Sunday, December 6, 2009

It Takes A Village : It Takes The Spirit

Scrooge's third visitor by John Leech

We all have our rituals, our rites of passage by which we acknowledge the transfer of day into month, month into year. The holiday season is packed with gestures and filled with traditions waiting to be celebrated. In my case, it is a well-known fact that Christmastime has not begun until the Dickens Village has been lovingly unpacked and placed - house by house, merchant by merchant, tree by tree and villager by villager - on the home hearth. This is an involved process. Perfected over the years and commemorated by a "map" lest we forget that The Green Grocer shares storefront real estate with East Indies Trading Co. while E. Tipler, Agent for Wine & Spirits must set-up shop alongside Turner's Spice & Mustard. It is also imperative that the Flat of Ebenezer Scrooge be placed at the lonely end of the mantle - far from the impressionable students of Wackford Squeers Boarding School. The "streets" bustle with parcel-picking, lamp lighting, roasted chestnut sales and carol singing. It captures every thing Christmas is meant to be, in all its Dickensian glory. And of course, A Christmas Carol is similarly time-honored. A story that encompasses the morality and lessons of a lifetime, much less a season, it always seems quite fitting to revisit at the end of a year when one is in a state of evaluation. And so as the spirits visit Scrooge, may The Spirit also visit you... however you should choose to celebrate!
Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea - on, on - until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the lookout in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for one another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.

It was a great surprise to Scrooge, while thus engaged, to hear a hearty laugh. It was a much greater surprise to Scrooge to recognize it as his own nephew's, and to find himself in a bright, dry, gleaming room with the Spirit standing smiling by his side and looking at that same nephew.
It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor. When Scrooge's nephew laugh in this way, Scrooge's niece, by marriage, laughed as heartily as he. And their assembled friends being not a bit behind, roared out lustily...

After tea, they had some music. For they were a musical family, and knew what they were about, when they sung a glee or catch, I can assure you; especially Topper, who could growl away in the bass like a good one, and never swell the large veins in his forehead, or get red in the face over it. But they didn't devote the whole evening to music. After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.

- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1843

Friday, October 30, 2009

Pumpkin Patches : Patience

Dear Great Pumpkin:

I am looking forward to your arrival on Halloween Night. I hope you will bring me lots of presents.

You must get discouraged because more people believe in Santa Claus than in you. Well, let's face it; Santa Claus has had more publicity, but being #2, perhaps you try harder. Everyone tells me you are a fake but I believe in you.

P.S. If you really are a fake, don't tell me. I don't want to know.

- Linus van Pelt, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Haunted : Wuthering

Image via Uzengia
I was delighted to come across NPR’s splendidly spooky roundup of literature’s most haunted homes. With a healthy dose of lit crit and just enough opinion, it has inspired the Hallow's Eve spirit on Words, worth.

There is another selection, however, that deserves a place on the list. Haunted by a clandestine love affair, is there a better candidate for literature’s most eerie abode than Wuthering Heights? Both origin and silent chronicler of an ill-starred union, the house itself is, from the opening pages, shrouded in the murky gloom of solitude and demise. It piques the curiosity of an earnest tenant, the apparitions skulking about disrupt even the hungriest slumber. The stones are "jutting", the carvings "grotesque", the structure itself faces a daily whirlwind of unrest. The decor is "villainous", the dogs "haunt the premises" and Lockwood finds it "swarming with ghosts and goblins." Miss Brontë's deftly woven descriptions paint a picture brimming with ghoulish flavor. On to the devilish delights that await!

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff's dwelling, "wuthering" being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed. One may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house, and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily the architect had the foresight to built it strong. The narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

Before passing the threshold, I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door; above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date "1500," and the name Hareton Earnshaw." I would have made a few comments, and requested a short history of the place from the surly owner; but his attitude at the door appeared to demand my speedy entrance or complete departure, and I had no desire to aggravate his impatience previous to inspecting the penetralium.

One step brought us into the family sitting-room without any introductory lobby or passage. They call it here "the house" pre-eminently. It includes kitchen and parlour generally. But, I believe, at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter - at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues and a clatter of culinary utensils deep within; and I observed to signs of roasting, boiling, or baking about the huge fireplace, nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been underdrawn; its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton and ham concealed it. Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns and a couple of horse-pistols, and, by way or ornament, three gaudily painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was smooth, white stone; the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures painted green, one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch under dresser reposed a huge liver-coloured bitch pointer surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies, and the other dogs haunted other recesses.
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Roads Diverged : Vision Clear

Rocky Path in the Woods by Frances Gearhart
A few days ago, I stumbled into the truly fantastic Pasadena Museum of California Art and upon a current exhibition showcasing Frances Gearhart's color block prints. A veritable jewel box of Arts and Crafts-era renderings bursting with color, I was instantly smitten, devouring the exhibit as the story of both Gearhart's life and creative development unfolded simultaneously. Reaching the backmost wall, I read a description of her later pieces: "Her vision becomes clear." Four words, but their profundity struck me in a most sincere way. Vision, direction, clarity. All words tied to purpose, all indicative of an inner knowing. The words used to describe Gearhart's evolution from sketch artist to accomplished artiste connote a cohesive conceptualization, an umbrella under which to arrange one's life's work.

It brings to mind Robert Frost's timeless homage to path-picking. Though the road may get rocky, and the destination too hazy to make out, there is honor in forging ahead on one's own.

Whether or not we decisively select a direction, we are still making a choice. We either let our path be defined by the default settings, or we see those diverging roads and become active participants in our destinies. The world is wide, our options are many and a little direction makes all the difference.

Forward, march.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost (1920)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Glittering Eyes : Wild Things

"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it."
-- Roald Dahl

Today is a day for honoring imagination - for my favorite Roald Dahl words and the debut of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, the ultimate ode to believing in magic. Maybe the key to happiness as one grows "up" is always keeping a toe dipped in the world that could be. Maybe it's remembering that your bedroom doubles as a seaport to a magical jungle, that there is no getaway car like a giant peach and that the best is yet to come as long as you can dream it. Those who do not pack away their imagination like an outgrown plaything from childhood, who bring it out from time to time to reacquaint with its creased edges and handle its well-worn surface are, after all, those who end up bringing us the greatest stories of all.

Now, let the wild rumpus start!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bernard's Bard : It's All Shakespeare to Me

Image via Flickr

Sometimes I forget just how profoundly Shakespeare has shaped the way we use the English language. His influence, it seems, cannot be underestimated. But Mr. Bernard Levin explains that much better than I - how delighted I was to stumble upon his refreshing reminder that the Bard's is an ever-fixed mark.
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is father to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low til the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.
- On Quoting Shakespeare by Bernard Levin, 1980

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

To Autumn : With Love

Autumn Moon by Ansel Adams
A crispness has crept into the October air and fall is officially here. Welcome cool evenings, recession-fueled window shopping for tights and scarves, steaming hot tea and harvest-themed get-togethers. Au revoir iced coffees, sticky sunburned shoulders, island-scented sprays and those songs of spring. All around me, I feel a collective sigh of relief, a muffled rush to rapture as the south land gently coaxes the season's languid turnover. Somewhere deep in the human framework, autumn signals bounty, the sweet-cleansed air cooling a rife and ready harvest. John Keats captures the ripening of summer days into fall as the "close bosom-friend of the maturing sun." What a beautiful way to picture the days unfolding - perhaps more softly, more assuredly, more abundantly than the days we've survived before them.

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruits the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of pop[pies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
- To Autumn by John Keats, 1819

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Beach Music : Birthday Cake

Image via WeHeartIt
"She looked as though she had dressed for this moment with the help of the moon. Bowing deeply, Shyla asked me if she could have the pleasure of this dance.

So we danced toward the central motion of our lives. The winds roared and a strange love rose like a tide between us and rested in the crown of waves that was loosening the frame of the house. Alone we danced beneath the full moon and the battery-powered light of cars as the team and their dates cheered each time they saw a giant shift taking place in the water-damaged foundation. As the Atlantic waters rose in a sanctioned dance of wave and tide, the house began to sway like the first terrible lifting of Noah's Ark. We could hear the other five remaining couples as they screamed with pleasure and terror in that room directly beneath us. I held Shyla closely, dancing with the girl who had taught me to dance on the veranda of my house. Outside, the players and their dates were begging us to abandon the foundering house and join them at the driftwood fires. They screamed out of worry and honked their car horns out of pure admiration for our daring.

Then the house shuddered as a large wave struck against its cinder-block foundation. Though I felt that same chilling fear that had sent the others running out of the house, Shyla's eyes held me as we listened to the hammering of the waves beneath us. The cries of our friends now turned to pleas each time a wave washed down over the broken-up road, the salt spray exploding off the beaten-down tarmac that had eroded over time like a cookie half-eaten by a child.

A deck piling snapped outside, loud as a rifle shot. On the radio the Drifters began to sing "Save the Last Dance for Me. " Together, as though this scene had long been choreographed in some zodiacal prophecy, we said together and with no hesitation, "My favorite song."
- excerpted from Beach Music by Pat Conroy, 1995

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Secret Garden : Newfound Nook

Julienne, San Marino
I just love a civilized little convening 'round a magical table. It certainly makes a birthday more pleasant - less focus on the aging, more focus on the conviviality! Fit for a celebratory birthday brunch, Julienne in San Marino was delicious, yes, but it was the stumbling into the unforced antiqued dining room that pushed it into hallowed space. There were high walls and mural-painted ceilings and silvered candelabras. There were shady trees under the September sunshine and outdoor conversationalists and perfectly poached yolks spilling onto freshly baked bread. And there were books - the books were the best part. Floor to ceiling shelves housed vintage leather-bounds and softly faded cloth-covereds. Voltaire, Milton, Ms. Austen, Frances Hodgson Burnett and William S.; Byron, P. Shelley, the Brontës, Wilde and Twain - all side-by-side, stacked artfully, just an arm's length from the curious diner. I felt just a little bit like Mary Lennox happening upon the secret garden for the first time. A magic in the air, an exciting discovery - like stepping into a little slice of heaven.
Mary Lennox had heard a great deal about Magic in her Ayah's stories, and she always said that what happened almost at that moment was Magic.

One of the nice little gusts of wind rushed down the walk, and it was a stronger one than the rest. It was strong enough to wave the branches of the trees, and it was more than strong enough to sway the trailing sprays of untrimmed ivy hanging from the wall. Mary had stepped close to the robin, and suddenly the gust of wind swung aside some loose ivy trails, and more suddenly still she jumped toward it and caught it in her hand. This she did because she had seen something under it - a round knob which had been covered by the leaves hanging over it. It was the knob of a door.

She put her hands under the leaves and began to pull and push them aside. Thick as the ivy hung, it nearly all was a loose and swinging curtain, though some had crept over wood and iron. Mary's heart began to thump and her hands to shake a little in her delight and excitement. The robin kept singing and twittering away and tilting his head on one side, as if he were as excited as she was. What was this under her hands which was square and made of iron and which her fingers found a hole in? It was the lock of the door which had been closed ten years, and she put her hand in her pocket, drew out the key and found it fitted the keyhole. She put the key in and turned it. It took two hands to do it, but it did turn.

And then she took a long breath and looked behind her up the long walk to see if anyone was coming. No one was coming. No one ever did come, it seemed, and she took another long breath, because she could not help it, and she held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly - slowly. Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight.

She was standing inside the secret garden.

- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1910

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Life in Letters : Series of Escapes

Thomas Lanier Williams.
127. To Molly Day Thacher

Dear Molly Day Thacher:

I am back in St. Louis, writing furiously with seven wildcats under my skin, as I realize that completing this new play is my only apparent avenue of escape. My method of writing is terrifically wasteful. I have already written enough dialogue for two full-length plays, some of the best of which will have to be eliminated because it flies off on some inessential tangent. I wish to Christ I could write under some one's direction. That I could get back to New York. I have completed a first draft and part of a second but this process of weeding out is going to be terrific. For an intelligent writer this would not be much of a problem but I must admit I am not. My attack is purely emotional: under good direction could prove very effective but without it is in danger of spending itself in a lot of useless explosions.

However I think the play will work itself out. Because of the almost insane violence of my present attitude (loathing of St. Louis and humiliating dependence) I have to write everything over to tone it down, to eliminate the lunatic note, but eventually, perhaps in a month or two, the final product should emerge as something worth while and the author will then depart for one of three places, New York, the bone-orchard or the state sanitarium.

Of course all of this is a pathetically obvious play for sympathy. I am hoping that you will be moved to do whatever is possible to procure the fellowship for me. My whole life has been a series of escapes, physical or psychological, more miraculous than any of Houdini's but I do at the present moment seem to be hanging by that one threat: obtaining a fellowship and/or producing a successful play. Short as it was, I came away from our last interview with a good many new ideas. I still write with all my old faults but at least I am now aware of them and capable, I think, of using more self-control.

With all the suitable apologies and thanks,

Sincerely, Tenn. Williams
[42 Aberdeen Place
Clayton, Missouri]
[ca. late-October 19319]
[TLS, 1 p. HRC]

- The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume I: 1920 - 1945
In my world, there is nothing scientific about bookstore browsing. It is an escape from the outside world, a conspiracy of the fates, willing you through this corridor and down that aisle where you inevitably find that title you never knew you needed. At bibliophilic Eden Bart's Books in Ojai, CA, that down-the-rabbit-hole excitement is particularly present as you troll for tomes beneath a 420 year-old oak. The largest independently owned outdoor bookstore in the country, Bart's is a haven for hunters, flea market finders and the generally curious. I was delighted to discover that one nook gave way to another and another until I'd found myself at the end of a most pleasant maze and stumbled upon the first volume in Mr. Williams' generous collection of personal correspondence.

His life unfolds in his letters and reveals him to be flawed, introspective, self-absorbed and undeniably brilliant - as finely drawn as one of the characters in his beloved plays. The insecurities that pecked at his artist's soul endear him to the reader. After all, if this gifted playwright doubted his prowess, certainly there's hope yet for the rest of us! With all the drama and genius of Blanche DuBois or Maggie "The Cat", his story draws you in, lulling you, Houdini-like, into a pleasant leave of absence from reality.

Tennessee Williams likely never realized that the discovery of his letters would provide a reader with the blissfully engrossed escape he himself sought all those years ago.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Peace Like an Ocean : Eyes Like the Sea

Scribner & Sons

I have never really been a beach kind of girl. Given the choice between seaside and poolside, I inevitably went for the concrete confines of domesticated aquamarine over the untamed cresting of rogue waves. Of late, however, that great wide azure expanse has meant something more appealing: peace. Peace in the beauty she graciously emits via sunshine, clouds or fog; peace in her deceptive stillness when gulped in from afar; peace in the scent of her sea spray exhalation and the gentle sweetness of her breezes; peace in the smallness she inspires in her beholders and their everyday trivialities. There is also a connection to the sea’s essence that I suspect is buried deep in the waterlogged genetic makeup of all human beings.

Though embarrassingly late to the altar of awe, I hope the frequency of my appointments to breathe in the ocean at the end of a long day convey the appropriate reverence.

Perhaps auspiciously, I happened upon an aging copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” on a recent visit to my parents’ home. I’d forgotten the force of Hemingway’s spare style and the timelessness of the old man’s plight – the magnitude of his struggle for survival rising like the crescendo of a wave on the very sea that could redeem or destroy him. His respect for the sea and its creatures is simple and finite – the reverence of his optimism culled from years of seamanship fundamental to his life's account.

The novella documents the old man’s showdown with an epic fish. Hemingway could easily have titled it “The Old Man and the Fish” or “The Old Man and the Water Beast”. But he did not. The sea was symbolic of so much more in this old man’s life – it was the only place he came alive despite his struggle to skirt his own fatality; the place he indulged in “that which he was born for.” The wholeness imparted by the paradoxical sea exists at varying levels in our lives, to be sure. But the essentialness of the paradox is never more beautiful – more poignant – that in Hemingway’s first few simply drawn graphs.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unluck, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.

It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled it looked like the flag of permanent defeat. The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. 

The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
- The Old Man and the Sea, (1951) 

Friday, July 17, 2009

Words 'Round the Web

Wise words for a weekend via Le Love

Happy Friday! A collection of this week's loveliest from the world of words:

From Paine's Common Sense to Orwell's Why I Write, I'll be needing each title in the Penguin Great Ideas Series

One Story's pledge to save the short story comes in the form of a new writer's work delivered to my door every three weeks

I could look at new fonts for hours

Wishing I could skip the tough wedding decisions and just focus on Bird and Banner's swoon-worthy invites

No words necessary:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Words : Worth

Image via Jennifer Zwick

ses-qui-ped-al-ian |ˌseskwəpəˈdālyən|
adjective formal
(of a word) polysyllabic; long : sesquipedalian surnames.
• characterized by long words; long-winded : the sesquipedalian prose of scientific journals.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Latin sesquipedalis ‘a foot and a half long,’ from sesqui- (see SESQUI- ) + pes, ped- ‘foot.’

Every now and then, you come across a word that's certain deliciousness makes you pause with amazement at the depth and perfection of the English language. There is nearly always the ideal word for anything you need to express - it is simply a matter of finding the word and absorbing it into your lexicon. I've started carrying small scraps of paper around in my bag for just such jot-worthy finds.

This act of jotting and scrap-collecting could, I suppose, be construed as nerdy behavior. Sometimes I'll read a word and begin gushing only to be stopped mid-sentence when I look at my fiance's increasingly raised brows. It can be a lonely and misunderstood pleasure. At least it was until I met Anne Fadiman via her funny, poignant, vocab-obsessed essays in Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Suddenly, I was introduced to a whole host of jot-worthy words; it was as if the curtain had been peeled back to reveal a secret society of literature-loving, book-collecting members who couldn't consume new words and their meanings fast enough. Whenever I'm feeling particularly solitary in my idiom-centered intrigue, I revisit Ms. Fadiman's humorous tribute to her literary loves and the terms that make them so.

Here, is how I was first introduced to the tasty "sesquipedalian" and why I remember it so fondly.
"In Wally the Wordworm, a chronicle of some of our hero's lexicographic adventures that my father wrote when I was eleven, Wally savored such high-calorie morsels as syzygy, ptarmigan - which tasted terrible at first, until he threw away the p - and sesquipedalian, which looks as if it means "long word" and, in fact, does. Inspired by Wally, my brother and I spend years vying to see who could find the best sesquipedalian. He won with paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde, a smelly chemical that we use to sing to the tune of "The Irish Washerwoman." One of my greatest disappointments about growing up is that it has become harder and harder to achieve a Wally-like degree of sesquipedalian repletion."
- The Joy of Sesquipedalians from Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

P.S. : On Searching for Blue Post Boxes

Image via Flickr

Not long ago, I read an article (I regret not recollecting where) about how those beacons of sentiments carried and errands deposited - the standard USPS blue post boxes - were disappearing en masse from the sidewalks of Los Angeles. The article regarded this exodus as tantamount to the disappearance of the honeybee - a signal of the death of correspondence and true cause for alarm. He disclosed the rationale behind the vanishing writing repositories: each must pass a serviceability test (should a box contain fewer than x articles of mail at the end of a day, away it goes) and failure of this test was surely hard evidence of our utter dereliction of cultural and linguistic duty. I remember raising my eyebrows at the author's apocalyptic pronouncements (I may have even sniffed).

And yet, when I walked the half block to my designated beacon of blue (on busy La Cienega Boulevard) and found only discolored sidewalk and discarded bolts where it once nobly stood, I couldn't have been more flustered. In the vein of the author's fervency, this was commensurate with the death of something familiar and I grieved quickly and accordingly. "But I mailed that card here a week ago!" I sputtered (denial). "This is just wrong!" (anger). "If only they'd bring it back, I'd single-handedly meet their quota each day!" (bargaining). "Wherever will I do my mailing now?" (despair) and finally "Well... there is always that post box over on Rosewood and Westbourne" (acceptance).

Except that upon further examination, that mail vessel too had been uprooted and dispatched elsewhere. Thus began my daily search for the blue post box and the subsequent commitment to sustained patronage of said keepers of the mail. Granted, more often than not, a crimson DVD-filled envelope or post-marked-at-the-last-possible-minute parking ticket is my offering, but eschewing e-transcription in any form has to help the old school delivery effort, however small. With correspondence couturiers closing up shop everywhere, one cannot be too careful when it comes to matters of the mail.

Which got me to thinking about letters. My favorite letters - namely the ones Jane Austen's heroes and heroines relied upon. In Pride and Prejudice for example, I'd argue the letter is a star character, as essential to the plot line as Mr. Darcy or Lizzy Bennet. For all my new-fangled sniffing at the handwringing over the lost art of the letter, that old Jane Austen-loving mailbox hunter within prevailed and this is why. Had disappearing postal methods descended upon Jane Austen's characters,we'd have seen the casualty of untold beloved romances. Where would modern literature be without Darcy's methodical explanation of Wickham's character, without Lydia's selfish requests for approval and cash, or Jane's eager expression of her budding love affair with Bingley? So central are these letters to the development of love and loss, worry and relief, so often are the mentions of the anxious wait for a letter upon which the state of the characters' lives depend. Further, where would we be without Ms. Austen's personal letters, erudite banter bandied about between friends and fellow authors, clarifying her works and her perception thereof? ("The greatest blunder in printing is in p. 220, v. 3, where two sentences are made into one" she said of a publishing error in the first edition.)

Somehow, the brevity of email and text communiques doesn't quite compete with the sight of loopy script on a tangible page. Somehow, the lightning fast exchanges with those you love "xoxo", "vry xcited to c u tonite" don't compare with the purity of sentiment in Mr. Darcy's entreatment for Elizabeth's understanding:
"I write without any intention of paining you, or humbling myself, by dwelling on wishes which, for the happiness of both, cannot be too soon forgotten: and the effort which the formation and the perusal of this letter must occasion, should have been spared had not my character required it to be written and read. You must therefore pardon the freedom with which I demand your attention; your feelings, I know will bestow it unwillingly, but I demand it of your justice."
- Pride & Prejudice (1813)
There are certainly all of the perks of living in a digital age (being able to "publish" a blog is clearly one of them). It seems, however, that the power of the post still oughtn't be underestimated. Maybe it should even be preserved.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hours Passed : Forlorn Chairs

I wonder if any one else ever sees their days as a series of chair sits; as a movement from one sedentary session to another. One sits in one's car or bus or subway or boat. One moves to one's desk before one's computer or snags a seat at the back of a classroom. One maybe takes a bathroom break... One shuffles on to one's lunch and sits at the corner cafe or on a cafeteria bench. One moves back to one's desk. One gets back into one's car or bus or subway or boat. One lands home at the dinner table and passes another meal. One plops down on one's sofa to catch a sitcom or into one's bed to read a chapter before falling into the longest sedentary session of all... sleep. And the cycle of sitting begins the next morning, just as it did the day before.

In all these stages, are we missing out on an opportunity, is our time better sat elsewhere? As Billy Collins observes, we're in need of some pause for the sake of remembering...
You see them on porches and on lawns
down by the lakeside,
usually arranged in pairs implying a couple

who might sit there and look out
at the water or the big shade trees.
The trouble is you never see anyone

sitting in these forlorn chairs
though at one time it must have seemed
a good place to stop and do nothing for a while.

Sometimes there is a little table
between the chairs where no one
is resting a glass or placing a book facedown.

It might be none of my business,
but it might be a good idea one day
for everyone who placed those vacant chairs

on a veranda or a dock to sit down in them
for the sake of remembering
whatever it was they thought deserved

to be viewed from two chairs
side by side with a table in between.
The clouds are high and massive that day.

The woman looks up from her book.
The man takes a sip of his drink.
Then there is nothing but the sound of their looking,

the lapping of lake water, and a call of one bird
then another, cries of joy or warning—
it passes the time to wonder which.

- The Chairs That No One Sits In

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cloudy Symbols : Dormant Dream

Print by Ellie Annan

Until recently, I thought a dream might die, might pass like the shedding of a skin or the molting of a feather - natural, painless. When your dream becomes exhausting, you have to wonder whether it isn't just the most giant relief to finally release it into the ether.

It seems, however, the death of a dream is rather like the Master's visit to Moscow - an inescapable debt that eventually must be collected. The dream demands to be mourned and the shallow hole it leaves behind must be acknowledged. You can't pretend it was never there. The letting go of the frustration and rejection also means the letting go of living in the richness of creative space; means letting go of dwelling with the muse. The acceptance of surface-scratching victories in the day-to-day means you've given up somewhere else. No one would argue it wasn't necessary. In our tight-lipped circle, preservation of sanity is something done behind closed doors in a controlled environment. A sound bite over coffee or a confession between forkfuls of salad is fine. But no one really wants to see you hanging by a thread.

And then the question is, what now? Presuming most people want to find a way to leave their positive mark on the world before their time is through, you have to get a new dream when the old one doesn't work out. The greatest poet who ever lived was younger than I when he died, yet his understanding of the treacheries of time were far beyond what his 25 years permitted. He wondered aloud the fears we face and touched upon an age-old race to figure it out and gulp it down as time marches on.
WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
- When I Have Fears by John Keats (1818)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Voila! : My Scars

My appendicitis scars turn a year old today. With the unlikely set of events the particularly pesky appendix yielded, this was a perilous journey but what a difference a year makes! Thus, an offering from literature's smallest, most fearless heroine seems particularly apropos. Like Madeline, we should all be so brave as to look fear in the face and say "pooh-pooh."
In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed. They smiled at the good and frowned at the bad and sometimes they were very sad. They left the house at half past nine in two straight lines in rain or shine — the smallest one was Madeline.
That's all there is. There isn't any more.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lyrical Loveliness : Ray LaMontagne

Image via Flickr

Music is my first love. I was a tickler of ivories before I was a reader of words. It seems increasingly rare these days, but when you find those musicians who are also true lyricists - who set the poetry of language to the mastery of their instrument - that is a treat to be savored. Raymond Charles LaMontagne is just such a treat.
She lifts her skirt up to her knees,
walks through the garden rows with her bare feet, laughing.
I never learned to count my blessings,
I choose instead to dwell in my disasters.
I walk on down the hill,
through grass, grown tall and brown and still
It's hard somehow to let go of my pain.
On past the busted back of that old and rusted Cadillac
that sinks into this field, collecting rain.
Will I always feel this way?
So empty, so estranged.

And of these cutthroat busted sunsets,
these cold and damp white mornings
I have grown weary.
If through my cracked and dusted dime-store lips
I spoke these words out loud would no one hear me?
Lay your blouse across the chair,
let fall the flowers from from your hair
and kiss me with that country mouth, so plain.
Outside, the rain is tapping on the leaves,
to me it sounds like they're applauding us the the quiet love we made.
Will I always feel this way?
So empty, so estranged.

Well I looked my demons in the eyes,
laid bare my chest, said "Do your best, destroy me.
You see, I've been to hell and back so many times,
I must admit you kind of bore me."
There's a lot of things that can kill a man,
there's a lot of ways to die,
listen, some already did that walked beside me.
There's a lot of things I don't understand,
why so many people lie.
It's the hurt I hide that fuels the fire inside me.
Will I always feel this way?
So empty, so estranged
- Empty (Til the Sun Turns Black - 2006)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lost and Found : Homeward Bound

Image via the incredible Jon Klassen

Home. The word evokes a certain wave of feeling accompanied by images of a warm hearth or a thoughtful spread. The idea of home seems simple enough: a place to lay one's head, a roof to shelter you from the elements, a quiet respite from the pace of the outside world - maybe it will even yield a pleasant memory or two. I grew up in such a place, so I believe it exists. Somewhere along the way, though, the importance of home seems to have gotten lost in the name of job performance or the challenge of living on slave wages. As I've discovered after many eager home-finding attempts turned wary, home is not such an uncomplicated concept as I'd hoped.

There is first the way you feel when the manager-on-duty (or, in some of the unluckier cases, the realtor-on-duty) turns the key in the door (hopeful), second, the way you feel upon occupying the entryway (fresh, that new paint smell), third, your thoughts upon discovering the master closet (where's the rest of it?), fourth, your thoughts on hearing the owner's asking price (are they serious?!) and finally, turning to your fellow home-finding mate and admitting defeat. Again.

There is the quickness with which a week passes (wow, it's Friday again already!), the precedence climbing the job ladder seems to take (just one more year like this!) and the prioritization reality forces upon you (credit card debt, anyone?)

There must be more to a home than those aforementioned simplicities - intangible qualities that make you feel cozy and secure and nested. Yet, they can't be as impossible to recreate as they seem in the throes of this current plight. It reminds me of one of my very favorite childhood storybooks,
The Lost & Found House. I doubt it was ever very popular or widely-read but it is a sweet, tenderly illustrated little tale about Cricket the mouse and his search for a place to call his own. He didn't mind committing to hard work or lengthy repair processes, and he seems to believe that even though his first home was lost and swept away, a new home could be created in its place. Despite stormy weather, unfriendly landlords and a particularly serious cold, Cricket pressed on, undaunted, and eventually found his way home.

Faith, persistence, togetherness. Sometimes the simplest lessons are best.
There in the corner was a tiny house. It was slightly falling apart, but it looked empty. His heart thumped as he pushed the door. It creaked open. Inside the house, the floor was covered with odds and ends, and broken bits and pieces. He went upstairs. There was nothing there but a rickety bed and a mattress that needed stuffing. The place was really a shambles.

Cricket set to work at once. He swept out the odds and ends with a broom. He glued the broken bits and pieces back together again and stuffed the mattress full of soft hay. He made new shingles for the roof and put up the fallen shutters. Then he painted CRICKET'S HOUSE on a sign and hung it over the door.
The Lost & Found House by Consuelo Joerns (1979)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Words 'Round the Web

Image via ffffound

Happy Friday! A collection of this week's loveliest from the world of words:

I get nostalgic coming across the childhood titles my mom and I love. Happy mother's day wishes!

I love the idea of these classy lady-loving signature calling cards from the creatives at Mr. Boddington's Studio.

There's no task too daunting for The List of 100. (Thanks Jenny!)

Moving? Lending? Combining libraries? Keep track of beloved friends with The Little Chickadee's wonderfully vintage-inspired book plates

Very into Patrick Watson's words this week... especially from the title track "Wooden Arms."

When it comes to Audrey Tatou, no words are necessary. (via Concrete & Honey)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fashion Fixation : Plaid Rebellion

Salinas Cool Shadows two piece via

"Summer imminent" means swim and sand and rouses that desire for freedom and adventure. While I'm not yet in any position to be thinking about donning this sweet, girly bikini, I appreciate the sentiment. The long hangover of school-aged anticipation leaves that familiar tingle on my tongue as the weather warms and the freeze of worries begins to thaw. I am reminded of high school Lit class and Edna St. Vincent Millay - deciphering the meaning of her Catholic schoolgirl resentment and a need for self-expression beyond the strict margins allowed her - relating to her plight in seeking something more. Well, Ms. St. Vincent Millay, I've found a plaid rebellion against that abhorrent dress. Fashion and flirtation are always trusty accomplices on the mission to break free...
Strong sun, that bleach
The curtains of my room, can you not render
Colourless this dress I wear?—
This violent plaid
Of purple angers and red shames; the yellow stripe
Of thin but valid treacheries; the flashy green of kind deeds done
Through indolence high judgments given here in haste;
The recurring checker of the serious breach of taste?

No more uncoloured than unmade,
I fear, can be this garment that I may not doff;
Confession does not strip it off,
To send me homeward eased and bare;

All through the formal, unoffending evening, under the clean
Bright hair,
Lining the subtle gown. . .it is not seen,
But it is there.
The Plaid Dress by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fragile House : Mirth, Optional

Frank Lynch via Flickr

I work in a business park not unlike a long corridor. Down the corridor, there are "exhibits" on either side displaying curious goings-on all the day. I've dubbed one particular exhibit "Fame, Cruel Mistress Factory." That may mean I have an overactive imagination but that is beside the point for the time being. I've dubbed the exhibit such because each time I pass by, there is a precarious new dream being documented; a hopeful starlet being minted before the camera's watchful eye. Blond, brunette, auburn, raven black - the tossed-about tresses change hue from hour to hour, but the poses never do. The click-click-clicking of the photographer's lens marches on dutifully, indifferent to its recently transplanted subjects. Rushed along by a late winter wind or sluggishly plodding in the cloying heat, I've passed this exhibit to find the exhibitors unchanged: stand here, kneel this way, tilt your head left, smile brighter, touch-up please!

I live in the land of the stars so the endless parade of wannabe celebrities isn't new -- but for some reason I've a bit more empathy for the possible emptiness that awaits the hopeful these days. Their peripatetic existence makes me a little wistful - imagining from whence they came and if they'll have a home to return to should their big break break down. Maybe the need for sympathy isn't there and this isn't really so sad an exhibit. I'm sure the headshot-takers aren't all crushed beneath the weight of giant ambitions; maybe they've very few expectations at all. Maybe their real priorities are quite grounded. But in the event landing in the stratospheric echelon of a very thespian few is everything to them, I have an Edith Wharton-induced tenderness for the any machine's sacrificial cogs. Poor Lily Bart. Forgetting to mention my imagination can be dramatic in addition to overactive, I can see a parallel or two...

It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper impoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance. It was indeed miserable to be poor—to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now—the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them. And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life. Her parents too had been rootless, blown hither and thither on every wind of fashion, without any personal existence to shelter them from its shifting gusts.

She herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer to her than another: there was no centre of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others. In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood — whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with visual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties—it has the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spring's Eternal : Hope's An Orange

Image via We Heart It

Considering the great effect geography and surroundings can have on one's experiences and the perceptions subsequent, I suppose I am not unique in regarding my "native Southern Californian" status as an integral personal trait. I've heard haughty New Yorkers, proud Mississippians and even one fiercely loyal Nebraskan recount their indigenous tales with possessive rosiness and have soaked up the secondhand magic therein.

Locals the world over have their own means of hailing the spring's seasonal changing of the guard. There is no transition as drastic as winter to spring and maybe that's why you're all the more overjoyed when it occurs. But you're from Southern California, you say. There is no such dramatic passage for you. People in other parts of the world like to use California's lack of seasons against her. "I prefer to know when it's fall," one friend will quip. "I would get bored of all that sunshine," another claims. Yet just because there is subtlety in the changing of the seasons doesn't mean they don't exist. In fact, it is the subtlety which makes me feel all the more a gleeful co-conspirator in the spring that universally signals our emergence from all kinds of literal and metaphoric hibernation.

And so perhaps there is nothing that can lay claim to native Southern California status more wholly than the orange tree. The orange tree is instrumental in my mission to decry the shift in seasons and is ultimately the bearer of that slight but definite evidence of springtime: the orange blossom. The scent hits you before the sight of those sultry miniature blooms when you happen upon them out of the blue one warm April afternoon. And just as surely as you were longing for far-off Saturdays spent beached on the sand moments before, the realization that spring has sprung is heralded by the orange's faintly sweet, honeyed triumph. True, spring may be more dramatically signaled by the descent of New Yorkers on sunny Central Park after a late winter ice thaw. But sorry my Manhattanites, I'll take the understated harbinger of spring that is the orange.

And as a fan of the tangerine colored orb, it appears I am in the best sort of company.

Of the fruits of the year I give my vote to the orange. In the
first place it is a perennial--if not in actual fact, at least in
the greengrocer's shop. On the days when dessert is a name given
to a handful of chocolates and a little preserved ginger, when
macédoine de fruits is the title bestowed on two prunes and a
piece of rhubarb, then the orange, however sour, comes nobly to
the rescue; and on those other days of plenty when cherries and
strawberries and raspberries and gooseberries riot together upon
the table, the orange, sweeter than ever, is still there to hold
its own. Bread and butter, beef and mutton, eggs and bacon, are
not more necessary to an ordered existence than the orange.

It is well that the commonest fruit should be also the best. Of
the virtues of the orange I have not room fully to speak. It has
properties of health-giving, as that it cures influenza and
establishes the complexion. It is clean, for whoever handles it
on its way to your table but handles its outer covering, its top
coat, which is left in the hall. It is round, and forms an
excellent substitute with the young for a cricket ball. The pips
can be flicked at your enemies, and quite a small piece of peel
makes a slide for an old gentleman.

But all this would count nothing had not the orange such
delightful qualities of taste. I dare not let myself go upon this
subject. I am a slave to its sweetness. I grudge every marriage
in that it means a fresh supply of orange blossom, the promise of
so much golden fruit cut short. However, the world must go on.

Next to the orange I place the cherry. The cherry is a
companionable fruit. You can eat it while you are reading or
talking, and you can go on and on, absent-mindedly as it were,
though you must mind not to swallow the stone. The trouble of
disengaging this from the fruit is just sufficient to make the
fruit taste sweeter for the labour. The stalk keeps you from
soiling your fingers; it enables you also to play bob cherry.
Lastly, it is by means of cherries that one penetrates the great
mysteries of life--when and whom you will marry, and whether she
really loves you or is taking you for your worldly prospects. (I
may add here that I know a girl who can tie a knot in the stalk
of a cherry with her tongue. It is a tricky business, and I am
doubtful whether to add it to the virtues of the cherry or not.)

There are only two ways of eating strawberries. One is neat in
the strawberry bed, and the other is mashed on the plate. The
first method generally requires us to take up a bent position
under a net--in a hot sun very uncomfortable, and at any time
fatal to the hair. The second method takes us into the privacy of
the home, for it demands a dressing-gown and no spectators. For
these reasons I think the strawberry an overrated fruit. Yet I
must say that I like to see one floating in cider cup. It gives a
note of richness to the affair, and excuses any shortcomings in
the lunch itself.

Raspberries are a good fruit gone wrong. A raspberry by itself
might indeed be the best fruit of all; but it is almost
impossible to find it alone. I do not refer to its attachment to
the red currant; rather to the attachment to it of so many of our
dumb little friends. The instinct of the lower creatures for the
best is well shown in the case of the raspberry. If it is to be
eaten it must be picked by the hand, well shaken, and then taken.

When you engage a gardener the first thing to do is to come to a
clear understanding with him about the peaches. The best way of
settling the matter is to give him the carrots and the black
currants and the rhubarb for himself, to allow him a free hand
with the groundsel and the walnut trees, and to insist in return
for this that you should pick the peaches when and how you like.
If he is a gentleman he will consent. Supposing that some
satisfactory arrangement were come to, and supposing also that
you had a silver-bladed pocket-knife with which you could peel
them in the open air, then peaches would come very high in the
list of fruits. But the conditions are difficult.

Gooseberries burst at the wrong end and smother you; melons--make
your ears sticky; currants, when you have removed the skin and extracted the seeds, are unsatisfying; blackberries have the faults of raspberries without their virtues; plums are never ripe. Yet all these fruits are excellent in their season. Their faults are faults which we can forgive during a slight acquaintance, which indeed seem but
pleasant little idiosyncrasies in the stranger. But we could not live with them.

Yet with the orange we do live year in and year out. That speaks
well for the orange. The fact is that there is an honesty about
the orange which appeals to all of us. If it is going to be bad--
for even the best of us are bad sometimes --it begins to be bad
from the outside, not from the inside. How many a pear which
presents a blooming face to the world is rotten at the core. How
many an innocent-looking apple is harbouring a worm in the bud.
But the orange has no secret faults. Its outside is a mirror of
its inside, and if you are quick you can tell the shopman so
before he slips it into the bag. 
- Golden Fruit from Not That It Matters by the inimitable A. A. Milne