The Voice of God

June 9, 2015

What do you think of when I say the word trombonist?

This, I’ll bet:

No, really, take the time to watch it. I’ll wait.

There. Was I right?

Now listen to this:

So, is that what you were expecting?

Now try this. You don’t have to listen to the whole thing, a few moments will suffice:

Do you think you may want to do some stereotype rethinking?

I do understand that we are talking about musicians who make raspberry noises for a living, whose instruments resemble large kazoos and who seem to always be the ones who provide the musical underscore for any comedic scene in which a pratfall occurs.

Still. Think of a world without William Tell, Beethoven’s Fifth or The Ride of the Valkyrie.

And then consider what a young trombonist has to endure to get to the point where he can play those works.

Picture to yourself a student recital.  Here comes a little violinist. Her teacher takes her miniature violin and tunes it quickly, and the precocious infant scrapes out Song of the Wind.  It’s out of tune, and missing a note or two, but owing to the tininess of the instrument you can barely hear it anyway. And she’s just soooo cute, with that tiny violin and all.

Cheers and whistles and waves and waves and waves of applause.

Here comes a young pianist.

He starts strongly on Spinning Song. He gets hung up on the repeat. He starts it again. He forgets what’s going on in his left hand. He starts it again.

The audience, hushed and sympathetic, concentrates on sending him encouraging vibes.

He eventually bashes his way through to the end.

And is rewarded with cheers and congratulatory cries and loud applause as he half ducks, half bows and throws himself blushing into his seat.

Now a little cellist only eight years old. The audience prepares itself for another nursery song and is completely bowled over by a flashy Popper showpiece, immaculately executed.

The crowd erupts and this time it’s genuine. They leap to their feet as one.

And now comes the brand-new trombone student.

Here I must insert a word of explanation for those of you to whom one instrument is much like another: Before you can start to play a brass instrument you have to have shed and completely regrown all eight of your front teeth. This could put you as late as ten or eleven years old before you can even go to the music store to rent your first trombone. If your parents were wise you’ve at least been given piano lessons in the meantime to keep you interested and help you learn to read music, but no amount of piano study is going to help you with the hideous sounds you are going to be making for the first several months of trombone lessons. Contrast this with the fact that there are violins and cellos made to fit two year olds.

So there you are, a giant, large-footed eleven-year-old in the middle of a growth spurt, too old to be cute, too young to command respectful attention, taking the stage directly following a little kid half your size who just earned a standing ovation…

And the first thing your teacher does is to play a B-flat on the piano and ask you to tune.

So you play a B-flat.  Only it doesn’t come out as a B-flat.  It comes out as a tiny, repressed raspberry. The audience titters. The teacher strikes the note again and waits.  You try again.  This time you produce only a loud whoosh of air, and now the audience is really fascinated. Desperately you blow again and a great honk surges out of your bell and someone in the front row gasps audibly and jumps and then everyone laughs.  Some clown starts clapping and then the whole audience applauds, because that’s funny. You feel like you have to bow but you really don’t want to.

Then your teacher plays the introduction.  It is eight measures long.

You play your very first recital piece, Hot Cross Buns.  It too is eight measures long.

When you stop, the audience just sits there.  Surely this mid-to-large-sized child is going to play something more impressive than that?

Silence continues for a second longer than is comfortable, then all at once an understanding murmur whispers around the room and there is a sudden burst of hearty, warm, genuine, supportive applause – the kind adults do with the corners of their mouths turned down in wry sympathy – peppered with admiring chuckles. Better get used to the chuckles, kid. You’re a trombonist now.

To be unfazed by all this requires a comedian’s temperament.  A child with the temperament of, say, an oboist would never survive as a trombonist.

Someone musically important with the first name of Richard is said to have said, “Never look at the trombones, it only encourages them.” (I get my information from memes and in my short survey of them just now I found that opinion is divided. Some memes say Richard Wagner; some memes say Richard Strauss. I’m too lazy to look into it further but will welcome evidence either way in the comment section.)

The trombone is the only orchestral instrument (as opposed to the banjo and the bagpipes which also take their turns here) to be featured in the old “Hey, I got one!” chestnut, “A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the trombone but refrains from doing so,” a quote upon which the world of memes is again divided – it’s either Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde.

If remarks like these are going to hurt your feelings it’s best to find out right away, while you’re young, while there is still time to switch to the viola.

The word ‘brass’ can be a noun (“The trombone is made of brass”) or it can be an adjective (“The trombone is a brass instrument.”)  More unusually it can be a verb, however, and then it means to endure an embarrassing or difficult situation by behaving with apparent confidence and lack of shame.

Coincidence?  I think not.

I would only argue with the word ‘apparent.’ Trombonists are confident. They have to be. They have no shame. There isn’t room for any. In the natural selection of the musical instrument world, the survival of a young trombonist depends more on his personality than on his physical characteristics.  This is why – in contrast to your typical orchestral section of three medium-sized trumpet players sitting bolt upright in space enough for four (to allow room for the egos), or a mild-mannered, spectacled row of four studious but unpretentious horn players (or eight for Wagner)  – a trombone section will generally be a ragged and unpredictable assortment of regular guys, because trombonists come in all shapes and sizes. They can look like bears or mountain men or plumbers or physicists or surfers or serial killers or writers. The only thing that they have in common is that they have a good sense of fun and can take a ribbing.

They will need these assets throughout their orchestral careers for the jokes from non-musicians are only the beginning. Trombonists are not safe even from their own conductors.

Here is an example of this treachery which you may have seen.

At an Educational Children’s Symphony Concert (which you shouldn’t go to anyway; see previous post “How to Make Your Children Love Classical Music”) the conductor will often attempt to woo the young audience by baby talking down at them about the instruments. One by one he will invite each section principal to stand up and play something. (By the way, if you go, you should know that these are not the actual section principals, even though they are sitting in the first seats. The real principals’ contracts allow them to opt out of the children’s concerts. These poor substitute suckers are just here for the danger money.)

The (substitute) concertmaster will play something fast and flashy like a bit of the Tchaikovsky concerto or The Devil’s Trill or the first few bars of the Prelude of the Bach E Major Partita.

The principal cellist will also play from unaccompanied Bach and the bass principal will play The Elephant from Carnival of the Animals.

The children will stare impassively but at least they won’t boo and that’s the main thing.

Then will come the winds.

The flute will play something that sounds like birds twittering and the clarinet will do something entirely forgettable and then the oboe will be called forth.

Here is where things should become amusing, but no.

The conductor will say, “Now children, everyone thinks that the oboe sounds like a duck.”*

There will be a small ripple of sycophantic laughter from the eight parents and two kids who are still paying attention and the conductor will continue, “But the oboe is actually a very beautiful instrument.”

And then the oboist will be invited to play “Gabriel’s Oboe.”

Young moms will sigh and swoon and older moms will wipe away tears.

After that, to cheer everyone up, the trumpet will play a fanfare, probably something by John Williams (interesting) or Aaron Copland (boring), and the horn will play the opening theme from a Mozart Concerto, the tuba will surprise anyone who’s still listening with the melodious Tubby the Tuba tune, and then the conductor will offer a great treat.

Now, children, let’s meet the clowns of the orchestra!”

And the trombonists, the whole section, will be made to stand up and play Lassus Trombone while all the school children take a break from picking their noses and harassing their teachers to point and hoot at three grown men pandering to them with honking glissandos.  There ought to be a law.

So to drive the point home, the guy who plays the actual comic instrument (the oboe, for those of you who lost track) gets to pretend that he plays the Official Instrument of Heaven, while the guy who plays the instrument which has in fact been described as the Voice of God plays for chuckles.**

What, you think I’m kidding about that Voice of God thing?

“In Luther’s translation of the Old Testament, the trombone is an instrument with which the people of God are called together, important news is announced, and the call to battle is made; the sound of trombones accompanies the righteous fight for God. The trombone is the instrument of the priests when they announce a new king and when they march ahead of the Ark of the Covenant. It is the sound that accompanies the sound of the voice of God and symbolizes the power of God and his judgment. Furthermore, the trombone is played to please and praise God, together with a wide variety of other instruments. In Luther’s translation of the New Testament, the trombone is the instrument that God’s companions, the angels, use to gather his elect to announce the Resurrection, the end of times, Judgment Day, and the Second Coming of Christ. When God speaks, his voice sounds like a trombone.”*** ****

There you go.

For my Adventist friends who are careful about your Sabbath listening, I’ve just opened up a whole new world of possibilities for you.

You’re welcome!

See you in a week or so,


* It does sound like a duck; however, the oboe, despite its sounding exactly like a duck, is always played by someone too sensitive to be the butt of even the mildest of jokes. In the one oboe/duck piece of music I can think of, the one from Peter and the Wolf, the duck is portrayed as suspiciously melodious, indeed not duck-like at all.  Have you ever heard a duck sing like that?  I haven’t.  It’s very beautiful, very dignified, a warm and gentle tune with only a couple of grace notes gently hinting at a quack sound.  Then there’s a faster section to show the duck running, you can hear a sort of waddling quality to it but still it’s fluid and chromatic and probably rewarding to play.  I never heard a duck sound like that, and I don’t think Prokofiev ever did either. In fact, I suspect that what we hear today was his second version.  I’ll bet that the first version sounded all kinds of quacky, but that after the first rehearsal there were tears and cries (“I’m not going to play that!  I won’t! You can’t make me! I’ll quit!  I really will!”) and Prokofiev had to go home quickly and whip up something completely unfunny and not at all duck-like to replace it with.

To be fair, there aren’t many comic songs for violin either, as we violinists tend to be mean and humourless and to take ourselves way too seriously.  Not long ago I attended a comedy violin concert by a violinist who was simply hilarious on stage. I met her afterwards and found that she was as mean and cold hearted as the rest of us. When she deliberately hurt my feelings I actually felt better, because the idea of a happy, jolly violinist with a great sense of humour had been making me feel a little bit uneasy and the calculated snubbing put my universe back on track.  I’ve never met a mean trombonist, though.

** Again, this is because if the oboist was made to suffer the laughter of children for making duck noises he would simply dissolve, but not only can the trombone players take it, it actually doesn’t bother them.

*** Knouse, Nola Reed. The Music of the Moravian Church in America. Rochester: U of Rochester, 2008. 172. Print.

**** Full disclosure:  I should probably have mentioned in the beginning that I’m married to a trombonist. That is, a trombonist trapped in the body of a lawyer.  No possibility of a God complex there.

What to do? What to do?

June 4, 2015

Yesterday I saw an article about the traditional eight-hour workday and for some reason I was drawn to read it despite the fact that I haven’t had an eight hour workday in years; depending on how you look at it I’ve had either a twenty-four hour workday or I haven’t worked at all, except for a few violin lessons on the side and a children’s fiddle group that’s really more like a glorified hobby.

Here’s the article:

For twenty seven years, six days a week from pre-dawn till late evening, I was tightly bound by the non negotiable demands of up to four overlapping schedules, all of which were subject to major change without any notice whatsoever.  I felt like a hero for managing it all and did not welcome comments from the Patient Man about how with only a little effort on my part it could easily be streamlined: “Just make sure all the music lessons and sports all start right after school and end at the same time every day, right before dinner. You could get them all on two days a week and then you’d have three days free. Wouldn’t that save you a lot of time? No? I guess you just like driving down there seventeen separate times every day. It seems to me that you’re making yourself an awful lot of extra work but if that’s the way you want to spend your time I guess that’s your problem.”

For as many moms know, to impose your own structure upon the children’s schedules is very stressful and unless you are Iron Mom  it doesn’t work anyway. So you cease to try. That can be an easy decision for someone like myself, who as a youngest child was conditioned from birth to fall in with the plans of others anyway. Nevertheless, this accommodating spirit exacts a price when after twenty-seven straight years of on-call taxi driving and short-order cooking and putting out everyone else’s fires your own organizational mental skills are just … gone.  When after the children abandon you and you suddenly find you have both time available and tasks you need to do, you just can’t put them together. Without the constant prompts of the emergencies of others you find you cannot initiate anything. Those connections in your brain are just not there any more.

And so here I am cast up useless, weak and shivering on the far shore of motherhood, no longer capable of self-direction, with only the last retreating wavelets of the youngest child’s senior year lapping at my toes before I must pull myself to my feet and trudge off into the wasteland of not being needed at all for anything and not being able to think of anything to do on my own once I get there.

And that is why I have been looking for suggestions on how to structure my day. Well, that’s not phrased quite correctly; the Patient Man would very rightly laugh at that one (see above). I have been looking for any suggestions that might enable me to be able to once again create my own structure.  Yes, Patient Man, I did once upon a time have the ability to organize my own day. Briefly, twenty eight years ago.

The article pasted above is written for the office workplace, not the homemaker, but it looked to me as if the ninety minutes at one task followed by twenty minutes of rest, then ninety minutes at another task followed by another twenty minutes of rest, etc., would probably work well for me at home.  I thought I’d give it a go.

For the first day’s schedule I decided not to choose tasks which have their own rhythm anyway such as laundry, cooking or workout videos. Instead I chose a few of those small, one-time tasks which you really want to do but somehow can never seem to fit in between the many important things you have to do (such as laundry, cooking and workout videos).  I glanced around the house and chose a few such tasks at random:


  • Reprint the Albright Family Tree (my fictional people) and tape it on the wall in a secure and level manner, replacing the crooked one that curled inward about six months ago. It has to be printed in six separate sheets and spliced together, so it’s not as simple as it sounds.
  • Go to Lowes and buy herbs and tomatoes and plant them in the garden I have already prepared.
  • Put away the plastic bins of cookie cutters that have been stacked behind the kitchen table since February.  Also wash everything that was in the open top bin, because I think a raccoon came into the house and rummaged around in there.
  • Make a start in the dumpster that until lately was our basement.  This will have to be a timed task rather than a itemized task because there is no place to begin and no end in sight and really no way to measure progress.
  • Finish the ironing and put away the ironing board.
  • Write a short sixteen measure fiddle thing I promised someone about ten weeks ago.

And here is my proposed schedule in bold, annotated in italics with what really happened:

Starting at 11:00 because I’m too excited to wait until tomorrow. This schedule doesn’t look like so much! I am ready with plenty of energy and determination and with so much coffee in my system that I have to clench my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. I shouldn’t reward myself with the fun tasks right away, so I think I’d better start with the cookie bins and the ironing. If I finish early I’ll straighten the laundry room too.

11:00 to 12:30 – work period (cookie bins and ironing)

11:11 – Okay, that was embarrassing.  The cookie bin project took eleven minutes, including replacing all the plastic bags and sterilizing anything the raccoon might have touched.  It conveniently ended right at 11:11 so I could make my wish (yes, I’m a thirteen-year-old at heart) which is “Health and Happiness, Wealth and Success, and Love, for all my children.*” Honesty compels me to remind everyone that the bins have been sitting on the floor for FOUR MONTHS.  It took ELEVEN MINUTES to clean them, reorganized them and put them away.

Now the ironing.

It’s summer, so I’m putting the school button downs to the bottom of the pile and starting with the odd stuff.  First an apron inherited from my mother, a vintage piece in a colour of green that has not existed since the 1970s. The ‘vintage’ imitations that are becoming popular now are not even close.  The apron is printed in a rather loud pattern of skunks and posies and the shape is somewhere between that of a maternity smock and very large scrubs. Odd to think how oversized and matronly I once thought this apron was. Actually it is very chic and retro and I love wearing it.

Next a tiny white apron of battenburg lace, the kind of perky little thing that springs to mind when you hear the word “apron.” It was left here by Young Maria Callas, who wore it as part of her costume when she sang Marzelline in Fidelio last  year.  I remember she had to wrap it around her waist twice so the tails of the sash wouldn’t drag on the floor.  I hold it up and look at it.  I’m not sure it would even fit around my neck.  Ugh.  I starch it thoroughly and hang it next to the skunk smock.  Isn’t that just a metaphor for my life: feeling so good about myself and then something perky comes and stands next to me and after all I’m just a big green skunk smock. Upon consideration I take the little apron straight upstairs and hang it in YMC’s closet.

Uh-oh, next a favourite striped shirt belonging to the Patient Man, a shirt which very recently I swore my eyes out that “I have NOT seen, and why don’t you check your closet again?” Perhaps that one had better go straight upstairs too, and hide in the back of the closet between two shirts PM never wears.

Oh no.  Here’s my very favourite skirt ever.  I’m not sure it fits anymore.  Maybe I’d better add the exercise videos back in after all.

Two dress shirts. Why? Dress shirts are supposed to go to the cleaners.

A casual tartan button down of Yale Man’s, so new it’s still crackly. Marked Wrinkle-Resistant, but apparently not when it has been buried under a stack of laundry since Christmas which is when I think he left it here. I probably owe it to him to at least run the iron over it quickly.

It’s getting warm in the laundry room.  I should have done this yesterday when the high temp was only 45.  I open the screen door, but quietly, not in the way I deliberately bang it sometimes when the neighbors are outside with their tiny yappy dog, which I do that so the dog will bark and annoy them. Then I wait till they get it to stop and I bang it again.  This is justified because they are the kind of jerks who leave the dog outside when they are not home, which is most of the time, which means that I have to be very careful not to bang my doors or even go into the backyard because any noise at all activates the dog for the rest of the afternoon. I’m the kind of jerk who only cares about this because it annoys me, not because I feel sorry for the dog (I’m pretty sure he’s enjoying himself out there) and I like them to have to suffer their own damn dog’s yapping when they’re trying to relax on their day off.

Ah.  12:29. Time to turn off the iron.  Five shirts, two aprons and a skirt.  I did not get nearly as much done as I had thought I would; ironically this makes me feel better after the embarrassingly short eleven minutes it took me to deal with the cookie bins.


12:30 to 1:00 – rest period (30 minutes because it covers lunch)


At 12:31 on the dot one of the adult children, one of those who moved away and left me adrift and structureless, calls for a lengthy phone consultation which lasts until 12:43.  Bien sûr. Children do not outgrow their “mom-is-sitting-down” sensors.


1:00 to 2:30 – work period (buy garden plants and plant them in prepared beds)


1:02  – I catch the Pokerface Joker heading upstairs to take a break from his SAT math review.  I decide to drag him  back so I can do SAT vocab flashcards with him for fifteen minutes because I love words and I enjoy playing with the flashcards.

Then the remote adult child calls again for some further discussion.

1:29 – I’m able to think about heading to Home Depot for the plants.

I go there and buy plants, seeds, and stakes.

2:15 – I get home. The Patient Man is home early.  Oh, that’s not going to disrupt anything at all.

I carry the plants to the backyard.

Ugh.  The garden bed isn’t quite as prepared as I thought it was.

Totally forget about the scheduled 2:30 to 2:50 rest period.


Extract rototiller from garage and get it started with Patient Man’s help. Extract the Pokerface Joker from his video game break and cause him to rototill the garden boxes.

Plant garden consisting of:

  • 3 Roma tomatoes plant
  • 1 Beefsteak tomato plant
  • 40 Walla Walla onion sets
  • 3 basil plants
  • 2 rows of carrots

Reflect that this is actually quite a lot of work for a very small amount of food which I could easily buy fully formed as needed at the farmers’ market for very little money – and which, considering the vagaries of weather, travel, insects, and my own forgetfulness, may or may not ever come to fruition.

Skipped the 2:30 break so decide to go directly to a 15 minute rest period an hour late, at 3:30.

What are the odds the Patient Man will catch me resting, even though he is downstairs in the garage and I’m being very, very quiet?

Yup, 48 seconds into first game of Bejeweled Blitz, Patient Man strides purposefully into room and looks pointedly at the computer screen and says, “Oh.  I guess I didn’t realize we had stopped working.”


2:50 to 4:20 – (work in basement)


I think about going down there after my belated, disrupted, totally spoiled, cruelly truncated break. But if I go down there and start sorting things, Patient Man will want to know why I’ve changed plans and gone to work on something else when I had been right in the middle of working in the yard.  I would show him the 90-20 minute cycle plan, which clearly schedules both jobs, but he would either not get it or pretend to not get it – although he’s the one who always complains I never have a plan.

I go back to the backyard although I’m really finished there. I walk around doing nothing.


4:20 to 4:40 is scheduled for a rest period.

Not falling for that one this time.

Instead, I go directly to:

4:40 to 6:10 – work period (family tree and music writing)

This was earmarked for getting the family tree ready to reprint.  I scheduled it late in the day because I don’t know how to change the ink in my printer and the Patient Man would be home to do it for me.

But now Patient Man is setting out the sprinkler system for my garden, which I really do appreciate, so I don’t think I’ll bring up the ink this evening.

I’m also supposed to write the sixteen measure thing during this time, but what if I get caught wasting time writing more fiddle music when I already have over two hundred pieces of music that all sound exactly the same?   

I sit down in the porch swing to admire the sprinkler system.

6:10 to 6:20 – a beverage.

Yes.  I’ll have a beverage.

6:20 – dinner prep and serve

Sure.  I can’t imagine anyone will object to this.

Alrighty then, time to call it a day.

I think this schedule thing is really going to bring new meaning to my life.

See you soon,


*Love goes last, not because it’s the least important, but because the words flow best in this order. Also I know that second comma shouldn’t be there but that’s where I pause.

The Letter Z (A-to-Z Challenge)

May 1, 2015

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Toward the end of the alphabet I manipulated some of the letters pretty excessively so today I thought I’d better pull myself together and end on an honest and upstanding note. To this end I Googled “list of authors beginning with the letter Z.”

And here I found Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.


Here I could kill two birds with one stone.  The Book Thief became popular just as my youngest was aging out of the target audience and so we missed it.  I was always sorry about that so I was delighted that today I had an excuse to buy it and spend the time to read it.  I took out my phone and went right over to Amazon and searched “The Book Thief Kindle edition.”  First offer was a special movie edition with video clips included and that’s a little fancy for me.  Then a Sparknotes type thing, and next several unrelated books with the word “Thief” in the title.  Finally halfway down the page there was a book plainly labelled “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” for $2.99.  I bought it with one-click.

Then I had to charge my kindle because it was dead. While I waited I paced around doing housework in a desultory and slipshod way because I was so excited about reading a wonderful new book.  Eventually the Kindle burst into light and I seized it and settled myself and opened the book to the title page, which read “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Review.”


I think that was a little deceptive, to put in huge letters on the cover “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” and make “a review” in tiny print, but that’s really beside the point.  That was really my own fault for trying to read small print on my phone. That’s not why I’m walking around the house breathing heavily through my nose and slamming the laundry baskets around.

It’s because when I went back to Amazon to return the review for a refund and leave a nasty one-star review, I looked at the “The Book Thief Kindle edition” search results list again saw that it was absolutely clotted with these “summaries,” these trashy little cheat-sheets that you run out and buy the night before the test if you were too lazy to read the book.

I am not talking about study guides, those useful enrichment exercises which are designed to enhance a student’s understanding of a book he has already read through thought questions, vocab review and character studies.  I am talking about summaries, which are designed to enable the ‘reader’ to fake a one page book report or eke out a B minus on a test if they had been too busy playing video games or texting or watching whole seasons of stuff on Netflix or painting their nails or whatever to bother with reading something marvelous which had been written just for them, which would not only have entertained them but made them into a better person.

Isn’t anybody paying attention to what’s going on out there?  Does not anyone see a problem?  Do you not see the irony? Fine.  I’ll spell it out for you.

This is a story** about a girl who copes with the hell of Nazi Germany by painstakingly and with difficulty, with her adopted father’s help, learning to read at a later than usual age, and then over a period of years risks imprisonment or death to one by one acquire by stealth a library of books that you could count on your digits with some toes left over.  A magnificent writer has taken years of his life to craft this plot into an irresistibly readable story for young people and someone has the effrontery to write and sell a pamphlet* the only purpose of which is to enable these young people to get by with not bothering to read it.  It makes me so angry I could spit.

Now, this is not Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  This is not Paradise Lost or even War and Peace.  This book is written at the fourth grade reading level; it is aimed at young people in grades seven through twelve. This is a book that I want to read because I see fifteen-year olds talking about it in hushed, rhapsodic whispers so as not to spoil the ending for their friends who haven’t read it yet. It is not only readable, it is magical.  As I discovered between 4 pm and midnight yesterday, it is a book that cannot be put down, even to make dinner.

This is why I cannot be a classroom teacher.

If I gave my students the privilege of reading a book such as this and found out that they had declined to do so and had instead read a summary, I would not only give them a Zero – Zip, Zilch*** – for that assignment, I would also take away all the credit for all the work they had done on anything else and then throw them out of my classroom.  Then the school board would want to have a word with me, and I’d resign. I can feel myself getting overheated already, so enough of this.****

I know you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

This is beyond that.  This is like try to stuff hundred dollar bills into someone’s pockets and they yank them out and tear them up and throw them on the ground. This is like giving your kid a Porsche for his sixteenth birthday and him rolling his eyes in disgust and asking if he couldn’t just ride his old tricycle instead. This is like the dwarves sitting in a circle convinced that they are eating stable litter, refusing to see the glory of New Narnia all around them.

What on earth is going on here?

Why are adults writing these summaries?  Why is Amazon – of all ironies – selling them? There should be an analogy for that too but I’m just too angry to think of one.

I’m truly sorry to end the A-to-Z Challenge on this note.

I’ve got a busy weekend, but I hope I’ll see some of you on Monday for the reflection post,



*It’s almost beside the point that the person who wrote this review could not manage to make it through a single sentence without changing tenses.  I don’t mean from one sentence to the next; I mean, changing tenses within the sentence. Practically every sentence. Look it up and read a sample if you don’t believe me.

**Yes, I understand that it is fiction.

***There are some honest Zs for you.

***I gave myself twenty-four hours and I hope I’ve been able to tone it down some.  Lately I read an article by someone who was so angry at people who stupidly insist on putting two spaces instead of just one after a period that she was practically choking on her own spit.  It seemed excessive and, I thought, a little tasteless, and I was hoping to avoid the same kind of thing here, but I’m afraid I may have crossed the same line.

The Letter Y (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 29, 2015

The Mystery of the Yellow Room, by Gaston Leroux


I grabbed this tattered book from a twenty-five cent sale box decades ago, a beat up, water damaged hardback bound in a once-lurid shade of red cloth now faded to a yellowish pink. On the cover below the title is a large question mark superimposed on a drawing of a wild-haired and somber-eyed man who broods, chin in hand, above the name of the author, Gaston Leroux, whom you may recognize as the author of The Phantom of the Opera. The Mystery of the Yellow Room, published in 1907, is one of the most famous locked room mysteries ever written. It concerns a young lady, Mathilde Stangerson, who is found beaten nearly to death inside a locked room in the house of her father, Professor Stangerson.

Does anyone else recognize the name Stangerson?  You don’t hear it that much. Have you read Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet? In A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886, Joseph Stangerson was found murdered – stabbed – in a hotel room, with a pillbox containing two pills on the floor beside him and the word RACHE written on the wall above his body.  It is revealed later that he was an American who had done dark deeds which needed revenging.

Isn’t that odd, don’t you think, that this uncommon name would feature in two famous mystery stories?  Especially in Yellow Room, because Stangerson does not seem to be a French name.  This has bothered me a bit over the years. With two hours this morning scheduled for the Letter Y, I thought I would take the opportunity to look into the matter.

I googled “Stangerson.”

First up was a Wiki article.  Here it is:

A quote:

“Mathilde Stangerson, the 30-something daughter of the castle’s owner, Professor Joseph Stangerson, was found near-critically battered in a room adjacent to his laboratory on the castle grounds, with the door still locked from the inside.”

Hey!  Look!  Not only do the two characters share a surname, they also share a first name!  Both are named “Joseph Stangerson!”

This I had not remembered.  This was even better than I had thought.

It could not be coincidence.  There must be something here that everyone knows about but me. I started poking around in news articles and biographies and book reviews. Nothing. Then I became obvious and simply googled: “Did Gaston Leroux pay tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by using the name Joseph Stangerson?”

I found a site that offered a document that purported to talk about this very thing, but when I downloaded it, it only wanted me to take advantage of special offers, and I think it gave my computer a virus.

The I looked at another suggested website:

Here, this tidbit was offered:

Then, in 1907, [Gaston Leroux] used his admiration for Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to develop a young detective, Joseph Rouletabille, who solved a seemingly impossible crime committed in a locked room. The book was called The Mystery of the Yellow Room.

Hmmmm, so it is understood that Leroux admired Conan Doyle.  But they didn’t mention the names!  How many millions of people have read both of these books?  Surely I am not the only person who has noticed the unlikely coincidence of two Joseph Stangersons?  Why can’t I find anyone else talking about it?

Then I begin to doubt.

I google “Joseph Stangerson” again and scroll through the entries.  There is Wiki again, with Professor Joseph Stangerson featured in Yellow Room. All the other articles, pages and pages’ worth, talk about Study in Scarlet.

I google “Stangerson Mystery of the Yellow Room.”

Plenty of entries, but everyone but Wiki calls him simply “Monsieur Stangerson” or “Professor Stangerson.” I had not noticed this at first glance.

I check Wiki again, because at this point I have about two dozen tabs open and my eyes are starting to cross.

Yep, the Wiki article still clearly says:  “Mathilde Stangerson, the 30-something daughter of the castle’s owner, Professor Joseph Stangerson, was found near-critically battered in a room adjacent to his laboratory on the castle grounds, with the door still locked from the inside.”  I didn’t imagine it.

I open my own copy of Yellow Room to check.  The book is 307 pages long but by now I’m obsessed.  I find a well-lit place, shove my glasses up on my head and start scanning for Joseph Stangerson.**

There are plenty of Stangersons, both Monsieur and Mademoiselle, but no Joseph Stangersons.

There are plenty of Josephs, but they are all Joseph Rouletabille, the young reporter.

As far as I can tell, Professor Stangerson of Yellow Room doesn’t even have a first name.

I begin to see what might have happened here.

Is it possible that the person who wrote the Wiki article had so internalized Study in Scarlet that when it came time to list the Yellow Room cast of characters it was easy to accidentally supply Professor Stangerson with the first name of the bad guy from Scarlet?  Especially when Yellow Room is so thoroughly sprinkled with Josephs that all belong to M. Rouletabille?

Is it possible that I caught a Wiki error?*

I don’t know, but I’m out of time this morning.

I really hope I came up with the correct solution, which is that:  A) Gaston Leroux paid tribute to Conan Doyle by borrowing a surname from a story that he admired, and B) the person who wrote the Wiki article made a mistake.

Please, if anyone reading this knows more about this mystery, please comment below.

See you tomorrow for Letter Z,


*Is it possible that I have totally wasted three hours on something no one cares about but me?

**I know you’re reading this, Patient Man.  Please keep in mind that I can scan a 300 page book in thirty minutes.

The Letter X (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 28, 2015

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A poem which is sometimes informally called “Xanadu” even if the real name is “Kubla Khan” was such an obvious and irresistible choice for the Letter X, even if it would mean a little research because I really did not know much about either poem or poet. I had read Kubla Khan a few times over the years because it was in the sixth grade homeschool curriculum we used for some of the kids. At the time it had struck me as an odd choice for inclusion in a middle school literature anthology,* because I was pretty sure I had heard that Coleridge had written it in the initial moments after waking from an opium induced dream.

Due to the constraints of time and other extenuating circumstances I’ll explain below** I am simply going to quote from Wiki:

“Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment” /ˌkʊblə ˈkɑːn/ is a poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, completed in 1797 and published in 1816. According to Coleridge’s Preface to “Kubla Khan”, the poem was composed one night after he experienced an opium-influenced dream after reading a work describing Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China Kublai Khan.[1] Upon waking, he set about writing lines of poetry that came to him from the dream until he was interrupted by a person from Porlock. The poem could not be completed according to its original 200–300 line plan as the interruption caused him to forget the lines. He left it unpublished and kept it for private readings for his friends until 1816 when, at the prompting of Lord Byron, it was published.”

Here let me mention that I’ve never tried opium or anything even remotely similar.

Still, when I’m writing I get to a phase of consciousness where I’m leaning way back in my chair gazing unfocused through barely open eyes between the ghostly twin outlines of my own nose (the left outline the more substantive) at the small screen which has expanded to completely fill my vision, the rows of fuzzy black letters I can’t really distinguish from this far back swimming in the pixels but because I’ve just written them I’m able to recognize them by outline.  My body is completely relaxed, my wrists are resting on the sharp edge of the desk, all of weight of my arms and hands concentrated right there on that delicate joint between wrist and palm but in this state it doesn’t seem to matter.  My arms are slack and all my joints so relaxed that a startling noise might cause nerves to be pinched or injury done, fingers are fully extended and fluttering almost flaccidly over the keys with the hypnotic clatter of a whirling ratchet toy and the words are pouring out in a stream as easy and effortless as the twirling of a hula hoop you’ve finally gotten going the just right speed at just the right place so that it could continue forever with only the slightest motion from your body. Exquisite and dazzling ideas are forming and congealing with the iridescent beauty of the voice of a coloratura spinning in the high ceiling of an opera house and time becomes meaningless.***

That is me stone cold sober at nine o’clock on a weekday morning, swilling coffee and crunching on dry granola, sunlight coming in at the window, the washer and dryer running, and only about two hours allotted to select, research, introduce, dissect and sew back up the Letter of the Day.

And this brings us to the Person from Porlock.  Again, from Wiki:

The Person from Porlock was an unwelcome visitor to Samuel Taylor Coleridge during his composition of the poem Kubla Khanin 1797. Coleridge claimed to have perceived the entire course of the poem in a dream (possibly an opium-induced haze), but was interrupted by this visitor from Porlock while in the process of writing it. Kubla Khan, only 54 lines long, was never completed. Thus “Person from Porlock”, “Man from Porlock”, or just “Porlock” are literary allusions to unwanted intruders who disrupt inspired creativity.

These days the Person from Porlock can call you on the phone as well as bang on your front door.


Now, none of you are actually going to believe this, but I swear it happened in just this way.

Leaning back in my chair, gazing through unfocused eyes…blah blah blah…I had just typed the words “…bang on your front door” when there came the distinct sound of my own front door opening quietly. All my loose jointed limbs snapped to attention, pinching my nerves, and my heavy-lidded eyes flew open and my heart froze between beats and I only just stopped myself from leaping up and fleeing.  Then the door shut and there came the sound of feet from the front entry.  I leapt up and fled.

Our house is an amalgamation of a regular medium sized house and a smaller, attached in law apartment which we threw together into a single dwelling a few years ago.  The first owner had been a handyman with grand ideas of what he was going to do with the the property but before these plans could be realized his wife left him and he had to sell it and we bought it.  Some of his ideas had included elaborate backyard patio and pool construction and he had prepared by installing lots of access from the house to this doomed paradise.  The nice thing about this is that when you are home alone you are never more than a few feet away from escape hatch.****  So from the moment I heard the stealthy tread of an intruder to the moment I found myself standing blinking and terrified in the middle of the backyard in my socks and bathrobe***** only about one and a half seconds had elapsed.  The only problem was that I had not grabbed a phone on the way out and so I could not dial 911.

As it turned out this was a good thing. Standing shocked and shivering in the wet crabgrass, recovering slowly from Xanadu, I remembered that today is Tuesday, and Tuesday morning is when the cleaners come.******

So this morning the Person from Porlock came in and cleaned my house for me, which it would be churlish of me to complain about, but that is the end of anything creative I can accomplish for today.*******

At least I’ll be uncreative in a sparkling clean environment.

And as a bonus, now I’ve got a new term for the person who interrupts me!

See you tomorrow for Letter Y,



*especially for homeschoolers, right?

**I had roughed everything else up to the line of x’s but had left filling in this paragraph to the end.

***I should apologize here. This gush of fancy was necessary to this essay, but I promise you I’ll never embarrass you with anything like it again.

****Where there are more ways to get out there are also more ways to get in, but I try not to think about that.

*****Do not judge.  It’s late April, but it’s still COLD here.  Why should I not wear a bathrobe over my clothes instead of turning up the heat?

******Not every Tuesday, though, so it wasn’t entirely silly of me to have forgotten.

*******Before the Cleaners from Porlock burst in I had discovered with great delight this line in the poem: “As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing” and I immediately thought of the production company of the David Letterman show, which I believe was named “World Wide Pants.”  I was going to look into this and be very amusing indeed, but now it’s all gone, sorry.

The Letter W (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 28, 2015

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Well, I’ve been waiting all month to talk about The Wind in the Willows, and when I woke up to a warm sun, a kind blue sky and a scented breeze it seemed like Fate was blessing me.

Then I worked on something else for awhile, and when it was time for The Wind in the Willows the sky had turned steely and the tiny leaves were shivering in the cold, cold air.  It is just not fair.

I was all set to talk about Mole and Ratty’s lovely spring and summer and now I don’t want to.

No reason you should suffer too, though.  Here is a nice excerpt from Chapter One.  Maybe when spring finally gets here I’ll have the heart to come back and say something about it.


THE Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang springcleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

‘This is fine!’ he said to himself. ‘This is better than whitewashing!’ The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.

‘Hold up!’ said an elderly rabbit at the gap. ‘Sixpence for the privilege of passing by the private road!’ He was bowled over in an instant by the impatient and contemptuous Mole, who trotted along the side of the hedge chaffing the other rabbits as they peeped hurriedly from their holes to see what the row was about. ‘Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!’ he remarked jeeringly, and was gone before they could think of a thoroughly satisfactory reply. Then they all started grumbling at each other. ‘How stupid you are! Why didn’t you tell him-’ ‘Well, why didn’t you say-’ ‘You might have reminded him-’ and so on, in the usual way; but, of course, it was then much too late, as is always the case.

It all seemed too good to be true. Hither and thither through the meadows he rambled busily, along the hedgerows, across the copses, finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding, leaves thrusting- everything happy, and progressive, and occupied. And instead of having an uneasy conscience pricking him and whispering ‘whitewash!’ he somehow could only feel how jolly it was to be the only idle dog among all these busy citizens. After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.

Grahame, Kenneth, and Ernest H. Shepard. The Wind in the Willows. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1960. Print.

See you tomorrow for Letter X,


The Letter V (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 28, 2015

A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle

Note:  As Provence is in the region of Vauclaus, and as the Peter Mayles lived in a house with a Vineyard, I feel that there are sufficient Letter V’s associated with this selection.

When I was a child I always eagerly awaited the arrival of the Reader’s Digest.  As soon as it arrived I would seize it and scan the right hand column of the table of contents, hoping to see humorist Will Stanton’s name there. I loved him. I believe – and I would like to look into this further but I don’t have time right now – that he was the one who wrote a story about an episode involving an American diner and a French waiter.

If I remember correctly this was basically a conversation recounted in the first person by the fictitious American, in which he and the waiter try desperately to communicate in basic French phrases.  Of course each phrase is most slap-stickishly misunderstood and even more hilariously misspelled using similar sounding but totally inappropriate English words.  I particularly remember one line where the waiter bows obsequiously and murmurs “Tray of Beans!”  Now, thanks to my many years of careful study of the French phrases employed by Hercule Poirot, I understand that this was obviously a joke on “tres bien” and so I can easily see why it was funny. I don’t know why I thought that it was funny then as I had not yet met Monsieur Poirot, but it simply slayed me. Desperate to share the joke I carried the magazine around and inflicted this story on each person in my family individually, making them drop everything and listen while I read it out loud, and every time I got to “Tray of Beans!” I would first break into titters and then into guffaws and then I would fall helplessly onto the floor laughing uncontrollably, unattractively, ungracefully and all by myself, because no one else thought it was funny at all.*

I am hopelessly enamored of the French language and it is the cruelest of ironies that Fate gifted me with a congenital inability to pronounce correctly even the simplest of French words.  I think it’s partly physiological — I’m pretty sure that to produce the tones intrinsic to the language requires a sinus structure that is not present in my head, and perhaps a smaller and more flexible tongue, and also a much stronger and more coordinated musculature of the lower face — and also partly psychological — I’m just way too self-conscious to even try making those beautiful, sonorous Gallic noises, much as I swoon at the sound of other people making them.  In my second year of college I was given a French song in my voice lesson and my tentative honks and infantile mews caused my voice teacher, the kindest man you can imagine, who was accepting to a fault and never laughed at anyone, first to go all wild-eyed and twitchy behind his beard and then to break down entirely. He was so sorry, afraid he had hurt my feelings, but I totally understood.  Languages in general are not my strong point, but French in particular is just not going to happen.

Still, I fantasize about living in France (perhaps as a mime) and here I found A Year in Provence to be very encouraging. On a casual first read it seemed to that Mr. Mayle and his wife plunged into living in France in exactly the way I would be likely to do if left unsupervised (that is, recklessly, on a whim, with no forethought whatsoever) and that it was only once they had arrived and settled in and he was casting about for something to keep himself busy that he conceived the bright idea to write a hilarious book about his experiences, kind of as a hobby, a little project on the side, something to fill the long afternoons.**

On second read, though, it is obvious even to me that A Year in Provence was certainly not only in the works, perhaps already under contract, but that it was no doubt the whole reason for the move in the first place and that framing it as a spontaneously plunging into a new experience was carefully planned as a major theme of the first few chapters, in which although Mr. Mayle does not know the language well and both misunderstands and mispronounces his way through the first few months, he is able nonetheless able to negotiate the activities of daily living in French.  Here’s the clue: after a while as you read you realize that these activities – visiting markets, gossiping with the neighbors, being available all day for the builders, making excursions to neighboring towns, seeking out the best places for lunch, finding out all about truffle hunting –  could only be the daily activities of a man who has the flexible schedule of a writer and the assurance that when he assembles all these experiences into manuscript form he will certainly be compensated most lucratively.  That’s alright, that’s the way sensible people do things.  Spontaneous activities run most smoothly on a roadbed of painstaking preparation, as I have been reminded often by the Patient Man (but not in those words, which he would think were not only an incomprehensible but a downright silly way of saying it).***

The book lures you in, though, seduces you with the idea that maybe you could really just up stakes and move to France yourself.  Is it any wonder that everyone envies a writer?  I wonder what else I could do remotely via computer from a farmhouse in the French countryside.  Medical data transcription?  Email fraud?  A pyramid scheme? Cold call insurance sales?  Tech support – no, probably not tech support.  One more reason to get cracking on the next Great American Novel, I guess. It could be a step to the Great American Living in France Novel.

See you tomorrow for Letter W,


*None of them speak French either.

**Actually I’m probably the only reader who ever interpreted it that way.  As I said, I do not have the gifts of forethought and planning and I so desperately wish that things could work out nicely without them that I’m always on the lookout for success stories of this type that I can share with the Patient Man and this probably coloured my initial reading.

***It’s amazing how many years it took me to figure out, for instance, that the very simple picnics being unpacked so casually on the lawn (oh, I’m sorry, the Lawn) at Tanglewood were the result of much planning, shopping, cooking, baking, garnishing, coordinating, accessorizing, packing and presenting.  All my picnics seemed to consist mostly of paper plates and plastic Walmart bags escaping to fly around annoying the old money.  I still don’t have the knack.  I mean, I can shop, plan, cook, bake, garnish, coordinate, accessorize and pack, but when it comes time to present I get nervous and drop things and then off fly the paper plates again.

The Letter U (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 26, 2015

U stands for Undecided

Throughout this challenge books have been practically flinging themselves out of the bookcase shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!” and more than once I have read through two or three candidates for a particular letter before coming to a decision and then re shelving the runners up, telling them that while I loved them and thought they were special and all that they weren’t quite what was wanted at this particular time.

Then along came letter U, not that unusual of a letter, more common than, say, X or Z* or even Q, which I had no trouble at all with.  Part of the Great Book Purge of this past winter included sorting the surviving books into bookcases by genre and then alphabetizing them by author.  So I went into the library (location of fiction and selected science fiction) and squatted down by the third shelf from the bottom on the far right toward the end of the T’s, to see what I could find.

There was one single book.  Brazil, by John Updike.  Sorry, but I don’t love John Updike.

I scanned the shelves for authors’ first names.

Umberto Eco.  I have three of his books, but I’m afraid they barely escaped the Great Book Purge because I just find them to be so much work.  I finally fought my way through The Name of the Rose a few years ago but The Island of the Day Before totally baffled me and I haven’t found the energy to tackle Baudolino.  I’m not sure why I even have Baudolino.  I must be subconsciously trying to pretend that I’m more literate than I really am.

To titles, then.

Under the Tuscan Sun.  Enjoyed it, but not really that much there to talk about.

So I started thinking about characters. Umberto suggested Humbert Humbert…Lolita? No.

I went around to the other rooms.  Between the children’s bookcases I discovered no fewer than three copies of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.  Unfortunately, none of us liked Earthsea at all.  The only reason we have three copies is because it was on three kids’ reading lists at different times and we could never find any of the copies we already owned so we thought we’d better grab another one just to be on the safe side.

There was only one thing for it.  I took a trip to the Goodwill.

Bent over sideways and leaning in closely to peer at the books I sidled along the shelves.  First I checked for authors. No one I didn’t already have, and here I’d just like to mention that there were no fewer than eight Umberto Eco books in pristine condition (ha! it’s not just me!) and at least a dozen Earthseas of the edition sold by purveyors of required summer reading, so apparently we aren’t the only ones who don’t feel the need to keep those around the house either.

Then I crept around again, this time checking the titles.

When I spied not one but TWO graceful capital letter U’s in metallic gold script on the well-broken spine of a fat pink paperback I thought I had hit the jackpot for sure. I leaned closer and squinted. The cursive font was so fancy as to be practically unreadable but I believe the title was Ursula’s Undoing.  I took a look at the cover and sneaked a peek inside but I’m sorry to report that the enormity of the bosoms and the luridity of the cover art were NOT entirely justified artistically,** at least not sufficiently for this challenge.

Remembering how I had been able to justify to myself talking about The Three Musketeers for the Letter S, I expanded my search parameters to include any title or author in which the letter U was involved in any capacity.

Dune caught my eye, and with fully one quarter of the letters in its title being the letter U it more than qualified under the new rules but I somehow wasn’t feeling science fiction-y today.

Cider House Rules was there (two internally placed U’s) and this gave me pause but only because I didn’t remember seeing it at home and I know I have it.

Of course there were shelves’ and shelves’ worth of the ubiquitous Jude Deveraux.  I’ve never looked inside a Jude Deveraux book and today was no exception.

Then I saw Snobs by Julian Fellowes.  I really liked another book of his I bought a few weeks ago that I can’t remember the title of just now. I bought Snobs, but to read later.

Then I gave up on Letter U and just started grabbing things for fun.

A biography of Louisa May Alcott.

Joys and Sorrows by Pablo Casals which I thought Yale Man might like.

State of the Union by Douglas Kennedy which I’d never heard of but it had an interesting picture on the cover. It looked like it could easily go either way*** but as the books at Goodwill are just a dollar each there’s not much harm done if something you buy turns out to be a stinker.  And, a bonus, it could qualify for Letter U if nothing else turned up.

An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor which I also might own already but I think not so I put it in the cart.

Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home because sometimes I want to not-quite-mindlessly kill two hours but I’m not really in the mood to watch a movie.

The Jewish Book of Why, because I hadn’t seen it before and it looked interesting.

The Headmaster’s Wife  by Thomas Christopher Greene  because I’m a sucker for any book cover featuring brick buildings, fall foliage and a distant, solitary figure half hidden in the mist.

Then I saw it.  Down on the bottom shelf where they put the tall, heavy textbooks.  Convin & Peltason’s Understanding the Constitution.


This is a book that will be good for me.  It will be character building and ego-bolstering and educational. Unfortunately, there is no way I’m going to be able read it by this evening so, for today anyway, here endeth the Letter U.

One of these days I’ll let you know what I have learned about the Constitution.

See you Monday for Letter V,


*Although I’m kicking myself around the block for not saving Gatsby for letter Z, as it is dedicated “To Zelda.” That would have been astute and clever and entirely acceptable.

**Here, as most of you will have noticed, I modify a line delivered by one of Mr. Blackadder’s aging actors. I’m not sure I’m actually required to mention that, but one time I made the mistake of reading the comments on a news article in which one commentator used an iconic movie quote and another commentator immediately pounced on him, saying that he shouldn’t pretend he made it up when he was actually stealing it from a movie.  The first guy said he wasn’t pretending since it was obvious that everyone would recognize it.  The second guy said he was going to report him for plagiarism.  This, of course, is why no one should ever get involved in comment sections.  Anyway, now I’m nervous that if I don’t attribute the Blackadder spoof someone will report me.  Or worse, they’ll think I think I made it up.  When I was five years old I thought I had made up a nice little song on the piano, and it turned out to be a Minuet by J.S. Bach.  I’m still embarrassed by that one.

***It is bound in textured craft paper, which I find is often a bad sign.

The Letter T (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 24, 2015

Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck

Four years of summer college music tours throughout Europe and Asia infected me with a disgusting sense of superiority as well as with a great lust for travel, and not for blue-shirted-violin-toting-group-tour travel either.  No, I was going to be the solitary traveler, the dusty, backpack shouldering, guidebook studying, local food trying, hostel staying, many languages speaking, local customs understanding, itinerary eschewing, tourist trap avoiding, apt quote spouting, flinty-eyed and seasoned traveler. I was going to be the Sea Rat.*

A look at my first paycheck disabused me of that one.**  So I turned to travel books instead. One of the first was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley.

I first read Travels With Charley sitting up in bed on a rainy Saturday morning in Salem, Oregon, just a few weeks into married life.  I fell in love with it partly because of John Steinbeck and partly because it described the only kind of travel that now seemed to be within my grasp. Of course but a few months earlier I had scoffed at domestic road tripping, however, now I was willing to admit that if it was good enough for John Steinbeck it might be good enough for me.  Travels With Charley was published in 1962, two years before I was born, and so described an America already past, but it made the (American) open highway seem such a romantic place, a place where someday surely I too might be able to brood thoughtfully and pronounce poetically as well.

John Steinbeck took this ten thousand mile drive around America at a time when he was ill; although he was only in his late fifties he was in the last years of his life and at a stage when all men wax philosophical.  Traveling only in the company of his big blue poodle he pushes northward into New England and then wends westward to Pacific Northwest, south through California and then homeward via the South, camping in his truck or staying in auto courts and talking casually with those he meets in campsites and restaurants and places of business. He finds much to wax about, seeming almost to rejoice in his resignation to bad health and approaching old age, in the privilege of his hard-earned experience and wealth and in the end-of-life perspective and the wisdom acquired over a lifetime of traveling and working and writing and thinking.

Over and over he reflexively bemoans change and then recants, saying that it is not his world anymore and that it is not for him to judge the values of the new generation.  He is able to resign himself to this everywhere except for his hometown of Salinas, California where he finds a population increased twenty-fold, landmarks disfigured or obliterated, sprawl and ugliness everywhere, his old friends elderly or dead.  Of this he writes:

I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California.  It should be the easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world.  But I find it not one thing but many — one printed over another until the whole thing blurs.  What it is is warped with memory of what it was and that with what happened there to me, the whole bundle wracked until objectiveness is nigh impossible. This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow, twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules.  They signaled their coming with the high, sweet jangle of hame bells. This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil.  Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions.  That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights.  The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.

When I read Travels With Charley in the late eighties I did not take particular note of the publication date.  When I read it again this morning I thought to do the math and discovered that my second reading was almost exactly twice as far into Steinbeck’s future world as my first reading had been, an interesting coincidence.*** When I discovered further that I am now in the same decade of life as was Steinbeck when he took his journey I began to consider changes that had occurred in my own world during the equivalent span of years.

In my college town, the lookout point where couples used to go for a little quiet time is now a gated community of trophy homes.  Pastures have given way to subdivisions, lawns and playing fields to student housing and to vast parking lots gleaming with the cars none of us needed only three decades ago.  The straightforward four-way stops that were perfectly adequate in the mid eighties have been expanded into enormous, over complicated interchanges fringed with thickets of signage – arrows and yield signs and reflector posts and blinking lights and warnings to enter here or not to enter there – and, even more confusing, there are entire major roads that weren’t there at all before and they don’t look particularly new.  It even appears that a medium sized brook has been entirely rerouted. This is unsettling, and I don’t like it, and this is only my college town, a place to which I have only a minor emotional tie.

I don’t think you could pay me enough to go back to my idyllic childhood home, a four-bedroom ranch house we built with our own hands in a grassy mountain valley above St. Helena, California on a one-acre lot bounded with deer fencing, with a small carefully tended orchard (where, nose in a book, I watered the fruit trees with a garden hose according to a timer which hung on a string around my neck), two raised strawberry beds, a one-row vineyard of Concord grapes, a high woodpile full of lizards, a garden which provided most of what we ate and a lushly green front lawn studded with young white birches.  The blue California sky arched overhead from the hills behind us to the woods across the street, the shadows of hawks sliced silently across the rows of beans and the air was warm and dry and wholesome with good earth.

I do not want to know what this place looks like today.  As for the field across from the elementary school where one early June morning during parent/teacher conferences I wandered giddy with sweet relief at the excellent report I knew my parents were getting from my sixth grade teacher – an untamed field thick with deep tangles of every kind of wildflower in purple, pink and gold, humming with bumblebees and busy with dragonflies and peppered with sprays of baby grasshoppers, dewdrops still trapped sparkling in the serrated folds of the wild oats  – if that delectable meadow is a parking lot now I don’t want to know about it.

Hundreds of miles further south there is a place where antique postcards show a valley of farmland running up to green foothills laid against snow dusted grey mountain ranges.  Now foul incrustations of houses creep scablike up the foothills, the valley is paved and cluttered over and laced by grimy ropes of freeways glittering like scaly tentacles of an alien ship. The fact that the mountains are still clear and pine scented almost makes the ruination of the valley harder to accept.

When I write my own travel book I will not visit these places.  But it’s funny, rereading Travels With Charley makes me itch for a domestic road trip much more than for a trip abroad done either luxuriously or aging-hippie-style.  I must be getting old. Perhaps it’s time to get out the Rand McNally and lay in a supply of notebooks and start planning my route.****

See you tomorrow for Letter U,*****


*Kenneth Grahame’s Sea Rat, from Wind in the Willows.

**The Patient Man was in law school and I was slightly underemployed.

***I hope that makes sense, in a twisted ‘Back to the Future’ kind of way.

****It would be an interesting trip and I hope we would both come back alive. I say ‘we’ because it doesn’t seem nice to go off and leave the Patient Man, but he does not love to travel.  If we do it cheaply he bemoans the discomfort.  If we splurge a bit he bemoans the expense.  Above all else he hates to ride in the car – the speed limits and the long hours and the gross stupidity of all the other drivers create for him a private hell which he relentlessly insists I must inhabit with him.  Perhaps he can be Katz to my Bryson?

*****Yes, I know I’m a day behind.  I’m afraid I can’t do anything about it.

The Letter S (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 22, 2015

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas* **


The Three Musketeers is one of my five beloved paperbacks, the soft and cuddly ones I mentioned before that are as comforting as old shoes and as welcoming as old friends.  I think I read once that the real genius of Alexandre Dumas is his gift of dialogue, and if I didn’t read that somewhere I should have because to me that is the whole charm of The Three Musketeers.  Open your copy and find a place where Athos, Porthos and Aramis are bickering, possibly with one or more of their servants involved as well, and then D’Artagnan shows up and joins in.  They can go on for pages.  None of the lines needs the speaker to be identified because there is never a question of who is speaking.  I love this, and because natural dialogue has never been my forte several years ago I set myself to write from memory amusing or important conversations that happened around me.

Two recent events reminded me of that exercise.

Event the First:  This past weekend on the closing night of Young Maria Callas’ opera scenes show, Little Miss Sunshine and I took her and a new friend of hers out for a celebratory dinner. This new friend asked if we had any amusing and hopefully embarrassing childhood stories about Young Maria Callas, and since we were feeling pretty jolly by that point I took out my phone and opened one of these conversations I had saved.  I read it to him, using the various appropriate voices, and after that our table became very hilarious indeed.  It occurred to me then that it might be fun to post that conversation here, later on, after A-to-Z is finished, because it sheds light on the personalities of both Young Maria Callas and the Pokerface Joker whom most of my readers have never met.

Event the Second:  This morning I realized guiltily that although in the beginning of the Challenge I was very faithful about visiting five blogs daily and leaving thoughtful comments, I have lately gotten out of that habit.  I decided to do this before writing today’s entry because I knew if I left it until afterwards I would very likely run out of time and not do it.  So before I even got out of bed I poked through the list of participants, clicked on an appealing title, and discovered to my utter delight someone whose entire A-to-Z theme is the recounting of faithfully recorded conversations and these conversations are not only natural and lifelike but also very, very funny indeed.***

Is it not amazing how when you really want to do something you can find all sorts of signs indicating that you really should go ahead and do that thing right now without delay.

So out the window went poor Alexander McCall Smith,**** who was to have been the subject for the  Letter S, and in came Alexandre Dumas (who at least has an S at the end of his name, and plus he shares a first name with Alexander McCall Smith whose last name does begin with S) because he can serve as a springboard to the brilliant use of dialogue and from there to this dialogue exercise of my own!

And so now without further ado here is the conversation:


The Pokerface Joker and I are lying on his bed. I am reading to him. Young Maria Callas enters the room, stomping, and towers over us, frowning.

Young Maria Callas: There aren’t any band-aids.

Me: Do you need a band-aid?

Young Maria Callas: No. But I might soon, and there wouldn’t be any. PJ, did you use all the band-aids again?

Pokerface Joker: No.

YMC: Yes, you did. You took them all and stuck them all over yourself. There isn’t even one left.

PJ: No, I didn’t.

YMC: Yes, you did. When you weren’t even hurt. You just waste them. You do it all the time.

PJ: No, I don’t.

YMC: Yes, you do.

PJ: Well, I didn’t this time.

YMC: Yes, you did. You always do that.

PJ: No, you always do that.

YMC: No, you always do that.

PJ: No, you always do that.

YMC: No, you always…

Me: Stop it! Stop it!

YMC: (ostentatiously turning her head away from the Pokerface Joker) Mom, we need more band-aids. PJ took them all and stuck them all over himself when he wasn’t even hurt just like he always does.

PJ: No, I didn’t

YMC: Mom, we need more band-aids.

Me:  Alright, Young Maria Callas, I will buy more band-aids tomorrow. I cannot do it tonight. Do you need a band-aid now?

YMC: (reluctantly) No. But I might. And then there wouldn’t BE any, because PJ took them all and stuck them all over himself when he wasn’t even hurt. Just like he always does.

Me: Tomorrow I will buy some more. And PJ won’t do that anymore.

PJ: She’s the one who does it.

YMC: Fine.

PJ: Not me.

YMC: Shut up! Just shut up!

Me: Everyone! Stop it! I will buy band-aids! No one will waste them anymore! Okay? Can I read now?

YMC stares down at us with folded arms while I try very hard not to laugh. My mouth twitches. I can’t help it. She begins to retreat furiously. As she reaches the door the Pokerface Joker mutters.

PJ: She’s the one who does it.

I can’t help it. I snort.

Young Maria Callas slams the door hideously. I ignore this and begin to read aloud. Young Maria Callas opens her own door across the hall and immediately there is a terrible crash followed by horrific shrieking. The Pokerface Joker and I lie very still. We are very afraid.

The shrieking stops.

Young Maria Callas’ door opens and closes.

The Pokerface Joker’s door opens.

Young Maria Callas enters and glares at us. She seems to sort of float across the floor toward us on a wave of fury.

YMC: In case you care, even though you didn’t bother to ask, I’m okay. Except I stubbed my toe.

My mouth is twitching and I can’t seem to breathe in or out. I don’t dare blink. I speak very evenly.

Me: I’m sorry, Sweetie. Are you alright?

And then the Pokerface Joker speaks very sweetly.

PJ: Do you need a band-aid?


Alright.  Thanks for your patience.  Tomorrow we will talk about an actual book, I promise!

See you tomorrow for Letter T,


*I did mention earlier that I’m a champion rationalizer and manipulator of rules and that the constraints of the alphabet would be as nothing to me in the way of limiting what I might choose to feature for any particular letter.

**Probably here ‘S’ should also stand for Self-Serving Segue.


****Actually nothing would please me more than to spend the day immersed in the eighteen or so Alexander McCall Smith books I’ve got lying around but unfortunately I’ve got one or two things to do this afternoon, so the signs and omens directing me to switch over to something I’d already written were very welcome indeed.  Just to clarify, I don’t actually believe in signs and omens.  Unless of course they tell me something I want to believe anyway.