Wednesday, January 31, 2007


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


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


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


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.