Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In case you're wondering --

-- where I am, chances are it's here. Do drop by,  and have a pisco sour maybe.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The last rose of summer, really

I bought the rose bush at a grocery store one spring, perhaps seven or eight years ago. I planted it and then it bloomed once, also in a far away October. Perhaps this new bloom is a good sign. The colors of pale rich yellow and palest pink are gorgeous; the scent, a bit like lemon pie and a bit like lemon air freshener, is also very good. Happy autumn.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Sunday, September 25, 2011

... from whose bourn

"I asked if I might go out for a breath of fresh air. The doctors answered 'Yes, just close by, for half an hour.' "

So Queen Victoria, at the bedside of her adored husband, in December 1861. He was dying. She needed a respite from it all.

Why is it, given the collective human experience of death, that the individual human brain is not yet "hard wired" to understand it? "None of this makes sense to me," the grieving say when it is all over, or shortly before it's all over. "Everyone else is enjoying their lives, and he is dying."

And yet, on all our own happy days when we were enjoying our lives too, someone was dying.

At best I suppose it's human societies which have managed to hard-wire themselves into understanding it, which is why religions and civilizations have rituals to ease the dead into the ground and the mourning through the necessary time. But the human being, alone, is still at a loss. We suffer physically, from a wound like an amputation. Even if we weren't constantly and effusively friendly with the person who died, even if it was someone we saw twice a year, still this was a fellow traveler, perhaps born before me and therefore a part of life since before time began. After the amputation you can only look at the stump in shock, bind it up or do what you can to help people suffering worse bind theirs, and wait to get used to it. While thinking, this was someone who lived before me -- before time. How can time die?

Perhaps the worst of it is just fear. We can't help but think ahead. Here death has happened to someone else in the herd, but surely it can't happen to me. Not to me, the very special Ivan Ilych who, in Tolstoy's story, "had a striped leather ball as a child." Think of all the people I was born before, all the people to whom I am prehistory, I am time. How can I die?

And it can't happen to me like this -- physical pain, helplessness, anger, drugs, muddle-headedness, starvation, ravaged body, near-ravaged personality. The disbelieving struggle for last breaths, the terrified begging of family for help when there is none to give and even panic is immaterial. This body got diseased, randomly. I wonder if, on the first day, the diagnosis makes everything look different, even to the angle of the sun in the sky on a beautiful summer morning, even to the surreal look of other, healthy people out walking their dogs and conversing easily ... this body is finished. You must learn, now, what we witnesses will follow you into learning. But not yet.

It's our witnessing and surviving of it which seems an added cruelty to the dying, and which gives an added sickly prick of fear and guilt to the survivors. Every single mourner still eats and drinks afterward. Maybe not as much, but the food still goes in and digestion still works. Every mourner, if he was a caregiver at the end, needs "breaks," Queen Victoria style, from the watching and the waiting. If I were the dying one, I think I would resent my loved ones going off and needing breaks. Really? But you're going to live, tomorrow. How's that for a nice break? I wonder if, when it's our turn and everything is reduced to one hospital bed in one room and a last few minutes, we'll see them gathered as though at the end of a tunnel, a hollow place far away where everyone is still in the pink of health and frankly looking forward to being able to consult their own needs soon And when it is all over they still laugh and tells stories, in between bouts of crying and silence.

Scar tissue forms. Society or church ease us through the rituals that human beings in the aggregate have learned bring comfort, even though human beings as individuals don't understand this death. (Although, really, modern funeral rituals are getting very pathetic. So many people are basically non-religious that even "services" run under the auspices of a big, popular, catch-all evangelical denomination are little more than ad hoc family reunions in which it so happens everybody is wearing black and crying. There is no liturgy. A family spokesman gives a speech about the deceased, and humor is required. The deceased's favorite music is piped in. It's downright tacky, and there is no hint of awe at this person's "entering into eternity." That one phrase from Reform Jewish funeral services has always appealed to me. It may sound overly grand, but it focuses the mind. It seems to reassure us: this, very minor, person has gone where you all, very minor people, are going, and where all other people -- and aren't they all very minor, in the end? -- have gone and will go. So be still.)

Then one day when we scarcely notice the scar tissue anymore, when we feel pretty good and are at peace with the universe, maybe after we have been through this a number of times and think we know death, -- barring accidents, I suppose we do suddenly find our old striped leather ball.

*Queen Victoria, A Personal History, by Christopher Hibbert (2000), p. 280.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The day's reading

 "... Islamists decide whether violent jihad should be launched against non-Muslims based on a cost-benefit analysis, not on any conviction that killing non-Muslims is immoral."

Shall we have the New York police department refrain from investigating Muslim terrorism because the Obama justice department says that's insensitive? Read it all.

Of Mafiosi and Mullahs - Andrew C. McCarthy - National Review Online

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Clouds and ducks

Saturday, August 13, 2011

This is a comic book convention

And this is, sort of, what it looks like. A blur of people, and storm troopers, and a few too many very obese young men. "Gamers," I'm told. Thousands of artworks for sale, most of them on pirated themes which I am sure Disney, DC, or Marvel could sue about, only it's not worth their while to pursue small-bore artistic license and capitalism run amok. Much of the art very, very good -- which leads me to ask, what could be produced by these same men, if they lived in another time and drew and painted Renaissance-style original commissions, rather than endless dragons, glorious cumulus clouds, Batmans, and buxom young women with impossible thighs?

After several hours, the crowd becomes so thick that there is nothing for anyone to do but keep on circulating, keep on shuffling around booths of art and trinkets whose wares go unadmired and unbought because no one can step out of the herd to look, judge, and spend. A scientist with a camera poised far above the hall could probably look down and record all the people moving as a single unit, obeying properties of physics involving mass and volume and waves.

And who knew that tonight's fun culminates in a Masquerade Ball -- Zombie Edition, the drinks and the dancing lasting from 8 p.m. to midnight? Perhaps we two single ladies left too soon.  

Monday, August 8, 2011

Guilty pleasure, highbred surprise

Make-up blogs. And make-up application and hair care tutorials on YouTube.

Seriously. That's my guilty pleasure. I grew up in the '70s, when everybody was natural and free to be you 'n' me, and we all wore burlap blouses -- or thought we admired Joan Baez for wearing burlap blouses -- and considered make-up and other female fussiness shallow and unworthy.  

Or maybe I was just none too bright. When I was a bridesmaid for the first and only time, I couldn't understand why, amid all the professional photographs being taken that day, the bridesmaids were requested one by one to come and have their pictures snapped, up close, with one hand posed (fingers extended) over their rubrum lily bouquets. It looked ridiculous. Much later I understood that the point must have been for each girl to show off her manicure. I didn't have one.    

Now, at the age when my next milestone birthday will be my fiftieth, I find it's great fun to surf the internet looking for advice on personal grooming. It all might have stood me in good stead a long time ago, more's the pity, but it might even help a little now. I still don't like to wear make-up -- too aging, especially on a face with big pores -- but the advice you'll find from happy, chirpy young women, on that and other matters, remains good and practical. My daughter learned how to French braid her own hair from a tutorial that I discovered for her on YouTube; last night I searched, and not for the first time, for received wisdom on that problematic area, the eyebrow.  

Eyebrows haunt me. When I was a little girl I used to love to draw them, great fluourishing swoops like hawks' wings over pages full of disembodied, sultry, staring, gorgeous eyes. I inspect other women's brows, and envy the beautiful, lithe leaping ones. The best description of what a good brow grooming does to a woman's face comes from a man, and my favorite author: E.F. Benson. In Trouble for Lucia he writes that when the middle aged ladies of Tilling-on-Sea discover maquillage, each choosing one feature to work on, the dumpy Diva Plaistow finds "arched eyebrows carefully drawn where there were none before gave her a look of highbred surprise." (Needless to add that the serious artiste of the town, Quaint Irene, disapproves of the frivolity, and walks down the street "with the tip of her nose covered in green billiard chalk" to express her contempt.) My own eyebrows were always disappointing. They showed no arch whatsoever, darkly and stubbornly plodded in a circle around the eye, and began their growth directly on the eyelid, like a man's. Timid attempts at plucking were painful. My frustrated '70s self reared up, à la Quaint Irene, and scolded me. "There are important things going on in the world." And I flounced off, for years.

Yes, there are important things going on in the world. But I think a philosopher might also smile and say, given what small spheres most of us travel in, that Woman doing what she can to grace her appearance and improve her feelings is no unimportant thing. Back in Tilling, "Elizabeth found that the rose-mantled cheeks she now saw in her looking glass made her feel (not only appear) ten years younger; Susan that her corrugated hair made her look like a French marquise." At one point in the series of Mapp and Lucia novels, even Georgie, surreptitiously devoted as he is to his hair dye and his toupee, earns a scolding from his friend Lucia when he balks at her suggestion that he actually dye his graying beard, too. " 'Why,' " she exclaims, " 'a woman with the prospect of improving her appearance so colossally would not be able to sleep a wink tonight from sheer joy.' " He does it.     

And bully for them all. Now, about eyebrows. Who knew that one tweezes in the direction the hair grows? "If you pull straight out, you're going to have pain," Kandee advises. So true. The rest of her six-minute video lesson is a flurry of pencils, template cards, tweezers, tiny razors, brushes, and scissors. She is happy, unhesitant, absolutely competent, and professional. After I watched it I took a deep breath, got out my tweezers and (even though the bedroom light was rather murky) followed her advice at 10:30 last night, not least because my other daughter, whom I had thought had simply been blessed with perfect brows, told me she has been tweezing since she was fifteen. More on my results later. 

The reason I find these videos and their related blogs -- Kandee has two -- so fascinating is because these women, apart from being skilled at what they do, are so giving and so transparently sweet-natured. So very natural, really, in a way that a '70s nature baby is not accustomed to recognize. They want to help you look pretty and be happy, and their joy in helping you just goes on and on. "YOU ARE AWESOME! YOU ARE LOVED!" they tweet. Apart from tutorials on specific personal beauty projects, they also give you news on shopping, home decor ideas, the occasional recipe, the latest in terrific music, relationship advice, -- there's no end to it. Recently the irrepressible Kandee has wanted you to make gold-studded glitter heels, romantic Bohemian rocker braid hair (note incidentally the fabulous eyebrows, though I did like her natural thick ones, which had a lot of character), to cook the best crepes ever, and to buy the best mascara in the world. She shares her inner cartwheel-turnings at finding herself on page 238 of this month's Glamour -- more on Kandee's fame later -- she wants you to see these great chain earrings, she wants to share her experience of home-birthing her fourth baby. Yes, she filmed herself in labor. Did I mention the word irrepressible?    

About my results. Professionals -- any self-respecting fifteen-year-old -- will hardly credit it, but what you see below is an improvement. The new:

The old.

. You may understand better when you see what I inherited. There was Dad,

who I think inherited his look from his mother, Grandma Mabel.

Mom seems to have been lucky enough to get some height to her brows and, I daresay, did some tweezing and other normal maintenance before the wedding. Women in the 1940s also may not have been so burdened by the idea of being natural.

So here I am, at long last quite happy with my eyebrows. Saved money doing it at home, too. What is left me is to make like all Kandee's other readers and viewers, and all the readers and viewers of all the other happy women's make-up tutorials and hair care and lifestyle blogs, and thank her for her instructions. How they gush. And how many of them (us) there are. We '70s-era nature babies, we artistes who tell ourselves there are big things happening in the world, must stand astonished when we scroll down to the comments forum on the make-up divas' sites, and find that they routinely garner fifty and sixty comments per post, or a thousand on a video. Kandee's eyebrow tutorial has racked up almost 530,000 views, and her blog has a whopping two hundred and nine thousand "Likes" on Facebook -- 209,210 to be precise. I'm proud to be the 209,211th. The French braid tutorial has close to a half million views, and even a short video on making up deep-set eyes (another of my problems), done by the liltingly accented Oxford Jasmine in her bathroom somewhere in Oxford I presume, has more than 56,000. All this goes far toward explaining Kandee's presence, at least, in this month's Glamour, even on one page of it, and I won't be surprised to see either of the others follow her, and many more like her afterward. Small forces to be reckoned with, all of them. If any one of them ever persuades me to get a manicure, I will totally let "you guys" know.  

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I'll weigh in

"A terrible day," according to Commentary's blog. Tantamount to the arrival of the Visigoths outside Rome, circa 408 A.D., according to the always humorously snarky and depressed Mark Steyn. (They share the classical references, but Steyn is quite unlike the more intellectual, but never humorous and always depressed Victor Davis Hanson.) Both -- all -- are talking about Standard & Poor's downgrading of the United States to a less than triple A rating, for the first time ever.

I'll weigh in. I'll agree that it's not a good piece of news. But it seems to me that reading editorials for a lifetime will teach us that most pundits are wrong about most things. When I was growing up, pundits and wise men yelled and screamed about the environment, pollution, overpopulation, the rise of Brazil and Japan and yes, China, as the world's next superpower. And so on. What they never said Boo about was the rise of Islamic terror, because they didn't see it coming. And it has turned out to be the biggest problem the modern West faces.

Now they yell and scream "Downgrade," and about all the economic woe undergirding it. Agreed. But they are pundits. What is the big picture they are now missing? -- what grave threat will we all face in twenty or thirty years, that no wise man at the moment can see heading our way?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A cardinal, a lily, the sky -- July

I'm reminded of the Peter Pan song "I won't grow up," in which the eternal child laments that adults still wear "a serious expression -- in the middle of July!"

He has a point. This is July.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pink and green ...

... and morning ...

... and evening. The star of these photos is my Queen of the Prairie plant, the tall pink frothy thing, which is the pride and joy of my Pathetic Little Garden. It has had a rough time this year, having been nearly choked by another plant which I hoped would be pretty, but which I finally uprooted because it was ruining the Queen.

A hummingbird actually hollered at me the other day. Granted, his red feeder full of sugar water was in need of refreshment, but I think it wasn't that stale. Anyway, while I sat relaxing on the porch, I heard an odd little chip-chirp in the air beside me. I looked, and not three feet away hovered a hummingbird, swinging back and forth, looking rather stern and chip-chipping at me as if I were not quite bright. So I heaved a sigh, got up, went in the house, dutifully mixed his one part sugar and four parts water, stirred and stirred, brought the pitcher out to the yard, took down his feeder, emptied it, rinsed it out, and filled it carefully and hung it on the shepherd's hook again. Then I trudged back into the house and fetched a cup of clean water, which I took out to the yard and then, just as carefully, emptied over the outside of the feeder, rinsing off any excess sugar water which might attract ants.

Then I went back to the porch and sat down again. I saw no more of the hummingbird that evening so I assume he ate, was satisfied, and went home to bed. "Ah, we are all martyrs to our servants," Lucia sighs in Mapp and Lucia. It's another thing entirely, however, to be a martyr to a hummingbird.  

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Springfield -- Lincoln's tomb

The little "Field trip! Springfield" seems to have been, in hindsight, a sort of severance package for the end of a marriage. He wanted a room with a relaxing Jacuzzi. A month later, he wanted to leave. As we say in the vernacular, who knew?

Lincoln's tomb: note the young boys' faces, present in all the sculpture groups around the monument. We still sometimes call soldiers "boys," but in the Civil War, many of them really were children, and serving in the thick of it. Lincoln's face, too, is sculpted differently here at his gravesite from the way it is made now in the many representations of him all over Springfield. In majestic nineteenth-century bronze, he is leonine, heavy-featured, fearsome, all black. In the new depictions of him -- including wax, or whatever dioramas are made of -- his face is thinner, blander, and of course happier.

And speaking of new ways of looking. I had forgotten to note that, in the Lincoln Museum in downtown Springfield, the tourist is guided through a series of floodlit dioramas showcasing lifesize wax figures of scenes from the President's life. In one, a slave couple are shown in the act of being forcibly separated and sold away from each other at a slave market in New Orleans. "This is something the young Lincoln might have seen on his first trip to New Orleans," the plaque beside it says. We are naturally invited to think how it might have affected him.

Ah, but what did happen to him on his first trip south in 1828? David Herbert Donald quotes him.
" 'One night,' as Lincoln remembered, 'they were attacked by seven negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurt some in the melee, but succeeded in driving the negroes from the boat, and then cut cable, weighed anchor, and left.' " (See Lincoln, p. 34.)
But that story is not to be thought of when making dioramas nowadays. Political correctness is so much more useful in them than the truth.   

Looking at this massive monument, at the entrance to an otherwise obscure nineteenth-century cemetery in an Illinois town that would have been completely obscure were it not for Lincoln's own presence here, one gets a sense of the emotions, the shock and disbelief people must have felt at provisions having to be made for President Lincoln -- Lincoln -- to be buried here within days of Union victory in the Civil War. Every place where his body rested before final interment in the great crypt is noted: below, the small house-shaped structure cut into the hill is the public vault where anyone's body could be placed temporarily. Once it happened to be used for him, in May of 1865, it seems rarely to have been used again.

Inside this quiet barred cell, there are dignified, nineteenth-century curlicues of stone and metal gracing the plain metal doors of the vaults, now forever empty. Ladies in black hoop skirts and gentlemen in stovepipe hats looked at them and were comforted, perhaps, not just in May of 1865 but in earlier seasons when mourning other dead. Last year's leaves nestle in the corners, as no doubt they do every year. Farther up the hill to the left, a mute stone marker stands where Lincoln's body was moved again (in December 1865), from the public vault to a second resting place before the real, giant's tomb was finished. Construction on that took nine years. For nine years he lay simply in the side of the hill.   

When at last the tomb was finished and dedicated, it must have been a point of great pride and honor, as the years went by, for other Springfield veterans to be buried one by one in Oak Ridge, almost at the feet of the Emancipator. Below, veterans' headstones lie in concentric circles around a monument made of (ersatz?) cannon balls, the circles rippling out, the death dates of old men falling later and later. The 1880s, 1890s, and so on into the 1900s.

Here we are looking up at the back of the tomb from behind its hill, the obelisk framed in a graceful tree. Behind us in turn, on a warm if barren-looking April morning, the rest of Oak Ridge rolls and stretches, in softly shaded, quiet wooded hills, into an oblivion of unvisited Victorian American graves. 

And then, the trip home. Why need there be so many very 21st-century-looking windmills outside Odell, Illinois?

They whirl and spin, and the trees turn green, and life goes on. It's blazing hot summer there now.