Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Jumping-Off Place

February 28, 2007

Starting off with a lame – deemed outright sour by a reader – review of the Oscar ceremonies of Sunday night, I find myself as a result embarked on a new journey. This is it: All those comments by all those commenters make me feel equipped to say the country is ready for Al Gore at last.

Before I get into that, let me digress to say that I didn’t watch enough of the Oscars to see Eddie Murphy walk out in an apparent huff at not winning, although a number of hits to my blogpost used the search words “Eddie Murphy Sore Loser.” I must say here and now that I don’t think his hasty exit indicates that Murphy is necessarily a sore loser. You and I can never know what it is like to be a movie star expecting an Oscar and not getting one. We see those frozen faces just before the names are called and marvel at how they magically burst into smiles when somebody else wins – but because that is customary it doesn’t mean that an honest display of emotion is inappropriate. Paul Newman had been nominated nine times; by the time he won (in 1986 for The Color of Money) he simply was not attending the ceremony any more. He stated that he couldn’t take it.

What the Oscar did for Al Gore remains to be seen. I liked the many and varied comments on my post of the 26th, and the general feeling that maybe Gore, taken out of mothballs and cleaned up for a first-class Presidential campaign will win the nomination and the race this time, and get a chance to lead the country.

No Naomi Wolfe; he’s as Alpha as he needs to be. He looks best when pushing the issues about which he’s passionate. The whole country knows the man deserved a better shake than he got in 2000, and now he may be brave enough to use his own compass to plot the course. He just looked uncomfortable doing all those things somebody seemed to be telling him to do last time, from kissing Tipper like a passionate honeymooner right in front of the assembled multitude at the Democratic convention (distancing the two of them from the Clintons, I suppose), to donning plaid shirts instead of white ones. He looks fine in suits; in fact, he never looked more like a statesman than he did Sunday night. What am I talking about, anyway? This is not about what he looks like. It’s about what he is.

He was ridiculed for self-aggrandizement for simply saying things about himself that nobody wanted to believe. He never said he invented the Internet, but did state that he had provided initiatives for getting it started, which he had. He took credit for his work on cleaning up Love Canal, and was pilloried for that statement, although he was praised by the residents of Love Canal at the time. Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, Bill Krystol and others – to say nothing of Saturday Night Live, of course – found fodder for outrage and exaggeration of their own at his expense. But this is behind him, at least for the moment.

He is a rare man, and that is becoming clearer as time goes on . Whatever longtime feud he had with Bill Clinton, and whatever made him put that resentment aside in his rose garden statement that Clinton would go down in history as one of the country’s greatest Presidents, whatever made him hide in Clinton’s shadow and not press the big man into service in campaigning for him – all those things are in the distant past and few of us remember those days, either because we weren't paying attention then, or we have forgotten. There were many petty things I personally once held against him, but on reflection, and, as politicians like to say, knowing what I now know, he is looking better to me and a whole lot of other people.

Judging from the eloquence of all those who chose to comment on the "And the Winner Is" post, this campaign is going to be a great ride.

Monday, February 26, 2007

And the Winner Is

February 26, 2007

It was the most boring Academy Awards ceremony in recent memory, with Ellen Degeneres looking tacky in a beat-up looking red velvet pantsuit, making lame jokes and presenting a rather predictable slate of nominees, all expecting the worst and delivering prepared and unremarkable speeches. I have to eat crow for predicting that The Queen would win Best Picture and Best Director, and actually not building in the off-chance that the real best picture, The Departed, might win. I let myself off that particular hook when I realized that the award was not for that picture, but for all the times Martin Scorcese didn't win when everybody felt he should have. I can't learn to think like that; and besides, I may be the only person in America who thought The Departed was the best film olast year, with The Queen a close second. The critics say I'm wrong about that; maybe I am. But I was glad it went that way.

The whole thing put me to sleep early, and I didn't get the word until I woke up this morning.

Then I got the real news: That the big winner in this contest may end up in yet another contest. An Inconvenient Truth, which I've not seen, has put Al Gore back in the running, this time as a viable Presidential candidate in what may be history's most ironic twist. The man who was seen as a clunky, out-of-touch loser (who actually won -- figure that one out), emerges as most appealing in a field of inept Democratic candidates who cancel each other out.
The success of this film presents him as a Hollywood winner, which is just about as big a winner as you can be in this country, and he is a known quantity which most of the country knows got a bad deal the last time out, saddling us with a sorry world for somebody with special skills to begin to straighten out.

This just may be the start of something big. Or maybe not. At least Little Miss Sunshine did win something.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Art in the Utopian Colony

February 23, 2007

Last August I posted on the topic "fair hope of art," dealing with the reputation our little town has enjoyed as an artists' colony. This is that post:

I think it is time to connect Fairhope's art colony cachet with the reality of art -- that of this town's in particular -- and the relationship of art to the very soul of mankind.

The little town of Fairhope used to enjoy a bohemian, arty reputation. When it was founded in 1894, the only access to the colony was by an hour-long boat trip from Mobile, and visitors could stay in any one of a few hostelries and inns along the bluff overlooking the bay. Around the turn of that century a lot of people in the country enjoyed music, dancing, and indulging in handcrafts. Fairhope was quite a hub of such activity, with its natural clay for pottery, its long-leaf pines for making baskets and homey objects, and the glorious sunsets to paint and rhapsodize about. There were a certain number of people inclined to the arts among the short-term visitors to the town. But most came for the life of the mind Fairhope offered, the Single Tax experiment which was going to change the world and make mankind better. This thinking was crystallized in 1907 when the visionary educator Marietta Johnson settled in Fairhope to start her radical school on the premise that to be truly educated, a child should be allowed to explore the avenues about which he personally was curious rather than be held to arbitrary standards provided by adults -- and that to discover these avenues he should be provided with a well-rounded curriculum including music, dancing, handwork and art along with traditional academic studies.

Artists of every stripe were attracted to Fairhope because of the school. If they had children, they wanted them to have the advantage of the education Mrs. Johnson offered. Many taught at the school. The population swelled because of Mrs. Johnson, who lectured on her educational theory around the world and in major cities in the U.S. The school was at the heart of what Fairhope became, but it didn't stay there.

When I grew up there was a few hobby artists around, and the sculptor Craig Sheldon kept the town amused with his acerbic, anti-establishment wit. Craig could not make a living with his art, and worked in construction and other occupations to keep his family fed. There was a group of women conducting art classes in the wooden building on the bay bluff known as the Red Cross Building, which they shared with not only that organization but also with the Unitarian fellowship that met there on Sunday mornings.

In the 1960's, a man named Perc Whiting donated money for a building for the arts. The potters Edith and Converse Harwell donated their land near the gully at the entrance of town, and the Art Association has been trying to figure out what to do with the kiln in their backyard ever since.

There was always some attempt at local drama -- onstage, I mean -- even before the 1920's when the Shakespearean scholar Sarah Willard Hiestand moved to Fairhope from Chicago and produced a Shakespeare festival using local actors in productions outdoors with the bluffs and gullies as backdrops. When my family moved to the Fairhope area in 1949 there was an active little theatre group, which went dormant for a few years and later emerged with the name Theatre 98, naming itself after the highway.

Lately the focus has been more on writing and writers than the visual and plastic arts. There is quite a posse of writers practicing here, particularly Sonny Brewer, who has organized them and helped many of them get published. Sonny himself has published two novels set in Fairhope. For some reason, even though I've written a book about Fairhope, I don't seem to have made the cut for that growing clique.

No matter how it likes to be seen -- and nowadays Fairhope enjoys its reputation as a haven for artists -- this town never was an arts colony, and with the direction its going has less and less chance to be one. Art cannot be art if it is a hobby for the uninformed rich. There are a few artists practicing in town, but I would say it is in spite of the attitude around them. For an artist, the need to produce art is visceral. As was quoted in a comment on my post "Fair Hope for Lost Souls" painter Mark Rothko wrote: "Artists and philosophers are concerned with different aspects of defining the human soul, and while their approaches are sometimes complimentary, they are almost never compatible.

"The ascendancy of reasonable, objective categorization, the resulting specialization of philosophy, and the philosopher’s separation from the poet, the philosopher still needed to synthesize an ultimate unity in which the reduction of all phenomena to the relevance of human conduct was essential. Therefore we may say that the philosopher today produces this unified worldview by making ethics the objective of all his researches, and instead of making sensuality his end he must now make it conform to the harmony of all other factors. Otherwise he remains simply a scientist in higher category. In that sense the rational man, the one to whom logic is still the only key to reality, can find guidance for his conduct in philosophy.

"The artist however - that is, the poet and the painter - has never lost his original function and establishes the unity by reducing all phenomena to the terms of the sensual. For sensuality is the one basic human quality necessary for the appreciation of all truth”. ("Particulars and Generalization” from “The Artist’s Reality Philosophies of Art”, by Mark Rothko)

This level of dedication and conceptualization is pretty much absent in Fairhope. A few years back, a world caliber artist, trained by Salvador Dali and living in France, decided to relocate to Fairhope. Known internationally as a surrealist, the artist known as Nall was born in Alabama and had a large collection of art by Alabama painters. When he heard that the old City Hall building had been replaced and would be torn down he asked the city to donate it to him as a gallery for his Alabama art collection. He wanted to have the building remodeled with apartments on the upper floor for aspiring young artists of his choice.

The comfortable Art Association, now housed it its own building, did not back him. Certain businessmen threatened to run a full-page ad in the Mobile Register condemning Nall's art as "homo-erotic" (which it wasn't) and the City Council ultimately refused to give Nall the space for his gallery. For some reason, the genial man, though highly insulted at the time, decided to buy a house here anyway and made the statement, "I guess Fairhope isn't the kind of town I thought it was." He divides his time between here and the South of France, and the old City Hall is expected to be turned into a museum for the City.

I've bitten off a lot this morning, and I don't think I can chew any more right now. But I have to say this. It takes a lot to understand art. It is not just pretty pictures or accidental swipes of paint on canvas. It is related to the soul of man and to the eternal soul (maybe it is the eternal soul.) I'll just bet some of you out there can enlighten me and the rest of us.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Latest Race

February 21, 2007

The only race I really know anything about after all my years of watching races is the one to the Oscar. This award, whimsical as any other, has little to do with merit (and indeed is sometimes awarded to the worst in the field, as Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry and the inexplicable Best Picture nod to The English Patient) but it compels our interest as strongly as any political contest.

This year’s lineup is as noteworthy as any other, which is to say, not very. Never mind that it is pointless to vote for one work as superior to another, and to tally votes in order to name one above the rest. This is America and we invented the form – and all the world looks to us to name our choices. We have devised the most glamorous, most elegant, and at the same time the tackiest venue for handing out statuettes on the planet, so let us make the most of it. One of my theories about thepopulariry of the Academy Awards broadcast is not that viewers care about who wins the award, not that they’ve even seen the movies, but that the show is almost the last vestige of live television. There is something riveting about the possibility that something unscripted might happen. There is, on the other hand very little else of interest to anyone but the participants.

Never mind that. Never mind that I’m pretty sure who will win, and never mind that I’m usually asleep before the big awards are given. I’ll have my tv set on, and I’ll have my opinions about the apparel selected for the presenters and the hangers-on. And I’ll probably be wrong a time or two and right a time or two, and end up wondering why even I care.

My bets are on Forest Whitaker for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
I haven't seen The Last King of Scotland, but I saw the trailer, and that’s enough. Going in, this one has the mo of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote last year. It’s just unbeatable.

The same goes for Helen Mirren in The Queen. The film has blown away the competition in all previous contests, and Mirren does an almost-perfect impersonation of a personage we all almost know, in a film that is also just about unassailable.

Based also on previous recent awards, Best Picture will also go to The Queen, and Best Director to its director Stephen Frears. The possible upset here in both categories would be Clint Eastwood for Letters from Iwo Jima and best picture to the same. The Academy adores Eastwood, and I’m sure his two war flicks are awesome; they’re as certain to be not my cup of tea. As far as what is my cup of tea, I would give best picture award to The Departed, and probably best director to Martin Scorcese, so I wouldn’t be sorry if these win – but I don’t think it will happen. Scorcese simply makes great films; he doesn’t win Oscars.

Supporting Actor and Actress Awards will go to Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson, both for Dreamgirls, which was not nominated as Best Picture. It is always nice when a total newcomer like Hudson wins, kind of a welcome-to-the-club award, but she is not a shoo-in as Murphy is. It could go to Cate Blanchett for Notes on a Scandal.

There will be the usual fashion faux pas this year; the usual in-your-face selections of attire; an occasional tug at the heart by a child star or a former one (and what if Little Miss Sunshine actually wins something?). There will be the awful music, and the superfluous "Best Song" rendering, a few laughs and few tears. I always love the tributes to our colleagues who have left us for that big silver screen above. And somebody always looks smashing.

It's actually the only tedious bore that comes up every year that I wouldn't miss for anything.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Horse Race, Part 3

February 18, 2007

The major Republican candidates are squaring off, defining themselves, and generally trying to look Presidential while carving out firm constituencies. None has emerged as unbeatable, but any one of them could beat Hillary Clinton in a general election.

Take John McCain. Please. This man’s day has come and gone, and while he suffered a painful trouncing at the hands of Karl Rove’s Fundamentalist Christian kneecap-breakers in the South Carolina Republican primary scene in 2004, he was the candidate who had the nation’s respect and would have won the country in a landslide in a general election that year. You remember that Al Gore won that one, and the Supreme Court gave it to Bush in some kind of shell game that has not fully been explored or expiated.

McCain had his fans from both parties, and I was one of them. This was a man of principle, who talked straight and saw things clearly. Supremely human – he could be prickly and he could be amusing – but he was a man who clearly had the country’s best interests at heart and had the fire in the belly of an honest-to-God leader. If his party had not seen his very integrity as a threat, he would have been President for 9/11 and it is likely he would have gone after Usama bin Laden instead of Saddam Hussein. The country would be better for it.

But this time around, he has seen the inevitable light – that the only way to get the job he wants and deserves (or did at one time) is to knuckle under to the enemy. After all, he didn’t want to be seen as a sore loser, and he needed a party behind him or he would have gone the Third Party route a few years ago. He has trusted the Republican Party and he has laid down his high standards in order to get the mantle this time. Religious Right? Oh, yeah, he’s with them. Bush hacks? Bring them over, we can use them! He has taken a stance in support of widening the war against Iraq, even though he seems to know it is too little, too late; he is seeking the nomination of the party that got us into this, and he will not make a statement against that untenable position.

He has even gone so far as to hire the ad agency that created the Swift Boat debacle and also the man behind the racist ads that sank Harold Ford. He’s gonna play hard ball this time out, and, although he is not a Republican’s Republican, he is going into the fight of his life, and he’s going in swinging.

Rudy Giuliani, who has always gone in swinging, has had a worse time of it with his party. A tough mayor of one of the major cities of the world, he alienated its Liberal Establishment, apparently by force of his abrasive personality. I no longer lived in the city when he was mayor, but was perplexed that when I visited and found it clean, pleasant and thriving, yet my New Yorker friends abhorred the man who made that happen. I still don’t understand it. New Yorkers reacting negatively to someone who is opinionated, combative, and arrogant?

It was more than that, of course. His politics was harsh, Conservative, pro-police and seen as anti-citizen. Never mind that such was needed and that his policies improved the city, he was still not a local hero until his take-charge stance on the 11th of September, 2001, while the sitting President and Vice President ran for cover.

Giuliani has a way of rubbing everybody the wrong way even when doing the right things. He has strong stands which are in opposition to those of other Republicans; namely gay rights and abortion rights. A brilliant mind, a ready smile, but very little charm to win over the ever-important religious wing of his party, he will make the race interesting although he has little chance of winning its nomination.

Mitt Romney is the mystery candidate at this point. He is youngish and good-looking, and clearly looks like the man for the Vice Presidential nod. His opponents cite his Mormonism as if that would matter in a national race. I think that type of battle has long since been won. It’s not as if he supports bigamy.

Although his opponents suggest he has flip-flopped on crucial issues, this has not hurt a candidate since the days of George McGovern. We don’t know anybody who hasn’t changed his mind in his professional life. The fact is, at the present time he espouses all his party’s positions – he doesn’t believe in homosexual marriage, nor in women’s right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, or in open national borders. He has succeeded in business and in politics and comes across as a can-do kind of guy, which suits him for high office, and, as far as Republicans are concerned, would make him a very appealing Vice President.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Me and Superman

February 15, 2007

Last night I rented Hollywoodland, a dark film that flickers with the tarnished glamor of old Hollywood and its mysteries. Weaving together fact and fiction it deals with the death of George Reeves, the hapless wannabe star who got stuck in the role of Superman in early television and died young, purported to be a suicide.

Anyone born in America after 1938 was influenced by the Superman character as a child. I was certain that flying was possible, and remember my own scientific experiments in jumping off the roof to prove it in the backyard of our house on Semmes Avenue in Mobile. (Okay, I didn't actually jump off the roof. I just thought that would get your attention.) I had read Superman Comics and the character was as real to me as he was to the kids who saw him later portrayed on television.

I was old enough to enjoy the tv series as a lark -- Reeves' stolid Man of Steel seemed so incongruous with his almost-pretty face -- but I do know how much he and the character meant to those coonskin-cap wearing hula hooping kids a little younger than I. You could not help but be troubled by the idea of the actor taking his own life, and later rumors circulated that the story had much more in it than that.

Hollywoodland tells one such story, actually paralleling Reeves' life with that of a shallow, opportunistic sleaze of a Hollywood Private Eye looking for a way to make a buck, and finding a story to track. The movie captures the end of the glamor era in Hollywood with first rate performances by Ben Affleck as Reeves, Diane Lane as an aging beauty, and Adrien Brody as the P.I.

Never being a Ben Affleck fan, I admit he won me over with this one. He looks and acts a great deal like Reeves, and here we see him as charming, ambitious and trapped. Diane Lane, always winning, is made up to look older but not old; she carries off that awkward age of a woman in some distress about losing her youthful appeal.

The real story of George Reeves is just as fascinating as the movie version, and I just linked you to it, so I recommend you click on those blue letters and then return here. (I just said that because I'm always linking on the blog and nobody ever seems to go there.)
I also suggest you rent the movie and buy some popcorn or mix up some Manhattans -- the drink of choice in the showbiz 1950's.

I have one more thing to say about me and Superman. My second husband was an actor in summer stock with a youngster named Christopher Reeve. Chris was the hotshot that season, and my husband Jim was, I guess, kind of a George Reeves who was never going to make it in spite of good looks and a certain amount of talent. Chris was impatient to get going on his career, and moved on to New York to work in commercials and on Search for Tomorrow before we saw his name on the marquee reading, "Christopher Reeve as Superman."

When you're on the fringes of show business, you learn to expect the unexpected, and, while it was almost always assured that Chris Reeve was going to be a star, it could not have been known how he would transcend the role of Superman and become a super man in his own right.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Writers Like Us

February 14, 2007

Fairhope is full of writers. I am just one of the crowd. Not in any particular writers' circle, I guess I'm the one who just writes.

In 2001 I was set to be in the in crowd of Fairhope writers. My book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree was published by local publisher Sonny Brewer. Sonny was known as a nurturer of writing talents; he provided them with a yearly platform called "Southern Writers Reading," putting writers onstage to read excerpts of their work for the delight of Fairhope audiences. The event took over a whole weekend, and including lots of parties and gave many locals the opportunity to read the works and shake the hands of some very talented people.

I was on the outside of the passel of writers, looking in. My book was one of about 20 available at the big booksigning, and I went to some of the parties, but clearly I didn't quite make the cut as one of the hungry young writers swarming around Sonny. I didn't get a review of my book in the Mobile Press-Register until the book had been out for about ten months and the momentum of sales had clearly gone by. John Sledge, the book editor of the paper, said he had given a copy to the man he wanted to review it but since the pay was so low he didn't feel comfortable giving the reviewer a deadline. We tried setting up book signings in Mobile, but turnout was low. I even did a reading at Bay Minette at the Bay Minette library, for which library Charlotte Robertson had to phone everybody she could to get a turnout of about five people. (Everybody she called said, "A book about Fairhope? This isn't Fairhope!") Charlotte was one of the few loyal champions of MMATBT, which is about considerably more than Fairhope.

I was excited at that time about becoming a real writer, getting on the inside, defining myself at last as a writer. That didn't happen for a number of reasons, but mostly of my own making. I hammered out a short story about my own 35-year writer's block and showed it to Sonny. He was encouraging, urging me to keep at it and read the short works of Joyce Carol Oates. I bought a couple of her books in paperback and was impressed to be in her company. I attended Sonny's "Third Thursday" readings by local writers at his bookstore. Once or twice I staged readings of my own book there, but I was never on the official roster.

When the first run of 1,000 copies sold out, there was no reprint. By that time Charlotte was working at the rival bookstore, "Page & Palette," and urged me to self-publish. By the time this was done, Charlotte was no longer working there, and as far as I know the store's initial purchase of 30 copies was never re-ordered when it sold out. The book is an on-demand offering, always available on

But the real reason my writing career flagged was personal. Stuff started happening in my life, beyond my control, in which I felt personally attacked and maligned, and the little creative light went out. I had a very close friend at that time constantly urging me to put such stress aside and write like a sumbitch, but I just couldn't. I was dry as a bone. This period lasted for several years, during which I did manage to work on another Fairhope book, When We Had the Sky, (later retitled The Fair Hope of Heaven) which I felt was better than the first, but by this time Sonny had become a writer himself and was no longer publishing. The University of Alabama Press and River City Publishing in Montgomery both turned it down with rejection letters both of which said positive things, but basically that the book would not sell outside Fairhope and it just wasn't enough of a market. One publisher suggested I go the self-publish route. I sent the manuscript to the third Alabama publisher; talked with the main man Randall Williams on the phone. He promised to read it, but I never heard back.

I started a blog to promote both books, and put up a website. The blog became an end in itself and writing daily got me back in the groove. The stress of my personal life abated. The light was beginning to flicker once more. So I wrote a book that had nothing to do with Fairhope, and was chatting with a friend who out of the blue said, "That sounds like something my agent would be interested in. When you get it in shape, let me know and I'll see to it she reads it." I had forgotten that this woman had written a book years ago which was still in print. I had no idea she could get me in with an agent in New York!

The agent passed on the book. She said that her associates had read what I sent and didn't feel passionate about it, so they wished me luck in finding the perfect agent. It seems to me they're overstating their emotional investment in this project, but who am I to say? I don't need passion or perfection so much as a friend at court, someone who'll hawk this manuscript to the right people and help me get it published.

In the meantime I have a nephew who is a very respectable published writer, and was lunching with him on my New York trip over Christmas. He offered his agent if the first didn't work out, so I did email him yesterday.

His agent said, "Why don't you get her to send me 50 or 60 pages and see if I respond to the writing?"

That's enough for me. I sent him a packet with the first three chapters yesterday. If he says no, I'll think about self-publishing. but I probably won't. What I'll probably do is start another book.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Day That Was

February 13, 2007

Don't think of this as the day before Valentine's Day, think of it as the day after yesterday, I say to myself. What is all this new fuss over Valentine's Day anyhow? It's a nice holiday, particularly if you like roses and chocolate, or are in the business of manufacturing or selling either one, but if you're an ordinary civilian with nobody to pressure to buy stuff for you, it's not much of a day. And it can even be a downer.

So I'll focus on yesterday rather than tomorrow, before today really starts.

I began by posting a rather revealing commentary on arsenic on school grounds, responding to somebody from Georgia who found this site last week using the search engine words "fairhope alabama arsenic school." I decided to lay that story to rest once and for all by telling the true version of it.

Then I got an email from a sympathetic friend who said I should say nothing about the story at this time, certainly not on the Internet, but I had written it so carefully I was loath to part with my blogpost for the day. However, the mechanism for checking traffic on the blog was down and I couldn't tell if I'd had two hits or two hundred, where they came from, and whether they might be from someone who would want to use this arsenic post against me in some way I might not be able to anticipate. As the day wore one I began to become a little anxious, and by late afternoon I went on and deleted it.

Some of you got to read it. Here's your chance to weigh in -- should I re-post at some point or was I simply beating a dead horse? Was it a valid topic for a blog? Did it shed any light on the controversy that raged in Fairhope four years ago? Am I simply adding fuel to the flame intended to destroy a precious part of Fairhope life?

It's gone now, but resides somewhere on my hard drive and I can easily post it again if there is demand.

The mail in the early afternoon brought a rejection letter from the agent to whom I'd submitted my latest manuscript. A bummer, but not a huge surprise. The letter was nice and said that this particular agency did not feel personally passionate about the book but that I should not in any way consider that a comment on the quality of my work. Okay, I'll try to manage that. The manuscript was not returned, and as I pondered why that might be I came upon the last sentence of the letter, "We have discreetly recycled your materials."

Discreetly recycled??? What will bert bananas say about that? Visions of these attractive female executives at a shredder, discreetly recycling, leap into my imagination. It's not a pretty picture. I think I'd rather have the ms. back, complete with smudged fingerprints and coffee stains on it. I think I'd rather have it back even if it's still pristine and crisp, as if nobody had even looked at it.

I have a nephew who is a professional writer and jazz critic, with a few books to his credit, who promised to submit the book to his agent if the first one doesn't work out. If that doesn't happen I'll just start another book, I guess.

Or maybe I'll get back to daily blogging.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A School in Utopia

February 12, 2007

In a recent column called “Yesterday’s News” in the Mobile Press-Register, Marietta Johnson was quoted from an article that ran in 1932, stating that her school, The School of Organic Education, in Fairhope, provided “a Utopia for children.”

Beautiful words conjuring up an image of an idyllic setting of outdoor activies, sunshiny mornings of play woven into academic studies, and a joy in school as part of life for a child. On the other hand, the image conjured up might be different depending on one’s vision. One man’s Utopia is another man’s boredom, and one man’s idea of the love of learning may actually differ from that of the visionary Mrs. Johnson. She always maintained that her approach to education was as simple as life itself, but over the years it has been subject to interpretation, and has been misunderstood and mishandled as often as not.

The definition of this vision is especially difficult one hundred years later. The idealistic sentiments of the early 1900’s are a distant memory. Fairhope itself, founded as a Utopian colony and surely referenced in Mrs. Johnson’s remarks to the newspaper, is no longer what it was intended to be. People who move to Fairhope see only a pretty, upscale little town by the water’s edge. They are not inspired by the Henry George notion of real estate affordable to all; in fact, they hope to build something classy that will render them rich when they decide to sell. There is nothing unique in Fairhope any more, nor Utopian. It is a “nice” little town, like many others except for the parkland on the beach, which in any other town would have been developed years ago and would today be cluttered with the type of eyesores that infect most towns of similar size and location. Even though it was the Single Tax Corp. that preserved the very greenspaces that set Fairhope apart even today, all the talk of Fairhope’s artistic and Utopian heritage is just so many words now.

We have seen many wars, political conflicts, and social upheavals since the death of Marietta Johnson in 1938. We might say that mankind has changed. Her dreams of balance and authenticity for the lives of children have been undermined over the years as the education system, determined to compete in the world, ignored the basis of her form of education: The growth of the child. Over the years, the education Establishment saw artistic courses as “frills,” and more than ever, children were asked to put aside the business of childhood and behave as adults told them to with little regard to their particular phase of development.

The 1960’s brought a new consciousness to the land. Love, peace and flowers were everywhere. There was something beautiful in this presumed innocence, but it came to very little in the long run. Those baby boomers embraced the thought that they were the hope of the world, and they certainly were for a time. But their time too has passed.

Now ever so many who discover Mrs. Johnson’s little school see it as an extension of their own vision of love, peace and flowers – none of which was ever built into the educational theory Mrs. Johnson had designed. Utopia, perhaps – a world where children would be happy as they were learning – but a school all the same. Classes out of doors would emphasize the answers to children’s questions about nature, and stimulate further study right through the high school years, when they would read about biology from books and practice experiments with living things. In Organic Education, children’s curiosity is encouraged, and satisfied; yet all along they are being instructed in the many disciplines they need for their life in the larger world.

The school produced happy students, and still does. However, many of these children have parents who are troubled, insecure, and unable in the long run to trust this or any other school to do its job. Parents are less mature than they were in Marietta Johnson’s day. They seek to control every aspect of their children’s lives.

Why do they find solace in the ever-restrictive public school system? Simply because they feel they must. Those who choose to withdraw their children from our school may see their child, who was thriving, become unhappy trying to conform to the many rules and restrictions in their school life. The tragic thing is when these parents blame the child, as does the public school system itself, so rigid in its demands for conformity. In the Marietta Johnson School, the child is seen as precious and his individuality is respected. It is a Utopian vision for a pedestrian world.

A decade or so ago, a scholar wrote her doctorate dissertation based on research she did on the Fairhope school. A copy of Janet McGrath's work, appropriately titled A School for Utopia, is kept in the Marietta Johnson Museum in the old Bell Building, once a part of the Organic School. McGrath maintained that Mrs. Johnson's vision was a perfect fit for the Utopian Fairhope of the past, and that the school had adapted to the times and now was an all but forgotten symbol of a long-abandoned idealism of the town itself. An inspiring treatise, this dissertation contains interviews with all the graduates of the school McGrath could find, and gives a beautifully accurate picture of both old Fairhope and the philosophy and practice of the school.

As Fairhope grows, inevitably the Marietta Johnson School will grow again. There will always be parents who are willing to commit to a certain amount of risk in order to provide the best for their children, whether or not it is the conventional or predictable choice. And these parents will see that the real risk is in enrolling their child in other schools where creativity is discouraged and all progress is based upon test scores rather than the development of the child himself.

It is the risk of nothing less than the future of civilization.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The News of Fairhope

February 9, 2007

There is a newly hopeful atmosphere at the Marietta Johnson School these days. The new director is working out extremely well. She has demonstrated capability, patience, and a real feel for the mission and meaning of the school. Students, teachers and parents are responding by participating in school life and creating an inviting environment.

I have put in almost all I can in the way of being the President of the Board. My term as President expires in May of this year, and my term on the board itself is officially over in May 2008.

The question I get asked sometimes is, “Why?” Why do I do it -- make cookies, make pancakes, make press releases, make phone calls, make board meetings, make Christmas presentations, make other people the director, constantly make the effort that yields so little in the way of visible results?

Is it not clear to me, say the constructively carping critics, that there are other things I could do better – that the world is waiting for me to write a real book, not another Fairhope memoir? Am I missing the point that a more aggressive, dynamic person would be better at this job? Don’t I realize that my many talents could be utilized in a way that made me famous, and maybe even rich?

Well, yes. I do realize some of these things.Then why I am the one on whose shoulders the future of Marietta Johnson’s school and vision for the world rests? I wish I really knew. But what I think is this: I am here with some little tasks in front of me. The school may have just escaped the most serious danger of closing in its history – and I may even have had something to do with both the danger and the escape. What we on the board did was clear out the people who thought only of their own agendas and had no commitment to the Fairhope Organic School (see our website – I wrote most of it, by the way), and we paid for our commitment with our reputations, smeared with the brush of unfounded, irrational accusations, resulting in an unwholesome and toxic atmosphere that frightened away the many innocent victims – the children who might benefit by an “organic” education.

Now it is time to fill the school up again, this time with bright, sincere children with committed, caring parents, a capable, creative faculty; and secure its future once and for all. I’ve thought I had the handle before; I think I have it now. I do know when needed I’ve got a platter full of delicious cookies, and that always a heart full of good intentions, and that they’re waiting for me right now up there on the campus to take charge of the day, troubleshoot if there is a problem, run an errand if something is needed.

I do it all because it’s worth doing. I do it because nobody else is. I do it because I think it will change this little piece of the world for the better.

The tide is beginning to turn. It’s spring in Fairhope, where brutal winter bashes other areas of the country. We are in the midst of planning the Centennial celebrations of the school, which will include a huge all-class reunion and a pizza party for all the teenagers who are now in other schools in the area. The enrollment numbers are rising every day, and phone calls come in from people who want sign up their kids for next year.

At last I can relax and allow the school to grow at its own pace, while I follow my own advice and enjoy myself while I still can. I have a book in a New York agent’s hands, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Fairhope. And my life is taking off in all directions. I am planning to give the cat away – and before you know it I will have an announcement of major importance to make.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Ambiance of Fair Hope

February 5, 2007

A local citizens' political club recently received a request from a certain member of the City Council. Seems he wanted to attend their next meeting and ask their definition of the word ambiance.

A longtime friend of mine, who is, like me, an emissary from another time in another place -- the Fairhope that once was -- called me to ask what I thought this certain member of the City Council was up to. My old friend is active in the organization, basically a club of mostly newcomers concerned with keeping the government in line. My friend wondered why a man who has been on the City Council for seven years would just now be inquiring as to ambiance.

In recent years the city government has turned the place from one of fair hope to one of fair game -- for themselves, developers, and the many newcomers who swarm here to install all the amenities they enjoyed in previous locales. That they are just now investigating the ambiance of Fairhope is either a joke or an insult. If they wanted to know what Fairhope once was, there are plenty of books about it, including one I myself wrote called Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. In those days, Fairhope was a casual, funky beach town of charming if dilapidated cottages, boasting an intellectual if not downright bohemian cachet. Since then it has become an upscale, trendy boutique town, with dozens of surrounding subdivisions, new construction replacing the cottages, and a citizenry of nice enough well-meaning people but no particular character. The ambiance has changed from authentic to ersatz in a matter of a decade.

Once a haven for reformers and rebels, Fairhope is now bursting with conformists and conventionals. The look of the town has gone from a village with remnants of 1920's Americana to a suburb of expensive, huge, new and bland houses. Attempts to duplicate what was genuinely quaint have taken the heart out of it and replaced the original with something that seems to have everything the original has, except everything. The external is similar, but blown up to ten times the size, the effect is lost.

The ambiance of Fairhope today, that of a gussied-up and phonified version of itself, would be amusing if it were not so very sad.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Horse Race Too

February 3, 2007

I've been called to task on the blog for talking politics, which apparently I know nothing about (as if anybody did), but let us look at the upcoming Presidential campaign not as politics but as a horse race.

First in the race was John Edwards, a personable Southerner who made a good showing in the 2004 Democratic race, and ended up as the Vice Presidential nominee in the campaign of John Kerry. Edwards is bright, upbeat, and arguably a better candidate than his running mate was. He is less dour, less apt to misspeak, and comes down well in the mainstream of his party's positions. What he lacks in gravitas, he more than makes up in at least the appearance of reasonableness. Whether this is what the country, or even the Democratic Party, will be looking for in a 2008 candidate remains to be seen.

There is also Senator Hillary Clinton, who is a different colored race horse altogether. Her hat has been in this ring for years. You might say it has been sailing this way forever. I have a friend who knew her in grammar school where she was known as "the smartest girl in school," and I recall a PBS documentary, Hillary's Class, which put forth the information that he Wellesley classmates assumed she would be the first woman President. She endured the difficulty of being First Lady to a man she wanted to replace in office, and here she is, presenting herself as not only the woman candidate, but the candidate for all women, meaning those who do not choose to support her will be traitors to their gender. Is there a "women's candidate," and if so, would it necessarily be a woman? I happen to be one who doesn't think so, and I still would like to see something substantive coming from this candidate before I make up my mind. Sure, I'd like to see a woman President, but whoever I vote for must be someone who clearly stands for something I believe in, and who will be brave enough to come out from behind the handlers and the line of advisors so carefully framing her answers to position her as a centrist and earth mother rather than the real person within who must have something to bring to the table on every political topic. Is voting for the war, and then blaming the President for that vote without ever owning or explaining this stand, really a "woman's" position? Not this woman.

Which brings us to the least-known, most hopeful candidate on the scene at this point. One comment about Joe Biden's remark calling Barack Obama "clean," does no one remember Richard Nixon's contemptuous anger at his former boss Dwight D. Eisenhower, "All he ever cared about was, 'Is he clean?'" referring to the vetting process. It was in this sense, of course, that Biden described Obama as clean -- the sense that there was no tinge of wrongdoing anywhere; nothing was going to be dredged up out of his past, as it is with so many politicians, to rule him out of the running. Whether he is up to the job or not remains to be seen, but he has the quality of being viable through his ability to arouse support. If he, in the sense that Mrs. Clinton is the women's candidate, is the black candidate, he will have to do something specific to deserve that constituency. He has traveled comfortably in the white world for most of his life, and although his skin is dark, he doesn't look black in the way that, say, Denzel Washington as the President would. Let us see if he is as brilliant as we have been told. I for one am eager to see how he'll run this race and conduct the business at hand.

If I knew anything about politics I would be able to make some predictions here. If I even knew anything about horse races I probably could. When I have made such predictions in the past I have been wrong as often as I have been right. There is always this for me and my readers to ponder: No candidate I have voted for has won, so I am better off not naming my choice here. So far I'm just observing the pre-game show.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Terrible Story of the Most Dreaded Trans-Fat of All

February 1, 2007

When living in Switzerland I read the story of the creation and creator of oleomargarine and it has stayed with me all this time. I had no way of knowing that it was not yet over, but I'm sure there will be more chapters to come now that we are warned about the evil empire of Trans-Fats.

In France in the 19th Century, the government sought a substitute for butter, which was thought to be over-used in French kitchens. A competition was held for the best and most palatable product to replace the original, and this was won by chemist Hippolyte Mègé-Mouriés. A part of his story is related on the Internet in this entry from the Library of Congress:

Sample text for On food and cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen / Harold McGee.

Oleomargarine was developed in 1869 by a pharmacist and chemist, Hippolyte Mègé-Mouriés, after Napoleon III offered a prize for the formulation of a synthetic edible fat. Western Europe was running low on fats and oils; petroleum hydrocarbons were as yet unexploited, and the growing industrial need for lubricants and the popular demand for soaps (caused by a rising standard of living and interest in hygiene) were cutting into vegetable sources.

Mègé-Mouriés was not the first to give suet a buttery texture, but he was the first to make it palatable by flavoring it with a small amount of milk. It was not until 1905, after French and German chemists had developed the process of hydrogenation for hardening normally liquid vegetable oils, that these oils could be made into a butter substitute.

Margarine caught on quickly in both Europe and the United States, where patents began pouring out in 1871, and large-scale production was under way by 1880. At the turn of the century, Mark Twain overheard a conversation between two businessmen aboard the Cincinnati riverboat, and recorded it in Life on the Mississippi.

Why, we are turning out oleomargarine now, by the thousands of tons. And we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it -- can't get around it, you see. Butter don't stand any show -- there ain't any chance for competition.

Little did this enthusiast suspect what resistance margarine would meet from the dairy industry and from government. First it was defined as a "harmful drug" and its sale restricted. Then it was heavily taxed, stores had to be licensed to sell it, and, like alcohol and tobacco, it was bootlegged. The government refused to purchase it for use in the armed forces. And, in an attempt to hold it to its true colors, some states did not allow margarine to be dyed yellow (animal fats and vegetable oils are much paler than butter); the dye was sold separately and mixed in by the consumer. Two world wars, which brought butter rationing, probably did the most to establish margarine's respectability. But it was not until 1950 that the federal taxes on margarine were abolished, and not until 1967 that yellow margarine could be sold in Wisconsin. Today, we consume nearly three times as much margarine as we do butter. Both price and the current concern about cardiovascular disease are responsible for this differential. Margarine, once far cheaper than butter, is still marginally so, and contains none of the cholesterol and less of the saturated fats that have been implicated in heart disease. (A fat's hardness at a given temperature is an index of its saturation; the proportion of saturated fats in liquid oil, tub margarine, stick margarine, and butter increases in that order.)

Like its model, margarine is about 80% fat, 20% water and solids. It is flavored, colored, and fortified with vitamin A and sometimes D to match butter's nutritional contribution. A single oil or a blend may be used. During World War I, coconut oil was favored; in the thirties, it was cottonseed, and in the fifties, soy. Today, soy and corn oils predominate. The raw oil is pressed from the seeds, purified, hydrogenated, and then fortified and colored, either with a synthetic carotene or with annatto, a pigment extracted from a tropical seed. The water phase is usually reconstituted or skim milk that is cultured with lactic bacteria to produce a stronger flavor, although pure diacetyl, the compound most responsible for the flavor of butter, is also used. Emulsifiers such as lecithin help disperse the water phase evenly throughout the oil, and salt and preservatives are also commonly added. The mixture of oil and water is then heated, blended, and cooled. The softer tub margarines are made with less hydrogenated, more liquid oils than go into stick margarines.

That's the end of the quoted part from the Internet. The most distressful part of the story to me was that as soon as his product was accepted as the winner, the poor chemist who invented it was considered a disgrace to his country. Margarine was rejected, nay, reviled by the cooking establishment, and Mègé-Mouriés was all but a pariah in his own country.

It is said that his last words were, "There will never be a substitute for butter."