Dove Love

I wish, please, to be buried with a copy of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Or cremated, one.

First, let me tell you about my husband.

I used to get mad at my husband for saying that he really liked a book because there was a part in it in which the protagonist was riding a bike. (My husband likes bikes.) Or the setting was Connecticut. (He was born in Connecticut.) “Those are not reasons to like a book!” I’d say to him. “Those are reasons you like a book when you’re five! When you’re five, you like Ramona because her mother makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and you say, hey, my mother makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches too! Therefore, I like this book! No! That’s not okay! One should appreciate a book for its language; its finesse with emotional subtleties; the depth and joy of characterization, not because you’re familiar with the soundtrack that the main character has elected to play while she’s driving overnight to Tallahassee.”

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familiar

But here I am, hoist on my own petard. I love Lonesome Dove for all the wrong reasons.

 

A word about style, if I may.

It’s not that I believe that McMurty is the stylist of our generation—though he’s sufficient for us more or less discerning types. Stephen King’s stuff provides an obvious comparison. Many readers of Stephen King make much of his facility with the language.  I haven’t read much King because I don’t care for horror due to I find plenty of horror all around me every day, especially since apparently half the people in my country like a racist blowhard for president. But we’re talking about language here. Even the book review published by the Paper of Record thinks enough of King’s skills that they assign him major important books for their book review: he reviewed Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for them. That was a Big Book and everyone knew it was going to be a Big Book; why would they have given it to someone who, in their estimation, was a genre millionaire and nothing else? Explain that to me like I’m a first grader. (That’s a line from the movie Philadephia for which Tom Hanks won an Oscar for portraying a gay lawyer with Aids.)

 

 

In other words, while I haven’t read Stephen King, I have evidence that he can write just fine, much like Larry McMurtry. Straight ahead. Not too self-conscious; not a lot of flourish; just plain and transparent.

The fact is that neither Stephen King nor Larry McMurtry have a style that stuns. Their writing is confident and clear and they can make it do what they want it to do, but neither of them seem really to want to make it do more than create the atmosphere in which to lodge their story. It’s pretty clear: to them, the story’s the thing. As that’s true for a whole lot of readers as well, they’ve done just fine by themselves.

There are many readers, however, who put style above the price of rubies. They wish for language that hovers just so; that vibrates; that demands a reread or a sigh or a moment of stillness. Beauty is subjective of course: some readers want language that smells like gardenias; for others, clean and sharp does the trick. Full-blown is not better than spare. It just depends on what you like.

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very precious

Certainly, I love a writer who can make magic with words. Also, I like to think that I’m an adequately discriminating consumer. I’ve read sorta widely and kinda deeply. I especially appreciate a writer for whom the language is like a rose-scented bubble bath or their own blood or the gold ring at the circus or manna or the first glimpse of their freshly born child. Or what have you.

But back to me. I have read many of the great stylists: Proust and Mann and Eliot and Canetti and James and Roth and the Russians and Woolf and Sebald and McCarthy and Saunders. As well as the writers who should be as famous but missed the publicity boat, such as Laxness and Chamoiseau and Farrell and Barker and Marai. I owe each of those authors a debt of gratitude for giving the small speck of Erica, this one person in the midst of the multitudes, a richer life. Thanks, ya’ll.

So why then, I wonder, does Lonesome Dove—a good novel, but not perhaps a great one– float my boat so?

Let us examine the reasons.

a. Cowboys

I will never sing lullabies to cattle, while in the distance, the mountains loom blue. Despite the fact that cowboying is dangerous, likely boring, probably fly-specked, often lonely, and certainly exhausting, and that it probably makes your body old before its time, I seem unable to rid myself of certain romantic magical thinking vis a vis it.

Now, I’m not generally naïve and I don’t suffer fools gladly, especially myownself. But there’s something about the prairie and the horse that calls to me, not that I’m not petrified of horses which I am because they’re so big. I’m enamored enough of what I realize is simply romance, that I wrote a novel around the Wild West. I wrote about blood-soaked clothing and rape and fire and riding astride and scalpings and torture. It fed my soul in some odd way. The cowboy’s life’s as far from my suburban middle-class middle-aged lady’s life as it’s possible to be, and yet I recognize in myself, the same sort of coarseness that I’d do well by, were I to live less cushily than I do at present. I think I could live with less. I have done it. I think maybe I could do it again.

This past summer, I walked 84 miles over farmland and it was the free-est I’ve ever felt. And part of that freedom was that my body, with which I have always had some serious theoretical differences vis a vis aesthetics, did me right. It got me where I was headed. It was strong. And the strength and freedom I felt is what I imagine it might feel like if for one moment, despite the dust and the soreness and the boring food and the bickering and the pure-T discomfort of the trail, some cowboy looked up and sniffed the air and felt pretty damn good for a second. That’s what she’d be feeling. Strong and free.

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2. Bemused Pride in One’s Own Wittiness

I’ve skated along, so far, with a certain bullish jokiness, an ironic cheer, a surface jolliness pentimentoed over dark currents of cynicism. It’s not that I wish I weren’t cynical. I like it about myself that I know that the world is a cesspool. I’d hate to be a Pollyanna, pretending to myself that everything’s hunky dory while the Great Barrier Reef dies and wealth equals power.

pollyanna-club

On the other hand, I do appreciate the chin up and get on with it point of view. And I find life is easier if you can shrug a shoulder or maybe roll your eyes in the company of an equally exhausted fellow human.

There are a couple of sins—amongst the multitudes to which I am happy to  own up—a couple of sins that were described with me in mind. On Passover, the service reminds us not to rush too quickly to the after-meal entertainment. On Yom Kippur, one of the sins for which we ask forgiveness is “inappropriate levity.”

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Here Lies Erica: Inappropriately Flippant, Inappropriately Early

Things could be worse. I could be Melania Trump. As it is, I get by with a little help from my snark.  And I like anyone who can tell a joke with a straight face. I come by this appreciation honestly. My dad has certainly told his share of dad jokes, but often he uses that nice raised eye-brow head-shake, popularly known as “seriously?” as a response to the world’s offerings. My mom loves it when she tells a joke, which is cute, but mainly she’s an excellent laugher. She gets it. It’s part of her liberality of mind. I feel for the literal minded when they’re faced with sarcasm; this is not my mom’s problem. She gets sarcasm. It’s an excellent quality in anyone and lives could be saved, were it more common.

As per Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove: I feel at one with the writer and the novel in terms of sense of humor. In my opinion, he has that wonderful outlook for which I long ago coined the term, “cheerful survival.”

Witness Deets: cowboy; ex-slave; empathetic; noble; uniformed always in ridiculous, crazy-quilted pants because why not. Really, why not?

This right here (if I may) may indeed be the key to the reason Lonesome Dove is so universally beloved and why, perhaps, it won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s because McMurtry spares us neither gore nor heartbreak while simultaneously grabbing every single possibility to make us laugh. It’s a stunning combo, is what it is.

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the Pulitzer Prize, above

Life sucks, and then you die, sure, but between the abundance of cruelty and avarice and want, there are moments of generosity and hilarity. This seems to be McMurtry’s message, not that I think he’s really trying to send a message.

 

3. Story Time

These days, novels are often like poems. Short or long, they’re family stories about the great worlds inside every family and they’re condensed in terms of type of character; they’re contained by a minimalist aesthetic stylistically and a sort of mid-century modern idea of sleekness; they’re effete in terms of what the author wants of you in terms of emotion (one single intense heartbeat will do, thanks very much; more than that and things get sloppy).  They require only one conflict and then turn it inside out. Which is fine.

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very modern

 

But that’s not true with Lonesome Dove. It’s all there, there. Man against every damn thing the world has to throw at us, is what it’s about. McMurtry’s joy in the story he’s concocted is palpable; he had an awesome time with it and thus, so do you. The characters are wonderful, yeah, but so are the events. Every writer and reader knows that there’s nothing new under the sun; it’s how you take what’s old news (boy meets girl; the sore heart of the parentless child; betrayal; etc) and make it fresh and exhilarating and new. The plot’s not the thing, maybe, but without it, there ain’t much to attach the drywall to.

And Lonesome Dove is the grand embrace. It doesn’t leave anyone out. It’s totally democratic, that novel, which, as a Democrat, I wholeheartedly applaud. There’s not an effete moment in the whole tome.

 

4. It Helped

I have a kid who, like many other people, suffers from clinical Blueness. I’m glad she lives during our enlightened times as per mind illnesses. I can only speculate about this: what did people who suffer from Depression do before these days of drug therapy; what do those who don’t have access do now?

In centuries past, (as well as currently and all around the world) one expected life to be difficult. One’s primary job: survive. No one expected too many smiles from anyone who was older than six months, is what I imagine. Maybe everyone felt like crap—they were slaves, or cold, or hungry, or diseased, or in mourning because their wife just died in childbirth, or in mourning because their baby just died from malnutrition, or they were orphaned, or sold, or flooded out, or they had to sleep on the street, or they were scapegoated, or they were soldiers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So even if you did suffer from the Big D, you weren’t so different from your fellow citizens. Life, after all, is usually a veil of tears punctuated by moments of yuks (see cheerful survival, above).

But these days, in my particular set, there’s a high premium put on affability and good cheer. And sometimes, a brain doesn’t produce the chemicals that host those particular emotions. It happens. It sucks.

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imablance?

It happened to my kid. She’s a great kid. She’s smart and she can draw and she’s funny and she can bake and she loves dogs and she’s very opinionated as per politics and she’s all things wonderful. And her brain got sick. And it was quite sick for quite a while.

During those years of trying new medicines, and spirals down, and tears, and exhaustion (hers. mine.) and crippling anxiety and despair, I tried my best to be a good mother. I held her and I soothed her and I advised her and I listened to her and I found doctors and I consulted with other doctors and I soaked washcloths in cold water and laid them gently on her poor swollen eyes. I tried hard and so did she but sometimes I admit it: I was tapped out. Sometimes I felt like an empty gas pump.

And one night, as she sat next to my bed, crying her eyes out, asking me when it would end, asking me why it was worth it, I focused on the bookcase behind her and there, right there, was my hardback edition of Lonesome Dove, which I had bought with bookstore credit which my brother, who had died of Aids two decades earlier, had left me.

“Hand me that yellow book,” I said. “Hand me Lonesome Dove.”

She did and I started to read aloud. I read about Gus and about Call and about the sign on their ranch which stated that they didn’t rent pigs. And about the pigs eating snakes and about the cook and the dinner bell. And bless her heart, she smiled.

It was a beautiful sight.

So then, every night I read Lonesome Dove aloud as she sat huddled on the couch. And I watched her unhuddle herself and relax even if for just half an hour. I worried about the sad parts—there are so many—and whether she’d be able to handle them. Those sad parts though, they’re gentled down by Peach and Jake and Pea Eye and Dee and Clara and Deets, who become friends not unlike Ari Shapiro and Robert Siegel are my friends.  (The NPR hosts.) (Not really my friends but then again, yes).

What I had discovered was something perfect for her and for me. She needed distraction; she needed to be away from herself; she needed to live in another place for a little while. She needed to be a little wild and a little free, even if just for a moment. And I soon realized what a little literary therapy might do for a person who can’t get out of their private hell. And so together, she and I, we saddled up together and we went for a ride.

 

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         She’s some better, my kid. And Lonesome Dove was only the first book we read: we read Jane Eyre and Sense & Sensibility and Cold Mountain and Little Dorrit and more, too. It’s a good thing I like the sound of my own voice.

But Lonesome Dove was the first. It was the right book at the right time. And as all readers know, that can make a powerful difference.

 

So: there they are. Four unsuitable reasons to love a book. Four important reasons. My reasons. Don’t forget now: when I goes, it goes with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Week of July, 2016

I was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina a long time ago. I spent my elementary school years at an all-white school until sixth grade when integration became the law of the land. Mr. Vincent, the principal—a stalwart segregationist—tried to buck the system and say yeah, we de-segregated when all he did was let one black kid into the school. I saw her crying in the bathroom every day at lunch.

During this time, plenty of whites fled to pop-up “Christian academies;” most of the Black kids in the city were siphoned into a single high school because it was the easiest thing to do with them; the school board punished the liberal university folks by busing their kids to the historically Black school where there was a single microscope for every 25 kids. This was normal for the Black kids and an eye-opener for the white ones. Everyone was discombobulated and everyone blamed everyone else while the rich got richer.

These were the years when a billboard in Smithfield, about 20 miles down the road, enthusiastically exclaimed “Welcome to KKK Country.” These were the years when Boston seemed to be coming apart at the seams because of busing.

When I was seventeen, I had a boyfriend with whom I had very little in common. He had a great car; an antique something or other as big as a living room. We’d drive around and drink and smoke and I guess maybe we talked some though probably not that much if you know what I mean. Mostly, we “parked.” I don’t think he ever actually set foot into my family home. We’d arrange to meet around the corner from my house and I’d slip out and then we’d go driving. As I recall now, he had an extremely obese mother and bad teeth but he was nice enough and we all have our issues.

One night, we drove into the country and then turned onto a long dirt road that wended its way uphill through tobacco fields. The night was dark and moonless, but we could see the shapes of small houses (is sort of a polite words for them) laid out along the road in an indifferent way. At one point, the road took us very close to one of the houses, close enough so that I could see a Black man standing stock still in front of it like a sentry. He was holding a rifle. He wasn’t aiming at us but the warning that he could do was clear.

My boyfriend rolled down his window. “My girl and I are just looking for a place to park,” he said to the guy. He spoke quietly. The guy didn’t move so we drove slowly past him.

Today I read the following quote: “the violence is not new. It’s the cameras that are new.” It hit home. The videos of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the most recent of the people killed by police for being Black, brought that long ago evening back to me. I remember the Black man with the rifle who was afraid. I remember my boyfriend and how he understood the man’s fear, likely because he’d seen it before. And how had he seen it before? How did he recognize the Black man’s fear so easily? Am I asking that question seriously? Do I really want to know?

I have a good chunk of white liberal guilt and thus need to articulate the following for my own pain/pleasure: I’m ashamed to be as old as I am and to have been brought up in the South and to live in the USA and to have been faced with Black fear and frustration and pain for all my life and never to have ever really absorbed it. It wasn’t invisible. I saw it often enough.  It’s been in front of me every day. I suffer broadly from my own historical trauma, and thus should have understood what it’s like to live in fear of those with whom you must interact. But my what…my callowness? my fear? the routine of it? …walled me away from what I knew intellectually. I knew it but I didn’t feel it.

It took Ta-Nahisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me for me to get it or at least, get it as much as someone like me ever can. And it took the camera’s lens: on Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and ad nauseam. That book, these cellphone videos: they showed me what I’ve always known. And once felt, it cannot be unfelt.

Our hearts crack further with each death of an innocent, no matter what race, creed, religion. Of course they do. But there can be no progress for us as a country until we all know—like we know our faces in the mirror–that the Black population of this country is under siege and always has been.

This is what Black Lives Matter means to me.

 

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“I have chosen to capitalize the word “Black” and lowercase “white” throughout this book. I believe “Black” constitutes a group, an ethnicity equivalent to African-American, Negro, or, in terms of a sense of ethnic cohesion, Irish, Polish, or Chinese. I don’t believe that whiteness merits the same treatment. Most American whites think of themselves as Italian-American or Jewish or otherwise relating to other past connections that Blacks cannot make because of the familial and national disruptions of slavery. So to me, because Black speaks to an unknown familial/national past it deserves capitalization.”–Toure

 

Hadrian III: Ultimus

Remember the recent book by UNC (bless its heart, this was way back when UNC wasn’t run by the Koch Brothers but whatever) psychology prof Barbara Fredrickson? Love 2.0 is about those random moments of unplanned communion between us of the human variety.

Sort of like the skywriting scene in Mrs. Dalloway.

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Not from Mrs. Dalloway but a famous example, nonetheless

 

Or the sailor/nurse kiss photo taken in Times Square on V-J Day.

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iconic

(An aside: I would like to say here that Dave and I were among the contributors to Dr. F’s research for her book. We fulfilled our duties by keeping track of how we felt about each other for a week and then also spitting into a cup.)

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it’s okay in a lab

 

Among the many lovely bits of our Hadrian’s Wall walk were those of the love 2.0 variety. I know: one could walk into one these sweet moments in Bangkok, Juneau, Accra, Lima, or just outside one’s front door; they’re not peculiar to Hadrian’s Wall or vicinity, but that’s where they bloomed around us and that’s why I choose to insert them into Hadrian III: The Last Blog Post.

Love 2.0.1  Edinburgh

It was the first sunny day Edinburgh had seen in (what appeared to be) many long dark decades. The temperature hovered at around 50 degrees, but the sun shone merrily and thus, the students at the University of Edinburgh took off their clothes. Not, perhaps, all their clothes but enough that my lips turned blue just looking at them. But, as long as they were happy.

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a little brisk for this but the young can take it

We happened upon a gigantic grassy park which brimmed with laughter and food trucks and lawn games of the Scottish variety which is to say Frisbee. And also buskers. Among the multitudinous music-makers was a quartet composed of an electric violin and an accordion, a stand-up bass and a guitar.

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Was it the sun? Was it the general sense of well being? Or were the musicians really that totally great? Who can say? What we know for sure is this: the young man next to me removed his belt—a gigantic golden prize-fighter’s championship belt—which he had why?–and, at the end of a song, he handed it to the violinist who smiled, thanked him, donned it, and promptly picked back up his instrument. I clapped the kid on the back and pronounced him awesome whereupon he said seriously, “I couldn’t imagine anyone better to give it to.”

ufcbelt

 

Love 2.0.2 Newcastle on Tyne.

We took a get-over-the-jet-lag-day before our hike commenced. There in Newcastle, we lazed around the town centre, feeling distinctly underdressed due to neither Dave nor I have any tattoos. We sat at the feet of the the statue of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl of Grey, who—as far as I can tell—was a reformer who helped make the House of Commons more common-ey and less lord-ey.

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House of Commons

As we basked in our tourist-ness, a party of a half-dozen thirty-something ladies sat next to us. We squinched together politely, so as to give them more room—the statue steps were crowded that day—but they didn’t notice. They were engaged in ardent conversation about the previous evening, during which they’d had a great good time and which, if truth be told, didn’t seem to be quite over though it was already long past time for second breakfast. The Newcastle accent is thick but I was able to make out the oft-used word “fookin’” (please rhyme ‘fook’ with ‘book’) and also some parts of a story told by one woman who referred to “me boobies,” several times. I thus had the opportunity to say to Dave, “me boobies,” several times in ever-increasing volume (his hearing being so-so) so that he too could enjoy the moment. And really:  what more could you want from a moment of love 2.0 than a wife enlightening her husband as to the charms of the local lingo?

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Sophie? Charlotte? Would you like this tattoo?

 

Love 2.0.3 Carlisle

On the next to last day of the walk—about 70 miles into it—we slept at a B&B in the city of Carlisle which is a sizable town and the home of the Carr’s Table Water Cracker factory, just fyi.

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good with almost anything

 

On this particular eve, Britain hadn’t yet lost to Russia, and the mood was dangerously merry. Afraid we’d drown from the ever-rising levels of beer flooding the streets, Dave and I quickly found a friendly-looking Italian restaurant a little out of the way of the frivolities.

The owner of the restaurant helmed his ship with pride and good will. He waltzed with the servers. He joked with the diners. He boldly wiped the wine glasses dry of spots.

We enjoyed the owner’s antics and we enjoyed our delicious dinner. I wished to thank him for my state of beatific-ness (fifteen miles, a good fusilli salumieri, and a couple of glasses of Montepulicano in one day = not bad). So, as we paid our bill, I saluted him and said, “Maestro!” which is what Gabriel Garcia Marquez yelled to Ernest Hemingway across a Paris street in homage of the latter’s greatness. Or so I once read.

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maestro
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Gabito

 

The owner paused, surprised, put his hand over his heart and then grabbed my hand and kissed it. And there you have it: amore due punto zero on a rainy night in Carlisle, Cumbria, the UK.

The Romans: they came, they saw, they conquered.

s0gzk6h

 

Thanks for your kind attention.

 

 

 

 

 

Hadrian II

In my witty little English guidebook, the Hadrian’s Wall Path is deemed an “easy to moderate” walk. At 84 miles, it’s long but not so long that, as with the Appalachian Trail, you have to stop your life and get off in order to walk from end to end. In other words, you can do it “on holiday” as they say up there in Northumbria.

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Henry Stedman, amusing author

 

Now: to me, “easy to moderate” means an amble down a nice flat trail punctuated now and again by a gentle slope. Perhaps, as one trips lightly along, one finds oneself on a highish ridge, o’erlooking beauteousness, but as to how one ascended the ridge—well—the guidebook said “easy to moderate” and so how rigorous could it have been?

Rigorous enough, my friends. Rigorous enough.

More than a few times, I was forced to use my hands in conjunction with my feet. I’m not saying that slacklines and carabiners were necessary, but there were moments during which I didn’t dare look down. Also: the British aren’t as freaked about litigation as we are here; a couple of signs indicating that you may wish to watch your step lest you fall into oblivion, but that was it. No guard-rails, no danger tape, no fussing about.

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blue carabiner

 

Not that I’m complaining. I’m a grown woman and I enjoy my freedom. In fact, as I walked along (and up) (and down) I felt a sort of glory and power: my short little hobbit legs are strong, my shadow was straight, I was vital (in an of-a-certain-age kinda way). I strode along, my backpack on my back, my step firm, a song on my lips. (Probably Barbara Allen, for propriety’s sake.)

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not my shadow, but a nice one wouldn’t you say?

 

It is important to say this: most visitors to HWP don’t walk the whole thing. Most visitors drive up to the most interesting parts of the HWP: for a school field-trip; a weekend picnic; a robust hike in the merry month of May when the green buds they are swellin’.

What all this means is that most of the people who walk the Hadrian’s Wall Path (or parts of it) are British. And the Brits, when they feel like it, are hella walkers.

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heh

 

Following: an example of Brits walking.

At one point, as I left the apparent top of the world to descend a very steep very long flight of rock steps down a practically vertical slope, I was reminded viscerally of the secret path to Mordor. The difference was that Frodo and Sam were climbing and I was descending, all the more terrifying for me.  I was taking it easy—step by step, the longest march, can be won, can be won—and trying not to hyperventilate so much that I fell headlong into nothingness only to be found later, my lunch on my back, a sock tan-line on my ankles.

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not really as bad as this

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Step. Hyperventilate a little. Rest. Repeat.

Suddenly, I heard a voice.  Holding my breath so as not to plunge downwards, I looked further down the precipitous flight, and there I beheld a foursome scrambling towards me.

 

 

These were them:

  1. A jolly 80-something grandmother with a cane;
  2. A sweet-faced, plump young mother holding a leash connected to
  3. her over-excited whippet puppy;
  4. a flaxen-haired four year-old lad, his tee-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon picture of Baloo. 

     

    whippet-whippet-dog-puppies-information-and-s-breed
    sure-footed

    baloo_the_bear

 

I gaped, stopped, and stood aside. It wasn’t courtesy that made me give way; it was more like dumbfoundedness. They smiled at me, each one, (except the whippet) and said “mawning,” (that’s British for “hey”). Even the little kid told me “mawning,” after which his mother pronounced him a good lad and brightly urged him up the next of the perilous steps.

I hope I was stunned into some small humility.

You will be glad to know that later that afternoon, I saw the quartet of them again, safely ensconced in a dog-friendly pub, the little boy lustily drinking something orange.

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yes, it really looked like this

 

 

 

 

Hadrian I

Last week, I walked across England.  The 84 miles of the Hadrian’s Wall Path, a well-kept, well-trod British walking trail, follows the footprint of a 2000 year old stone wall commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in order to keep Roman England safe from the Northern barbarians.

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sometimes it’s low; sometimes it’s high

Those who walk the path can be roughly divided into two sorts.

The first sort of trekker is the curious and respectful historian, a person of some erudition as to the lives of the Romans in the Britain of long ago. This sort of person is perhaps impressed by Vindolanda, an ancient settlement along the wall. Vindolanda is the site of one of the world’s great archaeological digs, in which 90 pairs of two-millennia old Roman leather shoes have been excavated, where 2000 year-old birthday invitations and shopping lists have been found, intact, carved onto wooden tablets; where multiple dog skeletons lead us to believe that the people who lived there were already breeding hunters, guards, toys, what have you.

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calciamentis

This first sort of trekker may be equipped with some knowledge of Hadrian himself: the emperor was a great Panhellenic which means he was crazy about all things Greek and thus wore a beard which was like, way not Roman. He was good to his slaves except for the one he stabbed in the eye and he was very good on infrastructure, which his people appreciated. As long as those he conquered didn’t fuss, he’d let them keep their own religions, but he required a decent amount of assimilation which was a problem for, who else: the Jews. He was in love with his partner Antinous who drowned by either accident, homicide, or (and this is the most interesting speculation), suicide.

hadrianantinous
Question: was Hadrian’s love for Antinous requited?

 

This first sort of trekker—let’s face it; this Better Sort of trekker–may be interested in the  remarkable feat of the wall’s construction. Quite a lot of it still stands, and is accompanied by massive Roman-dug ditches that have also stood the test of time. There they are, mile upon mile of 2000 year-old humungous deep ditches which were just part of the Wall earthworks and which all those poor soldiers dug all those years ago in order to enhance the whole shebang. Truly amazing.

And then there’s the other sort of trekker. The lesser sort. My sort.

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except with grey hair

 

It was lambing season as I walked across England. Lambs were everywhere. Literally many hundreds of lambs. Sleeping lambs, bleating lambs, gamboling lambs, and best of all, lambs that—when freaked out by a hiking-booted stranger in their midst—would run to their patient mother, butt her udders fiercely, and take a little security drink.

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And wildflowers? Fuggetaboutit. (More on wildflowers later.)

Look north to the blue highlands of Scotland, look west to see the wall path as it spreads before you over the Pennines, look east and south to the bleak moors or the great fields of bright yellow rapeseed and hedgerows overcome with hawthorn blossoms.

Forest of Bowland
the Pennines

And the stiles. Oh my god, the stiles.You have your ladder-stiles, your kissing-gate stiles, your stiles made of stepping stones set right into the very stone walls you were scrambling o’er, and etc.

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ladder stile

 

 

 

I, a person who has loved Hardy ‘n the Brontes ‘n Dickens n’ Eliot ‘n Austen ‘n Lawrence ‘n Collins ‘n Crace ‘n Lamb ‘n Tremain ‘n Mantel ‘Barker ‘n Galsworthy ‘n Gardam n’ Strachey ‘n you get the picture, well, I was at total one with the universe. Seriously. Like, I got stung by a stinging nettle and almost cried with delight. Because I’d read about stinging nettles all my life! And there was one! And it stung me! It was all so beautiful! I had to concentrate on not constantly smiling lest I look like a moon-faced loon.

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ouch

 

 

 

If you’ve ever spent time with a baby, you know they love what they recognize. First smile: it’s for ma or pa or maybe sis—someone they know.  And this pleasure in recognition just grows with us into our adulthoods.  As much as we may love something new under the sun, it’s hard to beat the great gasp of delight when faced with our first dish of sticky toffee pudding or our first magpie or our first gorse in full bloom, after having been so close to—and yet so far from—those things for so long.

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Next post:

My sturdy little hobbit legs; what “easy to moderate” actually means; and more

 

 

2%

The other day I had a 98% pure-T Men-Explain-Things-to-Me moment. The expression “Men Explain Things to Me” is scholar Rebecca Solnit’s coinage for how a woman feels when she is patronized by a man. The expression rolls off the tongue if you can say it with confidence. And 98% is very confident!–highly confident! But it’s not 100%. And that nasty little leftover 2%–that little 2% of doubt –makes for a pretty sharp double-edged sword. But more about that later.

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Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me and also, Wanderlust which is wonderful

So, a guy walked into the bookstore and approached the counter. Our ages were commensurate–late middle-age, the prime of life. Our political views, I daresay, were similar. Neither of us dyed our hair. Both of us spoke with a mid-Atlantic non-accent. He was pleasant and bright-looking with a slight gravitas; same, here. We both wore wedding rings. I may have (okay, I definitely) noticed more about him than he did about me but that’s likely because I’m sort of a noticer to begin with.

“What can I do for you?” I asked him.

“I’m looking for a book….,” he took out his phone, “called Anil’s Ghost? I think?”

“Hmm,” said I looking to see whether the computer said we had stock, “Ondaatje. Let me see.”

“Hold on,” said the guy, “let me get the author for you.”

“Ondaatje,” I said. “He wrote The English Patient.”

“Almost there,” said the guy, flipping through his phone.

“Ondaatje,” I said. “Sorry, we’re out of stock. How would you feel about a used copy?”

“Got it,” he said. “Ondaatje. Oh, I think he wrote The English Patient.”

“Yep,” I said. And then as if it were all lovely and amusing, I said, “that’s what I was telling you.” I smiled into his eyes to show him that I was in fact a gentlewoman if maybe a touch school-marmish. “Would a used copy do?”

He had the grace to be slightly taken aback when he realized what I’d said, which meant to me that he’d finally realized that, all this time, there’d been sounds coming out of my mouth and that when assembled rightly, those sounds formed words that contained information, and that, most remarkably, the information was not only correct, but was indeed information that a) he needed and b) and (and this is the clincher) information that HE HAD NOT HAD BEFORE.

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Michael Ondaatje, author the Anil’s Ghost and also The English Patient

I led him into the used book section, found a copy of the book, and put it into his hands. He looked at me as if I were a wonderful thing, not unlike a wing-ed sprite (or, more possibly, a psychic crone who had magically imbibed the contents of the hidden fjords of his brain pan). Which just pissed me off further. I mean: I work in a dang bookshop, man. I have a basic book knowledge. Big deal.

But the guy wasn’t not nice. He was nice! He was so pleased with me! I had gladdened his heart. I could see it: I stood for all that was right in his world. Low-fat, handmade granola with almond milk for breakfast, a good run with his chocolate lab, a nice shower, a little time assembling his thoughts for the panel on copyright law, and then a trip to the bookstore for a plane-read, and the bookstore lady knew the book, even!–simply another indication that his choice of realm was good and right.

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a nice chocolate lab

So what’s the problem here, other than the obvious? Why even bring it up? Men Explaining Things is not a new phenomenon, obviously, and has probably existed with about a thousand different identifying monikers before Solnit came along and created her delightful sobriquet. After all, men explaining things to women is as old as sand.  Rachel and Leah probably rolled their eyes about Isaac as they nursed their babies together. Cleopatra maybe hurled an asp at some dude for explaining things once too often, or maybe even once. Lady Murasaki likely nodded and smiled at some bozo-san and then clenched her inky fists and hid them up inside her kimono sleeves.

So what’s to talk about? Men Explaining Things is a thing; we all know that. What I’d like to address here is that annoying little aforementioned 2% of doubt. Sometimes, a thing is not a thing or at least, not just a thing. Sometimes you think you know something via a feeling in your bones and your bones are lying to you. And that’s how wars begin. (The “knowledge” about the “weapons of mass destruction,” for example. I’d bet my daughter’s college tuition that Cheney knew they didn’t exist. But wait!  Maybe he DID believe they were out there because he wanted to so so much that he, I don’t know, tapped his heels together thrice? And suddenly, the WMDs were as real to him as the fact that once, long long ago, we actually had a sitting president with Alzheimer’s Disease, bless his heart, whose presidential words are still held up as calls to action by members of his party. I can’t even….or whatever it is that young people say today.)

The particular example of the Explaining Man in the Bookstore seems fairly crystal. And I think it’s likely to be as good as it gets. It’s true that at no time did he actually say, “let me explain this to you,” but life is so rarely perfect, after all. In my humble opinion, the Explaining Man in the Bookstore example is quite sweet. No one got hurt, no wars were started, nothing exploded, no one was incarcerated, the store made a buck, I went home to dinner and he tripped smilingly away, grasping his book in his hand.

Why then, am I haunted by the 2% of doubt?

Because, my friends, it is there.

To wit:

  1. Maybe the gentleman was hard of hearing. After all, he was on the far side of fifty, where I am, and I know my hearing isn’t what it used to be, what what? Maybe he simply didn’t hear the verbiage—“Ondaatje”– that I kept intoning, no matter how crisply.
  2. Or, maybe he was unfamiliar with the name Ondaatje which is, after all, an unusual name at least in our part of the world, and maybe, even though he looked like a worldly-enough guy, he just lacked the ear (or even secretly disapproves of) what’s not Anglo-Saxon.. (Maybe he thinks Te Nehisi Coates ought to man up and stop showing off.)
  3. Or maybe it was a simple little class thing: I was on the other side of the counter from him, which perhaps made me into an instant non-entity in his mind. After all, non-entities usually don’t have book knowledge, not to mention things like skin and a soul. Not that knowing who Michael Ondaatje is represents any stunning brilliance on my part.
  4. Or maybe it was a simple little age thing: people have written at length about the invisibility of the middle-aged woman and I can confirm it. It’s not a problem for me: I can make myself seen fairly quickly if I want to or need to and invisibility is, after all, Basic Superpower 101. But maybe the dude couldn’t, in fact, actually see me with his eyes or maybe I had taken on a shimmering formlessness and he was so thrown off by it that he lost the gift of hearing for a wee instant.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, a fantastic book

There are so many reasons that it might NOT have been a case of METTM! The world is a myriad place and life is like a big old game of Dungeons & Dragons. Where is truth? Is it in the Bible? Is it in the Constitution? Is it in the Beauty of Nature? Is it in a hummingbird’s sigh?

For those us of for whom the 2% is a constant whine in our ear and itch on our leg, it’s hard to find truth anywhere.  Which makes life’s path a treacherous one, lemme tell you.

(Wait. Just so I don’t go off the deep end, let me here list some absolute truths:

–Climate change exists;

–People are often generous and greedy in the same breaths;

–I like mango smoothies.

Okay! Phew!)

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delish

But there are other truths of course.. What of the varietal isms and phobias which make the world stammer and spit so? We’ve all been discriminated against, or laughed at, or treated unfairly. The problem is that sometimes—often—it’s so hard to describe those instances that it can make you doubt yourself. Did it really happen? Am I just being paranoid? Am I making a bid deal out of nothing?

To reiterate: how, in the face of the lurking 2% of doubt is it ever possible to pin instances of those evils to the wall like a green beetle bug?

Here are a couple of unclouded examples: the strange fruit of a lynched man, the stacks of bones in a concentration camp. Those are clear. But they’re also anomalies, though I grant you: it’s a little weird to call centuries of enslavement or the number 6,000,000 an anomaly.

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My point is this: most of the time, the instances of racism and sexism and antisemitism and etc. that we citizens of the world have dreamed up, are less clear than lynching and the Holocaust and indeed, pretty dang murky. And the murk is where the worm called 2% thrives.

Here’s a nasty example of the 2%. Sandra Bland hanged herself? Okaaaaay.  It seems to her family and friends and much of the rest of the world that more than likely, she was murdered by cops corrupted by power. But maybe not. Maybe she did indeed kill herself out of despair at the racism she was subjected to in her daily life. Or maybe she killed herself because she lost a baby. Or because of other reasons she took with her to her grave. The circumstances of her death certainly don’t speak to suicide, but it’s not absolutely impossible.

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Sandra Bland

Here’s another example of the 2% . This one’s almost ridiculous when compared to the tragedy of Sandra Bland but more common in its ilk, at least we should all hope so. An acquaintance of mine, from whom I’d felt anti-semitic vibes for years, and whom I hadn’t seen in years, recently sent me a gift out of the clear blue: a cassette (it’s 2015) of Israeli folk-songs wrapped up in pretty paper. What, am I the only Jew he knows? What’s his point in giving me this cassette? Would he send an African-American person of his acquaintance whom he hadn’t spoken to in some years and hadn’t much liked when he did know them, a cassette of Nigerian folk tunes?  Well, maybe. Maybe he really was trying to be nice. Or maybe it was an old present he’d found in the back of his desk that he’d meant to give to me 15 years ago when cassettes were in fact a thing, and though he himself probably doesn’t play cassettes much any more because of advances in technology, maybe he thought that I, because of my relatively advanced age, would feel at home with a cassette. Maybe I’m accusing a nice guy doing a nice thing of something fairly heinous.

cassette
old tech

Or, maybe not.

I hate the 2%. I despise it. It seems weak to me to be so unsure about whether or not you’ve been insulted (or despised). It seems like the most trenchant example of naivete imaginable to give the benefit of the doubt to a racist or a homophobe. It seems like the top of a nastily slippery slope to make the decision to not condemn when condemnation is necessary.

And on the other hand (the catch phrase for the 2%)—on the other hand—it’s the lack of that 2% that makes men into zealots and beasts. Once you give up doubt, once you know you’re right, once you know that your religion is the True Way or that it’s okay to dehumanize people for whatever reason or that the world is flat, then you lose your own humanity.

If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this.

 

 

 

 

From Leonora Carrington to Mad Max

My friend told me about Leonora Carrington’s book The Hearing Trumpet and it sounded (heh) good in large part because I love a novel written from the point of view of an old lady. I’ll reel off some for you: Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (Allan Gurganus); Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (Elizabeth Taylor, no not that one, another one); The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence); Consider This, Senora (Harriet Doerr who published her first novel at the age of 68).

Old ladies can say things that other people can’t say if they can free themselves up some as they’re coming down the long slope. I expect that’s not all that easy to do–the freeing yourself part. For example, somebody told me once that his mother stopped going out after a certain age because she’d been a beauty and her looks were going. This is exactly the story of Madame X in John Singer Sargent’s gorgeous, sexy portrait. At a party, she heard someone say she was fading and so she never went into society again and rather, walked on the beach alone after dark. This seems like a waste but I guess you have to admire her sense of conviction.

just look at her gorgeous right arm, will you
just look at her gorgeous right arm, will you

The Leonora Carrington who wrote The Hearing Trumpet was mostly a surrealist artist. She was in love with Max Ernst and he with her but the Nazis put the kibosh on that. It nearly drove her mad, which her folks tried to fix with shock therapy. Then she went to Mexico where she painted, wrote, burned a lot of bras, and had a couple of husbands and a couple of kids. Here’s a self portrait.

Leonora's self-portrait

Leonora and how pissed-off she was until her death at 94 remind me of the old ladies in Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m all about a good apocalypse movie. Also, I like Charlize Theron and also Tom Hardy. Fury Road is totally visually fantastic. Like, super-fantastic. Also, you could see it seven times and still miss some of the crazy-ass details because it’s like a Heironymous Bosch painting come to life at 1000 mph, if you get me.

crazy Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, Hieronymus

crazy Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, Hieronymus
crazy Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, Hieronymus

No way to see everything in Fury Road at the first viewing of same. Here’s a detail from one quarter of one second of the movie:

a gas pedal made of one of those metal foot measuring things from a shoe shop.

The Brannock Device is the name of this thing
The Brannock Device is the name of this thing

Suffice it to say, there are a lot of extremely bad-ass old ladies in Fury Road, and George Miller, the director, doesn’t abstain from killing them at the same rate that he kills off a lot of other people including the “war boys,” which is like poetry, that moniker. War Boys.

It’s sad whenever someone dies whether they’re old or not which–it being sad–is odd, due to it happens not infrequently.