fair and pure," feted with diamonds and beautiful clothes but now been cast aside: "He plucked me and wore me, then threw me away; now I'm only a faded rose." The final word spans a full octave and, when properly screeched, produces more decibels than a Boeing 747 on take-off.

I have sung the song many times to a variety of audiences. Each time, the results have been startling. Or startled. Something like that. On one occasion, I had been asked to accept an administrative appointment at the University. The small group I was to join had scheduled a meeting in a handsome, dark-paneled conference room. In attendance were two other deans, an administrative assistant, a couple of secretarys, and an assistant vice president in charge of token appearances. The head honcho, one of the finest men who ever convened a meeting, graciously introduced me and announced that after the meeting itself, we would have refreshments and, in fact, a musical number. (The administrative assistant was a gifted singer.) He then jokingly added, "Perhaps would should require Elouise to sing as well, as a sort of initiation." Indulgent smiles all around. Ho-ho-ho.

"I'll sing for you," I said. (The best defense being a good offense, and all. My singing was undeniably an offense.)

And when the short meeting was over, I launched into "Faded Rose," a capella. Given the occasion, I may have been operating with an additional shot of adrenalin. In any case, I was loud and dramatic, as Anna Russell intended. The two other deans roared; the secretaries giggled;the veep seemed unable to summon up any response. But for me the payoff was the reaction of Paula, the adminstrative assistant, she of the gorgeous voice, a regular soloist at oratorios around the valley, and a woman of calm, self-assured dignity. She was the sort of person any executive would pray to have in the outer office; even the most persistent time-wasters could not get past her guard. By the time I finished singing, her face was deep red, her careful make-up was puddled pudding, her eyes were swollen shut, and her screams of laughter had caused her to cough so hard we had to take a recess before she could sing her own number.

I calculate that my rendition of that song had speeded up the pace of my friendship with Paula by many months.

On another occasion, I attended a week-long summer workshop for feminists in higher education. This must have been in the mid-Seventies, when academic women were getting very serious about equality in the workplace, reasserting the place of neglected women writers, insisting on proper job titles, five-year plans for one's career advancement, and much more. It was all very sober, very crucial, part of the Movement, part of History, and most of the participants were so uptight they could hardly bend at the waist. Tailored power suits and heels were the order of the day. Not one woman mentioned husband or child during the first three days of the workshop. (Liberation did not preclude being servile to one's pets, however, and photos of Fluffy, Flush, Mitzi and Muffin circulated without a blush.) Our seminars and discussions were all highly educational, rigorously researched, and so boring they brought tears to the eye. In the evenings, there was little to do except collapse in one's room or share the solace of revivifying booze in the sterile lounge. The non-drinkers thumbed listlessly through old Alison Bechdel cartoons and scratched our mosquito bites.

One evening, Ms. A asked Ms. B half-heartedly if she wanted to catch the 8 p.m. movie at the university cinema. ("Bonzo goes to College.")

"No," said Ms. B . "I want to stay here and have Elouise entertain me."

I have no idea what led Ms. B. to say such a thing. Possibly my responses in the workshop discussions had suggested I was less serious about my five-year plan than the others; perhaps I just struck her as the class smart-ass. Who knows?

But a couple of the women pushed an old piano into the lobby; someone else volunteered to accompany me; (I had brought the sheet music along to submit as evidence of the traditional role of Woman As the Subject of Abuse and Ultimate Rejection); and I sang "Faded Rose."

Laughter started slowly but accelerated. The cork popped out of more than the Scotch bottle; ice melted from the brave faces; better singers snuggled up to the piano bench and let 'er rip. By evening's end, pictures of Tommy Junior and Simone were going the rounds. During the rest of the workshop, some of us dared to wear slacks and even jeans; our responses to questions were not from the canon but from our own experience; and regular dashes of salsa seasoned the scholarly fare.

So in this month of Thanksgiving, I drink a cider toast to the irrepressible Anna Russell (her bio is titled I'm Not Making This Up, You Know!)and say, "Many thanks! Your rose never did fade in my eyes."

Sunday, November 2, 2008


One of my favorite "onstage" experiences is the one no one heard.

Backstory: One day, early in my teaching career, I walked down a hallway and heard the colleague in a nearby office singing, "When I'm calling you-ooo-oooooo. . . ." Known as "The Indian Love Call," this was the famous song that movie star Nelson Eddy sang to Jeannette MacDonald in "Rosemarie." In my brashness, I immediately responded by singing, "Will you answer true-ooo-ooo?" A surprised Professor M. popped his head out of the doorway and said, "Miss Bell! How bold!"

Professor M. soon became "Jack"; "How bold!" became his frequent judgment of me, and
"The Indian Love Call" our signature salutation to each other. (Colleagues giggled at the uninformed who thought the song implied a romance between us: Jack was as committed and unscathed a bachelor as ever sang a solo.)

One year, as the annual Faculty Follies loomed, someone suggested Jack and I do our love call for the students. (The Follies was an recurring debacle in which ill-advised faculty members made fools of themselves by singing, dancing, and performing
vaudevillean skits for the entertainment of students. Those were pre-photographic-cell phone days; indeed pre-video camera days, and blackmail was thus less of a temptation.)

Now, performance before an audience, however silly the material, was a different matter than yodeling ad lib down the corridors. Jack was, after all, a pretty decent musician, skillful at the piano and a regular in his metropolitan choral society. As for me, I had range, volume, and gusto. Period. Couldn't read a note of music. So for two weeks prior to the Follies, Jack and I practiced in a music classroom. Ordinarily, he was a man given to irony, sarcasm, and askance eyebrows. But during those practices he was endlessly kind and patient with me. In a couple of weeks, though I sounded more like Selma Diamond than Jeannette MacDonald, the melody was recognizable.

The performance venue was a large concert hall with seats rising from the front, so that everyone had a good view. Entrance was by two side doors at the top. The stage was not raised, but even with the floor, and served by heavy curtains. As our number began, introductory chords from an offstage piano warned the audience what was coming. At the top of the hall, one exit door opened and Jack appeared, in all the rented glory that the Salt Lake Costume Company could provide. He had calf-high black boots, flared Canadian Mountie breeches, a scarlet, much be-buttoned tunic, and the well-known Stetson Mountie hat.

As he marched down the stairs, singing with manful fervor, the students started to scream with delight.

Then the curtains parted a yard or so, and I entered. Salt Lake Costume had had nothing suitable for the Indian Maiden, so we had simply taken two large beach towels in vaguely autumnal colors, stitched them together at the shoulders and sides, and girdled them with a braided rope. My head boasted braids as well, thickly twined of yellow yarn. Of course I was barefoot.

Now the audience was really shrieking, and they never stopped. As the piano accompaniment continued, we danced through our subtle choreography--me lunging with out-stretched arms for Jack, he prancing nimbly by, evading every hopeful advance--and I sang exactly as Jack had taught me, never missing a note.

Not one of which was ever heard over the pandemonium.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Professor M, a longtime colleague, had seen the movie Naughty Marietta 126 times, at last count. And this record was achieved before one could buy or rent tapes or DVD's of major movies. M's recent viewings of the Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald extravaganza had surely been on television; but for the most part, he had seen those ten dozen reprises by walking into a theater and plunking down his money, whether that ticket cost a dime or a dollar or ten. It was the passion of decades of his life.

Among my acquaintances, M holds the record for seeing a single movie the most often. But in the early Sixties in France,when I worked there, a man returned to seeWest Side Story at the (rather expensive) George V cinema 500 times. When he showed up for #500, the management gave him a large bottle of champagne and a free ticket. (Pikers, in my opinion; they could at least have arranged a dinner date with Rita Moreno!) And in Wales, a little later, Mrs. Alwyn Evans saw The Sound of Music800 times.

This way madness lies, right?

When I first heard about the giddy Gallic movie-goer, and about Alwyn("I just fancy that Julie Andrews!")Evans, I certainly thought they were nutsy. But I never considered my enamored colleague, Professor M., to have more than the ordinary number of screws loose. And therein lies the core of What I Learned in the School of Life Today. It exemplifies the old gibe: "I am charmingly eccentric; you are sometimes quite strange; HE is certifiable." In other words, what's close at hand, what we are familiar with, is acceptable to an amazing degree.

Let me ask you: do you ever watch the MASH reruns? Occasionally? Fairly often? Every night of the world? (Hand raised here.) But WHY?
Is there a plot line you don't know perfectly? A corny joke you couldn't recite in your sleep? A wrinkle on Col. Potter's lovable face you can't identify from ten yards out? No, no, and no, says I.

Yet I watch MASH every night, as surely as I let the dog out or brush my teeth. Surely I have seen each episode as many times as Prof. M saw Eddy woodenly woo the marvelous "Marietta."

But again, why? Anyone?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

ONSTAGE AGAIN: "The Happy Journey"

A colleague in the Drama Department was about produce Thornton Wilder's "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden," best known as simply "The Happy Journey." He asked me to play the central role, Ma Kirby. Well, as you might guess, if I caved in to a roommate's request to be in her Mask Club play (see a previous Sounding), I certainly wouldn't play hard-to-get for a faculty member with a long string of successes, his own Equity card, and influence with the university promotion committee. So what if there would be no live audience?

Charles was directing and producing a film version of Wilder's play, which would then be used in drama classes and possibly sold to public television. Or to MGM--who knew? (Well, I did, for one. But I kept a straight face.)

So in a bare film studio on campus, six of us stood around, looked at each other, looked at the four straight chairs (the "car" that would take us on the happy journey), and at least one of us wondered just how you go about spinning gold out of straw.

My character was Ma Kirby. No costume other than one of my blah dresses, plus a little cloche hat Charles had pried out of the wardrobe mistress. Pa Kirby was a pleasantly portly graduate student with a battered brown fedora. Our "children" were two skinny kids that belonged to the faculty genius. (One of their brothers would later be a College Bowl star, a sister became a widely published author, another sister joined the faculty as a medievalist.) Ma and Pa had an older daughter,
a "married daughter" and always, in the script, referred to that way. It took me a while to figure out that Wilder was stressing the respectability of the daughter. In the Twenties, an unmarried daughter who lived away from home would have had neighborly tongues wagging.

Married Daughter (Beulah) comes onstage only for the last few minutes of the play. (As it turned out, that was just as well. The co-ed playing Beulah seemed to come from a very different part of the country than the rest of the cast, if not from an unknown planet.) Essentially the happy journey takes Ma and Pa and the two kids, Arthur, 10, and Caroline, 12, on an 80-mile trip during an era when such travel by car was a big deal to most folks. Oddly enough, this trip becomes a big deal to the reader. "Oddly" because almost nothing happens. The Kirbys stop for gas, they stop to let a funeral pass by; they have a rough couple of minutes when Arthur makes what Ma considers a sassy remark; they read billboards. That's about it.

And yet--everything happens. Birth (Beulah has just had a baby) and death
(not only the central figure of the funeral they pass, but the daughter's baby, who lived only a few hours). Education ("Pa, don't go past the school! Mr. Bridenbach will see us!"), work ("Ma, can I get a paper route?"), propriety ("Put your cap on, Arthur; I don't go on no journey with no tramp!" "Take off you hat, Arthur; look at your father," as the funeral passes). The Journey includes it all: food, sleep, neighbors, friendship, patriotism, religion, animals, family, love. None of it sentimentalized, none of it written in italics or bold print, most of it in casual observations taken up and dropped the way you'd spend a few minutes looking at a stone or a shell along the Jersey shore.

One character I have left till now. Wilder uses a Stage Manager, as he does in Our Town and other plays, giving this actor a variety of small roles--next door neighbor, one of Arthur's playmates, the service attendant in the gas station, with whom Ma has an extended, homey chat that embarrasses her children. Director Charles was especially insightful in his choice of cast member here. The Stage Manager was played by Sterling VanWagenen, a slim, blond young man who wore his role lightly yet with total engagement. This fellow could act. And do a bit more, as it turned out. He later produced, among many other works, the much-honored 1985 film, A Trip to Bountiful. Geraldine Page won the Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe award for that role. Van Wagenen was also a co-founder of something they named the Sundance Film Festival, currently America's largest festival honoring independent films. Later, in conjunction with another blond actor, he founded the Sundance Institute, now the major supporter of independent playwrights, screenwriters and filmmakers.

Spinning gold out of straw.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


Closing a book recently, I came rather suddenly to realize the intimacy of reading.

Good reading gets so far inside, so deep. . .it tells you about things you never mention to anyone else. It tells you things you didn't know about yourself until you read them. It's been said that the difference between a good writer and a great writer is that the former makes you think, "I feel just like that!" whereas the latter makes you think, "I never knew it, but that is how I feel."

Some characters get closer to you than any characters in your life know how to get, and when you back off, they wait until you are ready to let them approach again.

And you can get as close to them as your mind or your heart will let you. Sometimes your mind is a thick hedge, so you can't get too close right then. When you read that same book, months or years later, you are surprised by what you can touch, or be touched by, now. And sometimes it is your heart that is too timid to let a character fully inside, so that, months or years later, when pain and sorrow have made your heart more flexible and less afraid of fear, you are surprised at how close a character comes to entering the quietest, least visited cave within you.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


My roommate Ruth was searching high,low and under the bed for someone to take a part in a one-act play for Mask Club. Every year, as a Theater major, she was required to direct one play for the Club. With her leading lady still not tapped, her face got longer and sadder each day until we might just as well have been keeping a bloodhound. I had said a definite, non-negotiable "NO" early on, but Ruth's outsized dark eyes kept following me around the apartment nonetheless. She had run out of enticements and supplications days ago; now she relied on straight pathos and implied guilt. Under that treatment, I surrendered.

The play, as I remember, was Priestley's "Mother's Day." The comedy, set in England in the early 20th century, centered on three characters, a pompous bully of a husband, his brow-beaten, submissive wife, and a tough, no-nonsense neighbor woman. I played the wife. Now, wait! Don't cry "Mis-casting!" quite yet.

"Mother's Day" is one of many plays and films about a magical exchange of persona between two very different characters. You may remember the old "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," in which a dead prizefighter and a live millionaire banker are switched, or the later version with Warren Beatty, "Heaven Can Wait." Sometimes it is a parent and a child who swap bodies--"Like Father, Like Son" starred Dudley Moore; "Freaky Friday" had Jamie Leigh Curtis as the bewildered mother. Two of the best were "Switch," in which a male chauvinist cad comes back to life in the body of gorgeous Ellen Barkin, and "All of Me," in which Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin share one body, rather than switching.

So, in Ruth's play, I start out as the timid, bullied wife, but with the aid of some far-Eastern magic and smoke, I'm soon the very confident, don't-mess-with-me-mister woman in the wife's body. It was a lot of fun to do, and I learned at least three truths that have served me well ever since.

First, I learned about how comedy works. During one rehearsal, Ruth came up to me and said, "You were trying to be funny in that scene, weren't you?" I smiled and said, yes, I was. "Don't!" she scolded. "Let the audience decide if it's funny. YOU play it straight--that's how comedy works."

Second, laughter, once let out of the bag, can be hard to put back in. The portly young man playing the pompous, bullying husband was very nice, pleasant and willing but rather unable. His wooden acting was in danger of nailing this light comedy smack to the floor of the stage, where it wriggled and threatened to die. At one point, when his much-changed wife makes a brazen statement, he is supposed to say, incensed, "I think you must be tiddly!" The actor could not get any energy at all into the line, hard as Ruth tried to pump him up. In a later rehearsal, I happened to be holding a copy of the script as I said my line. For some reason, I whapped the actor in the solar plexus with the folded script, not all that gently. His mouth flew open, his eyes bulged, and he shouted, "I THINK YOU MUST BE TIDDLY!" Energy to spare. Perfect delivery. Ruth was delighted. Except that for all following rehearsals, the entire cast broke up as we approached that line. Try as we would, we couldn't keep from laughing. We were all more than usually nervous opening night, not knowing if we would ruin a key scene. But the treacherous lines came and went without a single smile from us. And the curtain fell to appaluse as refreshing as rain.

The third insight came a few minutes later, when a colleague from the Drama department came up to me and paid the obligatory compliments.

"Ah, Elouise," he said, "Methinks you missed your calling."

"Missed my calling, Charles? How many actors do you know who have what you and I have--captive audiences five days a week, semester after semester? Would you trade the classroom for the stage?"

"Touche!" And we parted, smiling.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


"THE CASE OF THE SULKY GIRL." Now that sounded like a play the Junior Class could sink its tonsils into! Most of us knew Perry Mason the same way we knew Jack Armstrong, Fred Allen, and Superman--from radio. The radio version of Perry Mason ran from 1943 until 1955, so the Class of '53 felt very comfortable with Mr. Wall's choice of a play. No silly Shakespearean tights or tangled English needed for this! And we even had a leading man an audience wouldn't snicker about.

Jim De Ciancio wasn't really handsome, but he had broad shoulders, and even wider confidence. Because of his heft and dark coloring, he spookily resembled Raymond Burr, who was to play the TV Perry Mason later in the decade. In addition, fate had gifted Jim with a deep, rich voice and a love of drama, onstage and off. At 17, he could easily pass for 21, and often did. More than one Arizona traffic cop played bit parts in Jim's ad lib comedies.

Now I knew I wasn't going to play the "Sulky Girl" in this drama. If parents and friends are coerced into showing up at school and college productions, the very least they have a right to expect is a pretty girl in the leading role. Tall, blonde Carol Ann fit that bill, with a few bonuses thrown in. But what about Della Street, Perry's secretary? She had pages of lines, and I was great at memorizing.

Lewoy had other plans. Now, you need to know that most of us really enjoyed Leroy Wall, the speech and drama coach. His minor lisp, his little problem with the letter 'r,' which could have made a high school teacher's life miserable, was just one more fun aspect of the man. Yes, we called him "Lewoy," behind his back. We also hung around after class to talk with him, and crowded into his office whenever he absent-mindedly left the door open. He was something like a young bear, with a shambling walk and dark blond hair, rather shaggy for the Fifties. His hands were large, well-shaped, and constantly in motion, often framing his face, or reaching out into the air, trying to capture some idea, some theme, some vision he wanted us to share.

I don't know why I lost the role of Della. Maybe the image of Jim and me together on the stage was a little bulkier than Lewoy had in mind for a play that was not a comedy. Maybe he thought our combined auras would suggest something other than a boss and his "girl Friday." I seem to recall a scene where Della sat on Perry's desk, legs crossed, skirt raised. Perhaps Lewoy knew my version would be heavy on tomboy and light on temptress.

In any case, with the parts of the Sulky Girl and Della Street gone, I figured I would serve as prompter for this production. But then Lewoy motioned me towards him, his splayed hands scooping the air: "C'mere, c'mere, Bell!" There was something conspiratorial in his voice.

"Bell, I want you to play the maid." Talk about sulky! For a moment I sulked mightily. The maid had perhaps three lines; she was actually there just to swell the assembled crowd in the drawing room in the last scene, when Perry Mason explained the how's and why's of the dastardly crime.

"No, no, listen!" Leroy implored, in a stage whisper. "I know it's not a big part, not many lines. But ya notice she's on stage a lot, right?" I nodded slowly.

"Think Rebecca ." He waited for it to sink in.

"You mean, like Judith Anderson?" (In 1941, Dame Judith Anderson had been Oscar-nominated for her role as the mad housekeeper in Hitchcock's Rebecca. She also won crates of Emmys for later television work.)

"Bingo! Play this maid like Mrs. Danvers. Deadly quiet. Menacing. Full of danger. Knows where the bodies are buried." His eyes lit up, and so did mine. "But don't tell anyone else in the cast--keep it all inside. Very secretive."

Lewoy's vision for the nameless maid was infinitely richer than whatever Erle Stanley Gardner had intended in his pot-boiler. I have no idea what the hapless audience thought as I skulked about the stage, narrowing my eyes at the other characters, glaring wordlessly at the Sulky Girl, at Della Street, at Perry Mason.
I seethed danger (pointlessly), clasped my hands to my breast dramatically at certain innocuous statements by those actually involved in the plot, and generally behaved like someone who had dropped onstage from a totally different play.

After the curtain fell and the polite applause petered out, I looked over at Lewoy, deep in discussion with De Ciancio. When he saw me, he held up those big fists, both thumbs up, and waggled them happily at me.

Mrs. Danvers winked.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Today, among hundreds of other possible projects, 4-H kids can raise puppies to become service animals for the sight- or hearing-impaired. Or they can raise llamas. Honestly. In the Forties, all I got to raise were five Rhode Island Red hens and about an equal number of anemic tomatoes.

Our Lakeside, New Jersey, 4-H club was named "The Willing Workers," a moniker with more hope than reality to back it up. But we had an excellent leader who would have fit neatly into an MGM "one-reel wonder" about 4-H-ers doing their bit for the war effort by learning to innoculate chickens and bottle the harvest from our Victory gardens.

Mrs. Alma Blakeslee still bore traces of a Swedish accent; her thick blonde hair, with only a few strands of grey, crowned her head in trim braids; and her spacious, handsome home provided barely enough work to use up her Nordic energy. The Blakeslees were the only couple I knew who had an Only Child. Having just one child struck the rest of us as more remarkable than Mrs. B's braids, her accent, or the fact that she always addressed her husband as "Mister Blakeslee." Once a week, eight or ten girls gathered in her kitchen to learn the homely arts, Swedish style.

I was pathetic at the whole business. My muffins, broken in half to show their texture, resembled open pit mines, so riddled were they with the tell-tale holes. (Too much mixing, or too little, I no longer remember.) Anything I sewed ended up looking like an item that the neediest war refugees would have rejected. "Tuck your knots out of sight!" Mrs. Blakeslee would implore. But it was fruitless: great snarled knots of thread always dangled from the hems of whatever I made, nasty little tattletales advertising my ineptitude. My canned vegetables never sparkled like jewels in their Mason jars; and for every peck of tomatoes that made it safely into one of my bottles, another peck ended up, mangled and in disgrace in the garbage bucket that would later feed the chickens.

When, after a year's work, it was time for the Willing Workers to pack up our projects and travel to Rutgers University in New Brunswick to compete with other state 4-H-ers for ribbons and glory, the question of my dubious handiwork loomed large in Mrs. Blakeslee's mind. But the Swedes are nothing if not determined. In the catalog of possibilities, along with Baked Goods, Canned Fruits & Vegetables, Fine Sewing, Embroidery, Knitting & Crocheting, and Fashion Design, Mrs. B. found "Demonstration." Demonstration turned out to mean a short talk about something. Instead of a finished product, you could demonstrate a process. You would be judged on how clearly you demonstrated the process and how well you talked. One suggested topic was "Canning Lids and Jars." Surely I could talk somewhat better than I could cook or crochet? So for my demonstration, I studied the 4-H brochures on selecting and preparing Mason jars and Kerr rings and lids prior to bottling produce and worked up a 10-minute talk. What ten-year old wouldn't be thrilled with that, right?

August at Rutgers was quiet, the college students away at the shore or the Poconos, working to earn tuition. (Rutgers was not, after all, Princeton, but the state's land grant university.) The 4-H visitors occupied the home economics building. In Room 321, its desks pushed to one side, a long table faced a seated panel of judges. Frozen with anxiety, a dozen of us girls sat behind the table on folding chairs, kept our knees together, and hyperventilated. Several of these country mice had never been this far away from home before, let alone on public display. At least the other Willing Workers could have their muffins or their knit goods judged; but we "demonstrators" ourselves were in the spotlight.

At ten, I was the youngest girl there, so I was last on the list. I guess the theory was that watching the others would give me courage. Just before my demo, two sixteen-year olds stood up and prepared to give a talk on--canning lids and jars. My exact topic. They had neat stacks of notes that brimmed with beautifully hand-written data. (Some of you will remember that penmanship was once actually taught in school.) The teenagers took turns talking about chips in rims, proper sterilization of bottles, checking used metal lids for rust, and all the rest. And just before ending, they made a statement directly contradicting some detail I was scheduled to say.

As for me, I had no notes--hadn't even thought about notes. I had recited "pieces" since earliest Sunday School days, and you were supposed to know what you recited, as in "know by heart." So I got up, looked the three judges in the eye, and instructed these high school and college home economics teachers about lids and jars as though they'd been waiting for this enlightenment all their days. When I reached the disputed point (something about whether you did or didn't tighten the lids before they popped), I simply said that the teen-agers were misinformed, and told them the correct procedure. Then I sat down.

As the Lakeside Willing Workers rode home from New Brunswick, we chattered with near-hysterical relief that it was all over. Mrs. Blakeslee said little,but she seemed satisfied. We had collected a flutter of ribbons--a few whites (Fair) and at least six reds (Good). And one handsome blue ribbon (Excellent), with not a single dangling thread showing. QED.

Friday, July 11, 2008


The next onstage venue was very different than the first, even though both were churches. The Lakeside Community Church, so modest it didn't even have a denominational connection, stood as the sole site of public religion in the small village of Lakeside, New Jersey. It served perhaps fifty middle-of-the-road, middle-class Protestants. Lakeside Catholics took the bus into Trenton to one of their many splendid, mysterious edifices; our few Episcopalians car-pooled south to a handsome stone building settled on the green rim of the country club. Lakeside Church was definitely on a bottom rung of the architectural ladder.

Unlike the Myrtle Street Methodist Church, the small frame building had no organ, no stained glass windows nor any carpet to its warped floors. It didn't even have a minister. Periodically, a Protestant churchman, superintendent of a distant Sunday School, visited us to hand out certificates of attendance and little pocket-sized New Testaments to faithful kids. If ever a man fit his name, that man was Clarence J. Fogg: tall, white-haired with a weary mustache, a gray double-breasted suit and all the personality of a soda cracker. The real leader of the LCC was George Goldy, affectionately tagged "Uncle George" --chubby, relaxed, fond of children, and unimpressed with himself. He was also unpaid and, to my knowledge, had no official title. He was simply the man in charge.

Something else that LCC didn't have--and the reason I'm in this story at all--was a sound system. (Of course it didn't have air conditioning, but in 1945 no place else did either, not even huge department stores or dazzling movie theaters.) Our country-mouse church lacked a microphone. Well, most of the time that didn't matter. Clarence J. Fogg didn't need a mike for his occasional few moments before us, and Uncle George's strong, cheerful voice carried well. His wife and her sister occasionally sang duets as part of the service; their ardent, tremolo renditions of "I Come to the Garden Alone" needed no amplification.

But LCC did have a stage, complete with heavy, musty curtains that set my asthmatic mother wheezing. And about twice a year, the congregation put on "pageants," even hauling up a painted canvas backdrop (showing a generic desert scene) from the basement. These pageants were, of course, just short tableaux of the Christmas and Easter stories, taken from scripture. The action was mostly pantomimed, with only one significant speaking part in each. But who would perform that part?

Protestant boys generally flew the ecclesiastical coop as soon as puberty reared its head, so to speak. (Jewish boys had the big event of bar mitzvah to hang around for; Catholics could audition to be altar boys, and, as I later found out, Mormon boys had the high drama of the priesthood and missions to anticipate.) But we had no older boys for the key role. The pre-puberty LCC boys muttered into their narrow little chests and would not project. Apparently, there was only one child who could boom out the message clearly and confidently over the splintery pews to the waiting faithful. She was just ten and a girl, but she was definitely audible.

Thus it came to pass that, standing halfway up a stepladder, in a flimsy unisex muslin robe that didn't quite cover my scabbed knees, I looked at the silent shepherds below me in their fathers' trailing bathrobes, and assured them: "Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy." Three months later, when early spring had come to Lakeside, I stood on a box beside the hokiest stage boulder you've ever seen. Towards me shuffled Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. While they made a good job of peering around in puzzlement, I gazed out the open church doors, across the road to the O'Hagen's front porch, where Mr. O'Hagen sat taking his Sunday ease in work pants and an undershirt.

Then I looked sternly at my three Sunday School classmates and proclaimed unto them, "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen."

Across the road, the screen door banged shut behind Burtis O'Hagen.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Aesthetically, my first onstage appearance was certainly the best of my life so far. Four years old, wearing a buttercup yellow dotted-swiss dress handmade by Nanny, sporting white shoes, golden hair hanging in fat curls set off by a bow the size of a kitten--smiles broke out in every pew in the Myrtle Street Methodist Church at the sight.

It was all downhill from there.

The imposing, staid church was at least as handsomely adorned as I was, with its powerful pipe organ on one side of the plaform and its partner opposite, a grand piano gleaming like a dream of black licorice. Eight huge stained glass windows preached silent sermons from the walls.

As for my sermon, I haven't a clue why I was up there alone before the long-suffering Methodists. The only other known witness (my brother Gerry, age 8) was
otherwise occupied, pulling faces at Mrs. Pfaff, who sat hunched on the organ bench, her plain looks and poor, deformed spine making her a target for cruel sinners like Gerry. I've never even bothered to ask him what I was doing onstage.

In any case, in the middle of my public debut, whatever the heck it was about, I dropped the shiny penny I had been given to put in the collection plate later in the service. I looked at the audience and said loudly, "You'll hafta wait a minute." Then I got down on all fours, fanny to the front, displaying the ruffled panties Nanny had made to match the yellow dress. Although Mother had surely supervised my preparation for the performance, Dad was definitely and always in charge of family finances, and I understood that finding the penny was Priority Number One.

After I located it and again faced the congregation, the glare from Mother's cold blue eyes would have stopped any engine the DL&W Railroad could mount. (Gramps was an engineer on the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Wyoming, a lovely poem of a name, much more fun to say than its rival, the Erie.) Looking at Mother's livid face, I got the idea that I would be safer on the stage than back in our pew.

Perhaps that was my innoculation against stage fright. If so, it apparently worked.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I've been on a book-buying binge lately (doing my best to buy only used books--small nod towards Living Green). Several wonderful books have turned up. But none has got me going as much as Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog.

Before you decide you don't want to hear one more word from me about DOGS (and who could blame you?), I hasten to give the subtitle: "The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences." Worse than dog-talk, I hear you moan. Well, to quote the lyrics of a steamy, under-appreciated Bernadette Peters song, "You'd Be Surprised."

(So far, I've just browsed Barking Dog , by Kitty Burns Florey, but already plucked a footnote that's worth the entire price of the book. Florey, writing about Marcel Proust's major work, Time Recaptured, tosses in this delicious tidbit: In a Monty Python skit titled "All-England Summarize Proust Competition," each contestant endeavored to present a brief summary of Proust's massive work, "once in a swimsuit and once in evening dress." )

Florey fills her small book with sentences by all sorts of famous writers, including the Python crazies, Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, Gertrude Stein, Faulkner, and most of all, with her own loving remembrances of the little nun who taught her to diagram them. The pure pleasure of the book reassures me once more of the wisdom of John Ciardi's assertion: "Anything significantly looked at is significant."

I have no memory of diagramming before college. We were probably exposed to it, just as (my former classmates swear) we were exposed to Walt Disney movies about menstruation. But I was so deeply into repression in my teen years it's a wonder I ever remembered the way to school day after day. In any case, my mentor into the sexy mysteries of diagramming was Mrs. Alsie Shulman at the University of Arizona.

When you first encountered Mrs. Shulman, she struck you as a strayed grandmother,out out of place on the palm-studded campus of the UA, then considered a playboy school, proud possessor of a polo team right up until last Tuesday. But if you misjudged Alsie Shulman, the joke was on you: before long, you were the one feeling weary and wobbly and perhaps in need of a walker.

Mrs. Shulman on first encounter seemed so ordinary as to be a caricature. Medium height, medium weight, formless dress, no-nonsense shoes, dark hair turning grey and pulled back in a severe bun. And always, always, winter or summer, a loose grey cardigan. It occurs to me now that perhaps, like so many Arizona faculty, she was an Eastern transplant come West for relief from asthma. The UA in the Fifties had a roster of brilliant professors who,in the normal course of things, would not have considered a position there for all the pipe tobacco in Dixie, but who had decided that breathing trumped prestige and the richer intellectual life of Ivy-dom.

Mrs. Shulman had one rather disconcerting physical trait. Her skin seemed about a size too large for her body. When she was considering your diagramming handiwork on the blackboard, she would grasp her jaws in a large, knobby hand, gather up many folds of flesh, and stare balefully. If it took her a while to figure out what on earth you had done to the sentence in question, she might place a palm on either side of her face and push all the loose skin up towards her dark, pessimistic eyes while she mulled. In those days, no one knew a Shar-Pei from a shampoo, or we might have delivered ourselves of a witless nickname.

The course she taught was as unadorned as her appearance. We diagrammed sentences. Period. No cartoons to aid our memories, no clever quips (I never saw the woman smile), no competing teams, no slides, even of the major types of sentences. As a matter of fact, no books of instruction or theory. We had three dittoed sheets listing the sentence options (Type I, Type II, etc.) And we had a small paperbound novel, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. Henry James! We began on page 1 and diagrammed every sentence in the book, as far as we, the class, could go in a semester, classes meeting three times a week.

We began drawing our diagrams on standard 8 1/2 x 11 plain typing paper. Soon we turned the paper sideways. Next we taped two sheets together. Finally four. (You do remember how long James' sentences are, yes?) One day, rummaging in my father's tool shed, I found discarded partial rolls of wallpaper, leftover from one of his rare fix-up projects. I was the envy of the diagramming class when I showed up on Monday with my homework stretching out comfortably on the back of a long scroll of Sears Flocked Floral Fantasy.

One of James' sentences, I recall, was 234 words long. (I counted, out of sheer disbelief.) And each word had to be corraled, branded (identified as to part of speech), herded into its appropriate stall on the right kind of line (right-angle, slanting, dotted, raised on a pedestal). Moreover, I had to be ready to explain clearly every move I'd made. If I could not, bam! "Fuzzy thinking, Miss Bell! Fuzzy thinking!" I hear her voice now, fifty years later. (This was before university legal counsel, rigid with anxiety about lawsuits, outlawed slander of students. Of course, coaches were always exempt from such rulings. I must ask Nancy why.)

On we went through the semester, green cowhands doggedly trying to lasso the great snorting, long-horned bulls of James' sentences. No matter how many we finally tied down, there were always more roaring through the chute. On the last day of class, with the final exam yet to come, the boy sitting behind me said, "I am praying for a D in this class." Greg was a PE major, minoring in English so that, in theory, he could teach high school seniors Beowulf in his spare moments away from the ball teams. All English majors and minors were required to take English grammar, which meant Mrs. Shulman's course. In the Fifties, professors gave D's and E's, believe it or not. But D was a passing grade.

Then Greg said, "Here's the kicker, though: even if I get a D, I know this is the best class I've ever taken in my life."

Me too.

Winston Churchill attributed his skill with the language to the fact that he had failed Latin and was required to take extra English courses instead. He had ended up, he claimed, with the English sentence in his blood and bones. Under Mrs. Shulman's skeptical brown eye, I had writhed and wrestled and winced, erased and reread, examined and explored the English sentence as written by one of the most exact if not the juiciest of American writers. I had learned that fuzzy thinking was a disgrace. I never attained the level of a Churchill, for sure. But I think that diagramming helped me read him with ease and pleasure. Here's what Florey says in her conclusion: "I think the important thing was not what we learned from diagramming in Sister Bernadette's class, but simply the fun we had doing it. Diagramming made language seem friendly, like a dog who doesn't bark, but, instead, trots over to greet you, wagging its tail." I'd go one step further: diagramming helped me put a leash on the dog and go exploring the world with it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Third grade was WAY better than second. First, we moved to a house with plumbing.
Second, we lived three skips and a jump from a very nice lake--small, but with a sandy beach and a cafe of sorts that offered pop and juke box music for a nickel each. And third, Mrs. Drugan, the 3rd grade teacher, apparently told my parents that despite poor-to-rotten penmanship, I had considerably more brains than they had assumed.

(There was a downside to that information: my parents, married weeks before the Crash ushered in the Depression, feared unpaid bills above all else, but second to debt, they feared the specter of a Proud Child. They routed out any whiff of Pride as though it were ringworm. The neighborhood boys, the Degnans, shoplifted, broke windows, tormented smaller kids, and smoked by age ten--all laughed at as boyish pranks. But brilliant Chester Hess, who as an adult worked on the Manhattan Project, was considered Proud, and never a smile went his way. Mrs. Drugan's assessment put my parents on red alert.)

Mrs. Drugan never favored me, of course; in my experience, if a teacher ever did favor a student, it would be a pretty little girl whose dresses and fingernails stayed clean, whose Shirley Temple ringlets remained calm, and who did not TALK ALL THE TIME. On my report cards, Mrs. D. reported only that my tongue "ran away with me" and that the below-the-line loops on my "y's" were sloppy. Otherwise,I was "c-o-n-s-c-i-e-n-t-i-o-u-s." I looked the word up, learned to spell it, and apparently took it as a datum of birth, like blood type. I was in my thirties before I ever found out that Mrs. Drugan had hazarded an opinion on brains: my parents certainly were not about to say any such thing in my hearing.

Mother spent some evenings thereafter overseeing my penmanship, with special attention to crisp, sharp "y's". You could have used my "y's" for letter-openers after that. And from third grade on, I had something almost as permanent as a tattoo.

I don't remember the advent of fountain pens for kids, but I know we didn't use dip pens after second grade. Mother had a lady-sized white fountain pen, designed to look like mother-of-pearl but actually sister-of-plastic. My older brother Dave got a handsome Shaeffer pen upon entering high school. And somewhere along the line, I received the first of many fountain pens. Which always, always leaked a little. The result was an slight, permanent indentation, faintly blue despite scrubbing with Lava soap, at the first knuckle of my middle finger.

My father, who had a decent, if somewhat flamboyant, handwriting himself, would occasionally give me a mini-lecture on penmanship. It consisted of the words, "Relax the hand! Relax the hand!" accompanied by loose, floppy motions of his hand, then the command, "Practice!" as he walked away. His own hand was perfectly relaxed, since he hardly ever wrote anything except receipts in pencil in his order book at Montogomery Ward, and never used a pen from one year to the next. Mother paid the bills, signed our report cards, scribbled notes to the milk man, and wrote Christmas and birthday cards. I believe that in that era, penmanship (theory aside) was considered a feminine art, along with tatting and playing the autoharp.

But my hand did not relax. I clung tightly to pen or pencil as to the surviving slab of a life-raft, clutched it and bore down. I broke pencil points, splayed the tips of pens, gouged paper, and of course, splattered ink everywhere. The pens probably leaked because I cracked their barrels in my grip. I was like a miner muscling with pick and shovel: I knew there was treasure in words--there was gold in the stories my father had told me, in the words of the books I was finally learning to read, and somehow, maybe there could be gold in the words one wrote on paper. But at age eight, there was not one single glitter in evidence of that hope in my grubby, blotted papers. So how come I owned more pens than the school principal?

Friday, February 8, 2008


NPR has a regular segment called "Vocal Impressions," in which listeners are invited to describe specific famous voices. Most recently, subjects included Eartha Kitt, Joni Mitchell, and Mike Tyson. One reader said," Eartha Kitt sounds like a panther wearing a leopard coat in the back seat of a Jaguar." Joni Mitchell's voice made another reader think of "a radiant kite with no one holding the string." And Mike Tyson brought to another mind, "A cranky kid on his first day with braces."

When my friend Nancy and I first met online a dozen years ago, we bonded over favorite movie stars, particularly lesser-known character actors from the 40's and 50's. We especially shared keen pleasure in certain distinctive speaking voices, of actors and non-actors.

Here are a few "vocal impressions" (unless NPR has copyrighted that phrase) of some of our much-loved Great Voices.

Maria Ouspenskaya was a tiny Russian actor (b. 1876), a respected drama coach on the East Coast but best known for playing sooth-saying gypsy women in Hollywood monster movies like "The Wolfman." Her accent was so thick she might as well have been saying sooths in the Klingon tongue. But once you heard her, you never forgot her. My vocal impression: "Maria Ouspenskaya's voice was a rare small orchid ensnared in a thicket of thorn-sharp brambles."

Kathleen Turner made some great movies: "Body Heat," "Romancing the Stone," "Prizzi's Honor," and others; and though severe arthritis has limited her recent film work, she is much in demand for voice-overs of all kinds. Her sensuous voice is a match for her beauty and talent. Impression: "Kathleen Turner's voice makes you feel as if you should go to confession just for hearing it."

Colleen Dewhurst lit up Broadway for years, most famously for Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten." She also made 25 or more movies, most of them forgettable, except for her glowing presence. Many of us remember her most fondly for the role of Merilly in the Anne of Green Gables TV series. Nancy tells me younger readers will best recall Dewhurst as "Avery," Murphy Brown's colorful mother on the television series. Dewhurst's rich, warm voice had just a bit of an edge, and her laugh--well, having heard her acted laugh, I was forever envious of those who knew her unscripted laugh. One can only imagine. Vocal impression: "Colleen Dewhurst sounds like rich sausage gravy over warm biscuits on a lonesome morning."

Lauren Bacall. Oh my! "Lauren Bacall's voice makes one want to take up smoking. Or whistling. Or anything else she does."

For decades, New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug made her voice count for justice and human rights. Not a pretty voice, Bella's. Not sexy. But in Houston at the International Women's Year Conference in the late seventies, Bella opened the historic occasion by rasping out, "We're all here!" She meant old and young, housewives and employed women, assorted colors, all available political and sexual persuasions. I was there, and I got goosebumps hearing her. My impression: "Bella Abzug's voice was like a ton of anthracite coal roaring down the chute into my grandfather's coal bin, ensuring that there would be fire and warmth during the worst weather."

I never heard a greater, more wondrous voice than that of Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan,and I never expect to hear its equal again. Many of us harbored the (then) almost impossible dream that Jordan would one day be President of the United States. Comparisons are pointless, but truth be told, I grieved her early death more than Kennedy's, more than Dr. King's. As to a vocal impression, I wouldn't attempt to match the impulsive response of my friend Elliott, who first heard her while driving alone across the plains. To stay awake, he turned on his radio and caught the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the question of Nixon's impeachment. Suddenly, Barbara Jordan's somber, mighty voice rolled into the car. Startled, Elliott exclaimed, "My God! It's God!"

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Second grade was scary. We had moved from the only home I had ever known to a cramped rented house in a strange city in a distant state. We had running water in a kitchen sink, but no bathroom, only an ancient outhouse. World War II roared in full swing, and housing was at a premium. Funds for updated school buildings had been frozen "for the duration." Energetic young teachers threw over their jobs by the battalions to take good-paying defense work. Decou School was left in the palsied hands of a few tired, old warriors.

Mrs. Church, doughy and slow-moving, knew nothing of my stellar skills in reading. We must have had some reading instruction, but I remember none of it. My unfamiliar classmates and I never sat at Mrs. Church knees reading the thrilling adventures of my old friends, Dick and Jane. ("See Dick run. See Jane watch Dick.") No academic limelight came my way in second grade.

We must have had instruction in various subjects, but I recall none of them. I have no images of any particular book, any specific body of knowledge. But we did encounter yet another skill to be learned. Gone were the Crayolas, the scissors, the construction paper, the paper chains. Welcome to PENMANSHIP.

The subject was new to me, and we seven-year olds were new to almost everything, but the rest of the setting was old and weary. The walls of the classroom had faded to an anonymous color. The floorboards were warped and splintered. Our small desks were furrowed and scarred. In the upper right-hand corner of each desk (no accommodation made for the sinister-handed)was a squat inkwell sunk into a round hole. Most days, the inkwells were dry. Mrs. Church might be ancient, but she was not foolish: you did not give second-graders unsupervised access to INK!

Twice a week, Mrs. Church would walk slowly up one aisle and down the other, carrying a quart bottle of Schaffer's blue ink. Down the long corridor of memory, the image of that bounteous ink-bottle is as shiny as an uncirculated copper penny, even to the details of the scripted name on the label. With a seasoned if shaky hand, our teacher poured a dram of ink into each well. Ready on our desks were the wood and cork straight pens, often sporting teeth-marks but their steel nibs bright.

(Yes, of course fountain pens had been invented by this time, but they were not generally used by children. Often, your first fountain pen came as a graduation present. Ballpoint pens would be put on the market a year later, in 1943.)

Mrs. Church then lumbered to a glass-paned and locked cabinet at the back of the room. From the shelves, she took twenty sheets of paper. This was not the usual grey newsprint, on which we labored over our pathetic arithmetic or printed our lists of
-at words: bat cat fat hat mat pat rat sat. This penmanship paper was satiny smooth and pure white, with faint blue horizontal lines to help us on our way across the page, and a single vertical red line to the left. Even the class hellion, Buster O'Brian, would never dare to make a mark beyond that warning boundary.

I loved that smooth white paper with a pure and sensuous love that has never dimmed.

Mrs. Church would place one sheet of paper on each desk. We would dip our pens in the ink well, look up at the blackboard at the example of elegant Spencerian handwriting, and practice the loops and swoops, the straight under-the-line downs and the tall, above-the-line ups.

For my part, I was all eagerness. I loved the paper, I loved the pen, and I loved the idea that I could not only read words, but write them. I would take up the pen, place my forearm steadily on the desk as instructed, try to keep my fingers relaxed, launch out, and SPLAT! Also streak, smirch, scratch and smear. And above all, spoil. Any promise the white sheet of paper might have held drowned beneath the blots.

When my report card came out in December and again in June, the D's in "Penmanship" did not bother me. I did not yet care about symbolism or the generalized, third-person judgment a D might convey. All I knew was that, having mangled scissors, crayons, and rhythmic wood blocks, my stubby hands likewise had not mastered the pen.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008


I came very close to flunking out of kindergarten at Muhlenberg #5 grade school.
Luckily, my Gramps (with whom our family lived)was a regular customer at Emil Muller's Butcher Shop, a cash customer, rare in those Depression days. Mrs. Muller taught our class, so I squeaked by. But the kindergarten curriculum nearly sank me.

Coloring inside the lines,
cutting neat strips of construction paper and pasting them into long frivolous chains,
lying quietly on a mat on the floor, listening to the pipes in the school basement and pretending to nap,
standing quietly beside my little wooden chair and pretending to sing "God Bless America" ("stand beside her and guide her/ through the night with a light from a bulb"),
holding the thick green Ticonderoga #1 pencil and drawing something, anything, on soft grey paper--
it was all beyond my talents.

I used the blunt scissors to see how many tiny pieces I could make out of one big Crayola. (Nanny called little pieces of stuff like these "snibblings," a word I've always loved.) I ate the white library paste because it smelled interesting. Lying on the mat, I passed the time by kicking my heels vigorously on the planks of the floor, driving Mrs. Muller to pull my curls and hiss. I held the green pencil as if it were an ice pick. And when Bobby Fridley tried to kiss me one day in the middle of "God Bless America," I grasped my little chair by its curved back and smashed him.

First grade was more of the same, or so it seemed at the start. Mrs. Howell formed us into a little band, some of us with kazoos, one lucky fellow with a lovely silver triangle, some kids with big wooden rattles. After experimentation, Mrs. Howell gave me two rectangular blocks of wood, about the size of blackboard erasers. My job was to bang them together rhythmically. I actually got the banging part down pretty well, but counting and banging was something of a challenge. Before I really got the counting and banging synchronized, Mrs. Howell started having headaches, and the band's Halloween concert had to be cancelled.

But right about that time, we were issued the Dick and Jane books, and launched into Reading, our wooden chairs drawn into a semi-circle around Mrs. Howell's knees as she sat before us, hopeful and tense with responsibility. Now there were no scissors, no crayons, no blocks of wood. Instead, there were words, and I was home free. Suddenly I began to notice what a pretty smile Mrs. Howell had, and how differently she now said my name. She would call on Bobby, who stumbled over two or three sentences; then it was Myrna's turn, pretty, quiet Myrna who made such long, neatly pasted paper chains, and who now ended her stints with Dick and Jane by crying quietly but moistly into the sash of her flouncy dress. Finally Mrs. H would nod at me, and I would read, sentence after sentence, on and on, while she gazed out the window and watched the leaves flitter gently to earth until the bell rang.