Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Clump of Hair in the Bible Book, and other Confessions from a Reading Addict

My eccentricities mount with each passing year, and I’ve just realized I can add another one to my list. It seems that I’ve started feeling sorry for books. Of course they're on the way out, especially the long-past-popular ones that never get checked out of the library. When was the last time you read a library book that still had a date stamp card inside it?  My point exactly.  These books have feelings too, you know. They can't help it that they aren't Kindles. Heck, they aren't even paperbacks, poor things.  

This new little pet cause of mine started a few years ago, and I blame Verlyn Klinkenborg. If you don’t know who that is, really you should look him up, because he’s a writer for the New York Times who produces occasional essays that are as perfect as a miniature cupcake with sprinkles, just enough and just right, every time. It all began with his essay Life, Love and the Pleasures of Literature in Barsetshire.

In it, he discusses the novels of Angela Thirkell, who wrote 29 books between 1933 and 1961, all set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire. It’s the same location where Trollope set his books, but, like my bud Verlyn, I like Thirkell better then Trollope, and quite a lot. Here is the line from his essay that really got me going,  “If you cut only the scenes that take place during tea, half of Thirkell would be missing."

Nuff said, Verlyn; you had me at “tea,” I thought, and hastily requested the first book in the series, High Rising, published in 1933. I dug in as soon as it arrived. Is there anything better for a book addict than stumbling upon a series? It doesn’t matter how fast you gobble up a story, because the characters are waiting patiently for you in the very next book, just as soon as you can get to them. 

I loved these books.  Here's one reason why:  Klinkenborg said in his essay that half the scenes take place during tea, but I’d tack on another 25% for scenes describing who is taking which guest to the train station, and who is picking up the guests who are arriving from the city for the weekend. The main railroad line at Winter Overcotes serves Shearing Junction, Winter Underclose, and Worsted. Nearby are Lambton, Fleece, Skeynes, and Eiderdown, naturally. As much as I love the train station conversations, I’m also awfully partial to the sherry party scenes as well, and when the gin-soaked lesbians, Hampton and Bent, throw a cocktail party, then I’m really in heaven. By now I suppose it’s clear that just about nothing happens in these novels. It’s also clear, I imagine, that I very much prefer it that way.  

There were some challenges in getting through the series, though. It took the library forever to dig up the books and get them to my branch, and sometimes I’d get so impatient for one to arrive that I’d skip ahead and then double back. Sometimes my online request would be met with this message: "The only copy available is located in off-site storage. The wait time is approximately six weeks.” Fine, I’d think, find it. I need to see what Hampton and Bent are up to in 1939, and I’m happy to have my tax dollars used for a such a noble purpose.

And while I was very happy --  an expanse of books I loved stretched out before me, just waiting to be read – there were some drawbacks. On the plus side, the books smelled great when I opened them – like Pepsodent and Lucky Strikes and unvarnished, irony-free optimism.  But as much as I enjoyed opening their crackly spines and letting them get their first breaths of fresh air in 50 years, I had to admit that these books looked awful. I wondered what had happened to them in that so-called “off-site storage,” poor things.

They’d been recovered in that bumpy laminate peculiar to libraries, often repeatedly. I imagine that the bestsellers got all the nice, peppy colors. Thirkell’s recoverings tended toward what might have been beige many years ago, and was now just … ugly. 

People noticed. During the course of Project Thirkell, I was visiting a friend overnight, and she peered intently at my nighttime reading.  “What is that?” she said, squinting suspiciously. And then, with a little more skepticism than I hope was warranted, she asked, “Is that the Bible?” I examined the small, liver-colored volume in my hands and summoned up as much indignation as I could manage at ten p.m. “It happens to be Pomfret Towers, and they’re just about to have a sherry party, so Good. Night.”

But of course the slur stuck, and even I began to refer to the ratty old tomes as Bible Books. Mary Katherine and Olivia were especially horrified when I opened one volume and accidentally released a big clump of hair, circa 1960, I’d guess, which was the last time the book had been checked out, according to the antique pocket and stamped card glued in its front. Olivia still asks me if I’ve found hair in any books lately. I refuse to answer, naturally.

As must happen for all addicts, the sad day finally arrived when I’d reached the bottom of my stash. I started reading bestsellers, and things my book club recommended, books that seemed to feature a lot of colorful, slender women photographed from the neck down, I assume in the attempt to make them more Universal. Also, there were a lot of photographs of the backs of heads. I missed my liver-spotted reading material, even if it drew stares in the nicer sort of coffee shops.

And then, ta da, a new source.  I read Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage, from the Columbia Journalism Review. I was enthralled by Justin Peters' essay on Brazilian Adventure, written by Ian Fleming’s older brother, Peter. In April 1932, he replied to an advertisement in the personal columns of The Times: “Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June to explore rivers central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Percy Fawcett; abundant game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS; highest references expected and given.” The expedition, organized by Richard Churchyard, traveled to São Paulo, then overland to the rivers Araguaia and Tapirapé, heading towards the likely last-known position of the Fawcett expedition. Fleming’s book was published by Scribner’s in 1934.

I couldn’t get to the computer fast enough and, hurrah, the library had one copy, and it was even in the land of the living, not the dreaded off-site storage. When it arrived, it was everything I’d hoped for – funny and witty and full of great self-deprecatory British touches. There were no sherry parties, but I imagined Peter Fleming visiting Barsetshire and being very well received. Lord and Lady Pomfret might have him to tea, or perhaps Mrs. Brandon, and he would make quite an impression. Perhaps, deliciously, there could be a discussion of which train would be best for his return to London, and who should drive him to the station.

There’s no Brazilian Adventure series, but Fleming did write other books, and I’ve requested them.  I’m hoping they’ll smell of cigars and brandy, but I’ll be satisfied if they just carry the faint aroma of tea.

Finally, may I make a plea for the continued circulation of Mrs. Thirkell's series? Request one today, any one, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. The clump of hair is long gone.  And imagine how happy that book will be to have been checked out twice in one decade.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Worm Entrepreneurs of Harriet Avenue

I’ve written a note to myself, in among the usual long list of deadlines and commitments, that says, simply, “Quarters.” It's a reminder to myself that now that the weather seems to be truly springlike, I need to stockpile quarters in my car so that I will be ready for every lemonade stand I see.  It’s not that I am such a lover of lemonade, and, truth be told, most of the stuff I buy is tepid and watery. It’s just that I promised my mother.

In the years before she died, when she used to make trips to see me, she made me promise this:  never pass a lemonade stand without stopping. I always stop, even when I’m on my way to a meeting and I'm pretty sure that I'm about to get lost. I stop when I drank six ice teas at lunch and am racing home to the bathroom. I stop even when the children look highly strung, or their mother overly pert.

Then, yesterday, when the temperature was hovering near seventy and the leaves on the newly planted cherry tree in the front yard seemed to be growing in fast forward, right before my eyes, I saw the best stand ever.

Only it wasn’t for lemonade. It was for worms.

I was, as always, racing from one thing to another. I’d been staffing the afterschool writing help desk at Southwest High School, and then dashing home to pick up Mary Katherine and her friend Maggie, to head back across town for their rehearsal. I’d already made my five-minute warning call home, because we were running tight on time, and I had no idea what the traffic would be like on 94.

I was coasting down the Harriet hill, seconds from home, when I saw three little girls and an indulgent grownup, seated around a sign proclaiming, “Addie’s Worm Store. 5 cents.” The girls were hopping and squirming and generally doing their best wriggly worm imitations.

So of course I stopped.  I talked over the sale with them. I told them that one time, after a freak spring storm, Emma and Mary Katherine had at first tried to sell, and then give away, bags of hail.  In a land so short on irony, they had no takers.

But worms, I said, worms are better.  They agreed.

They assured me that all the worms, which were arrayed in tins that were set on – what else? – doilies, were 100% organic. I told them I wanted five extra-wriggly ones and I handed over my quarter. They picked out the best candidates, sprinkled some dirt in a snack bag, and handed over my purchase.

Yes, Mary Katherine was a little surprised when, before she got in the car, I handed her a bag and told her to free the worms right under that increasingly leafy cherry tree, where they could do the most good.  And yes, Eli, her director, called her cell phone when we were already 10 minutes late and still crawling along University Avenue.

Of course she told him that she was late because her mother had stopped to buy worms.  Being a true theater kid, he didn’t skip a beat. “Just get here as soon as you can because we need to run through the opening number,” he said.   

And we did.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

And the Rest of the Day to You

It wasn’t until twenty minutes into Zumba that I realized today was St. Patrick’s Day.  I noticed how many green shirts there were in class and had to cogitate on that for a few moments (to be fair, I was doing a tricky salsa step at the same time) before the light dawned.

I asked my mother, wherever she is, to forgive me.

It was not a holiday to be taken lightly in my house. I can still remember my mother giving me a shamrock-covered handkerchief, one of her best, to take with me to school on St. Patrick’s Day. “You can always tell a lady by her handkerchief,” she would say. She had a whole drawerful of handkerchiefs, all beautifully pressed and smelling of Chanel No. 5 and the sweet, pre-smoked tobacco of her Chesterfields. I don’t think I ever saw her blow her nose in anything but a Kleenex, but that was beside the point. To her, the epitome of ladylike behavior was the holiday hanky, the one that showed you were not only Irish, but classy.

I can also remember her teaching me little bits of Irish lore that she thought I could share at school. She had a misinformed idea of what happened at Buder Elementary, but I appreciated the effort. The hayseeds and crackers with whom I spent my grade school years were more interested in pinching people who weren’t wearing green than in hearing a rendition of “Harrigan” that my mother had taught me that morning,  “H-A-double R-I, G-A-N you see, it’s a name that no shame ever has been connected with, Harrigan, that’s me.”

Of even less usefulness was her insistence that I learn the proper way to greet someone on St. Patrick’s Day:  I should say “Top o’ the mornin’ to you,” and the person was to reply, “And the rest o’ the day to you.” She suggested that I try this ethnic charm on my teacher, who year-to-year, was a harried and sour child-hater just slightly above the cracker class herself, one who gave wide berth and the occasional fish-eye to a neurotic little twerp like me.

I never did of the things that my mother suggested.

Instead, I came home in the afternoon, hanky still pressed, song unsung, greeting undelivered. I suppose we ate corned beef and cabbage, yuck, but I don’t really remember that. My Aunt Fran was said to serve only green food on St. Patrick’s Day, including mashed potatoes. My mother thought this was disgusting, as bad as a cake with blue frosting. She trotted out the yellow food coloring to mix in her watery, Miracle Whip-y potato salad, but there was no need to get carried away. I thought green food sounded wonderful and exotic, but I never got to see it for myself.

The most enthusiastic Irish celebrant I ever knew was my godmother, Thelma Kelley (“k-e-l-l-E-y!” she would spell, showing what sort of Kelley she was, and separating her from the déclassé "y-only" crowd). There were two St. Patrick’s Day Parades in St. Louis, the product of a feud between the “true Irish” Hibernian society, whose parade was always on March 17, and the sellouts from the suburbs, who held a big parade on whatever Saturday fell before the holiday. There was a great deal of finger pointing between the two groups, and dark mutterings about IRA connections, but Thelma rose above the fray. She attended both parades, arriving early with a lawn chair, and, in later years, her walker.

As for me, I’m not fond of crowds, so I usually passed on the parade action. I think beer tastes like liquid Wonder Bread, and I’d be happy to drink whiskey instead, but I’d need to do it five feet from a place where I could lie down quietly as soon as I did. So, the holiday has waned in importance to me, especially since the values I love most in the Irish – garrulousness, eccentricity, the ability to laugh at oneself, and a willingness to look people in the eye – are all in somewhat short supply where I'm living now.
Still, I thought about Thelma today, and my mother, and the song. I sent out a silent “Top o’ the mornin’ to you” to both of them. And I swear, just under the salsa music, I could hear them wishing the rest of the day to me, too.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


The two things my mother always wanted to have were a suntan and a nervous breakdown. First, about the tan: she prized that peanut-buttery epidermis that, before tanning beds, required a great deal of leisure and money to acquire. “Look at that tan,” she would sigh as a woman strolled past her, and if the woman in question also had straight, blonde hair (hers was black and curly), she’d be even more envious. To Mom, a tan meant that you had the abundant leisure time to focus exclusively on yourself and your beauty, and that, clearly, was a mark of a superior sort of person.

Every year on the last day of school, she would tell me, “Why don’t you get a tan this summer?” Um, no. The only place in my unairconditioned St. Louis home that would have been more depressing than the basement (where the snowy black and white television got moved every June 1), would have the weed-choked backyard, where I’d be lying on a beach towel, gazing at the chain link fence and listening to “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” on my AM transistor radio.

And as to the other item:  ah, how her voice would lilt when she described how someone she knew had suffered “a complete nervous breakdown.” (No one ever, in her telling, suffered a partial one.) For an Irish woman who adored all talk of illness, tragedy and misery, the CNB was the tops.

And now, according to the Wall Street Journal, they’re making a comeback, just like cooking your own food and saving money. In the article, “Time for a Good Old-Fashioned Nervous Breakdown?” Melinda Beck says that the term was never an official diagnosis, just a popular euphemism and convenient catch-all for the inability to function due to psychological stress. Clearly, she never met Katherine Clifford Kendrick, for whom “nerves” were a highly prized diagnosis. Whether it was her dipsomaniacal, narcissistic sister Loretto or my food-addled and raging father, she had an elegant explanation: nerves. In that one word, she managed to convey the idea that the behavior in question wasn’t really the fault of the jackass who’d done it.  They were suffering, she implied, from something marvelously exotic.

Bullshit, I thought, just about as soon as I could form a thought. But no one asked me, and even the slightest display of emotion in our household would be met with the hysterical offer to “rush you to the hospital” for your oncoming CNB. I never got rushed, so I wasn’t sure what exactly would have happened when we got there. As poor as we were, I’m sure I would have been sent home. Aunt Loretto had enough money to fund several stays in the local asylum, and my father was allowed to drop into bed for a week or so whenever his n-word got too bad, but I never tested my ability to drop out, and, like my mother, I’ve continued to solider on, while secretly, sometimes, wishing I could collapse.

Mom's schedule was always too busy to be able to pull off a CNB. Instead, she favored the havoc that being “high strung” could wreak on the human body. She would often proudly tell of the time when she had picked a big rut into the top of her skull. This discussion was always accompanied by a discussion of how the rut was as big as her thumb, with a wave of the thumb in question. (Health-related matters in my family always had a measurement, usually food-related. Tumors as big as grapefruits and black eyes as big as plums are two descriptions that I still, sadly, remember.) As soon as she’d displayed the thumb, she’d sit back in her chair and discuss how the woman at the beauty parlor had been so worried when she’d found that rut.  “And I told her,” my victim-mother would say with a little flourish, “it’s there because of … nerves.” That rut was one of her proudest accomplishments, the tangible proof that the world had mistreated her, and she was mistreating herself.

There was another thing she was proud of, and that was the year she got a tan. She spoke of how she’d scrupulously “sunbathed” every day, religiously applied baby oil and looked, well -- wonderful. Then my father lost his job that September, and she went to work as a secretary in an office. For the rest of her life, she looked, as she always complained, “as if I’d been dipped in a flour barrel.”

And me? No suntan. I fidget too much. And no CNB, either.  Like my mother, I can’t seem to find a way to fit it into my schedule. Not that the thought doesn’t seem tempting. Fourteen years ago, my mother died in my arms, on my front lawn, after mentioning that she wasn’t feeling so hot. I came back from the emergency room to a three-year-old, a nine-month old and a strong desire to crawl under the covers, Jack Kendrick style. Instead, I changed diapers, got up at two a.m. for bottles (Mary Katherine still wasn’t sleeping through the night), and answered Emma’s endless loop of questions about why she had watched her grandmother fall down, why no one let her save grandma because she could have done it, why, why, why, why.  

I confessed to my best friend, who was single and childless, that I was ready for a nice CNB.  “I’ve done that already,” she said, “and it really doesn’t make things any better. Plus, you get pillow prints on your cheek after a while. Just move on,” she said wisely. “Make lunch. Make the bed.” And so I did. And so I do.