Monday, November 27, 2006

Cooling System

November 27

In 1916 when Captain Ed Roberts, a navigator of the Bay Queen transporting passengers and goods between Mobile and Fairhope, built this house, he wanted all the latest in modern conveniences, including indoor plumbing, a wall telephone in the center hall, and an attic fan to bring in cool breezes all summer long. He had to have the biggest, most efficient fan in all mankind, and he put it right on the landing between the ground floor and the "cockpit," the upper floor of the spacious airplane bungalow he built.

Until I moved in in 2004 the attic fan was the only cooling system for the house. To operate it, I have to open as many windows as possible -- and these sweet old casement windows that surround the house are outfitted with iron handles that hook into holes to prop them open. There is a nice new switch at the base of the fan, which is now encased in a knotty pine cabinet that leads to a hole in the wall of the house. The fan, I am fond of saying (because it's true) is as big as a Volkswagen and probably as powerful.

In May of the year I moved in I had air conditioning installed. This marked the end of an era for the captain's house, and the beginning of keeping windows closed as tightly as possible against heat, cold, and humidity. I still run the fan sometimes, in the spring and in the fall, when it's cool enough outside and a little window breeze is appreciated. It is a noisy old thing. When it runs it sounds as though someone is using a dishwasher in a room somewhere in the house. It is a novelty now, a throwback to the days before we found dry, conditioned and cooled air an absolute necessity. I'm glad it's here, but I fear that it may not be appreciated as long as the house itself.

I often say that no matter how much energy, creativity and money I put into this house, it will be sold eventually as a tear-down. If I sell it before that time, the first thing new owners would probably do is remove the attic fan altogether. But I remember what it stands for and love it for still being able to function.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Revisiting a Good Review

November 24

When I first sat at the table signing copies of the original edition of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, I was under the impression that I had written a book about Fairhope, sure, but one with broader appeal than that. There were tourist books about Fairhope already in 2001; books on where to eat and why to move to the toney bayside village. I thought I had written kind of a shorter Lake Wobegone Days with a Single Tax slant, a picture of a unique place with a personality that would appeal to people who really had no sense of different ways of looking at things.

In Fairhope, by far the most compelling chapters seemed to be those written by Bob Bell, my collaborator who had enjoyed a lifelong love affair with his own memories of the town in the 1940's and 50's. When people urged me to write a second book, I felt it should be gutsier, grittier; in short, it should tell of some of the iconoclasts who had changed their lives by moving to early Fairhope or changed early Fairhope by moving to it with their maverick ways intact.

Publishers, when I worked to get a reprint done after the initial 1,000 copies of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree sold out, told me they felt it was a book that would have only local appeal, and they said the same thing about When We Had the Sky, the second book. It has a certain amount of charm, they said, but the world really doesn't need to know about Fairhope.

Recently I sold a copy to Dan Spiro, author of an excellent new novel called The Creed Room, and writer of a blog called The Empathic Rationalist, which is linked to this one. He has never laid eyes on Fairhope, and I'll venture to say had never heard of it before I wrote him about my book. He liked MMATBT and offered to write a review of it for, as two of my friends, including one who identifies himself as John Sweden when he comments on this blog, had done before him.

Imagine the little thrill I felt when greeted with a copy of his review this morning in the email box:

Butterfly trees, the authors tell us, refer to a species of plant that "attract butterflies, which alight upon them, sometimes all at once, creating a visual spectacle that is very pleasing to the human spirit." Notice the word choice: not that these trees are pleasing to the eyes, but that they are pleasing to the spirit. That is precisely how I would describe this book. For those, like me, who share its authors' values, we can't help but find this book and the town that it describes to be spiritually uplifting.

Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree is a beautiful portrait of a place. In this portrait we find a group of people, all of whom beat to their own eccentric drummers, who somehow come together like butterflies on a tree and light up their environment with love, encouragement, and mutual respect. I was particularly taken by the description of the School of Organic Education, which is the antithesis of the modern status-conscious, teach-to-the-test, mind-numbing school that has come to dominate our society in the era of No Child Left Behind. It is clear that the Organic school depicted in this book didn't need slogans to demonstrate its commitment to universal education. But nor did it need to stress test scores. Its faculty were the types who care about creativity, and who value learning for its own sake and wish to inspire students to do the same. The result, no doubt, is a community of lifelong learners -- not mere grade-grubbing pre-professionals.

I could criticize this book by saying that its initial chapters didn't fully grab my interest. But I've never been to Fairhope, nor any town remotely like it, and hail from one of the most self-obsessed, workaholic cultures in the world (the legal world of Washington, D.C.). So perhaps it simply took my mind's eye a bit of time to adjust to the portrait of a utopian town. Once the story turned to the Organic school and some of the more colorful characters who populated the town, I was entranced for the remainder of the book. At that point, you see, I realized what the authors were trying to communicate: if we want our lives to be clothed in beauty -- both as individuals and as a community -- we can find incredible guidance from the people of Fairhope and the philosophy embraced through its institutions.

Non-conformity, collegiality, creativity, playfulness, intellectuality, spirituality -- these are the values of Fairhope. Can they become the values of a community, not of hundreds or thousands, but of millions? Of billions? These are the questions I found myself asking. That's what a true utopian asks.

Take that, you provincial citizens of the rest of Alabama, you who think Fairhope is just a little upscale shopping center with pretentions to Art. Fairhope as it once was was a lesson for you all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Spruce Up for the Captain's House

November 22

The house is getting a little facelift, with the before picture below and the in-process on the right. People are stopping to notice the old place! Wait until spring when the blooms and leaves appear. In the meantime, the paint job came first, followed by the removal of all the old vegetation, the placement of irrigation, and this week the plants and grass were planted! There is still work being in my yard...but it's about time for them to wrap up for the day. They'll be off for two days for Thanksgiving, but if any last touches are needed they will be here Monday.

And that's my new Saturn in the driveway. It's not really new; it's a 2003 Ion, but bigger than my old one and with a little less mileage.

What a lot to think about this Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Room of One's Own: New York City

November 20

For Christmas I am planning a trip to upstate New York which will take me through Manhattan for two days and two nights. My daughter and I will hook up at the Newark Airport where she will be arriving from Mexico and will have left her car in the parking lot – and then we drive to Kingston, two or three hours away, where she and her family live, and where I’ll spend the holidays, returning December 26.

I’ll get to the city on the 14th, and have prevailed upon friends to provide lodgings for three days and two nights. That is, I thought I had prevailed. My friend who lives in a downtown loft agreed to let me sleep on her sofa for two nights. I was fine with that but she kept emailing me how uncomfortable I was going to be and suggesting hotels – so I got the message. I am on a budget, but not so much that I can afford to impose.

This took me to many websites for “Cheap hotels NYC.” She recommended the QT, which is a chic little place with elegant amenities, and rooms that go for about $400 per night. Not exactly on my budget. I was saved when they had nothing available on my nights. I searched and found a couple of places with prices hovering around $100 per night. Damn, I remember when The Plaza was $100 per night! Anyway, I was looking a fleabag hostelries and having the devil of a time finding anything. I found something in the Times Square area for $99 per night, which was described as having “d├ęcor reminiscent of Las Vegas…and minimal infestation.” I asked my friend and she went to its website (which didn't have the "infestation" line) and said it sounded fine. But as I drifted off to sleep I realized it was probably a brothel, or one step above. Couldn’t do it.

But every other hotel, in or out of my price range, said on their websites that they had nothing available for my dates. There was a little place in the Gramercy Park area, called The Gershwin, which sounded quaint and Parisian, but had nothing available. I liked the sound of a place over on the West Side, off Columbus Circle. These hotels have user reviews, and this one had a reviewer complain that it was noisy and didn’t have cable TV. What jerk goes to New York to watch cable TV? And what spot in the city isn’t pretty noisy? I find the noise of the city comforting; I can sleep to it.

The Columbus Circle place had nothing available, but when I woke up I decided to telephone and see if I could wheedle something. All I need is one little bed and a little bathroom. When I called, the clerk was pleasant enough, and sure enough there was a place! My NYC friend says I’ll love what’s happening over there in the Columbus Circle area. And I know my way around the city well enough to get anywhere I want to go from there.

So a little adventure on the Internet panned out. And it will lead to a real-life adventure of two days and two nights in Manhattan, catching up with a few friends from the distant past, and the city itself, the love of my life. What could be bad about that?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Two Guys Named Black

November 18

Just now a face flashed on the tv screen that made me laugh out loud. Couldn't help it. Jack Black just makes me laugh. I said out loud "I love Jack Black."

Immediately I felt like a two-timer. Because my real love is that other man named Black who appears occasionally on The Daily Show. Lewis Black.

The two share so much anger and such a raw approach to comedy that they could be related. Wonder if either one of them is really named Black. Wonder if both of them are and they are brothers...nah -- no family, no matter how dysfunctional, could produce two of them.

Jack Black first came to my attention is a good little movie called High Fidelity, featuring the perpetually perplexed John Cusack. Another great role for him was in Orange County.But my favorite so far was The School of Rock. This guy works all the time, so we can expect him to be in more and more movies -- you might say until he wears out his welcome. Which may be for the rest of our lives and his. This guy has an unforgettable face, but when I tried to upload his image here, it didn't work. Google him if you don't know who I'm talking about and when you see his picture, you'll say, "Oh, that guy!" Then you'll know whether you love him or hate him. I doubt that you'll be indifferent.

The man who might be Jack's older brother does stand-up with such venom and noise that just his rapid-fire, growling, screaming delivery makes you laugh even if you didn't respond to the content of his rants.
This guy hates everything and everyone. There is sincerity in his rants. He really means it. He's a little scary, if only you could stop laughing. The Lewis Black web info reveals that he's been in a few movies, some about to be released. We are going to hear more from him and that other guy named Black for some time.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Dethroning the Drama Queen in Me

November 17

I have a friend who is such a hysteric that I hardly know how she can live in her own skin. Even mundane occurences in her life are sources for extreme emotion. Her reactions are extreme to the smallest provocation. I can't help but wonder how she would have handled the highs and lows I went through in the past three days.

Three days ago I learned that my mother had had a small stroke as she tried to throw off a big cold. We have known that having a stroke in the first place made her a candidate for more. We also know that her body clock is slow and steady. Where someone else might have three strokes in a day, hers might be years apart. This little episode, called a t.i.a., came about two years after the first one.

At her age a cold is debilitating, and she is already debilitated by the stroke that has left one side paralyzed. When we visited in the nursing home she looked, as they say, like death warmed over . But we in the family have seen her rebound before -- and somewhere in the back of our minds was the reality that she might well come back from this, if she could throw off the cold and its accompanying infections.

My reaction when I learned yesterday that she wasn't eating because she couldn't swallow was rather like my drama queen friend's would have been. She is all but gone. It will soon be over. I even posted a blog that was rather like an obituary, and was mentally preparing myself for writing a real one.

When I visited her last night she was sitting up in her wheelchair, awaiting a dinner tray. Her speech is very poor, and she struggled to be understood. One thing that was clear was that she was saying, "Take me home!" -- a request I had not heard her make before. I stayed for an hour, trying to explain to her why we couldn't do so, and why we couldn't understand everything that she was saying. She drank some Coca-Cola (the Southern cure for everything), and when the meal came, she ate some soup and canned peaches. When I steadfastly refused to consider the notion of taking her home she said one thing quite clearly. "You mind me!" and when I got it and laughed a little she said, "Mind your Mama!"

I want to be sympathetic, but it is very difficult to sit in that room with her. She says my brother's name, and asks for him, and she is able to say that my sister will take her home with her, and she clearly does not take my attitude as sympathetic. When she says she wants to go home, she is talking about the home she lived in over 80 years ago. Before this stroke she would often talk of that, and ask where her mother was, and tell us about the old neighborhood. She can be distracted by more present things -- I told her about the phone call from our friend in Birmingham, and she said in her slurred way, "I would love to see her."

I overreacted when I thought the end was near. I had her buried, and was ready to get on with my life, having that two hours I spend with her every evening to do things of my choosing. But not that reality has finally gotten through to me, there is nothing to be gained by being a drama queen. Much time in life is spent in waiting, and attending those who are.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Blogging, Seriously

November 16

I thought I should post something today, maybe about who won on Dancing With the Stars last night or maybe whether Nancy Pelosi should endanger her position by choosing Jack Murtha as Majority Leader, or maybe about my plans for Thanksgiving or the weather in Fairhope or any of the little daily situations that stimulate activity on all blogs.

But the overriding factor in all my thoughts today is that my 92-year-old mother is fighting her last battle in the nursing home a few blocks from here. When I went for my daily visit yesterday she was sleeping and the head nurse said that she couldn't eat because her last stroke had made swallowing all but impossible. I could only hope that her sleep would be peaceful. Strong as she is, it is clear she is not likely to see another Christmas.

When I got home there was a call from a childhood friend, a woman my parents had wanted to adopt when her mother died at a young age from disease. She lives in Birmingham now, and is in her own battle for victory over ovarian cancer, but somehow she had heard of the second stroke Mama suffered on Monday, and she wanted to talk about her memories of the many good times we all had together. In times like this, anyone who can bring up happy memories is welcome to call to share them.

Maudetta Graham was the baby of the family born to Maude Melia Matthews Graham and John Richard Graham, born in 1914. The family lived in the town of Crichton, hard by (and now a part of) Mobile, and she grew up in poverty with a brilliant underachiever of a father and a doting mother. She learned to love from her mother Maude and her devoted aunt Etta, both of whom she was named for. She was to contract the double name into a shortened version which had an old-fashioned, genuine ring to it, much like herself. She worshipped her older brother, Theodore, known as "Doe," an entertainer and professional golfer. Her brother Claiborne, a year older than she and thought of as the smart one of the three children, died of spinal meningitis at the age of 15, a trauma she never really overcame.

She loved little children and dolls. For her 16th birthday, she received her last doll. Two years later she was married.

There was something innocent and childlike about Maudetta Timbes all her life. She was an expert at denial: Every child she loved was "the smartest" and everybody she knew was nice. A gifted and natural writer, she dabbled in poetry and short fiction. When we moved near the bay she began combing the beaches and collecting driftwood which she fashioned into furniture and lamps. She loved her gardens, always claiming that she didn't like the work but she loved the result. To this day she has a wonderful sense of humor and an almost accidental wit. Her three children have a way of gathering and trading wisecracks and jokes in order to keep her laughing. Even at the nursing home, debilitated by a stroke and enormous discomfort, she is able to laugh if we are able to come up with the right thing to say.

She has never handled harsh reality well. When bad things happened she was overwhelmed. After my father died she threw herself into creating a long and complex family history. Aided by a local family history club, she learned to research and spent several years compiling what will always be a family treasure, a 200-page volume of stories, charts and anecdotes of as many family members as she could find, on both sides of our family, going back as far as some brothers who provided a boat for the escape of Robert the Bruce in Scotland (and achieved the honor of a coat of arms with the phrase, "I Saved the King" at its base). She visited major libraries and browsed ancient cemeteries and church records for her information.

She may rally and get better, even now. She has done so several times before. But the end is near and there is only so much her strong old heart will be able to take. All of a sudden, this imminent departure eclipses everything else in my mind. It will come to an end soon.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Thanksgiving: A Week Too Soon

November 13

They sure are extending Thanksgiving these days. It used to last one day – and that one was spent waiting for lunch, which didn’t come until about 4 in the afternoon. I have been at stressful Thanksgivings, drunken Thanksgivings, pleasant Thanksgivings, but never one that lasted for two weeks.

It’s a nice meal because, for one thing, it’s a feast, and secondly because it’s so easy. Nobody wants you to veer too much from the traditional, especially from their favorites. It’s a menu that is prescribed by law, with the few variations being allowed for occasional modifications of the side dishes or the rather recent admission of wine to the table. As to the difficulty, and the extended preparation time we see taking place this year, let’s face it, somebody is making much ado where it’s not necessary. All that’s important is the smell of roasting poultry coming from the kitchen. Even as a young bride who had hardly seen the inside of a kitchen I was able to cook a turkey without a whole lot of agony. I was married on October 29 (1960) and prepared oyster dressing for the turkey. That’s the only thing I remember making, but it was a hit, and there was no flop.

I decided turkey was so easy I should cook it often, and I did, that year. But I don’t any more. I hardly make it for Thanksgiving if I can avoid it; I think duck is better and I don’t get any objections from my guests. I vary the side dishes from year to year, but love the homemade cranberry-orange relish that is made in the food processor (and not cooked). I discovered rutabagas about 10 years ago and love the look of them on the Thanksgiving plate. Pecan pie I mastered at a very young age (I was lying about not having seen the inside of a kitchen). I’ll never forget how, a few years ago, I tried to spring an exciting dessert on the assembled crowd – my own creation based on Maida Heatter’s Polka Dot Cheesecake. Ms. Heatter’s features huge, gorgeous chocolate polka dots within the cake; I made a pumpkin cheesecake mixture and piped it in in similar fashion, and my eaters looked as if I had brought a dead rat to the table. “Where’s the pecan pie?” was all that they said.

Once I was in on the planning of a Thanksgiving pot-luck party, and one of participants said cheerily, “I volunteer for the cole slaw!”

We all looked at her with a collective question in our eyes. (The question was, "Huh?")

“There’s always cole slaw on my Thanksgiving table,” she said defensively. Okay with us, but not one of the 30 or so ladies planning the meal had ever heard of that. It is an excellent accompaniment to turkey, I discovered, and I recommend it.

The kids at the Marietta Johnson School will celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday on the theme, “What if the pilgrims landed on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay instead of in Plymouth Rock?” They’ve written a play to illustrate the premise. The menu will be beans, fried fish, corn bread – and I volunteered a version of ambrosia featuring native satsumas and pecans.

We all know that Thanksgiving is still a week away. But by then we’ll all be bored with it, having stretched it out for weeks. One recommendation to get in the mood for Thanksgiving and the following holidays is to rent Home for the Holidays starring Holly Hunter, which is hilarious and romantic and leaves you looking forward to Christmas.

I may as well face it, the holidays are already here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Earth Moves

November 9

The more Fairhope changes, the more I wonder how much more it can change. But somehow, after Tuesday's election, there is a perceptible change in the air everywhere. Even my front yard is changing, and I'm having that done myself.

These days you have to have a professional landscape job done, unless you like to potter around in the dirt, which I don't. And the elderly azalea bushes in front of the house were leggy and unkempt. They had probably been planted some 50 years ago, in a kind of semicircle leading to the house from the street. There is a large front yard and the house is rather small by today's standards. Even I, who live in the past, could see the need for updating. But I've been waiting for the coffers to fill up from somewhere after the remodel of the bathroom. I was flabbergasted at how much a professional landscaper charges, but have found the money, with a little help from my stockbroker and the bank. As Ernest Hemingway once said -- in a very different context -- the earth is being moved.

In the past, all we of Fairhope and fair hope did was complain about the new library, but now the unwieldy structure is being extolled by Mobile Press-Register book editor John Sledge as "magnificent." I guess I'll have to reserve my criticism at least until I've seen its magnificent interior. The project is just, as Mama used to say, too much sugar for a dime. Those of you not from the South may have to chew on that for a while, but I think you'll know what I mean.

I mentioned weeks ago about an upcoming visit to Fairhope of the late author and avant garde writer Gertrude Stein. Now I think I'll explain. Gertrude Stein, played by me, will be here in a little production of a delightful play called Gertrude Stein and a Companion, with my friend Edith as Alice B. Toklas. Date and location to be announced, but we have done a couple of readings of the play and those who heard us were very encouraging. The show will not be produced until after the first of the year, and it may be so good that we'll just take it on the road. So I'm changing too -- not in sexual orientation, but from writer to actress! It's only a play! Make no mistake about it, Gertrude Stein is a delightful character in many ways. I'll have to get a lot uglier, but at my age that isn't difficult. And she had a very handsome ugliness at that.

The election itself was a welcome wind of fresh air. The breeze has yet to blow, but its time had come, and, even though my state has kept most of the stale air in place, the overall mood of change is perceptible all around us. I have experienced such shifts before, and know that real change comes slowly, but it does come, and I have a fair hope that this one will be for the good.

I heard on the news that Nancy Pelosi is having lunch today with George W. Bush. That little picture gives me a jolt of old-fashioned joy. Wonder what's on the menu.

Friday, November 03, 2006

For You Blogstalkers

November 3

Just in case you thought I was in such a rut that I couldn't stop myself from posting a blog every morning by 7 A.M., I actually skipped a day, and here I am posting at 6:16 P.M. on a Friday.

It won't be the traditional fare on this blog, either. No dipping into profundity, no ruminations about the changes in Fairhope, the loss of Utopia, the meaning of existence, and not even a plug for my book. This is a glancing overview of the whole ten months of blogging. If you want to know about my book, scroll down to the bottom of the blog and read a heartening review in the post called "Maybe It Isn't Just About Fairhope."

For blogstalkers (thank you for the word, "Grammie"), this is an index of sorts of what may be found on previous posts you may have missed. There is more, and I hope that clicking on one or more of these topics will tempt you to browse the blog in depth.

Henry George and Why There Is a Fairhope

Campbell Scott’s sex appeal

Garcia Lorca and the concept of duende

Andy Warhol and Fame as Art (and art as fame)

Irony and Americans

Bobby Darin

Anderson Cooper, Wyatt Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt

Questions about God and the Soul

Marietta Johnson and God For this one, you can also scroll down to the bottom of the blog and check out "What Is It All About?" which gives one bright child's good guess, and has a comment about yet another astonishment from another such natural wonder.

All this is to say, there's a great deal to explore on the blog already. Take your time; look around.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Here's a Place To Go

November 1

Now that I'm no longer posting, I have time to spend on other blogs. This one has been linked here for a little while, but I recommend today's post to all who might by sympathetic to a Liberal political point of view. Dan Spiro has a way of bringing up topics I want to know about and writing about them in a way that I like to hear. Occasionally (like today) I am inspired to post comments over there.

Okay, all you techies out there, this is what I dislike intensely about the Internet. I do not post on this blog any more and decided to make an exception this morning to direct those readers who might be interested to a really interesting blogpost. I spent three and a half minutes composing my words and over half an hour trying to get the link to work! Please try to click on the name underlined above. As of this writing it still wouldn't take the reader to the link. You thought this was easy? The maddening this is sometimes it works fine, and maybe by the time you try it it will, but if not, just go to the link on the link list, Empathic Rationalist, and click. If that doesn't take you there, you're on your own.

I'm so glad I'm not blogging any more.