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!"