Sunday, December 23, 2007

Courage

I think I have figured out why I ignore this blog. I have only so much courage to publish and that must be spent on my column. I am loath to send any of the 8 or so novels I have written since the last one was published in 1994. I would never have published at all if the publishers hadn’t asked me for manuscripts. This sounds ridiculous, I know, because writers generally have such trouble getting a manuscript published. This didn’t have anything to do with the quality of my writing – it had to do with weird circumstances. I have been writing a column a week for nearly a year and yet every time I file the current one, I have a sick feeling at the pit of my stomach. I seem to have bequeathed this strange trait to my children. Why do I write then, you might ask. I write because it is what makes me happy. But why accept such assignments as my column? I do it because I can’t bear to be a coward. What do I fear? I fear offending someone. I have only written one negative review in my life and that caused me much anguish. I don’t agree to write reviews unless I first look at the book and see that I can say some positive things about it. The one negative review came about because I hadn’t seen the book first, just been told about it. I fear saying something dumb. And yet the few bad reviews my novels have received haven’t really bothered me much.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Memoir

I’m reading Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory; so far a wonderfully thought-provoking book. She tells the story of a childhood memory and then goes back for a second draft, dissects it, finding lies in the first draft. It is her theory that the first draft is valuable for what the heart reveals, unfettered by the will; the second draft, when you go back and analyze the details of the first draft, creates symbols out of these details. “For meaning is not ‘attached’ to the detail by the memoirist; meaning is revealed.” I have never analyzed the details of the first draft of a memory. This makes me want to go back to some of the earlier paragraphs of this blog and try to winkle out some meaning from the details.

Hampl’s prose style is so good that it almost, but doesn’t quite, call attention to itself. The first two pages are brilliant.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Noticing

Things I have noticed this morning: Bill and I never eat all the crusts of our toast. Why is that I wondered, and finally decided that the reason must be that it is difficult to put butter or jelly on the crusts. I noticed that our mutual handyman is at my neighbor’s. Joe has worked for Jack for 37 years, but for us for only a year. He has become absolutely essential to us. He also works for the family across the street. Whenever I see his van in the neighborhood, I feel secure. One of the three tomatoes left on the vine is ready to pick. Last May our son brought us a tomato plant in a bucket, and when the first frost was forecast, we brought it in. The tomatoes continued to ripen. We haven’t had a garden for many years although we do have our rhubarb patch and a plum tree. The squirrels get the plums before they are ripe enough to pick.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Getting Ahead

I appear to be on a roll as far as writing is concerned. I have one column finished for tomorrow’s deadline, one nearly finished for next Monday’s deadline, and one half-finished for the 19th. I have one other idea that is getting formed, and one that is formed only in as much as I have thought about it in the past. For the last few weeks I have been racing against the deadline, with nothing in view, and that is quite unsettling, so I determined to get ahead.

My son sent me an article about self-handicapping. I think I am the grand champion at self-handicapping. I get things written when someone asks me to write and gives me a deadline. My five novels have been published under those circumstances. Now I have eight novels in a semi-finished state, no one goading me to finish them and send them out to a publisher, and I procrastinate. Why is this? Fear of rejection? No, I don’t think it is that. Fear of bad reviews if they get published? No I don’t think it is that. Sloth? No, because I am quite diligent about most things. Perhaps it is because I have no reader, no one to bounce the thing off. I read bits and pieces to the two writers’ groups I belong to, but they can’t really criticize the thing as a whole, just individual details.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Design

The 2006-2007 Pen Canada annual report came the other day. The design and concept are quite remarkable. The report has a spiral binding, and inside there are handsome paintings of each of the detainees that Pen Canada supports. Attached to this is a tear-out postcard of the same very lively painting, already addressed to send to the relevant authority. The lettering and the typeface are good-looking as well. I seldom am as struck as I was with this production. For one thing, it did exactly what it was supposed to do, made me interested in the detained writer and determined to mail the cards. The report was created by an outfit called soapbox design. I wonder what else they have done. When I went on their website, I discovered that it is under construction, so perhaps this is a new company.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Changing

I have two new books, Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell you Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory and Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. I ordered both on the basis of reviews I had read. The Doidge is about how the brain can change itself, case studies in the relatively new theory of neuroplasticity. I have read the first two chapters. At first I wanted to go right to the chapter on coming back from a stroke and the one on improving your memory, but I decided that it was better to proceed in an orderly fashion.

This morning I also received clothes I had ordered for Bill and me, part of my plan to improve us. I realized when Bill was in the hospital that his eccentricity had turned from being that of a lovable absent-minded brilliant professor to being that of a crazy old man. I resolved to change his outward appearance. This got me looking at myself. The difficulty with all my self-improvement schemes is that I don’t really know how to improve either him or me. I study other old women’s hair-dos and clothes, but I don’t really have an appropriate model.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Change

I am going to change the focus of my blog slightly. I realize that lately I haven’t been doing much “tracing my way from birth.” My preoccupation with Bill’s medical troubles has me looking forward rather than back. My blog has become more like a random diary (log, I suppose, web log) with no focus at all. I want a focus. Many years ago a writers’ group I was in heard our friend Ted read from his fishing journal, accounts of his various fishing trips. This gave him wide liberty to talk about himself, the weather, the setting, as well as the fish he caught. Bill decided he wanted to write such a journal, and his took the theme of his beer bottle trips. The boy across the street had bought a bicycle with the proceeds of his bottle hunting, and Bill was amazed and impressed that so much money could be accumulated just by finding and redeeming them. While hunting for bottles, he could note the birds, foliage, herbage he saw. He could ruminate. I forget how long he continued this journal, and I don’t know what became of it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Corners

Gaston Bachelard devotes a chapter to corners in his The Poetics of Space. “The point of departure of my reflections is the following: every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination…”

I love the words “nooks and crannies.” I remember a space in a house we lived in for only a short time, when I was three or four. The space was enclosed, under the stairs to the second floor. I don’t remember anything else about the house. The house my parents were finally able to buy after moving from place to place (9 houses in 9 years) had a nook under the stairs, with bookshelves, a wicker loveseat, a lamp. When my younger cousin, a bookworm from early on, would come to visit us, he would sit there and browse, obviously at peace. He was only 7 or 8 when he began this custom. Our cellar here in this house has a space under and in back of the stairs, and it was inhabited by our son for a while, and later our grandchild made a clubhouse there.

When I decided to make myself a nook, I imagined being snuggled up in the chair, reading or writing, a snowstorm raging outside. It would be my refuge, yet still with a prospect to outside.

The painting is of my father, done by one of his colleagues in the artist room of the Boston Globe. The table was constructed by my husband of the box of a broken stereo and slabs of concrete, during his concrete phase of object making. The room was an addition to our tiny house. All we really needed was another bedroom and bathroom but the woman who designed it told us we could have a room on top of the bedroom for very little extra money. It has huge windows on all four sides with a sliding glass door leading out to a screened-in porch.

The Corner Dweller


Friday, October 26, 2007

A Holiday

I am taking the day off. Last night I got the coffee ready to go, bought an apple pie at the church bake sale (a favorite New England breakfast), and after the coffee was made, went back to bed to have my coffee and pie and read one of the three newspapers we get. Today I will only do things I enjoy. This afternoon we will go for our daily walk (we have missed it two days in a row) and either call out for Chinese or go to a restaurant for supper. A year ago I decided to make myself a nest, a refuge, a cozy corner, for reading and contemplating. Last week I finally got it done. Today I will make use of it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Celebrity

Celebrity
I began writing a column on celebrity, intending to make something of the subject in relation to the arts. I have now written 623 of my 800 words and have no point to make at all. I still have 4 days to come up with some stunning insight, but I am not too confident it will happen. For quite a while I was ahead of the game, having one column nearly ready while working and thinking about another, but various circumstances have put me behind and I am now just barely one step ahead of the deadline. I worry that I am repeating myself or that the columns are getting less interesting. Ten years ago I also wrote weekly, but at that time the pieces were profiles of artists, writers and craftspeople, and so there was an endless supply of subjects with no chance of repeating myself. The people I wrote about made the articles interesting. Now I have to dredge subjects up out of my own innards although I do get inspiration from articles I read and conversations I have.

I usually start out with a subject, and just the process of writing gets me ruminating, lets me figure out a point or if I am lucky, several points. I wonder how long I can keep this up. When I was first asked to do the column, nearly a year ago, I said I would do it every other week, but the person they got to do it with me didn’t work out and they asked me to do it weekly. I wish now that I had declined. I have a new appreciation for those weekly columnists I admire: Rex Murphy, David Brooks, Garrison Keillor.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Various Edens

My cousin lives in southern California in the middle of the fires. She has a fantastically gorgeous garden. She lives in what appears to be the perfect climate in an area of stunning beauty. I, on the other hand, live in what most people would regard as an inferior climate. Once during an ice storm the power was out for 80 hours. We live at the top of the hill, and before we bought a four wheel drive Subaru we were often slip-sliding our way home from downtown. The temperature gets so low that when the kids were little, I would walk them to school for fear they would fall and die of exposure. When we first arrived here, people would ask, incredulous, why we had left North Carolina to come to this place. I would explain that in North Carolina we had encountered poisonous snakes, a rabid dog (fourteen shots in my abdomen when I was 7 months pregnant), black widow spiders and suffocating heat. Here we have black flies. We have a TV program on beautiful gardens, “Recreating Eden”, and two of these were set in Bali. But Bali has terrorists. My husband’s colleagues all retired about the same time he did, and most of them moved from here. They had to stay in Canada because of our medical system, but I am sure that if it weren’t for that, they would have moved to a better clime, and indeed most of them do spend winters in the south.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Journals

I have just filed my State of the Art column. This one is about memoirs and journals. I maintain that even people who don’t read much like them. Self-published ones are often more interesting than commercially published ones. I think this is the reason that reading blogs is so appealing. I find Zhoen’s accounts of her operating room experiences fascinating; they have the ring of truth, they are dramatic, they include the jargon of the specialist. And of course, every one of us expects sometime in our life to be the patient on the operating table, and we would like to understand what is happening. A nosy but practical interest. I ended my column with this paragraph.

“One of the most moving journals I have ever read is That Time of Year: A Chronicle of Life in a Nursing Home by one of my favorite professors. In his introduction Robert Tucker writes, 'I have asked myself, as one also interested in composition, how Joyce Horner manages so effectively to sustain a public interest (a stranger’s--my own, for example, as reader—for I never met her) in these originally private jottings.' I don’t remember anything about Miss Horner’s two novels, but I remember vividly this journal of her three years in a nursing home.”

How was it possible to make the account of such a restricted life so entertaining?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Beginnings

I have begun a new novel. Writing my arts column (the editor named it State of the Art), writing e-mails, writing on this blog, are all satisfying and keep me going. But creating a new world and new characters in that world is not only satisfying, it is joyful, one of the great pleasures of my life. I am trying something new. I am writing it on the computer rather than in notebooks. And for the hundredth time I am to trying to outline a plot. I seem to have no talent at all for plotting. I have a novel nearly finished, but it is about a woman whose husband has had a stroke, and because my husband had one in January, I can't bear to go back to it just now. I haven't published a novel for thirteen years although I have written many since then. If I needed the money, was more ambitious or wasn't so lazy, I would perhaps be more persistent at revising and sending the novels to publishers. Or perhaps I just can't bear the rejection.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ready, Set, Go

Last week at our writers’ group we were discussing autumn. One of our members was bemoaning the turning and falling of the leaves. “Thank God for conifers,” she said. Another said autumn was her favorite season – the beautiful foliage, the cozy feeling when it gets dark early. The men didn’t seem to have an opinion one way or the other. When we first came to New Brunswick, for several years winter arrived without my being prepared. Lawn furniture or hose or bicycle was left outside and covered with snow. The kids didn’t have new boots. Our winter clothes weren’t out. The furnace hadn’t been checked. As the years have gone by, I have become more and more obsessed with getting ready for winter, and this year, having been battered by all sorts of unexpected crises, I am more obsessed than ever. The other day when my aunt phoned, I told her I was getting ready for winter. She was amused. Her parting words were, “Go get ready for winter.”

Friday, October 12, 2007

Rummage

Our church ladies are having a rummage sale tomorrow, and the gym is crammed with stuff, an unbelievable amount of clothes, lamps, geegaws, furniture. They never sell it all, and on Monday the Anti-Poverty people will come take the remains to their on-going rummage sale. I loathe rummage sales, and Bill loves them. I loathe holding yard sales and attending them; Bill loves having them and attending them. The university women’s club has a yearly book sale with thousands of books. The sheer number of books discourages me. The ladies have made some attempt to sort them, but with so many people crowding you, looking for any particular book is impossible. And yet in our basement, I have a room crowded with “archives”, my fancy name for the photographs, letters, clippings, kids’ report cards. Whenever I try to file the papers or otherwise make sense of them, I think I should throw some of it away. But I am unable to make judgments about should go and what should remain. When we were cleaning out our aunt’s apartment, we were faced with many photos, some of them of very interesting looking people obviously from a foreign clime, and knew there was no hope of figuring out who these people were, where they were from, how we were related. We reluctantly threw many of them out, but even now I wish we had kept the four or five photos of the young girls in embroidered pinafores picking grapes.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Destructive Metaphors

I am writing a column about the kinds of metaphors that I consider destructive, root metaphors that have so taken hold of us that they provide a world view. The main example I give is the one that uses war as a metaphor for curing diseases, especially cancer. Every day I read in the obituaries that someone fought a valiant fight against cancer. Or waged a courageous battle. I have many objections with this metaphor: the enemy is elusive and war is such a hateful activity are two. It is hard for me to get away from the Cartesian dualism – my body as the grubby vessel for my superior mind and soul. In all our nine months of dealing with various diseases, including three cancers, I didn’t hear any doctor use the metaphor of waging war. Bill’s body had somehow produced something that should come out, like a tooth cavity, and it was taken out. No doctor proclaimed himself the general of an army. He or she were part of a “team” of doctors.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Coming Home

I hadn't realized how long I had been away. The last time I wrote I was getting ready for summer. Today I started to get ready for winter. Bill has had nine months of various medical troubles, but, knock on wood, we are coming out of the woods. The good news is that he didn't have to have chemotherapy for the lung cancer and the other cancers have all been excised.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Once More to the Lake

Once More to the Lake by E.B. White was one of my father's favorite essays. I usually have a photo of a grandchild on my computer desktop, but yesterday I got such a longing to go to the lake that I put a photo of it on the desktop. East Grand Lake is on the border between Maine and New Brunswick. We bought a lot on it for $1000 35 years ago. At first we tented on it, with a portable toilet hidden in the bushes; later we went up only for the day. Some years ago we got a trailer and then five years ago our son built a cabin. It is a most magical, soul-soothing spot.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Back on line

I seem to have abandoned the blog which afforded me so much pleasure over the last fourteen months. Any time for writing that I could steal had to be devoted to the column. We are now at a stage of equilibrium, so perhaps I can get back to blogging. Bill had his lung cancer operation eleven days ago and came home four days ago. The operation was a success – I could tell because every time the surgeon and the resident surgeon talked to us, they were grinning. The surgeon said that the operation went better than he had expected and that Bill tolerated anesthesia better than they had anticipated. His initial recovery has been swifter than they expected. Tomorrow we hear the result of the lab report and what kind of chemotherapy he will have. There were some tense moments – the worst one after the operation itself, was when he went wonky, thinking he was in the building he had taught in, trying to get out of bed. Since he was hooked up to many tubes, including lung drains, this would have been catastrophic. However, our son and I dodged that bullet by staying with him 24 hours for three days and then hiring a night time sitter for two days. We had a private room and the hospital put in a cot for us. I had expected him to be much frailer when he got home so I had hired night time sitters for five nights (our other son and his family were here over the weekend), our friend and helper Joe for daytime, and Meals on Wheels, none of which we really need, but having contracted for, must keep on. A lovely problem to have. Another minor glitch was that everything tasted to him like “rotten wood,” but in the last few days his taste buds have rallied.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Together at Last

My column for next week is about movie-making, inspired by the made-for-TV movie shot on our street ten days ago. I didn’t see many movies when I was a kid because we lived a distance from the theater. At college I discovered that I was nearly the only girl there who hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz. I didn’t see Fantasia either, and Bill was happy I could at last see it because he had been so influenced by it when he was a boy.

I never caught the movie bug even when I lived where I could see them more handily. When my granddaughter or my daughter came home, we would have a film festival of video tapes, and at least once go to the theater, but that was about the extent of my movie-going.

A number of things have happened in the last year to make me more interested. My daughter has been in several movies and TV shows. When Bill came home from the hospital, my son bought us a TV and DVD player and installed them in the living room. Up to then the TV had been relegated to the basement. About the same time, our cable network added a classic movie channel to its lineup. The kids gave Bill DVD’s for his birthday, and we have been renting them as well. Am I right in thinking that TV stations are playing more movies? Watching movies is great for keeping our minds off our troubles. Over in Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick quoted Theodore Dalrymple on art and transience, and I used that quote in my column to note that videos and DVD’s have made movies less transient. I find it strange that an art form so universal and so influential has nearly passed me by, but I am glad that at last I have had a chance to participate in it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Creating Reality

We have a heavy snowfall warning for tonight, 15 centimeters. Everywhere we went today people would bring the subject up and then immediately say, “But it won’t last long.” This morning the radio announcer twice made the joke that the definition of summer in New Brunswick is “eight weeks of poor snowmobiling.” Once about twenty years ago it snowed on May 23. I committed the fact to memory.

The movie being shot on our street is supposed to take place in March, and all last week they tried to make it look like March by strewing leaves over our freshly raked green lawns (ours was still brown.) They ran out of leaves and so would have to rake up the leaves from one lawn to use on another lawn. They are probably telling themselves that they should have waited.

I told the assistant location manager that I was going to write a column on the movie shoot, and I have been bombarded with e-mails and phone calls. Those movie people sure know about publicity. I will just use the anecdote to begin the subject of movie-making in general.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Making Art

They started filming on our short street last Wednesday, a made for CTV movie, Sticks and Stones. Thursday afternoon we were to see the surgeon to find out the results of the bronchoscope. Thursday was also Bill’s 75th birthday. That morning I broke down briefly and said I couldn’t bear the wait. We looked up the street and saw a lot of commotion, walked up to see what was going on, saw our neighbors sitting on their front stoop, sat with them for an hour, chatting amiably, watching the filming action across the street. One of the crew came and sat with us a while and the location director came too to talk.

When we got back home, our writers group came to sing Happy Birthday to Bill, bearing a rose and a gift certificate from the local bookstore. Then another neighbor came to say happy birthday, bearing chocolates. The location director came to tell us the road hockey game was going to be played in front of our house, filming our house, because our lawn was the only one on the street that is still brown and the action was supposed to be taking place in March.

All of this distraction made the wait bearable. And, miracle of miracles, the news the doctor delivered was good, the best we could have hoped for. Bill’s cancer, as far as can be determined, has not spread, is operable, the size of a marble. He is in good enough condition to undergo surgery. “Surgery is the only chance you have to be around next year.” They will take the top left lobe out. “So, should I go ahead and book the surgery?” “I don’t have much choice, do I.” “No, you don’t.”

When we got home our front yard was teeming with people and equipment, and about twenty little boys with hockey sticks were sitting on the curb. I sent out e-mails with our news, talked to our kids, and then we sat in the living room watching the action through our picture window. Our sons of course are highly amused that just where they played road hockey will be on TV. Bill wrote this poem about 30 years ago.

Roadhockey

The roadhockey game out under my window
Is like the Chinese soup
With grandfather cabbages thrown in
Decades before
It simmers through the years
As the bulbs in the streetlamps
Have been replaced a hundred times since it began

Enter the fray my little son
Little onion into the stew
The original ingredients have long since been devoured
But they have left their legacy:
The game itself, a roiling flowing two-sided thing
And a meaningless astronomical score.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

On Being a Man

A four year old daughter of our friends has decided she would rather be a boy. She wants her hair cut short (it is long and easily tangled) and she would like to be able to pee standing up. I agree that the last would be convenient in public restrooms and out in the woods, but for me the best thing about being a man is that I wouldn’t have to carry a purse (pocketbook in the USA). If anyone were to invent an adequate substitute for a purse, he/she would earn my undying gratitude. There is the backpack, but this is even more inconvenient to carry to the grocery store. I have been experimenting with different ways to carry the necessities. Some years ago at a college reunion, I received a passport carrier you hang around your neck as a momento. It almost carries the necessities, and I have been using that recently. The trouble is that it doesn’t carry everything, so that, for example, I found myself at Blockbusters without the list I usually carry of the 50 or so films recommended to me for our new DVD player. As a consequence, we chose three films that proved not to be hits. One was The March of the Penguins. Bill doesn’t like animal documentaries at the best of times, but said he, “This not only was about animals, it was about animals that were suffering.” Another one was a sappy version of Emma in which Mr. Knightly was played by a movie star no one who had cherished the book would regard as even remotely Mr. Knightly-ish. The third one we chose only because it had the word Harvard in it and was in the comedy section, Stealing Harvard, and it proved to be silly and funny, just what we need. Of course if I were a man, I probably wouldn’t have cluttered up my pants pockets with a list of movies. The cardiac specialist who was looking after Bill pulled a lip balm out of his white coat pocket and applied it while he was talking to us. That did make me wonder what else was in that pocket.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bronchoscope

Bill had his bronchoscopy Friday. The surgeon said it takes about 7 days to get the results of the tests and to phone his office Thursday. He said, “The light didn’t shine through the lesion, which is good, because it shows that it isn’t far in.” I don’t have a clue as to what that means and so cling to the word “good.” Here’s Bill's second Coogler poem.

Everett Coogler as an Emblem of Cosmic Brotherhood

The Everett Coogler who every morning
Unrolls his awning
And opens his stand
And is ready for business
And whatever the day will bring
Stands shoulder to shoulder
And brother to brother
To the Anti-Everett Cooglers
Unrolling their awnings
And opening stands
On the ass-end
Side of the moon Coogler poem.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Everett Coogler

One night 37 years ago, Bill woke me up. “Listen to this.” He read me the first Everett Coogler poem. I thought, He’s gone completely around the bend, but in the morning I realized that wasn’t it at all. He had created a wonderful character and what would become the first of many poems about Coogler. Bill is a wonderful reader of his own poetry, not too dramatic, but dramatic enough, not the usual drone. People laughed uproariously and Coogler became much beloved.

The Lament of Everett Coogler

After
17 years at
The same stand,
I,
Everett Coogler,
Would say,
That life is a stream rushing on,
Alive with
Red
Herrings.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A True Account

Too generous
I threw out stale
Jelly donuts to my
Friends the grackles
Along with their seed

And now one poor
Fellow staggers and falls
His foot plunged deep
In soft raspberry center

Free at last he rolls and flies
Perching one-legged on a birch limb
He cranks the other foot
Up and down in the morning air
To see if it will dry

And yells at me
Shuddering with rage
Or the sheer feeling of repellent novelty
“Do you mind telling me
What the hell this is
I’ve got between my god-damned toes?”

Bill Bauer

The Weather as Metaphor

It snowed last Thursday when we had to go to Bill’s pre-op clinic, and it is snowing again today. In between it has been unusually cold. We are waiting for a date for Bill’s bronchoscopy. At my age I shouldn’t be wishing my life away, but it is hard not to wish the weather would be better and that the bronchoscopy would be over. On the weekend I wished time would slow down because our two sons and their families surprised us with a visit. Fishing season opens on Monday. A friend tells us that this is the first year he can remember when he won’t be able to find a piece of ground where he can dig for worms. I remember the day my mother was buried, April 2, I think it was. A small group of us was standing in the Strawberry Hill cemetery. It was cold, dark, but the birds were singing. The metaphor was apt: a gloomy day, yet with a hint of hope. This late winter is an apt metaphor too; summer will come, it always does, but it is difficult to imagine the experience.

Friends of ours are driving to Moncton today to keep an important doctor’s appointment. Schools everywhere are closed. It is an hour and a half drive. There is a stretch of the highway of perhaps 30 miles where there is no habitation, no exits. What a terrible decision to make: go or not go. Some birds have returned from the south, but they are nowhere in evidence today. On the weekend we saw robins and a cardinal. The grackles are back.

I have just spent some time looking for Bill’s poem about grackles. I haven’t read his poems for a while. They were brought back to me. Every once in a while someone will begin to recite their favorite poem from Bill’s books – the Tantrum Poem, or Everett Coogler, or Unsnarling String. A recent e-mail ended, “Let Bill know that I have been unsnarling a lot of string in the past three months.” I couldn’t find the grackle poem.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Things are Moving

Bill has his consultation with the anesthetist today and will have the bronchoscope done sometime after April 17. I am writing some columns ahead, two so far, and this weekend I will tackle the music one that is giving me so much trouble. I console myself with my past experience that the harder a thing is to write, the better the essay, although on a rare occasion passion has let me write a good one right off the top of my head. I am spending way too much time on these columns, but they keep me concentrating on them for a few hours and not on our problems. I probably am earning about a dollar an hour. Of course when I write novels, I am making about a penny an hour.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Benefit of Age

I have received the first negative feedback on my column. I am surprised I didn’t receive it before. The president of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick denounced me for writing about the spiraling down of the organization. I am pleased with myself because this didn’t bother me at all. In the past I would have been upset. When I said I would write this column, my son said that at my age I had earned the right to write boldly what I wanted. Only one of the six columns, however, has been negative.

I am now polishing a column about the negative impression that the rest of Canada has about New Brunswick and how art contributes to this impression. When we have guests from other parts, they are invariably surprised at what a nice place this is, how beautiful, how friendly and courteous the people are. I was discussing this with a doctor who has come from British Columbia into our neighborhood. I mentioned that when we try to get out of our subdivision onto the busy street leading to the malls, we never have to wait more than a minute; someone always stops and lets us in. His face lit up with a smile because he too had noticed this. He is impressed with how collegial the medical community is.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Once Again With Music

In my six columns I have written about visual art, crafts and literature, but I haven’t written anything about music. I determined I must do something about the lack and started writing about music, but the column seemed thin and whiny. Last week I bought a new book by Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, hoping it would inspire me. It inspired me so much that now I have too much to deal with – the piece is thick and unwieldy. I got panicky and wrote another column I had in mind, one I could do more easily. But I have a hiatus because this Saturday the editor decided to devote the whole of Salon, the art section of the paper, to reproductions of the paintings that the Beaverbrook Art Gallery must give back to the Beaverbrook Foundation. So the column for yesterday can be printed next Saturday, I have two more nearly ready to go for the two weeks after that, and I can concentrate on the music one. Music is the art I know the least about, although in my younger days I knew quite a lot. I played the piano (not well) and the baritone horn in the high school band and had a fabulous music 101 course in college. One of the first purchases we made after we were married was a state of the art stereo. But in the last twenty years I have neglected it because I was often asked to write about the other arts (some 80 articles.)

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, generously stocked by Lord Beaverbrook with wonderful paintings, has been in a hassle with the Beaverbrook Foundation which claims that the paintings weren’t gifts, but loans. Last week the judge ruled that 87 of the paintings in question belong to the BAG and 48 to the Foundation. It is alleged that Lord Beaverbrook’s grandsons want the paintings to sell because they have gone bankrupt. One of the paintings, J M Turner’s Fountain of Indolence, is said to be worth $25 million. It is one that does belong to the gallery. In the past the Foundation has taken paintings from the collection under the pretense that it was going to have them restored, but instead sold them. The judge ruled that all of these belonged to the gallery and the foundation must compensate for them.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dear Blog

I wonder if I could use the blog to focus on the various subjects of my columns. I could write in a less formal way, be more speculative. At any rate, Happy Anniversary, Dear Blog. Thanks for the good times we have had together.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Anniversaries

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of this blog. It has wiggled and wobbled from subject to subject. What wiggles and wobbles at the bottom of the sea? A nervous wreck. I have got off the subject of tracing my way. I have noticed that other people periodically change the focus of their blogs. I think I will try that, but what should the focus be?

What I didn’t anticipate was the great fun of meeting up with other people and becoming interested in their lives and opinions. I have added and subtracted blogs from my blogroll because I realized after a while that I couldn’t read too many regularly; there just was not enough time. I do occasionally think to myself that since there are millions of blogs, there probably are quite a few by people who would turn out to be kindred spirits. I wish I had kept a journal of how I came to the blogs I regularly read. Usually it was “way leads on to way.” to quote Robert Frost.

I hadn’t remembered until today that I had started the blog on the anniversary of my mother’s death. I don’t know if I was aware at the time, although it was serendipitous because the first few posts are about her naming of me.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Names and Music

Friday I updated my The Writers’ Union of Canada page and today googled myself to see if it was there. The URL for the old one comes up and says it is not longer viable. I saw that there were 90,000 entries for Nancy Bauer, but I continued on for quite a few (400?) and the newly revised web page didn’t turn up. I see by this googling that I share the name with many others, the most prominent being a Tufts U professor. There is even another Bill and Nancy couple who run a farm in the American Midwest. Yesterday in the Globe and Mail there was a review by a UNB professor, Mark Anthony Jarman. He has taken to using this middle name, and I think I know why. I googled him last week for some information for my TJ column and found that there are several writers named Mark Jarman. I had to go quite far in to get the Jarman I wanted. I am thinking now that I should have added my maiden name as my public name on books and articles, but at the time I first published, “poetesses with three names” were satirized. Ah, pride and vanity, what problems you create.

I updated my TWUC page because the organization has now arranged it so that you can do it yourself. You used to have to go through them. I was introduced at a reading last week and realized the introducer had got her information from the page. The photo I had used was now nearly 20 years old.

I haven’t written about music for my State of the Art column because of all the arts, I have the least expertise in it. I decided I should give it a try. I don’t even listen to the late night music programs on CBC because I discovered that music keeps me awake and talk puts me to sleep. We have a new station which broadcasts the Ottawa Senators’ games. I turn it on, and I am asleep in minutes. I think the part of my brain given to music must have atrophied. I was thinking this morning that maybe Bill and I should begin again to listen to music. It might be good for him in reestablishing the synapses that were damaged in his stroke, and it would be good for me to revive my interest in music.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Treasure Hunts

I was thinking today of treasure hunts. When Bill’s mother went into a nursing home, after his father died, we cleaned out their house. Be sure to look everywhere, she said, especially up high, because I suspect your father hid money around. This made cleaning out the house seem like a treasure hunt. We did look everywhere – inside the clock, under chair cushions. We took out the drawers of his desk. No money. He had a strong box that he had had with him since their marriage, 55 years. He kept it in his closet and never told his wife what was in it. Cleaning his closet, she would pick it up and notice that something inside rattled. She never asked him what was in it, but she was curious. After he died, Bill rifled through his desk, found the key and took the key and box to his mother to open. There was nothing in it. What had rattled was the metal divider.

When we were cleaning out Bill’s aunt apartment house, we tackled the cellar, a vast dungeon, full of rooms going back and back and back, packed with stuff. Aunt Elsa had told us that the padlocked cabinet in one of the rooms was her father’s, and she was sure it contained valuable tools. Our friend Louie came with his hacksaw, sawed away at the lock, and finally got it open. Bill and I crowded around, expecting wondrous things. The cabinet was full, but with used plumbing fixtures, some screws, a broken hammer, that sort of thing. We laughed when Louie finally pulled out a key – the key to the padlock.

My neighbor Jack came by for a visit this afternoon. I was telling him of my musings. He had inherited a handsome armoire. It needed repairs, which he made. When his father came, Jack’s wife took him to see the cabinet, to admire the repairs, and told him to look inside. No, he said, he couldn’t. It had been his mother’s, and as a child he had been forbidden to open it. After all those years, seventy or more, he still couldn’t bring himself to disobey.

Gaston Bachelard writes, “Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life.”

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Labyrinths

I am just getting caught up reading other people’s blogs. Some entries are long and dense, but interesting, so I will go back to read them again. Yesterday a woman who runs a twice monthly reading series asked me to fill in this afternoon for a poet who has laryngitis. This morning I am wondering why I said yes since I have so much to do. I was, however, intending to go to the reading anyway. I decided to read the ailing poet’s poem which addresses another poet, dead more than 20 years. In the poem, Robert Gibbs addresses Alden Nowlan who addresses John Keats and Samuel Johnson. I like the idea of Nancy addressing Robert addressing Alden addressing John and Samuel. A set of nested Russian wooden dolls. Or six degrees of separation. I am going to read an old, unpublished story, partly because I can’t remember which stories I have read publicly in recent times. In the story I am imagining ideal readers, so Nancy will be reading to an audience about writing for an ideal audience. When Alison asked me to fill in for Bob, I thought I would read the beginning of the novel I am working on but that would necessitate my typing it and I don’t have time. I know from bitter experience that I can’t read from my own handwriting. Now I have to steel myself to go down cellar to see if it is flooded. Yesterday and last night we had snow and then terrific rain and melting.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Onion Soup

One of the best dishes I ever made, probably the best one, was French onion soup. When we first moved to Fredericton, we joined the university gourmet group and were members for several years. Once for our final meal of the year I made onion soup for sixteen people. A departing faculty member had given me a huge black iron pot that had belonged to the US Army. Every once in a while, even now, someone will mention the soup. Some people said it was the single best thing they ever tasted. I have never made it again. I used an Escoffier book and a Larousse cookbook. Escoffier recommended first roasting the bones for the stock, several kinds, beef of course, and I think lamb and veal. Some vegetables were roasted too. The resulting stock was so subtle that I can’t even bring it to my memory; I only remember its reputation.

I was thinking of that soup this morning because tonight we will have chicken soup with stock from the bones of the roast chicken we had several nights ago. My cooking has gradually lost its luster. I rarely cook any more for someone who loves food. I love food, but cooking just for myself is too much work. Fredericton has never had good restaurants. I don’t know why that is. We go to one and it is good, and six months later we go back and it is mediocre. Bill loves Italian food, but there has never been a good one here. An Indian restaurant opened here a year or so ago. I was delighted. It was ridiculously expensive and lousy. I didn’t think it was possible to make lousy Indian food. All the effort had gone into the ambience.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Metronome

We have had warm weather the last month or so. By warm I mean zero or above Celsius. Today it is already 6 above. For an unaccustomed pain in my chest my family doctor sent me to see the cardiac doctor. He put me on a treadmill and said to say stop whenever I wanted. I kept going so that the test would be accurate and because I was embarrassed by my huffing and puffing. He stopped me. He is alleged not to have a good bedside manner, but I like him, mostly because he is reputed to be the most brilliant doctor in our area and that is what made me happy when he was looking after Bill. He has an acerbic sense of humor. He explained that my heart is fine for someone my age, but he said, “What the test tells me is that you don’t do very much.” I had to confess that was true. Dr. S suggested I buy a treadmill, and I probably will do that, but Bill’s cardiovascular system has to undergo improvement too, so ever since the warm weather arrived we have been walking. We will enjoy the walking when the snow goes and we can go along the trails in the park or the river. Now our walk is metronomic and our pleasure is in how virtuous we are and how healthy we will be.

My first controversial column last Saturday so far has only elicited comments from people who agree with me. This Saturday’s column is non-controversial. The editor said that it was “beautifully written.” Another reader said it was “lyrical.” I can see that I won’t be able to keep up writing one every week.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Not Abandoned

I seem to have abandoned my blog. Partly that is because I spend my “good” morning time working on my column. Last week I agreed to write one every week instead of every other week as I had said at first I would do. So far three of them have been published: one about the high price of art, the second on poetry as being more popular in a local context and the third on the getting together of the francophone and anglophone arts communities. I have had positive feedback on them. Two of the people commenting wanted something out of me, however, so I had to take their compliments with a grain of salt. One wanted me to help her get her novel published, and the other wanted me to read the novel she is writing. I no longer read manuscripts except by those whose work I have read and commented on for years. It is hard work and not too rewarding.

I am enjoying the journalism, though, because it gives me something that I must concentrate on and a deadline that makes me do that: a few minutes when I am not contemplating our troubles. I am probably qualified to write this column. I have been involved with the literary community here for 40 years, and I have written about arts and crafts for 25 years so know both scenes well. I get family members to edit for me. I consult with friends. My next column will be my first controversial one. When I was first asked to write, the editor (since replaced) said I should be controversial, “edgy.” I am not naturally an “edgy” journalist, but in this case I feel passionately about the subject. I wrote my first damning review last fall. I got the proofs two weeks ago and realized again that it was very different from what I usually write. Ordinarily I give back books that I don’t like at all. I would rather explicate books than merely review them. I am getting to be a crotchety old lady.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Forgotten Twice

Is better than being denied thrice.

In reading the last few postings on your blog, I found I came up (uncredited) twice. When you had that actress perform a Wallace Shawn play in your home, I was in attendance. And yes, it was sleep-inducing. I believe you had also provided some snacks before hand. I think the cost was ten or more dollars. And, as regards "My Dinner With Andre", it was indeed a theatrical release (I've seen it three times and think it is great). Have you seen Shawn in "Vanya on 42nd Street"? I like it very much also.And, regards my second forgottenness, you told me at the time (perhaps it was hyperbole) that I was the inspiration to having your character writing all those lists. I indeed filled in my 'cash spent list' just yesterday, in a long line of yearly booklets which go back over a quarter century. For all I know you're forgetting me right now. Is that a 'wooiiee wooiiee'?

This is a reply from my good friend Dale to two of my recent blogs. He is the most disciplined writer I know, in the writing itself, in the editing, and in the sending the manuscripts out to agents and publishers.

Comment

My friend Ted, the owner of a Mac so that he can't post on my site, e-mails me this comment:
"Yes. Good nursing is in a transcendent realm of goodness."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

On Being a Nurse

I have learned a lot about being a nurse the last 6 weeks. While Bill was in the hospital, I watched the nurses closely. I saw how they shaved him, and when he came home, I duplicated that. So far, knock on wood, I haven’t given him a knick. When the kids were little I played nurse on quite a few occasions. By coincidence, I have nursed 6 kids through chicken pox.

I have always admired nurses. They acquire an astonishing facility to do things most people couldn’t bring themselves to do: draw blood relatively painlessly, stick needles into tender body parts, and take care of various bodily wastes in a manner that doesn’t embarrass the patient. They also have a knack for getting the patient to do what he should be doing, eating or drinking the noxious substance or taking a pill, without sounding like a harridan.

When my dad was in the nursing home, not in his right mind, I heard a nurse say to him, laughing, “You like my poobahs, don’t you.” The nurse was from the Caribbean, and I realized that her poobahs were her breasts and that my father had touched them. She was not only kind to him, but pleasantly kind.

Over in One Word, Zhoen writes about being a nurse in the operating room. She seems to revel in her competence. To have that kind of competence in such an important job must be truly wonderful.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

My Weekly Column

I have been working on my "State of the Art" columns for the new arts section of the NB Telegraph Journal. When they first asked me to write for them, they wanted me to do a column every week, but I agreed to do one only every other week. I was afraid of a weekly deadline. Now the editor is again urging me to reconsider. I think I will give it a try. I have done a lot of art journalism -- profiles, reviews, news items -- but I have never had an opinion column, and I have always thought that it would be stimulating to have one. I am not a natural writer, that is, I don’t have an easy style or an instinctive humor, so I have to work at it. I envy Garrison Keillor, Rex Murphy, and David Brooks for their brilliant, original way of putting things. I loved the columns of the late Alden Nowlan. My memory has always been faulty and is getting faultier, and that is a detriment. However, the idea of the column has fired up my imagination, and I am often thinking, “That would make a good column.” Working on this blog has toned my muscles: one of the good things that has come of it.

Friday, February 23, 2007

synchronicity or maybe just coincidence

Yesterday I was looking for a book (which I didn’t find) and was amused that someone had put our two copies of Wallace Shawn’s The Fever on opposite ends of the bookshelf. A few hours later I was reading the latest copy of the NY Times Book Review, and saw that there was a review of the memoir of Wallace’s brother, Allen, illustrated with a photo of the brothers. I hadn’t thought of Wallace for quite a few years, and here he was, turning up twice.

In October of 1992, someone, I forget who, asked me if I would host the well-known actor Claire Coulter. This was something of an experiment, using people’s living rooms as a theatre. I was to invite people to come, and they were to pay, but I can remember only Ted and John although there were others. I can’t remember how much they had to pay. Coulter sat in our large maroon leather armchair and delivered a Wallace Shawn monologue in a normal tone of voice. Hosting the performance was a strange experience. over there were our usual friends, sitting in their accustomed places, and over here was a stranger, talking on and on. Ted told me later that he was afraid he would go to sleep and Bill agreed.

Did she perform The Fever? I don’t remember. I do have the two copies, one she gave us and one I bought for our daughter. I don’t know why I didn’t send it to her. Grace once got Bill to watch Shawn’s My Dinner with AndrĂ© with her. Was it on TV or did they go to the movies?


I thought it was a successful event, and I imagined other actors following her lead, but it never happened again. Our traveling actor friend Ellen Pierce would visit us occasionally, carrying with her all her worldly goods in various canvas bags. She was a master at making herself a cozy private nest within our house, pleasant to have around, not at all in the way. I would get her some gigs. One time she thought she would be paid on the spot, but red tape meant that she couldn’t be, so I had to lend her $30 to buy a bus ticket to her next engagement.

Both women weren’t just traveling mountebanks but were deeply committed to theatre and willing to make sacrifices to engage in it. I wish someone else would come along to enliven the scene.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Eerie

Last summer I wrote what I thought was a short story. It began with an image I had of a family event. In October, starting to type it up, I realized it wasn’t a short story but the beginning of a novel. This has happened to me on several occasions. I began to go deeper into the story, and several characters emerged, one of whom was the husband of the central consciousness, Anna. It also gradually emerged that her husband had had a severe stroke. My father had had several strokes, and I thought as I was writing that was the experience I was building on. My father’s strokes had left me with the dread that I would have one, leaving Bill to look after me.

Now the strange part: it wasn’t me who had the stroke but Bill.

In 1969 I was writing a novel (never published) about a woman who went on a protest walk to NYC. I wrote on a Thursday, and the next Tuesday I was called home because my mother had gone into a coma. A few days later she died. A few weeks later I went back to the novel and read what I had written on that Thursday: “When she was sixteen, her mother died.” I was troubled. Something similar has happened a number of times, although not quite so troubling. I wrote about a mother and father who were sitting in the “quiet room” of the emergency ward, where they put people whose loved one is in dire straits. Their son had had an accident. Once when I had been in the emergency ward with one of the kids for a minor reason, I had glimpsed the quiet room and saw a couple in it so I knew what it looked like. A few months after I wrote about the quiet room, Bill and I were sitting in the quiet room. Our son had been bitten in the face by a dog.

One of the main characters in my first published novel keeps more and more complicated lists. She makes lists of her different lists. Her daughter gives her nicely bound black books to keep the lists in, and they comprise a kind of family history. My mother kept lists but not as elaborate. A few years ago I realized I was keeping lists of lists, a book in which I listed where other lists were kept, like my character. And two years ago I bought a black book in which I write everything down so that I won’t forget and only later did I think of the black books of Flora’s mother.

It’s all kind of spooky.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Milk of Human Kindness

What has ameliorated the awfulness of this past month is how kind, thoughtful, just plain nice people have been. The nurses in the Cardiac Care unit were so gentle and pleasant. I watched them shave Bill. They were careful, went slowly, rubbed shaving cream into the bristles gently. After he had his first cat scan, he smiled at the cardiac nurse who had accompanied him and she smiled at him, and he said to me and John, “With the help of my buddy here, I got through it.” It was as if together they had overcome a monumental obstacle.

My relatives and friends have rallied around. I have not a doubt that I could phone many different people, and they would be here immediately to help us. The ones far away have sent candy, Bill’s favorite fig squares, books, flowers, cards. They have phoned and e-mailed. The ones close by have visited, done errands, and brought food.

Yesterday we went to get Bill’s new glasses. I was filled with dread because his old ones have been unsatisfactory for several years – the bifocal part is so low that he can’t use them to read. The cheerful young woman put them on Bill and gave him something to read. I could tell that they weren’t right. She immediately said, “They’re not right. Who did those measurements anyway? You can’t use them. I’m sending them right back to the laboratory.” She called a colleague who agreed they weren’t right, and they discussed the proper positioning of the lower bifocals. Proper glasses might seem like a small thing compared to a stroke and possible lung cancer, but to someone whose life is reading and writing, it is huge.

Bill is, in many people’s opinion, both brilliant and eccentric. He sometimes is difficult to understand, but I can tell that everyone we have encountered in the last month has been trying hard to figure him out in a kindly way. A night nurse asked me what Bill did before he retired. I told her that he was a professor of English at UNB. Her eyes opened wide, she laughed, flung out her arms, and said, “That explains a lot! We wondered where all those big words were coming from.”

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Vulnerable

Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you, but I didn’t realize just how bad it is. I knew that your chances of getting cancer rise when you smoke although not everyone who smokes gets cancer. If cancer were the only bad result, you would just be taking a gamble, like climbing Mt. Everest. Or even driving a car. I have learned, however, that there are many other results of smoking. The doctor told Bill that because of his smoking his condition is that of a man ten years older. There are so many things wrong with him that I am overwhelmed. For example, his ability to metabolize food is affected. And heart rhythm. And circulation. The only good thing that can be said of his smoking is that he was pretty old when his bad habit of 60 years caught up with him.

The young, pretty, female, heart resident leaned over Bill and asked him if he wanted his heart to be started again if it stopped. “This is something I have to ask you.” He might die, I thought. And then I thought, He is going to die. Now. Tonight.

Our youngest son was standing there too. I haven’t asked him what he thought. I only know that when our neighbor phoned him to tell him Bill had had a stroke, he left his house for the hour and a half drive without his wallet and in his crocs (in the middle of a New Brunswick winter.)

Now we are waiting. Bill can’t have anesthesia for at least another two weeks. We have had a month of harshly cold temperatures with bitter winds. We haven’t had such weather for several years. I can’t remember where I put our down-filled coats. He can’t have coffee or alcohol. And of course no cigarettes. He is having difficulty writing. The deadline for my column is tomorrow morning.

In her introduction of me in the new section of the newspaper, the editor called me “venerable.” A francophone woman e-mailed me about my first column and misquoted the word. She called me “vulnerable.”

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Chowder

My mother died young; her death was unexpected, unnecessary. We were distraught. The day after her death, nearly forty years ago, my cousin Gloria arrived at my father’s door with a fish chowder. It was beyond delicious; it was comforting, sustaining, life-affirming. When we brought Bill home from the hospital last week, a friend had a chicken soup waiting for us. It too was beyond delicious.

I have lost my appetite only once in my life, when I was in the hospital, very ill with pneumonia. I hadn’t appreciated what people meant when they told me they had lost their appetite. I thought it meant that they were full or that they didn’t particularly like what was put before them. When I lost any interest in eating, I was scared. I thought I might die, leaving Bill with three young ones to raise on his own. I have heard of people who at the end of their lives don’t eat or drink. That must mean that their will to live is gone.

Years ago a friend of mine gave me a Chinese recipe for chicken broth that was alleged to be particularly life-giving. It requires a fowl, not an easy thing to come by here, and fresh herbs, now easy to find but at that time impossible to buy in the winter. I must get out the recipe, find a fowl and make the broth.

Bill is on the mend for the time being although there are hurdles down the line. I have been blessed with the gift of living one day at a time. I hardly ever look more than a few months away, don’t “borrow trouble.” I weighed him this morning, and he has gained twelve pounds in one week. A lot of the weight must come from his drinking Boost three times a day.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hiatus

There will be an hiatus here because Bill is in the hospital.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

From Bill

I am tired of being with people
who never have heard
of Charlie McCarthy
or Mortimer Snerd.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Gender

Over the phone Bill and I were discussing with our son the problem of using “their” instead of “his” with a singular noun: “a writer expects their pencil to be sharp.” We got to discussing the advantages of speaking a language with non-gender gender (there is a technical term for this but I forget it), for example, that a bridge is either masculine or feminine. A scholar has conducted a study to see if this use of gender affects the way the people speaking the language view the object. She (for she was really a she) asked Spaniards how they would describe a bridge, and they would reply with an adjective that could apply to a woman: graceful, for example. A German would use a word that would apply to a man: solid. She was about to begin a study to see if the actual structures of bridges differed between Germany and Spain.

A Dutch friend told us that many years ago the king of Holland unilaterally declared that the Dutch language would no longer make non-gender objects have gender. His father, a scholar and a gentleman, was very upset with this.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Rambler

The problem of using “their” with a singular noun to avoid the sexist “his” is acute, but why should it be? English, as we are always being told, is a flexible language, not given to unbreakable rules; English is living, breathing. Whether using non-sexist language will help women in the long run, I am not sure: human kind for mankind, for example. Did using mankind give me subconsciously the idea that I wasn’t as good as a man? Who knows, since it was subconscious. The words to “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive my foolish ways” has been changed in our hymnal to avoid mankind. Will that help anyone?

The revolution is in full swing, however, and unstoppable, so couldn’t we say, Let’s scrap the necessity of making the singular/singular agreement. “A writer makes their choice” does sound wrong to me, but it is better than “A writer makes his/her choice.” Anyway, I am old and set in my ways, and I can well imagine that the construction will sound just fine to my grandchildren. I could revise the sentence to avoid using either construction, but that means that a whole valuable formation is lost.

When I discussed “which” and “that”, I got a comment leading me to a great post about the subject. The writer of the post is railing at a copy editor’s corrections of his manuscript. To prove his point that the editor is wrong about “which”, he quotes some great writers. The difficulty for me is that the works he cites are novels. Is “good usage” for novels different from “good usage” of non-fiction?

Yesterday Anecdotal Evidence had a great post about diagramming sentences. I loved diagramming sentences, and it has been of immense help to me. I learned the practice in freshman English in high school, while at the same time taking Latin. My writing style is serviceable, not the oratorical Henry James style I so admire or the subtle and brilliant Jane Austen style I wish I could emulate. Lucidity is necessary in a serviceable style.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Twilight Zone

We wound up in Fredericton because of a romantic daydream my husband had had from his childhood. He is from Maine, and he was mightily intrigued by the space in the north called New Brunswick. He and his family had taken a short trip to Quebec but had never been to this province. I am from Massachusetts and had never heard of it although I knew of Quebec, one of my uncles having come from there. A family in our village had come from Nova Scotia, so I had heard of that too but had no idea where it was. Even after I had graduated from college, I knew very little about Canada. We had planned to go to NB on our honeymoon, but Uncle Sam prevented that and called Bill into the air force.

When we were trying to figure out where to apply after the PhD, Bill suggested NB. The back of our dictionary had a list of North American universities. Sure enough, there was a university in New Brunswick. He applied and was enthusiastically offered a job.

When we decided to come here, my Quebec uncle told us a family story about “a big fire and a treasure" someone in his family had buried in NB. We later learned that indeed there had been a big fire in 1825 on the Miramichi River.

We were coming here, “on a lark, just for a year or two.” I went to the UNC library to get books about NB, but could find only one, The Watch that Ends the Night, by Hugh McLennan. It has a section about the grim childhood of the hero in a NB lumber camp, the murder of his mother and his subsequent flight down the Miramichi River to escape from the murderer. It was a very dark introduction.

Recently doing genealogy, Bill discovered that one of his ancestral grandmothers was a 13 year old girl from a NB Indian reserve.

Many writers write about their childhood locale; that is what lights up their imagination. Part of one of my novels is set in my Massachusetts village, but all the rest are set in New Brunswick. New Brunswick is what fires my imagination. I have, however, the disadvantage that it is not my native land, that I don’t know it as I would if I had been raised here; I don’t know it from the inside of me. Mine is an outsider’s vision even though I have lived here 41 years.

New Brunswick is in the Atlantic Time Zone. Bill calls it the Twilight Zone.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Golden Age

Ours was the second house built on the street we have lived on for 40 years. It took about a year for all 25 modest houses to be built. By that time 53 children lived here. Later two houses were built on the ledges that had made those lots less desirable. It was a wonderful neighborhood, with friendly and caring people. The builders had planned two long curves on the short street so that cars would drive slowly. There was a large park which eventually had swings, slides, and a ballfield made into a skating rink in the winter. It was, in fact, the perfect place to bring up kids. I have written of it several times, most extensively here.

About ten years ago our next door neighbor Dot moved away to live with her daughter, and I can tell when I talk to her that her years here were her golden age. Her house was the command post. She knew all the news; she always had a hand in planning the showers, the chivarees and the anniversary parties. Most of the neighbors would visit her a couple times a week, some every morning, to check in. She would give you a cup of tea, and she always had a homemade cookie or biscuit to go with it. She was good to the kids. When our youngest son confessed that he had his doubts about Santa, I asked him, Who do you think brings the presents? He said, “Dot?”

She had a series of medical problems: TB, trouble with the arteries in her head, heart, a complicated genetic disease. She remained cheerful during all these. Her husband died of cancer, her son of a heart attack, and yet she remained cheerful. Three years ago, in her early 80’s, she fell down the stairs (she thinks she blacked out), remained there on the floor for several hours with a broken neck, internal bleeding, a broken wrist and other injuries. Her daughter came home and found her, called the ambulance, and at the hospital they determined that she needed the expertise of the doctor at the Saint John hospital, so they flew her there. She spent the next few months in a metal halo screwed into her skull, the most appalling looking thing you ever saw. She could still joke.

This week we will have a reunion, a birthday party for her and for our neighbor on the other side, now a widower. Dot will make Jack’s favorite beef dish. We will recite the old stories of a golden age.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Wider World

My father worked for the Boston Globe in the artist room for 35 years. The artists’ main job was to make ads, but they also were called upon to draw other things: crime scene maps and cartoons, for example. The powers that be at the Globe felt that the artist room contributed a lot to the success of the Globe. For the last twelve years of his working life, Dad was the director of the section. One night the publisher, Mr. Taylor, was showing someone through the plant, and as he introduced Dad to the visitor, he said, “This is the director of the artist room, and he is just about the best in the business.” It was a compliment my dad cherished.

His connection to Boston and to the Globe gave the rest of the family a wider outlook on the world. My mother was a great baseball aficionado, and Dad would bring home tidbits of news and rumors to her. One of the sports writers told him where the catcher Bernie Tibbetts lived, and Dad drove her to Nashua to see his house. He would go into Boston’s Morgan Memorial to buy books for us all. Later, Dad would become one of the best customers of Vic the bookseller. Vic’s peddling rounds included the newspapers in Boston. Eventually our library included thousands of books – religion, philosophy, anthropology, biography, history, poetry.

When it was determined that I needed glasses, I went to a children’s specialist in Boston, and on those trips taken to see various sights: the glass flowers in one of the Harvard museums, the swan boats in the Boston commons, a trip on the el. Dad was the connection to the big city for the whole village, an hour’s drive away. A young neighbor, six foot tall, would drive with him into Boston to go to a tall people’s club. She eventually married one of the members. The student ministers for our small church would ride back and forth with him to Boston University, discussing theology all the way. Anyone wanting tickets to the Red Sox would commission him to buy them. He got several people jobs at the Globe, and they would ride with him.

When Dad arrived back home, he would make himself a lunch, pour a glass of wine, and sit reading for an hour or two. It was the best time of the day for him.

Bill detected that Dad had a slightly different accent from the rest of our family, and we decided it was the Boston influence.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Whither Thou Goest

When Bill was in the US Air Force, I got a job there too and soon felt myself a part of the force. I was in charge of an information program called “Commander’s Call” and acquired the nickname “Commander’s Call Girl.” I had just graduated from an all-woman’s college and was thrown into an all-male space; I would be the only woman in a hangar full of men. One of the programs was about identifying different airplanes. For a long while afterwards I could identify them, and I have never lost my interest in gazing up in the sky. Somewhere over the last few days – probably in the Globe and Mail – I read this: “Never vacation in a place where people still point at airplanes.” Sometimes on a summer evening Bill and I will sit out on the front porch with our coffee, and I will note the lines in the sky that a plane makes (this has a technical name that I can’t recall.) Where is it coming from? When I was a child, everywhere in our village was close to the sound of the train. I would lie in bed and wonder where the train was going. I knew where it was going in one direction – we would often take the train to Lowell -- but I didn’t know where it was going in the other direction. Some place exotic, no doubt. My father bought me a biography of Maggie Higgins, the foreign correspondent, and I decided that is what I wanted to be. In college I took four years of Russian to prepare myself, but love beckoned, and I shelved that plan. I did get to live most of my life in a foreign country, if only an hour away from the USA.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Books and Wannabe Books

Yesterday our writers’ group had four absentees. None of the five of us present had anything to read. I have been writing, but I don’t have anything typed yet, and I stumble over my own handwriting when I am reading aloud. Bill and I have been trying to get rid of books as we have not only run out of bookshelf space, we have run out of space to put more bookshelves. I had the great idea of putting some out in the living room, and we got rid of six that way. Today our friend Ted comes to lunch, and I will ask him if he wants to take some away. I have culled several Pierre Loti novels, obviously bought at secondhand bookstores, and I am wondering why I bought them in the first place and if I have ever tried any of them.

One in our group has been reading Vincent Lam’s Giller Prize story collection, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. She says her daughter, studying to be a nurse, loved it because it is about a doctor. We got talking about mystery novels, and I mentioned my favorites, the Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters. I had a hiatus of four days in my writing schedule: company and then a cold. When I got back this morning, I realized I was at a good stopping place. In the past I have always had a stopping place about a third of the way through. At first I would agonize over the inability to get going. Now I know that I just have to wait, if not patiently, at least not in despair. My brain’s preferred length seems to be 40,000 words, too long for a story, too short for a novel. But today I just finished part one, drew a line, wrote “Part Two” and continued. As with all my novels, there is no narrative thrust, no plot, a dreadful lack. I know that one in my writing group will give me the same criticism of this new novel, “Where’s the thread?” This fault is a result of hubris. When I started to write novels, back in 1968, I had the idea to use structures other than a plot. And then I thought I would try to invent a new plot, not a mystery plot, and not the Jane Austen/Harlequin romance plot, and by the time I understood my false pride and wrote a novel with the Jane Austen plot, I was too far gone in my writing method, and the novel is the weakest of my novels. In the last novel, I did try a mystery plot, but I am sure no one would think of it as a page-turner.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Which and That

The Globe and Mail today had a discussion by Russell Smith about the use of “that” and “which.” Neither my husband (a teacher of English for 34 years) nor I were aware of the distinction, though I think we may have known it subconsciously. “That” is used for a restrictive clause, “which” for a non-restrictive clause. Bill got out Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage and read me a long discussion of the situation. Follett (following Fowler) says that keeping the difference between the two words means that you are not relying just on commas to make the distinction between non-restrictive (which Smith calls non-essential) and restrictive (essential) clauses. The short story writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher in discussing her method of revising said she goes through a story “cutting out the whiches.” “Which” is an inelegant word, it seems to me, but I don’t know why. You can sometimes convert the which clause to a participial phrase, which seems more elegant, or to some other construction. For example, I could revise the previous sentence to “…a more elegant participial phrase”, cutting out the whiches. I am using elegant and inelegant under the influence of Russell Smith’s column.

When I say Bill and I might have known the distinction subconsciously, I am thinking of when I read aloud to myself what I have written (as I always do before sending it off for publication) and discover that a certain word or phrase doesn’t sound right.

As the old saying goes, you learn something new every day, which only makes you realize how much you don’t know and how little time you have left to know everything.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Labeling 2

I finished labeling and then consolidating the labels into fewer categories. I think I can consolidate some more. This may be a waste of time, who knows. I have a favorite joke. A farmer is holding a pig up to an apple tree. The pig grabs an apple, chows it down, and the farmer holds it up to another apple. This goes on a while. A man comes along and asks what the farmer is doing. "Feeding my pig." "Isn't that a time-consuming way to feed a pig?" The farmer says, "What's time to a darn fool pig." I laughed so hard when I was told that joke that my stomach hurt (you know the sensation.) "What's time to a darn fool pig" has been one of my mantras ever since.