Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pearls and Roses, chapter 7

Pearls and Roses, chapter 6

In the winter that Alice was twenty-six and Hunter nine, on the day they went sledding and life was sweet as honey, the one jet they heard muffled through the clouds happened to be carrying Peter Shepstone, soils engineer, from his home in London – Chicago stopover – to a conference at the University of Texas at San Antonio. This Peter was not like Alice in one way: normally an invitation to come and lecture people would not have interested him much. How many people, ten, three hundred? The few times they separately carried out these tasks, Alice secretly hoped for three hundred, or at least fifty, and got ten; Peter expected ten and got two or three hundred. He was a modest man. He taught, quietly. He went abroad when he was asked and gave advice, quietly, to foreign governments on how best to prop up their aging and weathered national treasures, cathedrals, palaces, towers, and the like. He was married, un-quietly, to a frenetic, blustery little woman who adored him and could not believe her good fortune in being married to him, but who also thought all well-married couples were hale and bluff with each other. Peter, one of those gentle, rumpled men whose soulmate probably married a fellow physicist when she was sixteen, married her to amuse himself. As time went on he found he loved her.

In the past he had been too modest (and too busy) to run about lecturing, but an event had occurred recently to make him come out into the world more, accept more invitations, and take the risks of facing ten, or three hundred, people in a spotlit hall. His older brother Fred had died, leaving hardly a trace that he had ever lived. Perhaps in the great picture, no one leaves a trace – perhaps the God who answers bargains with a telephone call consumes and is everything – but over Fred Shepstone the waters seemed to have closed especially quickly. During his illness he and Peter had talked about really living, about getting out there and doing something with yourself, if not ever before, then certainly now. Travel. Seduce a woman. Spend five hundred on a bottle of wine. Who is ever going to know or care? It’s funny. When you are well you are so anxious, at least Peter was anxious, to keep your life exactly and tidily the same. You have your little concerns and your little angers, there’s that columnist in the paper you love to hate, you have a little turf of happiness to jealously guard. You really do carry on as if you are the center of the universe. "That fool Galileo," Renoir said. "Tells us we revolve around the sun, and nobody behaves as if it were true." People keep themselves just as mousy and moral as if somebody is watching – as if they’re going to live forever. And then when you get cancer you suddenly think you had better go out and do something big. What, something extra, extra-normal? Something greatly true? Fred was only fifty-eight. After years, a lifetime, of caring for and, in her last years, living with their aged mother, he now had cancer, and no wife or child beside him – nothing, Peter repeated to himself over and over, to show he had ever lived. Fred was a plumber, a divorce, a good friend, a kind brother, a devoted son. When their mother died he burst out crying and slammed the kitchen table with his fist. Everyone was alarmed and thought this reaction was a bit excessive with regard to a woman of eighty-seven, even if she was his mother. He liked antiques and bicycles, and won several bike races in Sussex in the early 1960s. Even fame was a modest thing in those days and his victories were only credited, in little paragraphs in the local paper, to "F. Shepstone." And then a little less than thirty years later he died. What had been the point?

At the time he was diagnosed, his doctors gave him three years to live. He rebelled against such pessimism, as they all did. He was going to fight it. Oh yes. He was going to go to a clinic in America, he was going to live on orange juice and greens to purge the toxins from his body. The family were going to pray for a miracle. Elaine especially counted on that. Peter never argued with her but felt such mooning was ridiculous and even dirty. How many millions of people were in need of a miracle today, and why should Fred Shepstone in particular get one?

Besides, the doctors were just about right. He lived two and a half years after his diagnosis. There was nothing to do towards the end but make peace with it. Pain and nausea and the unseen clockwork mastery of the disease helped insure that. Maybe peace was the miracle, though such treacle annoyed Peter in its turn. That was as bad as "It wasn’t meant to be" or "Sometimes God says no."

"I didn’t want to live to be an old man anyway," Fred said towards the last day. He asked for a pear, and ate it with great pleasure. The next hour he died, the one hour that Peter had chosen to go home and see Elaine. He had just been in his brother’s room, and now on the other side of town he was told of the death over the telephone. "He’s gone," the nurse said. Gone, gone where?

"You mean ...out?" Peter asked, and then realized the enormity of his mistake. He wanted to die or kill someone or laugh with embarrassment. He felt as idiotically guilty as if he had been away for years and never bothered to learn of Fred’s predicament at all. "Oh. I see. Thank you." Don’t tell me ‘gone’ with your nurse’s lingo, he thought after he hung up the phone. And don’t say ‘gone’ when I go. Say I died, like everybody else.

Fred died in the spring. That winter following, when the invitation came from the university, all expenses paid, he said yes. Why not? He was fifty-one. A three o’clock connecting flight at Chicago took off into a snowstorm and he happened to fly, roaring, over Alice’s and Hunter’s heads.

By about seven that night he had landed in San Antonio. After fetching his bag – amazing how easy things became, when you didn’t feel so shy anymore – he looked around for the woman who, it had been promised, would meet him here to escort him to his hotel. How on earth would anybody find him? An adventure, Fred. Why not. From a small distance he noticed an attractive creature walking towards him, a tall blond lady dressed in a brown suede suit and flashing silver earrings. He glanced quickly away. Surely she was on her way to some assignation, or was an actress or a spy. She could not possibly hail from the university’s engineering department, come to collect him.

But indeed she approached. She held out her hand with a great smile and asked, "Professor Shepstone? I’m Kathy Nathan."

Mrs. Nathan, of course. He had envisioned something larger and older, duller, like him. He smiled and shook her hand, and in a moment it seemed had gone out into the night and found himself seated with her in her car. Through what might have been five minutes, or forty, of roundabout driving and feeding paper tickets into machines and long jewel-strings of headlights circling around them in the dark, she finally merged into a straightaway of traffic. They appeared to be gaining ground, going somewhere. The suffocating fumes and noise of the airport receded, leaving a taste of diesel in his mouth. A warm breeze ruffled their clothes as they sailed along, elbows out the windows, the city’s lights glittering everywhere.

They chatted, about what he hardly knew. He loved the sound of a southern American voice, not in song – please God, not that – but in speech. Its lilt and lull, its hidden hardness, especially in a woman, soothed him almost to sleep and yet made him want to stay awake and keep the voice talking, more and more, sleepier and sleepier. Mrs. Nathan’s voice was a fine specimen, soft and grainy. They talked, she talked until they reached his hotel, and then she dropped him off, reminded him to get his bags from the trunk, and assured him she would come to get him in the morning. He registered at the desk – an eternal process – got his key, went up and fell into bed exhausted. In an instant it was morning and he woke up famished.

Mrs. Nathan picked him up that morning, and drove him to the university campus, and then he never saw her again. That was the way of things in America, he knew, but he was disappointed afresh and wondered how they stood it. Meeting nice people whom you could never see again, just because the land was so big and everybody had things to do. Still he lectured for the three days, enjoying the Texas winter warmth and all the grand voices. The engineering department treated him to an evening on the Riverwalk and then to the obligatory hour at the Alamo. He could only hope he had been properly responsive. Everything was genuinely interesting, but jet lag was beginning to make itself felt, and besides, everywhere he went he was washed over by voices half in Spanish now – soothing, babbling, fascinating. Was there anything so wonderful as having strangers’ conversations flood around you, some of them very important, knowing none of them mattered at all to you and therefore you needn’t respond, needn’t even be polite? He sat at breakfast in the hotel done day, pretending to be absorbed in his newspaper but really eavesdropping shamelessly on two different conversations. One woman had a friend who knew a friend whose husband had actually been killed in a bar-room brawl last Christmas. The widow was still coping and the murder trial would soon begin. Another couple talked about their children’s school. Talking to people was a duty that Peter often found exhausting. Listening, ignored and anonymous, could be a joy. It was like having a novel read out to you, one you had not begun and need not finish, whose title you did not even know. Was there anything like a good human voice? The women’s especially remained the most entrancing.

He seemed to encounter quite a few women during this pleasant weekend. He had never imagined so many women engineers existed, especially young women students, but they apparently did. What would Fred say? He looked up smiling once or twice that weekend at the massive prairie clouds. Fred would have laughed, and bid him look in a mirror if he fancied foreign blondes were even glancing remotely sidelong at him. He would have said, now, "This is Texas. These aren’t my clouds. I’m not there."

On the Sunday of the conference, the last afternoon before his flight home that night, he and two colleagues spoke at a session open to the public. Frank Boyd was there. When it was over he introduced himself to Peter.

"I enjoyed your talk very much," he began. Peter thanked him, and they shook hands.
"But I had hoped to hear more of the international work you sometimes do. Wasn’t there that cathedral in Lima you were involved with?"
Peter was taken aback. He had been lecturing about clays and silts and subsidence, and here was a man approaching him, apparently, as a species of celebrity. A quite well informed man, in fact. "Yes, I was," he said.
"I thought so," Frank smiled. "I make documentary films about restoring historic places. I would love to be on site on a project you were working on. Are you here for any ulterior purpose like that? Or is it just the lectures? I mean, if you don’t mind my asking." "No, I don’t mind. No, I’m not here for anything like that. Just lectures."
"Too bad. Though I realize you can’t quit your day job. I couldn’t. Would you believe I ran a women’s clothing store? With a degree in architecture?"
Peter smiled wanly. It was true. They really will tell you anything. He groped for a subject. "Really? And is this your alma mater?"
"Oh no. I read the announcement in the paper over the weekend and I thought, why not. No, I’m down here to begin with only because – well, let’s say I have great respect for the University of Texas medical school’s oncology department. Fine people."
"Really. Are you associated with them?" Then the word oncology sunk in. "Oh. Oh, I am sorry," Peter stammered. He might have sworn Mr. Boyd looked the picture of health.

Frank shook his head. "I’m sorry to burden you with my problems. May I ask where we might be able to find you in future? I mean, my company? Do you have any restorations you’ll be working on soon? I know you’ve been in Paris and in Moscow fairly recently. If you’ll pardon my saying so, our little artsy documentaries have done pretty well. We’d love to catch you on site. I don’t suppose there’s anything falling down in America that you think you might be asked to prop up."
"No, I don’t think so," Peter laughed. "Unless you can think of something." For some reason he imagined this man was missing a drink in his free hand. Perhaps it was because his name sounded like ‘Bond.’ Or was it Bond?
"Oh, I can. But I haven’t got enough influence with anybody, to take you away from your day job. When I say little and artsy, I mean little and artsy. Our last project was the waterfront in Lahaina where the whalers and missionaries used to go. Everybody liked the film, but they treated it as a charming little piece of historiana, you know? The place itself is still falling down."
"Maybe your films are too good."
"Maybe. But have you ever done work outside Europe?"
"Just the once, in Lima."
Frank looked stupid for a moment and then put his hand to his forehead. "That’s right, I knew that. I’m sorry. They call it chemo-brain. Miraculous stuff, when it works. The side effects are mortifying."

Peter stood fascinated by this new, no doubt very impermanent friendship. Soon this ruddy-faced, ill gentleman would vanish into the Texas warmth the way Mrs. Nathan had. Yet here they were now. "I understand," he said.

"What I mean is, do you think I should leave a memo at the front office to keep our eyes peeled for Professor Shepstone’s work? Is there a chance?"
"I don’t know. I’m very flattered you would think of doing so, but I rarely know much in advance. I just go where I am asked, when I’m asked. If I’m asked. And if my wife doesn’t object."
Frank laughed. "I understand that, but I’m sure you’re too modest otherwise."
"Not actually. Anyway, if it helps, I suppose the only project that is in my future, now I think of it, is an old medieval abbey in France. I was contacted about it years ago and then never since. Government bureaucracies are the same everywhere. It’s about a thousand years old and it’s got water in the basement."
"Really. My wife would like the medieval part. Is it famous?"
"Oh, pretty famous. Tourists know it. A lot of medieval queens were abbesses there. It’s called Fontevrault."
"Oh yes. Near Chinon."

Peter was very impressed, but remembered his manners quickly enough not to show it. "That’s right," he said.
"Well, well. I’d be tickled, if only there were some sort of American connection."
"Everything has to have an American connection?"
"Beg pardon? Oh, yes, I wrote it into the bylaws. Every other country has plenty of great ruins, and we plow ours under. I wanted to make sure my people didn’t get distracted. Though I kind of regret the stipulation now. This would be interesting. Quite a coup." They paused. Then Frank held out his hand. "Well, sir, obviously I’ve monopolized too much of your time. It’s been a pleasure."

Peter shook hands heartily. "Not at all. I mean, a pleasure for me, too. Good luck."
"And you. I may just write that memo. You may be in demand here sooner than you think." He waved his hand to indicate generally the University, the conference, America as a whole. "Look at all those cameras." Then he walked off.
Peter replayed that conversation in his head during the long trip home. A nice man with cancer, who had kept such track of his own field, and his career in it, that he had heard of practically everything, beginning with the cathedral in Lima. Probably no one else in the world except a handful of friends and Elaine and Fred remembered that. He felt as if he had been talking to Fred this afternoon, in some way atoning for all the times before cancer.

Frank Boyd returned to his wife at their townhome that night and told her about the lecture and about meeting Professor Shepstone, and asked her advice about someday doing a film on a European project. Something really interesting, like saving the old abbey where Richard the Lion Heart was buried.
"Really! And Eleanor?"
"Oh yes."
"Oh, I’d love to, but I’m afraid we’d have a hard time explaining it to our auditors."
"Yes, I know. But what if we find some sort of American connection to it?"
"Like what?"
"I don’t know. An American scientist involved, or maybe a hundred years ago some robber baron tried to buy the place or something. The last thing it was used for was a prison. If we buckle down and do our research we might find some kind of connection that would serve."
"Well, if you think so, I suppose there’s no harm in looking into it. Still, that’s not the same thing as actually filming here. Like we’ve always done."

"True." He stood at the window, gazing down three stories. "Imagine being so renowned that you are just plucked from Imperial College to help national governments save priceless monuments. Imagine that kind of prestige. That kind of expertise."
Monique handed him his cocktail. "Is he that renowned? You said he was surprised you even went up and introduced yourself."
"He may have been surprised in that setting. Open to the public and all. But any professional who knows the field knows him. That’s why it kills me to pass up getting him on record – our record. Whatever he’s doing. It would be quite a coup to be known as the company that introduced him to public television here." He swirled his drink and sipped.
"How do we know it hasn’t already been done?"
"Oh, I doubt it’s been done. I think he would have said."
"Were there cameras rolling there today?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. Strictly local press, though, I think."
"Well. Suppose we make a film off-budget. Just we two, even. Privately."
He turned to her. "Can we do that?"
"I don’t see why not. What’s to prevent us going to France with a camera, if you feel up to it? Remember our home movies of Luxor, Missouri? We just won’t show Peggy." She smiled, jostling his arm and his memory.
"But what would be the point – "
"We could sell the film through some other vendor than Boyd and Monique," she went on.
"I suppose," he mused.
"When is this renovation going to start?"
"He doesn’t know. Whenever the French stamp everything in triplicate, and so on. Just like bureaucracies anywhere."
"Well, suppose we ask Chuck what he thinks, and then in the meantime we can have the research department do a little digging, and maybe we’ll find our connection as well. Then it would all be legal anyway. I would think it’s possible. Does that sound good?"

"All right. Why not?" He put his arm around her, and drank again. The ice tinkled. "I would really like to get this last project off the ground before – well, God forbid, in case anything should happen. Broadening our horizons, and so on."
"I’m sure it can be done," she said softly.

It was not long afterwards, in these middle years of Alice’s experience in the working world, and of Peter’s adjusting himself to a new identity without a sibling, without any of his birth family left him at all, that Trish arrived at Monique Productions and the Boyd Foundation, confident and perfect. She had been hired away from the film school of the Art Institute of Chicago, hired away, which is to say, very much wanted. She walked the halls briskly, her cap of flaxen hair glowing like a halo, at home in the place from her first day on the job. Trish was small and abundant in her figure, and always, while cheerful enough, veiled. She veiled her body in long skirts and blouses, often white or cream colored. When scarves were fashionable she veiled her white clothes in bright gauzy scarves. In summer her swimsuits were black, or skirted and printed in aqua blue flowers. Already she was, not dowdy, not quite matronly, but private and commanding, already guarded by a cover-up of some kind.

She was veiled in her eyes and in her manner as well. Even when she walked the corridors of the Art Institute as a student, she gave the impression of being very much in the know and friendly with people whom the ordinary soul – you – would never meet, with the dean perhaps, or visiting artists or curators. As she walked she kept her eyes down, not out of shyness (she was never shy) but out of a kind of lofty busyness, a sense that she was too preoccupied to be disturbed with ordinary things, with you. She was an exclusive person. Even her birthday was February 29th. Leap Day. Leaping over obstacles. She never sat in the Art Institute’s south gardens in the spring, among just anybody. Later, when she taught at the school, her students rarely approached her after class with questions. Yet she was not unkind. She laughed all the time, with her own friends, with the dean in his office.

Trish was one of those people upon whom civilization and decency probably depend. She was a rule-flouter, a human being among machines. And there are always machines, even in remote ages, even among cavemen there must have been machines. She was a person who shrugs and says, Oh, well no, but I shall do it this way – and then does it and succeeds. Even from the beginning her very presence at the School of the Art Institute was illegal: she lived in a fine house in the quaint Indiana town of Crown Point, but kept a fake address at her aunt’s house in Calumet City, so as to attend the School without paying its exorbitant out-of-state tuition. She planned to confess this to the dean someday, years in the future, laughing, after she had gotten an offer from Rome, or they had named a wing for her perhaps. In fact Trish was a person who would have been very annoyed to be pegged a rule-flouter. That sounds so negative, and above all things she hated the negative. To flout something already sounds petty, and she was not petty or mean-spirited. She paid up parking meters without tricks, and did not cheat on her taxes. It was only that if she perceived a higher value in doing something technically improper, she did it, especially if it seemed more grand or human, or saved time. Especially if it wasn’t hurting someone. "The Art Institute of Chicago has been around far longer than I have," she laughed among her friends. "I think it will survive."

Which is true. Anyway no one would have questioned her even if they had discovered her little financial sleight-of-hand. Trish had a great gift for bowling over people – for billowing over them in her cream clothes and bright scarves, sometimes a tropical print blouse in summer – simply by looking at them plainly with her un-shy eyes and expecting them to be nice, to be positive, like her. "Oh, well ...but I was planning to teach that course, too," she would look plainly, surprised, at her interlocutor when the staff discussed their curriculum for the coming year. "Too," just the word too was enough to say, Here I am, you are superfluous. And Charlie or whoever it was would back down, and she would get her way. And she was intelligent and attractive all the while. She gave the impression that a person had only to do one more, perfect thing to get into her entire good graces, and become the sort of friend to whom she confided the details about her tuition, or what she and the dean had been laughing about just now. She got her way.

And a good thing, too, a good thing there are people like her in the world. Who knows but that the Art Institute itself may have been founded by people who hadn’t any paintings and could not afford to buy them either, but did not tell their banks so, and just muddled along in sovereignty and judicious lies, and made it work anyway. Look at the glories there now. Who knows but that wars may have been stopped, and peace treaties signed, by people who lacked the authority, but did it anyway and saved lives. Shakespeare plagiarized Holinshed, and thought Bohemia had a coast. Beethoven scribbled "I allow it, you ass" in the margin of some composition book which forbade a certain musical thing to be done. Yet look at the glories. Rule-flouters, all of them.
After Trish came to "Monique-Boyd" one of the first things she did was to begin calling the joint company by that new, hyphenated name, a name of her own invention. No one had thought of slurring them before. "It’s just quicker," she laughed. She called it that on official press releases without notifying other employees or asking Mrs. Boyd’s permission. Mr. Boyd was already too ill to concern himself. Trish paced the halls, brisk and at home. She noticed Alice, too, and thought she seemed nice.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 8

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Hi, Uncle Ray!"

Yesterday would have been a day on which I had lots of news for my uncle Ray. Would you believe it, I always liked to begin things, I got my one and only check from my blog's former advertising network, in the whopping amount of $27 and change, representing the farewell-and-godspeed revenue from a year's worth of ad impressions. I earned about ten cents a day from my fifteen or twenty happenstance visitors, and now that I've changed networks in the hope of what everybody calls increased traffic, BlogHer has closed my account and mailed me my share. We'll see what the future holds. FoodBuzz pays your ten cents right into your bank account. This could get interesting.

And then my niece sent me a copy of the first issue of the new senior citizens' financial newsletter that she is editing, and for which I hope to write a column on economical home cooking. Her boss is out of commission, post-surgery, for a month, so I'll have no word for a while on whether or not my idea will fly with her, allowing me -- if it does fly -- almost a kind of paying writing job. And in between taking in the mail and doing the laundry and making a nice garlic soup for dinner, I was also typing up a syllabus for a potential "Wine 101" class that I propose to teach at a local community college this fall, if they'll have me. My Uncle Ray would like that, as he was quite the aficionado himself and was also planning his second wine tasting, to take place this fall at the local senior citizens' center. His first, last winter, attracted forty people, among them a number of elderly ladies who then started sending him Christmas cards.

I would have had all this news to tell him, not because my life is so very fascinating but because over the last several years, my 86-year-old uncle and I have developed an e-mail correspondence that was little short of miraculous. He is my uncle by marriage, the husband of my mother's sister. On the surface we don't have a lot in common. We are more than forty years apart in age and, because he and my aunt and their children, my cousins, lived elsewhere and family reunions always seem tempting for next year -- this year everyone is so busy -- he and I probably did not spend more than twenty or thirty days actually together in all our lives. After my aunt died four years ago, he maintained the tradition of sending my siblings and me birthday cards, always with two dollars in them. Inflation and advancing age be damned. We got our two dollars. I responded to my birthday card, three years ago, by email because my mother told me he had just gotten a computer and knew how to do that, and so did I. He wrote back right away and we have corresponded ever since.

It is only the miracle of email that has done it. We never would have written back and forth on paper, with a pen and an envelope and a stamp. I have always envied former ages their facility with the personal letter, and have wondered why the modern age, or modern America, abandoned that habit. I used to try to frankly browbeat my high school friends into writing regularly to me, but the letters always fell away on their side. Later, when we also got back in touch, a little, through email, we agreed how much more comfortable electronic writing is. "You don't feel obliged to fill a whole piece of paper," "you don't feel like you have to be perfect." "You don't have to worry about your handwriting." "You don't feel like you have to wait for something interesting to write about." (I certainly didn't. Uncle Ray and I spent a lot of ether-space discussing the weather, or the WX, as he put it. He was an ex-air traffic controller during the war and liked to keep to military abbreviations.)

There is something about the paper and pen letter that is at once presumptuously intimate and coldly formal, although our scribbling ancestors apparently didn't think so. Maybe it served as their email. Maybe technology is neither the point nor entirely the excuse for people who could correspond and don't -- maybe you are just born with a letter-writing personality, or you are not. At any rate, I am glad that the miracle of the internet came along in time for our two personalities to correspond in the way modern people feel easy with, because it was not only great fun but a great comfort, too. The last several years included some rather hectic times for me, times when it helped to remember, "I'll write to Uncle Ray." My only regret is that for the first few months, I read his emails, laughed, and then deleted them. Then it dawned on me to print them out and save them, because after all they are what they are: letters. Now I have three small binders filled with them, from August of 2006 to April of 2009. Even though by deleting the first dozen I've lost a few gems -- SORRY ABOT THE TPING NAN DAMN -- CANT SEEM TO GE T IT -- I USE THE COLUMBUS SYSTEM --- FND IT AND LAND ,,,,ALSO FLINKED SPELLING -- it happens that the first one in my collection begins appropriately enough. GREAT TO BE IN CONTACT -- WX CYCLES ARE CHANGNING FASTER THAN A BABYS DIAPER,,,

As will be pretty obvious by now, the reason my little budget of news of yesterday sits uncommunicated to Uncle Ray is because as I was working on my Wine 101 syllabus, the phone rang. I looked at the caller I.D. screen and saw the call was coming from my cousin's house. This would be Uncle Ray's son, who lives in the same town with him. There was no reason, except one, for any call to come to me from that house. For some idiotic reason I felt compelled to address my cousin as "honey" while we talked.

Uncle Ray had died in his sleep overnight, after spending a great weekend with his visiting kids, playing Scrabble I am sure, going out to eat, going to the casinos and doing all the other things he liked to do. I don't know if he had them all playing bridge "with the old folks" or playing bingo "with my senior citizen friends" -- WE DONT PLY FOR MONEY ,,, I WON AN ORANGE AND A BANANA -- HJEY DON'T KNOWKC IT PRODICE IS EXPENSIVE ARF ARF-- or for that matter sitting in on the writers' group he had just joined, but anyway they were as busy and as celebratory as he liked to be. And then, without warning, it was time. In the end, no matter that no one is ready, there are few greater blessings than a peaceful death in sleep after a full, healthy life, a full month, week, weekend, day ... night.

Now I am left with no email buddy, no unique source of support and experience from another era, and (most selfishly) no audience for a particular kind of writing that was enjoyable and, when need be, a relief to the feelings. I ended up aping his style, minus the CAPS LOCK button, and found I could dash out the day's or the week's news in ten minutes without agonizing over tone or anything. It didn't go into a drawer like a mewling little diary, somebody saw it and that alone gave it a bit of life. I could dash out little things that are absolutely meaningless except that I saw them, and amused him with them: would you believe it, the young couple next door has dragged out their fire pit for the summer -- it's huge -- why burn wood in the heat? -- oh well, he's a cop, so it's good to have him nearby (I think) .. and a huge dog just went galloping thru our yard.. good thing the kids are in school, this guy looked like he meant business...

Perhaps that is exactly the correspondence that people used to carry on in the days when they were comfortable with pen and paper; perhaps a different type of education only makes old letters, old published letters anyway, seem elegant, artistic, and startlingly soul-baring in a way email is not. Regardless, I'm extremely grateful for my three slim plastic binders filled with almost three years' worth of Uncle Ray's letters. They are a kind of distillation of a family, a little bottle filled with the years of two families' relationships. I can remember, when I was growing up, the high points of life were always the times when the Smiths were coming to visit. It was the equivalent of five Christmas Eves and a couple of birthdays all rolled into one. They were fun. You could hardly believe how fun, you could hardly keep up with the volcano of talk, laughter, and activity, and then when the visit was over and their cars bearing the out of state license plates had pulled away from the curb, life seemed very plain and ordinary again.

I have often wondered since what it must have been like to live in previous ages, when people not only wrote more letters, but also lived in extended families. What would it have been like to see the Smiths every week -- maybe every day? Perhaps people in previous ages found that the routine presence of extended family got tiresome, everybody under the same roof, good Lord, and longed only for a privacy ever out of reach. The historian Robin Lane Fox in Pagans and Christians says that anyway the cozy extended family as we imagine it did not often exist. Mortality rates being as awful as they were, often a "family" was a collection of survivors of disparate age groups and very disparate origins. Not much fun, not much union or comfort in that.

I don't know what it would have been like. We live long since in a civilization closed to the extended family. But miraculously I at least have my personal distillation. Have you ever read interviews with people in which they are asked what they would save from a fire, if they could only choose one thing? Now I can tell you. And it's not my novel.

I can also tell you how to live your life when you reach your eighties. Before that I can't judge, because before that, Uncle Ray and I didn't correspond. But here is what I want you to do. I want you to enjoy eating and drinking as much as possible, for one thing. I want you to cook good meals for yourself, even if you are alone. When you are invited to a party, go, even if you feel funny about it for whatever reason. WHAT THE HEY, ITS A PARYT. If you know things, like how to operate a ham radio or how to play bridge, then volunteer to teach classes to people. By all means, do apply for a job at the local airport when you are eighty-four, because you have a pilot's license as well as experience as an air traffic controller. Yes, organize wine tastings for the old folks, and make little reindeer and horses out of the glued-together corks, and sell them at the senior citizens' craft fair at Christmastime. You might earn ten bucks. If you join a writer's group, then you can write poems about all the politicians you don't like (WE NOW HAVE TWO APPOINTEES, OF KNOWN TAX EVASION, WHO OWE TOMES OF MONEY TO OUR BANKRUPTED NATION....). If a local university student needs a volunteer to help with a semester-long project on physical fitness and the elderly, yes, do that too. Think what you can tell the kid. Crossword puzzles, travel, playing internet poker, going gambling, and carefully figuring out what California wine club will give you the best deal per case should take up the rest of your time. You could go to the movies or read a book occasionally if you like, but then when will you sleep?

When indeed? I won't advise you to also start emailing relatives forty years your junior (or otherwise), because your personality is yours, and despite the convenience of new technology anything touching the edges of that sensitive personal issue, letter writing, can amount quickly to browbeating. There is no fun in that. But consider it. Consider unusual things like that, things that expose you, a little scarily, to other people. And if you'll indulge me I'll end as I would have ended any other budget of news. Well, I'll be going .. looking forward to getting together this summer, will be in touch .. take care, and love to all the Smiths -- TTYL

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rediscovering Star Trek

"The Tholian Web." "The Gamesters of Triskelion." "Amok Time."

Star Trek first aired when I was a toddler, so I missed it then, but I know I grew up with the famed reruns saturating the very air around me, because episode titles like the ones above are as familiar to me as -- well, as a lot of other, more dignified things probably should be. Things like great poetry recited at the family hearth, or memories of how to churn butter or harvest crops, or something. I know my older brother loved Star Trek as he loved almost any science fiction, so I am sure he was the reason why the TV was tuned in to that station when I was seven or eight, and too young to make the choice myself. By the time I was in high school, I had long enjoyed the show so heartily that I only half-jokingly scolded my friends what a pity it was that their jobs forced them to work Saturday afternoons, whereby they would miss Star Trek. They sort of laughed.

Nowadays my husband, never a science fiction person and never one to have much patience with "cheesiness," has discovered the show -- the old show of course, with original, cardboard sets and less than full-throttle acting gloriously included -- on FanCast. He started out with "Elaan of Troyius." Some days later he invited me into the computer room to watch another ("The Tholian Web") and now after decades, I'm hooked again. Our older daughter has also caught the bug. Our younger daughter and our son have so far remained immune. They go into other rooms, or shade their eyes and mutter "nerds" whenever we three rhapsodize about plots, or begin planning our next, lame-o Family Fun night.

But they did have fair warning that this little TV-land bacillus might erupt among us with a vengeance. They knew I liked it. Before exploring the treasures of FanCast, we had watched the two best Star Trek movies together on DVD, as a concession to my childhood tastes. These would be Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Return to Earth. The children's childhoods' having been much devoted to the juggernaut that is Star Wars, I found these two latter movies, viewed when the younglings had all reached and safely passed the age of reason, most refreshing. I couldn't help but lecture the family on why. "Star Wars," I wagged a finger at them all, "is nothing but fighting total, galactic eee-vill all day. Nobody even eats. (Except for the pear floating between Anakin and Padme, and the blue milk that Aunt Beroo makes in a blender way back on the farm.) There's no story.

"Star Trek is different." I grew expansive. "There are always two and sometimes three plots going on in every episode. There's a problem with whatever alien society the Enterprise encounters, and then there's a character conflict on board ship, and often there is some other problem -- damage to the ship, impossible orders from the Federation, or yes, galactic evil on the march. And it all gets wrapped up in fifty minutes and eighteen seconds (I never knew, but FanCast tells you so). Even the movies are like that. Look at the plots. They have to prevent Khan from getting his hands on the Genesis device. They have to save the whales. There's a story."

And of course the children huff that Star Wars has stories too. Or else they shade their eyes and mutter "nerd." My husband the peacemaker simply says "It's all good."

And so it is, but there are a few more ways in which Star Trek is better and more interesting than its later, special effects-laden rival. The literate references from an era of better-educated scriptwriters stand out. "Daniel, as I recall, had only his faith," Spock said to Dr. McCoy (last night) in "The Gamesters of Triskelion." Quick -- reference, please? Then there are episodes that very casually mention D'Artagnan, and episodes in which the crew meet an alien who has original manuscripts of Brahms in his possession. Spock suffers an alien-induced convulsion which forces him to quote William Blake. Khan quietly asks Kirk whether he has read his Milton. One show is devoted to the crew meeting the Greek gods.

And goddesses. Which brings us to the women -- "Kirk's women," as the accompanying booklet to the Star Trek II DVD forthrightly describes them. Yes, a few too many green-haired alien girls in silver lame bikinis spend their time swooning at the captain's feet, but often enough these women also at least have other problems to face besides him, and even have a share of intelligent lines to speak. Remember Joan Collins playing the no-nonsense, Depression era soup kitchen lady in "The City on the Edge of Forever"? And no, as a matter of fact, he didn't save her from anything.

(Photo from space debris dot com.)

You don't get all this in the Star Wars franchise. Padme is a queen and a senator and she has to save her peeople, but otherwise you get a lot of kids fighting monsters. To be fair, it's simply a different franchise entertaining people in a different way. And scripted by a younger generation who don't know their Milton. But in the end, I think what makes Star Trek simply so much more fun is that asset which I suppose the curmudgeon, or the stickler for all things Shakespearian, could call a flaw: the character, care, and feeding of Himself, Captain James T. Kirk.

Really. He is ever so much more fun than poor little Luke Skywalker. It's 1966, for one thing: the camera lingers on William Shatner's young face, and well it should. But Kirk is also such an entirely different character than the Skywalkers, Solos, Obi-wans, and Anakins of that other franchise. (Solo comes close.) Where they are buffetted, humorless, and loftily angry, he is competent, cocksure, but also brave, decent, and disciplined. He'll take a whipping on a crewwoman's behalf; he'll ruin his career to bring Spock to Vulcan for a mating ritual (no kidding); he'll keep an eye on an unsteady crewman while feeding lies to a terrifying alien about "corbomite" and arguing with the good doctor regarding why that unsteady crewman was ever promoted in the first place. He is interesting every time because, every time, you want to see how this take-charge guy is going to take charge of this.

You might say any hero is the same -- Sir Lancelot, Dr. House, CSI's Grissom. But Kirk still outdazzles them. I suppose it's because the background to the stories is an organized military and so he has no superiors and almost no peers. Or because, a curmudgeon might grouse, he is written and played just a tad one-dimensional. Maybe that appeals to something in human nature, which likes to relax from time to time and watch an almost-perfect hero in action. But when the Klingon commander in "The Trouble with Tribbles" reels off all Kirk's flaws -- to Mr. Scott, who repeats it to his face -- in enough detail to satisfy any critic, that dressing down is lots of fun, too. You really must go to FanCast and watch it. In that episode, note the half-sentient flower-creature in Sulu's garden, which gets all upset at an intruder but looks suspiciously like a human hand in a pink fur glove.

For good or ill it must be an almost incomprehensible experience to become what William Shatner has become, an internationally recognized cultural icon, for decades. He is something other than a mere movie star who plays roles. "Get a life," he famously scolded "fans" during a Saturday Night Live skit about a Trekker convention. He has a life. I know this, at thirdhand, because it so happens my sister owns a couple of horses, an American Saddlebred and a hackney pony whom she takes to competitions around the midwest through the summer months, which are the horse show season. Since Saddlebreds are also the actor's little hobby, it so happens that she has crossed paths with him in small ways at one or two of these shows. She and her pony won a competition one year, the prize for which was a "Shatner Award" belt buckle.

One afternoon at a show in Kentucky, she saw him walking about the stable areas like anybody else. Of course she nearly swallowed her tongue, as we all do at sight of a celebrity. "It's like seeing a tornado," my brother explained after he collided with his own hero, Jack Nicklaus, emerging from the clubhouse at the Western Open. "You feel it right through to your spine." That's true. I remember once standing admiring a painting in a small room at the Art Institute of Chicago. Next to me was a slight, middle-aged gentleman escorting an aged woman. He pointed to another painting and spoke to her. "I wore a costume like that," he began, and I forget the rest because I was thunderstuck by the voice. There was no mistaking Charlton Heston.

Anyway, there was my sister trying not to goggle at a septuagenarian Captain Kirk in a bright, sunny, summer stable yard in Kentucky. She gripped a friend's arm. "Turn around go back go back," she hissed. "It's him."

Her friend reluctantly turned around and they very casually went back to enter and then pass through the icon's presence. Already they noticed two or three young blondes casually leaning over a paddock fence within his line of sight. But my sister's friend has been around horse shows longer and she knows the rules. "All right," she told her. "But don't talk to him. Nobody talks to Bill. He doesn't like it."

That was that. They left the presence, and carried on with their lives. So did he. Horse show season has begun again. And I have returned in a small way to my childhood tastes, sailing through the universe with that commanding hero who punches the intercom console in a temper and then controls himself and politely asks some subordinate to please come to the bridge. And makes you think -- hey. He's all right. We're in good hands.

Now I have a life too, but if I can wangle an invitation to a horse show this summer, if I can offer to make myself useful just casually mucking out stalls or something, why I might have much more eyewitness things to report. But I'll remember the rules. I promise I won't talk to Bill.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Tudor Year: April

Theme: birth

April 2, 1502: Death of Arthur, Prince of Wales
April 21, 1509: Death of King Henry VII
April 23, 1564: Birth of Shakespeare
April 24, 1509: Henry VIII proclaimed king

April, month of renewed life, includes the anniversaries of the births of Thomas Hobbes (April 5th, 1588), and Oliver Cromwell (April 25th, 1599), as well as Shakespeare. In 1555 Queen Mary, exulting in her crown, in her marriage to the Spanish king Philip II, and in her first pregnancy, spent April convinced she was about to give birth to an heir who would help guide her father's kingdom back to Catholicism. Nothing happened. Perhaps Mary was lucky. Childbirth was an unmedicated hazard, and women often died of it, in their teens -- which made women relatively scarce, sought after, and married off young. In rural areas perhaps one third of brides went to the altar pregnant. Where a girl was pregnant and not married, the midwife would ask the father's identity at the very crisis of delivery. If he could be discovered, he would be made to support the child; if the laboring mother kept the secret, the child's maintenance would fall on the parish. "The highest rate of conceptions were in the high summer," thus accounting for quite a few April births.


David Starkey, Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. New York: Harper Collins, 2001 (pp. 178-179).

A.L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971 (pp. 170-180).