Saturday, September 30, 2006

Other Blogs and Books

September 30

A few months ago a friend's blog ran a review of a book called The Creed Room. The review was good, the book written by a friend of the blogger -- I was interested, but took the whole thing with a grain of salt. But I went to the author's website and found out he had a blog. I found the site and the blog very interesting. I ordered The Creed Room from and got my copy.

When I read the epigraph at the beginning of the book, seeing that it was a quote from Spinoza, I shook a little in my boots. You have by now guessed that the person who referred me to the book on his blog was none other that the man who signs his comments here "benedict s.," after Spinoza, his favorite philosopher. Not a reader of philosophers, I feared The Creed Room might be heavy going.

I was mistaken. It's an intriguing novel with a story line that prompts the reader to stay with it. Its protagonist has his flaws, and the other characters irritate, illuminate, and charm, just like real life. And the author has woven the philosophy in so cleverly that the reader follows that too, taken in by the plot, just as he or she should be. It's really a quick read, and informs in a way that is easy to take. I liked it and emailed the author, rather like Holden Caulfield, who always wanted to call the author on the phone when he read the kind of book he liked.

I got a little plug in for Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree while I was at it. Author Dan Spiro was more than generous, and offered to buy a copy of that, interested, as he said he was, in utopian communities.

All this is to say that I sold a copy of my book! I got the check yesterday, and sent the book off by return mail. Let's see if it has the conversion power of The Creed Room.

You'll also note that I have linked to Dan Spiro's blog EmpathicRationalist, as well as within this post to his website.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Movies Moving Backward

September 29

The other night I watched The Lake House. Not unusual for a new movie, this one made me think, "I've got to see this one a second time."

In my youth when I wanted to see a movie a second time, it was because I loved it and simply couldn't part with it. Today, it's because the film left me with questions that could only be answered by at least one more viewing. This is by design, the trick of the filmmaker to keep the audience from understanding the movie, even if it takes putting deliberate holes in the plot or withholding the information that would carry the story forward.

Some of the confusion movies are better than others. I happen to think The Lake House was a pleasure to watch, a kind of flashy soap opera chick-flick, with attractive actors and one I always love to see (Christopher Plummer), beautiful locales, and an intriguing story line that keeps the viewer in awe of what is or might be going on. I loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a confusion flick of a few years back in which Jim Carrey is having such difficulty moving forward after a painful experience that he has his mind cleaned and his memory erased and the audience is charged with figuring out the time line.

There was a trend of movies moving back-to-front, begun by something called Mulholland Drive, which I never saw. It's on my list of possibles, but not high on it because I already understand the premise -- and watching a movie run from the end to the beginning seems a bit counterproductive to me. But it launched the confusion genre (and don't you love how often people use the word genre today? It bores me to distraction. This may be a first for me, using the word genre. I shall try to avoid it in the future.)

I wish I weren't becoming one of those people who brought the "old days" into every discussion. But when a movie or book had a straightforward concept, a linear story, good actors doing their job, and satisfied the audience with a neat beginning, middle and end, I was in my comfort zone. On the other hand, I like being on the edge of my seat and don't mind what stunts the filmmaker tries to get me there. Maybe I just like movies.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Flashback: A Place in Time

September 28

About five years ago there was an organization we called the Fairhope Preservation Committee. We called it that because the first time the name Historical Preservation Committee was suggested, a local opponent wittily stated that "Fairhope doesn't need a Hysterical Preservation Society," and we knew that with that name we would always be a joke.

It didn't matter. The town was so opposed to preservation of its heritage, no committee under any name had a chance of survival. During the life of the committee, we sponsored a number of projects to raise awareness of Fairhope's history and the charm of its antique buildings and homes. We tried to get a preservation ordinance passed -- an ordinance that would allow neighborhoods, block by block, to opt for what criteria they wanted preserved. For instance, a block designated historical might choose to have no new construction without a front porch, or a picket fence. It would allow for self regulation and the element preserved might be unique to that particular block but would be designated as authentic to the history of Fairhope.

An ordinance was out of the question.

We had numerous conferences about historic preservation, led by noted consultants in the field, but anything that hinted at the basic control of construction was not to be. Fairhope was in a growth mode, and realtors and developers had the politicians' collective ears. As for the people, so many were ignorant of Fairhope's history that they couldn't care less about its preservation. They had moved here because they had found a charming little town near the water, and they saw unlimited growth only as a positive element.

The Preservation Committee held a yearly tour of historic cottages. They would showcase six restored or renovated cottages. This was a very popular event, but as the cottages were demolished one by one, they took to showing many houses that were simply old that had been remodeled for today's use -- kitchens enlarged, wings added to provide that extra-large "master suite" so in demand. It has been announced that the House Tour of 2007 will be the last.

As an adjunct to the house tour, I wrote a brochure called "A Place in Time." We printed thousands of them, but I suppose there are only a few left -- maybe those in my closet.

Here is an excerpt from the brochure, with featured descriptions of "The Colony Cottages," "The Bungalows," "The Lovable Eccentrics," "The Many Faces of Ranch Style" and "Large Structures and Public Spaces."

Fairhope is attractive to homeowners because of its location, its ease, its atmosphere, and its appearance. Fairhope looks like what it is -- a place where we want to live, to raise our families, to retire, and to enjoy our lives...Whether building or buying in today's Fairhope, consider first the assets that make Fairhope appealing. The history and vernacular architecture are unique, and contribute greatly to the sense of comfort that lies at the essence of Fairhope. We hope you will find inspiration from the basic house styles we present that comprise our Fairhope heritage.

Fat chance.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Flap for the Day

September 27

I stay away from the political on this blog, as I stated on my September 11 post, because since that day in 2001 I have felt that there is so much that I and everybody else in the country doesn't know that just to air one's emotional response is not only unlikely to have any effect, it is beside the point in just about every situation and could even be counterproductive to our ends. There is no one above being manipulated by the right hands.

The outburst by Bill Clinton when asked in an interview with Chris Wallace is a case in point. I suppose easily 75 per cent of the blogs have gotten fodder from the scene, as so much of the television news has. Was Wallace baiting him? Was Clinton, as now it is being spun by the Democratic mouthpieces, prepared to leap into the fray himself in order to change the subject? Who won?

For what it's worth, which is less than nothing, my opinion is that neither scenario is real. It was good television, because the interview was live and the eruption was not in the script. What occurred was spontaneous and interesting. Wallace's question was not provocative. But Clinton had come to discuss something else, something that would win praise for him. He was doing interviews on all other networks, including cable. Every other interview had been controlled by him, but Wallace threw him a curve by asking the least soft question first. He took the bait and responded emotionally. Probably he expected that the Fox Network would be laying for him, but even so, he lost it and made things worse.

Like Richard Nixon before him -- and maybe a few other Presidents -- Clinton has a thin skin and a tendency to believe only his good notices. The whole thing kind of reminded me of the old "You won't have Nixon to kick around any more" when Clinton came out with the "hit man" line. Of course there are big differences between him and Nixon, one of which is that Clinton has the media in his pocket.

One reason I avoid writing about this is that I cannot be objective, particularly about either of the Clintons. I just don't like them. I was one of the Democrats who found them not Liberal enough, and, much as I resent the fact that politics is always personal, I guess it is with me too, so I feel unqualified to give an objective opinion.

As to Al Qaeda and 9/11, I always thought that Bill Clinton was aware of the danger of bin Laden, but didn't act because polls said it would be an unpopular move. Notice that "I always thought"? This is based on no information except that which was reported in the press and available to everyone. I have no real knowledge, and no way to get any that is not just a matter of somebody's opinion.

He just strikes me as a guy to whom being popular is everything, and he's certainly gotten his way in this life. My daughter, as extreme a Liberal as anyone in the country, defends him with, "Mom, if you met him at a party..."-- an argument that sends me climbing the wall.

We don't even know what we know. You take sides based on which story you like best; here was one that happened in front of all of us, yet we really don't know what happened or what it will mean in the long run.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Fair Hope of Future Shock

September 26

Yesterday I was reminded of my roots in Fairhope of the 1950's. This was because I was thrust into activities of ought-six and too often didn't know what I was doing.

I have a new laptop which I feel very modern clicking buttons on, but I don't know any of the nuances the little whiz-bang is capable of, and I really don't care. Every day in my heart I thank Margaret Gaston who taught me how to type at the age of 13, and my father, who insisted it was a skill I would use all my life. "Learn to think at the typewriter," he said. "Let your fingers write for you." A hunt-and-peck typist, he always wished he had had a class or two in touch-typing. If he only knew how those keyboard skills would be employed in the future, and on what instruments.

The modem on the PC upstairs is hardly used any more, so something has gone wrong and the button to turn it on doesn't work. I unplugged the various sockets, plugs and switches on the back and put hauled the modem to the car, to drop off at the repair shop for a diagnostic before I went to the dentist over on the other side of Mobile. I arranged to meet a computer-literate friend for lunch. I took my laptop with me to the wireless café famous for bread, soup and salad. Luckily I had the laptop; he was late. I felt very chic opening it up and checking the blog and the email while I waited. I noticed a couple of old men with long white hair and white beards working on their laptops so I realized this is actually as much a geezer activity as anything these days.

When my friend arrived and we placed our orders I asked him about the service procedure at the restaurant -- we had each been given plastic discs that were blinking. I said, "When it blinks, does that mean the food's ready?" and he laughed and said, "You're so ignorant, it's fun to take you out. I have to introduce you to the basic stuff that everybody knows. When the order's ready, the disc will buzz and light up. You'll know it." So we talked a couple of minutes and he told me he had called my cell phone to let me know he was going to be late, but he knew that was pointless because I wouldn't have my cell phone on me, or bother to check it for messages. (He was right; I don't even remember my cell phone number.) He said it made him feel useful to go out with me because I clearly couldn't function without his help. Then the little disc started flashing and buzzing and I knew I could go get my salad, and I thought about the days when girls were admonished to make their dates feel smart and strong be pretending to be dumb and weak, only now it was more a job of trying not to seem like a doddering old lady just because you're not interested in learning a lot of unimportant technological tricks.

But it was a beautiful day and a nice lunch, and I had to hurry home to feed the cat. I forgot to take the modem to the computer shop, so I have to do that today. Is this life in the fast lane or what?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Art of the Blog

September 24

I was going to spend this post talking about the good things that happened on the blog all week long, and mention my favorite blogpost of the week, but the interesting comment from a new reader who calls himself Hurdit Herefirst -- and apparently has been reading the blog for months, and apparently loves those clever aliases -- prompts a side trip deeper into the world of art.

(I disagree with Robin, by the way, in her characterization of Ashton Kutcher as an actor "wannabe." The man has been a television star since 1998, and a movie star since 2004 with The Butterfly Effect and a personal fave of mine called Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. You may not like him, but don't hold the fact that a hottie like Demi Moore is his wife against him. Rent Win a Date and you'll have a good time.)

The Warhol post stimulated a record number of comments on this blog. Most of you, with the exception of the Officious Oaf, take Warhol reasonably seriously, and the comments are a hoot to read. The Oaf may come another lifetime. For now he assures us his mind is made up and he needs no further information to enlighten him on the meaning or many facets of art.

Our real artist and expert in the field has gone on a trip to Italy, so he won't be following the blog for a couple of weeks. In lieu of fresh commentary from him, I'll quote from a comment he made last month about Jackson Pollack and other artists. (Another wee side trip, Hurdit: The Pollack film is excellent, Hurdit; I recommend it. Ed Harris is another favorite actor of mine.)

John "Sweden" wrote this when an inspired commenter described how viewing Pollack's original work in a NYC museum literally set her dancing about the room. I imagine the reason that you as a dancer would get such feelings from Pollack’s work is that Pollack probably more than more than another painter was engaged in dancing. His works are pure unadulterated rhythms of movement.

He used a very sophisticated editing technique that allowed the works to develop as direct statements. Picasso used it and it is one of the reason’s he was so prolific as artist across virtually all mediums throughout his life. Picasso pointed out at one point in discussing art, “that you don’t have art until you have a mistake” Now there are two directions to take when editing the mistake and this is what begins to separate the painter from the artist.

One is, you actually remove the mistake either by painting over, erasing, starting over or pure destruction. (There’s a wonderful story involving Georgia O’Keefe painting and men on last method). This however invites issue and problem put forth by Mondrian as the principle of extension. Where your progress as an artist, because your are constantly revising by essentially starting over, tends to horizontal out and makes it hard to advance beyond the level of perceived mistakes. This also leads a kind of end editing that you described where one paints ten paintings, because he has to, and then chooses one that best represents what the painter believes rises to level of his art.

The other is much more advanced and it takes and develops a real a confidence in one’s self and their artistic process. Here the so-called mistake is incorporated in the work. You the edit its effects by creating competing elements, using the process you can literally make things disappear. In this fashion you create mange a set dynamic tension between intentional and unintentional elements that gives a life and depth to the work beyond the artist’s intent. Because of its intense focusing ability you do not need do so many to achieve a continous set of quality pieces leading beyond the forward edge of your art.

Here’s the genius of Pollack. By separating the brush from the canvas he creates a space of uncertainty between intention and results. So you feel the force of the control(the stroke) in chaos (the drip), which heightens the feeling motion and rhythm. This is actually the ultimate solution in terms of Not only Picasso’s mistake principle but also to the paradigm laid out by Duchamp that “once you conceive of it, it is already done” It’s the drip part that keeps the results of intention action from being conceived in advance (in essence a mistake unintended consequence). In terms of negation requirement he is the only artist to effectively challenge the paradigm of Reinhart’s “Black Squares”. He does this by creating an overall monotone of small intentions negated in the tension with chaos in which the individually of the artist is dissipated. Hence the often criticism in both cases by the viewer “that anyone can do this”. Reinhart’s answer to that observation was “Yes; but that would be their black squares.”

We’ll cover Van Gogh another day. I will say that your perception of his painting and editing process is not supported by the facts. I will however end with a quote from Vincent, my very personal muse on almost every level.

“I tell you, the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

Very nice to think about on a dull Sunday. But back to my original intent with this post, which as I said earlier is to review some of the week's posts and name my favorite. You're obviously not going to agree with this, because it fell flatter than a pancake. It was the post about La Rochefoucauld. I loved looking him up (in the encyclopedia) relating what I learned, and in the magic html that would link the reader to more information. Far as I know, nobody but John Sweden used the link, but that's not going to stop me from practicing my new html skills in the future. In case you didn't know how to use it, just put your mouse on any word that's highlighted in a blog (or in a name in the comment section that's highlighted) and your magic machine will take you where the writer wants you to go.

Try it -- it might inform you of many things. There are two such links on the Warhol post, and they will be sprinkled on this blog whenever I need them in the future.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Fair Hope of a Makeover

September 23

I've been talking to a landscaper for months about re-doing my huge front yard, leaving spaces for parking and removing the aging azaleas that for most of the year look like scruffy, oversized green weeds. I told him I thought it was time to put a little color on the house, and he said to get the house painted before he comes to plant a garden, because the painters invariably will pour excess paint all over the beautiful new plantings.

I got bids from three painters and took the cheapest. Painting the captain's house is no picnic, with all its original, darling casement windows ("Just like England!" exclaimed my British friend Pat when she first saw them. "I've never seen anything like them in the States."), but this pair of painters -- an industrious husband and wife team -- did an excellent job in just over one week.

I wanted to bring a little authentic bungalow beige to the house, sort of a creamy tone, and they brought me a huge book of color chips to choose from. I didn't want tan, I didn't want that pinky tone beige sometimes gets, so I selected something from the yellow family called "Rich Cream" and went with it, never seeing a bigger sample.

Imagine my surprise when the house came out yellow! Serves me right for not being more careful. Well, there are worse things than yellow, and this is kind of a creamy yellow, not exactly how it looks in the picture. It changes with the time of day. But in direct sunlight, which beams on the house almost all day long, it does look yellow. My friend Aaron, a professional painter, tells me that cream sometimes turns to butter. I can accept that.

Aaron helped me pick up the new wicker furniture for the porch yesterday. This is very comfortable there, and helps tone down the yellowness. I have no doubt the new landscaping will too, and so will just a little time. If the yellow doesn't fade much, at least I'll get used to it.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Warhol: Art as Fame

September 21

The first segment of a two-part show about Andy Warhol on PBS last night revealed his beginnings, his genius, and some aspects of his life, which itself was a component of his art. Subject matter to the contrary, Warhol was a top-tier artist of his generation, one who changed the way the world (and the U.S. in particular) sees itself.

His career began as a commercial illustrator in New York City in the 1950's, and he was one of the best. He worked for magazines, ad agencies, and industrial products for the home such as wallpaper. He had a strong interest in printing techniques and a deft way of minimalist design. He was in great demand as a graphic artist, but he wanted to be taken seriously in the world of fine art. When the most accepted practitioners of fine art of his day refused him "admission to their club," that is, when they avoided him and seemed to dismiss him as a commercial talent only, he persisted. At one point he had a huge crush on Truman Capote, whose flattering, effeminate pictures adorned his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms,, but even the flamboyant Capote wouldn't take him seriously.

The post WWII art world was embracing Abstract Impressionism. It seemed the be-all-and-end all of what Art was all about. There was Norman Rockwell on one hand, illustrating an America to come home to, and Jackson Pollack dripping paint onto canvasses in an emotional effort to carve out meaning in rebellion and rule-bending. In between the extremes, new work was being seen, not quite abstract, but not quite realistic either. The subject matter was not the point. These artists approached the task of helping a new America define itself in a different way. They drew inspiration from ordinary objects, from comic strips, from the everyday life of the new, affluent, consuming public. Someone said to Andy Warhol, "Paint what you love! You love money, paint pictures of money. Paint something that people look at every day, like a can of soup."

According to the Ric Burns documentary, those words were his inspiration. Realizing that Campbell Soup had 32 varieties, he set out painting individual portraits of each of them, to be displayed as a whole. The gallery owner who bought the cans filled his gallery with them and was amazed by the profundity of being surrounded by the work day by day. He bought the exhibit from Warhol for $1,000 with the promise that he would never let it be broken up and that he would ultimately sell it to a major museum, to be displayed as one piece.

Warhol apparently did love Campbell's Soup. He ate it with a sandwich every day of his life. He loved American icons, particularly movie stars, and he loved celebrity itself. His work held a mirror up to American life after the war. His work said, "We are not Norman Rockwell's country any more. We are in the hands of the mass marketers and we might as well like it."

Warhol himself actually said, "What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."

He was expert at technical execution, and spent a great deal of his life working out new approaches, such as applying color to a canvas and then silk-screening a black and white photo image over it. This resulted in the canvases of of repeated images that look distinct one from the other -- the color is in one place on one, different on the next one, causing the impression of a piece of movie film that might have been discarded, tampered with, just as the beautiful subject of the photo was. Reality and art blurred as one statement is made by the artist.

Warhol may have invented the celebrity culture we now live in. His fascination with fame was all-consuming. Always painfully self-conscious about his looks, he had plastic surgery, wore obvious wigs, and could not bear to be touched. But he needed to be a star, and he became one. His work and his life changed the very atmosphere of the world.

He invented the phrase that I hear probably every day of my life: In the future, everybody in the world will be alloted fifteen minutes of fame. It's used so often it's now just thrown out as, "Well, he's had his 15 minutes." Some people think he designed the label for Campbell Soup. He may as well have. I never open one of those cans without thinking of him.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Mrs. Parker and La Rochefoucauld

September 20, Later in the morning

I wanted to check what I wrote earlier about Dorothy Parker's quote from La Rochefoucauld. I was almost right (and when I looked it up I found the correct spelling of the 17th Century epigrammist). Mrs. Parker wrote, in a short piece called "The Little Hours" about a woman agonizing with insomnia:"[La Rochefoucauld] said that if nobody had ever learned to read, very few people would be in love." Just a word or two different, but that was so much better I just had to share it.

Then I decided to go to the Encyclopedia Britannica (yes, there resources besides the Internet!) to find out exactly who La Rochefoucauld was. I was not disappointed. He was exactly the kind of dude Dorothy Parker would have loved. It seems that in Paris in those days, the intellectuals who met in salons had a sort of game to create what they called maximes. They would gather and bounce clever lines off each other, refining them until they felt they got it right, with someone transcribing with quill in hand all the time. At the end of a session they selected the best maxime and attributed it to its author, or at least whoever contributed the most to the creation. Then they would have books of their maximes published. La Rochefoucauld had several books published, but some he disclaimed, apparently out of modesty. At any rate, and also because the name is so much fun to pronounce in French, La Rochefoucauld is worth knowing about.

And so is Dorothy Parker.

The Eyes of Art

September 20

There will be a PBS "American Masters" program on Andy Warhol tonight, and that reminded me of an angry letter I got from a friend a couple of years ago railing about what a charlatan Andy Warhol was. The letter showed a visceral reaction (Warhol would have loved that) to the work and to the man, and revealed how little my friend knew about the function of art and the artist. I felt there was absolutely no point in broaching the subject with this person until he had a little more information, so I recommended to him that he watch the show tonight.

I was perhaps harder on him than I needed to be when I wrote, "I think you're somehow stuck on the idea that art designed to piss the viewer off is not art. But it is -- or can be, if well executed and clear -- and it is not always obvious to the untrained eye (or the closed mind) that the artist producing the work is first-rate." He responded with, "If the sole purpose of art is to provoke emotion, then the field of art is wide open to anything. But then that has always been the case, therefore we can say that there is no limitation on what could be considered art; it does not have to contain any beauty, any harmony, it just has to produce an emotion, and more emotion produced, the better the art." Just when I thought he was getting it, he went off to describe the possibilities: Norman Rockwell paintings of Christians being fed to the lions or piles of bodies in the concentration camps.

Aside from the revelation that the writer had never seen Picasso's Guernica or probably any other major work of 20th Century art, it is clear that, had he lived at the turn of the 19th Century he would be railing against the "abominations" produced by the French Impressionists, as the critics and most of the public did at the time. It leaves me with little to say except that art is different things to different people, and those who are open to learn about it, through viewing and sometimes study, will reap benefits they never dreamed of. Some of us will enjoy the "American Masters" presentation tonight.

The blog yesterday provoked a response that threw me for a loop. I wrote about looking into eyes as a way to follow a movie story, and the writer maintains that eyes "say" nothing. This astounded me. I have been looking into people's eyes all my life, and, while I don't claim to have been able to see their souls, I cannot imagine that anybody can read a face without looking into eyes. He says, not. Eyeballs are just eyeballs; they don't reveal emotions, they don't reflect thoughts, they are not windows to anything. They are a completely neutral facial feature, and anybody who believes otherwise has just been reading too many cheap novels.

That reminds me of a Dorothy Parker line, "Was it La Rochefecauld who said,'If there were no novels, nobody would be in love'?"

But as to the eyes, I'm sorry. Eyes are like art, you can see a lot there if you know how to look.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Oddballs Who Can Act

September 18

Actors are odd people. David Niven once said, "We are all just children, really. We like to dress up in funny clothes and parade around in front of the grownups."

That being said, there are some who are odder than others. Some might be borderline schizophrenic and also have an enormous talent in the art of acting. Others may seem so but have comparatively normal lives outside the universe of their working lives. Some actually are quite ordinary and still are good at assuming the roles of the extraordinary. I think this may be a valid choice as a way to live a life.

I watched one of the new shows on television Friday. The name was “Men in Trees” and the story was kind of a female version of “Northern Exposure” of a few years back. A writer of relationship self-help books finds herself in need of help when she discovers her fiance is the kind of man she has been warning her readers about. She makes the discovery when on a business trip to Alaska and is so shaken that she decides not to return home. She feels that with all the advice she has so glibly doled out about men, she really knows nothing about them at all. The little town of Elmo, Alaska, has a population of almost all men, some of them attractive and apparently all of them heterosexual, so her hunch is she can learn about males here if she ever will.

The story hinges on its leading lady, Anne Heche. This is a very talented actress who is clearly an odd duck. Once a steady date of Steve Martin, she fell in love with Ellen Degeneres and risked a budding career by announcing that she and the comedienne were partners for life. The relationship, not surprisingly, didn't last, but the surprising thing was that when she walked out she left the presumed dominant one in the relationship looking like the victim. Even more surprising, both of their careers flourished and Heche went on to playing quirky leading lady roles with hardly a bobble. Whether she has enough appeal to carry "Men in Trees" remains to be seen.

Angelina Jolie is another actress with a checkered past offscreen. What transcended her dabbles with the various escapades, causes and odd roles she undertook was that she was an extremely attractive (I might say hot)appearance and a huge acting talent.

There are a lot of actors who are good and also may be certifiable, and not all of them are women. We know that some have had very public problems, like Robert Downey, Jr., Marlon Brando, and others who hold our attention by their unpredictable behavior and unusual acting choices. Johnny Depp comes to mind. (In fact, he's never far from my thoughts.)

After reading Colin McGinn's book The Power of Movies I've actually found myself watching movies and television dramas in a different way: I simply look into the eyes of the actors and I can follow the emotional life of the characters. It's amazing this has never been so perfectly isolated for me before. McGinn's theory is that we look into movies as we look into a window or a mirror. That makes looking into the eyes such a logical way to read the actor's -- or the character's -- mind. And this is essential to understanding most movies.

Well, I looked into Anne Heche's eyes in "Men in Trees," and I could see what is so compelling about this strange lady. She is more and less than she seems. She is able to put herself into some other person's persona and embue that character with the right traits for the story. There are enough duende to fuel a Hollywood studio, and keep at least one tv series and a couple of movies going for years.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Six Years on Another Planet

September 17

In June of 1978 I was married to Jim Adshead, who had just been named Director of Public Affairs and Advertising for Du Pont Europe. This event catapulted us both into a realm neither of us had ever dreamed of.

I, a struggling journalist and public relations practitioner in New York City, single mom of a teenaged girl, and Jim, the respected, charming and too-often-overlooked executive in a big international corporation based in Delaware, were all at once endowed with the gift of living in Geneva and given more money than we had ever had. The biggest leap for me was at last having a husband with job security, and having a status in a mainstream community in a fabulous European city. For Jim, it was having a supportive and interesting wife 17 years his junior, and being given opportunities by his beloved company to do his best work for them. Life in Geneva changed us both.

It didn't take long for me to realize that I was blessed to be removed from the world of New York Magazine, where trends were inaugurated and dropped so fast you hardly had time to learn of them before they were "out." In Geneva, it was still okay to discuss astrology as a lighthearted opener for cocktail party conversation.

And there was a great deal of that. People who worked for us gave parties; people Jim worked for gave parties. As for me, being the wife of a American corporation executive all but removed me from the work force, as the job market in Switzerland is tightly controlled. I had never been in a situation in which I not only did not have to work, I couldn't get hired if I tried. Women on the lower rungs of the ladder, even writers, were expected to be fluent in at least three languages.

My college French was rusty, and I thought a quick brush-up would do it -- but, for heaven's sake these classes were in conversational French and you were expected to converse! It wasn't a matter of memorizing a few key verb conjugations -- it was listening, understanding, and framing whole sentences in a nanosecond (and pronouncing the words in a way that a francophone could understand). A year of daily lessons didn't do it for me. I could make the right sounds, and sometimes come up with the right words, but I never got as good at it as I thought I would.

Immediately I joined the Geneva American Women's Club. For the most part the members of this club were wives of American corporate executives, ex-Junior-Leaguers who were good-hearted, wise and beautiful in appearance and spirit. They welcomed newcomers with the attitude, "How lucky we are that you've moved here! What can you do for our club?" It was a unique situation, and ideal for me in my first stint as corporate wife. I joined the newcomers on field trips to local historical and cultural sites; I helped edit the monthly magazine, and started a play-reading group which met on Monday nights at the clubhouse. I said to Jim, "It's like being at the Organic School again!"

I never learned to ski. Not being a snow person, or an athletic person, I was awkward and unhappy on the only trip where I bothered with lessons.

I decided to concentrate on learning French and on American Women's Club activities. From those early play readings grew an actual performance group, which soon split with the club because it violated the by-laws of being exclusively female. I had been on the Board of Directors of the Geneva English Drama Society (GEDS) and edited their newsletter, but when I didn't get re-elected to the board I took my marbles to my own society to make a viable organization out of the American company, the Little Theater of Geneva. We would do only American plays, mostly comedies, and include one family play per season. We were launched with an old chestnut, The Man Who Came To Dinner, which miraculously came together on opening night after a series of shaky and unpredictable rehearsals.

As a producer I had an epiphany. While my experience in theater had been as an actress, I had read scores of American plays and, like many actors, had a secret desire to direct. When reading through the script of The Man Who Came to Dinner I worked on updating it by changing the many references to celebrities from their 1930's origins to 1980's counterparts. Here my husband was very helpful. I would say, "Who was Hamilton Fish?" and he would say "A rich playboy." Hamilton Fish became Prince Andrew. (Don't forget, we're in the early '80s here.) I spent hours struggling on paper with the blocking of the show. I felt a connection to the writers as I worked on it. Even though I knew nothing specific about how to block the action, the set-up in Act One where Mr. Whiteside is introduced to a couple of eager fans, and they gaze on him him rapt admiration, I had the whole stage of characters in a semi-circle. Mr. Whiteside, a cynical New Yorker, is rolled in in his wheelchair, takes one look at the worshipful gazes, and turns to his secretary (who happens to be downstage of him so the audience gets full, deadpan face), and says, "I may vomit." The night we blocked the scene the theater was full of stage crew and performers, and the line brought down the house. I swear I heard George S. Kaufman say to me, "You see? It always works." And I knew I was onto something.

There are dozens of miracles-in-Geneva stories, many many based on the adventures of the American little theater company. While over there, I missed out on many fads that took over in the U.S., some I will never know about. But I felt so relieved to be out of it for awhile, doing something I loved and felt I was destined to do.

I was saddened to learn of the low regard in which my country is held internationally. Apparently many of the English still chafe at our late entrance to World War II; the French, well the French feel we are naifs -- don't forget Jimmy Carter was President -- and the Swiss hardly pay attention to any foreigners except for the financial gain they promise. This gave strength to the American Women's Club, and to our husbands in their careers, as we Americans formed a critical mass in the operation of our activities in Europe.

When it came time to leave, I was ready to come home, feeling I could translate my experience to a working environment here. Jim's career, helped not a little by my community visibility, (she said immodestly), had soared; he would have been happy to live his life out there, sipping red wine on a restaurant patio on the quai overlooking Lac Leman. It was not to be; I knew it was time to get home, and I have never regretted it.

But on mornings like this one, my heart goes back. Perhaps I'll visit Geneva again.

Jim and I did go back once, a year after we left, and already things were changed. The American expatriate group had dwindled. Numbers in the American Women's Club were much lower. Only a few people I had known remained, and they all said, "It's not the same."

When retirement time came, Jim and I chose Fairhope, and ever since my arrival I've seen how it, too, is not the same. Maybe it's me. But I know, of course, that I'm hardly the same either. After my six years in Geneva, I had four years back in the Northeast -- New York and Wilmington -- to say nothing of the other years during that little 30-odd-year gap between Fairhope and Fairhope again. Nothing remains the same on this planet.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Autumn Events and Start-Ups

September 16

Autumn began in Fairhope yesterday, with the first snap of cool weather in the morning, the lack of humidity in the afternoon, and clear blue skies all day long. The same is predicted for today, and one can't help but be affected by the change.

This phenomenon is not unique to Fairhope. I lived in New York City for 14 years, and remember that the first days of September assured beautiful weather (not the same here) and the promise of new things in the air: New shows on Broadway and off, art gallery openings, events in the streets, and projects of all kinds starting up.

In Fairhope everything that happens begins later and is less exciting. Make no mistake about it, things are going to happen. The weather is just a harbinger to remind us.

Tonight there will be a black tie gala at the new library, which is not yet opened. The event will raise funds to defray some of the enormous costs of furnishings for the building. No doubt, at $100 a plate, "A Novel Night," as it is called, will go a long way toward buying some of the computers and equipment now considered essential library tools. The many novelists and other writers -- not me for some reason; I just thought of that -- will be honored and their presence will draw a glittering crowd of admirers. I am not crazy about the new library iself, but I support libraries in general and probably would have paid $100 for the event if I thought they needed me. But apparently I didn't make the cut. This gives me permission to be nasty about the whole thing.

I have no real reason to be nasty, because the library is there and I did donate $250 to its construction a couple of years ago when the plans were still on the drawing board. Most of the feedback on the building has been negative, and I have certainly not been loath to reveal that on this blog, because it's a hideous building, in-your-face slap up against the sidewalk in the middle of town, and I think it's way more library than is needed. I even heard the story from a city councilman this week who got four angry phone calls in a row from an irate constituent calling for the cancellation of the gala on the grounds that would be elitist. The caller threatened pickets in front of the event saying it was going to be a public library therefore it shouldn't cost anything to view it, much less $100 for a few hors d'oeuvre. Whether he actually shows up with compatriots and placards, I don't know, but will report if it happens.

In other news about changes in Fairhope, I'm having the captain's house painted a color called Rich Cream. I gain weight just saying the name. When painting is done, the landscapers will come in and I'll have a garden in my front yard, featuring two big crape myrtles and a new oak tree. I'll post pictures as the project moves forward.

Marietta Johnson Day is October 8, and there will be an event at the Museum, featuring a dance by the students and a get together of alumni and other supporters. Then we'll get going on the big school reunion that will take place in a year's time as part of the Centennial celebration of the school. The Museum web page is up and running again after a brief glitch, so those interested in buying Mrs. Johnson's book can pick up an order form from the link on this page.

The painters have arrived. I have to talk with them. I hope the fall day is as pretty where you are as it is here.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Perfect Air

September 15

I seldom think of time-travel, but yesterday it occurred to me spontaneously, twice. Both times I was in a large store buying stuff, and I wondered what a visitor from the 1800's would have though if he could have been brought forward into that particular moment.

I was reminded of the hero of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, a book I have mentioned on this blog before. The hapless hero, in his heavy woolen suit, high-button shoes, and celluloid collar, is transported to the future. In the book he is awed to be in an enormous shopping emporium, as envisioned by the author, himself trapped in the nineteenth century and only wishing. Bellamy's point is the ease of shopping in a world where needs are pre-alloted for you by your benevolent government, and you go to a desk and tell a clerk who sends someone to the warehouse in back and fills your order. It didn't work out quite that way, but the atmosphere of Home Depot and Staples is oddly futuristic, or would seem so to our time traveler. But all I could think of his how this fellow would feel if allowed to enter the building in loose shorts and a tee shirt, and how the atmosphere of conditioned air after the sweltering, humid soup that is Lower Alabama air in mid-September, would seem to him (or her). It would almost have to be the greatest non-anticipated miracle of the 20th Century.

When I look at the lovely pictures of Fairhope in the early 1900's, with everybody in long sleeves and the ladies in long dresses, I wonder how they could stand it. Fairhope was a winter resort, mostly, for visitors from Chicago and the Northeast, but there were those summer residents who found the breezes off the bay cooling and relaxing. Much activity was held outside, including intellectual discussion groups, concerts and lectures. A Shakespearean scholar named Sarah Willard Heistand founded the first Alabama Shakespeare Festival (no connection to the one now housed in a 50 million dollar facility in Montgomery), with performances by local talent -- everyone in town -- on the beach with the gully walls as a backdrop. This was held every summer throughout the 1920's. There is a chapter about it in my book When We Had the Sky, which has not yet found a publisher.

In early Fairhope a visitor from Barcelona designed an outdoor plaza near where the new library stands -- it was to be in Spanish style, with roofs over performance spaces. He thought this the perfect climate for outdoor presentations of music, dance and theatre. The plaza was never built.

The Beach Theater, mentioned here in an earlier post, was an open-air space on the beach to watch movies in the 1950's. Doomed by a particularly rainy summer, it was a novelty that would never catch on after the advent of air conditioning. I can remember when weather was so hot the only thing to do was go outside; today, the only thing to do is stay inside.

It has changed us, this perfect air, and with all its wonders, we have had to forfeit something as well.

I'm not suggesting we do without it, but I do sometimes wish that I and others had not become so dependent on it, and could better enjoy the planet as it was given to us. With the coming of a gentle Alabama fall, how we'll love the nights with nature's own air conditioning, and that pleasant snap-to of anticipation as we step outside into a cooler, drier morning.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Storybook Town

September 14

It has come to my attention that Fairhope is billed in the promotional literature as a “Storybook Town.” It has also been called such things as a “little Norman Rockwell town,” and a “Disneyland town.”

Aargh. I am doing what I can, by harping on the subject of Fairhope history on this blog, to keep it from becoming any of those things.

When I first moved back in 1988, there actually were some remnants of Norman Rockwell cottages, little houses that had been built between the two World Wars -- modest houses that looked as if nice families lived there. Fairhope had an undiscovered quality that I would hardly have called “storybook” in the sense of the charming little Tudor homes of California or the New England farm houses, or the Midwestern carpenter gothics of the 1800’s. It was almost unreal in its quietness. The last of the fabled hotels of the town, The Colonial Inn, stood decrepit in its prime spot overlooking the bay, all but abandoned, awaiting the wrecker's ball.

There was very little to do on a Saturday night. There were a few eateries, but only one really nice one, a remodeled old farmhouse out behind the new shopping center, known as Dusty's. It was owned by a local character who had had a career as a cocktail pianist and had a young, creative wife who put the restaurant on the map, thereby giving parched little Fairhope a first-class place to take visitors or a special date.

A novel had been published in 1959, written by a young man named Robert E. Bell, who had been so entranced by what he called the magic of Fairhope, that he set his story in a fictionized version of the town, renaming it Moss Bayou, and smothering the setting with such phrases as "Somewhere after a turn down the street, he saw a glimmer of water, gold-flaked through the trees; the frond-dragging palms bent with the curve of the road which heat-danced ahead of him, charging the sky with its electrical glare." The title of the book was The Butterfly Tree, and it was not the last book to drench Fairhope in the mysteries of the imagination of an outsider.

An insider, I worked with Bob many years later on a book that I hoped would present a more realistic picture of the Fairhope I knew, incorporating his lyrical prose describing a town projected from his memories with my own workaday knowledge of what it was like to grow up in the little enclave that I found neither magical nor romantic. The book we collaborated on reflected two sensibilities and embraced Fairhope from two sides. Its title was Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, and if you've read much of this blog or if you click on the link, you'll know almost all there is to know about it short of actually reading it.

Both those books may have contributed to the myth that Fairhope was some kind of ethereal, enchanted locale, a Brigadoon that only appeared in the line of vision of the fortunate few. Charming as that image might be, it simply isn't true.

Fairhope was a very real town, founded on the principle of providing economic parity, especially in housing. Land was available on a 99-year lease basis, with a low “rent” or tax, to be paid to the Colony yearly, to be determined by what would be considered fair market value. Each family could build what it could afford on the land leased from the Colony. Little houses were built by the impecunious couples who wanted to participate in the Utopian experiment known as the Single Tax Colony, and these houses were expanded room by room as the families grew. That is why so many of the early cottages had small rooms and lots of them. Those little affordable abodes grew with the families that inhabited them.

The Single Tax experiment could hardly be called a rousing success, especially after the Federal Government established an income tax on all citizens in 1913. It was a sound principle that eventually was proved wildly impractical, perhaps especially in Fairhope, the town that was created in order to prove the opposite. Apparently greed is human nature, and the selflessness required to ensure cooperative individualism -- the term used by E.B. Gaston, Fairhope's founder to describe his ideal economy -- was soon overshadowed by the wave of opportunists who learned how to exploit the very land he fought to preserve.

If Fairhope is a storybook town, the story has been rewritten too many times to be of much consequence. Even the historical cottages, for the most part, have been demolished and replaced by monuments to the prosperity of their owners -- huge, ostentatious houses that compete with each other for attention and blur the landscape that was once authentic, meaningful and charming in spite of itself. That it is still a storybook town is the greatest fiction of all.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Things To Do

September 13

Today's post will be brief. I spent a lot of time in my doctor's waiting room yesterday, and he thought the knee looked pretty good but sent me to have an Xray done just in case. He suggested ice packs (made of frozen peas) and said I should continue taking two ibuprophen every four hours, and stay off the workout machines except for upper-body. I hate upper-body, and am not crazy about ice packs or ibuprophen either, for that matter, but then I was the one who went running down the street and did some damage to the knee.

I recommend you read my September 11 and 12 posts, in that order, whether you have read them before or not. Don't forget to read all the comments too, and post one yourself if you feel like it. We live in troublesome times. Good news is coming, and some of it will be right here on this blog.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Day After

September 12

Five years ago I was on a big bus, coming home in an uncertain country, burying myself in books and watching the West of America rolling by out the window. I spent most of the ride taking up two seats, cocooning myself as best I could, trying to process the profound experience I and the rest of my country was going through. I observed America being America -- flags flying at half staff, bus passengers bickering or stoically traveling to what they hoped would be safety. We related only in that we were all in the same bus, all going somewhere toward a fair hope. We all knew that nothing would ever be the same.

The last night of the journey I spent in a decent hotel after a decent meal. The next morning I got to the bus station and asked for directions for a place for breakfast. I had learned from the trip that these days most bus stations are just off the Interstate, near a cheap motel and near a fast food restaurant. This one was in a small town, and the nearest breakfast place was an old-fashioned small town diner, just what I needed if I was going to have a good meal and confidence that the home I was going would still be there, intact, populated by the kind of people I knew.

I'll never forget that breakfast of sausage, eggs, good coffee and the comforting conversations of people I didn't know. There were newspapers divided into sections by the previous occupants of the tables, and the chatter in Southern accents of friends accustomed to seeing each other at this place every morning.

"Hey, Ed"

"Susie. Seen Carl today?"

"He uz here and gone. Said he had to take the pickup for service."

They could have been reciting poetry. There were inside jokes, remarks as funny as anything Jeff Foxworthy could have said, and lots of laughter. I was in the bosom of family, the family of strangers under stress, Southerners bonded by generations of being American, being prepared for the worst and keeping as cool a face as anybody ever saw.

The rest of my trip was hardly a day long. The bag I had checked through was at the station before I got there, and all I had to do to get my car was take a taxi to the airport where I had left it, then get in and go home. I visited my family and got back to the business of creating normalcy out of an anticipated chaos. We knew that this was bin Laden's best shot, but that it was not his only shot.

It has been like that to some degree ever since then. Politicians haven't changed; we have only been allowed to see what they want us to see and not a glimmer of the chaos beneath. Before 9/11/01 I was a frequent contributor to the Letters to the Editor of the local newspaper, excoriating the politicians I had bad feelings about. Since that date I knew how very little I had known when I shot my mouth off, and I didn't have the heart to wage such insignificant, ill-informed battles again. Much conflict lay ahead in my own personal world, when attacks came from hotheads against the one institution I knew to be pure, the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, and I had enough to deal with in withstanding the waves of controversy on my own turf.

After time, I began to pontificate once again, but only about personal matters and not about perceived wrongs by specific individuals who claimed to be my country's leaders. The layer of mistrust will probably never go away. The shield of safety has been stripped from us all since the day when those planes were used as missiles against us, tearing deep into our daily activities for the rest of our lives. When George Bush took that megaphone at the site of the devastation, for once in his life, he made the right move. But it meant nothing. He is a product of his advisors, who have been wrong about everything. The one time he acted alone, on his own instinct, it was reassuring and strong. That is the best thing that can ever be said about him.

Now we go forward in worse shape than we've ever been in, and the future does not hold promise for better leadership or clearer direction. Saying I don't pontificate about my perception of the big picture, I shall stick with that now. I've been wrong before and undoubtably will be again. I am in the process of learning how to live on a small scale, and I have a few years to get at least that right.

Whether Wal-Mart decides to build just outside the city limits really doesn't matter to me. That Wal-Mart exists does, and I am powerless about that. My little town faces so much in the near future that it is up to us to do our own personal best, and to remember that atmosphere of the diner where the jokes were flying and the food was substantial. In such a place we can be sure of ourselves. It will take time.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago

September 11

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 for 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 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. 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, 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 has since 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 who 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 longer much (if any)  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. I'm afraid 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, feeling somehow apart 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.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Codgers Chasing Cars

September 10

Edith and I have been having lunch every Wednesday since we met a few weeks ago. She's cute and funny and was a member of the first graduating class of the School of Performing Arts in New York City. In the dance program, she was in the same class as Edward Villella and Arthur Mitchell, both of whom went on to do pretty well. She has acted and directed theatre and choreographed in Manhattan, Kansas, where she and her husband were on the faculty at Kansas State University.

She and I have fun together, and are talking about putting together a two-woman show.

It was time to have her over, so last Wednesday I invited her to lunch here. We were to meet at noon, and when she wasn't here by 12:15 I went to check the email I had sent; maybe I had made some mistake in the time or in the directions I gave to my house. I had given simple, easy directions -- but I had put the wrong street number! A typo, but one number off can make all the difference in the world. I looked up from the computer screen, and there was Edith, driving away from my house!

I didn't think twice, but started running after her. You see, Edith and I are not of the cell phone generation, and though we both have them, I didn't have her cell number (and she didn't have her cell with her anyway). This was one of those rare times when using a cell phone would actually been the best thing to do.

But there I am in my flip-flops, running as fast as I can half a block behind her on Bay View Avenue (now Bay View Street, but I like the music of the old name better), with Edith driving as fast as she can to get to a telephone to find out exactly where I live. Luckily when she got to Fairhope Avenue she slowed down to ask a passing car about the address, and I was able to catch up with her. Winded, I climbed into her car and we both discussed how stupid I was.

We had a good lunch; she liked my house. As usual, we found a lot to talk about.

It wasn't until Saturday that my right knee began to feel strained, sprained, or bruised. All I know is that I gradually became aware that something was wrong. Well, little things go wrong from time to time, joints ache, pangs occur where they were not before, that sort of thing. I didn't think twice about it, and went on my regular trip to the gym to stretch and strain some of my muscles before they atrophy. By the next Wednesday, when Edith and I went shopping for groceries at the fancy store in Mobile, that I realized my knee was getting worse rather than better. The next day I limped slightly on my way across the floor at the gym and a man clearly 10 years older than I stopped me as I started on the elliptical machine.

"I notice you having some trouble with that leg," he said. "Working out on that is the worst thing you can do."

I began discussing and dismissing my symptom, and said I was treating it with ibuprophen, when an old lady joined the conversation saying her son had problems with his knee that turned out to be a torn ligament. Surgery was the only answer, but they have great lazar stuff now that will fix it right up. I stopped the elliptical and thanked them, and went to a trainer to ask about the knee. He recommended that I see a physician as soon as possible and stay off the machines until I had the go-ahead from a doctor. The knee was swollen and looked bruised.

And I had a reprieve from the five-day-a-week workouts! I called my doctor, who can't see me until Tuesday. I've gone easy on the knee, and it is actually getting less painful.

The moral of the story is as you get older it is not a good idea to run on the pavement for any reason. It also might be "Carry a cell phone at all times and learn the cell phone numbers of all your friends and make sure all of them have their cell phones with them at all times." It also may be any number of other things which I can't think of at the moment. Maybe the bad knee has nothing to do with that foolish sprint on Wednesday. But it is getting better and I have permission to vegetate for two more days.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Life After Fairhope

September 8

I've got a busy day ahead, culminating in a party here tonight, and I wrenched my knee last week and the doctor can't see me until Tuesday, so I don't have time to spend on the blog. Therefore I'll tackle a simple topic that arose in the comments from yesterday. Is there life after death?

The answer is, I don't know. One of my husbands was trained as a lawyer and arguing with him taught me that there are three answers to every yes-or-no question (John Sweden: "Yes or Know" question). The three answers are: Yes, no, or I don't know.

I am fascinated by the many stories of those who had near-death experiences. My brother had one which he only related to me recently, about the time he had a serious heart attack. He was 34 years old and driving with his wife to Hollywood where he intended to make it in the movies. The paramedics got him to a hospital but he was, for all practical purposes, gone. Flatlining. What happened to him was that a figure appeared to him and led him into a very light place, telling him he was going to be his guide. Well, the passenger wasn't willing. My brother is very engaging, full of wit and stories, and he went into his usual routine with this messenger-type, who clearly found his wit charming and got all the jokes. But the gist of it was, Graham insisted that he wanted to stay -- he had work to do here. Hollywood was waiting. He was tired of waiting on the bench and was just about to get in the game. The messenger-angel was convinced, and said, "You're not ready? You really want to stay?" and Graham said, "Yeah, yeah, I have to stay," or words to that effect. In the meantime, he's floating on the ceiling over the body that was him, and looking at that machine that has a flat line on it, and sees a nurse rush with alarm to the body. Next thing he knew he was back in that body. He is still here to tell the tale, but he almost never does. Now that I've outed him on the Internet he may have to weave this into his one-man show.

Later he told me that he saw a PBS special that describes the condition Robin outlined in her comment yesterday. It seems science has robbed us of that shred of fair hope by saying there are certain brain reactions that occur with the trauma of death that are not unlike dreams. There is a scientific explanation for the white light, for the angels, for the message that your life has not been for naught, even for the sense of hope and love that many experience when in that death aura.

Maybe they're right, like Robin's grandpa. It's all just a big brainfart.

But I just don't like to think of it that way. And I don't think it matters what I think, I look forward to that moment. I've had beautiful dreams that infuse my soul with something like pure happiness, and I want another one. Even if I have to die to get it.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Revisiting a Life of Fair Hope

September 7

The post was originally up on May 8 and was deleted by mistake. I feel it should have its eternal place in cyberspace so I am presenting it once again.

I just got back from a very memorable memorial service. Claude Arnold, 88-year-old citizen of a little town called Fairhope, Alabama, died peacefully Friday afternoon. At the service this morning I learned that he died with his family around him, and then the family did what they felt Claude would have wanted and went out to the American Legion Club to go dancing. That may sound unusual, but they are an unusual family, and they love to dance. Claude was among the best of them.

Claude was among the best that the Fairhope I used to know and still love had to offer. He was a World War II veteran, a surveyor, and with three different wives, the father of 13 children. He was a nice gentleman who could tell stories about old Fairhope. There are many besides his large family who will miss him, and the city will never be able to replace him.

When I got to the funeral home I was given what I guess you call a "program" with a picture of young, handsome Claude and the Organic School prayer on the front page. I saw from the inside that we would be singing the old song "Fairhope," a corny old waltz that used to be sung at the end of every Fairhope event. I knew there would be some tears shed.

Claude's son Michael gave the eulogy, reading the biographical material and telling stories about how he used to ride around Baldwin County when he was a little boy with his daddy when he was doing surveys. Michael is a surveyor now, and a very touching speaker with a warm, deep voice and a quick sense of humor. He reminded us of Claude's war record and how no memorial day went by that Claude was not out at dawn putting flags in the cemeteries and saluting the flag whenever it was raised. His words were almost a call to arms to the assembled: Who is going to do this now that Daddy isn't here? I have no doubt that someone who was there will take up the task.

Mordecai, Claude's sterling and wise younger brother, was there in full Marine regalia complete with medals -- he retired about 16 years ago, but there was never a prouder patriot (unless it was Claude, a Navy man). Mordecai rose to say a few words. Everyone who knows him knows he never says a few words, but this time he was brief and read an interesting document that Claude had written when his younger sister Sue died. It was a recounting of a war incident. Claude had landed on the beach at Normandy, and jumped in the sea to rescue who he could in the mobs of people jumping. He realized that he wasn't going to make it, blacked out, and was confronted with a beautiful scene. His grandmother stood before him. It was not the old lady he had known, but his grandmother in a former day, a much younger, vital woman, running to him and welcoming him. He was in a beautiful place. "Look, Claude," (his grandfather's name), "It's Hawkins' boy. He's come to us," she kept saying. Claude then saw his two little boys at home, Paul and Michael, and he said, "I have to get to them," and his grandmother said, "No, you're with us now." There were trees and clouds, and bright, glorious colors in the sky.

Claude then was jarred by battle sounds, hospital sounds. "Oh, someone has to go back," said his grandmother. Then she realized it was Claude. "Oh, it's you who is going back now," she said. And then he came to, in a hospital.

There will be lots of reactions to that story. The minister at the service, of course, said that it was proof of Christ's promise on the Cross. I don't see it quite that way, because, after all, Claude never said that he saw Jesus. But it is promise of something, and Mordecai wanted us to know that Claude told him that for the rest of his life, when he lost someone, the memory of that experience helped him with his grief. It will help many more people now.

Someone emailed me recently that the way to get responses on my blog is to say something controversial. I expect many comments on this one.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Looking Forward

September 6

In the 19th Century, I'm told, people just loved to think about the future. They envisioned great things, magical things like flying machines and music piped into their homes and world peace and an enlightened mankind. Such contemplations gave rise to books like Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy's novel in which a man is transported from the mundane 1800's to the end of the 20th Century, where social problems have been solved, and wonders like hugh shopping emporiums in every neighborhood provide the populace with all its needs as anticipated by a benevolent government -- making money unnecessary.

This book absolutely took America by storm. It was followed by a thoughtful tract called Progress and Poverty by reformer Henry George -- without whom there never would have been a Fairhope. Socially conscious thinkers like Ernest B. Gaston of Des Moines formed clubs to discuss the ideas of George, and one of these clubs, the Fairhope Industrial Association, decided to find a worthy spot on the map and start a Utopian community to prove the idea would work. Henry George was a popular speaker and politician, and he was skeptical that a Single Tax community was the way to go -- so many Utopias had started and failed -- but Gaston was able to recruit some 28 idealists, including their children, to move to the raw land in south Alabama and give the experiment a try.

Fairhope has a lot to thank those early visionaries for. Yet, over time, the commitment of the community to the principle of Single Tax has eroded in ways that would have appalled the founders. There is still a great deal of land owned by the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation, but with the incorporation of the city followed by the imposition of the federal income tax, there is little reason to call what is left of Fairhope a "Single Tax" colony or anything like it. It will not be long before all remnants of the ideals have faded from the memory of what Fairhope has become. Few citizens understand the heritage of their little city, and even fewer fight to preserve it. Over at the Colony office, work has been underway for years to dismantle the original intent of the founders and strip the town of its idealistic core. A city that was founded with the goal of eradicating the dreaded land developers has become a bulwark of new buildings and high prices of land. The market has become the engine and duplicity has been the method. It is almost all over.

Looking forward, there is no way to see any regret emanating, from the Colony officials or anybody else in town, about the demise of the Single Tax Utopia. They still use the word "Utopia" to describe the landscape, and the word "Colony" is everywhere (it's such a pretty word), but in the future there will be no commitment to keeping Single Tax alive. The corporation will exist, but it has little meaning in today's Fairhope. It would seem that the members of the corporation would at least be interested in historic preservation, and in the museums, but they have had nothing to do with either. Because the Colony has become itself a real estate holder, with growth as its goal as all real estate people stand to profit by such growth. That it exists for the opposite purpose has been neatly ignored as the town has been transformed and the people who remember and care have died off.

I woke up optimistic this morning. I wrote my title thinking I was going to write about how I am preparing for my old age. But the title led me down another trail, and I couldn't get back to my first track. I think I found an interesting little side path, however. It remains to be seen if this one gets any attention.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Remembrance of Blogposts Past

September 5

There has been so much good stuff on the blog, some in the distant past, that I’ve decided to provide an index of some of my best, and my commenters’ best too, for all to see. All you have to do is click on the words of your choice!

I spent my morning trying to type in the right links, showing off to myself, and then when I tried to publish none of it was right. So in order to put this aside, let me list some of the old topics and tell you another short cut to finding them. Go to the top of the blog and you’ll find a blank rectangle on the left hand side. Type in the titles and click on SEARCH THIS BLOG.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, and/or if you suspect that the guy who lived and died in Stratford may not have been responsible for the greatest writing in the English language, check out how I really feel about the controversy by typing in Was De Vere Da Bard. Also, if you'd like to learn about my theories about why some actors are more compelling than others you can read about aesthetic weight and duende.

If you are interested in newsman Anderson Cooper or his mother Gloria Vanderbilt, or his father Wyatt Cooper, take a gander at Anderson Cooper Revisited and A Fascinating Family.

If you want to know how Marietta Johnson handled the question of teaching religion to children, type in God and Mrs. Johnson.

If you’re interested in reading about a special memorial for Arden Flagg, my post was called "Ask the Universe."

There are lots of entries about the book I wrote, Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, and the one I’m still looking for a publisher for, When We Had the Sky.

In fact, you can do that about any number of posts that have appeared here, or any topics, including those I’ve just mentioned. There are posts about the controversy about Wal-Mart in Fairhope -- which looks to be resolved just as I predicted. There are posts about The Parker House, The Beach Theater and one about the old Library. There are posts about Clarence Darrow's visit to Fairhope, and about Upton Sinclair, with some pages from a diary of his time here.There is one that I wish I had “Bury My Heart at Wounded Tree” with a picture of the tree on the lot where a new condo is going up -- it was called "The House That Isn't There."

This is a lot of work, pulling together these links for you and I'm more than unhappy that my linking didn't work. At any rate I hope you’re interested enough to check some of them out by going to the box at the top of the blog. But if not, at least you’ll know how I spent my morning.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Few Words from Marietta Johnson

September 4

I'm reading Teaching Without Failure, the book compiled by the Marietta Johnson Museum in Fairhope, comprising Youth in a World of Men and Thirty Years with an Idea, the two books Mrs. Johnson wrote. Some of what is in this is exactly what we have been discussing on this blog so I thought I'd share it.

One of our commenters said he had no idea what the word perfection means as it relates to human behavior or experience -- he said in the "Comments" section on his blog, not this one -- and didn't seem to think anyone had ever considered perfection a goal. Mrs. Johnson writes, "If education is to become a conscious agent of building a better world, it must emphasize the all-round life of the learner. Of course, one should read and spell accurately and use numbers correctly. It is important one should have one's facts at command. But education has been too engrossed in marshaling facts, of drilling the young and emphasizing skill and information. If education devoted itself utterly to providing the right conditions of growth, the aim would be immediate, that every child should live as perfect a life as it is possible for him to live now.

..."'When I was a child I spake as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.' We are still acting on the child plane. We have not yet come into man's estate. In our emotional-spiritual lives, we are still individualistic, personal, selfish. We must become universal, impersonal, unselfish. Education must be a positive force of saving regenerative power, given to every child the best opportunity for the fullest development, the most complete realization.

"Every problem which now confronts civilization will be solved eventually only by education. All the problems of labor are, no doubt, due to lack of development. Henry George pointed out years ago that all social problems are due to ignorance, indifference, or contempt of human rights." [Happy Labor Day, readers! -- Mary Lois] "A fully developed individual earnestly seeks to understand the rights of others, and is keenly interested to see that fundamental justice prevails. The waves of crime which so often sweep over us are proof of the wrong conditions of growth. All bitterness in religious controversy indicates arrested development. All race prejudice is also due to undevelopment; our international problems will be solved when man comes into the full stature of manhood."

I need not remind you that this was written in the 1920's, before Hitler had come to full power (Mrs. Johnson was fond of saying that Julius Caesar and Napoleon were cases of arrested development). The social problems she faced were daunting, but she felt we would be close to having them solved by now, because the answers were so obvious to her and so many of her education colleagues. I am always brought up short by something I read in this book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in finding the Fairhope that once was or a fair hope for the future of society. The book is sold at the Marietta Johnson Museum, if you happen to be in Fairhope (it's open between 2-4 P.M., in the old Bell Building on what is now the campus of Faulkner Community College, but I would think it would be closed today). If you want to order it online, just click here.

And take it easy today. It's Labor Day.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A Cry in the Wilderness

September 2

The week went well. An orgy of comments on profound topics, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, and a couple of posts I never thought I’d be making explaining my impressions of the meaning of life and death, and then today no interest at all. I am posting at 8:20 my time, by which time I usually have gathered at least 10 visitors to the blog and today, since midnight there was only one.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t expect to have the 100-some-odd daily travelers seeking to find fair hope that come to other sites on the web. My average as of today is 48 per day, and I’m glad to have each and every one, even those who are appalled at what they read. Last week was actually a banner week for me. Exciting comments abounded and there was one cry in the wilderness that still haunts me.

According to my tracker, someone typed this phrase into Google and was directed here: “please give me hope that god is fair”.

The person who typed that desperate phrase was not sent to the posts we made on the nature of God, the soul, and the relationship of man to the universe. You probably know that a search engine’s spider can zero in on a word or group of words and locate any number of ephemeral or peripheral mentions of the word or words you want to search. Thus, some seeking hope that God or anything else be fair, might be sent to a blog called Finding Fair Hope.

The person with this poignant wish came to this blog on a day when I was rhapsodizing about the weather or the opportunities for romance at sunset and didn’t stay long enough to check out the many opinions voiced here about whether there is hope that God is fair.

For the record I shall try to answer that question now. In my opinion there is some kind of force that I am not uncomfortable calling god, with or without the capital letter. This force needs a name, and long ago man gave it the name “god” and I don’t think even with all that baggage that identity has accumulated that we have come up with anything better. The problem is that the name is so old, it’s literally grown a beard, as we used to say about old stories in the newspaper game. It carries with it a human picture. “God” appears to be a man, although, as Margaret Atwood has pointed out, never in the Bible does the image appear as a man – it appears as a burning bush, or in any number of guises, not including a male human being. But when Leonardo and others wanted to paint a picture, they referred to the old pictures of the god of gods, Zeus, who dwelt in the clouds and carried a handful of lightning bolts for added impact, as if that were needed. That guy also had a long white beard.

Today when we want to be iconoclastic, we say, “I don’t believe in an old man in the clouds with a long white beard,” but that is not the concept of a higher power anyway. There are people to whom those old paintings reveal the face of God, but to deny that we are moved by them is not to deny the existence of God – or even to prove that we are deep thinkers. It’s simply Step One in the process of examining the question. This is what I do not believe. What do I believe?

Do I believe that “god is fair”? I’m afraid I have to answer no to that one. I assume the question comes from someone who wants a specific thing from life, and has observed that less deserving people seem to get all they want. If there is a god, why does “he” do things this way?

Some say that he gives us the lessons we need. I think even that is too pat an answer. There are far too many people who never get any lessons at all, or appear not to. All too often, they are the ones with all the stuff. We don’t know what is happening in their life, but we know they have done bad things to acquire what they have, and we tell ourselves that “what goes around comes around.” I haven’t seen this to be true either.

Where is the hope, then? It’s inside you, if you are a human being. It is hope that is making you ask the question. My friend who has begun to post comments as “the oaf” on this blog is full of questions that begin with “Why?” as a child does when he first notices that things are not necessarily linear. If we don’t fill a child too full of unnecessary and unexplained consequences – “Because I said so!” – he may grow up learning to examine on his own and not expect an all-powerful God to hold the reins of his life. He may be spared the guilt of that personal revelation, in other words he may have given himself permission to find his own answers without rebuke. But most of us are conflicted by even having doubts that what we were told is true. We expect that guy in the clouds to release the lightning bolts our way.

I hope the person who asked the Internet about fairness will come back to this blog where he or she can be assured of an open, healthy discussion of the question. For now, let this be my answer: There are times in life when a re-examination of one’s expectations is required. There are times when we all feel hopeless and hurt. It is part of the condition of life on this human plane, which no amount of examination can adequately define. We are created to ask and not get answers. But in the Pandora’s box there is also that last element, all too often left behind. We are also, as human beings, endowed with hope.

Friday, September 01, 2006

A Breath of Fresh Air

September 1

If you live in or near Fairhope you probably know the reference of today's title. A change in the weather! There is something awe inspiring about the day toward the end of summer in this part of the country when the humidity drops, the temperature hits the low 70's, and all the things you were thinking about doing seem to get easier. You want to go outside, you want to turn off the air conditioner, you want to make those phone calls, and, if you're me you actually want to prepare for that meeting and plan that party.

Today it happened serendipitally on the first day of September.

We know it's just a cool snap, and that this one won't last until noon, but it is worth it just to be reminded of how nice things can be.

And yesterday I met with a group of mothers at the Marietta Johnson School to inform them of the events planned for the rest of the year and the big year coming up, 2007, the hundredth anniversary of the first and longest-lived Progressive school in the U.S. (I may be wrong about that, if you count the John Dewey Lab School in Chicago; but I'm not sure he started his school before 1907, and anyway it has not purported to be Progressive for years. Our school always purported to be, but I must admit there have been years when it wavered from its mission.) That's a confusing sentence, but deal with it. I'm not in the mood to revise today. This is a day to barrel forward. While I'm at it, talking about longevity of schools, Dr. Maria Montessori did found her school in Rome in 1907, and I'm sure they will make some hay about that, as well they should. Mrs. Johnson's theory was more Progressive and less rigid, but the two women must have crossed paths; in fact, they sat on the same dais at an International Education conference in Europe in the 1920's.

You'll be happy to know that one of the events of our Centennial year will be Pancake Day, March 31. If you're in the area I hope you'll mark your calendar. There will also be a Clarence Darrow event, since in 1927 Darrow gave a speech in Fairhope for the benefit of the school. I understand Mr. Darrow (or a reasonable facsimile) will be on hand to commemorate the anniversary of that talk on a date in February.

There will be the usual activities, including folk dancing on the green at every event in which weather permits, and, by the week of Mrs. Johnson's birthday, there will be a huge reunion of all the classes for the last 100 years. I hope the new hotel is built by then, otherwise we'll have to build one.

In the meantime, we've got a lot of preparation to do. Luckily the weather is going our way.