Country Journal/March 19, 2016

We continue slowly to clean up and fix up this old farmhouse, health and money permitting. This month I took the bit in my teeth and decided that six years was a long enough period to be without a ceiling light fixture in the living room. My first thought was to move the big chandelier from the dining area to the living room. George mutinied and I don’t much blame him. It wasn’t a good idea. We had the devil’s own time hanging that monster the first time.

I began cruising the internet for something suitable. I tried Ebay and Etsy. I wanted a vintage piece. I turned up an “early Empire Russian birdcage chandelier in bronze doré and rock crystal” for sixty-four thousand dollars which is more than the house is worth. I did like it but it fit neither my budget nor this sorry little shack. I also turned up an enormous number of lighting fixture horrors from every period, most of them, in my view, overpriced. It was one of those I don’t quite know what I am looking for but I will know it when I see it shopping adventures.

I ended up with something very different from my usual style but it looked okay for a rustic farmhouse without being a country cliché. It was hand made wrought iron from Italy. The seller said he thought it was mid-twentieth century, undamaged, but it needed re-wiring. His price was very low, so low that even with the added costs of shipping a fifteen pound item from Italy to Arkansas it was still reasonable.

I ordered it and in due course it arrived. I do a lot of internet shopping so I get tons of packages. After having a couple of small boxes that were left under the carport stolen by the neighbor’s dogs, who chewed everything to pieces and scattered tiny bits all over the yard I made an arrangement with my local post office that they should leave anything small enough to stuff into the mailbox but that larger items should be held at the P.O. until I could drive over and pick them up.

The big box from Italy arrived. The postmistress, trying her best to be neighborly and to provide good service, did as I asked. She held the box and sent me the usual regulation pink slip. Ordinarily I would have retrieved the box the next day. But ours is a one car household and George needed the car to go to a medical appointment in Hot Springs. Thanks to the higher ups in the USPS our local post office is open only in the mornings. At the time the hours were shortened, a couple of years ago, the USPS representative justified this by saying that most people pay their bills on the internet nowadays. One neighbor remarked that this area is full of older folks who don’t use computers, regard them as satanic, and have never paid a bill on the internet and never will. George left before the post office opened and returned after it had closed for the day.

The next day he also took the car and set off to run errands. I was mildly annoyed, but there was no real urgency about the box so I did not stew overmuch. But, at one o’clock in the afternoon, our postmistress was knocking my front door down and, in addition,  she was one seriously upset woman.

“Please ride with me to the post office, sign for this box, and I will bring you and the box right back here. Also, if you don’t mind, open it and let me have the packaging. I am in a heck of a lot of trouble over this shipment from Italy.”

“Hang on.” I said. “Let me get my handbag and lock up the house.” Now at that point Paco and Polly, the two blue and gold macaws, were on T perches in the living room instead of being in their cages. I told them I had an emergency, that I would be right back, and to please sit tight and not destroy the living room, which they are perfectly capable of doing, either singly or in tandem. To my later amazement they did stay put and they did mind me–for once.

My agitated postmistress continued her disjointed explanation as we drove from my house to the P.O. “That box was shipped Express. When it was not delivered in the proper time frame my supervisor called me and chewed me out completely. To complicate matters I am required to scan a barcode when I receive a package. There should be only one barcode but in this case someone somewhere slipped up and there are two. That’s why I need the box. Tomorrow I must drive to Little Rock, with the box and with my union representative, to meet with my supervisor and try and explain what happened.”

I apologized profusely and told her that I had no idea our actions had caused her any grief. I explained about the one car and about George’s trip to Hot Springs. I also told her, truthfully, that she had always gone out of her way to be helpful and that, as far as the community was concerned, she was an exemplary postmistress. If the P.O. is scheduled to be open then it is open because if there is ever any bad weather in the forecast she sleeps there in order to open at the usual hour. I offered to go with her to Little Rock to speak on her behalf if that were necessary.

By this time we were at the back door of the P.O. She let us both inside. I signed the appropriate paperwork. She carried the box out and put it in the backseat. When we arrived back at my house George was also pulling into the driveway. I unpacked the light fixture and gave her the box. At this point I have heard nothing further about her meeting in Little Rock so do not know the final outcome.

To top off the postmistress’ tale of frustration, she said that she had been without money orders for three weeks despite numerous requests that they be sent to her. “I’ve lost track of the number of customers I have not been able to serve because I have no money orders.” she said.

There is so much wrong with our poor country right now that one does not know where to begin, but obviously one big thing that is wrong in the workplace (and in the public schools) is the insistence that everything must be done by the numbers. My postmistress found herself in hot water, not because she did not go above and beyond the call of duty, but because she did. But it threw the numbers off and her supervisor will be judged by “the numbers.” It’s all very well to talk about accountability, but this is ridiculous. Systems that make no allowance for the variability and flexibility needed in all human interactions do not work. Factor in the fact that the woman is trying to do her job without being supplied with the basic tools that she needs. Then add forty years of stagnant wages to the mix, not in the P.O. necessarily, but in the country in general. It is a wonder anyone finds the motivation to do excellent work.

The other thing that is wrong here is the simple injustice of a system in which those at the bottom of the totem pole are judged by the most draconian standards with no forgiveness whatever for mistakes while those higher in the chain of command get away with murder. Will anyone be dragged to a meeting in Little Rock (It’s a two hour drive.) and court martialed because of a failure to keep our post office supplied with money orders? Somehow I doubt it.

Now granted there has always been one set of rules for the rich and another for the poor, one standard for whites and another for blacks, but this difference is now so obvious and so large  and so brutal in its consequences that I do not wonder that the entire country is in a state of civil unrest. What amazes me is how long the people have been patient in the face of such monstrous oppression.

It’s all very well to point to, say, an Oprah Winfrey and talk about this being a land of opportunity, but, if you want to play by “the numbers,” then plain statistics tell another story. Wages have not risen, at least not when adjusted for buying power. Women are not paid equally. Every broad based opportunity for upward mobility has been curtailed. That gateway has narrowed remarkably over my lifetime and it continues to allow fewer and fewer to pass through.

The danger is not that people are angry. They have every reason to be angry. The danger is that so much of that justifiable anger is so terribly misplaced. Anger is the hardest of all human feelings to deal with and the often the most difficult part, which most never master, is to learn to ask oneself clearly and answer accurately, “Who am I angry with and why?” If we cannot answer that question logically then it is not only likely that we will shortly find ourselves in a far greater quagmire it is a certainty.

 

 

 

Country Journal/December 5, 2015

On the Subject of Chickens and a Year End Summary

The perfect chicken and the ultimate chicken coop–they don’t exist, but after several years of keeping chickens we are both older and wiser. This place came with a chicken house, in a manner of speaking. It was far from ideal and it bore no resemblance to clever little backyard painted coops that grace the pages of chicken keeping magazines. It is an eleven by eleven pole building with a shed roof ranging from 7 feet to 9 feet. The outside is covered with corrugated metal. The roof leaked until this year when we were finally able to get that fixed. The roost was falling apart. The nestboxes were ancient and badly designed. Worst of all, it had a dirt floor and the absence of anti-dig skirting meant that there was no protection against nighttime predators, most of whom are excellent diggers. There was no outside run. Our first round of improvements was to add an outside run with a chicken wire roof, replace the missing chicken wire on the front of the chicken house, and install a makeshift anti-dig skirt. It wasn’t pretty but it was safe. The chickens were thrilled. For them it was a step up in the world.

This year, in addition to replacing the roof and the roof rafters that were rotting, we also re-built two walls. George did this work. He dug trenches and installed concrete block footings–much better than our temporary anti-dig skirt, poured concrete to fill the blocks, beefed up the framing, and turned the corrugated metal from horizontal to vertical. I managed to get one wall–the back–painted. Then we stopped for the season as we were out of money and out of good weather.

George re-built the roost, putting the back of it on wheels so it can be moved back and forth to facilitate cleaning. I saw an idea on the internet that featured a wooden rack that held five gallon buckets for nest boxes and George undertook to build that. He is part way through this, but has decided that rectangular plastic tubs would be better than buckets.

I hate that dirt floor but there is nothing I can do about it right now. I went out this morning, shooed the chickens outside, and cleaned. I attacked the cobwebs, raked the floor, cleaned the water dispenser, cleaned the feed bowl. I threw out chicken scratch and cut up a butternut squash to give them for a treat.

George came out and did a little more work on the nest box rack which is a work in progress–one of many.

And, as always, it took much longer than I thought it would.

My original flock, plus a motley assortment of donated birds, are now middle-aged to elderly. They still lay, but it is probably time to add some younger birds. I’ve now experimented with several different breeds, both standards and bantams. I reviewed the possibilities and decided that I will now concentrate on just one breed. I picked the blue-laced red Wyandotte.

I like the color. I like chickens with “camouflage.” I love the look of feathered feet, but, in view of that dirt floor, I think I’d better stick to clean legged birds. Plus the Wyandotte has a rose comb that is less likely to get frostbitten. They lay light brown eggs. I won’t order them now; I will wait until warmer weather.

In addition to the chicken house flock I have three spare roosters and they are a royal nuisance because each one must be separately housed. There is also one odd hen who is the consort of my bantam rooster.

What is ahead is the re-building of the remaining two walls of the chicken house, re-working the original pen, building a second pen. I’m guessing we are talking two to four years because there is also much other work to be done. We can’t just spend all our time on the chicken house.

The present chicken census:

1 Blue Cochin rooster, rather elderly, a bit lame, very sweet, named Mr. Blue

1 Buff Brahma bantam rooster (called B.B.) and his mate who is a small black “Easter Egger” of unknown parentage. She’s a cute little thing named Ebony. She lays pale turquoise eggs.

1very elderly black Australorp rooster who is quite lame. That is Mr. Black.

The inmates of the chicken coop consisting of a Hamburg rooster, one Brahma light, one buff “Easter Egger,” two barred Plymouth rocks, three silver laced Wyandottes and two golden laced Wyandottes.

George also moved three ancient appliances that must be sold for scrap from the inside of the big metal barn (Alice’s Barn) into the yard. He will begin hauling them to the scrap metal yard on Monday.

George had improvised heating lamps above the roost, but that is not doing the job. I ordered heating pads for the separately housed chickens and a poultry heater that will create a “warming hut” inside the chicken coop. The downside, as I said, is the dirt floor. The upside is that it is roomy and there is space enough to add “furniture” as needed. This is the first winter I have had a heated waterer that does not freeze.

I came inside, took a short nap, and spent some time on the internet pricing accessories that might dress up this very shabby place: new house numbers, new mailbox, that kind of thing. I didn’t order anything; I was just getting a rough idea as to availability and prices. The actual ordering will come later.

Now for the summary: We have now been in this house almost six years and we started with one horrible little house and some long neglected outbuildings. We’ve done a lot, but there is still much to do. It doesn’t look pretty. It doesn’t look anything close to pretty. That may come later. Key word there is “may.” And then again maybe not, depending upon how our health and strength hold up.

  • We ripped out all of the old flooring except for the ceramic tile floor in the kitchen and painted the slab. That was, on our budget, the only solution I could manage. It was not done properly. We didn’t have the funds to grind or level.
  • We tore out some walls, re-built some walls, tore out some kitchen cabinets and all the bathroom cabinets. They were too awful to salvage. We added baseboards, top molding (very plain), and corner moldings to fill gaps.
  • George tore out the brick chimney that was located in, of all places, the hall. I don’t know how he did it but he did it, bringing down a pile of bricks, mortar, soot, and clinkers. We repaired holes in the ceiling.
  • George tore out an ugly built-in cabinet in the back bedroom.
  • We re-built the interior of every cabinet and closet in the house.
  • I painted the inside of every cabinet and every closet–multiple coats as they had never been painted.
  • I painted the entire interior, ceilings, walls, floors–multiple coats as I was covering dark paneling and the previous owners smoked.
  • We changed light fixtures. George did a lot of work on the interior wiring. It is still a long way from code, but it is much improved.
  • Besides the work on the chicken house, George re-built three walls of the big metal barn (Alice’s Barn) and added two small stalls inside. We have plans for more improvements. The south wall still must be re-built. I painted the three walls that he did re-work.
  • We installed a new kitchen sink and cabinet.
  • We replaced all the single paned windows with double paned windows.
  • We did a whole lot of caulking
  • I replaced the lower third of the tile surrounding the bathtub and patched missing tile in the pantry and kitchen.
  • We put in a new propane heater that vents to the outside in the living room.

In the same period of time George had two shoulder replacements, one hospital stay while recovering from an accident on the scooter, and cataract surgery. I spent five months in bed with the shingles and had two hospital stays. We had almost no money to work with until this year.

I don’t know how we did it.

This past year has been much better. We paid off the mortgage and the car note, put a new roof on the house, put new roofs on all three outbuildings–“Alice’s Barn,” “George’s Workshop,” and the chicken house. We installed the big steel canopy in the pecan grove for an outdoor seating and cooking area. We are now able to keep the place mowed. We got all the trees pruned and that’s a lot of trees. We have a new electric line between the well house and the breaker box–George did that. And, last but not least, we were finally able to get a new toilet, new bathroom lavatory, and get the plumbing fixed. For the first time since I came to Arkansas in 1907 I can take a hot shower whenever I like and I live in a warm house.

The entire adventure–the final years in Fort Worth and the time in Arkansas–is ten years I don’t ever want to repeat. There is still much to be done. The Lord willing and the creek don’t rise we will have a nice little country place in about 4-5 years.

Country Journal/December 1, 2015

It is the middle of the night. I can’t sleep. I have one huge life goal and that is to become the person I want to be and think I should be. I think each of us has an internal picture of that and I’m sure it varies enormously from one individual to the next.  Right now I’m not talking about achieving nirvana or even becoming morally better, although those are laudable. I’m talking about inefficiencies, niggling bad habits, getting in one’s own way, not working at one’s peak.

I can promise you, every time I make a change directed towards improving my health habits one certain result is insomnia. The spirit may be willing but the flesh will trip me up every time. So, let’s say, for instance, that I decide to forego the evening glass of wine, eat healthy, and exercise more. I guarantee that I can’t do it all at once because if I tell my elderly body that we are suddenly going to make big changes said elderly body will lay me out flat in bed in addition to making sure I don’t sleep at night. I guarangoddamntee it.

Then there’s Polly, my poor unhappy, obnoxious, loud, difficult macaw. Who ever heard of a bird with insomnia? Every other bird in the house goes to sleep when it gets dark and/or the cage is covered and sleeps, with only a few half-awake noises, until morning. Not my Polly. My stealthy footsteps down the hall, the tapping of the computer keyboard, any sound at all will wake that unfortunate creature. Then I will hear her gently fussing and tearing up the newspapers on the bottom of her cage. No harm in that but she needs the sleep. A pin drops and that macaw wakes up. That severely limits what I can do during the nights I can’t sleep. The only thing I can do that doesn’t bother Polly is to sit up in bed and knit. Right now I am in no mood for that.

“Polly, it’s just mom. I love you. Go to sleep.”

I have accomplished distressingly little since I last wrote. Today was the worst. I was doing the monthly budgeting and bill paying. For once, there’s no particular monetary crisis; it’s just routine. I was unaccountably wound up, wired, unable to concentrate, and just plain nutty. It got the work done, but it took far longer than it should have done. Now I can’t sleep. I am nibbled to death by ducks, as the saying goes. My mother called it the “screaming mimis.” Not sure how you spell that. Better look it up. Okay, it is spelled two ways–“mimis” and “meemies.” Not to be confused with the heebie-jeebies which word conveys both jitters and vague fear.

I said something to George about my state of mind this afternoon.

“Been there.” he said.

He ran errands. He took care of the animals. I paid bills and quietly fell apart. Not fun. Not fun at all.

Later the Same Day

Too many things to do and too little time. Too many needs and too few dollars. The weather cleared sufficiently that cleaning the car was possible, so we went to town. Mailed bills. Did a small amount of necessary shopping for supplies at Walmart. Got the car cleaned at our local DIY car wash. Actually, that is not accurate. We got the top layers of grime out of the interior and off the exterior. I don’t like to ask George to do this by himself. He won’t admit it is difficult for him, but he’s not very agile and vacuuming odd corners of a car interior does require that.

By the time we finished we were both chilled. I wanted something hot and fast. We went to McDonald’s for a sandwich and hot coffee. Then we went home. I unloaded the car and re-arranged the car. This is make-ready for inserting tarp and traveling macaw cage into the back seat while leaving space for Star in the hatchback area. George went to work doing animal care and I took a nap. I got up, made a cup of very strong hot tea and started wrapping Christmas presents. I did not get far, but at least I made a start.

We did stop at the bank this morning. Unfortunately someone had left an issue of Flying magazine in the lobby. George pounced on it and has been buried in it off and on all day and will remain buried in it until he has read every word and he’s a slow reader. He did take care of the animals, but he will be good for nothing else until he is finished with his magazine.

It’s not what we did; it’s what we didn’t get done that bothers me. I need to re-work the heating arrangements for the chickens and for Gray Lady (outdoor cat). That is a must. Freezing nights are in the forecast. I am once again behind on routine house work. I have barely begun the clean up work in the living room. The car port is a mess. George won’t keep it clean and is incapable of cleaning it. Cleaning he can do only if walked through the process. I can’t supervise George and do anything else. After thirty years of living with George and his very odd brain I’ve learned what will work and what won’t.

I need to do some cleaning in the kitchen. I can’t; it will wake Polly who is in the adjoining dining area. It’s no different from having a sleeping baby in a small house. House is too small to give the macaws a dedicated room and, if I did that, I then create the problem of lack of social interaction with us which is also very important for them.

After working with the monthly budget I asked George, “Would you rather have special holiday food or liquor this month?” He didn’t hesitate; he wanted his evening snort. Okay, but that means a long drive to a liquor store because we are in a dry county. It’s an incredibly beautiful place and two-thirds of our county is pristine national forest, but there is a downside to everything. Arkansas has some of the strictest liquor laws in the nation.

Later

George explained that he has been observing a learning curve among the cats. We have too many cats to have them all inside. They are outside by day and in crates in the barn at night. That protects them from nighttime predators. They are fed in their crates in the evening and then George fastens the crates for the night. Last winter I had to bring all of the critters into the house every night to keep them warm. That was an incredible amount of work and obviously not the way to go. No one needs a crate of 12 chickens in the kitchen every night and 12 cats wandering about on top of a large dog, multiple birds, and two elderly roosters–one in the bathtub and one in a large tub. This year I bought heaters, heated waterers, various other equipment, and plush and foam domes–enough to equip each cat crate plus some extras. At first the cats just pushed the domes down flat and went to sleep on top of them, creating little cat nests. I was not happy because that defeats the purpose of the domes. To stay warm each cat needs to go inside and curl up. But George reports that last night, with a forecast of a light freeze, each cat had figured it out and every single one was tucked away inside his dome

 

Country Journal/November 20, 2015

A Meditation on a Lump of Beeswax

I woke up early this morning because I was cold. I investigated. Space heater was not working. Is it the space heater, the extension cord, or the wall outlet? I didn’t want to waste time with this so I mentally designated the task to George, who is the house electrician, went to the living room, switched on the lights, drew the doorway curtain (so the lights would not bother the birds), and did a little more work on the tedious task of sorting and organizing the sewing tools.

This means combining what was already in the living room, in the area designated for sewing, with items recently unpacked, and putting like things together. Some items had been stored in cardboard boxes near the little propane furnace and these I planned to transfer to new storage bins. I came across lumps of beeswax which, fortunately, I had sufficient sense to have placed inside freezer storage bags.

Good thing I did that because the heat from the propane furnace had melted the beeswax which was now in very odd shapes.

There are both benefits and disadvantages to our fairly new propane furnace. It is about the size of a small suitcase and penetrates the front (south) wall of the living room. It vents to the outside. It is efficient and there are no propane fumes at all in the house. That is necessary for the birds. This house was never equipped with central heat. The propane furnace does an amazing job, but it doesn’t heat the house evenly. The living room is toasty, but the north side of the house is always cool. I must keep some doors closed for animal control so the bird room and my bedroom are equipped with electric space heaters to supplement the living room unit. The electronic controls on the living room heater mean that if we lose power, which happens fairly regularly, we also lose all heat. Eventually I will have a wood stove for backup. Woodstove is in place and stovepipe is purchased but not yet installed.

I discovered that I must keep an area of about three to four feet in all directions from the furnace clear of anything that can be damaged by heat. I overlooked the beeswax.

I didn’t want to lose the beeswax. How do I go about heating it to reshape it. That question sent me to the internet where I searched “how to work with beeswax.” I was thinking double boiler but the answer was much simpler. Heat it in a bowl of hot water and that makes it sufficiently pliable to shape.

I carried the beeswax into the kitchen and then I remembered how I came to possess it in the first place. When we first moved to Arkansas we lived in a portable metal building on the Cherry Hill property. We had no electricity and no plumbing. We did have water at a frost free spigot in the yard. Eventually we had electricity installed. The place still has no plumbing. I had brought a modest sewing kit with me when we moved, but most of the sewing supplies and the sewing machines were packed. I was trying to mend something or other and I had trouble with kinks and knots in the thread. I said something to George, “I wish I had beeswax for this thread.”

George said, “No problem. I have two pounds of it.”

I looked at him.

He said, “What?”

Now granted that in all discussions with a person of the opposite sex one must keep firmly in mind that one is dealing with an alien intelligence.

“George, why did you think that you would need to bring two pounds of beeswax with you when moving to Arkansas to homestead in temporary housing? And how did you happen to have it in the first place?”

“Waxing thread.” That’s the way you do it when you restore a ragwing.”

I tried to understand why on earth he thought that restoring an antique aircraft would be the first thing we would do in Arkansas. Or the second, the third, or even the thousand-and-first thing. It made perfect sense to George. It made no sense at all to me.

He unearthed two pounds of beeswax from somewhere or other. I think it was from the depths of an old navy duffel bag. He cut off a generous portion and gave it to me–enough to keep me waxing sewing thread until I am a hundred and twenty years old, at least.

I stood at the kitchen sink and cut the beeswax into appropriate sized pieces, some larger, some smaller. I molded it into lumps that were more or less cubical. I refrigerated it briefly to harden it. The big bits I wrapped in aluminum foil for storage. The small bits went into my various sewing baskets. The reason I keep multiple sewing baskets is that I am apt to do hand sewing wherever it is convenient–the living room, my bedroom, or the home office.

After that I got a mug of coffee, went back to the living room and cogitated.

If there is to be a new arrangement, then what pieces will stay as they are, what will go to the warehouse, what will be brought from the warehouse, and in what order shall the work be done?

My mind went back to the beeswax. That stuff keeps almost indefinitely. How many years has George had that hoard? How valuable will it become if the bees continue on a path to extinction? The world’s honeybees are in big trouble. By the time the soaring price of beeswax regularly makes the news I will probably be long gone, but that is okay with me. I don’t think I want to live in a post Sixth Great Extinction world.

I pondered the arrangement of the living room. I’m stuck with the placement of the wall furnace, the corner cabinet, and the wood stove. That doesn’t leave much scope for arranging furniture. I’m also stuck with the fact that the only place to set up a sewing station is the living room. I reviewed the problem of the ironing board. An ironing board in the living room is–peculiar. Even more peculiar is hanging it from the living room wall to free up floor space. But putting it anywhere other than near the sewing area makes no sense at all because sewing and pressing are done together always. Never trust a seamstress who doesn’t press more than she sews. I went back to the internet and reviewed gadgets that allow one to hang a board on the wall together with the iron and other parts of the ironing operation. I read the reviews. Some were enthusiastic; some were not. Every single ironing board hanger I could find for sale received only qualified commendations with the most common criticisms being, in summary, “This is the finest workmanship from China. Wrong size screws, screws not long enough, screws and holes don’t align, this or that is flimsy. We managed to install it but it required a lot of backyard engineering.” What does not?

I caucused with George about the living room and about the bedroom space heater problem. He reported later that he had done the requisite troubleshooting. He had not, but that is another story. He then took off on a round of errand running. I persevered in the living room.

And, in the meantime, The rooms already cleaned and organized are immediately beginning to lapse into disorder, a process accelerated by macaws shredding newspaper and throwing food and water several feet from their habitats. Daughter Kit once described my cleaning operations as “Mom’s snowplow method.” But the snowplow slows down as one moves through the process because one must constantly backtrack to keep the rooms already completed from relentlessly returning to total mess.

By four in the afternoon, after hours of bouncing around among screaming macaws, trying to keep George on track, working on the living room, and also trying to get words down on paper, I had completed a section of the living room roughly four feet by ten feet. Time to open a bottle of wine.

Several more hours this evening were taken up by the continuing saga of the bedroom heater, but at this time, 8:00 p.m., I do once again have heat.

 

Country Journal/November 18, 2015

George mislaid his one and only pair of reading glasses and I mislaid my car key weeks ago; both are still missing. Our mantra is, “It’s here somewhere and eventually it will surface.” In the meantime I press on regardless with a very ambitious weeding, housecleaning, re-ordering, and organizing of my house. It’s an awful job, beyond boring, but it must be done. It won’t be done unless I do it. Everything else, including writing, is on hold. I can do daily journal entries so I am beginning a series of those. Whether anyone in the world is interested in reading them is another matter altogether.

But I did promise one friend that I would stick with it and get the house in order and the surplus removed. I promised another friend that I would relate the story of the glass-sided china cabinet key.

We’ve now been in Arkansas eight years and I think, maybe, this coming year will finally see everything unpacked and set into place. Never again will I work on painting and fixing up a house while living in it. Nightmare.

All right, then, to my story: The china cabinet is a Victorian piece from my paternal grandmother’s household. I have only three pieces of furniture that were hers. This is one of them. It rests on ball and claw feet. The sides and the front are glass. The door bows outward with a curved glass insert. It opens and closes with a small key. China cabinet is still in the warehouse in town. Before it can be moved here and set into its proper place I must do a lot of cleaning up in the living room. For one thing there must be a clear path for the movers to get this very fragile piece of furniture off the truck, into the house, and into place on the east wall of the room. I’ve quite a bit of make ready to do before this can happen.

In the meantime, in other rooms of the house I am, in addition to cleaning and getting rid of stuff that should have been thrown away years ago, making some minor changes. I decided to replace some curtain tiebacks. That sent me to the internet to see what was available and at what price. Do I want to buy something or make it myself? I investigated and discovered that there were some very handsome vintage tiebacks out there–for a price. And, if they are described as “vintage French passementerie” the price goes through the roof. Even “rustic” and “handmade” pieces were more than I wanted to spend. With twisted cords, tassels, and embellishments floating through my mind I went to bed night before last. So help me, I dreamed about curtain tiebacks. Towards morning I came wide awake and thought, “Where the heck is the key to the china cabinet?” The reason for this odd mental association is that for years, before one of the cats destroyed it, that particular small key had been decorated with a fancy tassel I had picked up somewhere for next to nothing. That fussy little pink and green tassel popped into my head because I had tassels on the brain and that led me naturally to think of that darned key.

That led to another memory–my mother’s distress when she lost the key to the Seth Thomas clock, whose striking chime marked all the hours of my childhood. “It’s a hundred years old.” she said. “Why did I have to be the person who lost the key?” We never did find that key, but eventually an old watchmaker with a huge inventory managed to come up with a replacement key that did work. The old clock needs major repairs to both the case and the works, but the key is in the clock case because I never put it anywhere else. We had the devil’s own time finding a replacement key in St. Louis in the 1950s. It would be a forlorn hope in Arkansas in 2015. Right now the Seth Thomas is gathering dust in one corner of the living room behind something else so the cats can’t knock it over.

George showed up. I related my worry concerning the key. Now I’ve been keeping house a long time and I’ve been through innumerable moves. I have learned a few things about packing and organizing so that small items don’t vanish. Also I have established some regular routines. “If I was using my head when we left Texas, which is open to doubt, I would have done the sensible thing and stacked all the shelves at the bottom of the cabinet and then left the key in the lock.” I said. “But I haven’t given the matter a thought in years and heaven only knows what I did eight years ago.”

George had to go to town because he needed something from the hardware store. He went by the warehouse, uncovered the china cabinet, which is swathed in old army blankets for protection. Sure enough, the key was in the lock. He brought me the key.

“Now,” he said, “where are we going to put it so it absolutely positively does not disappear?” Personally I wish he’d left it exactly where it was, but George is George and he did not. I found a tag and string and wrote “China Cabinet” and attached the tag to the key. Then, with both of us as witnesses, as we both have short term memory loss, I carefully placed it in a cubbyhole in the top left hand drawer of the maple desk in the home office. The desk formerly belonged to George’s mother and is typical mock colonial from the 1950s.

Gee, isn’t growing older and losing one’s mind a lot of fun?

What else? There are always a ton of nuisance value jobs to be done. I finished knitting the drawstring pouch George had requested as storage for his aviation safety wire pliers. I cut out a pair of curtain tiebacks using a remnant of silk, having decided to make my own. George installed a new perch for Paco (macaw) and a transverse perch and a new heater for Baby (macaw) and did the usual animal care. It usually takes Paco about 48 hours to chew up a two inch diameter hardwood perch and what I would do without George to constantly manufacture new ones I do not know. I restrung some beads (damage caused by mice–they ate the string). I picked up stuff and put it away. I answered a mess of e-mail questions from my first cousins who suddenly decided they could not live another day unless I supplied them with a ton of biographical information about our mutual grandmother. I wrote other e-mails. Thermometer in my room was too high to be easily read; I lowered it to a more convenient height. I boxed one Christmas present (for daughter Kit) and sent it on its way. Let her find a place to keep it between now and Christmas morning; her house is bigger than mine. A set of very cheap replacement curtains for the home office were delivered. I hung them, putting the old ones into a plastic bag to go to the cleaners or to the thrift store, whichever I decide. I did laundry. I folded towels. I figured out what to give to two family members for Christmas. George made a run to the liquor store–we live in a dry county–to place an order for the wine that will be wanted at our December family reunion.

In addition to losing my mind I am also losing my hair. If this keeps up I will be bald in a couple of years.

Now I had better go and cover the macaws. George cannot do it because the cages are tall and he has bad shoulders.

7:00 p.m. George is taking his shower. I would like very much to sit down with a glass of wine and a copy of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. That is not going to happen because before I go to bed I have three rooms to clean. Bathroom and kitchen can’t be done until George is finished and out of here. I say “out of here” because right now he is sleeping at the Cherry Hill cabin. Then there is my bedroom. First Baby shredded the newspaper on the floor of her cage into tiny confetti. Next she sat on top of her cage door and fanned her wings. The room is too fall for a big macaw to fly and she’s got to get her exercise somehow. That sent the remaining newspaper and the confetti all over the furniture and the floor. So after she is covered for the night I clean up the room.

Also must remind George that I need two clean cat boxes. One for the hall and one for Sally Bob (the Munchkin cat) in my room.

8:00 p.m. I am starting the second shift. Refrigerator is acting up. That means defrost the drain tubes leading down from the freezer. George can do, but he needs room to put the contents of freezer and room to work. That means put up dishes, wash dishes, put stuff away, get it clean and swept so he can have room to work tomorrow. After that, the bathroom and my room.

10:00 p.m. I have done everything except for the floors. I am beat and I am going to bed. I’ll do floors in the morning. I did find George’s glasses, exactly where he left them, in the kitchen, on the dresser behind Lady Jasper’s cage (Quaker parrot). I wrote this in Word and I will print out and copy onto my website. I keep backup hardcopy of everything. I’m a Luddite. Right now I’m a very tired Luddite.

A Day in the Life of a Writer Who Is Not Writing

IMGP4191September 6, 2015

I was awake at first light. I made a cup of tea. I did a batch of hand washing and hung it on the line. My washing machine has a cycle for delicates but my washing machine is not working at the moment. I got on the internet and checked the weather forecast with NOAA. I checked incoming e-mails. I told Sally Bob (cat) and Baby (scarlet macaw) that I would be with them shortly. I fed Gray Lady (outside cat). I told Polly and Paco (blue and gold macaws) to just keep their feathers on and someone would attend to them soon. I put up clean dishes and stacked dirty ones for washing.

I made a cup of Coffee for George and then went and shook him awake. He was not happy and I don’t blame him, but the fresh coffee helped. We had a brief caucus about plans for the day. I said there were two hens who were being badly pecked and must be separated from the flock. Where to house them? We figured that out. George was grumpy because every segregated bird means another cage to clean and another food and water bowl to manage. George asked if I had called the washing machine repair man yesterday. I said no, but would start calling daily on Monday. We’ve been trying to get him out here for two weeks. I said I thought I had better set up to do all the laundry by hand outside as there is not enough in this month’s budget for trips to the laundromat. George said, use the washing machine; it works except for the timer. I was doubtful but said I would give it a try. I loaded it and started it. George said he would mind it and advance it manually through its cycles. He then completely forgot about it.

We went out to inspect the work in progress on the back wall of the old chicken house where we are re-building and repairing. We discussed what to do. George said he could not finish without additional corrugated metal. I said we have some. He was not convinced of that so I walked him over to the big barn and showed him. He said that he thought he had enough materials on hand to finish the back wall. We discussed priorities. We decided that he should first carry all the household trash to the drop off point and next get gasoline for the car and for all the various gas cans that constitute fuel for the riding lawnmower and reserve gas for the car. He began loading the car.

I discovered the washing machine stuck on wash and leaking water from the bottom of the machine. I told George. He said that he would move the dryer so that he could inspect the washer. He did that. Dryer is still outside the back door (covered with a tarp in case of possible rain) and it is now 1:28 of the following day. It will stay there a few days as I hate to ask George to move anything unnecessarily; it causes him a lot of pain. George checked all visible washing machine connections and said they are tight. I said we can’t use the machine until it is repaired as I have just painted that floor and don’t want the paint peeling because of moisture.

George did the trash run and gas run and then asked again about priorities. I said stay with the back wall of the chicken house until it is finished. He did the morning animal chores and then started on the chicken house. I went into the house, collapsed, and slept for an hour. I got up, made myself tea and started on kitchen clean up. I can’t let it go; we are afflicted by both ants and mice. I watered all the house plants. That is a big job. They were bone dry. I watered some outside plants. I constantly checked on the drying clothes on the line and got them in as they dried and piled them all on top of my still unmade bed. Over the course of the afternoon I got them all folded and put away. I wrote e-mails. I ordered bird food from the internet. I can’t buy the kind I feed locally. I checked bank balances, credit card balances, and started the work of planning a short trip I will make in October.

George came in, hot and tired and hurting. He has artificial shoulders plus he is 84. He had been knocking bad wood off the back of the chicken house with a sledgehammer. He rested. He promised to water the outside newly planted trees this evening. That won’t happen. He has too much to do and he will be exhausted.

I took a shower, washed my hair, gave myself a very quick manicure and pedicure, very superficial. George brought in the mail and discovered that we have a car safety recall to refit the car with new airbags. That must be done immediately. George tried calling the dealership. No luck. He said he would go to Hot Springs on Monday (fifty miles) and make an appointment for the work on the car and also pick up the dry cleaning. I said I needed the car on Tuesday to go to Mena to deal with my medical records and my insurance problem and that is also something that must be done and cannot be postponed.

I checked on the chickens. They were overheated so I turned on their overhead shower which is an irrigation hose on the chicken wire roof of their outside pen that provides a drizzle in hot weather. They flocked to it. They like the fresh water and the wet ground.

I picked up a piece of unfinished knitting, corrected a mistake, and got the work re-started correctly.

Sometime during the day I ate two plain slices of bread, fixed myself two scrambled eggs, and drank one glass of wine.

I sent more e-mails pertaining to the October trip. I heard from the woman with whom I will be staying saying evrything is cool and come whenever ready.

I got Baby out of her cage and put her on the back of my home office chair, fed her a peanut, and talked to her while trying to figure out why a password that has always worked on a particular website is not working now. No live person is available for help–please go to our forums. I sent a message to said forum.

I thought about re-writing a speech in Chapter Two, writing the Prologue, and about what will happen in Chapter Three, but was too tired to do anything about it.

George spent the evening doing animal work. He fed the cats, cleaned the bird room, sort of, and arranged all chickens for the night. With the back wall off of the chicken house they must be crated and brought inside each night.

I composed a dramatic monologue in my head that should, let us hope, shame the washing machine repair guy into getting himself out here and fixing my machine. Over a lifetime I have had plenty of experience as a motivational speaker getting two kids and two husbands off of their butts and doing whatever they needed to be doing.

I picked up the bathroom and got all damp towels out on the line to dry.

By 10:30 I felt very tired and sleepy. I went to bed. I dozed very lightly until about midnight and then woke up and could not go back to sleep so I got up. I started transcribing a previously written short story onto my website and then I wrote this.

It’s probably a forlorn hope but I will now go and try to sleep.

The Mare

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September 20, 2015

When her vision began to clear she found herself standing on the edge of a highway. There was no traffic. She was alone. The road was divided down the middle by a strip of freshly mowed grass. Each side of the highway had two lanes, plainly marked by painted stripes, on each side of the grassy median. The road curved ahead of her and behind her. She could not see where she had been nor where she was going. On both sides of the roadway there was a thick growth of big pine trees. She could smell their resinous crisp scent. Their large shaggy boles soared heavenward. Far above her head the wind rustled gently in their spreading crowns. There were a few fallen pine cones lying in the grass beside the road. Pine straw littered the gravel beneath her feet. It was late afternoon, but she did not know how she knew this. The sky was overcast and a fine mist was falling. She could feel it on her face, but the sensation was not disagreeable. The weather was warm. She was not thirsty or hungry or in any pain. She might have been where she was for a long time. Perhaps she had been, but about this point she was not certain. She did not have any idea where she was. There were no signs, no guideposts. She might be anywhere. There were pine forests like these from Florida to Texas.

Gradually she became aware that her shoulders were beginning to ache. She was holding her hands and arms behind her and tugging away at some heavy object. She was curious. She decided to let go, turn around, and have a look at it. She did so immediately. At first she could not make out what it was either because the light was bad or there was something the matter with her eyes, but she continued to focus on it until she could see that it was a crudely made horse trailer, battered, badly rusted, and extremely muddy. She had been hauling it along the side of the road by the hitch. She could not imagine why she was doing this.

Turning back from her examination of the trailer she looked as far as she could along the road in the direction she was traveling. For the first time she noticed a lighted area ahead of her not very far away. Inside the lighted space there was a blocky rectangular shape that appeared to be a building. She gazed at it through the mist for a few minutes and decided that it was indeed a building of some kind, a restaurant or a service station, maybe. She thought that there might be other people there and, perhaps, shelter.

Seizing the trailer hitch again as before she pulled hard. Presently the cumbersome thing began to roll slowly forward. The trailer was very heavy. She was afraid to abandon the trailer. She could not remember how she happened to have it in her possession, but it seemed, somehow, to be terribly important. She felt a sense of responsibility concerning it.

Luckily, she did not have far to go. As she slowly approached the lights she could see that they were a series of high intensity lamps set on tall poles surrounding the perimeter of a service station that was also brilliantly lit from within. The area around the service station was bathed in a pool of colorless light. There were no people. The place was immaculately clean and appeared to be brand-new. The station and its surrounding island of pavement were set apart from the pine forest by a high solid concrete block wall, painted white. The walls of the service station itself were also white, but shiny, like glazed porcelain. There were three large silvery garage doors. Two were rolled down, but one was open. She could see the hydraulic lifts set into the floors and several tool chests on wheels, with numerous drawers, neatly arranged against the inside wall. Above these were racks hung with belts and hoses. The noticed that there was a large oil drum in one corner painted white with the word “WASTE” neatly stenciled on it in big black letters. The was a water cooler to quench the thirst of the mechanics but none was in sight. The adjoining office had huge plate glass windows, a desk and swivel chair, a cash register, and several lounge chairs upholstered in red plastic. Pyramids of brightly colored cans of oil were arranged in each window. There was a vending machine for candy and another for soft drinks. Outside there new tires on display, chained and padlocked to tubular steel racks. Two metal canopies stretched out, like welcoming arms, over the platforms where the fuel pumps stood, painted orange and white, with digital displays to record the number of gallons sold and black hoses to dispense the gasoline. Next to these she could see smaller hoses that provided air and water. Running from each light pole that stood just inside the encircling wall and crisscrossing the entire area were strings of cheerful looking whirligigs and lines of small triangular plastic flags in vivid colors–pink and lime green, yellow and blue. Interspersed with these were gold and silver tinsel streamers, so thick they hid the sky. The mild breeze set all these in motion. The flags made an endless flapping sound. The whirligigs whirred and the tinsel streamers sighed. All was in readiness for the automobiles that traveled that road and for the people who rode in them, but there was not a vehicle nor a traveler visible anywhere, except for the trailer and herself.

She had stopped at the edge of the lighted area to take stock. After a bit she thought she detected movement. She stepped forward just as a young man came around the corner of the service station. He was blonde, clean-shaven, and dressed all in spotless white, like his station. She noticed that he was very young. He had a fresh and inexperienced air, insouciant, untouched by any sorrow, such as young people sometimes have. It gave him the appearance of a being not of this world. He looked at the woman uneasily, as if he wanted to be of some use, but was uncertain what to do for a traveler on foot, without an automobile to be fueled or a windshield to be wiped.

The young man’s uncertainty made her painfully self-conscious. She became aware that her clothes were rough and dirty. Her jacket was out at the elbows. Her pants were pushed awkwardly into the tops of her boots. She was muddy from the knees down. Her gloves had holes in the fingers. Her hair needed combing. She thought that she must not much resemble his idea of a good customer. She looked anxiously back at the horse trailer and then at the service station attendant.

“Please, may I park the trailer here?” she said to the young man.

The attendant in white looked doubtful. He looked at the trailer and back again at the woman.

“It’s okay, lady, but you can’t stay here forever. Put it over at the side of the garage where it won’t be in the way.” he said at last.

The woman went back to the trailer and grabbed the hitch and hauled away. The trailer rumbled and squeaked after her. It seemed heavier than ever. She put it where the young man had directed, at the far side of the garage. She didn’t care. The whole area was as bright as a summer day. The woods leaned over the wall. Pine branches scraped the top of the trailer, which looked uglier and dirtier than ever, contrasted with everything there that was clean and new.

She went all around the trailer, studying it, and stopped at the back. The homemade makeshift nature of this trailer was obvious. It had a heavy tailgate that was hinged at the bottom rather than the usual arrangement of doors that swing open from the sides. The tailgate was held in place by steel pins on chains. With difficulty she unfastened these. The tailgate fell open and struck the pavement with a loud resounding clang. Because the trailer was built high off the ground the tailgate rested at a steep angle. The woman thought that this was not right, but she was powerless to alter it. She could not see at all into the interior of the trailer. It was pitch black inside.

“Are you all right? she said. “Can you get out of there okay?” After she had spoken she realized that it was her own voice. She did not know why she had spoken. She did not know to what or to whom she spoke. She thought, I’m losing my mind.

“Yes, I think so.” said a pleasant voice from within the trailer. “Give me a little time.”

There were snuffling and snorting noises from within the trailer, followed by a scraping sound. A moment later the mare backed out of the trailer with a rush and stood briefly with her hind feet on the pavement and her front feet in the trailer. Then she backed up slowly with her hindquarters well up under her and her front legs stiffly braced. Her forelegs came down the tailgate in an ungainly sliding motion. Her hooves made an awful rasping sound. Having landed safely with all four feet on the pavement, she shook herself all over, from head to tail.

The woman was dumbfounded. She had not known what to expect, but surely not this. What was she to do with a talking horse? She stood and stared. The horse was a large coarsely made dark chestnut mare with a broad heavy head and a Roman nose. She had a thick crested neck and a long flaxen mane and tail. She looked very strong. The mare had no halter, bridle, or saddle. She had no horseshoes.

Awed, the woman put her arms around the mare’s neck, like Alice and the fawn in that magical place without memory, and led the horse gently from the hard concrete onto the soft grass. The woman thought that the grass would be easier on the horse’s legs and hooves.

“That’s better.” said the horse. “This is very nice.” The woman jumped. She either could not believe or could not remember that the horse talked.

They stood side by side in a little clearing close to the shoulder of the highway where the perimeter wall stopped. Just outside the wall the pine woods began. They were just within the wall and within the friendly circle of light that surrounded the service station. The mist had stopped falling. Sunlight struggled fitfully through a cloud bank in the west. The mare put her head down and blew her breath out gently. She began to eat the grass.

Suddenly a man came running out of the woods and jumped up onto the mare’s back. The woman thought, how can he run like that? He’s crippled. The woman knew at once that he was her husband and that they had been married for many years. He was lean and dark, but from first to last she could not see him clearly.

“Come on! Let’s ride her.” he said and kicked the mare’s sides. Man and horse started off.

“Don’t!” She’s tired.” the woman said, but he did not listen. Frantic and fearful she ran after them, but she knew she could not keep up with the increasing speed of the horse. In desperation she scrambled up onto the back of the mare and clung to her husband’s waist.

The mare galloped along the bottom of a drainage ditch filled with a growth of weeds that ran parallel to the highway. There was water standing in the ditch. The woman could feel the mare’s hooves slithering in mud. For a horrible moment the horse staggered and almost went down, but she made a mighty effort and recovered her footing. Frightened, the mare turned abruptly and struggled up the bank of the ditch until she reached the shoulder of the road.

The man kicked the mare’s sides again and she bolted diagonally across the highway which was all at once, inexplicably, full of traffic. Brakes screamed and cars swerved violently to avoid the running horse. The woman caught glimpses of glossy painted fenders sliding by, inches away. She could not see the passengers or drivers, only headlights and the glint of glass and chrome.

Then they were across the road and galloping at full speed along the opposite shoulder.

“Slow down. I’m not a very good rider.” the woman said. The man never said a word. The pine trees gave way to a field. He kicked the horse again. She galloped through the field, going more slowly now because she was crossing the rows, which had been newly plowed and sown.

“We don’t belong here.” the woman said.

The horse ran very well despite the heavy going. She held her head up proudly. Her pale mane streamed like a banner.

AT the far edge of the field they entered a long narrow alley which was bordered on both sides by a dense wood. The path in front of them ran straight, like a tunnel through the pine trees, but it was studded here and there with the sawed  off trunks of saplings which were like spikes set as obstacles in their way. These grew more numerous as they went along. The path narrowed. The mare lapsed from a gallop to a slow trot and then to a walk as she was forced to pick her way carefully through the thicket of sapling spears. The path narrowed further until the branches of the trees on either side met above them. The overhanging branches came down lower and lower threatening to scrape the woman from her precarious perch on the horse’s back. She had ducked down and made herself small while feeling the prickly pine branches drag over her head and back.

Still the man urged the horse forward and she went bravely on with her strong neck proudly arched. The woman was increasingly afraid. Night was falling. The path ahead was dark. She was frightened both for herself and for the horse. It seemed to her that her own life and the mare’s were inextricably linked. She had a sense of very real and imminent peril, although from what she could not have told. The mare went ever more slowly while the woods pressed in from every side.

The next thing she knew she was sitting bolt upright in bed. Beside her, a shapeless mount under the blankets, her husband slept on. For a time she hung simultaneously in two worlds. Then she could see, by the faint radiance from the night-light in the hall outside the bedroom, his crutches leaning against the foot of the bed. She could feel her heart racing and blood surging and singing in her ears. She sat rigid, frozen with fear, motionless, a small trapped creature waiting for whatever was to come to her, for a fate not known, shadowy in its details, but nonetheless dreaded and loathed, then seeing at last the meshes which had been tenaciously, silently, cunningly forged by her own civilized, conscientious expectations.

 

 

Pygmalion Revisited: A Fantasia (Part Two)

July 17, 2015

Gentle Reader: Start with Part One and, yes, it’s a long essay.

Part Two

Flashback to the scene at the airport: the paperback book which I had stuffed into the side pocket of my carry-on bag remained there until I unpacked at my apartment in Galveston. I had not the heart to resurrect Trav and Meyer after the slight we had all suffered together. I would wait until my peace and privacy were completely restored before inviting them to come out and play once more. I had other books with me, a variety to suit my moods. They increased the weight of my luggage until I sometimes felt like an overburdened pack mule but I couldn’t do without them on business trips. They were my good company in strange hotel rooms and my solace during bouts of loneliness and insomnia when far from home. After the telling of the tale, after our flights had been called and Kodaly had departed for his destination and I for mine, after I was seated, buckled, with bag stowed at my feet, I had yet a long and weary wait while the accumulated airplanes waited on the ground for take-off clearance. I rummaged for another book, still peevish that my pleasure in McDonald had been momentarily dimmed. Well! Not even Mr. Humanities himself could object to Homer although he might sneer at my reading him in Lattimore’s translation rather than in the original Greek. I settled in with the Iliad. I had worked my way through the front matter, Book One, and the beginning of Book Two when the plane, which had been held at the gate and then again on the taxiway, finally lifted off the runway.

As it was to have been a southbound morning flight, now finally airborne at mid-afternoon, I had arranged for a seat on the right hand side to avoid the glare, a useless bit of prudence, regardless of the time of day, because we flew in clouds all the way back to Houston, never breaking out of them. I sat in my seat that should have been on the shady side if the flight had been on schedule, but wasn’t because it was now afternoon and the weather had changed causing both sides of the aisle to be equally dim and gloomy. I switched on the overhead light and read Homer. All of which, my sitting in a carefully chosen spot, the advantages of which had been rendered futile by the gods, the fates, the rulers of men and the universe, which may clue you in as to how many years I have been reading The New Yorker, the workings of El Nino, and my reading the old poet eloquent on the futility of all human precautions, the story I had just heard from Kodaly, the chief moral of which, if there be one, the operation of chance and the revolution of the wheel of fortune, the operator of which, if one exists, is blind, and, if God does not play dice with the universe, then it at least appears that the welfare of individuals, human and otherwise, on this planet, matters only to themselves and to no greater power, from which one could argue equally well that it is every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost or the other way around, that we had best hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately. At any rate I found myself in an elegiac and reminiscent frame of mind.

It is the second semester of graduate school, first class, first assignment…Homer. Dr. Alvis is at the lectern. I still have my notes wherein I faithfully wrote down his immortal words, “At the beginning of the Iliad the question is raised who is to be the more greatly honored–a king or a mighty warrior. By the end of the story this question has become completely irrelevant.”

Besides the message presented by the text there is another message presented by the long survival of this work, a message not stated but implicit; neither Agamemnon nor Achilles would have been remembered at all, if it had not been for Homer. The long survival of this work fulfills the prophecy of Achilles’ fame, but ironically. It does say something about the hold that a good story has on mankind. Like the cat without the tale, Homer’s is the last laugh. I read on. Nestor is recalling the events at Aulis prior to the launching of the fleet, “For I say to you, the son of all-powerful Kronos promised, on that day when we went in our fast-running vessels, we of Argos, carrying blood and death to the Trojans. He flashed lightning on our right, showing signs of favor.”

At that moment the cloudbank visible from my seat, the entire western sky, was lit up by an enormous flash. The airplane hit a bit of turbulence and bounced. A woman in the seat behind me gave a little scream and began to pray in Spanish, “Dios te salve, Maria, Ilena eres de gracia; el Senor es contigo: bendita tu eres entre todas las mujeres…” She suddenly became conscious that she was speaking aloud and her voice then dropped to a whisper. That part of the feminine condition, that part of the artist’s struggle, that aspect of the human experience, has not changed. We become self-conscious and we drop our voices. I think that is when I decided to write Kodaly’s story. If you tell your life history to a stranger in an airport then you must take your chances.

Now on a flight from Austin to Houston one barely attains cruising altitude before one begins to descend. Just as well; mortals trespassing in the realm of Zeus are perhaps pushing their luck. Lightning bolts illuminated the cabin, emanating from the right side, just as I was reading the matching passage in Homer. A good omen, but for what? My life, my writing, my safety in the air, my hope of a long life? Far more probable that it was a matter of pure coincidence, however enchanting. I was clueless then and I am clueless now.

In his conversational musings, Kodaly told me one incident that displayed both his wife’s character and something of their lives together. At some point he raised an ordinary question at the breakfast table as to which of certain household bills had been paid, including the house mortgage payment. His wife replied airily and on her way out the door that she had paid none of them. Kodaly then spent the next few hours scrambling to cover this domestic deficit. He made the house payment, but he had to sell his prized and very expensive camera in order to do it. He still regretted the sale of the camera.

As I write this, due to a long and tedious series of personal reversals, my library is packed, stored, and unavailable. It is a huge nuisance. There are only three books on my computer table, an ill assorted group that landed there partly by chance and partly as a result of my interests. They are: The Knitter’s Handbook, Forshaw’s Parrots of the World, and Taleb’s The Black Swan. My second edition of Taleb in paperback runs 444 pages plus the separately numbered 33 page prologue. It is a favorite of mine. Here is Taleb’s thesis in a nutshell, but presented in the form of a joke. I have no way of knowing the age of this story, but I’d be willing to bet it had whiskers when Hector was a pup. I have a hunch it was an old story when Herodotus wrote it down.

This was told to me by a friend a great many years ago.

A man was taken prisoner by a king. Maybe he was a war captive. Maybe he was a criminal. The details do not matter. He was sentenced to die, but before he was executed he was permitted to appear before the king, in case he had anything to say for himself.

The man made the king an offer. If the king would delay his execution for a year, the captive would teach the king’s horse to talk. If he proved successful, he would go free. If he failed, the king could go ahead and execute him.

The king thought this over. It seemed very unlikely that a horse could be taught to talk. But, if the horse did learn to talk, then he would be the only man in the world with a talking horse. It would insure his fame forever.

So, the king agreed to the bargain. He had nothing to lose.

A fellow prisoner castigated the man and told him he was just plain crazy. No one could teach a horse to talk. The prisoner was not concerned by this bit of pessimism.

“A lot of things can happen in a year.” he said. “The king might die. I might die. The horse might die. Or, the horse might learn to talk.”

This guy certainly grasped the principle of exposing oneself to positive Black Swans. Obviously, at the common level, at the level of jokes and folklore, there have always been quite a lot of people who understood the event that is unlooked for and outside all our previous experience. That is the heart of fairy tales and romances.

A lot of things can happen in a year.

That brings us to the conclusion of Kodaly’s story.

In the Biblical phrase, it all changed in the twinkling of an eye. Kodaly’s wife suffered a stroke. Eventually, after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, she recovered to the point that she could dress herself and feed herself. But she could not hold any job much less continue as a dean and a scholar. As the saying goes, when women attain the corner office with the window they also inherit the stress and the heart attack. As for the Kodalys, their rise had been meteoric; their downfall was a free fall without a parachute. Money, reputation, friends, house all disappeared. At the time Kodaly was relating this to me in the Austin airport he was serving as the director of a library on a small campus in a small town in west Texas. The care of his wife was a constant concern; he had no family or close friends to lend a hand. He said frankly that he hated the job, the staff, and the community. He was accustomed to a large university in a cosmopolitan setting. He was confined. He was miserable. He also needed money. He mentioned that he was hoping to sell his wife’s personal research library–a collection of scholarly books about Shakespeare.

This final twist was entirely unexpected. I was transfixed and speechless. But at the mention of the collection of Shakespearean materials I came to my senses. I broke in and said, “Maybe I can help.”

I said, “The professor who teaches Shakespeare on our campus has said that he would be able to teach the course very differently if he had the appropriate library support. There are literally no books on Shakespeare in our collection. That undergraduate Shakespeare course is offered only every other semester. Our library is small; its chief focus is the marine sciences because that’s what we do. I don’t know whether or not I can persuade the administration to purchase this collection but I can certainly ask. Go home and make a list of the books and send it to me.” I scribbled my name, title, and the university address on a scrap of paper. I didn’t have a business card. At our humble institution only the library director rated business cards. He looked surprised and grateful. That was our last exchange before our flights were called. I never saw him again.

In due course, after I had given up hope of ever hearing from Kodaly, I received a manila envelope with several pages of bibliography of about two hundred standard scholarly studies on Shakespeare. Kodaly also stated an asking price. He wanted $3,000.00 for the collection. I photocopied the whole thing and sent it to Bill, the head of the English Department, the professor who taught Shakespeare. In due course I crossed paths with him and he was delighted. “I never thought I would have a collection like this supporting Shakespeare studies in our library.” he said. “Hold your horses.” I answered. “It’s by no means a done deal, but if you approve of the titles I will go talk to Dean McClellan.” I had no intention of discussing this particular purchase with my library head.

I made an appointment to see the dean. I took the list in hand and walked over to his office. I had never spoken with the man before. I presented the matter in a few words. He said yes without any hesitation.

“Heavens,” I said, a bit startled, “are you always this easy?”

He glared at me.

“No, I am not.” He said he was willing to pay $2,500.00.

I wrote Kodaly. He wrote back, holding out for $3,000.00. I mulled this over and then I wrote the most persuasive letter I could manage. I told him that I did not expect to be in my present position or on this campus more than a few more months and that no one else here, besides Bill, was the slightest bit interested in pursuing this purchase. I advised him that he would be much better off selling the collection as a whole and that if he chose to market the books one by one it would be an enormous hassle for him. He wrote back accepting our offer.

No, that’s not the end of the story. There’s more. Eventually the boxes of books arrived. Bill was ecstatic. He also had hung around the library sufficiently to understand at least parts of our operation. “How soon can you get them processed?” he asked. “We can get it done before the beginning of the next semester,” I said, “It’s straight copy cataloging; it will all be on OCLC. I’ll ask Elizabeth to make it top priority.” I then talked to my senior clerk. “Let me finish the book truck I’m working on.” she said. “I’ll start on the Shakespeare collection first thing Monday morning.”

About the middle of Monday morning Elizabeth came to the door of my office. “Alice, this is very odd. I think you need to come and take a look.” I walked over to her work station. She was surrounded by cardboard boxes of books from Kodaly. She had unpacked several of them. She showed me one. She said, “I think every one of them is damaged like this.” It turned out that she was right. Every single book had the first few pages slashed. It looked as if it had been done with a razor blade. Someone had systematically mutilated the first few pages of every book. Luckily I had a lot of acid free reversible tape on hand. It won’t damage pages and it can be easily removed if that becomes necessary. I had undergone quite a tussle with my library director before I was allowed to purchase it because the darned stuff is expensive. I sat at one of the big worktables and spent days repairing those books while Elizabeth cataloged. I thought about Shakespeare and about Woolf’s imaginary character who was Shakespeare’s sister. I also chewed on the idea that it is almost impossible to read Shakespeare purely, to come to the experience without the burden of his great reputation. He is an icon, an institution, and an industry, all of which does tend to get in the way mightily.

At the end of the first week of repairing and cataloging the Kodaly collection we all took a break and went home. Technical Services does not work weekends. That’s one of the few advantages of a job in cataloging. We are the people in the back room the public never sees. On Sunday night I got a phone call from one of my daughters. “Honey,” I said, “I’ve got an interesting story to tell you.” I related, in brief, the story Kodaly had told me and the story of our purchase of the Shakespeare collection. I made no surmises; I presented the facts as I knew them.

“How awful,” she said. “How terribly frustrated she must have been to have attacked the books she loved.”

“It’s very interesting that you said that.” I said. “Neither of us knows exactly what happened, but your supposition agrees with what I have been thinking.”

During Christmas break I married George, having known him for years. A few months later I left Galveston. I have never been back.

So then Highway 88, black-hearted, asphalted step-mother. I am now retired. I live in rural Arkansas. I am old; George is older. When we drive the miles to town he goes slowly. Eyes, ears, reflexes are not what they once were. George pulls off the road occasionally to let the hot shots pass. We are both amused by this because generally we pull up right behind the pickup, driven by the young man who passed us ten miles back, when we get to the stop sign at the outskirts of our small town. It’s emblematic. The American Dream has run out of steam. No matter how fast we bowl along the highways there is always a stop sign.

“At the beginning of the Iliad the question is raised, who is to be more greatly honored, a king or a mighty warrior. By the end of the story this question has become completely irrelevant.”

We are none of us going to get out of this mess alive.

A university is a collection of books. We have the Epic of Gilgamesh; it’s the jstory of two buddies on a road trip. Sound familiar? We have Beowulf because one copy survived, although scorched by a library fire, Cotton Vitellius Axv. We have a few scraps of Sappho. It is estimated we have maybe one-tenth of ancient Greek literature. And, on the subject of tenths, that is the estimated percentage of books in Europe destroyed during World War II. We have the Tain Bo Cuailnge, a cattle rustling and range war story written centuries before the American West. We have those amazing Icelandic sagas.

What we do not have eighty plus years after A Room of One’s Own is economic parity between men and women and it now looks as if that is only one small piece of our huge and growing problems with regard to equal opportunity.

Here’s another story about a horse. No, the horse doesn’t talk.

When I first met George, I owned horses. He was intensely interested in the horses and asked innumerable questions. At some point I made the mistake of mentioning dressage. He immediately pounced on this new word and asked what it was. Now I was in difficulties. I was in over my head. I said, “I don’t know enough to answer that in any detail and it would not mean much to you anyway at this point. But occasionally we do have either a presentation by a Lipizzaner troop or a dressage demonstration in this part of the world and, if that happens, I will take you. It will make a lot more sense after you see it for yourself.”

It so happened that a few months after that conversation I heard, through the stable grapevine, that a dressage trained horse named High Jinks and his rider would give a demonstration at a certain riding arena in our area. There was no admission charge. I went and took George. I had never seen High Jinks but I had heard the name.

The audience was not large; we got good seats. Presently the announcer introduced himself and made someremarks about High Jinks and his show career. Then he said, “High Jinks and two other horses will enter the ring for the first part of this demonstration.” He named the other two horses and their riders.

George said, “Be sure and point out High Jinks. I don’t know anything about horses.”

I said, “High Jinks is a world champion. You will know him when you see him.” George continued to demand in an urgent whisper that I finger the horse.

Three horses and their riders rode into the ring abreast at a walk.

Without the slightest hesitation George said, “The one in the middle is High Jinks.” I don’t think I need to tell you that he was right.

The first part of the demonstration involved all three horses executing various maneuvers. After a short break the second part was presented by High Jinks and his rider solo, with no other horses in the ring. Now, in dressage, the rider is conspicuous by being inconspicuous. Cues to the horse are virtually invisible. The attention of the average observer is on the horse. High Jinks very prettily executed a series on moves on the diagonal. It was perfection. Then his rider brought him to the center of the ring where he did a classical piaffe. The announcer had stopped talking. The audience had fallen silent.

Then the announcer spoke, “What we are watching, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference between craft and art.”

Guys, we’re talking about a horse.

But at that moment in time, watching that animal, I think that most, of not all, of the people in the audience would have agreed with him.

Years ago I took a car trip, traveling by myself. There is only one incident that I remember clearly from that particular junket. My itinerary took me close to Hammond, Louisiana, where my first cousin, Lucienne, was teaching art at the grade school level. I phoned. No she couldn’t take a day off, but I was welcome to visit at her classroom. It was perhaps the oddest family visit I have known. It was fall. The art lesson of the day involved pumpkins. I handed out materials, collected finished work, and generally acted as a teaching assistant. During a lull in the buzz of the kids Lucienne looked over at me and said, completely out of the blue, “What is art?” I said the first thing that came into my head. I answered, “Art is life.” Lucienne said, “That’s a cliche, but, well, maybe there’s some truth to it.”

First thought, right thought? Hell, no. What I said was idiotic. If I were to attempt to answer that question now what I would say would be different altogether. Virginia Woolf postulated that there is no poetry by Judith Shakespeare because women lacked access to education and economic opportunity and because of the drain of domestic responsibilities. That’s one way of looking at the problem. But it’s thinking inside the box. Another way is to consider how we define art. Is it what we ordinarily think it is or are we tap dancing in order to keep certain parties conveniently beyond the pale? Aye, there’s the rub

Is art a symphony played by a full orchestra in an acoustically grand building and attended by those who can afford the tickets? Is it a painting that is so prized that it hangs on the wall at a museum? Maybe, you reply, but it’s also a matter of aesthetics and great skill. And, unfortunately, it’s also about who is allowed access to the fame and the money in a winner takes all system.

All of this is well plowed ground in the art world, but it was a new way of thinking for me. That’s me–reinventing the wheel.

On Fridays I meet with a group of women at a local coffee shop. This group defines itself as women who enjoy doing crafts. We have knitters, crocheters, weavers, quilters, beaded jewelry makers, doll specialists, and painters. It’s a lively group and our conversations cover the waterfront. One day I told them the High Jinks story. They got the point immediately and in the discussion that followed the general consensus of opinion was that when craft, any craft, is carried to a certain point of extraordinary skill, exceeding our usual expectations of excellence, it becomes art. They didn’t boggle in the least at the fact that the performer in this instance had four feet.

I think it was in Introduction to Anthropology as a freshman that I first encountered the concept of culture as being everything that is man made from language and baskets to Il Nozze di Figaro. That is what first planted the seed of thinking about culture, craft, and art, not as distinct things, but as a continuum every part of which was important. Still later I realized that the act of creation extended beyond the human realm.

That brings us to Frostie. No, not the snowman, this is Frostie the cockatoo, the internet star. Go and Google “Frostie the cockatoo grooving to Ray Charles,” if you have not already seen it, and you will bring up a dancer who literally has wings. If dance is the movement of the body in time to music to express mood or emotion and to provide aesthetic pleasure then Frostie certainly meets those criteria. If you can watch Frostie without being moved to laughter then likely there is nothing on the planet that you will find funny. He is an entertainer par excellence.

So, what is art?

Consider the knotty problem of the work of Elsebeth Lavold. Unless you are a knitter you have probably never heard of her. She is a knitwear designer and one of the finest in the world. Her work is exhibited in museums. Is it art? The government of Sweden says no. Lavold was irritated by this assessment to the point of naming her company “Ingen Konst” which means “Not Art” in Swedish. This is a quotation from her website at www.ingenkonst.se/: “Should Elsebeth decide to design a sweater with three arms, size 352, and drape it on the Statue of Liberty, she would have created an object of art – or…? In Sweden, sales tax for the sweater would thereby be reduced, whereas a normal, fully usable sweater is regarded as craft, and subject to full sales tax. Can you believe it? Regardless of this the usable sweater could still be artistic in composition.”

Does it matter? It matters a great deal if you are, at least in your own mind, an artist. For quilters inclusion in the annual show of the American Quilters Society in Paducah, Kentucky is the ultimate achievement. This show is the Mecca of the quilting world. Thousands make the pilgrimage to view this exhibit. Both quilts and viewers come from all over the world. But it is presently defined as ingen konst, not art, and is unlikely to rate a review in The New Yorker. That is reserved for The Lightning Field and Spiral Jetty.

In the case of Elsebeth Lavold, the chief consequence of the government’s decision had to to with sales tax. It’s the money; it’s always the money. It is explicit in Woolf and implicit in Austen. It matters hugely. In the words of Auden:

“You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass,

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle class

Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass,’

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.”

During Van Gogh’s lifetime, when paintings from his sunflowers series were considered by most to be ugly daubs, it mattered. When, many years later, those same paintings sold at the famous auction houses for gazillions, it mattered, although it certainly did not benefit Van Gogh. And how can one painting be both an ugly outrageous daub and a masterpiece of the painter’s art? If that is not arbitrary, what is? Apparently art is as subject to paradigm shifts as science.

Art is what we define it to be and that definition often does not make much sense. It’s a matter of fashion or, to use Taleb’s word, contagion. Who gets the fame and the money? Which group benefits, to use Woolf’s phrase, from the “unending stream of silver and gold?”

At some point I decided that doublethink was not such a bad word after all. To quote Taleb, “Clearly you cannot doubt everything and function; you cannot believe everything and survive.” For years now I have tried to practice a split vision of the world–the conventional way and the way necessary for my sanity as both an artist and an outlier. Money is vastly important and, at the same time, inconsequential. Art is what we ordinarily think it is and it is also a great many other things. The minute we think we’ve got it figured out along comes, if not a Black Swan, then at least a platypus, a creature that bombed the previous distinction between what was a mammal and what was not. We need categories but they are a highly inaccurate way of viewing the world–a platitude we need to repeat to ourselves daily because otherwise we forget. Success cannot be measured solely by money or reputation as agreeable as those things are. I’ve sat in just one too many writers’ workshops in which the accepted opinion was that a great book meant one that was a best seller and made a ton of money. I guarangoddamntee that is no proper measure, but we all fall into this trap; it’s part of being human and living in the world.

I am doubtful of the separation between fiction and non-fiction. I strongly suspect that it is all fiction.

I now live halfway between Ink and Mt. Ida, very close to the Serendipity Trail. Yes, it really exists. I did not seek out such a fortuitous literary address; I ended up here completely by divine chance.

Last year on another perfect day in October, when the trees were putting on a fine show of color and the hickory nuts were thick on the ground, we took a rare break from never ending chores and went for a walk in the woods, with Star, our farm guard dog. It was that season in Arkansas when the mornings are cool with mists lying close to the ground in the valleys. The afternoons are warm and sunny. Our destination was a spring that lies high up on the side of one of the Ouachita Mountains. After a drive down a properly dusty country road we parked at a locked gate. On the other side we waded through some high weeds and struck into a trail that meandered back and forth over the side of the mountain but headed steadily uphill. We encountered no obstacles greater than spider webs across the path, but they were everywhere. Part way up the mountain we saw a tumble of huge boulders that looked like prime habitat for bears, but we saw no wildlife. Even the birds were quiet, except for a lone rain crow, which is what country people call the yellow-bellied cuckoo. Eventually, after a winding ramble, nearly to the top of the mountain, we arrived at a pool of water, almost circular and about thirty feet across, edged with rock and closely fringed by the forest. The sky above was a deep vibrant blue. The leaves and the sunlight danced together throwing prancing shadows on the ground. Cardinal flowers and a few grasses nodded at the margin of the water. At the far side there was a small waterfall, about three feet high, coming down from a rocky ledge. Star plunged into the water up to her belly and began to drink. After the shade of the trail the sunshine sparkles reflected off the surface of the water were blinding. Curious as to the source of the waterfall I clambered over fallen wood and more rocks. There were no traces of people, not even the remains of old campfires, such as one often finds in such spots. Above the waterfall there was a second pool, similar to the one lower down, but smaller, about fifteen feet across, and equally lovely. Above that there was no sign of water other than a few small seeps. We were at the headwaters of one of the numerous creeks that feed the Ouachita River. I sat down on a large rock. It was not a Wordsworthian rock designed for quiet contemplation of this staggeringly beautiful spot. It was a good Arkansas rock, uncomfortable, pointed, and knobby. I had come to this country from the city for largely practical reasons and I unexpectedly found myself in a place of wonders. If Pegasus or a satyr had wandered out of the trees I would hardly have been surprised. It is natural that springs and wells have so often been held sacred. It was truly magical.

There are good aerial photographs and accurate maps of Mt. Helicon on the internet, including photos of the Hippocrene spring. The area has been criss-crossed by both Greeks and tourists for centuries so that no inch remains unexplored. If Pegasus is hiding out there still then he must be even more wary than our mountain lions. He has not been nailed by any critter cam to my knowledge. If anything survives from the Golden Age then it is as lucky as the Beowulf manuscript and must have more lives than Pangar Ban, that sublunary tomcat immortalized by an Irish monk who was understandably weary of copying out the Pauline epistles. You might say that he, like Herrick, trifled his way from light verse to greatness. I can’t remember the source of that one. If artists survive and work it is miraculous. If the work survives it is against long odds.

This is a true story. No shit. I do, at present, have a cat without a tail living with me, name of Sally Bob. I still carry a knife.

“A great book is the lifeblood of a master spirit and stored up for a life beyond life.” As a child, before I had any idea who Milton was I read those words carved in stone and embellished with gold leaf around the frieze of the reading room in the downtown public library in St. Louis. They are still there.

I went to visit a friend. One evening, after several glasses of wine, although not the true, the blushful Hippocrene, we were sufficiently blown of course to embark on a discussion of what defines great art. In defense of my thesis that it is more comprehensive than generally thought I launched into a doubtless none to lucid description of my first husband’s father. To say that Hamer was a Ford mechanic does not begin to do justice to the man. His was a dedicated life. This was a man who could pull the block of the largest truck in twenty minutes. Among other things, he prided himself on never looking up a parts number. He knew them all. Repeat. All. He knew them for every vehicle Ford made up until the day he died. I went on to say that for one subset of people art was Anna Pavlova dancing Fokine’s dying swan and for another group it was a sweetly purring engine.

Wine or no wine my friend extinguished this particular flame of rational intercourse neatly and completely. “Auto mechanics?” she said, “I’m just not interested.” She said it so decisively and dismissively that I was immediately reminded of my mother. If there was one thing of which my mother was a complete master it was the art of the sneer. As a matter of fact in seventy odd years I’ve never seen anyone else do it half as well.

That ended that conversational thread. We went on to other matters. Months later I was struggling feebly, haltingly, maladroitly, to build a website. Three score and ten years ago I learned to read with less grief. Hell, learning to knit a sock was a piece of cake in comparison. I was scrambling for tutorials and manuals. While careening about, completely disoriented, in the internet thicket, where Pan reigns as much as he does in the Ouachita National Forest, and where one can get lost in a heartbeat, I stumbled over a reference to WordPress. I pulled up their home page and began to read. I scrolled to the bottom, following the text, and encountered this footnote:

Code is poetry.

Code is poetry? Who knew?

I’ve written code, just once, years ago, as a library school assignment, I completed a short exercise. My bit was clumsy and inelegant; it got the job done, but just barely. The professor pointed out that I emphatically had not exceeded the required minimum. I hated every minute of it. Fortunately everyone does not feel that way. Obviously lots of good people at WordPress adore writing code and that is a very good thing for the rest of us.

These guys get it. They dig it. Art is where you find it. It is whatever we decide it is collectively and, at least equally importantly, individually. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Code is poetry. I know no reason why not; at least it can be when it is written by a master spirit and read by those who know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pygmalion Revisited: A Fantasia (Part One)

July 2, 2015

Warning to Readers: Lengthy essay and this is the first part only. Hang in there; there is some humor at the end of this section.

Part One

At the end of the day we were all gathered together in a room set apart, a room reserved for the privileged, for the initiated, a room such as the one with the window seat from which Virginia Woolf, seated there in the window embrasure, looked out into the courtyard at Oxbridge after that memorable elegant luncheon of soup and salmon, ducklings and partridges, each course served with the properly piquant sauces, complemented by the wineglasses alternately flushed yellow and crimson, the luncheon punctuating the centuries long flow of gold and silver, the toothsome feast that, as she so wisely said, had lit the flame of rational intercourse. After which the incomparable Virginia looked out of the window and saw, in the courtyard, making its quiet way across the quadrangle, a cat without a tail.

What a metaphorically useful beast it is, a cat without a tail! That selfsame animal was stealthily occupying a place in this room also, sitting near the glowing hearth where there flamed a delightfully crackling mass of logs and embers, oak and mesquite, judging from the smell, sitting so close to the fire that it seemed impossible that the creature could avoid scorching its own fur, basking in the warmth, as cats do. Drawn up around the lovely fire were a number of comfortable deep chairs, some covered with velvet, some with tapestry. Filling the chairs, plus a considerable part of the room, as only the early birds were lucky enough to obtain seating, were a group of men and women, the cream of their intelligent profession, low-voiced, congenial, all of them well-educated and articulate, many of them witty and personally charming as well, my fellow librarians. I have heard them called the last libertarians, good fellows, one and all, hail and well met.

Also in the room were low tables, upon which tasteful objets d’art were carefully placed, and glass-fronted bookcases containing, not incunabula, for those were downstairs, locked in the vault, except for the Gutenberg which occupied its own pedestaled enclosure, temperature and humidity controlled, dramatically lit by a single spotlight which permitted a timed inspection and then turned itself off, a sacred text transformed into a secular shrine, an object designed for use, and despised, in the days of its youth, as vastly inferior to holograph, now far removed from utilitarian ends by the inexorable workings of the invisible hand, a state of affairs that must have bemused its maker, could he have foreseen it, a man who had, by all accounts, a difficult time keeping his modest business enterprise afloat. This ultimate trophy of the bibliographic hunt was even now lying in state encased in a crystal coffin and separated from the profanation of touch by a custom-fitted glass ceiling. Hooves and horns, crude oil and cotton bales, plus a generous measure of business methods that do not bear close examination by the morally squeamish, were here transmuted into a glorious antechamber, a grand hall floored and walled in the finest Italian marble, boastful of wasted space and lavish in materials and embellishments, surrounding the Gutenberg, to astound visitors. Pecunia non olet, as Vespasian said. The locked glass-fronted bookcases in our special private room contained rarities less fabled than the Gutenberg, but very fine nonetheless and including some splendid forgeries. These shelves were separated and set off by walls covered with oaken linen fold paneling around three sides of the room; the fourth wall was pierced by a row of tall, Gothic arch-topped windows facing west and divided by leading into numerous diamond shaped panes. If we cannot buy Oxbridge and transport it here, stone by stone, as we did the Wren Chapel and London Bridge, then we can surely reproduce it in every architectural particular except the patina of age. Through these high windows streamed the late afternoon sun of an October day as pellucid as the October day of Virginia’s famous luncheon and as tenderly luminous.

The diamonds divided the sunlight that fell through them into lozenges that spattered the deep plush plum-colored carpet with sunshine sequins dazzlingly bright that played around the feet of the assembled company. We appeared to be, as a group, knee-deep in fairy dust. One brilliant parallelogram touched my glass of Llano chardonnay redoubling the alchemical transformation of grape into gold by the added dimension of light. The sunshine dapples stretched to the hearth, momentarily dimming the glow of the firelight, and causing the mythical tailless cat sitting on the hearthstone to blink with narrowed eyes. The spill of sunshine furthest from the windows touched tentatively, glancingly, the glossy black shoes of the dark-haired gentleman in the vested pin-striped suit. He was plump and sleek, dark eyes, pale skin, something unusual about the cheekbones and the beaked nose. His hair, black as a chinaberry, was combed straight back from his face without a part. He was more dapper, more carefully dressed, more formal in gesture and manner than the other men in the room. He raised his glass, caught my eye, and asked me, in a foreign accent I could not identify, of what library was I the director? I explained that I was from such and such library, not as the director, but as the head of technical services representing our institution in place of the director. Ah, that did make a difference. I was promptly catapulted downwards from the pinnacle of his esteem that I had briefly occupied while he imagined that I was a director. His manners were impeccable and his politeness was seamless but his attention quickly went elsewhere. Again there was that cat without a tail. I was not a director. My dear Virginia, I thought, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Rank, hierarchy, order, these carefully wrought gradations must be preserved, even among the last libertarians.

While I may not have had the requisite title, I did have that which others might well envy after three days spent in tedious meetings the chief and gloomy topics of which were higher book prices, runaway serials costs, and statewide budget cutbacks, namely, a chair close to the fire and a glass in hand with refills coming around regularly on silver trays. The wine was doing well what it is reputed to do and more than Milton can. I was too contented to be more than fleetingly irritated by the put down I had just received from the dark-haired stranger. I anticipated nothing more arduous than a good dinner at which I would be expected to do nothing except make a minimal amount of small talk, followed by one last night at the hotel, and the flight home in the morning. In the meantime I could amuse myself with my own private conjuration of Virginia Woolf’s cat without a tail, a creature of my own whimsy, or so I thought, but I was never more wrong.

He may have been part Cheshire cat, that fellow, but all writers should beware of believing the folly that they control their fantasies, it is the other way around. The cat had the last laugh, after all, because after he had, seemingly, melted back into the secret aperture in the linen fold paneling from whence he had emerged, he stalked me, invisibly, irresistibly, one last time, in the Austin airport the following morning, carrying with him, not a tail, for he had none, but a tale, which he brought to me, as an offering of the problematical kind that cats make, bringing a mouse or some other unhappy scrap of mortality from the great world outside, to lay at the feet of the person with whom they reside, for me to deal with howsoever I chose, to accept or to hold at arm’s length, or to dispose of as I liked, but handle it I must because there it was, confronting me, and the cat had gone off about his business. The thing was done; he would not take it back again. In the end the joke was on me after all. Like Puss in Boots he showed himself both puppeteer and master.

The trouble at the airport began, in the usual mundane way, with a change in the weather. All flights were delayed for who knew how long but passengers were advised to stay put and wait for the clouds to lift. I had just bought a cup of coffee and had settled myself with my old friends, Travis McGee and Meyer, whom I am sure you know also, but if you do not, then you should, as they are boon companions anywhere and in any weather. This pleasant arrangement was not to be. My peace and quiet were shattered yet once more by the dark-haired stranger who was also waiting for a flight and who was, in the perverse manner of both bored males and chance acquaintances at airports, as determined to talk with me that morning as he had been to shun me the previous evening.

I gave up. I was still in Austin and still in a quasi-official capacity as the representative of my institution which meant that being downright rude was not an option and nothing short of that, it soon became clear, would discourage him. He wanted attention; he wanted to tell me his life story; he wanted a psychic blow job. Had he been a complete stranger I could have given him the brush off, but we were professional colleagues who had just come from the same three-day conference. Never mind that our paths had crossed only briefly and that he had snubbed me. The Grove of Academe, alas, constituted an introduction, and he knew it. My escape routes were cut off. I put aside my book and braced myself to be decently civil and monumentally bored, except for whatever pleasure the play of my own mind could extract from the ridiculous elements that might present themselves, beginning with my present entrapment, quite like the best Jane Austen heroine.

Again I was deceived by my expectations. What happened was altogether different. He held me with his glittering eye; the mariner hath my will.

At the beginning of the conversation I was more struck by his oddly accented English than by the content of his remarks. I had a little trouble understanding him. I asked, what was his native country?

“My name is Karoly Kodaly,” he said, “I was born in Hungary, but I left there in the fifties and I never went back.”

It was at that point, I think, that my interest in him and in his story began to deepen. I gazed upon him wonderingly, speculatively, as the crowds in Houston, years later, gathered from miles around to see for themselves the manatee that had turned up, unlooked for and against all reason, in Buffalo Bayou. While not quite as rare as manatees, there are not many Hungarians in Texas. This fellow was my first.

Here was a man, sitting quietly before me in the airport terminal in Austin, who was descended from one of the followers of Arpad, one of those who, in turn, traced their ancestry to peoples from beyond the Urals Mountains in the distant mists of time. No one knows precisely when or why they left their homeland somewhere in Asia and migrated to the mouth of the Don on the Black Sea. Perhaps they were pushed out and sent forth on their wanderings by competition from other peoples; it was pressure from neighboring tribes to their east that dislodged them once again from their home on the Don. They traveled westward around the northern edge of the Black Sea to the mouth of the Danube and, then, the entire confederation of Magyar tribes, under the chieftainship of Arpad, crossed the Carpathians in 896 A.D. and took possession of the great Hungarian plain. It was tough luck for the local inhabitants who were forced, in their turn, to flee or to become slaves. It was the usual story. It doesn’t matter much what treaties are signed or what terms are agreed to by the leaders of nations, the broad strokes of history are made by streams of moving people; they have had the final say in where you and I live and work today.

What was he like, that ancestor of my Hungarian, a follower of Arpad, the Moses of the Magyars, and what were his thoughts as the tribes made their slow way up the valley of the Danube and through the pass called by later generations the Iron Gate? Dark hair, dark eyes, proud looks perhaps more Asian than European, his fingers laced in his horse’s mane, his bow and arrows on his back, resting at noon under the shade of the beech trees, standing guard at night watching for wolves and bears, finding happiness in a whole skin and enemies left behind, rejoicing perhaps in the beauty of the countryside, joking with the women in the caravan. After him a thousand years of history, very few of them peaceful, and all the uncounted and anonymous generations that bind us all to one another and to the remote and storied past, until his distant descendant, once again under pressure from people to the east, fled Budapest, not in a great column of migrating folk guarded by bold warriors, but alone and afoot. It scarcely mattered whether or not he had thrown rocks at Russian tanks in October of ’56, the men sent by Moscow to quell the uprising in Hungary were not the kind to bother about careful distinctions of who was or was not a participant. Kodaly had been a student in Budapest. Many of his friends were dead or in hiding. He took a daring chance and fled west across the countryside. He was young, strong, and exceedingly lucky. He never knew the exact hour or the exact place that he crossed the border into Austria, never again to return to the country that had been home to his forebears for a thousand years.

Two years after crossing the border he was sitting in a cafe in Vienna. He was free; he was safe; he had friends; he had a job. But he was not happy. He yearned to go to America. He had perfected his German and he was practicing his English by reading a newspaper left behind by an American tourist when an advertisement leaped off the page, as he expressed it, a single word, a Hungarian name, a small ad for a Chicago firm called Szabo Hardware, including the address. Kodaly wrote to Szabo solely on the recognition of his Hungarian name, begging for help. His luck held. Szabo and his friends sponsored the young Kodaly. A year and a half after he first wrote to Szabo, Kodaly was in America and enrolled as a student at the University of Chicago.

It was at this point in his story that I picked up my paperback copy of McDonald which had been resting in my lap and stuffed it into the side pocket of my luggage. He asked me what I was reading.

“It’s a mystery.” I said.

“Aha! You read detective stories.” he said. “I have never read them. Always when I read it is for self-improvement, not for enjoyment. I speak now six languages.”

Like his snub of the previous evening, this speech conveyed a complete unconsciousness, a naivete almost disarming, a total unawareness that I might conceivably be hurt or offended by this display of his superiority of place or attainments. Beyond that, there was an absolute assumption on his part that, of course, his dismissal of detective stories, as he was a man of learning and commanded six languages, not to mention being a library director, meant that the mystery genre was of no value. It was of no value because he did not choose to read it, quod erat demonstrandum. His was a wonderful certainty; no other thought had ever crossed his mind. He was beaming at me now, the smile of a man who, while he may or may not have a woman’s entire attention, has at least the appearance of it, because she has learned, as I had learned, and that at an early age, that this method renders him most malleable, with the least possible annoyance and inconvenience to herself. I was stung, but I refused to allow myself to be goaded into either showing my feelings or making any rebuttal. I guard my privacy well. Also, I have arrived at that stage of life at which one picks one’s fights very carefully. I save my candid opinions and my confrontational energies for the situations in which they are most needed. I therefore assumed a brisk opaque cheerfulness, deliberately turning myself into Virginia’s looking glass that “possesses the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,” the sexual equivalent of Ellison’s drop of black that makes the white paint whiter, inwardly torn between sympathy produced by the poignant account of his flight from his homeland, the very natural sympathy of a citizen who has reaped the benefits of having been born in the States and at a time when we still believed in ourselves because one’s ancestors dared the difficult voyage three hundred years ago, for a newcomer who has cut the old ties and embarked on the great venture personally, and a wry amusement at the complacent, dandified, and self-absorbed man before me.

Sex, as every adult knows, is a problem. Now what has that to do with a middle-aged Hungarian telling me his life story in an airport? Nothing and everything. I have dropped one strand and picked up another, in the manner of Fair Isle knitting, the unworked thread is carried invisibly on the back of the web until it is wanted. In the hands of a master knitter with an eye for color and design the results of this technique are spectacular, but whether or not I have the knack of it remains to be seen. It is one of the oddities of our memories with regarding sex that sometimes it is the disasters, the moments of complete embarrassment or total frustration, that haunt us as long or longer than the enchantments, like the collective Texas memory of the Alamo. The recollection of one such disappointment has lingered in my mind out of all proportion to the incident itself. It threw a long shadow perhaps because it occurred at a time in my life when it served to focus my attention on all my guilt and worries.

It happened one spring. I had been sick, off and on, for weeks. No sooner had I begun to recover than I had to prepare for, and entertain, out-of-town guests. When they departed I was exhausted for days. The following week the man with whom I then shared my days began a slow and gentle teasing which should have, had the fates been kind, culminated in the usual quiet and sunny joy familiar to married couples who have been together for some years. But when the moment came for me to turn to him and say, dearest, it’s time, I found myself talking to thin air. The gentleman had fled; the car was not in the driveway; and I had not a clue as to his motives or his whereabouts. A woman secure in her husband’s affections will smile regretfully and go on about her business knowing well that her gallantry will be well repaid at some future time. Such lofty self-control was beyond me at that point and, to make matters worse, it remained beyond me for days afterwards. I was one seriously vexed mama.

And what was at the root of the dear soul’s discourteous flight? There’s no use whatever asking a man that for he can’t tell you but sometimes expressing a shrewd guess will result in a moment of complete silence. He will sit there examining his feet with complete absorption as if the winning numbers for the next lottery drawing were written on the toes of his shoes. Then you know.

Money, or, rather, the lack of it, was the ultimate cause of the present difficulty, some plan or other he had made which would have, if successful, have improved our fortunes, had fallen through. He blamed himself; he felt himself insufficient or unworthy; it was eating him. I had my own tangled emotions to deal with, as well as his, in the usual way. It took awhile to sort it all out. Meanwhile I was quietly furious with him, with myself, and still more furious with the way of the world that measures us all, but men in particular, by our ability to generate wealth, not matter by what means. He wanted to buy me a jade teapot or a chateau or armfuls of lilacs out of season when he was already giving me a far more priceless gift, day in and day out, the time to sit down and put pen to paper, the five hundred pounds and a room of my own. Oh, I was ready, or I thought I was, to make the usual sacrifices: a small house in need of repairs in a decidedly unfashionable neighborhood, one car instead of two, a lot of worries about making ends meet; but nothing had prepared me for the complicated guilt arising from facing a man who had run away at the critical moment and who was now sitting with bowed head, in contemplation of his feet, sacrificing, at least momentarily, his very virility on the altar of my literary wannabes, from some misguided though chivalrous believe that, in a world in which it is a truth universally acknowledged that it takes two incomes for one couple to live decently , he should be somehow, miraculously, capable of showering me with white Arabian steeds and rubies the size of robin’s eggs, on one. I realized that the problem was much more complicated for most women than it was for Woolf. Servants and money are not the entire answer, but they certainly are a huge help.

Nor was my guilt merely fanciful. There had been sufficient fluctuation in our domestic finances, due to some windfall money now and then, to make me well aware that, when funds were abundant, we both had a sense of well-being, however, fraudulently derived, and, although the prosperity was a short-lived accident, he was apparently as pleased as if it had come about by his contrivance. This is what the world has done to us and, while it is by no means the worst thing that the world can do, it is bad enough, surely, to make us believe, in our secret and innermost selves, lies that serve no purpose but to promote commerce and fashion, separate us as a people, and which, furthermore, shift like smoke, artificial desires and social distinctions created by incessant propaganda, manipulating us all in the interests of… Well, of whom? Whose interests are being served. I would maintain–no one’s. Consider that in a little over a hundred years we have moved from being a society that condemned a woman if she painted her face to a society that condemns her if she doesn’t, from a world in which women were property and in which the ideal wife was secluded, well-dressed, and did, or appeared to do, little or nothing, to a world in which the ideal woman does it all and has it all, with the result that women, in some of the richest countries on earth, routinely work to the point of exhaustion every day, one eight-hour shift, or more, on the job, and another at home, many for their own and their children’s survival, but many, sadly, chiefly to acquire far more property than is necessary for a comfortable life. The fashion has swung so wide and so rapidly that in my lifetime I have been married first to a man who declared that no wife of his should ever work, which lead me to wonder what the deuce kind of exercise he though raising children constituted, not to mention why he thought he had the right to make that decision on my behalf, to seeing my another man in my life completely cast down, blaming himself for the budgetary shortfall that my withdrawal from the marketplace had created. That is the crux of the matter–how to empower oneself without doing a number on one’s friends and family. Gauguin fled to Tahiti and painted masterpieces leaving behind a battered wife and essentially fatherless children. One imagines that madam et les enfants muddled through somehow, but their lives were changed forever. Woolf at least knew that she was incredibly lucky, but recommending that women work on in poverty and obscurity when one has no experience of what that involves is not an adjuration that those of us at the grassroots take kindly. From anyone who has not walked the walk, it’s piffle.

Back at the airport, returning now to the chief theme and thread of my history, Kodaly continued his recital. What happened next? He fell in love. He fell in love with an American girl, a fellow student. Her father was a dentist; her mother was a housewife; there were two younger sisters. She knew nothing beyond her parents’ bourgeois home in the suburbs of Chicago. She expressed no aspirations beyond wanting to become a schoolteacher, get married, and have children. What did she look like? Was she dark or fair? What was her name? I don’t know because he did not tell me any of those things; perhaps they were not important to him or, more likely, they were so intimately familiar that he never thought to mention them. What was important, apparently, because he stressed it repeatedly in his narrative, was her willingness to allow herself to be formed and directed by him. “I taught her everything.” he said. “She had no ambitions until she met me. I raised her expectations and extended her horizons.”

I imagined her as a quiet person with unexpressed longings in her heart and sufficient mother-wit to grasp that the dark-haired foreigner with the odd accent might well represent her best chance at a larger, more comprehensive, and more exhilarating life than anyone she had previously met. Whatever the exact nature of the dynamic between them, her ambitions were enlarged and his fulfilled by their marriage. Of course they went to graduate school together. They remained childless. She became a noted Shakespearean scholar; he eventually went into library administration. She earned tenure and enjoyed an increasing reputation. Then, at exactly the right time, she was made a dean. They purchased a spacious, two-story brick house on a leafy street. They were rising stars. He was appointed director of his first library and acquired the nickname “Mr. Humanities.” Their incomes and their luster grew. They had a wide circle of friends; they traveled in the summers; they flourished and were happy. The university life suited them perfectly and they could not, seemingly, put a foot wrong. The seductions of that world are many. There are opportunities to associate with brilliant and gifted people, the lure of scholarship, the consciousness of being inheritors of a rich and venerable past, those centuries of gold and silver.

“It’s the gonfalons.” said Roy Barnes. He was forking up a rather dubious pasta dish at the professors’ table in the cafeteria, admittedly far removed from any cuisine involving ducklings or partridges, much less any subtlety in the sauces. Banished, also, the convivial glass flushed yellow or crimson; that would have been contrary to strictly enforced regulations which stipulated that no alcoholic beverages were to be served either on campus or at any official college function, thanks to our southern Bible Belt heritage. His remark was in answer to Bill’s question as to why he continued in the teaching racket if he loathed the students, the administration, the campus politics, the lousy salary, et cetera, et cetera, as much as he claimed. Bill was, and still is, as far as I know, the head of the English Department. The usual crowd was there. Henry McCaslin of the shy smile was drawing diagrams of molecules on a paper napkin for Larry Byrd. Larry’s in marine sciences. He and his office mate and professorial sidekick, Mel Roberts, were both then deeply involved in a project to map the bottom of Galveston Bay. Serious research, they said. The rest of the table said that it was an excuse to spend golden afternoons out on the water, but, no, they were not dropping plumb bobs into the briny while winging out, “Mark Twain!” That has been superseded by expensive electronic apparatus, the mostly costly piece of which they had lost overboard the preceding week, to the high merriment of their colleagues.

“No, really, that’s what I told Donovan.” said Roy. “He invited me to his officer for a conference and I told him just what I told you about the problems in the department and with College Station. I just laid it all out for him without any equivocation. You know what he did? He looked at the ceiling and steepled his fingers. Now that I think about it, I’ve never met a college president who didn’t do that.”

“Maybe they look at the ceiling so they don’t have to look at your dour visage.” said Bill.

“‘Dour visage,’ that’s very good.” said Larry.

Roy ignored both of them, continuing on as if they had not spoken. “After he had stared at the ceiling for a period of time…”

“‘A period of time,’ I don’t believe that you actually said that: ‘a period of time.'” said Mel.

“After a period of time,” Roy repeated, “he said, ‘Dr. Barnes, how long have you been afflicted by this Weltschmerz?'”

“Those were his exact words.” said Bill, very mock-solemn.

“Those were his exact words.” said Roy, “and I answered, ‘It’s the gonfalons, Dr. Donovan, I’d have abandoned the whole enterprise long ago if it were not for the gonfalons. Every time I see them I just choke up and…'”

“I think I’m missing something here.” said Barry Long. Dr. Long was the new hire with an impressive curriculum vitae, five degrees, one of them in earth sciences from M.I.T. He was teaching geology and geography to the underclassmen. “I thought I knew my way around, but this is a new one. What the hell are gonfalons? Is it a Texas thing, or what?”

By this time they were in high spirits, rare form, and full spate. I wasn’t saying anything. I could not have gotten a word in edgewise. I was sitting at the end of the table cutting up a Granny Smith apple with a pocket knife. Unable to stomach the cafeteria food, I usually brought fruit and cheese from home. They had grown accustomed to my presence and to my brown bag meals, but the first time I had produced the pocket knife and had begun cutting up a piece of fruit I had been at the receiving end of some very dim collegial wit concerning “knife-wielding librarians.” Now I know full well that each and every one of them had spent a lifetime watching mother, wife, aunt, or sister use various sized knives in the kitchen. The food processor did not eliminate the cook’s knife. It was the fact that a woman was using a knife outside of the kitchen that they found disturbing. I found that an interesting example of cultural habits and completely infuriating to boot. I don’t know whether we have come a long way from 1929, the year Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, also the year my parents married, or if we have merely, over time, re-arranged the pieces of the puzzle. The battle of the sexes rages on.

“Or what?” said Bill. “Inquiring mind wants to know; gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”

“It’s not the gonfalons that do it for me.” said Mel. “I get all misty when they begin singing Guadeamus igitur…”

“Juvenes dum sumus…” chimed in Bill.

“The fourth verse! All together now!” said Larry.

The entire table joined in, except for Barry, who was looking a bit confused.

“Vivat academia, vivant professores,

Vivat membrum quod libet, vivant membra quae libet;

Semper sint in flore, semper sint in flore.”

“You guys are having me on. I want to know about the gonfalons.” said Barry. Give the guy high marks for persistence.

“The gonfalons are an old tradition on this campus.” Roy said

“Yes, we’ve been carrying them for, let’s see, about five years now.” said Bill.

“On this campus that’s a very old tradition.” said Mel.

“The previous president of this institution, the distinguished predecessor of our present noble leader, decided that gonfalons would add dignity to our academic processions. God only knows where he got the idea. At commencement, we all file in by college, school, and department, wearing our long black robes and our beautiful colored hoods.” said Roy.

“Each and every professor wearing a dour visage.” said Larry.

“To add to the solemnity of the occasion.” said Mel.

The expression on Barry’s face was a study.

“Each dean and each department head carries the appropriate gonfalon, designed by the wife of our former president. As the Chair of the Department of Marine Sciences, I am privileged to carry the gonfalon of the Department of Marine Sciences, the device of which is Neptune’s trident, argent, on an azure field.” continued Roy. “While Bill here carries the gonfalon of the Department of English, which displays a design of…”

“Knock it off.” said Bill.

“He doesn’t want to talk about it.” said Mel.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” said Bill.

“After the wife of the former president of this campus had designed the various gonfalons and the president had approved the sketches, he then asked the comptroller’s wife to create them, as that lady was a quilter and had a reputation for being right handy with a sewing machine, but Emily told him exactly what she thought of his gonfalons.” said Roy. “You have to understand that we could undoubtedly get along without a college president more easily than we could manage without the only man here who can get a budget past both College Station and Austin.”

“The master of the purse strings.” said Bill.

“The master of the budgetary bureaucratic paperwork intricacies that control the purse strings.” said Mel.

“Her husband’s position gives the lady considerable clout, to be sure.” said Roy. “But, in Emily’s case, I think we are talking about a woman who would not be shy of speaking her mind under any circumstances.”

“However, the fact that Sam Carver has held his position since they broke the ground for the first building on this campus twenty-three years ago and has outlasted five college presidents doesn’t impair her natural tendency towards candor.” said Bill.

“The rumor was that the president next approached a kite and windsock manufacturing firm in Austin.” said Roy.

“They fly lots of kites in Austin.” said Mel.

“Testing the winds of change like good political weathercocks, to be sure.” said Larry.

Either they turned him down or the parties failed to reach an agreement as to price.” said Roy. “I am not privy to all the particulars. The campus scuttlebutt had it that the president then turned to a firm that produces hot air balloons.” said Mel.

“In Austin or in College Station where they have lots of hot air for the balloons.” said Mel.

“I think the hot air balloon outfit was in San Antonio, actually.” said Roy. “The hot air balloon specialists declined to bid on gonfalons. Finally a deal was struck with a woman here in Galveston who has a very successful local business making costumes for historical re-enactments.”

“Dickens-on-the-Strand, in other words.” said Bill.

“The lady in question is a fine seamstress. She is also well-known hereabouts for her flamboyant personality. The leads the Parade of Characters each year at Dickens-on-the-Strand wearing a large bonnet and a red wig in character as Mother Goose.” said Roy.

“What has Mother Goose to do with Charles Dickens?” asked Barry. “I don’t see the relevance.”

“There is none.” saide Bill. “Last year they had a camel and a llama. The kids loved riding the camel, but, I grant you, the tie to Dickens, or to his works, in many aspects of the festival, is tenuous to nonexistent.”

“Mother Goose made the gonfalons?” asked Barry.

“She did.” said Roy.

“Our own Betsy Ross of the gonfalons.” said Mel.

“You can see the gonfalons up close and personal at our annual commencement exercises this spring.” said Roy. “And, if you hang around this place long enough, and are a very good boy, you will ascend to the zenith and become a departmental chair. Then you will also have the honor of carrying a gonfalon in the procession.”

“I may not last that long.” said Barry.

“Until you become a departmental chair or until spring?” asked Roy.

“Either, or both.” said Barry.

“Dear me, I thought I noticed asmoker’s cough, but perhaps it’s worse. I know, it’s galloping consumption.” said Larry. “It’s always galloping consumption in nineteenth century novels, isn’t it, Bill?”

“You’re thinking of La Boheme or, maybe, Traviata.” said Mel.

“They were both novels before they were made into operas.” said Henry.

“Tsk, tsk.” said Bill. “Such a brilliant young fellow and so full of promise. Who would not weep for Lycidas?”

“Bud what is a gonfalon, exactly?” asked Barry.

“Alice, do you have any dictionaries in that library of yours?” asked Roy.

“There are four copies of Webster’s Unabridged Third Edition in the reading room, but the library does not own an O.E.D.” I said.

“What’s an O.E.D.?” asked Mel.

“Ignore him; he’s illiterate.” said Bill.

“Who’s illiterate? You can’t tell Cambrian from Cretaceous. You can’t read the Periodic Table and, as for mathematics, your wife balances your checkbook.” said Henry.

“The part about the checkbook is a slander.” said Bill.

“Barry, my friend, I suggest that you consult one of the four copies of Webster’s which Alice here assures us are available for perusal and which will, I am sure, define gonfalon to your satisfaction and edification.” said Roy.

“It’s a banner, you know, a flag.” said Bill.

“And, in the matter of the banner that represents the English Department, with a strange device.” said Roy.

“It says ‘Excelsior’?” asked Barry.

“Not exactly.” said Roy. “Bill doesn’t like to talk about it. You may study it for yourself when commencement rolls around in the spring.”

“If he lives that long; indeed, if we all live that long.” said Bill.

“You call this living?” said Roy, with a wave of his hand that encompassed the plastic topped tables, plastic chairs, plastic artificial plants in the corners, the ugly but practical fluorescent lighting, and the concrete block walls of the dining room which were, of course, painted institutional beige. Some details have a cosmic inevitability, life imitating art.

(Watch for the second part.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil Who Wanted to Grow Potatoes

June 23, 2015

Once upon a time there was a very small and unimportant imp who lived in an obscure corner of hell. All he had ever known was being kicked around by all the larger and meaner devils who in turn were bullied by tougher and more important devils all the way up to Satan himself. Our particular devil led a miserable life. He started each day, although day is a mere figure of speech in hell, dreading every waking moment. He was not, would never be, a success. He was too small, too weak, and he lacked the necessary meanness. He was not very good at tormenting the prisoners in his charge, not because he was good or kind, but because he thought it pointless. The prisoners were already completely without hope. Small outbursts of spite were all that this little devil could manage and these were more often directed at his fellow devils, who made his life wretched, than at the prisoners.

One day he was summoned by his unit supervisor and sent on an errand to another part of hell. Even devils like an occasional change in their routines and these assignments were coveted. Usually our devil was not even considered for messenger duty, but on this particular occasion everyone was busy getting ready for a big inspection by the district chief and no one else could be spared.

So our little guy was given a message to be delivered to the next sector and a set of directions, which he committed to memory and repeated back to his unit supervisor until the latter was satisfied that he had learned the route cold. Then he started off. He did well at first. Left turn at the big fumarole, right turn at the crossroads, the path exactly matched his recollection of the directions he had been given. But after traveling a few hours he arrived at some hills and ravines that had not been mentioned at all in his directions and he quickly came to the conclusion that he was really and truly lost. That’s commonplace in hell. It’s designed that way, of course. It is a vast and convoluted place and very murky. Certainly there are no signs.

About ten hours after leaving his own duty base he found himself tramping down a little used track in very dim light. He had not seen any prisoners or another devil in hours. He was feeling more than usually downhearted and was beginning to wonder if he would ever see his own sector again. He did not feel the kind of longing for it that we feel for familiar places, but it was all he knew.

Then he saw something that would seem very ordinary to us, but which was absolutely extraordinary to our devil. He saw a small shed, a rickety fence, a gate, and someone digging with a spading fork in a muddy field beside the path. Now there are no buildings in hell and there are no tools. Skrax (that’s what our devil was called) knew that these things existed and he knew what they were. They belonged on earth, not in hell. He had never seen them before, except in pictures.

There is a Chinese proverb that says: Heaven and the Emperor are both a long way away. That is true of any large and complicated bureaucracy. Things go on at the local level of which the higher ups are completely unaware. Obviously no one was paying any attention to doings in this corner of hell.

Skrax was looking at things forbidden in hell–improvements, comforts, conveniences, tools, and work. He was too far down on the totem pole himself to feel outraged. He was simply enormously curious. The light was so bad and the creature digging in the field was so dirty that Skrax could not tell whether the wretched thing was a devil like himself or a prisoner. Skrax turned aside, walked through the gate, and went quietly up to the being with the shovel.

He expected the fellow to bolt. After all, what he was doing was not only completely illegal, it was unheard of, but, instead, the digger merely glanced at him and kept on shoveling with great energy, throwing up clods of dirt, possessed, as it were.

There was a quite wonderful smell in the air that was new to Skrax. It was the smell of, well, a muddy field. It was the smell of earth. When Skrax drew near to the farmer, for that is what he was, whether prisoner or devil, the fellow stuck out his hand, palm up. He was holding what looked to Skrax like to small dirty brown rocks.

“Potatoes!” he said to an amazed Skrax. “These are special ones, too. They are Yukon Gold potatoes.”

Skrax looked with great curiosity at the potatoes. It was the first plant life and the first earthly food that he had ever seen. It all seemed wonderful to him–the small crop, the pale leaves of the struggling potato vines, the muddy field. But it was the smells that particularly excited him. He had received all the standard indoctrination lectures on earthly matters but none of his devilish instructors had ever mentioned these overwhelming, intoxicating smells! He had spent eons as an unhappy downtrodden oppressed little imp but he had never been rebellious. Now, for the first time, an original and independent thought crossed his mind. “What else did they leave out? What else didn’t they tell me?” He had been taught that nothing from earth existed in hell except the souls of sinners that the devils called “the prisoners,” but here was a field and growing things, a tumbledown shed, a garden fork, and all these incredible smells that caused him to tremble with excitement and which aroused ecstatic visions in his mind. He did not know it but it was the smell of life in its bodily form. He stared, as if in a trance, at the two small potatoes.

“I know you won’t give me away.” said the farmer. “I see it in your face.”

Once the door of consciousness has been opened it cannot be closed again. Skrax had utterly forgotten his message and his errand. In one instant he had been completely transformed. He had thought the previously unthinkable. Now he found himself saying the unspeakable.

“How can I go there?”

“Go where?”

“Where the potatoes came from. Earth.”

“I can’t help you there, but I can direct you to someone who can tell you. Go straight on the way you were traveling and you will come to a bridge across a ravine filled with boiling tar. Go across. The road forks. Bear right and you will come to a cave in a rock cliff. That’s the local unit headquarters for this sector. Ask for Gronx.”

As if in a dream Skranx followed these new directions and in a few hours he found himself in the presence of a unit supervisor of the same rank as the one who had dispatched him on his original and now neglected errand.

“Messenger, eh?” said Gronx. “Very well. What’s the word?”

“Potatoes.” said Skrax.

There were two small devils hanging about eavesdropping. Gronx sent them away.

“Well, well.” said Gronx. “That’s very interesting.” He stared at Skrax and Skrax stared back. Gronx was a very ordinary devil in appearance except that he had four eyes, two forward and two behind. Eyes in the back of one’s head are very useful for a supervisor.

“I want to go to earth.” said Skrax, although he had no idea how he found the courage to say this and was astounded at hearing these words come out of his mouth. “Not to visit–to stay.” he added. It was the kind of speech that, when uttered in hell, got one suspended by the ankles over a hellfire crevice for a few million years.

Gronx did not appear startled, shocked, or alarmed. He continued to stare at Skrax thoughtfully, with no change of expression.

“There are ways and there are probably ways that I don’t know about.” said Gronx slowly. “I know one way. Indoctrination lectures for the bigwigs are different from the ones for you and me. Actual objects from earth are sometimes used. Aversion training, it’s called. Terrified of defectors, Satan is. That is how such things occasionally come here. After the lectures the demonstration objects are supposed to be destroyed by burning with earth fire and the ashes returned to earth. That’s my job.”

“That’s an important responsibility.” said Skrax in a very small voice.

“You must not imagine that it is a matter of trust.” said Gronx sarcastically. “No one trusts anyone here.” He said this although the very fact of the conversation he was having with Skrax contradicted him. Devils, like people, frequently say things that are flatly contradicted by plain as a pikestaff evidence right in front of their faces. It’s more self-deception than lying and more common. (I can’t speak about saints or the heavenly angels because I don’t know much about them.) Gronx continued, “But it so happens that earth fire requires oxygen and this sector is the only place in hell with an oxygen vent. Therefore it is the only place that supports earthly fire. Now, at the present moment, I have an object on hand to be destroyed. You may see it.” From a small rocky ledge he drew forth a Raggedy Andy doll. “I am required to burn objects as soon as I receive them. I will burn this today and the ashes, every crumb, will be returned to earth. I can include you in this burning and ash shipment, if you are willing, and no one will be the wiser. I will handle it myself and I can arrange matters that the ashes will be scattered on a potato field, if you like. You can go to earth, but not in your present form.”

“I’ll do it.” said Skrax promptly. “I have nothing to lose.” He astonished himself again by saying that, but once the words were out of his mouth he felt an enormous relief and even, yes, for the first time in his life, joy. He did not worry, as you and I would, about the pain of being burned because he knew, as all devils know, that he was originally angelic in nature and could not feel physical pain. Angelic beings do feel mental pain, but their psychology differs considerably from ours. They are not necessarily grieved by the same things that vex us. However, in any world, Skrax’s decision was highly unusual.

Skrax knew he was angelic in his origin and he knew about God and Satan’s rebellion, but only in a vague and far-off way, as a child might know some distant history such as Washington’s winter at Valley Forge, as a story, without ever connecting it to anything personal or to the conditions of life in hell.

Gronx and Skrax went quickly and quietly to the oxygen vent. Gronx carried the doll and a box of wooden matches which was the only earthly thing authorized in hell, besides the aversion training objects, and only for this specific purpose.

Being burned was very peculiar, but not painful. Skrax did not cry out, as we would, because he was being changed, but not hurt. Gronx thought he heard a small cry at the end, but it was clearly a sound of surprise, not pain.

That’s all of the story. I know this is not a satisfactory ending, but I can’t help it. I don’t know what happened to either of them after that or to the farmer, except for one thing. Skrax was gone from hell. Escaped. Flew the coop. Got clean away. He was no longer in the power of any devil.