Sunday, September 27, 2009


Sedum, attempting to make itself heard above the din of "native perennials."

A local professor once challenged his biology students to guess where this bug lived. Most guessed the Amazon. Nope, Chicago. And environs.

I planted Chinese lantern seeds, a whale of a long time ago.

Lily of the valley

Relax and have a drink in the autumn light.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What should you do?

Iran has a president who wants to rain nuclear bombs on Israel because it's filled with Jews, and he's got -- or is very close to getting -- the weaponry needed to do it. We've got a president filling an office which might stand athwart the murderer's ambition, -- but who is himself an academic popinjay and a moral cripple.

I wonder what will happen next?

Can he become heroic, truly -- ironically -- change, truly grow up? Oh, not so as to wade into foreign affairs brandishing a big stick, but simply enough to say, this at least shall not happen on my watch?

And what should you do?


Read more: Dog feces ice cream, by Mark Steyn

Iran's not so secret secret, National Review online


And finally, reprinted from the New York Post:

Excerpts from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's address yester day to the United Nations General Assembly:

NEARLY 62 years ago, the United Nations recognized the right of the Jews, an ancient people 3,500 years old, to a state of their own in their ancestral homeland. I stand here today as the prime minister of Israel, the Jewish state, and I speak to you on behalf of my country and my people.

The United Nations was founded after the carnage of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. It was charged with preventing the recurrence of such horrendous events. Nothing has undermined that central mission more than the systematic assault on the truth.

Yesterday, the president of Iran stood at this very podium, spewing his latest anti-Semitic rants. Just a few days earlier, he again claimed that the Holocaust is a lie.

LAST month, I went to a villa in a sub urb of Berlin called Wannsee. There, on Jan. 20, 1942, after a hearty meal, senior Nazi officials met and decided how to exterminate the Jewish people. The detailed minutes of that meeting have been preserved by successive German governments.

Here is a copy of those minutes, in which the Nazis issued precise instructions on how to carry out the extermination of the Jews. Is this a lie?

A day before I was in Wannsee, I was given in Berlin the original construction plans for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Those plans are signed by Hitler's deputy, Heinrich Himmler, himself. Here is a copy of the plans for Auschwitz-Birkenau, where one million Jews were murdered. Is this too a lie?

This June, President Obama visited the Buchenwald concentration camp. Did President Obama pay tribute to a lie?

And what of the Auschwitz survivors whose arms still bear the tattooed numbers branded on them by the Nazis? Are those tattoos a lie?

One-third of all Jews perished in the conflagration. Nearly every Jewish family was affected, including my own. My wife's grandparents, her father's two sisters and three brothers, and all the aunts, uncles and cousins were all murdered by the Nazis. Is that also a lie?

YESTERDAY, the man who calls the Holocaust a lie spoke from this po dium. To those who refused to come here and to those who left this room in protest, I commend you. You stood up for moral clarity, and you brought honor to your countries.

But to those who gave this Holocaust-denier a hearing, I say on behalf of my people, the Jewish people, and decent people everywhere: Have you no shame? Have you no decency?

A mere six decades after the Holocaust, you give legitimacy to a man who denies that the murder of 6 million Jews took place and pledges to wipe out the Jewish state. What a disgrace! What a mockery of the charter of the United Nations!

Perhaps some of you think that this man and his odious regime threaten only the Jews. You're wrong. History has shown us time and again that what starts with attacks on the Jews eventually ends up engulfing many others.

THIS Iranian regime is fueled by an ex treme fundamentalism that burst onto the world scene three decades ago after lying dormant for centuries. In the past 30 years, this fanaticism has swept the globe with a murderous violence and cold-blooded impartiality in its choice of victims. It has callously slaughtered Moslems and Christians, Jews and Hindus and many others.

Though it is comprised of different offshoots, the adherents of this unforgiving creed seek to return humanity to medieval times. Wherever they can, they impose a backward, regimented society where women, minorities, gays or anyone not deemed to be a true believer is brutally subjugated.

The struggle against this fanaticism does not pit faith against faith nor civilization against civilization. It pits civilization against barbarism, the 21st century against the 9th century, those who sanctify life against those who glorify death.

The primitivism of the 9th century ought to be no match for the progress of the 21st century. The allure of freedom, the power of technology, the reach of communications should surely win the day. Ultimately, the past cannot triumph over the future. And the future offers all nations magnificent bounties of hope.

BUT if the most primitive fanaticism can acquire the most deadly weapons, the march of history could be reversed for a time. And, like the belated victory over the Nazis, the forces of progress and freedom will prevail only after a horrific toll of blood and fortune has been exacted from mankind.

That is why the greatest threat facing the world today is the marriage between religious fanaticism and the weapons of mass destruction.

The most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Are the member states of the United Nations up to that challenge? Will the international community confront a despotism that terrorizes its own people as they bravely stand up for freedom?

Will it take action against the dictators who stole an election in broad daylight and gunned down Iranian protesters who died in the streets choking in their own blood? Will the international community thwart the world's most pernicious sponsors and practitioners of terrorism?

Above all, will the international community stop the terrorist regime of Iran from developing atomic weapons, thereby endangering the peace of the entire world?

The people of Iran are courageously standing up to this regime. People of goodwill around the world stand with them, as do the thousands who have been protesting outside this hall. Will the United Nations stand by their side?

Ladies and Gentlemen, the jury is still out on the United Nations.

WE want peace. I believe such a peace can be achieved. But only if we roll back the forces of terror, led by Iran, that seek to destroy peace, eliminate Israel and overthrow the world order. The question facing the international community is whether it is prepared to confront those forces or accommodate them.

Over 70 years ago, Winston Churchill lamented what he called the "confirmed unteachability of mankind," the unfortunate habit of civilized societies to sleep until danger nearly overtakes them. He bemoaned what he called the "want of foresight, the unwillingness to act when action will be simple and effective, the lack of clear thinking, the confusion of counsel until emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong."

I speak here today in the hope that Churchill's assessment of the "unteachability of mankind" is for once proven wrong. I speak here today in the hope that we can learn from history -- that we can prevent danger in time.

In the spirit of the timeless words spoken to Joshua over 3,000 years ago, let us be strong and of good courage. Let us confront this peril, secure our future and, God willing, forge an enduring peace for generations to come.

NEW YORK POST is a registered trademark of NYP Holdings, Inc.


Winston Churchill ... the man whose statue Barack Obama removed from the Oval Office and gave back to the British ambassador in his first week in office. Not a hopeful sign, but perhaps, perhaps he can still grow up.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Schwab's syndrome

A few months ago I was out with old friends and we exchanged notes on our careers. I was just then between day jobs and busy claiming titles and writing articles for Demand Studios to make a little extra money. I've stopped doing that since I now, thankfully, have a new day job, and thanks to its paycheck can now write what I want to write rather than, for example, writing on the titles Demand has to offer. Like the history of Biwa pearls (not that that wasn't interesting).

My friends said "why don't I write a book." Instead of all sorts of little articles here and there, and blogging, you know.

Well, yes. Why don't I. (I did write a novel which earned me over forty rejections before I decided simply to post it here. Then there is what seems a basement full of boxes of unfinished and painful crud.) It seems to me that there are only a few paths to that nirvana, a career of book-writing, and people who are not writers understandably have no clue what these paths look like and what it takes to traverse them. You've got to parcel out your time so, and of course your first handicap is that you are unknown. It's the known people who get to live the nirvana of writing what they like with the guarantee that it will come out, in thick respectable book form, and see daylight in stores. They aren't struggling with the whole time-wasting, opportunity cost thing. They aren't asking, research first? Queries first? Marketing first? Write to a passion -- I've seen books published just on certain kinds of apples from certain states -- and then hunt for a publisher, while your topic perhaps goes years out of date, or perhaps never could have interested anybody but you? Catch hold of something newsworthy, trendy, and face stiff competition while working on something personally unfulfilling? Build up unrelated, workaday credentials first, so as to be able to sell yourself?

Or wait to be discovered? That, I think, is the prime path most successful writers follow. The secondary path is that followed by academics, who finish their degrees, and labor to get published because the wolf is at the door until they do. They can't earn teaching tenure without a Ph.D. and a book. And incidentally, the universities where they teach as adjuncts do nothing to help them birth a book into the world. I was amazed and disheartened when I learned this. Professor Saint, who wrote her dissertation at Yale and then gets a job at the University of Illinois, must spend her summer driving all over the midwest doing original research for the book she hopes might come out from Princeton University Press in three years. And is she really all that interested in how the Choctaw chronicled their wars with pictographs on deer hides, or would she rather be writing bodice ripper romances (or reading them), or staying at home looking after her new baby? The limitations of time are so ... absolute. If you are remotely an artist, you want to choose to do what you must do. And what books live in people's memories, in the libraries of a civilization? Sometimes it's just one, written by someone who had only a quill and parchment, and died at fifty-three. Frankenstein.

But this academic path, I was saying, is the secondary one to publication. The main path is the path of suddenly getting yourself discovered. "I think we've all got Schwab's syndrome," I said to my friends those months ago. They blinked at me and I had to hurry to try and refresh their memories. Schwab's was the drugstore in Los Angeles where, legend has it, the beautiful young Lana Turner was spotted by a Hollywood agent who instantly plucked her from soda-counter obscurity to send her on her way to a career, fame, and riches. It's amazing how often that tale repeats itself in our culture. Pick a writer: Lauren Hillenbrand wrote an article for American Heritage on the racehorse Seabiscuit, which someone discovered. Book and movie deal followed. And all the while she had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome! Pick anybody: every issue of People magazine alone seems to have some rags to riches story of the ordinary person who started out in a basement, a garage, with nothing more than a hobby, an idea, a sewing machine, a charitable cause -- and rose to success, artistic or business fulfillment, and a new life just slopping over with philanthropy and leisure time as well. But they've got to get discovered. Someone else has to choose to make that phone call, write that email, approach the leggy blond at the soda counter.

I just love how the discovered ones are astonished and humbled by it. They never have any explanation of how did you do this. Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame is one. I love the scene in the movie (no really) when she comes home from her day job and her husband tells her she has over sixty messages on her phone answering machine. She listens, dewy eyed with delight. "This is Mr. Editor from Random House, this is so and so from Super Agency, do you have representation?" Another is Molly of Orangette. She now has a FAQ page to her delicious website. To the question how did you get a book deal, a column in Bon Appetit, and a literary agent, she answers:

"The short answer is this: I got a book deal and magazine work because of my blog. My agent and my editors, at Simon & Schuster and at Bon App├ętit and elsewhere, found me more or less directly through Orangette. I have been incredibly lucky. Crazy-lucky. I break a sweat just thinking about it.

"My best advice is just to write. Start a blog, keep a journal - whatever works for you. Just keep writing, and have fun with it. Read up on book proposals and literary agencies, research other books and writers in your field, work hard, and stick your neck out. Definitely stick your neck out. And keep your fingers crossed."

That's it. Okay, Molly. Stick your neck out? How so? I once submitted a manuscript to Princeton University Press. I forget what it was about. I was young. And I only just learned that you could submit your own blog to Blogger's "Blogs of Note" feature -- which is where I first found Orangette -- the day after Blogger closed self-nomination to that feature! Did she stick her neck out and nominate herself? Or was she discovered, properly?

No matter. On her FAQ page she is writing in the voice of someone who has already had Schwab's syndrome, and been cured of it by seeing it work in her life. I am close to fifteen years her senior, I can proudly remember receiving my first rejection slip from a major publisher when I was about twelve, and I'm thinking: you know what? There may come a time when you need to accept that you're not going to be discovered. Not in time to make any real money, not in time to help you sort out how you should best spend your writing day, your research day, your marketing day, your query day. It may be time to get up from the soda counter, walk out Schwab's doors, and say: I need a paycheck. I was here ten years ago -- I was here twenty years ago -- and I have no intention of being here next year, or ten years from now. It may be time to acknowledge, although it is a bit scary, that if a writer has any talent, what he chooses to write will in itself be valuable because it's his. Frankenstein, books on Choctaw pictographs, recipes, another mom blog. "Do what works for you and have fun with it." You may have to acknowledge, I know what I'm worth and it's more than a stool at the soda fountain.

All this matters at the moment because I've got a part-time day job which might, might, turn full time in a few months. In the past, full time work outside the home has not been congenial to me. (Both were office jobs, to be sure, and strangely, I detest office jobs. Who knew retail is preferable?) I like this one. But I also liked the pattern of life all summer, when I wrote and researched all day, albeit on Biwa pearls and pewter making, -- when I had a taste of the life that the Discovered Ones get to indulge in. She now writes full time. Well, isn't that nice. The writer who worries about parcelling out the opportunity costs of a writing day is bound to worry about the entire days and weeks lost to full time employment. Gad. Employment as a problem, and in this economy! Needless to say, I've long been accustomed to my husband's support.

What's funny is that just when possible full time work in the wine industry, which is what I wanted to return to if anything, looms before me, I've also had a brief refresher course in just what a black hole success in publishing can be. In the course of one recent month, I submitted to two properly printed publications, legitimate magazines, and received a yes from both of them. A yes -- and then nothing. I had forgotten how long and slowly and silently the time passes after the thrill of acceptance from a busy editor. And you need money during all that time, too. And busy editor doesn't necessarily have any clout, doesn't necessarily know anyone who might want to discover you. When I first began blogging someone told me how to use traffic feed engines to find out where my blog visitors were coming from. I had hits from New York City, from publishing houses I think, and my heart leaped up. Editors, trawling for content, for discoveries! It's all right, nothing happened.

The black hole magazines that said yes are called Relish and Pith. If you see my recipes on African desserts in one, or my review of Mark Twain's novel on Joan of Arc in the other, why -- you know more than I do. Maybe you should write that book. That is, if I haven't, in a way, beaten you to it.

  • If you liked this: Paper writing, random thoughts -- and note here how wrong I was, in February 2009, about my fellow citizens' reacting to political events.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Monday, September 7, 2009

The Tudor Year: September

Theme: exploration

Replica of the Golden Hind, Brixham Harbor, Devon. (Image from; photograph by Annette Fisher.)

September 7: Birth of Elizabeth, 1533; death of Catherine Parr, 1548
September 26: Francis Drake returns from circumnavigating the globe, 1580
September 29: Michaelmas

The agrarian year ended at Michaelmas, standing at "the opposite end of the year to Lady Day (March 25th)." It was another important rent paying day and a day for holding local elections. Drake's return from his three-year voyage in the Golden Hind reminds us that the Tudor age was also the age of exploration -- and of plunder, especially Drake's of Spain's rich possessions in South America, and of a burgeoning slave trade. Walter Ralegh sent several expeditions in the 1580s to the area that Queen Elizabeth agreed to call "Virginia" in her honor, but these small colonizing efforts were overwhelmed by the need to prepare for and fight off the Spanish Armada. By the time Ralegh was able to send relief to Roanoke in 1590, the settlement had vanished.


Cressy, David. Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989, p. 29.

Somerset, Anne. Elizabeth I. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1991, pp. 324-325.

Ibid., pp. 337-338.

Friday, September 4, 2009

American photographs, 1910

Mr. Alex Black
Hebron, Indiana

Dear Father, Am getting along pretty well in school. I like it fine, and also my teachers. It keeps me pretty busy at times. From Beatrice, Stony Run Farm

Postmarked 10 A(pril?) 1910

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Random encounters

A praying mantis

I've been waiting for the day when a praying mantis shows up in my terribly au naturel (weedy) perennial garden. A book or article, somewhere, told me that it's a good sign when that lovely and weird creature feels comfortable enough to live in your little demesne. No luck, yet, and my garden now finishing its eighth year. Perhaps they just hide well.

But of course I did happen to see one in downtown Chicago, clinging to the side of the public library on busy Van Buren Street. It leaped off and flew across the street, taking on that strange coppery color, and the look of two giant insects hinged together, which characterize mantises when they fly. It landed on top of a small truck and that was the last I saw of it.


The same day, downtown: a black child with rickets. The bowed legs, the squared-off, painful looking strut from the hips. The white mother, looking thin, busy, preoccupied, and as if she were anxiously but stoically awaiting the return to her mountain home. Or do I make unwarranted assumptions?


A wine tasting. Very elderly man, almost toothless, sipping a wine from Australia.

"I've been there," he offered.

"Really? How nice ... recently?"

"No. Sixty years ago."

"Oh. World War II?" (I'm not sure whether it makes sense anymore to refer to it as "The War," as there have been wars since and that generation is frankly dying out.)

"The war."

"Were you stationed there?"

"No, first New Zealand. Then Australia, then Guadalcanal, then back to Australia."

"Really." A delicate pause. "Combat?"

He sipped some more and peered over his glasses. "It wasn't a vacation."

Delicate, appreciative laughter, and then after one last comment -- "August 12, 1942" -- he wandered off.