Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Autobiographical Urge

July 28, 2007

A year ago I was approached by a man in his late 80's about ghostwriting his autobiography. He had lived a rich and varied life and loved to tell stories of his accomplishments and crises. He had coped with great success and tragedy, and about all he had not done was chronicle the events.

He had known lots of interesting people and been in very high places in his day; he sent me a packet of snapshots and newspaper articles about his life. Pictures revealed that he was a good-looking man, movie star good-looking in his youth, and the articles told of the fortune he had made in dealing with big corporations, selling the rights to his inventions and occasionally suing for large sums when his invention ideas were stolen. I was interested in his story, and felt that I would be good as a ghostwriter. I was up for the job. I encouraged him, admonishing only that he would have to be very open with me about some of the life situations in the newspaper items, situations that still might cause him some pain.

He would have had to relocate to be interviewed, or pay for my expenses if I had to travel. He would have to be candid. I would agree to work for him at a fixed rate for about six months, including writing time, and then submit what I had written for his approval. I would not be the salesman for the work, but I felt certain that with his lively personality and his truly unusual life story we could come up with a book that would sell.

I laid out the proposal and waited. Time passed, and he passed off my radar screen, by not acting. He probably thought better of the project and did not want to be under this kind of stress at this point in his life, no matter how strong his urge to be immortalized in print. I never received a refusal, but I had lobbed the ball to his court and it had not been returned.

I didn't blame him. For years he had probably regaled friends and acquaintances with tales of his childhood inventions, his successes and near-successes, and the odd and unexpected turns his life had taken. He was probably told by many an acquaintance, "You really should write a book about all this," but the reality of such a venture was not one he could handle.

An urge to write hits us as we grow closer to what we perceive as the end of life. There is a need to get it down in black and white, this little life, before it's gone. I can understand this myself, hacking away at a daily blog and thinking of books I must get done. My mother, always an admirer of writers (and married to a first-rate one), spent years researching a family history that including anecdotal tales going all the way back to family members who gave Robert the Bruce of Scotland a ride across the river in the middle of a war -- being awarded in later years with a coat of arms that read "I Saved the King." She completed her family history in the and self-published it in 1994 after almost 20 years of exhaustive research, and the result is a book that reflects all the charm of its writer and is constantly used as research by her three grown children. She printed copies for all living members of the family and distributed this work to as many of them as she knew.

Her little book is a treasure trove of information about our ancestors. It was a project that consumed her as she edged into old age, and a copy of it is in her bureau at the nursing home. She sometimes mentions it ("the book I wrote") and we sometimes pick it up to confirm a birth date or year, or cause of death, or any little piece of family information we could get nowhere else.

It is good that much of mankind is equipped with this autobiographical urge. Blogs are a great tool for this very thing. As to those who are not compelled to write, of course they create and contribute in many ways. But the actual stories, even with a very personal slant, are the stuff of life and the best we can do toward carving a place in the mythology of generations to come.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Real Woman, Fair Hope

July 27

I think it’s time for a real woman to be President of the United States. I say this somewhat defensively because it is assumed that since I cannot support Hillary Clinton, I am one of the ones who is somehow just not ready.

I have a certain amount of respect for Senator Clinton. I don’t deny that she has great intelligence and drive. I like to see the pictures of her laughing, and I don’t doubt that she enjoys a good joke every once in a while. She has presence and self-confidence. She is tough. But try as I might, I cannot find one thing authentic about her.

She speaks in platitudes (or, as they say, soundbites). This means she seems to be talking but nothing definitive is said or clarified. It’s designed to be clipped out and run on the evening news.

She never makes it clear where she stands on issues – any issues. She’s just being a politician, her supporters say. The Right paints her as a flaming Liberal, the Left as a middle-of-the-roader; in reality she will say whatever it takes to seem reasonable. But she doesn’t convince me. I can’t say I know anything about where she stands on matters vital to the leadership of this troubled land.

Take the war. She voted for it because she was lied to, as all of us were. Why is it so hard to say that vote was a mistake? Is she afraid to be called a flip-flopper? What kind of nonsense is that? “Flip-flopper” is a Madison Avenue term that means no more than a person who has changed his or her mind. It’s no disgrace to change one’s mind; in fact, that is an admirable trait as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. In my lifetime I have seen the birth of a new phenomenon – politicians being led around by the nose by their ad agencies. It is these ad agencies who created the phenomenon of focus groups to take the temperature of the public on every product in the marketplace, including, God help us, people who happen to be running for office.

I have been ready for a woman President long before most people can remember. For years there have been a few strong women pretty highly placed in political office. One even ran for President.
I’d have supported Shirley Chisholm if had lived long enough to run today even though she wrote, when she ran for the office in 1972: "I am a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. I make that statement proudly, in the full knowledge that, as a black person and as a female person, I do not have a chance of actually gaining that office in this election year. I make that statement seriously, knowing that my candidacy itself can change the face and future of American politics — that it will be important to the needs and hopes of every one of you — even though, in the conventional sense, I will not win."

Ms. Chisholm was wise, charismatic, brilliant and brave. She did not evade when asked where she stood on the issues. She was the right person, but at the wrong place in the wrong time. She was unique and the country was not ready for her. I’m sorry to say that, since I had voted for Dick Gregory in the 1968 election and was persuaded by my colleagues that my vote had put Richard Nixon in the White House, I chose McGovern over Chisholm in order to get Nixon out. Seeing how successful that kind of thinking was, I have voted my conscience ever since, almost never going for a candidate from either major party.

I’d love to see someone like Bella Abzug back in politics.The country’s first Jewish Congresswoman, she didn’t worry about how she looked or what group might be offended if she opened her mouth. She was a true Feminist who didn’t worry about appearing feminine. She shot from the hip, and got more flack about her hats than about her policies. She once said, “The inside operation of Congress -- the deals, the compromises, the selling out, the co-opting, the unprincipled manipulating, the self-serving career-building -- is a story of such monumental decadence that I believe if people find out about it they will demand an end to it.” If she had had focus groups her candidacy for anything would have been dead on arrival – or she might not even have arrived.

A few years later I supported Arizona State Member of the U.S. House of Representatives Pat Schroeder in her short-lived bid for the Democratic nomination for President. Schroeder couldn’t raise sufficient funds, and apparently didn’t have the fire in the belly necessary to stick it out. She was bright, inspiring, and witty, coining the phrase “The Teflon President” about Ronald Reagan. She also said, “America is man enough to elect a woman President.”

I agree with that. But let’s wait until a real woman runs.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Heat of Summer

July 26, 2007

If you once lived in Fairhope and have relocated to somewhere else -- anywhere else -- you wonder how anyone ever tolerated the hot summers we have here. I remember talking to an old friend in the mountains of Switzerland. He then lived in Rhode Island.

I said, "It was so humid there! I don't think I was ever completely dry until I was 30 years old."

He said, "I remember one night in particular."

"Oh, yes!" said I. "It was even hot at night! People don't believe me when I tell them how hot it was at night."

"One night I couldn't sleep. We had fans, we had ice water, wet towels, showers, everything we could think of. But this night I woke up so hot nothing worked. I went out in the yard, looking for a breeze."

"I did that too! I remember doing that one night!"

To put a pinpoint on it, this night was probably in August of the year 1951. Maybe 1952. The weather service would have records. I've had the above discussion with a number of friends, all roughly of my vintage, and we all describe one sweltering night long after our families were asleep and we were suffering from the unbearable heat. We walked out into our yards, wailed at the moon, or prayed to God for relief, fell into the hammocks or the lawn furniture, yearning for a spot somewhere that was not so still and hot. All the county, to hear us describe it, must have been swarming with lawns full of little kids falling into hammocks or leaning on the tire swings and moaning.

It is now the middle of July. We can expect that kind of weather for weeks to come. It's just that when it gets here, it stays. There is no "cool snap." Summer has come like a warm damp blanket and you are trapped.

At least today nobody suffers. There is air conditioning. Nobody would dream of going outside looking for a gust of breeze, not even an ignorant little kid. We don't go into the natural air except for emergencies when we have to brave those few moments between the air conditioning of the house and the air conditioning of the car. Outdoor living, pictured so elegantly in the catalogues for outdoor furniture and television shows which feature recipes to be cooked on the grill, is not even attempted in the buggy, muggy Deep South. Our porches tend to be glassed in.

The weather forecast suggests lows in the 70's at night. We will probably keep that air conditioner going at night. Because with the humidity, if you don't want to end up out on the lawn in sight of a lot of little phantom moaning little kids, you're going to need conditioned air all the time if you want to sleep.

It's summer in the deep South.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Manhattan 2 Hoboken, Commute Delayed

July 20, 2007

I wonder sometimes what the difference is between living in Fairhope and living in Hoboken -- besides the obvious one of looking across the river at the Empire State Building and looking across the bay and barely being able to discern anything like a skyline.

This reminds me of the time I showed Martin Platt, then Director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, around Fairhope. His first reaction -- and this was in 1990 -- "This town has a case of the cutes," but he later said Fairhope would be livable "If only that were Toronto on the other side of that bay."

But I digress. In Hoboken, it's better than having Toronto across the nearby water. You have the city that never sleeps, the home of heart of the arts and commerce of America, the crown jewel of our country. (Okay, there are some drawbacks to NYC; there are problems. But give me a little leeway here. It's more interesting than Mobile.)

I am boning up on Hoboken. I'm checking out its history on the web. I'm reading the Hoboken blogs. Yesterday I found a very interesting post on a solid blog called Philly2Hoboken that described the ordeal of living through the steam pipe break and trying to get home to Hoboken. It brought it back to me what living in the city is like -- the uncertainty, the uneasiness in crisis, and the general atmosphere when you and your neighbors are drawn together in a way that nobody likes. I lived in New York in the 1960's and 70's and the worst situation we had to deal with was a blackout or two. Who knows what will be next, or how bad it will be?

The writer of Philly2Hoboken wove his way by cab to the ferry, trying to get over the river in the most expedient way possible. His commute is usually little more than ten minutes; on this day it was over two hours. But after enduring the inefficiency of waiting in long lines, looking for a ticket machine that didn't exist, he enjoyed the cool breezes on the ferry, and, although it docked at a place a long way from where he lived, he was able to get a bus to his home with no trouble.

A bus to his home! We don't have things like that in Fairhope or even Mobile. I can shed my car before I leave. I can get a train into and out of the city most days (and have the ferry option in certain emergencies or just when I feel like it).

Reading his blogpost, I could feel his relief at getting home to Hoboken. I can almost feel how I'm going to feel in the same situation.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


July 15, 2007

When does the Fairhope Walmart open? Ah, that is the question.

About ten years ago I was on the Fairhope Historic Preservation Committee. I've mentioned this before on the blog.

Our purpose in those days was to celebrate the history of Fairhope and preserve its look of early 20th Century America. We created a tour of homes, showcasing the cottages that once exemplified Fairhope's early days. We saw change coming, but all the new people professed to love the little bungalows and the charm of the patchwork nature of the streetscapes. Some of us remembered the days when all the streets were not paved and children played in the gulleys in their many spare hours.

We found the preservation of the houses and old buildings themselves a hard sell with the business community of Fairhope, so we vowed to elect a mayor who was sensitive to Fairhope's past and try to get a few of our own members on the city council.

This did come to pass in the mid 1990's. A long-term Comprehensive City Plan was devised with the help of consultants, and a historic preservation ordinance was presented to the mayor who promised to help us get it passed. It was in the Comprehensive Plan that the city would be zoned to encourage neighborhood stores and no "big-box" stores would be built within the city limits. All this was considered a coup for our side, creating a small town of walkers, getting exercise in the fresh air and not impinged upon by the dreaded Wal-Marts and other chains. Ultimately all these good intentions came to naught.

The Historic Preservation Ordinance was cast into the wastebin as soon as the mayor heard a few objections. Cottages were demolished and replaced by very large, very expensive homes, almost all designed by the same local architectural firm, and all looking very much alike -- way too big for the lots on which they sat, very imposing and designed (totally unlike the Fairhope equalizing philosophy) to impress the neighbors and the world at large.

By the time the new Walmart was announced, just outside the city limits, a few people, maybe as many as a hundred, picketed with homemade signs announcing "No Walmart in Fairhope" and a great deal of media coverage accompanied them. Technically they didn't have a leg to stand on since the Walmart was not actually "in" Fairhope. A Sam's Club was on the way up in nearby Loxley, and another Walmart is slated to be built in Robertsdale, which will certainly meet with a warmer reception than the one here.

The most hits I get on this blog these days come from the search words "When does Fairhope Walmart open?" I can report that I don't know exactly when it will open. It hasn't been in the newspapers (or on television) yet. But I've been out to the site to snap the photo above, which shows the building completed and a lot of activity therein.

I am not against this development any more than I am "for" it. I don't much like Walmart, and don't frequent the one in nearby Daphne, but I have no doubt this one will have a lot of traffic and that most locals will be pleased to have it so convenient. It's not one of my causes, as historic preservation was. It's just a fact of life. And it will be a fact of Fairhope life any day now.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Little Theater of Geneva

Reg Bird, Mary Lois Adshead in Forty Carats
July 9, 2007

They're all in boxes now, photos of the many plays I worked on in Geneva back in the 1980s. It started as a lark, a Monday evening activity at the American Women's Club, sitting around a table reading plays. After a few months of this, one of our regulars suggested, "It's time to mount a production."

If memory serves me it was Bob Hinely, a personnel guy at the Du Pont company and longtime amateur actor, who made that suggestion. He said, "Reading plays is fun, but if this is going anywhere, we've got to get a stage and put on a show."

He was right. I had been an actress in New York, studied with Peggy Feury and her mentor Lee Strasberg, and had been in plays since I was a teenager in Fairhope. I had worked backstage a little, but what I really wanted to do was direct -- so all the pieces fell in place to get something started. I had been on the board of Geneva's English Drama Society (GEDS), but when I didn't get re-elected to that I decided to produce American plays with the American Women's Club.

We started with an evening of one-acts, which went off pretty well. Then we held auditions and began planning a full-scale production. The play I chose was the old chestnut The Man Who Came To Dinner. It had a cast of 28 people! This was a way to get ourselves known in the American community of Geneva -- I cast the minister at the American Church as a delivery man, and the Vice President of the American Women's Club as a television newscaster. I updated the script ("Hamilton Fish" became "Prince Andrew," "Gertrude Stein" became "Frank Sinatra," that sort of thing). What I didn't know when doing that was that every single celebrity name dropped in the play became a laugh line in the show -- and there were lots of them. Here we see Dorothy Watkins as the actress charming Keith Kentopp as Whiteside.

Jim Buckner, Dorothy Watkins in The Little Foxes
After that first full production, Geneva glowed with a new energy. I heard people talking about the play at cocktail parties, I had a huge crowd audition for the next play, and the Little Theatre was on its way. We did The Little Foxes and Forty Carats that first season. Our mission was to provide American theatre for "the tired businessman and his wife," emphasizing comedies and including 
Reg Bird, Julian Finn In Tribute
one show for the whole family every year. I was going through my boxes of photos in preparing for the move and there it all lived again -- from Mr. Whiteside's "I may vomit" through the real tears from Reg Bird in his monologue in Tribute and the ebullient participation of Julian Finn, an executive at one of the inter-national orgs that make up Geneva's economy. Some people became directors -- Ronnie Cohen, who organized me and often stage-managed. 

Ronnie later directed a first-rate production of Deathtrap in Geneva. We all had great fun.

The Little Theatre changed lives. Reg moved back to Michigan where he and his family produce summer theatre on Torch Lake. Ronnie has written plays and movie scripts. More than that, we offered something unique in Switzerland, and we had as almost many Swiss in the audience as we had Americans. There is nothing quite like the theatre of a country and how it represents everything about that country. We were an outpost of American culture as well as the best of the American attitude that if-you-want-to-do-it, you-can! We made friends and we made memories.

I hope someone looking up Little Theatre of Geneva finds this blog post and adds a comment. Wherever you are, you remember all that we did. It's one project that will live in my memory, and that I'll always be proud of.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Friends in New Places

July 5, 2007

I've still got one foot in Fairhope, but I've got the big toe of the other in Hoboken. I check Craigslist every day to see what's for rent there -- even though it will be months before I'll have any need to follow up; we all have our little compulsions -- and I go to the official Hoboken website and many of the blogs serving the area to get a feel for the place.

I get the distinct sense that there's a lot of testosterone in Hoboken. There is an air of conflict and aggression about the place, an atmosphere not prevalent in small cities in the South. I've visited a couple of Hoboken blogs and made comments there. I've gotten responses. One of them even posted about my plans to move and that elicited a few advice comments.

The writer of that blog, Jeff Fario, wondered if my attraction to Hoboken was a mistaken association with New Orleans. Hadn't thought of that at all -- it seemed sort of European to me, with that wide main street, and all the shops and neighborhood bakeries (and Catholic churches), which New Orleans does, but more distinctly Italian-American. It had more diversity than Fairhope, and more youth. It had a lot more bars, but my days of hanging out in bars for any period of time are pretty much behind me. (Thank God and AA I survived!)

The shop above, with Xmas tree lights and hanging pots, plus its very American sign above the door, spoke to me of Hoboken. You wouldn't see that around here in Lower Alabama. It had a blatant tackiness that was charming without trying. It didn't look like somebody's idea of Art, but it got my attention. There are lots more picturesque views of Hoboken, more elegant ones and more upscale ones. But here and there are touches of a simple bygone day, like the sign in shape of a hand pointing to "The Clam Broth House," which is no longer there. I hope they leave the sign up forever. (If I were running an Italian restaurant, what would make me think to celebrate clam broth anyway? What's so great about clam broth, in the galaxy of tasty Italian food? Maybe somebody in Hoboken will be able to tell me.)

There's a chance I won't meet any of the guys who write Hoboken blogs. Or that if we do we won't particularly hit it off. I just like knowing they're there, and I like their feisty, macho Hoboken take on things.

And the fact that they're in cyberspace lets me visit my own virtual reality of Hoboken while still living amid the spectacular sunsets and painted pelicans.