July, 2015

Book Review: The Mullet Manifesto

July 28th, 2015 20 Comments

Mullet Manifesto

 

On the copyright page of every work of fiction published in America, down at the bottom, there is always a disclaimer intended to stymie and frustrate the kinds of lawyers who advertise on television and steal money out their mother’s purses: “This is a work of fiction. All names, places, characters, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination…” Etc., etc.

One of the first things I thought when I finished Roger Pinckney’s latest novel, The Mullet Manifesto, was, “Oh, please, don’t let that be true.”

Pinckney’s characters, every last one of them, are so real, so singular, so engaging that they get in amongst your heartstrings in much the same way that your own children do: you love them desperately, even as you wonder why you didn’t drown them in a bucket at birth.

The protagonists of The Mullet Manifesto are three teenaged boys seen variously through the eyes of one of them, and through the eyes of the man that boy has become. These are the kinds of boys whose parents have every reason in the world to grope for the bourbon bottle come sundown: not bad, just… Just teenagers, groping their uncertain way toward adulthood back in the last days of true childhood freedom.

It’s hard for today’s younger generation to comprehend the freedoms that were possible for children fifty or sixty years ago, especially in small towns and rural areas. A boy wandering down the railroad tracks during deer season with a rifle over his shoulder would bring in a SWAT team today; back then, he elicited nothing more than a smile and a wave from the engineer. An older woman who seduces a teenaged boy today would be branded a pervert and thrown in prison. Back then, she was just greatly appreciated and is remembered with happy affection by the man looking back from his fireside chair.

And the man who looks back from that chair writes in one of the most unique voices of any American writer since Faulkner. It’s a voice that both echoes and evokes the southern coastal lowlands as richly as Cormac McCarthy caught the voice of the Southwest in No Country for Old Men and The Border Trilogy. Listen to the protagonist both recreating and commenting on his friend’s speech:

“But I ain’t mean to shootum. I pull the trigger real slow.” Cuffey smoked Prince Albert in his beat-up briar, fired with kitchen matches he struck on his thumbnail. When he blubbered Geechee around both sides of his pipe, you’d wish he came with sub-titles.

Ostensibly a novel, The Mullet Manifesto is a loosely stitched pastiche of short stories that follows the boys through the arc of adolescence from their first restless stirrings through the final and inevitable breaking away from their world. And what a world it is! The fragile, vulnerable lowland country between Charleston and Savannah, from the ACE Basin to the islands that gave Sea Island cotton its name, a world of marshes and duck hunting, shrimp boats and coastal fishing, Gullahs and oyster beds, bourbon and Baptists, a world where wild young boys can misbehave to their hearts’ content, up to a certain point. Pinckney evokes that world so vividly that the marshes and coastal barriers and tidal pools become characters in their own right. There is a plot, of sorts, but it is rightly subservient to boys and old black men, to handmade boats and makeshift cars, to beloved old shotguns and vintage rifles, to tides and fishing, to seasons and inlets, to ducks and deer. And chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes.

James Thurber, who knew a little about writing humor, once made a comment (I can’t find the exact quote right now) to the effect that he preferred to evoke the bittersweet rather than tears. There is an element of the bittersweet in The Mullet Manifesto, as there must always be in any story that touches on the end of things—of childhood, of freedom, a beloved hunting shack, a way of life—but it resonates precisely because there is so much humor. My wife came out of the bedroom in the wee hours and asked me to either close the door to the library or laugh silently.

The Mullet Manifesto is that good.

Sweetie’s Box: Mystery, Mendacity, and Love

July 27th, 2015 2 Comments

My father’s ancestors were all prosperous Baltimoreans in a quiet, middleclass way. My grandfather, however, owned an iron business and was extremely prosperous. (There were several iron foundries in and around Baltimore and the men who owned them became known as ‘The Iron Men.’ Most of them, though not my grandfather, were ardent duck hunters, with elaborate hunting clubs in marshes up and down the Chesapeake from Havre de Grace to Cambridge, and it is largely due to them that we have the dog now known as the Chesapeake Bay retriever.) My grandfather died before I was born, but the sole anecdote that I know about him makes me think I would have liked him.

My father was working with him, or for him, in the iron business up until the war when, like so many others of that generation, he quit to join the Navy. But at this time it was still several years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and there was some obligation or deadline that had to be met that could only be met if the workers made a heroic effort. My grandfather offered them the usual pay incentive and then, showing a shrewd understanding of human psychology, offered to dance a polka the entire length of the foundry if they achieved the needed goal. They did and my grandfather brought in a Victrola, wound it up, and he and my father took off their coats and danced up the length of the foundry and back while the workers clapped time and cheered.

I don’t know who led, but I can see them as clearly as if some memory had been transmitted to me from my father’s muscle and blood: my father very lean, handsome, high-spirited, his hair in a crew cut; my grandfather, bald, portly, very dignified in his pince-nez and stiff high collar, but also with the same streak of playful high spirits, their white shirts in fulgent contrast to the dark and dirt of the foundry floor, both of them laughing as they danced, their laughter mingling with the workers’ and with the tinny scratching of the music.

My father’s father, who died not long after that dance, appears to have been an essentially kindly man. Not so my grandmother. She came from a much lower social, educational and financial level than my grandfather, but she brought with her three gifts: brains, burning ambition, and great beauty. Even as a shrunken, shapeless old woman—a ragbag held together by diamond brooches (Somerville and Ross)—it was possible to see the beauty; not even time could destroy the quality of those bones. Nor was time able to destroy the brains or the ambition. As soon as she was married she got herself accepted to Johns Hopkins and got her degree, something almost unheard of in those days. She wrote terribly arch and artificial short stories and had them published by a vanity press. She studied art and architecture and what she would have called ‘antiquities.’ She attended lectures by every learned speaker who came through Baltimore. All of this was admirable enough, but it was all geared to her achieving the position in society that she craved. By himself, my grandfather would have been prosperous; she drove him to become stinking rich. And as the money came in she spent it on the trappings she felt would elevate her. They had four residences within twenty miles of each other around Baltimore: There was a house on St. Paul Street, huge enough by itself; a farm, called By-Way; a converted railway station she had taken a fancy to; and, the pièce de résistance, a vast, pseudo-Gothic pile grandly called, The Cloisters, for God’s sake. This last, which had its own chapel and ballroom, stood on a seventy-five acre hill in the Maryland hunt country, complete with a working antique Flemish windmill brought over stone by stone and blade by blade, because, of course, every well-run Maryland country home needs its own windmill.

(The original name of this property was Bad Road to Midnight, as romantic and colorful a name as you could hope to find, a name filled with mysterious possibilities. It says much about my grandmother’s need for respectability that she changed it to the pompous and pedantic The Cloisters.)

She had no ancestors, so she simply created them. Paintings by Copely and Peale were bought and given fictitious provenances going back to historical people—or possibly made up people, for all I know—who were then identified as this great-great-grandfather or that great-great-great-grandmother. Emulating that man so deserving of emulation, William Randolph Hearst, she would take prolonged shopping trips to Europe where she would stagger grandly around buying up everything that wasn’t red hot or nailed down: furniture and paintings; mantelpieces and cornices and other architectural elements that were then built into The Cloisters; suits of armor; entire libraries; walnut panels; tapestries; everything you can imagine plus a bunch of stuff you could never dream of. Some of it was very good; some of it was garbage.

Toward the end of her remarkably long life she got a little peculiar. Not senile, mind you. She was quick and malevolent as a coyote to the end. She just became more outrageous than she had been, which is saying something. One of the last times I saw her was when I was about eighteen or nineteen. My father, my old friend Rowland Kirks, and I had gone up to Baltimore for something and we met her at The Cloisters in the early afternoon. She had become highly mistrustful of everyone and wouldn’t have maids or servants of any kind so the whole place was covered in a lovely thick blanket of dust. We were sitting in the living room and to give you an idea of the scale of the place, a grown man could stand upright in the fireplace and yet the fireplace was in perfect proportion to the rest of the room. She had offered Rowland and me some sherry, which we had refused (my father, with a look of panic on his face, shaking his head violently behind her back. Afterwards, driving home: “My God! That stuff would have killed you deader than a doornail. It’s been in that decanter since World War Two.”) and we were talking about art when she mentioned that she had a painting of the Virgin, painted by St. Luke. Even to my highly gullible ears, this sounded a little unlikely.

“Wow, Sweetie.” (This was her self-chosen, oxymoronic nickname. I have never been a good speller and when, as a young child, I would write to her, I spelt her name ‘Sweaty’ for years. I can tell you all you need to know about the relationship between my father and his mother by saying that my father never bothered to correct my spelling.) “Wow, Sweetie. I’d love to see it. Which room is it hanging in?”

She smiled beatifically. “Oh, no, dear. It’s much too valuable to hang on the wall. I have it hidden under a rug.”

As it was intended to, this left me speechless.

Later, in the ballroom, I admired two elaborate thrones that flanked the doorway to the entry hall. Even then she was planning to leave the entire place to the city of Baltimore as a museum, a monument to herself, where, presumably, happy throngs could file past the crypt in the basement where my grandfather, an uncle who died in infancy, and later she, were all buried. Consequently, everything was labeled with little three-by-five index cards.

“Go read about them, dear.” She leaned in conspiratorially, lowering her voice as though the nearest neighbor, over half a mile away, might be eavesdropping. “They’re thrones from the Duke of Milan’s court.”

Sure enough, the little card Scotch taped to one arm identified them as coming from the Duke of Milan’s court, circa sixteen-something, along with some other Italianate provenance.

Driving home that evening I commented to my father that taping three-by-five index cards to valuable furniture might not be the best way to preserve the finish. Daddy snorted.

“Thrones my ass! I can remember when she bought them at the fire sale of the Biloxi movie theatre on Mulberry Street.”

She had a boyfriend, an unctuous toady in his forties who lived up in the Boston area and whenever circumstances forced us all together he would fawn on her, sighing tragically every time she and my father disagreed about something, and nattering on about how he intended to marry her just as soon as some unspecified encumbrance back in Boston was resolved. From the way he looked at me, I had a pretty good idea of what that encumbrance might be and an even better idea of just how unlikely matrimony was.

Eventually, when she was either eighty-seven or ninety-one, depending upon which passport you chose to believe, things came to a head. She was in the townhouse on St. Paul Street, where she had taken to burning her trash in the fireplace. She threw an aerosol can into the fire and the resulting explosion blew her across the room, breaking her hip. Despite what must have been unbelievable pain, she had the presence of mind to take her purse and crawl down the long entry hall, down three steps, and unlock the four deadbolts on the inner door. She then crawled out into the little black and white marble vestibule where she unlocked three deadbolts on the outer door, but she was unable to reach the fourth and topmost lock. It was a Saturday and the mail had already been delivered, so there she lay, calling for help, all day Saturday, all Saturday night, all day Sunday, all Sunday night, and all Monday morning until the mailman found her.

Even after all this, she insisted on carrying her purse with her to the hospital where she refused to allow them to treat her until my father arrived to take possession of the bag. My father, knowing his mother all too well, refused to touch it until a doctor and a nurse were both present while he inventoried the contents in front of her. It contained a little over $10,000. Cash.

It was clear that at that age and with a broken hip she would never return to the house on St. Paul Street and the police advised my parents that the place would be stripped clean if it were left vacant. The upshot was that my father and mother and my father’s sister, Aunt Kitty, all went down to St. Paul Street to do an inventory. Also present were my grandmother’s lawyer and Aunt Kitty’s lawyer, because my father refused to set foot in the place without them as witnesses. My father was no fool. They were all standing in the living room when someone, I believe it was my mother, noticed what looked like a dollar bill sticking out from under a sofa cushion. By the time they were done, they had found over $100,000 in cash, and almost that much again in negotiable securities, hidden under pillows, behind paintings, under rugs, in silver teapots.

My father had to go back to Virginia, but my mother and Aunt Kitty and the two lawyers agreed to meet there the next morning with some men who worked for Aunt Kitty to pack up the most valuable items. In the meantime, my father went to the hospital to say goodbye and to inform his mother of what was happening and to tell her that they had been unable to find the key to the silver drawer of the Hepplewhite sideboard in the dining room, or the key to the metal fire door that separated the basement from the rest of the house.

My grandmother listened to everything impassively and then said, “Jimmy, on top of the Chippendale chest-on-chest in my bedroom, hidden behind the swan neck pediment, there is a metal box. Whatever you do, make sure you get that box.”

She refused to discuss the contents of the box or any or other matter.

The next morning, my mother arrived first. She opened the first, the outer door and stepped into the vestibule. She unlocked the first three locks of the inner door and was just turning the key to the fourth lock when she heard a sound behind her. And so it was that she pushed the inner door open as she was turning around. It was the mailman who had found ‘Sweetie’ and my mother thanked him appropriately. When she turned back, she was looking down the long hallway that led into the dining room. From where she stood she could see the Hepplewhite sideboard, the silver drawer now standing open with the key in the lock, it’s little cardboard tag still swinging slightly.

Being no dummy, she stayed where she was, watching and waiting. One of the lawyers arrived, but he lacked the nerve to go in even with my mother, so they continued to wait until Aunt Kitty showed up with her two men. Then they searched the house. The silver in the silver drawer, old-fashioned, heavy, valuable, was still there, gathered into bundles as if someone had been scooping it up with his hands. The metal fire door to the basement was standing open, the key still in the lock. The door from the basement to the alley had been opened with a key, then closed again, but not locked. The metal box behind the swan-neck pediment was gone, only a clean square in the dust to show where it had been.

 

‘Sweetie’ never spoke of it again. She showed neither grief nor rage and never told my father or Aunt Kitty what had been in the box. When I asked my father what might have been in it, he shrugged his shoulders.

“You can’t tell with her. It might have been the lost crown of King John, or it might have been a collection of old lightbulbs.” And when I asked him if he planned to try and get it back, he just laughed. “We’ve reported it to the police and I don’t care enough to do anything more.” That too speaks volumes of his relationship with his mother.

The boyfriend vanished. Temporarily.

He reappeared several years later after ‘Sweetie’ finally handed in her dinner pail. My father had already been killed and we were all a little stunned to find that she had not only left her entire estate to the City of Baltimore, for a children’s museum, as planned (it is now open to the public and may be rented for private events; the movie star Will Smith was married there), but that she had also left personal items of my father’s and Aunt Kitty’s to the city as well. Aunt Kitty hired a lawyer, an incompetent invertebrate, and we sued. Picture our confusion when we were told that we have to stand in line. The Boston Boyfriend had already sued the city, claiming that she had intended to marry him and that therefore he was entitled to the entire estate. He managed to make such a pest of himself that eventually the city gave him $70,000 just to go away. We got nothing.

Ten or fifteen years later, my cousin Ellen, a frightfully successful lawyer in New York, married to another equally successful lawyer, was leafing through a Sotheby’s catalogue and was rather surprised to see a painting she remembered well from The Cloisters being offered for sale. To cut a long story of avarice and mendacity short, the millions that had been left with the estate had all vanished, the museum was no longer, and the city was liquidating the remainder of the estate. I say remainder because many of the most valuable paintings and furniture had also vanished. Ellen forced the city to allow her and my sister to walk briefly through and claim only those items they could prove had belonged to their deceased parents. Right. My sister Judith went down to Baltimore with her daughter, Rachel. She was unable to persuade the staunch guardians of the public weal to let her have our father’s childhood diary, but they did let her take a cast iron bulldog that had been a toy of his as a little boy. She took that for me and some other equally innocuous item for herself and left. But Rachel was made of sterner stuff. Scrupulously honest in every way, Rachel has a highly developed sense of right and wrong and she was enraged by what she saw happening to her mother. When they got back to their car, Rachel produced from under her coat three small nineteenth century, Dutch, oil-on-board paintings that she had found, unframed and filthy, leaning in a corner. God bless her! So my patrimony consists, in its entirety, of two of the Dutch paintings, a cast iron bulldog, and a series of landscapes of the Baltimore harbor in a single frame that my father’s beloved great-uncle, William David Jameson, had commissioned in the 1890’s and which Daddy had taken, as his rightful property, when ‘Sweetie’ broke her hip.

 

I only returned to the Cloisters once after my father was killed. It was after ‘Sweetie’ had also died and we were there, my mother and Kitty and various lawyers, because of something to do with our lawsuit against the city. Losing patience with the arcane shenanigans of the legal types, I wandered upstairs to see one last time the room that had been my father’s as a little boy. One of the city’s legal eagles tried to stop me, saying something vague and lawyer-ish that clearly indicated he was afraid I would steal something. I told him that if he saw me sneaking out with a Goddard-Townsend desk under my arm he should feel free to stop me, but that if tried to before then I would knock him down. Furious, indignant, sad, I went up to my father’s room. But he wasn’t there. Try as I might, I could make no connection between the four-poster bed—I had slept in its trundle myself as a small child—or the bureau or the desk or any of it and the man I so adored and whom I missed so bitterly. But at one point I pulled open one of the bureau drawers (See the child. See him looking through his father’s shirts and handkerchiefs, socks and cufflinks. This is more than idle curiosity. This is the boy trying to find the man he hopes to become.) and found a yellowed, dusty brochure for some patented, guaranteed, sure-fire cure for baldness. So I didn’t find my father in that expensive, contested room, but instead a handsome young man who smiles out at me from a few surviving old photographs and whose smile conceals his own anxieties and modest vanity.

 

Many years later, long after ‘Sweetie’ and my father were both dead, I found myself at one of those huge, crowded, noisy, infinitely boring parties that everyone in Hollywood seemed compelled to give all too often, self included, in those days. I struck up a conversation with a pleasant looking man a few years younger than I. I had zoned in on him because his clothes, his speech, his manners, all stamped him as your standard, garden variety, prep-school-ivy-league type, and his accent marked him as coming from the mid-Atlantic states.

“Where are you from?”

“Baltimore.”

I took a shot. “Gillman School?”

He did a little double take, then grinned. “Yes. Did you go to Gillman?”

“No. My father did, a million years ago.”

“But you’re from Baltimore?”

“No. My father’s family was from there. You may have heard of them. They were pretty well known. Or at least my grandmother was pretty well known. She was pretty well known as the craziest woman in Baltimore, Dudrea Parker. She had a big place called The Cloisters out in…”

“Oh my God.” His jaw had fallen into his drink and he actually recoiled from me. “Oh my God! You’re… That woman…that Mrs. Parker… she’s your… Oh my God.”

And after that things kind of went downhill. If I had given him incontrovertible proof that I was the offspring of an illicit liaison between JFK and Marilyn Monroe, he couldn’t have been more flabbergasted. He kept staring at me with his mouth open, giggling nervously from time to time, occasionally going back to his mantra: “Oh my God.” After awhile I got embarrassed and abandoned the effort, staggering off in search of the bar.

 

I returned home from a trip a few years ago, and as I got off the airplane I suddenly noticed a man ahead of me whose ankles reminded me of my father’s. Well, more accurately, it was the shoes and the cuff of the khaki trousers and the slight gap between those two. I followed him all the way out to the parking lot. He had the same build, the same air of rumpled elegance my father had and it was only some vestige of common sense that kept me from talking to him. It must seem odd to think of anyone following a stranger simply because his ankles resembled those of a man dead over forty years now, but I loved him that much.

 

There Oughta Be a Law!

July 26th, 2015 8 Comments

007 (Small)

 

Two beautiful young ladies were shot and killed in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, and most of the news channels have covered little else.

The news agencies have all reported the Lafayette shooting with a lead-in line referring to three deceased victims. That is both inaccurate and disingenuous, since one of the dead is the shooter, who turned his gun on himself, an action that Dave Workman of Examiner.com correctly described as a public service.

Any horror like that is a tragedy, but the reaction to this shooting in particular has been a universal call for more laws, for greater, stronger, more stringent, more draconian laws, specifically more “common sense” gun laws. CNN aired a segment with a panel almost immediately in which they called for, “…a more realistic interpretation of the second amendment,” and “common-sense gun laws.” The usual politicians, notably President Obama, who gave an interview to BBC News just before he left for Kenya, lamented yet again that America does not have, “…sufficient, common-sense gun safety laws.”

It’s a very natural, knee-jerk reaction to tragedy. You look at the dead and think of all the unspeakable heartbreak of the people who loved them, the loss of so much potential, the senselessness of it all, and your first reaction is, Somebody’s got to do something! This sort of thing must be stopped! There oughta be a law!

I have bad news: there is a law. In fact, when you combine federal, state, county, and local ordinances, there are over 22,000 laws on the books governing every aspect of gun ownership from purchase to use to misuse down to the disposal of the chemicals used to clean a gun after firing it. (By now it’s probably considerably more than 22,000 laws; that statistic is at least a decade old.)

Part of the problem is that all the laws in the world will have no effect on either evil or stupidity. The greater part of the problem is that all the laws in the world are meaningless when they are not enforced, particularly at the federal level.

Syracuse University, which describes itself as a “private research university,” has something they call their “Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse,” where they monitor federal law enforcement in various categories. One of those categories is the federal enforcement of firearms laws currently already on the books against armed criminals. Some of those laws include: prohibitions against illegal possession of a firearm in a school zone; sale of a firearm to a juvenile, a felon, or a drug addict; illegal transport of a firearm across state lines. Some of those laws are redundant, since it is also a violation of federal law for a convicted felon to even touch a firearm. Ever. The penalty is a mandatory ten-year sentence. And yet…

And yet, US News & World Report, quoting Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, states that when it comes to enforcement of those laws, the three districts—out of ninety—with the worst, lowest record of prosecuting federal weapons crimes, per capita, are the districts of eastern New York (that includes New York City) in eighty-eighth place; central California (that includes Los Angeles) in eighty-ninth place; and northern Illinois (that includes the shooting and murder capital of the United States, Chicago) in ninetieth place. Dead last, you should pardon the expression. It is no coincidence that those three cities, in particular Chicago, also have some of the highest homicide rates and the highest rates of crime and violence in which a firearm is used.

It has been well documented that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has, since it was signed into law, resulted in a pathetically small percentage of prosecutions (less than ¼ of one percent) of those people who attempted to break the laws governing gun purchases.

(For the record, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is the system that many anti-gun organizations, most notably Shannon Watts’s Moms Demand Action, claim doesn’t apply to 40% of gun purchases. That claim is a lie that has long been debunked. No one can legally purchase a handgun in this country, from a licensed store, at a gun show, from a buddy at the range, without passing the NICS check, which means going through a licensed FFL dealer.)

But the point is, it is a violation of federal law to lie on any federal form, specifically, in this case, on ATF 4473, and if you are the kind of person who is willing to violate federal law to get your hands on a firearm, we can safely assume you might be the kind of person who would violate other laws, like those that prohibit killing people. And yet the government doesn’t prosecute these cases.

To be fair, in some of those cases, federal prosecution would be redundant because the state involved does charge and prosecute some felons earmarked by the NICS system, but no one knows what percentage are caught by the states because those records are not kept. But the federal government can’t claim a law doesn’t exist just because they can’t be bothered to enforce it.

Consider Chicago. I don’t have to document the ludicrously out of control murder rate there. Look at the news. Murder is up 48% so far this year, with roughly (the statistics vary, depending on who is doing the reporting) 250 people shot to death so far this year. Yet Chicago has the most restrictive, most draconian gun laws currently on the books of any American city.

If you can’t buy a gun in Chicago, where are the guns coming from? Out of state, smuggled into the city. That is a violation of federal law carrying a ten-year sentence. If you’re already a felon doing the smuggling, that’s another ten years added on top. If drugs or violence are involved, that could result in an automatic life sentence. But it’s all meaningless because the federal government doesn’t enforce its own laws. The government could mandate a sentence of public execution by boiling convicted criminals slowly in oil in the town square. What difference would it make? Nobody’s going to be prosecuted anyway.

A nasty, suspicious, paranoid kind of person—the kind of person who thought the government’s Operation Fast and Furious, where they illegally allowed guns along the border to “walk” into drug cartel hands, was a deliberate attempt to boost the government’s argument in favor of stricter regulations in border states—that kind of person might well think the government is deliberately not enforcing its own laws in order to build a case for new laws that it can also not enforce.

My suggestion is to make it a violation of federal law for any politician to suggest, and for the government to pass, any law and then not enforce it. I would recommend the death penalty.

California Drought

July 24th, 2015 11 Comments

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If you’ve been following the news at all, you know that California is in the throes of one of the worst droughts of the last hundred years. If you haven’t been following the news, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your grocery bills are going to go up considerably this year because all the farmers in the Central Valley are either without water entirely, or having to pay a lot more to grow the food you hope to eat. We could have a lively debate about whether it is more important for people to have groceries or for a subspecies of smelt to have water, but I have other things on my mind at the moment, specifically rain.

California’s rainy season typically runs from November through April. In one of Wallace Stegner’s novels, Angle of Repose, the heroine is an Eastern girl transplanted by marriage to California, and one of the numerous troubles she has adjusting to the West is the absolute absence of precipitation from May to October. There are rare exceptions: I once had to leave home on June 8th for a business trip, and I had to keep my truck in four-wheel drive all the way down the mountain because it was snowing so hard. But such things are anomalies.

Well, we had an anomaly the other night. In fact, we had a damn downpour the other night, roughly two inches in a matter of hours. The guy who built our house knew what he was doing: he situated it well; he had the pad graded very cleverly, so that water flows away from the house; he had drainage cuts dug into the side of the hill behind the house. All of things have always worked in the past, and they worked the other night, but…

But one of the side effects of the drought is that I haven’t given a moment’s thought to the drainage cuts for almost four years, and at the height of the storm (my bed time) one of them was clearly having trouble performing its duty and diverting the unprecedented downpour. So instead of curling up with Graham Greene (The Quiet American) or Will and Ariel Durante (The Renaissance), I was outside with a shovel and in a pair of waterproof boots that I quickly discovered are no longer waterproof, doing manly things and being a manly man.

No troubles (other than my back the next morning); I got it done and the next day I used the tractor to improve and expand on my handiwork, so we had no damage to our property other than my driveway which tries constantly to run away to new and exciting destinations at lower elevations.

Others were not so lucky. Darleen had to go into town two days later and she was so stunned by what she saw that she came back and took me for a drive to survey some of the damage.

There are only three roads in and out of this valley, and during the height of the storm, while I was being a manly man and for many hours after, all three of them were completely closed by mudslides. But “mudslide” isn’t an accurate description because what comes down the mountains isn’t just mud. It includes boulders ranging in size from basketball to small refrigerator. Some of the dirt side roads that lead to small ranches and little subdivisions simply don’t exist anymore. A local vineyard has also ceased to exist, with mud and boulders an honest two feet deep over about sixty percent of it. (Don’t weep for the owner; he had let the thing go to seed, so it’s no loss.) A horse breeder who also puts on horse shows in his arena lost his primary pasture, but he’s both smart and lucky, because he was using that pasture as a buffer between him and the main road. The main road, needless to say, was still closed when we went for our drive. A newly installed parking lot at a local B&B has ceased to exist; you can’t even tell there was ever any asphalt there at all.

On the sides of the really steep slopes, deep vertical cuts had opened up, and what they will become can only be determined by Mama Nature, but if we get another anomaly—excuse me, I meant monsoon—it will set up the potential for ever greater runoff and ever more mud and boulders and ever more destruction.

For those of you who live in more sheltered conditions, protected from the more surprising effects of the elements, let me quote a local heavy equipment operator who was interviewed on the news. He lives in a canyon about ten miles from my house, and he told the reporter that his bulldozer was washed about a mile downstream, while a backhoe got washed almost two miles away. Think about the weight and mass of those things; it gives you an idea of the force of a wall of mud and rock.

Yet we still desperately need rain.

The Cat Came Back

July 17th, 2015 22 Comments

bobcat and Bear 005 (Small)

 

Darleen, whose childhood was clearly subject to dubious influences, likes to sing a very dark and disreputable ditty, the title of which is, “The Cat Came Back The Very Next Day.” It purports to be a child’s song, but it involves murder, mayhem, and the dropping of both an atomic bomb and an H-bomb. And those are the more cheery and uplifting parts. The tag-line of the song, repeated after each new bit of death and destruction, is, “But the cat came back the very next day.”

Evidently Mr. Bobcat, pictured here, is a big fan of that song. We’ve actually seen him several times since the last time he posed for his portrait, but this is the first time since then that he has consented to linger and be recorded for posterity.

bobcat and Bear 008 (Small)

I think here he just said something about my mother, but I didn’t catch it clearly.

bobcat and Bear 012 (Small)

I did hear him this time, and while I won’t repeat his very vulgar choice of words, the general thrust of the thing was that he is used to a much higher class of surroundings.

bobcat and Bear 014 (Small)

I include this photograph just so you can get a feel for how close he was to our dog yard. Note the chain-link fence, the scalloped edging to keep the gravel in, and the black blur in the foreground is my barbeque grill. I was surprised, not only to see him so close, but clearly so comfortable within ten yards of a house with it’s windows open and the television playing. For a moment I was confused and thought he might be listening to Fox News, but then I realized he probably surveys the house regularly and has something else on his mind.

bobcat and Bear 023 (Small)

Meet Little Bear, an eleven week-old Australian shepherd pup of infinite charm and almost as much mischievousness. Now you know why we never allow our dogs out by themselves and unattended.

 

 

Book Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

July 7th, 2015 18 Comments

Wolf Hall first

 

Movies based on books rarely live up to the magic of the book. That’s not a condemnation of movies or the movie industry, but rather a reflection of greatest source of magic of all—man’s imagination. No reality ever lives up to my best fantasies.

Normally, I read a book first and then—if a subsequent film production gets rave reviews—I’ll see the movie. Occasionally, the movie will live magnificently up to all my wildest expectations; To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of movie-from-book perfection. And occasionally, rarely, a movie will surpass the book. I thought The Graduate a mediocre book, but the movie was and always will be a classic portrait of a particular time and place.

Which brings us to Wolf Hall. I’m not sure how and why I missed the book. It won a Man-Booker Prize (Great Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer, though over there they might say the Pulitzer is America’s equivalent of the Booker) and then author Hilary Mantel turned right around and won another Man-Booker for the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. That is, I believe, the only time Booker prizes have ever been awarded to a novel and then its sequel.

Mark Rylance

 

Not only had I missed the book(s), but at first, when I saw the trailers on PBS for the film version, I wasn’t all that intrigued. Downton Abbey had just finished its last episode of the season and it was hard to imagine anything equaling that. So, a mini-series based on Henry VIII and his wretched excesses, told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s, ah, shall we say, less fastidious enablers… Ho, hum. I’ve read my history; I’ve seen A Man for All Seasons; been there, done that. But a Close Relative By Marriage insisted we watch, and after the first ten minutes you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. That’s how good the production was, and Mark Rylance (above), the British actor who stars as Thomas Cromwell, gave one of the most compelling performances I have ever seen: quiet, understated, absolutely convincing, and absolutely electrifying. So consider this also a rave review for the PBS series.

(By the way, for those of you interested in historical tidbits: any great English house with “abbey” as part of its name, as in Downton Abbey, is so named because they were formerly Church lands. When Henry VIII, aided by Thomas Cromwell, took the great monasteries from the Pope, he awarded some of those lands to favored courtiers who retained the appellation “abbey.”)

After the second episode I galloped to my desk and ordered copies of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for myself and just about everybody I know, and as soon as they arrived, I dove in. Now I know why Hilary Mantel won the Man-Booker twice. She deserves it.

In case you’re even more of a troglodyte than I and you’ve never heard of Hilary Mantel or Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, yes, it’s Henry VIII and all his unfortunate wives and all those men and women who circled around the king and his court like flies around a corpse, but… But how much do you actually know about Thomas Cromwell? Ah. That’s the point. That’s part of Hilary Mantel’s genius: she has taken a famous and influential man about whom little is known and gone to town with him.

Thomas Cromwell is one of those mysterious figures in history who beggar the imagination. Acknowledged as arguably the single most influential minister (that’s minister in the political sense, not ecclesiastical) in all of English history, he seems to have sprung fully evolved out of his own imagining and will power. Even the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica describes his origins and early life as “obscure.” Probably (no one knows for certain) born around 1485; probably (no one knows for certain) born in Putney, at that time a decidedly seedy suburb of London; probably (no one know for certain) born to a man who may have been named Cromwell, but who may have been named Smyth who was probably (no one knows for certain) a blacksmith, but who might have been a brewer or a cloth merchant or all of the above; Thomas Cromwell probably (no one knows for certain) and improbably somehow ended up in Italy early in his life; he probably (no one knows for certain) lived in the Low Countries (think Flanders, Holland, Belgium); and he was probably (no one knows for certain) somehow associated with the London Merchant Adventurers. His early history contains the qualifying words “seems,” “appears,” “might have,” and “probably” almost more than any others.

And yet, somehow, out of these inauspicious beginnings, Thomas Cromwell suddenly burst into history in 1520 as a solicitor (that’s “lawyer” to we simple-minded Americans) to the great and immensely powerful Cardinal Wolsey. How did a man from such meager beginnings in such a rigidly stratified society manage to catapult himself into the halls of power and the pages of history?

I stumbled across an interview on the internet with Hilary Mantel, and that question is pretty much what compelled her to start her journey. So that’s half the genius.

The other half is Mantel’s writing.

To quote Rudyard Kipling:

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

And every single one of them is right.”

Doubtless very true, and who am I to question as great a writer as Rudyard Kipling? But some methods of construction are righter than others, and Hilary Mantel’s writing is breathtaking.

Of all the varied ways of constructing tribal lays, the one that appeals most to me is the kind where a master artist plays with his or her materials. Think Shakespeare. Think Faulkner. Think Cormac McCarthy. Think Hilary Mantel. The English language, so rich and varied, so ripe with multiple subtle meanings, lends itself to a kind of imaginative playfulness, verbal pyrotechnics, if you like, that amaze and delight. She writes in the present tense, third person singular, which lends an urgency to her tale, but she jumps back and forth in time, sometimes in a sentence, sometimes in a paragraph, sometimes in a section, using the mnemonic device of Cromwell’s memories to give us information about him and his past. But it is the oblique grace with which she tells her story that is so delightful. I will give you one example.

Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of what will eventually become Mantel’s trilogy, opens with Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII out hawking. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s daughters have died, but he cannot allow himself the luxury of grief. He lives to serve the king, and as a minister to the king he cannot indulge in such distracting luxuries as grief or rage or love or hate. Whatever he might feel or want must be subjugated in service to the throne. So in “Falcons,” the opening chapter of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell and Henry are sitting their horses and watching their falcons, and a lesser, more pedestrian, writer might have opened the book with a paragraph such as:

“Cromwell watches his falcons plunging after their prey. He has named the birds after his daughters, and as he and the king watch from horseback, this one, Grace, takes her prey in silence, returning to his fist with only a slight rustling of feathers and a blood-streaked breast…”

And so on.

Now, consider this, Señorita; consider how Hilary Mantel handles the opening.

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”

If you don’t like that, you don’t like chocolate cake.

Independence Day

July 3rd, 2015 18 Comments

American flag

 

There were not many Fourth of Julys when I was a child. Half of my first sixteen years were spent in different countries in Europe, where America’s Independence Day was a matter of low priority, if it was acknowledged at all. But the ones we did celebrate in America stand out as bright and vivid as the fireworks themselves.

We lived primarily in Washington, DC, a city whose site had been chosen with many advantages and potential goals in mind, but—like Rome—with no consideration for the natural marshiness of the land, with the result that during the summer in those pre-air-conditioned days, in spite of the beautiful architecture and general air of being a sleepy overgrown southern town, the whole place turned into a miserable and sweltering miasma of breathless misery and very busy mosquitoes.

My parents tried to get us out of the city as much as possible during those sultry sticky days, and I have only one recollection of an Independence Day being celebrated in the city:

Sparklers; firecrackers of various kinds and sizes doled out with appropriate admonitions to be careful; cherry bombs dispensed with far more strident warnings to be very careful, and not, under any circumstances, to light them and then put them into anything such as tin cans. It was a concept that almost certainly would never have occurred to us, but since it was suggested, my best friend, Rowland Kirks, and I scoured the trashcans (the old-fashioned galvanized metal variety that made such a racket and that did double duty during the winter months as receptacles for the hot ashes my father would rake out of our coal burning furnace morning and evening) in the alley for tin cans which we dutifully stuffed with cherry bombs to see what would happen. Why either of us have our fingers and eyes is a God-given miracle. And then that night, my father having no greater love of large crowds than I do, we went up onto the roof of our old, brick, three-story house, where we could see the fireworks display being put on by the government down at the National Mall.

One summer, one set of my godparents (he was the British Reuters correspondent, she an artist) had gone back to England and they turned their house over to us. It was out in the Virginia countryside, redolent with the scent of Paul’s omnipresent and always lit pipe, as well as the oils and thinners from Vivi’s studio, and it had—oh joy of joys!—a swimming pool where my patient father taught me how to swim. Again that Independence Day there were sparklers and firecrackers and that night my father amazed and thrilled us all with our own, personal, private display of fireworks, a host of Roman candles and similar rocketing devices, the whole affair made even more thrilling by the unspoken but tacit and universal fear that my father might manage to blow himself or possibly the whole area to smithereens. He was many wonderful things, my father, but practical mechanical skills of any variety were beyond his ken. If a lightbulb needed to be changed, he called an electrician.

But the most magical memories come from Vermont. (Oh, that long drive in a un-air-conditioned 1948 Ford packed to the gills with suitcases, my sister and I and our one-eyed Boxer hanging out the back windows, gasping for air, and then the arrival, in the dark mysterious cool of the northern mountains and a whole new world waiting to be discovered and explored.) Several summers in a row (Three? Four? I don’t remember now.) my father rented a primitive little farmhouse on a hillside overlooking the White River Valley and, hidden in the trees, the little town of Randolph. The house was morbidly named Wecumwego (I kid you not; the word was painted in fading black letters on a peeling white board over the entrance to the little attached barn) and was in need, even then, of extensive renovation, but it had a lawn out front where we could all sit in the long northern summer evenings and relish the fact of being slightly cold.

Mother would read out loud to us and while I know she read many things, in my mind she was always reading The Master of Ballantrae, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark and macabre novel about two brothers at odds with each other during the divisive dangers of the Jacobite uprising. It is a sprawling novel that takes place in many different parts of the world: Scotland, the high seas, the Carolinas, India, France, and—most importantly, in my memory—in the “wilderness” of New York. Wilderness could be interpreted to mean many things in that big state, but my mother was convinced that a certain amount of healthy terror was good for small children, and she told me emphatically that in this case, the wilderness was the Adirondack region of upstate New York, and on a trip to Lake Champlain she carefully pointed out the Adirondack mountains to me, even—as I recall it—pointing out the precise mountain where the climax of the story takes place.

And what a climax! That’s where the good and deserving brother digs up the body of his wicked brother, the Master, and finds that the equally wicked East Indian servant has taught the Master how to swallow his tongue and live without oxygen. Yes, yes, I know it’s an improbable fantasy adventure, and not Stevenson’s best work, but to a small boy sitting on a lawn in mountains right next door—I mean just over the hill, that one there!—from the Adirondacks, the Master’s undead body became a very real danger lurking in the dark of the barn overhang, behind the door in my bedroom, waiting with drawn sword in the hall to the bathroom.

But it was on that lawn where the most magical Independence Day celebrations took place. The little town of Randolph put on a parade every year (one year, my father entered us, our family, our dog, our car, in the parade to mock a recently passed tourist tax that Vermonters feared might keep tourists away; we tied suitcases and “antiques” to the roof of the car and sported a sign saying we would tolerate any tax to be in Vermont; we won third prize) and after dinner, after too many ears of corn and too much freshly-made strawberry shortcake, all of us over-tired and over-fed and happy, we would sit in the lengthening shadows until the fireworks display began in the valley below as if specifically ordered for our personal pleasure, and we knew, even if our father hadn’t told us as he always did, how lucky we were to live in the greatest nation on earth.

Have a safe and happy Independence Day.

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