Monday, December 6, 2010


Good friend Emily ran the California International Marathon last Sunday. She had set herself a goal of finishing under 4 hours, and, being Emily, she achieved her goal.

I wanted to send Emily some token of my rejoicing in her achievement. Had I been cheering on the sidelines in Sacramento, I could have given several blasts on the regimental bugle I bought in Scotland 20 years ago. Or of course I could have sent flowers. I mean, if running the Kentucky Derby's two kilometers in under two minutes merits a horseshoe of roses around a Thoroughbred's neck, surely it couldn't be considered a sissy gift for someone who runs non-stop for almost four hours. But as intensely as I love getting flowers, there's a dramatic spark missing there, an immediacy. Flowers are clearly tops for birthdays, and for new-born babies, for Mothers Day and for winning Harvard prizes. But when someone crosses the marathon finish line in under four hours, you want to do something FAST, something BANG! that will celebrate with the runner while the blood is still chasing around the body, and the sweat still fresh.

There used to be such a thing. It was called a telegram.

Please. Don't tell me about Twitter and Twinkle and emails and your grinning face on someone's cell phone. There is still nothing comparable to having a boy in a uniform knock on your door and hand you a yellow envelope still warm with an urgent message. "It's a boy. Eight pounds. Red hair." Or "Wish we could attend wedding. Will try to make honeymoon. Watch for us."

The story of how they crossed the continent with telegraph poles is a thrilling one. (President Lincoln considered it impossible; he feared Indians would cut down the poles as fast as they went up. Ah, well, even Homer said dumb things.) In those early days, a telegram could cost $20--as much as a good horse. Western Union got in gear in 1856; the last hand-delivered telegram was sent in 2006, but long before that, the great tradition had essentially disappeared. And it was a great tradition.

In the heyday, though, you could send a ten-word telegram within a city for twenty cents.

Messages sent further cost more, a set price per word; senders became skilled at saying a lot in a few words. A self-important movie producer once needed to know Cary Grant's age. He wired the star, "HOW OLD CARY GRANT?" Grant responded, "OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?" Succinct wit sparkled because of the need for brevity. In 1897, while Mark Twain was in England, U.S. newspapers announced that the humorist had died. Twain telegraphed back, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." The shortest telegram was sent by Oscar Wilde to his publisher. Wanting to know how well his latest book was selling, Wilde wired, "?" The publisher replied, "!"

I received only a couple of telegrams in my life. One informed me I had won a substantial scholarship to the University of Arizona. Standing in our living room, the yellow telegram in my hand, I told my mother the good news. For a reason I still don't understand, she shook her head and said , irritated, "You did NOT!" Then, reading the brief wire, she added, "See? It says, 'letter follows.' " Somehow, the telegram, so very rare in her experience (and mine), was simply not to be trusted. Only when a typed letter on heavy bond paper came did she accept the news.

Telegrams were dramatic. They were delivered by a Messenger, with bugles implied if not actually present. Unlike phone calls, they were permanent. With their unique form, they stood out from letters or greeting cards. You could paste them in scrapbooks and cherish them long after the red-headed baby boy had become bald. They celebrated life's Major Events, whether sad or joyous.

Ah well. I have never been very good at brevity anyway. But hurrah for you, Emily, and on to Boston!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


The magician reaches into his shiny top hat and produces a rabbit. Or a dove that soars to the rafters as we watch his flight.

I reach into my smallish handbag and produce a flat rectangle, very slim, lighter in weight than some letters I've written and a few I've received (the latter on eight or ten pages of yellow lined tablet paper).

It has no wheels, no wires, no tubes. No hidden recesses, no pockets. It's as far from anything Rube Goldberg would devise as Linda Hunt is from Andre the Giant.

Mark Twain turned down a chance to invest in the earliest telephone because he couldn't imagine that anyone besides himself and his lawyer would ever use the gimmick. But Twain poured thousands and thousands of dollars into the Paige Linotype Compositor, which he believed would make him the richest man in America--if Paige ever got his invention to work just right. But Paige never did, and Twain, who was quite rich when he began shoveling money into Paige's coffers, went bankrupt. (He paid back his creditors, dollar for dollar, working an unbelievable round-the-world speaking tour that took years. ) Less complex linotype machines, however, made possible the Information Age, churning out millions upon millions of printed books and newspapers, until the 1970's and 1980's, when computerized printing replaced the machines.

I wonder what Mark Twain would think of the magic gismo in my purse. The Paige Compositor had 18,000 extremely noisy moving parts. The gismo has a very small switch, an under-sized keypad, and a tiny finger of a latch that keeps the gismo in its leather jacket. That's it. At least that's all the moving parts I can see, or hear.

But I flick a finger, and there is Pride and Prejudice, all of it, for me to read. There also is all of Marcel Proust's mighty giant, which I can read lying on my back in bed, the gismo in one hand. And quietly at my service is the entire Oxford Dictionary. And the wondrously written novel Atonement, which I couldn't wait to read after I had seen the award-winning film version. So I didn't. Wait, that is. I flicked an impatient finger, and there was the complete novel, before mine eyes.

Doves and rabbits indeed.

Monday, September 6, 2010


This is an account of a concert that began in chaos and ended in glory. Or perhaps it's simply a lesson in perception.

Nancy and I spent a week in mid-July touring Costa Rica with the Carolina Master Chorale, sight-seeing and singing. (Well, not all of us sing; some carry the music or pack the suitcases.) The Chorale's first concert was to start at 8 p.m. at the Colegio Tecnico Profesional Agropecuario Santa Elene de Monteverde. As nearly as I can determine, the Colegio is the equivalent of a state's “Aggie School,” and is concerned with stock-breeding. We saw no stock, but breeding seems to be going well: the average age of the audience was about nine.

On the evening of the concert, our tour bus, “Marco Polo,” lumbered through a rather showy rainstorm, up hill and down potholes. The singers had changed from their usual tacky-tourist outfits into somber black performance garb. Most of us water-carriers tried to be commensurately drab. When we finally pulled up to the venue, rain had filled all gutters and gullies, and the drab factor shot up as we stumbled out into the deluge. The tour company, professionally familiar with Costa Rica, handed each of us an industrial-sized umbrella, and we sloshed through the puddles to a wide doorway.

As we dripped our way through the barn-like doors, applause and shouts and cheers poured over us, as abundant as the rain. The crowd stood up, waving and smiling. Surprised at this warmer-than-usual welcome, I blew kisses as boldly as any actual singer. We were led to several rows of folding chairs set at right angles to the audience. In a back seat with other auxiliary travelers (some wives, a husband or two, one teen-aged son), I had time to survey our “concert hall.”

It most resembled an indoor rodeo arena, or possibly the site of cattle and farm machinery auctions. The walls and roof were tin or aluminum, the floor unadorned concrete, and set up on the longer side of the rectangular space were four tiers of wooden bleachers. The audience in the bleachers numbered around one hundred, but there was, all through the evening, much activity by spectators not seated in the bleachers, or anywhere else. In general atmosphere and continued flow of humanity, the place seemed much like a community softball park on a Saturday morning.

Directly behind the Chorale's seats there must have been a kitchen, for people came and went continually with paper plates of pico de gallo (rice-and-beans) and cans of Coke (the lovely, sugar-sweetened, high-octane Coke no longer available stateside). An ongoing sound effect from that direction was regular giggling and chatting of teen-aged girls.

In my experience, the Carolina Master Chorale is accustomed to being the star attraction on its programs, except for an occasional famous soloist. On this particular Costa Rican evening, however, we discovered that the CMC was only part of the show.

Before the Chorale sang, a cadre of the teen-aged girls presented themselves; and, to canned music managed by a cool disc jockey who also manipulated colored lights flitting across the far wall, they gave us a vigorous and highly limber exhibit of what I would call a pole dance, except that instead of poles, they used folding chairs. Yards of sleek dark hair swirled and snapped as they performed the graceful, sexy contortions of the dance. They concluded to cheers, shouts, and much applause.

After a leisurely pause, the same girls came back with partners in white pants and blue and white shirts to do some more fancy footwork, not quite so limber as the chair dances and somewhat less, um, personal.

Then the Master Chorale's director, Tim, stood up and made a polite speech to the crowd, his every few words being translated by Juve, the tour guide, like an echo as he spoke. Much applause, cheers, and then the Chorale stood in two half-circles and prepared to sing. I waited for the usual hush to fall.

It fell not.

Throughout the concert, the teen-aged girls directly behind me continued to talk and giggle. Some got plates of pico de gallo and sauntered casually to the bleachers to share spoonfuls with family members. In the bleachers, older women chatted and fingered the fancy costumes of smaller girls, who squirmed and repeatedly smoothed their full, shiny red, green, and gold skirts. Little boys were constantly in motion. One fellow, about eighteen months old and mostly steady on his fast little feet, repeated his personal game throughout the concert. He would skitter away from his mother, make a wide circle to within a few feet of the performing singers, take a sharp turn and race towards the open doors, where the rain was still drumming down. I feared for his safety outside in the dark, wet night. But always, at the very last moment, he veered right and swooped back to his mother, who had been calmly preoccupied with a large casado of rice, beans, cabbage, chicken and fried plantains.

The lack of focused attention, the continued talking, the rambling to and fro of adults and children alike brought me to a smoldering snit. Where was the famous Tico politeness? If I had known the Spanish for “HUSH UP!” I would have hissed it at the teens standing just a few feet behind me. But the only Spanish synonym I knew translated as “Shut up!” and as a guest, I wasn't prepared to sink to that level of rudeness.

I started to get a faint glimpse of the cultural difference involved when I followed the actions of a tiny fellow surely no more than three, playing soccer by himself with a small, empty paper cup. He started on the edges of the arena, but had no compunctions about following his “ball” wherever it went. He was astoundingly good at his game; he never missed a kick, and never really halted or slowed as he ran after the cup. Timing and aim, not to mention vigor, would have made a twelve-year-old proud. He moved nearer and nearer to the performing artists, not by intent but merely as the game led him. Finally I saw a man get up from the crowd and approach the boy. I foresaw a quick scooping up of the child, or a firm shake and a scolding. But no. The man gently took the child's arm, and guided him towards the sidelines, pointing, but then left him to carry on. Hmmmm. A tiny light flickered on somewhere in the back of my mind.

The Chorale, calm and on key, went through its classical program without, apparently, being distracted by the noise, the milling, running, tumbling, eating, entering and exiting, and general socializing. Myself, I was distracted. At one point, I watched as a group of children nearby arranged and re-arranged half a dozen folding chairs according to several scenarios. First, one row of chairs was pulled very close to the other, and six little girls seated themselves cosily, each placing her legs up on the seat of another girl's chair, for greater chumminess. They smoothed their skirts and chatted nicely, playing visiting mamas, perhaps. When I again glanced in that direction, the six chairs had been lined up as in a bus, and in the front seat, one boy was portraying a serious, in-charge driver, while the others, boys and girls, sat mimicking adult propriety.

Why was no attempt made to control the children and keep the noise down at least a few decibels? I couldn't understand it. Costa Rica has a rich international background and a sophisticated history of the arts. Most Ticos (Costa Ricans) have experience of cultural performances at a high level in the capital of San Jose. I sat in my back row, sighing and frowning like the wet hen I was. The tiny light didn't illuminate much, yet.

When the Chorale finished singing, I gathered water bottles and umbrellas, ready to depart. But no. More young people took center stage and performed more dances. From the sidelines, little girls in blazing satin dresses came up and twirled with delight, clearly enjoying their long-awaited few minutes of fame. The DJ, Jove-like, put forth one relaxed hand, and rainbows of colored lights swirled around the building. Then, at a word from the older dancers, a great flock of small Ticos raced to the center, and an unscheduled lesson in line dancing began. My photos show that the small children, some no more than four, were attentive and agile, mimicking the steps of the older youth very well indeed.

The beat picked up. A lovely young teen-ager shot out of the chorus line and approached one of the baritones in the Master Chorale. Startled but game, Tom removed his jacket and joined her in a disco dance. More men were enticed. Then the teen-aged Tico boys got their courage up and invited assorted sopranos and altos to exercise more than their vocal cords. The bleachered audience was delighted, applauding and calling out encouragement to the game norteamericanos.

Now small costumed folk began to appear beside my chair. Pointing at my camera, they smiled and raised their eyebrows. After I snapped one little hombre, he looked at the picture of himself and pointed excitedly across to the bleachers. So I took the camera and showed his mother a picture of her child. He seemed satisfied. Now more flocked up, small muchachas posing with aplomb, holding out their great glittering skirts, and flashing poster-girl smiles. All around the arena, little boys and girls had politely asked the visitors to dance with them or pose for pictures, shake hands or share a paper cup of mango juice. It all swirled together-- noise, music, laughter, lights, fractured Spanish and softer, heavily accented English.

I had been to many performances of the Carolina Master Chorale, including some in the great cathedrals of Europe. But this one was unique and most wondrous, and I finally saw it for what it was: a true community concert—from the word “concert,” meaning, among other things, together.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


There is, of course, more of the "Johnny" story to come. (Whether anyone is reading it, I am leaving up to the Fates and their sisters, the Whims.) But I had to make note of today's Sound.

Home from shopping, hot and sore a-foot, I plopped before the computer and signed on You-Tube for a tad of refreshment. Who would it be? Ah well, Callas. "Casta Diva."

It was glorious, of course. But the whipped cream on the scoop of delight was reading some of the comments by other Tubers, some notes in Italian, one in Russia, one in (I think) Finnish, and one in English from a Greek, who was proud to share Callas' heritage, and told us that every time she swam in the clear blue Aegean, she could feel Callas in her ears, because La Diva had requested her ashes to be dispersed in those waters. Oh, my.

A great muchness of our modern electronic trappings irritate and intimidate me. But connecting for a moment with a dozen or so other lovers of the Callas gift, across time and boundaries, penetrating language bars and barriers, in such a blood and bone, nerve-ending level of our human lives, well, that renders some of the other annoyances very minor key indeed.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

CHRISTMAS SURPRISES (the Johnny series continued)y

I don't know what kind of teacher Jim was. And I certainly couldn't judge his results from my contact with Johnny and Beverly. Their minds were molded long before he pranced up to their front doors.

I could understand where Beverly got her hot-house nuturance. Her father, Sterling, taught high school history, and directed a church choir somewhere in town to earn a few extra dollars. In his dark, cramped back bedroom, he accumulated an expensive hi-fi system and stacks of records, which he played behind closed doors and at an lower and lower volume, under pressure from Mrs. W. He was enamored of Zinka Milanov, a Metropolitan diva of great renown. It's clear to me now that music was Mr. W's air hose, the one thing that kept him from drowning in the murky, submerged world of his wife's household.

Beverly had a high thin voice, pleasant enough for the gentle folk songs he occasionally sang. Her parents had bought her a small dulcimer, and with her long, pasty-white fingers she would weakly pluck away and trill about Barbara Allen or Lord Randall. Beverly's hands were pale and weak, yes, but also beautifully shaped, with well-tended fingernails (polished in natural shades only). The rheumatoid arthritis that had twisted and knotted Johnny's hands beyond usefulness had left Beverly's intact.

Unlike her father, Beverly did not give her heart to an opera diva, nor t a handsome tenor. No.

Nor did she settle on a popular balladeer--Sinatra, Perry Como, or one of the young pompadors such as Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vale, Fabian. No. Her heart flew out of her delicate, unfledged body straight to a local guitar picker and singer, Lonny Hendrickson, who played around town in various bands and had, at 21, his own half-hour television show.

I was there on Christmas Eve the year Beverly was eighteen and at full boil about how wonderful Lonny Henrickson was. She had learned several of his sad-sack ballads and would croon them softly while brushing her ill-tempered Peke, Boo-Boo, or applying a fresh coat of lacquer to her perfect, unendangered nails. Her father had developed a full litany of put-downs on Loony, as he persisted in calling the singer, and after delivering these, he would walk out of the living room shaking his head, and seeking the rarer air of his bedroom and the comfort of the oxygenated Milanov.

This particular evening, however, Mr. W. was very present in the living room, tinkering with the lights on the enormous tree Beverly always insisted on having, or bringing Johnny and me more perspiring bottles of Dr. Pepper. He was even talking animatedly to Boo-Boo, who regarded this unusual attention with breed-standard Oriental coolness. Mrs. W. was actually in the kitchen, getting reacquainted with that room and , God help us, baking, or doing a no-oven version of baking. As I recall, the piece de resistance of the evening involved combining Rice Krispies, marshmallows, peanut butter and possibly molasses in a baking dish and then quick-freezing the glop for thirty minutes. An alien in the kitchen, Mrs. W was producing a steady, non-festive clatter of falling pans, slamming door cupboards, sharp yips whenever Boo-Boo get underfoot, and an occasional shrill shriek.

"Mother?" Beverly would call when the din grew too loud.

"Du calme, Beverly, du calme. I am rising to the occasion, never fear!" She enjoyed reminding us that Eleanor Roosevelt (whom she rather uncannily resembled in appearance if not in character) was also quite hopeless in the kitchen.

Johnny and I didn't mind the noise, but we were nervous about the possibility that we would have to eat whatever resulted from this rare "rising to the occasion." Johnny was far too polite to refuse any food he was offered. I, being ambulatory, could always pocket an inedible creation, disappear into the bathroom and dispose of the problem there.

Mr. W. continued to tinker and wisecrack in the living room, so restless as to seem a tad intoxicated. Since the man drank nothing stronger than sanka in public, if Zinka's cherished records shares space with a flask of something back in those dim recesses. Mr. w. actually giggled a time or two. Good heavens! Were Jimmy Joe's tics contagious?

Then the doorbell rang.

The doorbell never rang at the Wainwright house. No one came through the gate and up the broken porch steps. In fact, once I saw a small, hand-written sign thumb-tacked by the bell, reading, "DO NOT RING BELL! Sickness here! Please phone if absolutely necessary." (No phone number was offered.) Some years passed before I figured out that the sign was probably there to slow down bill-collectors.)

"Now WHO could that be?" said Mr. W., much too cheerfully. He looked around at us with wide, dramatic eyes. Did he expect the three of us (at eighteen, remember) to shout "Santa Claus!"?

He paused to let the excitement mount. When it didn't, he flung open the door.

Lonny Hendrickson stood there with a large box in his hand.

He wore Levis, a Western shirt, a bright red vest with mother of pearl buttons, and a fringed buckskin jacket. He and Mr. W. wore smile-for-the-camera grins. Beverly, Johnny, and I were frozen.

Monday, June 7, 2010

O-HO, JIMMY JOE: Graduation Night

Johnny and Beverly didn't have any "graduation" as such--they had simply finished the curriculum set for that semester, had taken and of course passed their tests, and received, via Jim but signed by higher-ups, their high-school diplomas. All four of us felt that some ceremony, however slight, was called for.

Even the word "slight" overstates it. But we did out best. Somehow, Jim and I, quietly supported by Johnny, had persuaded Beverly's mother to let her come out in the Nash for a trip to a drive-in for a hamburger and milk shake. I think we only got her permission because she couldn't figure out how SHE could accompany us in a single car. Mrs. Wainwright's absence from the outing made it special, made it even slightly dangerous, uncharted and uncaptained. Lord knows Jim was no captain; I was the original mutineer, and as for Johnny. . . . Well, Johnny was one of the few people I have ever known who was indeed captain of his own soul and, at the same time, totally free of the need to officiate in the lives of others.

So we set off for a drive-in a few miles from home base. Ours would have been a pallid celebration indeed, except that that particular evening was also Prom Night at two local high schools. The streets were full of carloads of seniors, coming and going; old, battered Chevies were packed with boys in alien tuxedos and girls in ballooning prom gowns, skirts billowing up and all but obscuring the drivers' view of the road. Car windows were down that balmy Tucson spring evening, and kids called back and forth to each other, merrily to classmates, jeeringly to enemies from the rival school. Some seniors were looking forward to college in the fall, either at the University of Arizona in Tucson (the Wildcats) or at the State College (not yet Arizona State University) in Tempe (the Sun Devils). Yells resounded: "Get lost, Wildcats!" "Go back to Hell, Sun Devils!" Students who didn't yet know how to find a restroom on their future campus were nonetheless, on that night, rabid loyalists, fierce and proud.

The fever got to Jimmy Joe, who began leaning out his window and screaming, "I'M A RAMBLING WRECK FROM GEORGIA TECH!" A block later, his cry was "HOOK 'EM, HORNS!" The more he yelled, the redder his face got, and the wilder his giggle. Not to be outdone, I rolled down my window and leaned out, pointing wildly at the tire on a passing car and calling, "YOUR WHEEL'S COMING OFF!" (Hot stuff from Dorothy Parker's would-be successor.)

Beverly, embolded in the dark back seat and untethered for the first time in years, rolled down her window and started waving her handkerchief at the passing cars. ("The Glass Menagerie" come to life before our very eyes.) Beverly's lovely strawberry blonde hair whipped around her face in the wind, and her soft, never-tainted-by-direct-sunlight complexion must have been a quick vision in oncoming headlights, for boys started calling back.


"TAMMY SUE!" she screamed, and waved her hanky again. She became drunk with her own daring. Johnny sank back against the seat, breathless with laughter and embarrassment. Mostly embarrassment.

We pretty much quieted down in the drive-in itself, no longer so bold, or so anonymous, with cars parked fender to fender around us and the occasional police car patrolling the perimeter on the watch for underage drinking. But Jim hissed in a stage whisper to alert us that both couples in the adjacent car were involved in heavy necking, as we called it then. In fact, what they were doing was clearly heavy duty "petting," but all four of us were too straight-laced to use that word in mixed company. We sat stiffly, facing the brightly lit interior of the drive-in, but we nearly injured ourselves trying to see out of the corner of our eyes whatever might be going on to our left. We were as curious as kittens.

We paid almost no attention to the burgers and shakes that had been the putative reason for the outing. Eventually, the car-hop came, Jim paid, our tray was removed, but still we didn't pull out. Then suddenly the steamy car beside us took off; then Jim followed at once.

And following was clearly what he had in mind. As the Pontiac ahead turned left and then right, heading further into the desert foothills, Jim kept with them. Beverly quickly rolled up her window and slumped down.

"What are you doing, Jim?" she whispered.

We could see every tooth in Jim's narrow mouth as he giggled.

"Don't!" Johnny said. In the Fifties, certain East Coast gangsters frequently spent their winters in Tucson, just like the Cleveland Indians baseball team. There had been several incidents , large newspaper banners, occasional unidentified bodies found in the dry riverbeds in Pima County. I guess if you're accustomed to dumping your victims in the nearest river, you continue that pattern, water or no. Saves on cement, perhaps. I could tell that Johnny was envisioning headlines as Jim shadowed the Pontiac north on Campbell Avenue.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


[Prior to the events narrated in this segment, Beverly had entered the story. She was the same age as Johnny and I; she had endured rheumatoid arthritis but had not been deformed by it, only rendered forever under her mother's grip. She spent her days in a hospital bed in the family living room. )

It was a year before Johnny and Beverly and I found out that Jim Pinckney's full name was James Joseph Pinckney, Junior, and that his family called him "Jimmy Joe"-- always had, currently did, and ever would, worlds without end amen. At that point, the always-wispy line between teacher and students disappeared forever, gone with the windy snort of adolescent mockery.

We never called him Jimmy Joe to his face, of course, at least not until Johnny and Beverly officially graduated from their homebound classes and received diplomas. But he was "Mr. Pinckney" for only his first weeks as their teacher. After Beverly had stumbled shyly and repeatedly over his name, landing hopefully on "Mr. Pinky" and "Mr. Picky," and after I had referred to the totemic Eliot poem as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Pinkfrock," we were told,
"Call me Jim." The "or else" hung in the air like dangerous magnolias.

I don't know what the school systems of today call teachers who go to students' home for one-on-one instruction. Perhaps there is no such thing anymore. Perhaps the great cause of "mainstreaming" has resulted in sick children being wheeled into classrooms on gurnies, accompanied by oxygen tanks, personal aides and interpreters. But in the Fifties, school boards proudly offered "Homebound" instruction, presumably to any child who could qualify as homebound, whether by obvious physical limitations (like Johnny) or by parental fiat (like Beverly). In any case, into both their lives (and consequently mine) the Tucson Public School system sent James J. Pinckney. None of us was ever the same again, least of all, Jimmy Joe.

I wasn't there when the knock came on the door and Johnny's mother opened it to find the neatly dressed young man smiling at her with at least 42 teeth and a striped bow tie. But imagination supplies. Midwestern Lutheran niceness and Southern courtesy surely beamed at each other on that day. Verla had to be impressed with Jim, without being intimidated. The pluses: the suit, the well-tended haircut, the dancing school manners. On the negative hand, Jim had a slight build, something of a stammer, and chipmunk cheeks. He also had smiles the way some people have dandruff. His was an English mouth--small jaw, large teeth crowding each other out of line. Think Joyce Grenfell, Alastair Sim, Terry Thomas, Princess Anne. Perhaps the compulsive smiles came from those teeth yearning for freedom, or at least for more space.

Johnny, Beverly, and I were all innocents of the Fifties. Today's sophomores would readily pigeonhole, accurately or otherwise, this young man with his fastidious ways, his startling high giggles, and his pale freckled hands that could find no rest, neither in his pockets, behind his back, beneath his books, nor anywhere else. But we three had nothing much for comparison in those pre-sitcom days, and he became, for us, just Jim. Maybe he was an atypical window to the world for the two homebound kids, but the breeze he brought with him was delightful.

Of course, I didn't get to know Jim as a teacher. I had my own allotment of society's mavericks wielding the grade-books at my high school, and they didn't seem all that different from Jim. But for me, Jim was an adult who appeared more like us than like his thirty-something contemporaries. Actually, his silly streak was wider, and, I suspect, deeper than ours. Perhaps that was his greatest contribution to the homebound pair--he resurrected in them just enough of the silliness that is the healthy teen-ager's birthright. Best example? Their graduation night.

(To be continued.)

Friday, May 14, 2010


I don't recall any getting-to-know-you stage with Johnny. One morning we were strangers; then it was as if we had always spent the hot, lazy summer days together in his living room, the swamp cooler droning away, his mother tactfully out of sight somewhere in the small house. (Theirs had only two bedrooms. Years later I decided that the cramped space and privacy limitations might have had something to do with his older sister's crappy disposition.)

Surely--though I don't remember this--I must have felt some initial shock at his appearance. Rheumatoid arthritis had invaded and captured Johnny's body when he was ten or twelve. (We never talked about that.) When it was finished with him, he was in permanent lockdown, imprisoned by his frozen body. Legs in heavy braves, he could, with great effort, manage half-a-dozen dragging steps on his kid-sized crutches. Otherwise, he spent his days in a large recliner. Hands surrealistically skewed and deformed, he couldn't grasp things well or make a fist, couldn't raise his arms to shoulder level. His neck turned stiffly just a few degrees to left or right, Erich von Stroheim style. His face was huge, swollen by cortisone, smooth-skinned and rosy. He had no need to shave, at fourteen or ever.

Two physical pluses must have impressed me even on that first visit. Though Johnny's teeth were a bit discolored and rather crooked, when he smiled--no, when he laughed--it was always a surprise. I mean to say that laughter took him by surprise, and he was totally given over to it. His head went back, his mouth oepened wide, his eyes squeezed shut, and his chest heaved. He'd get his breath briefly, then be caught up again and rock back a second time. It was gorgeous to watch.

And although his body had stayed that of a twelve-year old boy, his voice, even in mid-teens, was deep, rich, and melodious. How was it that his voice matured while the rest of the physical apparatus did not? (We would never have talked about that.) Unlike his body, Johnny's voice was a faithful, clear mirror of his soul.

I woke up to another surprise after we had been friends nearly a year. (Only his good manners kept me from realizing it earlier.) Johnny was smarter than I was. And more sophisticated intellectually. I hadn't expected that, had never considered the possibility. The truth, when it did come, seeped into my head slowly, so that somehow my arrogance and pride didn't get involved. Or maybe his natural modesty trumped my competitiveness.

Take music. This very morning, along with the usual gang of arthritic senior citizens warming up in the pool at Walden Garden Fitness Center, I became aware of the background music being piped in. Fats Domino sending out "Blueberry Hill." Bill Haley going around the clock one more time. Dutifully doing the drill of "clap in front, clap in back," I let myself be fourteen again, and saw Johnny, eyes closed, toadish body rocking from side to side as he sang, "Ain't That A Shame?" or "Walking to New Orleans." He loved Fats. Loved Satchmo. He indulged my own love for Peter, Paul, and Mary, but gently suggested that Joan Baez was doing something bigger, something hipper, cooler. Without ever saying the words, of course.

Or take poetry. Now, for the record, I was the omnivorous reader, the gifted young writer of school essays, ever since Mrs. Richardson in the first days of 7th grade said that I could skip a grade and go into 8th if I wanted to. (Some savvy angel was guarding the crosswalk that day for sure; dropped the warning paddles and shook her head. I said no thank you to Mrs. Richardson without ever consulting my parents.) Johnny had last been inside a classroom in the fifth grade.
So how was it he knew all about T.S. Elior, Ezra Pound, and wonder of all wonders, then and now, Dylan Thomas. Not only knew about, but understood. He had record albums of all these poets reading their own poetry. Could recite lines from Auden's elegy on the death of Yeat's, for heaven's sake! ("O all the instruments agree/the day of his death was a dark cold day.")

And we won't even talk about chess.


I've wanted to write about Johnny for at least twenty years. So I'm going to start with bits and pieces on the blogsite, one at a time, and see if they take me anyplace. If they take YOU anyplace, do let me know. All of this is true, and most of it actually happened this way.

My mother dragged me, kicking and screaming, to my first visit with Johnny.

Not literally, of course. At fourteen, I would never have given her the satisfaction of such an engaged response. Instead, I sighed often and melodramatically, nearly hyper-ventilating.

I rolled my eyes, shook my head in disgust, and stood as far as possible from her at the corner bus stop, one hip cocked out impatiently.

Esther (sometimes "Mom," sometimes "Moth-ER," but mostly "Esther" as the most neutral, don't-think-I-care choice) had met Johnny in the course of her work as a practical nurse. She thought I'd enjoy meeting him. As if she would know who or what I'd enjoy, or anything else about me, I had fumed silently.

On the other hand, given my sour frame of mind, even a starving Hannibal Lector wouldn't have cared to meet me. Did Esther ever think about that? Ah, no. Self-deception was our family's dysfunction of choice: not what was, but what you could label it. A comforting label and a deaf ear dismissed most self-doubts. Esther never doubted that she knew what I'd like, or who I was. In any case, here I was on the hot summer day, being hijacked and bussed along dusty Indio Street, the bus farting its way east to a marginally more upscale section of Tucson. (More palo verde trees than our neighborhood, some houses with three bedrooms instead of two, possibly even two cars in the driveway. In 1950, not every car had one car yet.)

Beyond the bus-stop indignity, I don't remember anything more about that first encounter. Probably the fact that Esther turned out to be right for once wiped my initially ugly attitude from my memory. For she was right. I did enjoy meeting Johnny. Truth to tell, I can't think of anything my mother ever did that gave me as much joy, over the long haul, as bringing Johnny and me together.

Friday, April 30, 2010


Jo is a friend I admire greatly. She has a degree in medicine, long experience in a psychiatric practice, a history of purposeful world travel exploring mental health issues around the globe. In our first personal interaction, she chewed me out for unnecessarily contradicting her in public.

We've had a warm connection ever since.

Recently, after I'd done a couple of small favors for her, she gave me a bar of soap. Ordinary soap, not colored or scented or in the shape of a seahorse, not made of yucca sap or yew bark.

But it was special. It had been blessed by a shaman of Jo's Navajo tribe.

Now, I really believe in blessings. I believe in formal, even ritual blessings, and informal, spur-of-the-moment blessings, and unspoken blessings , and blessings conferred without language and even without cognition. (I've been blessed by an elephant and at least one bristlecone pine tree.) But I'm uniquely entranced by this bar of blessed soap, and am giving the matter a good bit of thought. I have a number of questions, but not one answer yet. And maybe answers are irrelevant. I'll keep you posted, one way or the other.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Along with mottled skin and back-talking joints, aging brings new fears in addition to the ones we have known since we first met the Boogey-man.

Yes, of course, there are the universal terrors: hosting a bizarre illness unknown to medical science, suffering a lingering death, forgetting how to tie one's Reeboks or how to manipulate Velcro straps on shoes. But last week I realized I had been harboring, just out there in the twilight on the edges of consciousness, a new shadowy fear.

Over the last few years, I've become afraid that I will never again learn anything new.

Swimming as we all do now in an exploding galaxy of new stuff, how could I have such a fear? New stuff grabs us by the lapels before noon every day of the world, right? Drenches us, drowns us; we swim in it for all we're worth, whether smoothly like Esther Williams , her Jell-O-plastered hair unruffled, her lipstick unblurred, or desperately like the sudden victim of Jaws.

The hitch comes, not with a shortage of "new stuff," but with "learning." You know how sometimes the magnets on the refrigerator door slowly lose their stick-to-it-iveness and just let your pictures or cartoons or $5-off Barnes & Noble coupons slither to the floor? That can happen with the old memory, too.

You read something, or meet someone, that strikes you as interesting; you make a point of tacking it up on the walls of your mind, but a day later, poof! Not there. Example: with a tour of Costa Rica coming up in July, I've been trying to learn a little more Spanish. My sixty-year old Spanish is rusty but still working, I've found. It's the NEW words that have no glue. Words that I did not learn in Mrs. Detor's Spanish class in 1955 simply will not stick. Not without a lot of huffing and puffing. ( I finally nailed down the word for "tip." )

So the other night the scary thought barged in the door: what if what I've got is all I get? What if I have to make do with whatever is already up in the grey cells, with new knowledge flitting in and out like moths but never settling down and becoming part of the household? Different things make different people nervous. For some, the thought of eventually having to give up the keys of the car for safety reasons is hugely depressing. For me, when it comes, it will be only a minor inconvenience. But giving up the excitement of gazing out a new window in the mind would be gloomy indeed.

Happily, I entertained this particular fear for only a short time. A few days ago, I was reading
some essays by the great Jungian analyst, philosopher and writer Helen M. Luke. She was developing the idea that as we try to truly bring ourselves to full consciousness, including confronting our inner demons, we must treat these demons with "courtesy and respect," not gritted teeth and self-loathing. She tells an ancient African folk tale to make the point, and brings forth the deeper insight from this tale with great skill and simplicity. It was a perspective I'd never encountered in just this depth before.

And Eureka! Came the light! I was grateful to have learned this new bit of insight, but especially happy to realize that I HAD learned it and it WOULD stick. I might not remember the details of the folk tale; I might even forget that it was Helen Luke who unraveled the tangles. But the bit of wisdom she imparted, unlike specific facts, would not evaporate from the gray cells and disappear. Somehow, it will stay put, I knew. Even when I am flapping about in unlaced shoes.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Until the startling news about Jesus' being risen in Albania (see yesterday's blog), my favorite misreading was the advertisement for a local fitness center. I kept seeing the billboard along various roadways. It read,


Talk about an image grabbing attention! I've seen a lot of fitness equipment promoted--everything from a four-hundred dollar gadget that cradles your feet while you lie flat on the ground and let the machine send silent sound waves through your body (ho-ho-ho), to a simulated-skiing exercise machine that throws the unco-ordinated novice straight into the snowdrift of bed linens. But a GOAT?

What exactly could be the goat's part in your fitness quest? Catch the goat and win a week's free training? Let the goat (a horned ram) chase YOU and watch the flab disappear? Eat only what the goat eats and become as fleet-footed? (But goats eat old pantyhose and plastic forks!)

After passing the billboard many times, in wonderment, I eventually saw that the final letter was rather skewed, oddly designed. It was not actually a lively T, just a routine L. Sigh. I preferred the goat to the goal.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

So this wise friend of mine has been gently nudging me the last almost-three months about BellabellSoundings having gone mute. Muteness is an accusation I have rarely merited in my loquacious life.

But she's right.

Mostly I had been fretting because some readers were unable to post comments, despite valiant efforts. The explanations from Google were untranslatable, as were my responses to the explanations. So I thought, "I'll do a blog on another [site, engine, sphere, planet--you pick the right word]."

Investigated that move yesterday. Not only did I not understand most of the words explaining how easy it was to start a blog on that engine; I wouldn't have retained the explanations long enough to act upon them had I studied the language. So back to Square One.

New Resolves: I'm going to write more habitually. Regularly, each morning when I get online, I check in at Animal Rescue and click there to help provide food for abandoned animals or endangered sloths, etc. I read the obituaries in a few newspapers, so that I don't ask distant friends whether Frayeda ever finished that oil painting she'd been threatening, only to find out she'd graduated to that Larger Palette altogether. I read a couple of communal blogsites, which I find interesting but often fatiguing, given the wattage of anger, outrage or bristling umbrage. I do a little writing for a volunteer group that advises befuddled youth. So why not blog a bit on Soundings reguarly?

Which brings me to the second resolve. I'll be writing more briefly. Maybe that will help with the first resolve.

As to comments: if you have comments but can't get them posted, send them to me and I'll post them with attribution and thanks.

Today's Sounding (preliminaries behind us) has to do with a marquee outside the Lutheran Church.
We drove past it this morning, and I was startled to read: "OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST IS RISEN IN ALBANIA." Albania? Lutherans? Surely not. Unitarians, sure. Transmogrified Brethren, certainly. But Lutherans?

I love my sunglasses inordinantly. And they do have something of a prescription in the lenses. Rather outdated now, alas. The sign (revisited) actually announced, " Our Lord Jesus Christ Is Risen. Alleluia."

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Intermission. I'm part of a milling crowd in the lobby of the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway, 1987. All very exciting, and Act I was terrific. We had splurged on tickets for "Into the Woods," already famous for its huge Giant's boot dangling above the marquee of the theater, visible for blocks.

Suddenly a woman comes up to me, even more excited than I am.

"Didn't you design the costumes for "Phantom of the Opera"?" she squeals.

Oh, for a ready lie! How hard would it have been to lay a finger to my lips, and wink modestly? I could have lived the entire second act as a world-famous costume designer, could have heard whispers rustling like candy wrappers along the adjacent rows, could have pointed a judicious finger towards the stage and sighed sadly at a shmatte that missed the mark. I cudda been a pretender!

But alas, I didn't. I wasn't. When the squealer asked the question, I demurred, I may even have simpered my denial. And that was that. Why the woman thought I was Maria Bjornson I don't know. I just now Googled Bjornson's name, and up came a lovely photo of the designer, sporting a chic beret. I have a collection of berets, and may well have been wearing one at the Martin Beck Theater that evening. On such a slender thread hung a chance to have fifteen minutes of fame. Or something like it.

But a few years later, under the warm, laid-back sun of South Carolina, my chutzpa waxed stronger, and I boldly lived a bit of a life that was never mine.

I had moved to South Carolina, leaving behind the fourth Dodge Caravan that I had owned. ("Old Blue.") My plan was to find yet another Caravan, about ten years old with acceptable mileage. In order to drive around and visit Myrtle Beach's many car dealerships, I borrowed Nancy's Cadillac STS, "Vanessa." Wildly unknowledgeable about cars, I didn't realize that the STS (Series Touring Sedan) was Cadillac's most pricy sedan and, worldwide, Cadillac's flagship model.

Before Vanessa, to me, a car was a car. It took me about ten minutes behind the wheel to realize the difference between Vanessa and Big Blue. It was the difference between pure Jersey cream and skim milk. Powdered skim milk.

So here I was, driving around to dealerships in the latest-model STS, the elegant "Vanessa," in a color called Moonstone. And I was asking the salesmen to show me a Dodge Caravan, about ten years old with maybe 75,000 miles on it. I might as well have couched my request in Urdu. They showed me everything under the moon, none of them remotely what I had requested. I realized that the salesmen considered me an eccentric who didn't really know what she wanted and could be easily overpowered by large smiles and Southern-gumbo rhetoric.

Very well, very well. An eccentric I would become. So I found an misdemeanor of a hat (didn't have to look far) and assumed a Role--sort of a cross between Bailey White's Mama and Angela Lansbury's Mame. I would roar into a dealership, screech to a stop, parade down the rows of cars, and tell the saleman trailing after me what I wanted. "IT'S THE DOGS, OF COURSE," I'd explain loudly so that the cowardly manager hiding in his office could hear. When the salesman tried showing me a Chrysler Town and Country, I'd laugh madly as if he'd suggested a yacht. "Oh dear ME, no! No no no NO! The dogs would devour those seats! Taking the DOGS to the SHOWS, that's what we want the Caravan for! Do YOU personally have dogs, Raleigh? I thought not."

It was rare fun. The SDS convinced the car dealers that I was rich; I convinced them I was cuckoo. They couldn't just dismiss me. I had an attentive audience for any nonsense I spouted. "Fourteen Chihuahuas! One HAS to take out that third seat. Just TOSS it OUT!" For a couple of hours a day, a few days one jolly week, I was Hortense von Clydesdale, trying on that gaudy life.

But even for Hortense, the dealers in Myrtle Beach couldn't find an aging Caravan.
Reluctantly, I kissed my fingertips in good-bye. We finally pressed deep into the Carolina backcountry, to a dealership-and-bait-shop owned by a friend of a friend, where I found a ten-year old white Caravan with 50,000 miles on her. "Vanilla." The dogs loved her. All two of them. Neither of Mexican ancestry.

(Next time, Hyacinth Who? And In the Trenches of Viet Nam. )