30 June 2008

One or Two Porch Time Stories

I was down at Amy's last Friday evening, enjoying some porch time.

She remembered something she wanted to tell me, but didn't remember it exactly, just mostly. It was a question on Jeopardy!, she said. It had to do with presidents and their mothers, specifically their mothers voting for them.

Well, after discussing this for a bit she realized that no, it wasn't Jeopardy!, it was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, since there were 4 choices. Something about a president's mother voting for him. Which one was it?

The answer, as it turned out, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Putting the pieces together then and since, I've figured out that the question was which president was the first president whose mother was eligible to vote for him. And thinking more, I realized, of course, that the basis of the question is women's suffrage. It is difficult to realize that women did not have the right to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

1920, sheesh!! Sometimes the shameful history of this country just jaw drops me.

When it got too dark out on the porch and time for me to go home anyway, since I worked early the next morning, Amy remembered that she had something for me.

We went inside. Amy went off looking for the item in question. I brought in my water glass and gathered up my stuff, ready to leave.

Then, in a little ceremony in the kitchen, Amy presented me with a battered black book. She said, in fact, that when she saw it on the shelf, she thought it was an old Bible.

It was a holy book of sorts.

It was my father's old crossword puzzle dictionary!

Many an evening in his later years I would see him at the kitchen table working the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, and consulting his precious dictionary and some other books.

And here was this book, now battered, falling apart at the spine and taped up multiple times, pages soft with thumbing and somewhat dirty, and with my dad's additons written in where he considered them lacking.

This was such a special thing for Amy to give me. She knows that I love to do a crossword puzzle or three with Larry after work. And while we might call it "cheating," we will definitely consult sources when the frustration level gets too high.

But much more than that was just the fact of the thing. This book that still held and projected a feeling of my father, that he used every day, that his dirt and his markings decorated and perfumed.

I let the book open in my hands, riffling through it a bit. It opened to page 91.

Page 91 showed the beginning of the alphabetical 'F' lisitings.

There, in column two, my eyes fell on the first entry under 'F'

"F.D.R.'s mother.....................SARA"

27 June 2008

My Plan for World Peace

If elected President or named King of the World, I will start a global O Albele Panchhi Network, which broadcasts this delightful song from the 1955 film Devdas round the clock, 24/7.

A daily dose of O Albele Panchhi by everyone on the planet would make the world a better place.

Watch it (below) now!

24 June 2008


spiz-zer-inc-tum /spizz-uh-RING-tum/ n. [E dial. (U.S.) spizarinctum cash, specie, prob. irreg. fr. E specie]: the will to succeed : VIM, ENERGY, AMBITION

I found this word in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. It is one of those fun colloquial usages.

This one, though: I have never heard anyone say this word, not in real life, not in a movie, not even in a book!

Have you?

21 June 2008


When I was a boy of about eleven I got a diary.

It had a green plastic cover and one of those little straps and a lock. It said One Year Diary in gold on the cover.

I must have asked for it.

I think what bugged me about the diary was its layout. Each page was a new day. It started on January 1st and ended on December 31st.

This seemed strict and unreasonable to me. I soon discovered that I didn't have something to write each and every day.

I gathered that I should write about what happened on each day in question. But this was a ridiculous task for my brain. Days would go by where I did not write in the book. Then when I got back to it, I had forgotten what of note happened the day before and the day before that and the day before that.

So I would just write the truth. It started with "Forgot what happened." All this in a blue-ballpoint cursive scrawl. But soon it was just abbreviated to "forgot."

Looking at the diary now, I see sometimes three pages in a row that say "forgot."

Funny thing is, before I actually looked at the old diary, I would have said that it was largely filled with comments interspersed with my "forgot"s. But in truth I quit writing in it before the month of January was out.

I remember feeling a lot of pressure about this. Even when I did write of my day's events, it pretty much bored me. The only thrill I felt in the whole thing was during a trip to the local library, when I had caught a glimpse of the girl I was secretly in love with. I remember the shivering electricity of actually writing her name down here on this page of my secret diary.

Other than that, it was pretty much I woke up and I did this, then I did that, then I watched Mayberry RFD and went to bed. And it bored me.

But I felt that there should be more.

I SHOULD have something to say. I SHOULD remember what I did three days ago. I SHOULD be more interested, finally, in keeping a diary.

I just wasn't.

I'm thinking of this, of course, because of my new life as a blogger. I feel a great freedom and joy about this activity. I don't have to write something here every day or every other day or every week. There is no tyranny of dates at the top of pages. This thing is not earmarked for just one year, from beginning to end.

I no longer have to write in shame: "forgot."

16 June 2008

Nixon in China: A Footnote.

First, let me say that I absolutely loved the production of Nixon in China.

It was a terrific production of a truly great American opera. The singers were all right on the money, and they really looked like their characters. The set design was beautifully-utilized minimalist.

The opera was really exciting and moving. Thoroughly great.

Except. . .

Oh, there was just this one little thing I noticed. Hardly worth mentioning. It didn't wreck the opera for me or anything like that. Just something that struck me.

OK, but it did bug me for the minute or so it lasted. More than that, it made me think again about how disconnected we are with some pretty important facts.

Here it is:

At the beginning of the opera, Nixon's plane lands on the tarmac in Peking and he comes down stairs to meet with Chou En-lai and other dignitaries.

Some pleasantries are exchanged, and then Nixon muses:

News has a kind of mystery:
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the world was listening.

He continues musing on the theme of this point in history.

Part of the set design of this production had two rows of huge rectangular television sets fly in from above, lowering down slowly until they reach the stage floor. These TVs, made to evoke the gargantuan console sets of the 1970s, are used variously as platforms and so forth. But often the tv screens are showing bits of footage of the actual historic Nixon visit to China.

As Nixon muses at his place in history, one of the television screens begins to show an animation of a spinning earth. Then another tv picks it up. And soon all or most of the televisions in one row show this earth, spinning, spinning, spinning.

Nixon is visiting China and it is a very special place in history and all the world is watching and the earth is spinning, spinning, spinning. . .

. . .and the earth is spinning the wrong way!!

I looked again. Could it be true?

I looked and thought about it. And the earth. . .nay, the earths. . .were all spinning in the wrong direction! They were going clockwise!

That would make the sun rise in the west and set in the east.

The words came back to me from my college astronomy teacher. She had nailed this phrase into our heads at every opportunity. It described the direction of spin of the earth and of the solar system, and of most planets in the solar system: "counter-clockwise when viewed from above."

And these 8 or so earths on stage while Nixon was singing were clearly turning clockwise. Wrong!

It just reminds me how there is a real ignorance about even the simplest astronomical facts, especially in movies. I am thinking right now of one in particular that stuck in my craw, a movie whose very plot depended on the phases of the moon, and whose makers got the progression of those phases WRONG! (more on that in a future post.)

I mean, this is something we learned in elementary school, isn't it? Or junior high at the latest? Why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west??

And here was this expensively-designed opera on stage of a major new opera house. How many people viewed and approved the video that appeared on those tv screens? And how many people viewed it in rehearsals and so forth?

And no one noticed that the earth was turning the wrong way??

When I have talked to people about this, some have thought that maybe it was done on purpose, to say something ironic about this point in history. But nothing about the lyrics or the set design otherwise hinted as such a use of irony.

I believe I'll write a letter to the opera company.

Details forthcoming. . .

10 June 2008

The Spider on Amy's Porch

This past Friday I was sitting on Amy's front porch, enjoying some early summer porch time.

Amy is my 85-year-old stepmother, and since my father's death in 2001, she has slowly woken to the joy to be had by sitting in the cool--or for her more often the hot--of the summer on her very small suburban front porch. This is something she never allowed herself time for when my father was alive.

Amy is a wiry and diminutive Italian Roman Catholic. She is a great observer of people, a shrewd judge of character. She has no good words to say about President Bush. And she keeps her suburban 70s ranch house absolutely immaculate, putting in more work each day than I am capable of in a week.

And, these days, she loves her porch time.

I like it, too.

It is so pleasant to sit out there with a glass of water or iced tea on the circular table between us and just chat and enjoy the day. We can spy and comment on the comings and goings at the perennial garage sale held by her neighbor across the street. We enjoy the calls of house finches and chattering house sparrows issuing from inside the gargantuan blue spruce trees my father planted in the front yard. Robins pouring liquid notes toward evening.

So, there we were just after noon this past Friday. We were chatting away when suddenly I noticed, on the table between us, a spider. Not a black widow, certainly. Not one of those typical little brown spiders you see. No. In the words of Woody Allen, this was a "major spider"!

It was big, hairy, black. It had some white spots on the back of its body. It stood up high from the table, maybe as tall as the thickness of my little finger. Including legs and all it would have fit nicely on top of a quarter. It was horrible and fascinating and utterly beautiful.

I thought.

I pointed it out to Amy and we both watched it walk under the fake flower in a basket on the glass-topped table. It disappeared into the plant.

I thought it odd that a big healthy spider would want to hang out in an artificial flower. Amy worried that it would "make a nest in there." This gave me the image of hundreds, thousands of tiny black hairy spiders flowing like liquid from all sides of the fake flower basket. But no, my mind said. It would never last in there. It would have an aesthetic aversion to the artificial flower. It would come back out.

We continued to enjoy the afternoon and to chat. From time to time the black spider would appear on one of the flower's silk leaves. I would point it out. It would flit back into the darkness between the leaves and disappear.

After some time, Amy decided she had had enough of this visitor to her porch. The spider, not me.

My attitude was that he was not doing anyone any harm.

Besides, I was fascinated with the creature. When he was on the table top, before starting his exploration of the fake flower in the basket, I got a good view of him. I could see these incredible green eyes made of a million facets. And I could see his jaws moving, crunch-crunching.

Ok, ok, I have to admit that this fascination was tinged with unreasoning fear. I wasn't going to let him crawl on my skin, for instance. I was going to keep quite aware of where he was. He was furry and complex and solid and magnificent in his spiderness. He knew what he wanted to be and to do. He was his own spider.

Amy was saying she wanted to kill him. Or "it." At the same time, she didn't really want to, or knew that she really shouldn't kill one of God's creatures. But she knew where to draw the line. She did not want this particular creature in her house. And that was that.

Amy stood up and lifted the basket a few times by its handle and let it drop. But if the spider were still in there, he was clinging tightly.

We forgot the spider for a bit in the pleasure of the afternoon's porch time.

Then it happened all at once.

The spider dropped from the basket onto the table and started crawlling away. He got to the house wall, easily scaling it and crawled along. Toward me.

Amy and I are both on our feet now.

I have my blue bandana out. Amy is behind me.

"Not with your good handkerchief!" she says. "Here, let me get him with my shoe!"

The spider is right on the house's artificial siding in front of me and Amy is holding out her tiny shoe.

The cordless phone starts ringing.

I take Amy's shoe. She answers the phone. It is my brother calling from Germany.

The spider is on the wall in front of me and I take Amy's tiny shoe and smash the plastic sole down on the spider and I feel its body collapse in a crunch. I smash it around to make sure. I take Amy's shoe away and there is a smear of yellowish-brown goo on the wall and some black spider pieces.

I thrust Amy's shoe back at her. She takes it and I sit down hard on my front porch chair. A big sob rips through me. I can't believe what I have done.

I cover my face with my hands like one of the damned.

Amy narrates the whole scene to my brother in Germany. "Jimmy killed a spider for me and now he's upset. I think he's mad at me. Now he's turning his back on me. Uh-oh."

I can't believe it and yet I did it. I did not have to do it and yet I did. That magnificent creature. That powerful, black, scary beast.

My brain says over and over: I killed the spider! I killed the spider! I killed the spider!

I killed it.

EPILOGUE: Having killed this spider, he's got a hold on me. After some internet searching, I think I've found what kind he was. He was, I believe, one of the commonly called Jumping Spiders. In fact, I think he was Phidippus Audax, the Bold or Daring Jumping Spider.

Keep in mind that he was really quite small compared to these pictures. But these convey a bit of the majesty I saw in him.

I now know that the two iridescent green parts I took to be the creature's eyes are actually his mouth parts, known as chelicerae. At the end of these long protuberances are his fangs.

03 June 2008

The 'barrow and Me - I

Why "The Red Wheelbarrow"?

Why do I adore this poem? Why have I taken it as a kind of emblem?

Why, for goodness sake, have I put a recording of WCW reciting the poem as my outgoing answering machine message? And why (I hear choruses of friends and family members asking) have I left it there, as my sole and only message for years now?


Many years.

I could say a lot about why I love this short American gem, and I intend to in upcoming posts. You will find that I have lots to say on this subject, indeed.

For now, let me just say a little about how I got to know "The Red Wheelbarrow."

I was not taught this poem in school. In that way the public school system failed me.

I probably first read it in an old hardback copy of The Oxford Book of American Verse which a relative had innocently sent to our house in a cardboard box with a bunch of other books, none of which I remember. I can't be sure I read it there, but that wonderful book was really my gateway to poetry. I would have read the William Carlos Williams poems, because they were short and easy to read and clever. I remember reading "This is Just to Say," but not "The Red Wheelbarrow."

I first really noticed the poem many years, let us say decades, later. There was this great PBS series about American poets called "Voices and Visions." Each one-hour segment was a beautiful and cleverly-done portrait of one of America's great poets. Whitman was there, naturally, as was Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and Ezra Pound and Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath and Marianne Moore and, well, William Carlos Williams.

The programs were fantastically creative and visual in their presentation, products of the New York Center for Visual History. They used filmed segments and animations and an array of other techniques to give you a really good basic knowledge about and feeling for each individual poet. Each program was unique in the way it communicated. I highly recommend them to any English teacher trying to turn her students on to poetry.

The WCW segment had a lovely section on "The Red Wheelbarrow" where the filmmakers took handheld cameras to the streets of New York City, and filmed a wonderful selection of New Yorkers reciting the short poem. It was great hearing this poem from all of these variously nervous and laughing and strutting characters!

That was where "The Red Wheelbarrow" first made an impression on me, to tell the truth.

I am a big fan of recordings of poets reading their own works. I used to comb the shelves of lps at the old downtown Main Library to glean records like the Caedmon Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry. I collected poets reading on cassette, and I now have several good collections of cds with a variety of poets reading.

Including, of course, WCW doing "The Red Wheelbarrow."

So, one time I was searching for a new idea for an answering machine message, and I thought of putting recorded poetry on there.

And it had to be something short.

I remember putting e e cummings' "next to of course god America I" on my machine once. There were other poems.

But "The Red Wheelbarrow" was always my favorite. Short and sweet. No waiting on the part of the callers.

So it always came back.

And there it is today.

So, it has been years of living with this poem for me, and I have thought about it a lot.

Some of those thoughts will appear in future posts.

And once I figure out how to link a recording to a post, I'll put the poem up here, so you can hear it, too!

01 June 2008

O Albele Panchhi...

This delighful little number is from the 1955 Bollywood film DEVDAS. The little boy and girl are singing to a "Wonderful Bird." They try to make the bird come to them, perch in the branches of their own tree, eat grain from their hands. . . but have to realize that the bird is a freedom-loving, independent being. All this symbolizes what will happen later between the grownup childhood friends.

I have been nuts for this song since I saw the film. This is the essence of cute! That little girl's smile could light up all of Mumbai!

I'm frustrated, though, in looking for the lyrics online and especially for an English translation of them. The film version I viewed DID give subtitles for the song lyrics, but I haven't found either subtitles or written-out lyrics online.

I have watched this video over and over again. I hope you do too!

First Light

Well,  here goes.

I have avoided this all my life.   Even before there were blogs.

But reading a friend's blog just earlier this evening fantastically inspired me.  It turned my thought process upside down.
I went from thinking that I would like to say something but really have nothing to say to realizing how much I have to say.  I can talk about just so many things.  And I intend to.
Just the act of writing really charges me.
I've spent the last few hours trying to figure out how to make this thing look certain ways.  It is still quite rough, just a lesson plan.  Changes will happen.

For now, though:  Here I am.
(movie line paraphrase alert:  identify this film):

"Are you. . .out there!!?"