Friday, November 16, 2007

Fair Hope for the Clueless Blogger

November 16, 2007

Yesterday I created a new blog and today I find a lot of stuff intended for the old blog changed on this blog. If you're confused, join the crowd! I thought I was creating a profile referencing my Hoboken persona, only for the Hoboken blog but here it is, all over this one. I dunno if there's any way my different blogs can have different profiles, but if not, the Finding Fair Hope of the past will merge with the Stranger in the Night future, and the world will just have to figure it all out.

The blogger site doesn't seem to know how to. Or maybe it's just me, the blogger. Patience is a virtue, I'm told.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Finding a Place to Blog

November 15, 2007

I've done it, friends! I've created yet another blog the world has been waiting for...or at least a few people in the vicinity of Hoboken, New Jersey, who may be wondering what all this flap about the new blogger in town is all about.

You can get there by going to Finding Myself in Hoboken which I launched today, having nothing else to do but pack up a lifetime of belongings and clean up and move from here.

Check it out, and bookmark the page. There will be less and less on this one in days to come.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Biography of a Blog

November 9, 2007

This blog was born early in 2006, at a time when I had a new toy -- a Mac laptop. A friend mentioned that Apple had informed him the new machines had blog capability, and I knew writing a blog would be duck soup for me.

I contacted another friend who lived in faraway Virginia and I knew to be pretty good with computers. He went to the Blogger home page and walked me through the process, starting his own blog (mendacious mouse) at the same time. For a period of about six months in 2006 the interaction between our two blogs kept us both afloat. At that time this blog became reflective and philosophical, and I aired my views about the meaning of life and the existence of God, right upside the movie reviews and what is known as entertainment trivia (but to me is a mainstay of life as I know it). I had notified a list of friends about the existence of this blog, and many, including artist John ("John Sweden") frequented both blogs and stirred up controversy as he educated us all about the many faces of art.

But Finding Fair Hope had been designed as a vehicle to sell my book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree and my constant references to the book and to the town of Fairhope in which I had grown up were really not particularly helpful to sales of the book. I wrote about the book less and less, even as I posted daily on the blog until November of 2006.

Along about that time I became tired of the daily posts. I decided the blog itself was sapping my time and energy, and posted that I would cease the blog. Yet every few days I was inspired to post, and post I did. I never went back to once a day, but I was posting at least three times a week after I had announced that the blog was dead. My friends John Sweden and the blog-mentor "benedict s." began posting comments less frequently. Finding Fair Hope became the one-person wank job that a blog has a tendency to be. I know those are strong words, and in fact I'm rather proud of what I've written here, but I must admit that when you're writing just to expose your inner thoughts on myriad topics, you can get, shall I say, self-indulgent.

I still think this is an extraordinary place to browse. I do it myself sometimes. Just click on any post listed at the left, or on any given month in the past, and scroll down to topics you find intriguing. It's pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. The author has an interesting, quirky voice, and a wellspring of opinions.

Shall I continue this blog after I am no longer finding fair hope in Fairhope? Not quite. I have thought about it a lot lately, as I sort, pack and discard the detritus of my life for a move. But it becomes clear to me that I'll blog again.

I could rename this blog. A reader suggested the clever "Finding Fair Hoboken," which makes me smile just as this lovely person does when I think of her. But I've decided I'll create a blog called Finding Myself in Hoboken, describing the adjustments I must make in a new environment, the surroundings of Hoboken itself, and the changes in my life as I go forward.

I could just rename the blog and keep the address, but I think I'll find a way to make the address closer to the new blog title. I'd like to keep all the works here on the new blog, and if I figure out a way to do that I'll let you know.

There are not only second acts in American life, there are third acts. I come from the tradition of theatre in which the third act is when everything comes together, sometimes working out for the good. I hope that happens here.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

My Left Great Toe Is the Center of the Universe

November 5, 2007

I've got so much to do in packing to leave Fairhope that it's too bad all I can think of is my own toe. A friend admonished, "Quit whining! It's only a toenail!" but I must say of everybody who heard about this surgery situation he is the only one who couldn't manage even a sympathetic swift intake of breath between the front teeth in empathizing the pain of toenail removal.

Every move I make is dictated by the raw meat that stands where there once was a proud and beautiful toenail. Yesterday I dropped a stack of catalogues I was transferring to the recycle bin on the toe. I also hit that foot against the unnoticed metal bottom of the bed when showing the room in the garage to potential buyers of my house. I was carrying silverware from the dishwasher to the drawer when a knife hit the floor, barely missing the toe. I have become temporarily obsessed with this little square inch of my body. I am grieving the toenail, big time.

But I am planning the move anyway. I contacted the airline on the Internet and reserved my one-way flight. I am assembling moving cartons and looking at them, growing more anxious by the minute. Not anxious that I might be making a mistake, but anxious that I'm making such a big change.

Then there is the matter of saying goodbye. My friends are conferring: How are we to allow this? One wrote the other, "What shall we do when ML leaves, big toe and all. A font of information is gone!!!!" and the other forwarded that comment to me in an email.

He who received the "font of info" email wrote back, "Having met her as we did, and her accepting me and [my wife] as we are, makes her very special to me. Somehow, otherwise we would have never crossed paths. Like her blog intro says, a brainy woman ready for adventure, open to many things. I have not a clue really why she puts up with me, but I have enjoyed it for five or six years. I will miss having the opportunity to be in her company occasionally, and the hope of working together again. She's gotta go, ya know. So far there is none other and may never be. So, me reading a blog and her making rare posts will be something. And, do without,
I guess. [The wife, a Fairhope native] and her growing up friends that are here know stuff but not in the same sorta way, the organic way. She'll have her toe with her, nail or not, seeking new adventure in new surroundings more to her liking."

I suddenly felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz , getting in that balloon with Toto and realizing what she was leaving behind. Was this friend my Wizard, or my cowardly lion? Not the scarecrow or the tin man, I am certain of that. But I could see my group of friends in all those roles. And I remembered being quoted in a newspaper interview when I first returned to Fairhope 19 years ago, saying, "I feel like Dorothy returning from Oz -- there's no place like home!"

Now Fairhope is Oz, and I'm getting in the balloon which has Delta written on its side at the Pensacola airport on November 30, to take off for unknown lands as well as known ones.

I would be abnormal indeed if I didn't have some apprehension amid the excitement of change coupled with the rush of a new phase of my life all at once. I'll have a sore toe, but I can deal with that. I'll have a lot of new tasks to face, and I can deal with them too even with the toe condition.

But what will I do when I'm looking for a familiar face among all the new ones? What will happen in Hoboken to diminish the magic of Fairhope?

Where have all the munchkins gone?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

One-Way Ticket to Palookaville

November 1, 2007

My mind is occupied with too many things to blog these days, little personal things like buying a round-trip ticket with intentions of using only one half of it, filling the house with packing cartons and coaxing friends to buy the bulk of my furniture before I move. Then this afternoon there's the matter of having a toenail removed, perhaps permanently, and curiosity as to how debilitated I'll be, and for how long. The doctor's office people say I'll be able to drive home. Hope I'm able to get to the drugstore, too, for those prescription painkillers.


The movie On the Waterfront was filmed in Hoboken,
the old Hoboken that still had a dock, stevedores, Unions, bosses, and a visible presence of the mob. In the film, Marlon Brando, playing a boxer down on his luck, accused his brother who was also his manager of buying him "a one-way ticket to Palookaville." Hoboken itself has wrongly been accused of being the "Palookaville" of which the magnetic young actor spoke so disparagingly.

I have my one-way ticket now, to the new Hoboken, full of high-earning young investment bankers, many artists, writers, displaced Manhattanites and a few old New Jersey diehards, and I'm here to say, if it ever was Palookaville, it isn't any more. And it never was, by the way. Palooka was the old word for run-of-the-mill prizefighters, and Terry Malloy, the Brando character, was talking about his being denied the big time because his manager made him take a dive. Palookaville was never a place, but a state of mind.

Hoboken may be a state of mind, but it's not for losers or the world-weary. It's almost Manhattan now, maybe not quite, but a small, upscale town near enough for a round trip ticket to the big time.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hoboken Journal: Day Three, Over and Out

October 25, 2007

Having completed my business in Hoboken in just a matter of hours -- if you don't count the commute back and forth to the Motel Essex Regency -- I found myself with two days to kill just exploring the place. I'll sum those two days up in one post and prepare to retire the Finding Fair Hope blog once and for all as I wind up my time in the little town I came from.

I had signed the lease on the third floor walk-up and was waiting only to receive my copy signed by the landlord, and the key. But the plane I had booked was for noon Monday and it was Saturday morning. The realty agent had told me that the nearest shopping center was at the Pavonia Newport stop, so I decided to explore that, not expecting much. At least, I thought, I'll find a decent coffee shop and have breakfast. When I came out of the subway I wondered what planet I was on, or at least what country I was in. I was surrounded by glassy towers, wide streets, clean, classy architecture. I could hardly believe the shabby Motel Essex Regency which looks pretty much like we unenlightened think everything in New Jersey looks was just a subway stop and a $7 cab ride away. This could have been some modern corner of Europe; or, more accurately, it could have been Chicago. But it was Jersey City. What a delightful find. I snapped the photo you see and an attractive woman in a police uniform came up to me and said, "I don't know if you took a picture or were just looking at your pictures -- but you aren't allowed to take pictures in here." I must have given her a blank look because she repeated the sentence word for word, with a sweet smile, and I said to her, "All right. I won't take pictures in here," and put the camera away.

I browsed through a very upscale branch of Macy's and walked through the glittering mall, not jostled by crowds of overweight teenagers (or anybody else). I was fairly floating on air, hoping that when I move to New Jersey I can afford to shop in that mall from time to time.

Then I decided to go back to Hoboken and explore the neighborhood where I would be living. I took the "Light Rail" train, which is different from the subway, and takes you to a different part of the station. The trains are clean and travel mostly above ground. When I detrained I was in a real train station, just like in Europe, or like Grand Central.What do you know -- the Hoboken station is celebrating its Centennial, just like the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education! Beautiful mahoganny benches and old chandeliers in a truly awesome timewarp-station.

I walked up Washington Street, which I've decided is one of the major thoroughfares of the world, and I'l tell you why I think that. It's a huge, wide street, well-lit at night, and the sidewalks are as wide as a normal street. This makes it a natural for the sidewalk caf├ęs and the constant buzz of city life they inspire. It was a perfect October day, a little breezy and the sky a bright blue, as I walked up Washington Street (it seems to be just about impossible to take a photo of that street without half of the street being in shadow, by the way) and saw the people chatting on the sidewalks, pushing baby strollers, and drinking coffee in the many sidewalk venues. There was a happy, outgoing American attitude in what was essentially a Old Town atmosphere -- a very appealing combination.

I had a salad at a restaurant with tile floors and again the dark wood walls, and walked up to the new building where I found a tenant going inside who let me in to look at my new apartment and investigate where the electrical outlets are and walk the room for rough measurements so I could decide what furniture to bring. I stopped in the office of one of the realtors I had spoken with on the phone to tell her I had found a place and wouldn't be needing her services. She had found a place she wanted to show me in Guttenberg, but I was sure I could never love Guttenberg. She gave me a map of Hoboken and when I told her the buildings I loved she recommended I look for the library. When I heard her say, "We have a beautiful library!" I thought of how many times I'd heard that exclaimed about the unappealing structure that is the new library in Fairhope, and my heart sank.

I needn't have worried. Historic preservation has a place in Hoboken. The library there was probably built in the 1880's; it is small, Victorian and cozy. It smells of books and only has two computers. I hope it has friends, friends that don't think the best thing you can do for a library is make it five times the size you need "to allow for growth."

Hoboken, known as the Mile Square City, is actually two miles square, but it cannot grow because it is enclosed by neighboring cities. It has a historical museum which is ironically in a new building, and the display there now is of Hoboken's musical heritage. There is a corner devoted to favorite son Frank Sinatra, of course, and displays of the poster from Hair (authors Gerome Ragney and James Rado, who were hippie actors in the 1960's, lived in a warehouse loft in Hoboken when they wrote the show.) Stephen Foster apparently lived in Hoboken for a time. It was an interesting show, and I had a good time browsing through it.

On my travels through town I actually did meet a bona fide curmudgeon, a man with shoulder-length hair who had set up a table with old books and records for sale on the sidewalk in front of his apartment. We talked about the books and records, and he told me "Hoboken isn't what it used to be," and he gave me an inside track about the corruption in politics and the snobs who have moved into town. I know where he lives and plan to stop by again when I'm in the neighborhood.

Since I've started posting about Hoboken here, I've gotten lots of traffic and lots of email from Hobokenians too. It's as if my new life is calling to me. Now for the next three weeks I've got a lot of packing to do.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Day Two, Mission Accomplished

October 24, 2007

The next morning I arose from the scratchy sheets of the Motel Essex Regency and managed a shower in what must be referred to as the bathroom. This turned out to be less an ordeal than I had anticipated, as there was plenty of hot water and the little coupon-sized towels sufficed if I used all three to do the job of drying. There had not been as much noise in the night as I expected, even though a crowd of three or four people did decide the space in the parking lot directly outside my room was the best place to start their party. Lots of shrieks and loud laughter gave me the impression there was alcohol involved. I was certain that this meant in a few hours the laughter would turn to noise, arguments, misunderstandings and probably a good bit of creative profanity. Fortunately for me, it didn't really happen, but the intermittent car sounds from the nearby expressway never abated.

I had to get to Hudson Street by nine. This meant having the motel page a cab to the Jersey City Terminal to take a train to Hoboken. A hyper little man with a cell phone was also waiting for a cab. Apparently he was late for a meeting. He owned the business, but the customers can't stand to be kept waiting. I told him I was on my way to Hoboken to look for an apartment. He quickly started scrawling something on a piece of paper from his pocket, telling me he had a nephew who was in real estate in Hoboken and to call him about getting me a place. We were joined in the cab by a black woman who looked to be nine and a half months pregnant. I thought we might have to make a side trip to the hospital.

The little man, who looked like James Caan in a way, kept talking on his cell phone and identifying himself as Jerry to the person on the other end of the line. He ended up following me through the turnstile and standing with me on the platform as I explained the way to get to Hoboken -- getting off the train at a stop called Pavonia Newport, and waiting for the next train on the same track which would be to Hoboken. I thought Pavonia sounded like one of those mythical kingdoms in an old operetta, but decided to keep this notion to myself. On the train from Pavonia Newport to Hoboken, an Asian couple with a decidedly unresponsive baby sat across from Jerry and me, and Jerry did his best to engage the baby in a little across-the-aisle kootchie-koo, waving and making faces, to no avail with this dullard infant. The question in my mind was if Jerry were Jewish or Italian, and his behavior with the baby cinched it. Italian. Also, as we parted at the Hoboken station, he said, "Call me," reminding me of the piece of paper with his phone number on it. I said, "I think I have a place lined up," and he again said, "Call me." Italian.

I went into a little bagel shop for breakfast. This place specializes in square bagels. Apparently it is a marketing tool in Hoboken to do something different with your bagels -- smashed bagels worked, so why not square? What I ended up with was kind of an Egg McMuffin on a square bagel and a glass of orange juice. Then I was ready for the trek up to 6th St. and Hudson.

The apartment was on the 3rd floor, on a beautiful block of a very nice street -- as reported, the nicest Hoboken has to offer. Across the street is Stevens Technical College, which happens to have a beautiful theatre space used for local productions of all kinds. A block away is a nice little park, Elysian Fields, and the local Little League ballpark. Just the other side of that is Frank Sinatra Drive which borders the river and one of the exquisite views of Manhattan Hoboken offers.
You will note in the picture there is a For Rent sign on the stoop in front of the second building from the left, and also a For Rent sign in the window of the third floor apartment of the building. Neither of those signs is there any more. I took the apartment after very little deliberation. The accommodating realtor drove me to Jersey City where he had another place for rent and we drove past two buildings I was considering. After I looked at the apartment he was renovating in Jersey City, and generally got an impression of Jersey City, I knew it had to be Hoboken for me, and that the Hudson Street place was just about perfect. It has one large room (10 x 20 feet), a tiny side room -- known as a "hall room" in brownstones, fine for a little bed and/or my laptop office; a big, eat-in kitchen, lots of closets and windows. There are actually three big windows in the kitchen, from which you can see the rooftops of Hoboken at sunset.

By noon my fate was sealed. I had written the requisite checks and signed the application form, called the realtor with the basement place. I celebrated by having lunch at Benny Tudino's (known as the best pizza in Hoboken, as long as you order it extra-crispy) and exploring Hoboken, including the library which is small, compact, Victorian in vintage and utterly beautiful, until I was ready to drop. I bought a sandwich and a banana and two bottles of water at Blimpie's and took them to the motel for supper and an early bedtime.

I slept fitfully on the hard mattress (and the sheets were no less scratchy than the night before) and wondered what I would do for the next two days.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hoboken Journal, Day One

October 23, 2007

I just got home from four days in Hoboken. Let me tell you what happened on the first day.

My flight left Pensacola at 7 A.M., which meant leaving the house at about five. I only needed a few changes of underwear and a hairdryer so I was able to travel with only a carry bag and my purse which holds a multitude of small objects and papers, none of which I can find without a lot of fishing and fuming. I included a little digital clock because I was going to be staying in a cheap motel in Jersey City, and cheap motels seldom have amenities like clocks. More on that motel later.

I arrived at La Guardia at 2 P.M. To get to New Jersey from La Guardia, which is in a different state, is quite a trick but I had instructions from the motel guy when I made reservations. A cab from that airport to anywhere in Jersey is at least $90. Instead I took the airport bus to Grand Central and started walking to the subway station known as the PATH (Port Authority something) which goes to New Jersey destinations. I called the realtor who had been so nice to me on the phone and he said he could show me the apartment whenever I got to Hoboken. He said, "Welcome home!"

That's the news, folks. This was not a pleasure trip. This was part of a plan to move from beautiful Fairhope, in the lower part of Alabama, to Hoboken, a city of undiscovered delights that has been calling to me since I first laid eyes on it last June. Convenient to Manhattan -- a ten-minute ride either by underground railroad or on the speed-ferry -- and crawling with local history and lore, Hoboken is the place I want to be next (and probably last).

Where was I? Oh, yes, the trip into Jersey City. I was standing in front of the New York Public Library, having walked from Grand Central, when I realized I didn't understand where the PATH train was. I hauled out my heavy old Nokia cell phone, virtually unused in Alabama, and called my nephew who lives in Manhattan and knows all about the transit system. After the pleasantries -- his surprise to hear my voice and learn that I was standing in front of the NY Public Library, and my revelation of my mission and need to know how to get to New Jersey from where I was -- he gave me the info that the PATH train is in the Herald Square station, just below Macy's.

This was a cinch. I took the #4 bus which goes down 5th Ave. to 34th and turns to take you to Macy's, and from there walked under the streets of New York until I found a sign that said "Journal Square Trains." Per instruction from the motel guy, I took that train and from there, now safely in the arms of New Jersey, got a taxi to the motel that cost $7.

So far, so good -- until I saw the motel and my room. More on that in another post. Now I'm going to tell you what else happened on my first day of this journey.

I checked into the Regency Essex (I've changed the name to protect myself from lawsuits brought on by later comments in future posts), and got another cab back to the train, hopped on a train to Hoboken, and found my friendly realtor.

The place he showed me was very pleasant. The ground floor of a row house lately made condominiums, this was a convenient place on a nice street. The realtor and his wife owned a condo above, and he had "saved" this place to show me because he thought I would be an interesting person to have in the building. I had a little problem with space -- there were closets, but they were small, and being on the ground floor it was essentially a basement apartment, with a dark central room but windows on either end, in the bedroom and the kitchen. There was a washer and dryer in the apartment. There was access to a nice little backyard. Such apartments are referred to as "garden apartments," because that sounds nicer than "basement."

I liked the realtor, liked the possibility of living in the building with him and his wife above me, and didn't dislike the apartment. I began mentally fitting it out with my furniture. Then my creaky old cell phone rang, and it was another realtor. He had a place on the top floor of a brownstone on Hudson Street and could show it to me the next day. My realtor informed me that Hudson Street was the prime location in Hoboken, "the Park Avenue of Hoboken," he said. "The mayor lives there." He said I should look at the other apartment before making a decision. He also told me that there had been so many calls about the apartment I was standing in that he had raised the price by $45 per month, but would give it to me at the price advertised if I wanted it.

We shook hands, and as we were taking leave he asked me how I'd liked the Orient Express. I was thrown by that -- what could he have known about my trip on the Orient Express some 25 years ago? He said when I told him on the phone I was a writer he'd Googled me and found my website He wanted to know if the lady who'd gone canoeing in the nude was a figment of my imagination or if she had been a real person. I told him the truth of the matter: She was a real person, and she did all the things I report in Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree -- and quite likely a great deal more.

I had time for a drink or two before finding a place for dinner and finding my way back to Jersey City. I stopped off in an appealing old bar called Busker's, which inside made me think of the old White Horse Tavern in the West Village. It was crowded mostly with men, apparently business guys, jovially talking sports and the like. There were about four flat-screen tvs at the bar (I was to discover this is a must for Hoboken bars). There was a pretty young woman mixing drinks like White Sangrias by the glass, and when a customer approached, she said, "What do you want from my life -- besides a Heineken's draft?"

From there I found a place I'd read about in a Hoboken blog as a jazz bar, "You'll find it from the English phone booth in front." I had a long conversation about cell phones and the possibility of a Frank Sinatra festival in Hoboken with a nice looking young man, finished another glass of Pinot Grigio (which he paid for), and then went looking for the Hudson street address. There I saw the beautiful street itself, looked at the outside of the building (very nice), found a good Italian restaurant, and took a cab from Hoboken to my Jersey City motel for the night. I spent the night decorating two apartments in my mind, one of which I hadn't even seen.

Tune in tomorrow. Decision time.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Man in My Garage

October 13, 2007

At the recent reunion of the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, a.k.a. The Organic School, people came into Fairhope from all over. I expected to have a couple sharing one of the little bedrooms upstairs in my cottage, a student teacher in the other, and a man living in the little room at the back of the garage for the duration.

As it turned out, the only one who was able to make it was the man in my garage. Playing hostess to him as well as partaking of all the events of the reunion weekend and giving something of a lecture at one of them (plus reading a chapter from Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree at another) gave an offbeat dimension to my participation in the proceedings.

He turned out to be in some ways typical as a product of our unconventional school, but for the main part, a man like no other. He likes to go which ever way the wind blows him, and this has taken his windblown persona in many directions. A delightful raconteur and observer of details, he carried big blank notebooks with him wherever he went, asked questions of everybody, and wrote down almost every damn thing anybody said. He was quick with a quip, but quizzical about many of the answers he got. I had a wonderful time with him.

As it turns out, he's a retired environmental consultant who has decided to relocate from the grey Northwest (Anacordes, WA, where he says "everybody is nice nice nice -- so nice I had enough,") to the desert country of Azo, AZ, to be part of an artists' community and develop his talents in art. He lives quite comfortably on almost no money, reads omniverously, and writes all the time too. He was complimentary about my writing, and made good suggestions too. He read When We Had the Sky and suggested some rewrites I shall use.

He and I had long talks in which we enlightened each other on the ways of the world. We both have had varied and amusing experiences and enjoyed each other's company enormously. I took him down into one of the gullies that once were so popular for youngsters in Fairhope. I introduced him to a local restaurant where he warily ordered crab gratin and was amazed that it actually had a lot of crabmeat in it. He said in the Pacific Northwest they don't put crabmeat in their crab dishes! Hmmm...that must be quite a trick. I introduced him to the Lower Alabama specialty of fried crab claws and he was quite taken with it.

Mostly he was looking for himself, the young self who had boarded at the school in the 1940's. Some women remembered having had dates with him and told him how much fun he used to be -- one time he went to the Country Club with one and walked a few miles in the wrong direction going home until somebody found him. Reunions are good for this kind of exploration, and he is nothing if not an explorer.

He's been married a few times, has grown sons, and takes a lot of time off to visit old lady friends and make new friends of all ages. He says his exposure to Organic Education put him on the path of discovery that has been his life. He didn't want to leave the school by the time his parents decided he didn't need it any more, but it really never left him, and he seems to be searching for more than the old landmarks and contact with people now shadowy in his memory.

I enjoyed the diversion of having this character in my garage. He stayed on a couple of days after the reunion broke up, and after he left I received a phone call at 9 P.M.

"I'm in a youth hostel in New Orleans," said the voice. "I'm having a wonderful time. It's $17 a night and full of young people. We're all drinking and singing."

Wherever he is, I'm sure he's having a wonderful time.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different


October 11, 2007

I'm not accustomed to linking with such as this, but Jerome Murat is new to me and I think you'll find this fascinating, as I do. Please watch it all; it goes from interesting to absolutely astonishing. Just click here, sit back, and wait to be amused. I'd love your comments.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Just Relishing Fairhope


October 8, 2007

There are moments when all the petty complaints about the changes in Fairhope, or the changes in the world, its new generations, the erosion of a way of life -- all just disappear as we are surrounded by loved ones banding together to share memories of the past and hope for things to come. The Centennial Reunion of the Marietta Johnson School, the Organic School, was just such a time.

We gathered Friday night, as you see above, at the former campus of the school. Some of us were standing in spots where we had played in some 50 or 60 years before, in that longed-for childhood of our memory. But Friday night was a time to look into faces almost forgotten, erase in our minds the wrinkles and white hair, see the essence of eternal youth, look into the spirit of the grown person before us and cherish the fact that we were back together for a moment. At any reunion there is always the bittersweet phrase in the back of our minds, "Maybe for the last time..."

After the first gathering we went over to the new building that replaced our beloved Fairhope-tile Arts and Crafts Building, an auditorium with all the charm of the wedding chapel of a Holiday Inn (not my phrase, but I had to steal it here), and recited the prayer of the school, probably written by Marietta Johnson herself:

Give us thy harmony, oh Lord,
That we may understand
The beauty of the sky, the rhythm of the soft wind's lullaby,
The sun, the shadows, of the woods in the spring,
And thy great love,
That dwells in everything.


I read a chapter of my book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, to trigger memories and kick off the event with a positive punch. A speech of gratitude followed, and I was surprised with a beautiful silver bowl, engraved to me for the work I've done in holding the school together in recent years. I could not have been more surprised and touched, and will keep this trophy in a place of honor.

The feel-good events continued without a break from then on. We had a varied potluck supper and time to mingle until late in the evening. The next morning the new library hosted a talk by Dr. Paul Gaston about the role of the school in his life, and the place of the school in the context of the educational system. He is a gentle, wonderful speaker, a citizen of the world and a favorite son of Fairhope (whose grandfather, E.B. Gaston founded the town). Afterwards, people all over the hall spoke up about their memories, capped by a dynamic comment by the indomitable Elsie Arnold Butgereit summing up the need for continued support and attention to the school as well as personal heartfelt gratitude for the benefits all who attended it, however briefly, have reaped all their lives.

There was an Open House on the campus, managed by a dynamic group of younger people who happen to have children at the school today. The students demonstrated the folk dancing that they have been taught by Melanie King, a sprout from the Arnold strain, who happens to have a daughter in kindergarten. Melanie is a single mom whose child is being raised, not only by her and her huge, loving family, but by the village that is the Organic School.

Saturday night we all folk danced at a party in the Methodist Fellowship Hall. I went to that one with some trepidation, but as soon as I heard that familiar music from the past, you couldn't stop me dancing.

We wound up with a brunch, more mingling, hugging, and the reassuring news that we had reached our fund-raising goals for the time being.

I went in to the Museum, expecting to stay an hour, not expecting any traffic. There was someone waiting there when I arrived, and just then Edna Rockwell Harris showed up to donate some pottery made at the school in the 1940's by her and her cousin Helen Baldwin Telfer. Then Dr. Donald Rockwell dropped in to see if we could scan his graduation photo. Everybody was sitting around chatting when Shaw Smith Waltz came in with her husband to see if we needed any of the things she had saved, including a 1945 Organic Merry-Go-Round (the school's mimeographed newspaper), which we didn't have. Then two young ladies, one who had attended the school in the 1ate 70's and 80's, came in. The graduate confessed that in 1983 she had checked out a book about Shakespeare and Francis Bacon from the school library and then came in to return it. We looked at the old volume and noted it had been published in 1916!

Everybody began strolling out when Malcolm Campbell (SOE 1942) and his wife Jeanne dropped in, and we all had a wonderful chat.

It was quite a day, the end of a wonderful weekend. I'm still too tired to sleep, but don't worry. That will come.

Oh, I forgot to mention this. I sold two books.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Selling a Dead Book

October 6, 2007

I had great expectations for my book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree when I paid for the reprinting of it a couple of years ago. Luckily it's a pay-as-you-go online operation that gives me a chance to order books on demand. Luckily, because the demand has been dwindling over the years since the book sold its first thousand copies in late 2003. A little book of memories of an odd little American town in the 1950's, it apparently has not all that much long-term appeal.

However, I refuse to believe that its chances are dead. You can find out about the content of the book by clicking here. When I wrote it I thought of it as a low-key kind of Lake Wobegone Days that would reach out to people who had never heard of Fairhope and had no interest in the economic theory from which it sprang. I thought the characters I remembered would resonate generally and entertain audiences I could hardly imagine.

Over time there has naturally been less interest in the book, which stirred a great number of people after its first publication in late 2001. I thought, however, that the best place for a final splash would be at the reunion of graduates and former students from the Marietta Johnson School , an event that has been in the works for over six months and is taking place this very minute.

We expected 200 visitors to town for the reunion, but the guest list turned out to be more like half of that. Each event during the weekend has drawn a different crowd. The shocking thing is, with all the pats on my back by all the people attending -- they even gave me a silver bowl for service beyond the call of duty over the past 9 years -- not one book has been sold.

I tell myself they all already own copies. They have bought enough for gifts that they don't need to stock up on any more. I tell myself the readers for this book haven't really found it yet, and they will, one by one, year by year.

I also remind myself that there are two more events as part of the reunion -- a folk dance party tonight and a good-bye brunch tomorrow. Maybe they're just waiting.

Or, maybe I'll become one of those authors with a box of 50 unsold copies of her only book, a little treasure that she once wrote about her home town. Maybe I'll lug those copies around for the rest of my life and start giving them away at every opportunity. I know this sounds churlish, so much so that I am reluctant to post it at all. But you just don't know how hard it is to sell a book whose time has come and gone.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Why People Don't Move

October 2, 2007

Here I am all up in the air about another life change and wondering if that means there's something wrong with me. I remember a lifelong friend, when we were in our early 30's, saying to me, "Have you ever noticed that every five years you change your whole life?"

Psychiatrists say there are a finite number of personality types. Surely this tendency to overturn and uproot is an aspect of one -- "the mover," perhaps. "The hysteric," perhaps. "The seeker," perhaps. I and other movers would probably prefer the latter -- it sounds so lofty and poetic.

I've lived in Fairhope for 19 years now, having lived my first 20 here and then taking off to other climes for a good 40 (divided not in five-year increments, but close to it if you count the moves-within-moves). Over this recent period of time in Fairhope I've lived in six different abodes. I really thought The Captain's House would be the last in my life, and that I'd stay here until I was ready for assisted living. I thought I'd stick it out for another 20 years or so. I spent considerable time and money feathering this nest with furniture and accessories that I felt enhanced the Fairhope ambiance of the place, from Mission antiques (the furniture style I remember from older homes here in my childhood) to the addition of air conditioning for 21st Century needs. I attended yard sales, went to Thrift Shops, antique auctions, and actually invested in a few rather expensive antique pieces over 20 years.

Now that I'm fixin' to move again I'm beginning to think it's other people who are wrong. They are bound to stay in the same place year after year for one main reason. Going through their stuff -- editing, purging, and just plain cleaning up -- is too damn hard. I watch "Mission: Organization" on HGTV, and "Everything Must Go!" on BBC America, and I see the kind of homes most people live in; I see their attachment to their stuff. In recent days have conditioned myself to look at every piece in my house individually and decide if I can live without it, and if so, put it in the yard sale pile or plan to give it away. I put all the small things into cartons, and deal with the cartons one by one, picking up every piece of paper, every object, looking at it, and making a decision.

It ain't easy, but in a way it's kind of fun. It's a wonderful feeling to be shed of the piles of stuff in the closets. I don't know how many cartons, files, and drawers full of papers I had labelled "Writings," I have found in my recent purges. I don't know what makes people today think they need so many clothes. I don't know who will want to buy my pottery collection, or my Mission furniture, but I don't see any of it fetching much in the marketplace. I'm even going to sell my car and travel by the great New Jersey rail system, saving money on insurance, upkeep, and gasoline as I go forward into the sunset.

And I don't care what anybody says, it's the people who don't move who are missing something. If you're standing still you're probably not getting anywhere. I may not be either, but staying here is going backward. I know why people don't move.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On a Clear Day You Can See New Jersey

September 26, 2007

I can see it all now.

Yesterday it was a bit murky, being that there is no traffic in the real estate market in Fairhope these days, and I have not heard from my broker how he can rework my account so that I have income instead of what is laughingly referred to as growth. I checked the real estate listings in Hoboken daily and it looked moreso than somewhat iffy that I'd be able to afford the monthly rent on a spacious apartment with charm and a view of the Empire State Building. Especially if my house didn't sell.

I had hit a wall. I was discouraged. It didn't seem too bright to try to rent out this house and still have to pay taxes on it and taxes on the income I made from it, plus the maintenance of shoring it up and making repairs as necessary. I felt stuck; I felt trapped.

So I thought, what part of this equation can I change? What part can I keep? What must I keep? What I realized was that Hoboken, despite its intrinsically humorous name, is one of the jewels of New Jersey. It is the center of new growth, of young and upscale new residents (who work in Manhattan), of old charm and new money. Rents therefore are higher than its neighboring cities -- you pay for those views, those parks, that short commute to the city.

So I started browsing Craigslist New Jersey for rentals in neighboring Jersey City Heights, Weehawken and Union. All of these places are just a jump on the train from Hoboken, and some are almost as close to Manhattan as Hoboken is. What I found is that the rents are more in line with what I can afford and I could get more space for the money. I have walked those streets and found them very pleasant. They didn't compare in charm and convenience (and happiness-vibe) to Hoboken, but they were close enough. Okay, some of the pictures are downright depressing -- but all of them aren't. Some are knockouts.

I can see it all now. A year from now I'm comfortably situated in a quaint apartment somewhere, walking tree-lined streets after buying some groceries at Montclair's Whole Foods or the Portuguese supermarket in the Ironbound of Newark. I'm sitting on a bench in a park across from my apartment. An elderly lady sits down next to me and we look at the view of the Manhattan skyline. We are having a gentle chat about the neighborhood and the history of the city where I'm living, be it Hoboken, Jersey City, whatever.

She says to me, "All you new people are the same, you know. You move to a place because you find it quaint, and then you tear down what's there and replace it with something modern. You should have seen this town 50 years ago. It was really special then."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Slap of Reality

September 25, 2007

My decision to relocate from Fairhope was a long time coming. I look back at posts on this blog over the last 12 months and can see it coming, ever so slightly. My good intentions of informing the newcomers to Fairhope of the history of the place began to slide about a year ago, as I saw that not only were they not interested, most of them were happy believing that it was their job to improve this little village by bringing it up to date with all the amenities they had left behind in other towns and cities.

Their idea of preserving Fairhope's heritage consisted of protesting the construction of a Wal-Mart just outside the city limits or waving placards in front of the building that once was a high school and has long since been outgrown as a public school kindergarten.

I had a hard time talking with these people. I have come to see Fairhope as a Rorschach test for people looking for something. They see in Fairhope what they want to see, and if it's not there they talk each other into building it, from an almost-unused bike trail to a pretentious and unneeded library. They are hostile to the Single Tax Corporation, which was Fairhope's own raison d'etre, and indifferent to the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, which was once Fairhope's principle attraction. They have removed the funky little cottages which gave Fairhope its unique, patchwork charm, and the city is now awash in huge, expensive-looking houses that show nothing of period or taste.

A brush with New York City last winter was all I needed to make up my mind to leave. I am well aware that the world, as well as little Fairhope, has changed. But New York has changed in many ways for the better; it is cleaner, safer, more beautiful and more livable, even though it's too expensive. I got to thinking -- "How can I get back here, where I can find the kind of people I like and the kind of vital situations that I miss?"

How, indeed. I have a house which I hoped would sell quickly. It is one of a kind, a treasure of "old" Fairhope, on a lovely double lot convenient to the center of town and to the bay. It has been on the market since the first of July and has been seen by two people. The first pronounced the rooms too small, and the second pronounced the price too high. As of this morning, I've dropped the price once more and am willing to go lower if that will mean anything.

My plan is to move to Hoboken, the little jewel of a town that's just ten minutes from the West Village, my favorite section of Manhattan. Hoboken, the town with the amusing name, has a great deal that appeals to me -- old neighborhoods, a historical society, a lively night life and good eating places, to say nothing of delis and street fairs. What it also has, unfortunately for me, is high rents, and the fixed income that I can barely make it on in Lower Alabama will not do it for me up in the high-tax, high maintenance Northeast, particularly if I'm counting on getting on the train to Manhattan to keep up with the latest art shows, plays, and watering holes.

I'm discouraged today, but not to say depressed. I've talked with my broker about rearranging my IRA investments to provide dividend income until my house sells, and I've told my realtor to drop the price again. The Fairhope reality there just is no traffic in the real estate market at this time, and a hell of a lot of inventory. I'm probably not going to make any money to speak of on the house, but owning a property in a distant location makes no sense. I've got to unload it as fast as I can.

My realtor tells me not to extrapolate doom and gloom from the current real estate situation here, as is the wont of the financial pundits who are having a field day doing just that. As the weather gets better, there are always more people "discovering" Fairhope, and deciding to move here and improve it. I just hope some of them appreciate a particular Craftsman cottage and have a little money in their pockets.

In the meantime, I can simply downsize my dream. I don't have to live in Manhattan; I don't have to live in Hoboken either. To meet my needs I could find a bigger apartment in adjacent locales like Paulus Hook in Jersey City, or even Weehawken. I would consider something in the Ironbound of Newark, which has a special ring to it and is almost as convenient to the city as Hoboken. George Clooney wrecked his bike in Weehawken last week; if I had been living on the same street I would have a story to tell.

While my heart was set on Hoboken, all of the above have more appeal to me than the Fairhope of today. As my realtor said to me, all I have to do is be patient.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

My Second 50 Years

September 23, 2007

I was 48 when I moved back to Fairhope from New York City. I remember the feeling of exhilaration I had -- it was like having a chance to start over from where I had begun! I was fond of saying I was looking forward to my second 50 years, at the same time hoping I would know better than to make the same mistakes as I had made in the first.

I'm 17 years into my second 50 now. It's like being 17 again, having stumbled a time or two, having achieved a thing or two, and deciding, just as I did when I was very young, that New York was where I'd rather be than anywhere in the world. I've watched Fairhope itself change before my eyes from a sleepy village on the verge of growth to the upscale, socially-upwardly-mobile (and maybe that "mobile" should be capitalized) enclave it now unabashedly is. It has lost all but a trace of its reformist heritage; it has replaced the bohemians with the artistically pretentious. One or two real artists live here, but they are surrounded by self-congratulatory arrivistes who proclaim the ambience of Fairhope to be elegant and beautiful.

I have really lived in this town. My best friends are affluent enough to take long trips and some have second homes in other parts of the country. But I lived here. I committed myself to the betterment of the community by founding an artistic venture (the ill-fated Jubilee Fish Theatre), joining in an effort at historical preservation (defeated), participating in community theatre (hardly my finest hour), and working to shore up the unique school that was one of Fairhope's original, earth-shaking visionary institutions. I wrote a book of stories of the Fairhope I remembered from the 1950's.

All the while I have grown increasingly despairing of conveying the message to the newcomers who have taken over the town -- the message, "Okay, you love it here. Then don't remove its reason for being." To my right and my left the cottages have been demolished and replaced by oversized, empty houses, void of charm and even life. Most are owned by empty nesters whose dream, apparently, is to run a hotel for grandchildren -- or perhaps to impress each other. I don't know. I don't get a whole lot from these people, but they seem to view Fairhope as a generic little town upon which they can impose their own image of Norman Rockwell's America. They do not care to know that there was something real here before they came to replace it with the phony.

I wrote a post a few months ago about the way time was whizzing by as I prepare to depart for the Northeast. I used the word "whizzing" and the search engines sent me a few (probably 11-year-old males) looking for information on "whizzing." I used the term in its old-fashioned comic book sense, that is to say, "speeding." Time has indeed sped by as I prepare for my next chapter, whether or not I use up the whole 50 years. I'll relocate to quaint Hoboken (don't laugh), which is a ten-minute commute to Manhattan, small enough to be manageable, and considerably cheaper than the Big Apple.

In two weeks the school will celebrate its Centennial with a reunion -- see the post below -- and before the end of the year I'll have organized my finances in order to make my move. It doesn't look as if there'll be buyers for the Captain's House, so I may try to rent it for a year or two, until the real estate market awakens here. I only hope I don't have to tear it down and sell the place as two vacant lots, but I'm considering that possibility. Nobody moving to Fairhope seems to want an old house, and there is plenty of new construction.

I have a good feeling about my next 50 years. I'm still in good physical condition and all the things I love most are in New York City. I have a few friends left there, and the city looks great. I like the vibe in Hoboken. It has a historical museum (and a very interesting history to boot), a yearly Italian Festival, lots of music, restaurants and night life. I don't expect to be hanging out in the bars, but it's fun knowing they're there (and I'll bet there are some great AA meetings!). And I'll be able to get into the city for matinees, street fairs, concerts, and movies that never come to this area. I may not even own a television set.

I'm going to sell off most of my furniture and rent a one bedroom apartment -- maybe a studio apartment for a time. I'll buy what fits, and what I need. I'll downsize; I'll have a couple of monster yard sales and give away most of my clothes.

I'm going to have a different life. I hope I don't make the same mistakes I did in the first 50 years.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Return of the Natives

September 21, 2007

The Bell Building, Built 1904, First home of the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education

In a Utopian community itself barely 106 years old, it’s not many an institution that can claim to have thrived for 100 years, surviving two world wars, an economic depression, the death of its founder, and years of struggle for its own place in the education sun.

The Marietta Johnson School, a.k.a. the Organic School, is such an institution in Fairhope. Founded by visionary educator Marietta Johnson, the school is poised for a reunion which will celebrate its one hundredth year of continous operation. Visitors, including graduates and former students from all over the country, are expected to convene here October 5-7 to reunite with old friends, check out the activities at the school, and learn some of the many stories their classmates have to tell.

The school was founded as one of the first progressive schools in the nation, and it has never closed its doors although it has endured financial crises, leadership shifts, petty disputes a certain amount of negative publicity throughout its lifetime. The negatives now in the past, the school is going forward this year with increased enrollment and an alumni base eager to help secure its future.

People are expected to begin arriving for the Centennial Reunion as early as Thursday morning from Massachusetts, Arizona, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and many locations in Alabama. Organizers say the pre-registration of graduates living in the Fairhope area is surprisingly low, but expected to be up to 200 by the time the events begin.

The Centennial Reunion will include an Open House at the school’s new campus on Marietta Drive (east of Section St.) at Pecan Avenue. At this, the buildings will be open and students will show visitors what a day in the life of the school is like. Current students will be assisted by graduates who are now of high school and college age, armed with videocams to record stories related to them by some of the older alums. This battery of roving reporters will add to the afternoon fun, which will include a pottery demonstration by Organic graduate and well-known local potter Tom Jones, a cake walk, and the graduates will enjoy a folk dance party Saturday night.

Beginning with Registration at 4 P.M. Friday, the old campus of the school -- now Faulkner Community College -- will be abuzz with activities including talks by Dr. Paul Gaston, Maggie Mosteller-Timbes, and Leslie Mulcahy, Director of the School. Being a graduate of the the school myself, I will probably be very visible on the scene and have a word or two to say to the assembled myself.

Events are open to the public and may serve to help inform the new Fairhope of its heritage. At least that's my hope, and a fair hope it is.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

What Made Fairhope Fairhope?

September 15, 2007

Marietta Johnson in 1938

There is an ongoing parlor game in Fairhope about "what makes Fairhope Fairhope." I know I used the name a lot of times in that brief sentence, but I did it because I had to. Fairhope is nothing if not self-obsessed, particularly the new people who've moved in to what they consider a magical little town that seems to have appeared just to provide them with a sense of wonder.

But the elements that came together to create what may appear to be a thriving little Disneyland town are really quite different. Fairhope was once a reformist enclave which has now been all but swallowed up by a modernity gone very wrong. Its last shreds of idealism, the Single Tax Colony and the School of Organic Education, are hanging by slim threads indeed.

The importance of the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education to the development of Fairhope as a colony of artists, intellectuals and reformers cannot be measured. In its early days, at least half the families of Fairhope had children in the school, which added to the village’s cachet of individuality and self-actualization.

Organic Education is education designed for the whole organism – body, mind, and spirit. Behind the theory is the knowledge that children love to learn and therefore school should be a pleasure to them. This is an extreme departure from traditional education; though begun as a demonstration school in Fairhope one hundred years ago, it is as extraodinary today as it was when the school was founded.

Marietta Johnson, a teacher in the normal school system in Minnesota, discovered Fairhope through fellow Minnesotans who were interested in Single Tax. She was newly married to a farmer and carpenter who was described as “a tall, handsome Swede” by those who remembered him some fifty years later.

Franklin and Marietta Johnson made their first trip to Fairhope in December of 1903, leaving St. Paul in the middle of a snowstorm and arriving in the kind of beautiful weather so often found in Fairhope in early winter. Ardent devotees of the Single Tax theory, they were enchanted with the town and hoped to buy and work a farm nearby. However, destiny had other plans for the couple.

The Fairhope of the early 1900’s was decidedly different from the city it is today. With a population hovering between 300 and 400, the town had been founded to demonstrate the validity of Henry George’s theory. Still a small enclave – only reached by boat – Fairhope had no paved roads, no automobiles yet, and a struggling but idealistic economy. In spite of its out-of-the-way location, little Fairhope was acquiring a reputation as an excellent resort area for intellectuals from the Northeast, the Midwest, and California.

Fairhope’s citizens were interested in new ideas from all quarters. At the dawn of the 20th Century, they believed great things were about to happen, and they also believed Fairhope to be the ideal location to demonstrate the efficacy of new ideas. Many of the Utopians who founded Fairhope, including E.B. Gaston himself, had children of school age and were interested in new ideas about education.

Marietta Johnson, trained as an elementary school teacher, had long been studying the new disciplines of Early Childhood Development and Child Psychology. She dreamed of a school that would be geared to the stages of development of the child rather than the old approach of forcing the child to fit the school system. In those days it was revolutionary to assume that children are radically different from adults – and it was even more unthinkable to imagine that their natural curiosity results in a natural joy in learning. The more she talked to people in Fairhope, the more inspired she became that she was on the right track in starting a school to benefit the revolutionary attitude of Fairhope.

She was obsessed with education, and her enthusiasm led her to believe that everyone who heard her theory would understand and agree. She was convinced that a demonstration school in Fairhope would reform the whole school system in America and the world.

Mrs. Johnson reinvented herself once she moved to Fairhope permanently – and she was 42 years old at the time. With zeal for her educational philosophy, she became a spellbinding lecturer, an accomplished fund-raiser, and a trainer of teachers who flocked to Fairhope to the school from all over the country. Mrs. Johnson and E.B. Gaston became friends and colleagues in proselytizing for both Fairhope and the school, and he and his wife enrolled all four of their children there.

Mrs. Johnson’s approach to education was as profound as it was simple. She knew that children learn as they play, and she felt that play was one of the most important ways a child could learn. While offering the traditional academic curriculum along with its program of activities in the fresh air, music, art, and handwork, the school did not hold one study as more important than another. The Organic School did not grade its children or have periodic tests or examinations. There were no dress codes. The artistic and crafts courses were required. Liberal use was made of Fairhope’s natural resources in the education of the children. Field trips to the gullies, the beach and activities outside on the beautiful 10-acre campus (now the home of Faulkner Community College) were part of the learning experience.

Children acted out the Greek myths on their hikes to the gullies. They came barefooted to school and climbed trees at recess. They sat outdoors for classes. In other words, they loved going to school. It was basic to Mrs. Johnson’s theory that this atmosphere offers an ideal situation for learning.

Today you meet many people from “old” Fairhope who will regale you with information they learned at the Organic School. The school – founded on the theory that hands-on projects are the best way to learn any skill – peopled Fairhope with generations who could build houses, throw pots, dance, paint pictures, write stories. Among their number are also doctors, lawyers, educators, military men, as well as entrepreneurs in the business world and practitioners of the arts.

In the 1920’s, the Marietta Johnson School was a magnet for the community. Its existence changed the history of Fairhope. In the process, one child at a time, the Marietta Johnson School has been at the heart of what makes Fairhope and its people unique. Those who supported the school, and the children who attended it, had (and still have) sincerity, innocence, and an eagerness for learning – their whole lives long. It’s the Fairhope attitude, and, more to the point, it’s the attitude of Organic Education.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Once Upon a Time in Fairhope

September 13, 2007


Edward J. Kearney, Sam Guncler in I Hate Hamlet

One of the prospects that enticed me to move back to Fairhope from New York in 1988 was that I could start another theatre company, as I had in Switzerland with the American community group we called the Little Theatre of Geneva. Fairhope seemed a good location for the first Equity theater in the southern part of the state, due to the huge success of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, first in Anniston and then in Montgomery, where it sat, and still does, in the middle of a 40-acre tract of land and a physical plant that cost something like $50 million.

If people from Fairhope would drive nearly three hours to see Shakespeare, I reckoned, would they not go across town to see a little Neil Simon, Noel Coward or Tennessee Williams? The Grand Hotel offered us space in the loft of their golf club, and I used the sale of a little scrap of land as seed money to create my theatre.

I named the company the Jubilee Fish Theatre, in an attempt to be, as I stated in the flyer, "imaginative, innovative -- and fun!" My husband tried his best to talk me out of the name, but the locals enjoyed it. Someone from Fairhope (perhaps me) will explain to you sometime what is meant by jubilee fish, but anyway I liked saying we were the only company in the world with that name. It definitely wasn't pretentious, and it definitely set us apart.

The first season consisted of four plays: A.R. Gurney's The Middle Ages, The Price, by Arthur Miller, The Deadly Game, and Somerset Maugham's The Circle. I scouted Montgomery for some of my first actors, including the dynamic young man named John Preston, who went on to become a favorite at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, playing, among other roles, an unforgettable Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. I made contact with Lewis Chambers, a New York agent who sent some of his stable of actors to me, and we worked for years together, with him supplying me with appropriate members of the actors' union for my plays.

We did such new plays like Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest, pictured here with Jed Dickson, Martina Vidmar, backed by a cast of onlookers including Carter Inskeep, Sarah Benz Phillips, Mary Margaret Thomas (mostly hidden), and Tina Hightower. At the end of that production one of my regular audience members took me aside and asked plaintively, "Why do you keep doing these comedies that are so sad?"

It was kind of a trademark at Jubilee Fish Theatre, comedies that had some sadness, or serious plays that had some laughs. I had to keep the casts small because of the space in that loft, and I never made a cent at my chosen profession, but kept pouring my own money in to keep it going. At the end of nine years I was losing about as much as I did on that first event that launched the company. My daughter was in New York City and pregnant with my first grandson. The theatre no longer seemed a viable profession, at least not for me.

So I moved on, and have now boxed all the memorabilia I can find into cartons for packing. In researching this, I found I had kept alarmingly little, and vital bits of information about my casts and my seasons seem to have been discarded over time, and over the recent purge of papers as I pack up to move. You can't keep everything, but there are moments in one's own once-upon-a-time when remnants of past projects will light up your heart. Just thinking about the days of Jubilee Fish Theatre make me a little happy, like a comedy tinged with sad moments.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Six Years Ago

September 11, 2007

A few months ago I was in New York City, a city still bruised by the terrible events of six years ago when a few deranged types, led by a fanatic, chose to take the lives of over 3,000 innocent people for no reason other than that they were Americans. In my walks around the city, I would pass firehouses with plaques commemmorating the brave men from their ranks who had given their lives in the effort to save lives. We are too close to it to comprehend the vastness of this wound to our nation and to one of the greatest cities in the world, but everyone says we are on our way to healing.

The families who lost their loved ones are still in shock, but trying, as mourning families must, to find a path to take in order to move on. The city's mayor, the very competent Michael R. Bloomberg, has done a great deal to rebuild the city and take it forward in spite of the crucible his constituents have endured.

In September, 2001, I was a different person, in a very different place for where I sit today. This is what I wrote in my blog a year ago:

I was on the first real vacation I had taken in years, beginning with a trip to Northern California for the big outdoor art show in Sausalito over the Labor Day weekend. My stepdaughter Amy had a booth at the show, and I went with her and her husband Phil to stay in a sweet little in in San Rafael. During that leg of the trip I had managed to hook up with an old boyfriend, himself also single again, in San Francisco. He took me on a wondrous tour of the nighttime city -- wandering into haunts in Chinatown, catching the music in a great jazz club, and eating cioppino at a garlicky little restaurant.

I then went for a week with a friend I had known in junior high at the Organic School and had not seen since. Neil and her husband Neal -- yes, that's their names -- turned out to be delightful grownups, gourmets, nonconformists, and living in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles. They only had one car and they had no television set. They had a charming little storybook cottage with no pets except for the feral cats who lived in the backyard. Neil and I had been having one of the nice catching-up visits that old friends sometimes are lucky enough to experience. I was scheduled to fly back home through Pensacola on September 13.

On this morning five years ago Neil came in to wake me up at about six a.m. L.A. time. She told me of the terrible situation in New York. Remember, we had no tv to watch; she and Neal were listening to the radio. Then their friends began calling, realizing that they didn't have a television set, and thinking that would be the only way to learn about what was happening. Neal had worked at the World Trade Center only a few years before; he was beside himself with worry about friends. Neil and I worried about our own safety, and I knew there was no way I was going to fly back home in two days. But I wanted to get out of Los Angeles as soon as I could. Neil assured me that she had a sixth sense about these things and didn't think Los Angeles was going to be hit. Never mind that, no airport felt safe; I had to get home somehow.

Someone suggested the bus. Nothing sounded safer than a Greyhound Bus at that time, the big old lumbering behemoths that used to take me from Fairhope to Mobile on a Saturday afternoon to watch a movie. I knew it was going to be a hell of a ride from Los Angeles to Lower Alabama, but I cancelled the plane tickets and went to the bus station. Neil and I looked around and the little station looked clean and all but empty. This was going to be rather nice. I'd just get off when I got weary and find a nearby motel and get on the next bus going east when I got up in the morning.

Of course it was not that pat. The first bus from the clean little station took me to the main bus terminal in Los Angeles, which was teeming with humanity, and scared humanity at that. Luckily I had lived for 14 years in Manhattan and knew how to finesse myself to the head of a line while all the rest milled around looking confused. I felt a little guilty doing that, but not much. I knew to pack a small carry bag with enough stuff to get me through three nights and check the big bag straight on through to Mobile. I got a decent seat and stayed on the first miserable bus for an hour or two and got off when it got dark, at Blythe, on the California border. I spent the night at a really cheap hotel, as if I weren't scared enough, had breakfast at daybreak at a nearby McDonald's, and watched a glorious sunrise on the next bus. And so it went. This was followed by a tour of the Great American West, looking at sunrises and flags. Once a kid in uniform got on and sat next to me. I said to him "What are we going to do?" and he said, "Make a parking lot out of 'em." Bless his heart, I thought, he has no idea.

I went through Arizona and New Mexico, and then came Texas. Neil had packed a little food for me, and a bottle of water. She lent me two books to get my mind off things. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Liars' Club. Ya Ya worked best, because in its way it spoke of home, and supportive women, and an unrealistically competent heroine. I climbed into that book and stayed there the whole trip; I never did finish The Liars' Club, a far better book.

I stayed on the bus, sleeping through Texas, rather than prolonging the trip at that point. I did enjoy seeing familiar Southern scenery in Louisiana, marshes, bayous, and Spanish moss. I was getting toward home. I spent the night in a nice town, had one of the best breakfasts in my life, I'll think of the town soon. Most of it was washed away in Katrina, but those people at the breakfast restaurant are still there; I know they are.

It was a sobering trip. I was glad to be home. People wonder what has changed now that everybody is saying that the world has changed. This is it: I have. The props were knocked out from under me and I am not the same person that went to that art show and heard jazz in San Francisco. Everything I do is tinged with the knowledge that this should not have happened, and that it happened because of mistakes our leaders had made, mistakes for which our country is responsible.

Unfortunately, since that day the mistakes have been compounded over and over until there is no credibility for our country's existence anywhere in the world. Those who say we need to wage more wars, do it better, stay the course, are just rationalizing the original error of our ways. There will be no way out in my lifetime, and no hysterical behavior on anybody's part is going to change a thing. All I can do is live my own life, keeping some distance in my heart from the country that raised me to trust it. Even the village that raised this child has become a place I don't recognize. If I can make my own space better by doing my best, all I can do is hope that it will have some effect on the betterment of others. That's fair enough.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Halfway to Hoboken

September 7, 2007

I just read a news story from the New York Times webpage: 11 Arrested in New Jersey Corruption Inquiry. Blogger Craig from the Hoboken page of nj.com writes, "How many of them are from Hoboken?" and claims to have breathed a sigh of relief (perhaps tinged with surprise) that the answer was, "None."

The news story, however, is quite an eye-opener for someone accustomed to the good-old-boy Southern brand of political one-hand-washes-the-other, bumblingness of the local city council. This is big time, movie level stuff. In Fairhope, the meetings behind closed doors are more likely to be about plans to finagle land away from the city to build a new library or extend a bike trail. We get excited about it on both sides -- and amazingly I was decided opposed to both those projects -- but nobody gets whacked and the big bucks do not disappear.

Fairhope is committed to adorableness. That seems to be what is drawing the new people in and keeping them. They don't care about history; they care about ambiance, which can mean anything from theme restaurants to retaining the dilapidated old school building that faces the new kiddie park. Mothers marched for this a year ago, with banners reading "Save the K-1 Center," and when they learned it would not be demolished (or were told so) but remain a school, they were placated and pronounced themselves victorious. That would be easier than to accept that the deal was done years before their march when the area was negotiated by the University of South Alabama to be a part of its Fairhope branch. These are the same people who marched to protect Fairhope from wicked WalMart -- another failed project because it was too little, and way too late. The efforts to "Keep Fairhope Fairhope" always win, because it's one thing that cannot be refuted. Whatever Fairhope becomes, it will still be Fairhope. Even I can't argue about that.

I'm going to move to a grittier town, no doubt about that. While Fairhope celebrates its pelicans tonight, Hoboken's Italian Festival is in full swing. This means Italian food, bands, jubilation and a lot of noise, scraps and scrapes and general disorder all over the streets. If you live anywhere near the action, it may be difficult to sleep. But you are living near the action, and that's the price you pay. I wish I were there already.

An open house for realtors will be held here on Tuesday. It's fall, sort of (temps in the high 80's, at least 10 degrees lower in Hoboke), and the real estate market is supposed to pick up any time.

Sooner or later, one way or the other, I shall make the move. It becomes increasingly more difficult to focus on what I love about Fairhope, when my heart has been stolen by a feisty little Yankee town, ten minutes from Manhattan.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Political Curmudgeoning

September 6, 2007

I had Jay Leno on last night, tuning in just after the beginning of the monologue. Couple of Larry Craig jokes, a riff on Brad Pitt's stalker, then the announcement that the guest would be Fred Thompson, so I grabbed for the remote and searched for something interesting.

I was aware that Thompson would be declaring his candidacy this week, but not here, not now. Wouldn't have crossed my mind, even though Schwartzenegger used Leno's show for the announcement of his run for Governor of California. You expect it from Arnold -- he has been a talk show guy since his steroid days on early Merv Griffin -- but, when a debate is held by the Republicans on the same night, to come on Jay Leno to do an end run around your own party seems a bit callous. Seems Thompson's handlers used to work for Schwartzenegger.

And I'm not sorry I missed the announcement. Usually something of a political junkie, I cannot warm to this particular candidate, as I described in an earlier post. If he can beat Hillary Clinton, more power to him, but as far as I'm concerned their contest will be one of Lilliputians who will fight to say less with more air time than ever before in history. I guess you might call it a beauty contest, and Thompson may come out prettier. I shall probably seek a Third Party to vote for -- too bad Bloomberg has ruled himself out. But Ralph Nader is always lurking in the wings, waiting for another chance for an entrance.

I have become a curmudgeon. If it wasn't clear by my boycott of President Clinton's opportune hawking of his new book on Today and The Larry King Show yesterday, the switch to Danny De Vito on David Letterman rather than watch the dull Thompson (not withstanding the fact that it didn't occur to me it would be his first bid for the Presidential nod) should make it clear.

I am never a bellweather of things to come in politics. I seldom pick the winning candidate, and usually go for the one who says the most to me. This year none of those I find interesting have the chance of a snowball in hell of making it past the first primaries. My lack of interest in either leading candidate probably indicates that it's going to be a exciting year, with a great deal of joy on both sides. To me, it's just that the world has truly dumbed down.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Marrying a Gay

September 4, 2007

In the recent flurry of publicity about homosexual men brought down from high places, the figure in every scenario who always appears most enigmatic seems to be that woman by his side. How could she not know? What kind of person could she be?

I had lunch with my friend Carol, one of the most Southern of my acquaintances, a couple of years ago and the subject of how our generation of women had almost no choice but to marry by the time we were 20. She and I had both done so, and neither marriage survived very long.

Carol mentioned a friend who had also married very young, tried to make the marriage work against all odds -- discovering, after some years, that her husband was homosexual. Carol said, "I don't know what it is about us in the South, so many of our first husbands turned out to be gay. My first husband was gay too."

This brought me up short. I seldom discussed this matter, but this time I wanted to. Because I was also one of those young women who married a homosexual in the 1960's.

I said, "Gay guys were the type of man our mothers approved of. Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes. Nice, sensitive, presentable. And what did we know?"

What, indeed. I had been very sheltered, even as I pursued a career in the theatre. I knew Tommy to be gentle, offbeat and witty; I knew him to be seeing a psychiatrist; I knew he came from a small, conventional Alabama town, yet was a fan of the arts, especially grand opera. But, although he was attractive to the gays in my theatre group in New Orleans, they, like I, assumed him to be straight.

When we moved to Atlanta I worked for a while in Emory University's hospital as an aide in the psychiatric unit. This was a huge learning experience for me as I was required to confront some of my own psychology both through work with patients there and through relationships that developed from the intense closeness of the psychiatric assistants to each other as well as to superiors on the medical staff.

There was a favorite patient who was a history professor at the college. He was brilliant and had a warm personality. He also was suicidal and paranoid, a married man with a tendency toward homosexuality. This duality was a revelation to me; he clearly loved his wife and hated himself for not being able to be true to her. She and he were trying to work things out. I could not help but wonder what life would be like with a husband who was a homosexual.

In those days homosexuality was defined as a mental illness, considered to be caused (or at least exacerbated) by a dysfunctional family of origin situation -- probably an aggressive mother and a passive father. I noted that Tommy had both, but still could not connect our sexual problems with anything but my inability to be irresistible. We had a child to whom he was devoted. It seemed to me he liked everything about being married except me. And, to give him credit, a great deal of that was my fault. Or at least the fault of my ignorance and my built-in denial system, and the insecurity that led me, like Princess Diana years later, to expect a fairy-tale outcome to a match that went unexamined. Just being married was supposed to provide the answers to everything.

How little I knew of relationships, least of all that most complicated one of long-term romance between a man and a woman. It never occurred to me that a marriage was to be negotiated--carved out over time to suit its individual participants and their complexity. Hillary Clinton, the survivor of one of the most confusing marriages of recent memory, opines that no one understands a marriage except the two people in it.

And how little any of us understand the homosexual male psyche, particularly when he is driven underground by a strict sense of propriety and the need to be accepted in society. The Larry Craig case is compelling because it is so paradoxical. Even though Senator Craig denies that he is homosexual, and even though he has professed to despise the very act, he was undoubtably caught in some extraordinary behavior in an airport men's room if he is not pretty hip to the gay pickup scene. His denial and subsequent anger is only a part of the already distorted and sad story.

But wives like Dina Matos McGreevey (wife of the gay former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey) and Suzanne Craig were probably blindsided because they thought the problem had something to do with them. Ms. McGreevey is particularly bitter, as a wife would be if her husband suddenly dropped her with no warning and emerged with a glamorous trophy wife, callously negating the life he had lived with her. Mr. McGreevey was playing a role and, probably unknowingly, used her as an accessory in the picture of normalcy he was desperately trying to present to voters.

Mrs. Craig has yet to be heard from, but I'm fairly certain my case was different from both of these. I did not leave my husband because he was gay; in fact it was many years before I actually faced that fact. He moved to San Francisco on business and I refused to go. The divorce was final over a year later. My daughter grew up with doubts about her own lovability because of his apparent rejection -- which had a great deal more to do with me than it did with her. She and I didn't figure out what her father's real problem was until she was grown and visited him from time to time. He and I lost all contact, although I did everything in my power to refrain from negative talk about him. As to the clues about his sexuality, I had pushed them all to the back of my mind, steadfastly holding on to the belief that it couldn't have been so.

In college, Alison took a semester off to be with her father after he was diagnosed with AIDS. She has never reconciled her conflicting feelings about him. Now that I think of it, neither have I. He effectively cut the two of us out of his life as he became another person. When he died in the early 1980's, he and I had not spoken for over 15 years.

It was a different world, and I was a different woman. If I had known what I now do, and had not been so very young and inexperienced -- and if the world had been more broadminded in those days -- I might have had the courage to negotiate a better marriage and a more comfortable life for my daughter. All of that is useless conjecture now. My first husband and I went very separate ways, as, is usual in such cases, it was the child who suffered the most. That she is now a mother, and a good one, is a sign that some people can overcome the bleakest childhoods to live normal lives with an expanded consciousness and a loving heart.

I empathize with those women who try to make the most of a bad deal all around. I have hopes for Larry Craig, and for Suzanne, but they are only fair hopes -- their problem is only now beginning to find its name.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Law, Order and Politics

August 31, 2007

They say that Tennessee actor/politician is going to make the announcement of his run for the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party next week. Republicans, once jubilant at the prospect of another actor in the White House, seem to have cooled on this particular thespian, and I can see why.

Like most Americans, I have devoted quite a bit of time to watching the tv series Law and Order over the past 15 years or so. I watched the stage actress S. Epatha Merkeson play a police supervisor all this time; I watched when Michael Moriarty had the Sam Waterston role; when Jerry Ohrbach so convincingly played the troubled recovering alcoholic police detective Lenny Briscoe; when a trail of beauties from Angie Harmon to Carey Lowell worked in the D.A.'s office.

I still lament the exit of the best District Attorney New York ever had, the complex yet avuncular Steven Hill. Hill was one of those solid New York actors seldom seen on the screen, a founder of the Actors' Studio and an early proponent of Method Acting. His own personality melted into the characters he played, and his mental acuity and intensity permeated his every performance. In Law and Order, the character he played was based on real life New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whom he is said to have captured perfectly in his nuanced and elegant style. His Adam Schiff was a man you respected without question, a man of integrity and wisdom, and, although a bit jaded by his job, a man with a big heart. He was detached without being bloodless.

The actor was one of the most interesting men ever to work in television. Born Solomon Krakovski, he was appearing as Sigmund Freud in A Far Country on Broadway when he confronted his own heritage. A character screamed the line "You are a Jew!" to him in the play and the experience sent him right back to his roots. Hill realized the impact of his Jewishness and embraced it by becoming strict Orthodox -- he began observing a kosher diet, wearing specially lined clothing,and strictly observing the Sabbath. This made Hill unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances and effectively ended his stage career and closed many roles to him in the movies most notably The Sand Pebbles.

Nevertheless, Steven Hill has had a good career without ever becoming a household word. He felt that artists needed to take breaks from their work for years at a time to refresh and he practiced what he preached.

He had undergone one of those long breaks before taking on the role in Law and Order, and it served him well. His work on that show was a seamless as a bolt of fine fabric. He was as real as an actor can be. If you missed the show under his reign, try to find a re-run that old. He was just wonderful.

Law and Order replaced him with Dianne Weist, an excellent actress who never seemed at home in the role. It was a rare misstep for both the show and Weist, who just didn't have much gravitas and was somehow unconvincing as the boss of the heavy, knowledgeable Jack McCoy as played by Waterston. Of course, her biggest problem was that she was being set up as a replacement for a man who had owned the show for some ten years.

In comes stolid Fred Thompson to replace Weist. Here is an actor with so little range, so little charisma, so little energy that he seems to have gotten the role just based on the fact that he looks likes everybody else. That is, there is nothing about him that looks actorish (like, say, Ronald Reagan), or nothing about him that seems wise (like Steven Hill) or even anything that looks complicated, like Dianne Weist.

I await his political announcement. I would love to hear something original from him, something that would put a spark in the upcoming Presidential race. Unfortunately, I don't think it's coming. Even his credentials as an actor are in question. The charm that usually goes with that territory is decidedly missing. If the election were to be held tomorrow, I'd probably write in Steven Hill.