Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Other Carpenter

Years ago, sister Sarah put dibs on Mom’s beautiful old oak Hoosier cupboard in the kitchen. She’s coming to get it next week.

At present, the Hoosier contains Mom’s silverware, napkins and hot pads, utensils, and all the baking supplies, bowls, and pans. It includes a 48” wide countertop; antique pots and plants are displayed on top. Where’s all that going to go?

For the last 29 years, until I moved to my Seattle apartment, my kitchens have included a lower cupboard unit, 30” wide, with one shallow and two deep drawers, topped with a butcherblock countertop. I think everybody needs one.

Mom likes the idea, so we picked out cabinets to order at the local Menard’s. We’d need an installer. Menard’s recommended a guy they called ‘the other carpenter.’ (Huh? If Don is the other carpenter, why can’t we get the main one?)

I phoned, and he said he could come early that evening to look at our job. When he arrived, he was wearing a t-shirt with a logo that clarified the Other Carpenter thing: It’s Jesus.

About the only religious t-shirt I’ve ever been comfortable with is the one that says, “Love God. Love other people. Nothing else matters.” Still, I figure a carpenter who advertises his connection to Jesus would probably aim to do a job that would make Jesus proud. And it’s definitely better than the beer and babes shirts some builders wear.

Mom and I loved Don. He seems like a genuinely nice man and unlike our own other carpenter down the street, a guy who has often disappointed us, Don actually speaks to Mom instead of referring every question to me like Mom’s not in the room. And Don seems to have that know-how that my building-contractor ex had. We decided to have Don build and install a custom unit.

As he was heading back out to his truck, Mom and I were commenting on the beautiful sky, and Don said something about how God paints these amazing pictures. I’m Christian, but that kind of talk makes me twitch. The next morning, I mentioned it to Mom. I said, archly, no doubt, “Don’s comments about God painting the sky accord with neither my meteorology nor my theology.”

“How do they accord with your poetry?” Mom replied, mildly.

Monday, July 20, 2009

How about a little poem with that burger?

Mary is still in Michigan with Mom. She wrote this 2008 column about her Michigan stays when she wrote for the Port Townsend Leader.

As I write, my final week of three in Michigan is coming to a close. I’m always a bit amazed that a grown woman can find so much happiness doing so little for so long with her Mom! In fact, we’re having such a good time, thanking God for our blessings at mealtime is becoming a bit tedious.

What with Dad being a preacher and all, I grew up in a home where no meal began without a blessing. As I recall, everybody looked around questioningly even when we sat down together on a Friday night in front of our favorite family TV shows with the warm cake we were having for a late dessert; did this too require a blessing?

So for Mom and me, a prayer before meals is partly habit, partly tradition, partly sheer recognition that only an oaf could fail to be thankful for what we’ve got. A safe walk home from the library, here in Autoworld where you wonder why they bother to paint crosswalks on the streets at all. The new potatoes from the farmer’s market and the rich Fair Trade coffee Mom brews. The Belgian waffle at breakfast with a raspberry in every single waffle hole, from the straggly row out back. Indeed, with global warming ever more apparent and a world food crisis going on, we’re politically aware enough to be thankful we’re eating at all.

But quite frankly, it didn’t take us long to tire of, “Thank you for this food, Amen.” Even the familiar couplets have lost their vintage charm. Mom suggested we go back to choosing a poem to share, as we did last year.

Mary Oliver is a big fave of ours, and you can open any one of her volumes almost at random and come up with something suitable. But the Mary Oliver is way up the steep stairs in my room. So Mom pulled out Garrison Keeler’s Good Poems for Hard Times and started us off with this one, by good old Anonymous:

Carnation Milk is the best in the land;
Here I sit with a can in my hand --
No tits to pull, no hay to pitch,
You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch.

Excellent choice, Mom. You’ve made it quite clear we’re not to be too solemn about this, and yet, who can doubt the sincere thankfulness of Anonymous, that she can get her milk without having to do one more goll-darn chore?

Yesterday morning Mom said, “Tell me what you think of this one. Isn’t that ending a little jarring?” She read me Thomas Lux’s “Poem in Thanks,” from Keillor’s Good Poems.

Lord Whoever, thank you for this air
I’m about to in- and exhale, this hutch
in the woods, the wood for fire,
the light -- both lamp and the natural stuff
of leaf-back, fern, and wing.
For the piano, the shovel
for ashes, the moth-gnawed
blankets, the stone-cold water
stone-cold: thank you.
Thank you, Lord, coming for
to carry me here -- where I’ll gnash
it out, Lord, where I’ll calm
and work, Lord, thank you
for the goddamn birds singing!

You mean the “goddamn”? I said. Yes, it is jarring, but not too jarring, because it sounds real. He’s not damning anything; it’s just a verbal flourish.

So, prayers and poems, and the age-old question. Not the one that goes, How can there be a God with so much evil in the world? But this one: How can there not be a God, with so much beauty?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

When Television Was Young

My sister Deb came from St. Paul to visit Mom and me here in Michigan last week. I said, “Deb, all I can remember of our childhood is fighting. Like when we shared that double bed, and one of us would start yelling to Mom and Dad, ‘She’s touching me! Make her stop!’”

Deb didn’t remember that so well. So on her last evening here, I said to Mom, “Hey Mom, tell us some memories of our cute childhood, okay?”

And here is the frightful tale I heard. I always thought we didn’t get a TV until the all-electric home, which we left when I was in fifth grade, so I must have lived there at least by third grade. But it turns out we got it in the Valencia Boulevard house, which must mean we had it when I was in second, or even first grade. (We moved a lot. There was even one more house in between: the cement block house.)

Mom didn’t want a TV. Dad brought one home. Dad was the pastor of a little church, and one night, a sort of ad hoc committee came over to discuss the television problem with my folks. As a moral issue!

Mom was afraid Dad would be asked to leave the church, or, more likely, that he’d quit in righteous indignation. Why was this anybody’s business but their own?

It’s hard to even imagine somebody doing such a thing today. And I’ll bet all those committee members, if they’re still living, have TVs of their own.

And yet, you know what? Turns out they were absolutely right.

What an awful invention it was. The beginning of the end for family life and civilization.

Except when I want to see a movie.

I rented an old one recently, All that Heaven Allows, partly because I wanted to see if Rock Hudson still exudes the old heterosexual chemistry. He passed my chemistry test, even with that rather prim Jane Wyman. Hudson plays a Walden Pond kind of guy who marches to his own drum (or is it drummer?). We’re meant to see Jane’s old glittery cocktail set as dull and superficial by comparison.

And get this: TV is used consistently as a metaphor for giving in to boredom and defeat for the widow Wyman plays. Of course, they do stack the deck just a little: Rock Hudson? or TV?

Tough one.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Back to the library...

So, those books I was so excited about from the library? They’re not really panning out.

After fewer than two chapters of White Heat, I’m thinking maybe I don’t like Emily Dickinson’s poetry that much after all. What is she trying to say, for pete’s sake? And already she appears to be a bit of a manipulator in her relationship with Mr. Higginson, pretending she has no friendly critics at home, when she does too!

But no, Emily can’t be the problem. Look at all the boring stuff John McPhee makes riveting! Bill Bradley playing basketball? The birch bark canoe? I think I could even read about Dickinson and Higginson, if McPhee wrote it.

And then there’s Lark and Termite. “Termite” turns out to be one of the main characters, a boy “unable to walk and talk but filled with radiance,” as the book jacket says. Well, he sure can’t walk and talk, and yet whole chapters are “told” by him. I gave up at page 70; maybe the radiance comes later.

The Kneale novel, When We Were Romans, is entirely narrated by a nine-year-old boy, and despite Pat Conroy’s cover comparisons to Scout, of To Kill a Mockingbird, I wasn’t powerfully drawn into this kid’s childhood. I’m sure it’s fine for him as a little boy, but his rather fey retellings of history and astronomy, riddled with varied and no doubt meant-to-be-charming misspellings, stopped me at page 86.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to finish these! I’m trying hard, because I signed up for the Fremont Branch summer reading program, something I haven’t been allowed into since childhood, and I’m hoping to read the most books.

On the plus side, I was crazy about Jane Hamilton’s Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, a sort of romance novel/romance novel spoof. So far, it's the beach book of 2009 for this girl. "She had read every single one of the TV Book Club novels; that is...until the show featured only dead authors. Laura had stopped cold the summer the nation of viewers were to read three books by William Faulkner. She quit after thirty pages of the first for reasons she believed that anyone interested in a comprehensible story-line could understand." (Oh dear, is this where I’m headed?)

Also, please read You or Someone Like You, by Chandler Burr, New York Times Scent Critic (!). I can't find evidence that either the NYT or the Atlantic reviewed this book, which I think should be on the High Controversy and Interest List. (So where did I hear about it? I put it on my library hold list, but when it showed up at Fremont Branch, I couldn’t remember why.)

It's built around a Hollywood-ish book club, but run by a highly-educated Brit on request from the readers, and it's all about issues of belonging and how we decide who is acceptable, as well as the question of why we read. It's funny too and warm.

So why wasn't it on the upscale airport bookstore shelves? Why isn't the title on everyone's lips? Could it be for the same reason I'm a little scared to write about it even here, to whoever the heck may be reading this, that the deep controversy at its heart has to do with a type of Jewishness? I'm thinking about Lucy Greeley's book, Autobiography of a Face, and how when something that awful happens to someone, we give them the leeway to behave badly. I'm thinking how the Holocaust has seemed to allow Palestine to become a concentration camp. I'm thinking, Nobody but a Jew could write this novel. Whew! Burr IS Jew-ish, as he'd probably put it.

I’ve got Mom reading it, and the women in her book club. You read it too, and tell me what you think.

And what else should I be reading? Recommendations, please.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Parts of a Man

Here's a true love story, Parts of a Man, for people my age, found this morning on one of my blog faves.

Sigh. Even wore a cowboy hat.

Monday, July 13, 2009

You Can Too Go Home Again, to Michigan

Mary is in Michigan with Mom for July, as usual, so writing a little less. Last summer, when she still wrote for the Port Townsend Leader, she published this column about her Michigan days.

So here I am in Michigan with Mom. When I was an innkeeper in California, a guest once said to me, “Coming to Ten Inverness Way [my inn] is like coming home when coming home is actually all it’s cracked up to be.” Maybe he knew my mom. It’s 70 minutes home from Green Bay International Airport; Mom brings food to tide me over. One winter trip I said I’d enjoy some green beans. “I’ll eat them out of the can, Mom,” I said, but she arrived with beans in a mug she had kept warm on a thing you plug into the dashboard cigarette lighter. This time, summer, hotter than heck, she brought mixed fresh melon, cooled on a bed of ice. When we got home, there was homemade cream of broccoli soup and rhubarb pie. She loves me.

So it stopped me cold when I got up this morning and saw prominently displayed a book called, Sandpaper People: Dealing with the Ones who Rub You the Wrong Way. Especially since I had been on my very best behavior. I volunteered to take over mowing the lawn yesterday, for example. “Oh no thank you,” she said, “you’ll just complain about my electric mower like your brother Tim does. Or my friend Larry: He told me he had to go to bed the whole next day.” Mom is a sharp cookie, even before the book. First she aroused sibling rivalry. Of course I want to outshine Tim and maintain my position as favorite child. And by invoking Larry, she headed off at the pass any impulse to complain.

So out I went, unfurled the 100 feet of heavy orange extension cord, and plugged it in. Moved the hose that had been watering the raspberries. I started to mow the way Dad taught me, round and round, rectangles diminishing at the center to nothing, but the cord kept getting in the way. Silly me, I thought, I need to turn around. That didn’t work either, but thankfully, neither my ex nor any other engineering/mechanically inclined-type men were snickering from the picnic table under the maple tree. Striped mowing, with 180-degree turns, worked fine.

I had no mower complaints, but what lousy grass! This isn’t grass, I muttered to myself. It’s weeds. You can get some real satisfaction from mowing a lush green carpet. But I could barely tell where I had mowed. Then I started thinking how I used to get a quarter for jobs like this, and I sure deserved it. Maybe Mom would pay me a quarter even now? Oh no, I was regressing to twelve years old again, and getting perilously close to coming up with my own unique complaints.

Okay, I got through that, and I feel pleased every time I look at the “lawn,” about how it looks and that I didn’t even bring up the possibility of the quarter. I also figured out how to repair two antique faucets in such bad shape you had to turn the water on and off under the sink. I took the faucets apart with Mom’s lovely smooth-sided wrench and walked to the hardware and got new washers for sixty-four cents. I only needed one phone call to my ex, who knows plumbing, and we had liftoff!

So what’s with the Sandpaper People book, Mom? She says it has nothing to do with me. Sister Sarah bought it for her, after a class studied it at her church. I know now though, from experience, how helpful just owning this book can be. It probably wouldn’t work in long-term relationships, because you’d stop noticing it, but for houseguests? When Mom’s done, I’m hoping she’ll pass it along to me, so I can casually display it when Sister Marty comes to visit. Just to keep her on her toes.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reading the paper...

Menominee, Mi --

The big headline today in the Marinette/Menominee Eagle Herald is, “Festival featuring friendly fight for favorite food fare.” Page one, above the fold, I kid you not.

But the big news is on page three. Next weekend in Porterfield, a tiny place on my cycling route, there’s a Cruisin’ Oldies Concert & Car Show.

Some of the acts include Herman’s Hermits, The Buckinghams, The Crystals, and Hotel California, an Eagles tribute band. I know these bands! I’m pretty much word-perfect for singing along with “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” (I use my British accent, of course), and then there’s “I’m into Something Good,” and “Kind of a Drag,” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” (“Ron”? We always thought it was “Run.”)

Promoter Dennis Jasch is a goldmine of illuminating quotes. “I think we’ve got a lot of good acts,” he says. “A lot of the bands still have original members.”

And he adds, “It’s a nice, quiet crowd. A little older than you see at the country festival.”

I’m sure he’s got that right. I wonder if any of them can dance?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Summer Books in Michigan

I flew in to Green Bay, WI, last night, met by my mom and my Aunt Barb. I’m here for my annual July visit, three and a half weeks this year. I love to watch the emotions range across people’s faces when I say I’ll be visiting my mom: I can see them wonder,should they be consoling or congratulating me? My Michigan vacations are one of my favorite things in life. In fact, if ever I’m stressed and can’t fall asleep at night, Michigan is where I go in my mind to calm down.

I finished my airplane novel before I fell asleep last night, so our first task this morning -- after breakfasting on local strawberries Mom and Aunt Barb had picked -- was heading for the library. It’s a small-enough town that you don’t need your library card to check out books; you can just tell them your name. In my case, I look so much like Mom, I just appear at the counter and they say, “Shall I put these on Edna’s card?”

I made the usual haul. Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark & Termite, which has been on my Seattle library request list for months. When We Were Romans, the new novel by Matthew Kneale who wrote the wonderful English Passengers a few years ago, short-listed for the Booker. Antonya Nelson’s new short story collection, Nothing Right. And White Heat, Brenda Wineapple’s new book on the friendship of poet Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

These were all just sitting there on the new-books shelf waiting for me! And there are more.

So, just between us, I wouldn’t be looking for a lot of posting going on right here until August.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The New Old-Age Poverty

Don’t you love that old favorite question, “What would you do with a million bucks?” It’s such a fun way to get to know somebody, across all economic zones and ages.

My new favorite though is, appropriately to my age and our economic times, “What would you do if you were down to nothing but a monthly social security check?” I’ve always thought shared housing would be the thing. We just have to make sure one of us can see, one can walk, and one can hear.

A recent piece in the NYT, Bike among the Ruins, has really got me thinking. It’s about how half-deserted Detroit is not only now a great place to bike, but represents an opportunity for a new, bike-centered urbanism.

And a week ago, at an event in Seattle’s Town Hall series, I heard author Novella Carpenter, who wrote Farm City, talk about how Detroit’s vacant lots are infilling with urban gardens.

Hey! Let’s all move to Detroit! By “all,” I mean my bike-riding, healthy-eating, environment-saving, zydeco-dancing, library-supporting buddies. We’ll buy an old brick mansion with a handy carriage house for the bikes and surround it with an urban farm.

Not now, of course, because it’s warm and sunny in Seattle, and we’re not broke yet. But we’ll have that be our plan, for when we’re down to just the monthly social security check. We’ll take a Greyhound.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day

Mary was a columnist for the Port Townsend Leader before she moved to Seattle. She published this there on July 4, 2006, the year after independence -- aka singleness -- broke out big-time.

I didn’t send Christmas cards last year, since I couldn’t send the kind I like to receive. I don’t like just a card, especially the ones with pre-printed signatures that come in envelopes with computer-generated mailing labels. I like some news. I like the holiday season letters people write, recounting the amazing exploits of their families: young Jeff who spent the summer hiking Alaska, before he headed off to complete his full-scholarship post-doc in astronomy; Shiloh, who was at the top of her USC class with a double major in drama and dance, and is off to New York; Megan, who finished another fire season atop a lookout, and left for a Ghanaian refugee camp when the rains started.

Do they make this stuff up? No. I’m sure not, because when I write it all down, my life too looks filled with excitement and blessing. Unfortunately, I was stymied last year at how to include my biggest news.

Dear Friends: This year was really something! We had a wonderful cruise to Alaska on a small boat with my mom. I continue to volunteer, teaching writing to elementary school kids, and Jon is not only a sought after building consultant for non-profits, but also an oral historian. Sadly, in June, we separated, and in December, divorced. Merry Christmas, though!

I just couldn’t do it.

So I was pleased in December, still feeling indecisive and guilty, to read such stirring words in the Atlantic Monthly that I decided to put Christmas cards off. I’d wait and send Independence Day cards! I’d use the Atlantic text.

Of course, I haven’t actually gotten my card together. But picture this artwork: my 1968 black-and-white photo of a Japanese-American toddler waving a flag as she’s pulled along in her red wagon at the annual parade in St. Anthony Park, Minnesota. Balloons in the background. Bike wheels decorated with crepe paper streamers. And the text would read:

What is “the American idea”? It is the fractious, maddening approach to the conduct of human affairs that values equality despite its elusiveness, that values democracy despite its debasement, that values pluralism despite its messiness, that values the institutions of civic culture despite their flaws, and that values public life as something higher and greater than the sum of all our private lives....

Despite our problems -- and my short list includes too low a minimum wage, lack of universal health care, wars of arrogance, and money-driven decision-making -- I get goosebumps when I read that.

I’m thankful for the people who thought up the United States, who imagined Of the People and By the People and For the People. I’m not sure we could do it today, with our short attention spans and inability to weigh complex issues. I don’t believe our forefathers ever imagined their amazing idea would be held so cheap as to be implemented by people who thought they’d done their duty simply by voting once or twice a year. People who spend more time reviewing the candidates on “American Idol” and voting for them, than they do on their voter pamphlets.

So this Fourth of July, feel proud. Or feel ashamed, if that suits you. Just don’t feel like it isn’t your country, because I don’t think anyone can honestly stand aside and blame everybody else for where it’s got to. I know I can’t.

That Atlantic Monthly also included these words: “In the years before the Civil War it was not certain that the American idea would have a future. It still isn’t.”

No. It’s up to us. Happy Independence Day.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Summer Seattle Serendipity

Yesterday I and a whole list of strangers to me got an email suggesting that we come along with some potluck fixings and have supper at a park near the zoo, where we could overhear the outdoor concert with Emmy Lou Harris and friends. I like Emmy Lou. She does great harmony singing, just like I would be doing that very afternoon with a buddy of mine, singing duets. But of course I didn’t want to spend $36.50 for a ticket! The picnic sounded like a good idea.

There was just one hitch. I emailed back: “Sounds like a great idea, but who are you?”

Turned out we had met at a Mountaineers Friday night board games event. So I emailed back a yes.

When I got there, I found only Don. He had brought a ton of strawberries and a sandwich. I hadn’t had time to make potluck food, so I’d bought a baguette and a pint of cucumber/tomato/feta salad. We sat at a picnic table where we could sort of hear some music. Half an hour past the recommended gathering time, along came a nicely dressed man offering us two tickets for $10 each. We hesitated, quite happy at our table, and he instantly said, How about two for $15?

Why not? Don had a ten and I a twenty -- no change -- so the price went back up to $20. The seller said he was homeless, and someone had given him the tickets to use or sell, so we’d be helping him out. He looked awfully clean and tidy to be homeless, but he said he was in transition, clean and sober. So, good.

In we went. Don tore his sandwich in two -- yum: turkey with cream cheese and cranberry sauce -- and we agreed that, with just one fork, I’d eat half the salad, then pass the rest over to him. The sun was out, the zoo was full of happy people -- there was just one hitch. The music.

Geez what a lackluster performance! As if they hadn’t had time to decide on a playlist, let alone practice it together.

But hey! I’m new to Seattle, and I got to experience one of the wonderful zoo concerts. And I’m single, and I went with a guy!

And then, after a quick nap at home, I went on to the monthly free blues jam at Conor Byrne in Ballard and danced my brains out.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Some excuse...

I love this excuse I heard recently, and I laugh every time it comes to my mind. I asked a friend if he was going to the dance later, and he said,

"I'd like to, but I've been invited to a bocce tournament in Snow-home-ish."

I may be new to Seattle, but that doesn't mean I'll believe there's a place called Snow-home-ish!

And bocce?

All material copyright © 2009 by Mary Davies