Monday, October 31, 2011
That strange Halloween music you hear is...chainsaws.
Everyone (except you Californians!) has had one bad storm after another lately, but surely the people just starting on recovery from the floods just could not believe the biggest October snow in 100 years was on its way. Early Saturday morning we heard the rain and thought, with relief, that the temperatures would stay up and we'd just get more water we surely do not need. Then, suddenly, a thick cloud of cottonballs appeared in the air, another unwanted gift from a sorely ticked-off Mother Nature.
The leaves had barely started turning and were still thick on the trees, and the snow was wet and heavy -- a deadly one-two knockout blow that took out, either partially or fully, almost every deciduous tree on our increasingly bare hill. And today that wet blanket is mostly gone but the damage will remain for the next twenty years.
Three-quarters of a big well-formed maple on a steep hillside is on the ground. The only two ways in or out were blocked by over a dozen collapsed Bradford pear trees which have been chewed up by by one wind- or rainstorm for several years now. Our electricity was out for twelve hours, which was not bad compared to the 20,000 in the county to the south who are still juiceless. Most of the trees will surely just be cut down as what remains does not look like much any more. I doubt if anything will be replanted, since they were put in by the long-gone developer, and the Landscape Committee of the Homeowners "Association" likes to cut and chop but only plants small things which soon die out. Silver maples and Bradford pears are commonly used in suburban landscapes, and are about the worst choices there are.
Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel was here, adding to the national scrutiny of our misfortunes (weather) and dumbassedness (city bankruptcy). One poor man was killed while napping in his recliner when a large tree crunched into his house. And they're keeping an eye on a farm silo, which is leaning into Route 11 and looks like it has a very short future indeed.
It's always something.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
I used hyperlinking without knowing it was a thing, and before computers.
My method developed rather quickly as a reaction to required reading in high school. Not the excellent lists Columbia or Harvard students are required to complete in the summer before they commence college, which if followed would have you half-educated already by September. No, what propelled me to find a way through to what genius, insight and inspiration was out there beyond my suburban-desert horizon was the demand, still puzzling to me, that we spend a half-year on Great Expectations.
Not to say we can do without Dickens. His minor works are delightful but you only need to read one of the magnum opi, and that one should be about any character other than Pip.
The school bookstore had one of those vertical spin-around carousels to display paperbacks, and it actually had some good ones that had passed under the notice of the curriculum police. Score. A year or so later, I found Sandy's bookstore on Grace Street in the Fan, and I was on my (own literary) way.
I took advantage of the authors' knowledge of and fondness for books of all types, not prescribed ones: contemporary, earlier 20th century, foreign, and just odd, and searched out those that sounded intriguing. I was off to the races.
Before out-of-print or rare books were so easy to find on the internet, the search itself was both challenging and frustrating. Norman Douglas' novel from the 20s, South Wind, was on my radar for over 20 years before I found it, in perfect condition, free on the local library give-away table. I almost said "my precious," but fortunately not out loud.
John Fowles, the British novelist whom most of us discovered after seeing the film version of The Collector, is as fine a guide to all things historical and literary as you could wish for. He mentioned how taken he was with a 1913 novel by a Frenchman who tragically died a month after he joined the army at the outset of World War I. Without the internet, I don't think I'd have every found a copy of Le Grand Meaulnes, and without Mr. Fowles would never have known of it.
Wallace Stegner's Beyond the 100th Meridian was mentioned by one of the many writers who held him in high esteem, and I'm still grateful for the tip, because it's now in my all-time top ten.
Today, on the blog Dispatches From the Culture Wars (on freethoughtblogs.com), I was introduced to someone I'd never heard of who is one type of writer I treasure: the cranky misanthrope. They're usually an older male, of the H.L. Mencken variety...but the 75-year-old Florence King is unique -- a Southern lady, a traditional conservative (the kind with a brain), a lesbian, feminist and monarchist. Lately, however, she just prefers "spinster." Isn't that someone you'd like to share a mint julep with (until she smacked you over the head with her cane)?
A descendant of colonial Virginia notables, the irony of her own lower-middle-class situation growing up must have bemused her as her mother and grandmother endeavored to raise her as a lady and a snob. And she followed a conventional path as college student, teacher and newspaper features writer until she just couldn't stay on the tracks anymore. Late in life came essays, novels, autobiography and even erotica and a romance (the less ladylike stuff under pseudonyms). For many years, Ms. King has written a column for the National Review, of all things, where she has laboriously "shovelled through mountains of bullshit." Andy Rooney is just the Reader's Digest version of this spitfire.
Take the time to read the blog post mentioned above. It quotes a series of letters between Ms. King and her agent, the subject of which is John Updike, and it's a skewering to remember. She's got a sharp eye and a sharper tongue, and you could fill a deliciously mean book with morsels like these:
"Writers who have nothing to say always strain for metaphors to say it in." (Touche, Mr. Updike!)
"Time has lost all meaning in that nightmare alley of the western world known as the American mind."
Link by link, you always find something or somebody you don't know how you lived without.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
There's no end to the cliches about making choices or decisions in life. With relative wealth and mobility, we think more in those terms than believing we're just in the thrall of fate. Whatever our will or desires, we are limited by the fact that we fall somewhere in the continuum between those masters who are prepared and are in the right place and time, and those in the lower ranks or in traditional societies who have few options and just struggle day by day.
We are individualistic to an unusual degree, and forget that family and class determine most everything elsewhere, as in Italy, India, and much of South America and Africa. There, you're fortunate to move into a family business or landholding because jobs are scarce and connections determine everything. We're a nation of existentialists, though; we 'Muricans think we determine our own futures through education, vigorous effort and ambition, within a strangely contradictory straitjacket of conformity. Some find a way.
Very much like cooking a fine meal, it's a combination of timing, preparation, proper equipment, ingredients and learning from experience. But you're not a gourmet chef. What if you felt you had no adults you could really trust, no choices other than getting a steady job were discussed, and you weren't sure you understood the goals anyway?
Naive and uninformed: I remember thinking when young, from the lessons of television's Sergeant Friday, the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy, that crime was always punished. Then you find out that half of murders go unsolved, and probably 10% of those prosecuted and convicted are innocent. You'd be surprised how many of our and the Silent Generation got their ideas of history from John Wayne and the Old Testament. In the course of re-educating yourself you wonder how anyone could have made good and productive choices while operating on a basis of misinformation and myth. And yet, for those who just believe in the Mighty Oz, things can work out pretty well.
Not only is that shaky mental and social ground you're standing on while trying to make decisions, but since Freud's theories have been so successfully used in political and corporate propaganda over the past century, your unrational side is, every waking hour, being relentlessly manipulated. No wonder most working class people stop learning and growing around 18, and the more educated do the same around 30.
You might decide to make a big change to see what falls out because things are really going nowhere where you are. In retrospect, that's just desperation; faint hopes for fortuitous change are like falling backwards into a swimming pool before checking to see if it's filled. After a few of those, you become very, very careful about making choices, knowing all the while that no one ever found anything by setting the limits so close.