Thursday, December 10, 2009


An online site recently asked for questions that could stimulate journal-keepers and personal-history writers to divulge or discover more about themselves. The resulting 40-odd responses ranged from inventive ("Something you'd love to do if it wouldn't get you arrested") to TMI magnets ("How you disposed of dead pets").

The thread reminded me of the questions James Lipton routinely asks at the end of his ACTORS STUDIO television interviews with movie celebrities. If readers there still be of SOUNDINGS (I have been SO derelict!), I'd be much interested in your own answers to the questions. I know that posting a comment here is as chancy as expecting logic from the Alaskan Rogue (who was in our backyard this past week, with predictable results). But if posting doesn't work, email me your responses. I'll paste 'em up for all to enjoy.

Here are Lipton's questions.

1. I'm skipping his first one ("What is your favorite curse word?") because I lack enthusiasm in this sphere, and even when I come up with something, I sound like Mark Twain's wife. Olivia, trying to shame her cussing husband, memorized some obscenity and recited it. Twain responded, "Livvy, you have the lyrics down, but you just don't know the tune!"

2. "What sound or noise do you love?"
No contest: Rain on a tin roof.

3. "What sound or noise do you hate?"
Again, no contest: Television laugh tracks.

4. "What profession other than your own would you have liked to attemp?"
Assuming the requisite talent (absent in this lifetime), a mezzo-soprano diva.

b. One intriguing occupation hardly existed when I was a-choosing, and even now I don't know its proper title. But I would have been hugely engaged raising orphaned or abandoned wildlife babies prior to their return to the wild or (more likely) their assignment to an animal park.

5. "What profession would you NOT want to participate in at any time?"
Selling. Could not sell chocolate to my own clone.

6. "What's your favorite word?"

7. "What's your least favorite word?"
No originality here: the F-word. Among other things, the irony is too sad.

8. "If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?"

a. For years, I had a ready answer to this: "Your class is waiting for you."
Then, one day in the arthritis therapy pool, a truly wise, and truly loving old woman said gently, after I'd offered that answer in our watery discussion, "What if He said, 'Your teacher is waiting'?"

All I can say is that I've ever learned the most by teaching, and that I consider the source the same in both activities.

b. "OF COURSE there's chocolate here, girl!"

Saturday, December 5, 2009


The hugely talented and insightful writer Kathleen Norris has a book (ACEDIA AND ME) in which she carefully and at length distinguishes between depression and *acedia. She knows both first-hand, and also by means of tons of research.

Yet one smug reader insists that Norris must be "in denial," because what's she describing, he asserts, is "clearly depression." Ignore this glibster's cotton-hay- and-rags brain-box. It's the psychobabble term "in denial" that interests me here.

In a brief response to the Strawman's comment, I stated that Norris was almost the perfect opposite of someone "in denial." But then I realized that our era HAS no word for the opposite of "in denial." Do we miss it?

If you're not "in denial," what are you? Cool with everything? In your dreams, pal. As a culture, we're so uncool even the palms of our feet are sweating.

Well, then "guilt-ridden." Surely that fits. Most of us feel guilty for everything from global warming to the lack of procreation among the pandas, for honest wrinkles at eighty to extra pounds on eight-year olds. And anorexia in teens.

No, not "guilt-ridden." Generalized guilt is the other swing of the pendulum, the arc of the other end of "denial." Accept everything and you take responsibility for nothing. Guilt is as far from the balance point as "It's not MY fault!"

The concepts of confession, remorse, and restitution went out of fashion the day after Bloomers came in. Those practices would seem to assure the logical balance point. With those in place, we don't deny, but neither do we cling to guilt and consider it a substitute for doing better.

But--the mythology of the human race would indicate that,"It wasn't MY fault" comes pretty naturally. Anyone who ever knew a three-year old can testify to that reality.
But outside of now rather suspect religious institutions, where do we learn, let alone practice, confession, remorse, and restitution? It is only in that tent, those many and multi-colored tents, that we can grow spiritually, or even in character?

* * * * *

*acedia is an interesting word that was almost lost to our culture, though the condition it describes has never been less than everywhere in evidence.
I recommend Norris' book on the subject. Meanwhile, a quick though unsatisfactory definition might be "spiritual torpor, a deep-seated sloth that robs one of any degree of caring, about any aspect of life."

Thursday, December 3, 2009


"The heart has its reasons that Reason does not know." (Pascal)

In the hollow of my hand lies a watch. It's not a wrist watch, a pendant watch, nor exactly a pocket watch. And I'll be jiggered if I know why I have it.

This watch is a serious but cheerful blue color, and about the size of a silver dollar. It boasts a red sweep second hand (sometimes useful); small numbers around the face that indicate 15, 30, or 45 seconds or minutes forever fled, data I can't imagine not knowing without being told; and another set of small numbers indicating that 2 o'clock has an alias (14), but for design reasons, I assume, the watch omits the aliases for 13, 23, and 24.

In the dark, the hands give off a glow. I'm of the generation made nervous by such moonshines. For many years, radium paint was used on watches and clocks, as well as on aircraft instruments, until its use was banned in the 1960's. The paint was poisonous; countless young women, working on assembly lines, died quite horrible deaths from radiation poisoning. (See the book RADIUM GIRLS, or, if you're lucky enough, an excellent play of the same name.)

What sets this watch apart, however, is not the variety of information it offers. Built into the design is a carabiner. (I thought that was the word, but looking it up, I found "a cavalry soldier armed with a carbine." Oh, come now. During the subsequent search, I was distracted by a ream of lovely words in the neighborhood: carambola, cartouche, carragheen, and one of my favorites, caryatid--
a sculpted column in the shape of a woman, with the entire pediment supported by her head. Turns out that the word for soldier was a "carabinier." Extra e.) So, carabiner: "an oblong metal ring with one spring-hinged side that is used esp. in mountain climbing as a connector. . . ."

Thus you could hook this small, sturdy watch to a loop of your belt--if you wore a belt. Or you could clip it to your backpack to see how late to class you were--if you toted a backpack. Or went to class. I have tried hard to figure out a way to clip this watch to something of mine, but my only thought would be a bra strap--if I wore. . . .well, let's move on.

The watch is sold under the aegis of the National Geographic Society, making it semi-official and semi-patriotic, I would say. Its movement is of Japan quartz though. But it's manufactured by the Dakota Watch Company, and has the side view of a bison or buffalo on the back. The buffalo is related to the model on the five-cent piece, so I think we can just call it flat-out "patriotic," with no apologies. It claims to be water resistant to "100 feet." Down or out, it doesn't say. If you press a small knob on its edge, a red light goes on, a small but useful flashlight, I guess. Don't know why it's red, but I'm sure there's a reason. Perhaps in order not to startle the fish, 90 feet down there, so far from tail-lights and stop-lights and all.

The thing is that I love this watch. I long coveted it as I paged through the National Geographic catalog, shopping for creative toys for the small adventurers on my list. It just seemed so, je ne sais quoi--perfect, complete. That's not really a logical reason. But at last I ordered it, scolding myself all the while. And it came, and it was exactly right. Its weight in the palm of my hand confirmed that it belonged there.

My cell phone gives the time; so does the computer; the car dashboard tells the time; there are clocks all over the house, and as an added pleasure, St. Monica's up the road tolls the hour with ancient assurance in its fine bass voice.

Why do I love thee, carabiner watch? Eh bien, ask M. Pascal.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Don't tell me you don't want to write a book: everybody wants to write a book. Even people who wouldn't READ a book if their daily chocolate ration depended on it are searching for a hot topic. A few years after I retired, a former student wormed my telephone number from a colleague--(you know who you are, Douglas!)--and called to invite me to "help" her write a book. "I got a great idea!" she assured me. "I just need you to put it into words." (I am NOT making this up. She later admitted the whole thing was her therapist's idea.)

But the problem is, you don't know what KIND of book to write. You can't write a detective novel--you're still sleuthing for your favorite pair of glasses, the ones with heavy black frames and lenses the size of teacups. You can't churn out romance novels; the doctor said you're flirting with diabetes and you must lay off the sweets. As for the ever-popular cookbook genre--well, how do we think you developed a risk of diabetes, right?

I have the answer. There is a new genre of book now, and it's selling like. . . cookbooks.

I refer to the "My Marathon" genre. Not your 26-mile-385 yard foot-race marathon. That's old stuff now, and besides, the Ethiopians have the copyright on that story for at least another fifty years. But any other kind of marathon will do. If you can combine the marathon with a blog ABOUT the marathon, you can sign the publisher's contract the moment you stagger over the tape (whatever form that tape takes).

Of course that's what Julie Powell did when her life went as stale as the Twinkie in your July 4th picnic basket. She decided she would do a cooking marathon: cook all 524 recipes in Julia Childs's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In a year. She cooked, she blogged, her readers gobbled it up, they made the movie ("Julia and Julie"). Now they're all skipping hand in hand to the bank --Powell, Meryl Streep, the movie producers, Powell's publishers, CHILDS'S publishers ("Mastering," published in 1961, is flying off the shelves like Julia's flapjacks off the range), and any restaurant that advertises "a Julia Child special, only $59.99 plus wine."

Ammon Shea's marathon took exactly a year also, though he hadn't set himself a finish line in time, just in pages. Shea is a man in love with dictionaries. His apartment has stacks of dictionaries where other people have chairs, tables, beds.
The Mount Everest of dictionaries is the Oxford English Dictionary, called the OED by its pals. So Ammon set out to read every word of the OED. Every, single, beloved word. And he finished in a year, and then, of course, wrote a book about it. READING THE OED: ONE MAN, ONE YEAR, 21,730 WORDS. I've read it--Shea's book, of course, not the OED. And it makes very good reading, actually; what else would you expect from a man who loves what he's writing about AND loves words? Here's what he said after finishing this marathon: "All of the human emotions and experiences are right there in this dictionary, just as they would be in any fine work of literature. They just happen to be alphabetized."

On the other hand, as in running, there is a race that has style, and those that don't. A.J. Jacobs ground out a book titled ONE MAN'S HUMBLE QUEST TO BECOME THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE WORLD. That tells you everything, right? Jacobs read the Encyclopedia Brittanica. So we don't have to. End of book report. Lately, Jacobs decided to spend a year "living Biblically." Grew his beard outlandishly long, wore a De Mille style robe and sandals (Cecil B, Agnes, who cares?), walked around calling attention to himself, hailing people as "thee" and "thou." Twelve psychiatrists offered him cards in one block alone.

Now let's talk REAL style. Suzan-Lori Parks. Parks starts yawning one day, decides she needs something to do, guesses she'll write a play. Every day. Yep--for a year. And publishes the results, of course. To great acclaim. What's the catch? The catch is that Parks is a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant winner ($500K), a Pulitzer Prize winner (for the 2002 drama "Topdog/Underdog")and in short, someone who has been around the winners' course a few times and has the literary Ethiopians breathing hard. And more than 700 theater groups around the country are performing this particular work. No, of course not all 365 plays. Samplers. And I plan to see one version onstage for myself, right here in America's Heartland, come November.

So set yourself a marathon, blog about it, and decide who'll play YOU in the movie.
Hmm. Movies. That just gave ME an idea!

Saturday, August 22, 2009



1. 10-foot long nylon tunnel, accordian-like construction for portability. Kittens to chase each other through tunnel with glee.

2. Long, colorful strip of soft flannel attached to plastic wand--humans to wave same in elegant patterns, cats to chase and enjoy.

3. Half a dozen open-weave plastic balls (golfball size) with small bells inside.
Cats to chase and bat these about on floor and entertain selves for hours.

4. Life-sized flannel mice, to be annointed with catnip and hidden about the house.
Cats to seek out and frolic with.

5. Two scratching boxes for kittens to sharpen claws on and enjoy.


1. Tunnel--cats grab one end, drag tunnel across hallway entrance to trip up humans while same are trying to carry cats into their time-out room. Otherwise ignored.

2. Cats chew off flannel strip, divide between themselves, poop colorful deposits for several days, fight over remaining plastic wand, which is removed from the scene as a possible danger to strangulation.

3. Dogs claim small plastic balls, chew to pieces with great satisfaction, scatter tiny remnants in inaccessible places, poop tiny bells for several days.

4. Flannel mice declared BOR-ing, remain untouched in their hiding places, serve as magnets for great quantities of dog and cat fur which ultimately, the size of melons, are batted out from under furniture by kittens in the presence of appalled guests.

5. Scratching boxes are visited once a day with considerable ceremony, only when humans are watching, as proof of kittens' obedience and intelligence. Evidence of additional unheralded scratching events to be found on carpets, furniture, packing boxes, dogs.

1. Empty quart ginger-ale bottles, which make a most satisfactory clatter as they figure in vigorous hockey matches across the house.

2. Cords with tassels dangling from the venetian blinds at various windows. Elusive and endlessly tempting, these must be secured out of kittens' reach anew each day to avoid the dangers of strangulation.

3. The dogs. In particular, the Corgi's straightforward game of Fetch the Ball, which B.K. simply involved one human throwing the ball 1400 times in a row and retrieving the ball when it was, in the Corgi's mind, inacessible to her--i.e. too near a large paper bag, too near a wire of any sort, too near the water bowl, too near a dust bunny, etc. With the addition of the kittens, this becomes a complex and exciting game, as the felines lie in wait, preferably hidden, then LEAP at the ball in mid-flight, deflect it who-knows-where, race in front of the swift Corgi to claim first-touch, and otherwise make a wondrous team sport of what was a dull exercise. Fetch the Ball has, it must be admitted, become hugely more interesting to the humans, who find delightful the gymnastics and athleticism of the leaping, plunging, rolling, racing cats.

4. Tiny, tiny items which, before their arrival, had been lost, ignored, or swept into small crevices, under the fridge, beneath the armchair, under a couch cushion,
behind the bookshelf. The kittens find same, exhibit great glee at the discovery, hunker down for serious chewing; (whether the bits are paper, plastic, rubber, dried bread crusts or birdseeds carried in on dog paws, they care not). Humans must thereupon race to kitten, pry open the tiny, sharp-toothed little maws and extract the possibly dangerous flotsam or jetsam.

5. THE GREAT BILLOWING CAFTAN. Above all, the kittens delight in sneaking silently beneath one human's ankle-length caftan while it is being worn, then leaping up as high as possible, as though the person were a scratching pole designed for their special pleasure. The game's enjoyment is heightened when both cats are involved, as they compete for height attained and screams produced.

Monday, July 20, 2009


DAY 1. We adopted two new kittens today! What a lark!

DAY 2. The veterinarians had named the pair Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. Don't like "Marlon and Paul," so call them "Brando and Newman."

DAY 3. "Brando and Newman" too impersonal, as if cited in a movie review by Ebert. Trying "Stanley" (Stanley Kowalski in "Streetcar Named Desire") & "Butch" ("Butch Cassidy").

DAY 4. Slowly introducing the dogs to the kittens. Don't want dogs to scare the little fellows.

DAY 5. HO_HO! Kittens supremely confident, not to say swaggering. Swipe lazily at dogs in passing. "Ho-hum."

DAY 6. Re integration of species. Dilly, the West Highland White terrier, is smitten. In love. Lumbers after the kittens all day long, sober, serious, true dour Scotsman. Only his tail gives him away, constantly in motion like a windshield wiper amid an Oklahoma thunderstorm. "Let me play! Let me play!" He is stunned at how swiftly the kittens dart, dash, climb, disappear. But he never gives up. Trot. . . trot. . . trot. Terrier determination unabated. Trot. . . Trot. . .

DAY 7. Tango, the Corgi, at first tried herding the kittens, Corgis being great herders by breeding and reputation. Ran in wilder and wilder circles, first in one direction, then in another. Kittens glsance up, say "Ho-humn." Nervous breakdown may be in Corgi's future.

DAY 8. Nope. No nervous breakdown. If you can't join 'em, lick 'em. Tango now cleans every feline ear she can get close to. They take it as their due. Tango's thrice-daily games of chasing the ball through four rooms of the house (humans absolutely MUST throw ball when asked; the Corgi stare is effective on very large cattle; who are humans to resist?)--her game of chase is today interrupted by a kitten shooting out at an angle and batting the speeding airborne ball awry. Astonished at first, Tango now relishes the added dimension to her game. We rarely turn on the TV these days.

The kittens' behavior verifies the old distinction: Dogs see that humans feed them, house them, groom them, pet them, walk them, and say, "These humans must be GODS!"

Cats see that humans feed them, groom them, pet them, cart away their odiferous litter, and conclude, "We must be gods!"

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Music goes
where words will not,
slipping through the thickest
brambles and fiercest thorns
and muddied swamps
of your soul.

a little lost,
often confused,
music goes.

And the way
is never known,
if you go

(EMB, July 2009)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


The coziest memory of my childood is an auditory one.

In my mind's eye, I see nothing. But clearly I had to be in my very small bed upstairs in my grandparents' small house where, because of the bleak Depression economy, my parents, my two brothers and I lived for years with Nanny and Gramps.

The sounds that echoed from the kitchen laid down a cushion of safety and jollity
that, I now understand, lasted me through all my growing-up years.

The jolly part came from Nanny, five feet tall and about that much around, with a laugh that sounded like coffee boiling over and a joy in simple pleasures that I could almost reach out and stroke, like a friendly, purring cat. She and Gramps (NOT jolly, not laughing, infrequently talking now that deafness bedeviled him) played cards regularly with the Kilmers, Maude and Laban. Such wonderful, time-polished names! Their daughter sometimes joined the party: Beatrice, pronounced "BEE-tris." They sat in the old-fashioned kitchen at the round, old-fashioned oak table, and the coffee was within arm's reach on the wide coal stove. In a niche behind the stove, Daisy lay curled up and warm.

The game was almost always pinochle. (PEE-knuckle.) Gramps was great at the game; by the time everyone had melded once, putting on the table the cards that earned the initial points, he could pretty much predict who had what. Now Nanny had no great head for figuring out points, but she had a brave heart, and bid on what might be, not on what was.

"GOTTDAMMIT!" Gramps would shout at game's end. "How come you bid 32 on THAT mess, Gert?"

"But we won!"

"Yeah, but we shouldn't uh!" Great peals of laughter from around the table, except from Gramps.

I tried to stay awake as long as I could. In particular, I was waiting for the high point. Things would have quieted down as the evening went on, just muffled voices now, relaxed with the comfort of long friendships and the knowledge that big slabs of Nanny's warm peach pie would cap the evening and they'd all be winners. And then, suddenly, I'd hear Nanny shout in triumph, "TRUMP!" And she'd bang her cards down on the table, making the coffee cups rattle and waking Daisy, who barked in protest.

"Chee-zus, woman!" Gramps would yell, a snort masking his restrained laugh. I'd hear the scrap of his chair on the linoleum. "C'mon, Daisy, let's you 'n me gw'outside where we belong!" and he'd take the dog for her brief late-night trip. Silverware and plates would announce themselves; the smell of Laban's pipe would drift up the stairs, and I would drift away on that rich, warm smell, certain that a sliver of peach pie would be at my place in the morning.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


In the film "Just Between Friends," Mary Tyler Moore, playing a new widow, is showing her mother around the business she has just bought to support herself and her children. As they talk, the elegant mother (Jane Greer) reaches up and tucks a long wisp of Moore's hair behind her ear. As they continue talking, Moore reaches up and quietly pulls her hair down where it was.

Socio-linguist Deborah Tannen could write half a book about these two gestures. So could I.

Tannen in fact has written an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times on just this subject.( Titled "My Mother, My Hair," the short essay explains why mothers of even middle-aged woman so often comment on and criticize their daughters' hair, and why the daughters are driven thereby to teeter on the brink of matricide.

"Where the daughter sees criticism, the mother sees caring. . . making a suggestion, trying to help, offering insight or advice. Isn't that a mother's job? Both are right, because caring and criticizing are bought with the same verbal currency. Any offer of help or advice — however well-intended, however much needed — implies you're doing something wrong." Just so in the scene sketched above: Greer is, in her mind, tidying up Moore's hair, but to MTM, the move is a criticism, refuted with her defiant gesture.

Tannen further explains that while mothers and daughters get on each others' nerves about all sorts of matters--clothes, childcare, careers, cooking--the topic she hears most about is hair. Her book on the overall subject is called You're Wearing That?Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.

Hair and heartache. Most women are, in their DNA, in their bloodstream, in their bone marrow, disappointed in their hair. Ninety-five days out of one hundred are "bad hair days." Sinead o'Connor, shaving her pretty head, was simply one of the first to act out the discontent. Oh, I know--it was supposed to be about politics and all that. Humbug!

Our life stories could be written in the tales of our tresses. Go ahead; think about it. I wager any woman reading this blog could recite a dozen stories, off the top of her head, so to speak, about her hair crises, and especially those in which her mother plays a sinister role.

My hair was a source of antagonism for my mother before I could even talk. My father had had a love-hate relationship with his older sister, who bossed him relentlessly, even sitting on his chest and pouring medicine down him. His favorite word to describe her was "pugnacious." He always grinned as he said the word. Bossy, pugnacious Harriet had long auburn hair, naturally curly. "She'd wash her hair, then go outside and shake her head like a dog, and the hair would ripple down her back. She dint even need ta touch it!" When, as a toddler, I grew golden curls, Dad was hopeful I'd eventually become some variety of redhead. Mother (thinning, plain brown hair) thought I was quite enough like her dismissive sister-in-law already, thank you.

Shirley Temple didn't help the cause one bit. Like thousands of other little girls of that era, I endured having my hair put up in rags every night and then combed out into fat sausage curls the next day, just like Shirley's, and the devil take the painful snarls. The crowning ribbon arranged on my head was exactly the size of the bow on Aretha Franklin's Inaugural bonnet.

When I was seven, we moved, leaving my grandmother's house. Nanny had been the one to roll up my hair each night and then comb out the curls next morning, as I sat on a footstool and yelped about tangles. No Nanny, no curls. Mom worked at a defense plant and had no time for attempts at the Shirley Temple effect. My hair, no longer golden but "dishwater blond," went straight. About that time, Toni hair products came out with the first home permanent. Mother, busy but desperate about my hair, alternated between letting me go to school au naturel or forcing me to have a smelly perm. Au naturel, my hair looked like shredded wheat; permed, it resembled lumpy oatmeal.

There was a brief, idyllic period around age 10 when I got to wear braids. I remember the braids with great fondness, and had I the hair to do it with today, I'd wear braids atop my head like Irene Donne as Mama in I Remember Mama.

Mother backed away from hairdresser duty once I hit my teens, and I was grateful. Ill-coifed but grateful. Hair styles came and went, and I was always a slow learner. I did the tiny pin-curl routine long after you could even buy hairpins any longer. By the time I mastered putting up my hair in the fat brush rollers, they were gone and ironing one's hair was in. Several serious neck burns from that era, as I recall.

But after spending a couple of years in Europe, I returned home (aged 30) to find Mother waiting, once again eager to "do" my hair. I don't think I could have been more bewildered had she offered to bathe me in the tub. The tension was as thick as Brylcreme. I was pretty much past the mouthy, smart-aleck stage, but I was mystified as to her motive, and I actually moved north to a summer job some weeks earlier than planned largely because of this event.

A season or two later, wigs were in fashion, believe it or not. And on a quick duty-visit, I was again faced with Mother and the hair question. Actually, it wasn't framed as a question: she was going to buy me a wig. Egad! But I went shopping, to preserve something (I wouldn't call it peace). Grumpily I tried on several wigs and finally agreed to something or other. Mother beamed at the clerk, and announced, "Mother's paying for this!" Insult to injury, and I felt a very cranky thirteen.

Why was I so resistant and unhappy about these incidents in my presumed adulthood? Yes, of course they implied criticism of my status quo, of whatever I was doing with my hair at the time, but then what didn't? Mulling it over as I have been writing, I realize that touching another person's hair, taking it into your custody so to speak, is a very personal act. It presupposes a level of connection and intimacy that, alas, was never there with my mother and me. I think each of these was an effort on her part to make connection. I wish I'd really understood that, wish I'd been less suspicioous of her motives at the time.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Here's the last in my series of blogs called "ONSTAGE SUITE" ( written sporadically, yes; erratically, yes). This one deals with a very minimalist performance, if you can call it a performance: no costume, no set, one stage manager, and no audience present. There are times I wonder if there ever will be an audience. If so, I'll probably never know who or where, or if they enjoyed the gig.

A couple of years ago, Nancy and I decided to volunteer at the Oklahoma Library for the Blind. Since then, we've been recording books on tape. Except that I don't think they're actual tapes any more; they may not even be CD's. For all I know, they could be crystal tubes like those that showed up in the frosty Marlon Brando segment of Superman. The technical end is not my job. I just go into a small booth, clap on big ear-phones, adjust the mike and start reading. Nancy, at the control desk outside, does the rest.

("The rest" includes giving directions through the earphones: "Did you just burp?" or "Stop gesturing; the listeners won't see any of that, and you keep clunking the lecturn." Also, "Better read that over; you just said 'gentle football' instead of 'gentle footfall.'" Editing also includes going through the tapes afterward, closing up long pauses, snipping out "lip smacks," and generally making the results presentable.

I've always loved to read aloud. I almost flunked kindergarten, being SO not up to grade level at making paper chains, using scissors, and pasting A onto B. There were no tutors available for Remedial Pasting: my mother checked. But when Mrs. Howell had us pull our little wooden chairs into a semi-circle and take up our large-print readers, look out! Dick and Jane suddenly sounded as lively as the radio show of "Terry and the Pirates."

And for the most part, people like to be read to, I think, sighted or not. That surprised me--that adults would enjoy being read to. In several of my college courses, I experimented with reading aloud a short story or poem, perhaps to illustrate a theme or a technique we'd been discussing, or just to change the pace. No one fell asleep; no one even seemed to space out. Instead, the class appeared to drift into the alert but relaxed Alpha state that probably prevailed thousands of years ago when one of our ancestors pre-empted the campfire to tell stories of the Woolly Mammoth That Got Away.

In today's world, what with TV and I-pods and cell phones and the rest, I wasn't sure that the blind would still be interested in books on tape (or crystals). But apparently they are, along with physically impaired folks who can see but can't hold books or turn the pages. So the Oklahoma Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped makes books on tape available to the state's citizens, along with the machinery necessary to play the tapes. No charge. Not for the machinery, nor the tapes, nor the postal service needed to receive and return the tapes.

My first assigned book was a dandy: That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx. She has written, among others, The Shipping News (made into a fine movie) and "Brokeback Mountain" (ditto). That Old Ace is set in the present day in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. Beautifully written, it's a lively, funny tale chock full of odd and wondrous characters. Lots of them. And therein lay my first mistake.

I decided, before I knew what I was doing, to give each main character a distinctive voice. The central figure, Bob Dollar, got a rather ordinary, bland voice. His quirky Uncle Tam got a nasal, high-pitched sound, befitting one who adores the Keno Brothers on Antiques Roadshow. (Well, I adore the twins also.) Bob Dollar's no-nonsense rancher-landlady ended up with a loud Texas twang. (Proulix has her say, "ray-road" for "railroad." Easy to catch her sound.) But there are a whole passle of characters.

The problem became evident in about Chapter 10. Here, after an absence of 100 pages, comes Bob Dollar's old buddy, the Fat Boy, who has spent a spell in the clink, during which time he lost tons of weight and gained an amazing new career. But what in thunderation does he sound like? What kind of voice did I give him, five recording sessions ago? Jim Dale, the marvelous voice/voices of the audio Harry Potter books, keeps tapes so he will be consistent as he vocalizes all the Muggles and monsters, wizards and whatevers. All I can do now is hope that the listeners forget what Uncle Tam's boyfriend Bromo sounds like when he reappears.

Currently, we're doing Gypsy: Memoirs of America's Most Celebrated Stripper. Yes: Gypsy Rose Lee, central figure of the musical Gypsy. She wrote her book more than fifty years ago; today, the stripper-act that Gypsy Rose Lee did for burlesque shows pales when compared with what one can see any night of the week on TV or cheering on the sidelines of any high school basketball court. We are recording the book at the request of a deep-pocket donor of the Library, himself blind and desireous of hearing Gypsy's life story.

How is the book? In a word, long. In several words, topheavy with unjuicy details. Except that Rose Louise had no formal education at all, I'd think she had been frightened by some schoolmarm scribbling "BE SPECIFIC!" all over the stripper-to-be's little essays. She's specific, all right: the map she draws with words is almost bigger than the territory covered. We're three-fourths of the way through the book, and Gypsy (Rose Louise) is still only sixteen and just trying on her first pair of heels. As a successful stripper, the Gypsy differed from all her competition because, while promising so much, she left almost everything to the imagination. Oh, that she'd brought that strategy to her writing!

So, in the snug soundproof booth, beneath the earphones and emoting to the mike, am I performing? Or simply translating printed words into spoken language? Only those who hear the tapes could say. Hello, out there!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


(See earlier blogs for background on "Aunt Patty Remembers.")

As I took the tented stage in 1984, traveling around the West portraying Aunt Patty Sessions as part of a NEH touring company, perhaps my keenest pleasure was meeting descendants of Aunt Patty.

Aunt Patty (1795-1892)had ten children in all, most of whom died very young. But three adult children figure prominently in Patty's now-famous diaries: Peregrine, David, and Sylvia (married to Windsor P. Lyon). Peregrine, an important leader in the early Mormon church, had a full cast of wives and enough children to fill a three-room schoolhouse(fifty-something). In our six weeks in the Rockies, our performing group visited five states and twice as many little towns. And in every hamlet, however small, out came several people, clutching genealogy sheets with one hand and a line of children with the other, to announce proudly that here were yet more of Peregrine's progeny.

In Loveland, Colorado, rain kept us from performing outdoors under the little striped tent, so we did our time-travel gig back into the 19th century on the stage of a beautifully restored old movie theater. The plush auditorium was large and rather dark inside, and the audience didn't begin to fill all the seats. It wasn't quite the same casual atmosphere as we enjoyed when the crowd sat on the grass in front of the tent, waving to each other and drinking root beer, their offspring cart-wheeling around the park or ballfield. But in the theater, after we'd finished, a young mother shyly came up with three beautiful girls, ages 4, 6, and almost-8. Could she take a picture of them with "Patty"? Oh, my. Their shining blonde hair gleamed in that dusky theater, their blue eyes looked at me, in my tacky, make-shift "pioneer outfit," with the innocence that is reborn every generation, and I looked and looked at them. Flesh of her flesh. Diaries are one thing, histories, pictures, genealogy charts. But here, in their bright faces, Patty became a reality.

Later, in the middle of Wyoming, the tent was again outside, and smack on the front row sat two fellows in Levis, good Wyoming dust thick on their handsome boots. A generation separated them; everything else tied them together--hairlines, large, sad eyes, creases down the cheeks, the same slope to the shoulders. When they came up afterwards, I could see that the older man had lived a long, long time. The younger man introduced his father and himself. He explained that they had driven most of the day across Wyoming to get here.

"And are you descendants of Peregrine Sessions?" I asked, almost as a formality. Why else drive the high plains to West Boot to see some academic types do their thing?

"No," said the older man. "No, not Peregrine. We're from David's line." A pause. "M'boy here,"--the balding "boy" grinned wryly--"so far's we know, he's the last living descendant of David Sessions, Jr. David Junior, he didn't have so many, um, children as Peregrine. And this fella, he's my only child. No grandkids. End of the line now." And he softly punched his boy on the arm.

The Sessions descendants are a proud lot, and deservedly so. One evening in Utah,a couple of years after the summer tour, I was scheduled to do a solo performance of "Aunt Patty Remembers." That afternoon, in the hotel I got a phone call.

"Are you the lady who's going to talk about Patty Sessions?" asked a man. When I said yes, he replied, "Well, I am an ancestor of hers!"

I took a breath, then asked, "And where, sir, are you CALLING FROM?"

Now as to Patty's daughter Sylvia: It was Sylvia, back in Nauvoo, Illinois, who gave her mother Patty the birthday gift of a small notebook which became the diary of the trek and a treasure carefully tended today in the LDS Church archives. Sylvia married Windsor P. Lyon, a pharmacist and doctor. Sylvia had a daughter named Josephine Lyon Fisher. Josephine Lyon Fisher's progeny included George Fisher. George's daughter Emily graced some of my classes in my professorial days, and later became a cherished friend. Our Corgis have romped together. Among the many reasons I owe large dollops of gratitude to Emily is that she first suggested I become a blogger. (I thought she was saying "blocker.") She set up this blogsite for me, and bails me out when my technological know-how flops. As I write, she is preparing for a West Coast biking marathon and fundraiser. She's a legal-aid lawyer, an amazing poet, a musician, clearly a Renaissance woman. Emily and I exchange information about new books of interest.

Speaking of which, there is a recent book titled Miss Alcott's E-Mail. In the book, the writer, Kit Baake, imagines that she can send e-mail to Louisa May Alcott, the 19th century writer, who then pens back replies, somehow. Now, folks, if anyone patents that technology, will I have some news for Aunt Patty! And I'll start with Emily.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ONSTAGE: The Eccentric in the Cadillac

Of my various bits of amateur acting, I guess I had the most fun playing "The Eccentric Woman in the Cadillac." This totally ad lib act never made it to a stage and had a severely limited audience. Come to think of it, the audience never really enjoyed the act at all. But I did.

Leaving the West to live in the South, I parted from my blue Dodge Caravan, the fourth in a series of Caravans I'd owned. I had had other cars, of course, from a hand-me-down Chev that had brought our family across the continent in 1947 to a brand-new 1967 Dodge Dart that lasted more than 12 years and then was reincarnated by a teen-ager. (He put a husky Fury engine in the body of the much-dented Dart.) I have never known much about cars, and I had no great passion for any particular brand or style. A friend once was about to lend me her stick-shift Toyota truck, but when I asked her, as I climbed behind the wheel, "Now which is the clutch again, and which the brake?" she grabbed the keys back and said, "Get out!"

As to my first Dodge Caravan, I enjoyed its view, a little higher than other cars, and especially its roominess. I haven't bought another make or model since then. Moving to the South, I had sold the blue van and was without any car. In Dixie, my friend Nancy let me drive her new Cadillac STS, in a color fancifully called "moonstone," while I shopped for new transportation. It was years before I understood what a sacrifice it had been for Nancy to let me behind the wheel of her beloved Vanessa.

I'd never driven a Cadillac; I was so unchic in my tastes that if I had been able to afford it, my choice of car--price no object--would have been the Checker Marathon,a huge tank of a vehicle most often used for--you're right: Checker Cabs. But Checker made a few passenger cars each year, and having ridden in one--you could put a couple of large steamer trunks between the back seat and the front--I thought it ideal. You might call it the Percheron of cars.

So I first took the wheel of Nancy's Cadillac with no expectations one way or the other. I needed all of twelve minutes to get an education. Cadillac is to Dodge Caravan as cream is to skimmed milk. Or fine chocolate is to carob. Talk about an "AHA!" moment!

So I set off in shiny, sexy Vanessa to visit the area's many car dealers. I explained very clearly what I wanted: a Dodge Caravan, about 10 years old, with around 50,000 miles on her. I might as well have been speaking Swahili.

The car dealers were deafened and blinded by Vanessa. Seeing her, they were unable to hear me ask for an used Dodge Caravan. It made no sense. Why would this crackpot want a ten-year-old Soccer Mom special when she already had a gorgeous, sporty Cadillac STS? And they would proceed to show me new upscale vans like the Town and Country with every bell and whistle ever dreamed up. (Escalades and Navigators weren't available then.)

After visiting the third carlot, I realized I had a choice: explain in detail that I was driving a friend's car (a very successful lawyer-friend) but that I was a fixed-income retired academic who just needed basic transportation. OR, go along with their interpretation: The Crackpot in the Cadillac.

From then on, I played Bea Arthur out of Marian Lorne. I'd sail into a car lot, sporting a bizarre hat and driving with reckless panache. (As opposed to my usual style: driving with panic.) Show-room windows, look out! "A-ha-ha-HA! Sorry about that!"

Once I had their attention, I'd spin a story about needing an old van to get around to all the dog shows.

"Can't take the three Irish Wolfhounds in this!" I'd say, waving a dismissive hand at Vanessa. Outraged, she peed a gallon of condensation from the air conditioner.

Sometimes my storied dogs were a brace of Greyhounds ("rescued just in time, you know!"), sometimes three Tibetan Mastiffs ("Don't understand a word of English!")or eight Chihuahuas competing fiercely in agility trials. The salesmen readily believed it all, since my clothes were covered in three shades of animal hair and I smelled faintly of OFF! I thought about getting a long cigarette holder to wave around, but sometimes less is more. Or so they say.

Playing the eccentric was a lot of fun but totally unsuccessful. Not a single dealer could locate a middle-aged Caravan, "even for ready cash." In the end, we sought help from a friend of Nancy's, the owner of several dealerships throughout the state. From deep in the back-country, Shirley produced a white 10-year old with less than 20,000 miles to her name. Must have belonged to someone with progressive agoraphobia. I christened her VanGo.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Riddle: What birds inevitably follow tornados?
Answer: Vultures.

Walking out to the mailbox recently, I saw a burly fellow swagger confidently right at me. Not towards--at. He carried a self-important clipboard, wore jeans and a T-shirt that would have enabled his mother to find him on the far side of the Sahara in the middle of the night: ASK ME ABOUT YOUR ROOF!

"Guess you know what I do!" he bellowed.

I looked blank. (I'm getting good at that, better with every passing birthday, whichever one it may be.)

"Everybody in your neighborhood has to have a new ROOF!" he gloated, sweeping his arm possessively down the block.

"Ummm," I responded and kept going.

"You got a good roofing contractor?" he called to my back.

I nodded, in a manner of not speaking.

"YOU BETTER BE CAREFUL!" he yelled at the closing door.

Yesterday I went out into the back yard with the dogs, and while there, scattered some bird seed. I had spotted the shy cardinal couple on the patio earlier, and wanted to put the welcome mat out.

Amid the general cheeping and chirping around the neighborhood, I heard a different sound I couldn't place.

THUNK-thunk. THUNK-thunk. Tuh-THUNK-thunk. Woodpeckers? Nah. Then what?

Ah! Roofers. Not an unpleasant sound, actually. Rhythmic,and rather muted.

The tornado three weeks ago had swerved dangerously close to us for 10 minutes. There had been a great wind and battering hail (about the size of Ping-Pong balls) for perhaps five minutes. The roofing salesmen had swarmed for some ten days. Now the workers scamper up and down the high-pitched roofs like squirrels. And soon the hail-pocked roofs will be replaced by new ones, each costing about five times as much as a tornado shelter.

The Cardinals, however, seem to be using the same nest as last year, right up there in the big cottonwood.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


[This is the first of several posts on my "onstage" experience as Patty Bartlett Sessions. Several others may be expected sooner or later.]

The highlight of my bush league stage experience came out of the Wyoming blue. "Bush League"--now there's an old slang term that has been renewed and intensified during the most recent presidential administration! Here's the standard definition: "Bush League is a general term used to describe an action or thing as being amateur, inferior or crude." Now back to the Wyoming blue.

One day in 1984, an historian in Salt Lake City got a phone call from one Lou Burton in Wyoming. Lou, freshly retired from the military, admired the famous mountain man Jim Bridger, and had been giving lectures across the state of Wyoming, dressed in fringed buckskin, toting a long rifle, and telling tall tales for which the old hero had been well known. Burton had just received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a tour throughout five Western states with a presentation called "Trails West, Rails West." "Jim Bridger" would be the star attraction,of course, but he'd be joined by several other historic notables,among them, Thomas Durant, who engineered the Union Pacific railroad, and Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of explorer and miltary hero John C. Fremont. Lou Burton needed one more person, preferably a woman for gender balance and political correctness, preferably a Mormon pioneer since Mormons had been so famously involved in the westward expansion.

Thus Burton's call to historian Maureen Beecher in Utah. Could she tell him of a Mormon pioneer woman who'd come along the great "Mormon Trail"? Beecher certainly could: Patty Bartlett Sessions, a legendary midwife who had kept the most detailed journal extant of the Latter-day Saints' Westward migration. "Splendid!" said Burton. Now one more thing: did Beecher know a contemporary woman who could (a) write a 45-minute monologue based on Sessions' journals, and (b) travel around for six weeks the coming summer, portraying Sessions in an NEH-sponsored Chautauqua? Beecher batted not one eyelash as she named me.

Thus Maureen Beecher served as midwife in the rebirth of midwife Patty Bartlett Sessions. In addition to the six weeks of 1984, I had the keen pleasure of performing "Aunt Patty Remembers" as a solo for half a dozen years thereafter, including as a speaker for the Utah Arts Council's statewide slate of offerings. Bush league? Absolutely. The "major leagues" of such "Cast of One" acting include the likes of Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, the late James Whitmore as Harry Truman, Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf. But I have a hunch that our touring troupe of 1984 had every bit as much fun as any of the big names.

We toured small towns, the NEH theory being that the federal funds should be spent on taking history to out-of-the-way places with less access to great museums and live theater available in Salt Lake City or Denver. Our venue in sunny weather was a small red-white-and-blue tent over a wooden stage. The audience sat outside the tent in folding chairs or on the grass. We gave the folks of Left Boot, Montana, or South Wahoo, Wyoming, three costumed characters each evening for two days. Each monologue lasted about 45 minutes, with another 15 minutes alloted for questions and answers.

The Chautauqua Players adopted a particular pattern in Q & A. We would come back on stage after our set monologue was done, but still in costume and in character. Audience members would ask questions which we would answer as our particular character. As the days passed, we Players became a tad playful (not to say mischievous)during Q & A. For example, Patty Sessions, a meticulous record-keeper, had delivered a total of 3,977 babies in her long career. That became a ready number to answer an assortment of audience queries about which we amateur (or non-)historians hadn't a clue.

"How much did it cost Mrs. Fremont to sail from New York to San Francisco back then?"

"Exactly $3,977.00!"

"How long was the completed Union Pacific Railroad?"

"That would be 3, 977 miles."

Finally our honcho, Lou Burton, told us to quit the shenanigans.

The program moderator, Terri (Mrs. Lou) Burton) always reminded audience members to ask only questions that the characters could logically answer in their time frames.
No asking Jim Bridger, "How 'bout them Rockies?" No asking explorer Richard Burton when he died. Sometimes audience members asked questions that our characters could have answered, but we the actors could not. To me, that was a good sign: it meant that the line had blurred between historical character and summer thespian. One evening when I came back after my monologue, still as Patty, an elderly gentleman in the front row, an assortment of small tykes beside him, stiffly raised his hand.

"My great-grandfather came across in one of the handcart companies, and then he lived up there by City Creek near where you were. Do you remember him?" And he gave his ancestor's name.

Well, Aunt Patty surely must have known him, but I had nary an idea about the man. Yet I couldn't stand up there on the stage, Patty's authoritative cane in my hand, and say I didn't know this man's revered forebearer. I squinted as if trying to remember, stroked my chin, and then said, "Ah! Yes indeed! Yes indeed I do remember him! A fine man. Wonderful family man. Oh, mercy, was he a hard worker! A great example to us all!"

The old gentleman nodded. He seemed content.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


So last summer, we faced the big decision: buy a decent TV that does not ring and buzz and distort so insanely that Renee Fleming sounds like Selma Diamond--OR invest in a tornado shelter.

A tornado shelter is in that category of things you buy and hope you never use--like longterm care insurance, or the chip that is implanted under your dog's skin so that if he is lost, he can be retrieved (IF the finders give a hoot, and IF they take the dog where someone can READ the submerged chip, and IF they then give a second hoot and notify you.)

The tornado shelter costs about three times as much as a jim-dandy TV and is about the same size. Ours was installed beneath the concrete floor of the garage. In theory, it accommodates six people. In practice, the two of us and a hamster.

February is early for tornados here in Oklahoma. The wind, as you all know from the song, has the main year-round weather franchise. Tornados are normally onstage in the spring. So when the tornado watch became a tornado warning on Tuesday, folks didn't know whether to take it seriously or just to figure that the TV weathermen felt unappreciated.

If you think sports announcers have to be on their toes (or more aptly on their vocal cords) during a hotly contested game, envision the weather guys trying to cover a major tornado (or, in Tuesday's case, three tornados roaring down the track one after another). The Big Blow moves at 45 mph or faster across the largest metro area in the nation. (On the east, the Oklahoma City limits extend clear out to Hellandgone, where most residents actually vote in Arkansas.) On the TV screen, a radar arm sweeps across a street map of the area, and red dots show the neighborhoods next in line for a scrimmage. Outside, two guys in cars drive wildly through the streets, keeping their cameras trained for funnel clouds while the rain and hail play Car Wash on the windshield. In the sky, helicopters bounce about in the storm and capture pictures of roofs becoming airborne and large trees flying by like pitched celery stalks.

Pretty soon the red dots blink in our direction. The sky darkens and hail the size of Brussel sprouts begin to pelt and bang the roof and windows. Now it's time to corral the dogs, who are on edge (a) because their superior hearing alerted them to the storm while we were still watching Family Feud, and (b) because we keep saying, "It's all right, kids. It's all right," convincing them that disaster is afoot.

Inside the garage, Nancy pulls her car right up to the kitchen door. In theory, that allows us to slide back the cover of the shelter and climb down into its bowel. The cover, of course, lies flat, protruding just a couple of inches above the garage floor. There is minimal clear space between the garage door and the end of Nancy's car smack above the shelter cover. Getting ourselves inside is thus like slipping mail through a narrow mail slot. Except that this mail is more like a thick padded envelope. And of course the two dogs, having never had a rehearsal of this aspect of family life, are dubious. Finally I just plop them through the slot into Nancy's arms. Then I run back to the TV. All the weather guys and gals have been waiting for the possible touchdown. It comes, its funnel right there on the screen. It spins to the ground two blocks north and two blocks east of us.

The next day, in the chiropractor's office, I listen to two businessmen talking about the problems they had driving home after the tornado. Police and fire trucks had cordoned off some of the major arteries, but Suit #1 boasts about having given his wife an alternate route, and "she got home slick as a whistle." Then he casually continues, "But Fred's house was totally destroyed. Just trash and debris left. And their dog's run off."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I don't, actually. Swear, that is. Mine is not a moral position, but more likely a stylistic one. Just about all the swearing I have heard over the years strikes me as trite and unimaginative. At the end of each interview on the TV program, "The Actors' Studio," James Lipton asks the guest actor, "What is your favorite curse word?" The responses, even from the most creative megastars, are standard and remarkably dull.

A little creativity in expletives, by contrast, is refreshing.

On the first day of eighth grade math, my classmates and I at Amphitheater Junior High didn't know what to expect from Mrs. Nichols, whose dark braids towered high on her head like Carmen Miranda's fruits, and whose stiletto heels clicked impatiently, a crisp warning on the concrete floor. We were swimming into the mysterious waters of serious math, we knew that. Mrs. Nichols' keen brown eyes glittered and leaped from Jack to Carolyn, from Carl to me, back and forth around the rows. She fired off several questions to see just how little we knew. Our answers were pathetic. Her reaction came in a whoop:

"GREAT CAESAR'S GHOST and all the LITTLE ghosts!"

This was her signature "cussword," and in the instant she cried it out, we knew all we needed to know about her. We knew she was acting, being playful for our amusement and entertainment; we knew she enjoyed the creativity of her phrase; and somehow we knew that, though she meant business, it could be a lively and enjoyable business. The woman liked math, she liked us, and she liked herself: we were safe.

My rotund, jolly grandmother--Nanny--was pretty unflappable. Very little seemed to upset her, even three free-and-easy grandchildren permanently underfoot. Whereas our grouchy, Germanic Gramps often spat guttural "goddammits" and "Cheezus Gotts" in our misbehaving direction, Nanny mostly just laughed and shooed us away like little horseflies. But on the rare occasion when she became deeply annoyed, Nanny made herself heard. "Oh, YOU! I'll take a switch to YOU! [She never did.] YOU, you just--OH, GO TO GRASS!" I was years older and fifteen hundred miles away before I understood that her "Go to grass" was a softer but no less specific way of saying, "Go to hell" or "Drop dead!" The destination was the same, but the words were more picturesque.

Of course, the power of curse words is always in the mind of the be-hearer. Many Christians who carefully avoid even a mild blasphemy like "My God!" are shocked to hear pious and mild-mouthed Frenchwomen say "mon dieu!" without the smallest hiccup. In Kathryn Forbes' beloved memoir, Mama's Bank Account(made into a movie as I Remember Mama), gruff old Uncle Chris helps his small, lame nephew Arne get through the worst of his pain by teaching him the fierce oath "Shimmelpilz!"--but warning the boy to use the horrible word for only the very worst of his agonies. Later when a prim aunt scolds Uncle Chris for leading the boy to the brink of blasphemy, Chris sneeringly translates: "shimmelpilz" means "mildew."

A woman met on shipboard spoke of the anguish of her long bout with a terrible case of shingles*--months and months of searing pains in the face and back, by day and by night. "Since then," she explained, "when I am totally disgusted with someone, I no longer say 'go to hell'; I say, 'Get shingles!'"

Our professor of Old English at university was the epitome of the "gentleman and scholar." Karl Young was a Western farm boy who had gone to Oxford and returned with all of his homegrown values intact plus a thorough education in the best European tradition transmuted thereon. One day in class he was explaining to us that the Anglo-Saxon phrase "Swiga thu!" meant something like "Shut your stupid trap!"--only more vitriolic. Then he paused and smiled to himself. "I can just see that phrase sweeping across campus now, with students growling, 'Swiga thu!' at each other." It was our turn to smile to ourselves. There were seven of us nerdy English major types in the graduate class. The thought that from our little band, an Anglo-Saxon phrase would sweep across the campus of 30,000 students a nd become the catch phrase of the term seemed as implausible as the heroic tales of Beowulf and the monster Grendel we were laboring to translate.

My favorite blessing/cursing comes from another Western farm boy, Levi Peterson, a classmate in the Fifties, later a scholar, professor, editor and novelist with a considerable regional reputation. In his prime, he was just a shade better looking than Paul Newman (whom he resembled). One day I must have done him some small favor, and in parting, he said, with his unhobbled cowboy twang, "May all your children be born naked!" I was startled at this benediction, but his good wife Althea hastened to reassure me: "This is what he says when he means you well. When he's angry at you, he says, "May all your children be born with spurs on!"

Now there's creativity, Actors' Studio!

*Just in case you missed this news: there is now a vaccination against shingles, to which anyone who has had chickenpox is susceptible. Shingles can be just mildly annoying or it can be hugely painful for long periods of time. The vaccination is expensive at present, depending on what your insurance covers, but anyone who has had shingles would probably say it's worth the money.

Monday, January 5, 2009


This morning before my mind was out of low gear, my friend CBSongs hailed me online and we began to chat. I offered a scrap of news: overnight, our mutual friend Ann had gained a new grandson to brag about. Then I said, "He is three weeks ahead of schedule, so he weighs only 5 lbs."

And then CB asked, "Why do they do that? Announce the baby's weight and height? They always do that: 'Tyler P. Tinker, 5 lbs. 6 oz., 20 inches long.' I don't get it."

As mentioned, the grey cells were in compound low, complaining at being asked to read at this point, let alone answer philosophical questions. So I grumped, "Well, shoot, CB; what do you expect the announcement to say? 'No teeth, no hair, no volume control, yellow-green poop. Stay tuned.' Cheez!"

We went on to higher things, like the fact that there is a ferry from Ft. Myers to Key West. (CB has intentions of getting out of the Ice Belt for a bit this season.)

But her question set me thinking. Why do people always put the weight and length on baby announcements? They put date of birth, name. . . and poundage. Inevitably.

I'm very glad this social rite doesn't seem to carry past the person's arrival on the planet. So far I have not received Christmas newsletters that announce, "Dwayne made the Chess Club; he's 6'3" now and weighs 122; his hair is almost to his waist," or "Here is Carl with the German Brown he caught at Fish Lake; the fish is a ten-pounder, Carl is pushing 220." On the other hand, the DMV still thinks it's cute to demand ht/wt/hair and eye color on licenses. As if there were no such thing as colored lenses, wigs, padding or lies. And besides, now they take thumbprints, so let's lose the vital statistics on the licenses, shall we?

Back to baby announcements. CB's question got me wondering. Why DO his parents put weight and length on the announcement of Tyler P?

1. What else is there to say? They're sending out an announcement that a couple of Grandmas are going to scrapbook: it should be worth the glue.

2. For future astonishment. One outsized blogger I know enjoys telling folks she weighed 5 pounds at birth. Years ago, I had a freshman student who stood 6'11". He maintains that he was 18 pounds and 27 inches at birth, and, if challenged, he whips out a laminated newspaper clipping as proof.

3. The mother carried him for nine months and delivered this camel through the eye of the needle, so to speak. She wants credit for every ounce.

I know, I know. Dumb answers. Okay, CB; I give up.