William and Ernest have been part of our family for seven years now–or, more accurately, they have been the family for seven years–and to celebrate I’m reblogging a piece originally posted on Whiskertips. It was written when they were little and cute and spent less time sleeping in sunbeams.
Please forgive the mangled text. Because of changes WordPress has made to its platform, captions that appeared under photographs in the original posting do not appear under photographs in the reblog. They appear in the main text and make a bit of a mess. This poses a problem, as is obvious in the post below, but I can’t correct it.
I hate that. I hate the author. I continue to like the book, but the author I despise.
This time it’s Anne Tyler. I love her novels. The Accidental Tourist. Breathing Lessons. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My favorites, if I have favorites, are Back When We Were Grownups and Saint Maybe.
Tyler’s plots are rather loose. Instead of going directly from here to there, they detour, turn corners you didn’t see coming, abandon the now for backstory that might take you a generation or two into the past before returning to the main narrative. “[C]haracter is everything,” Tyler said in an interview. “I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too.”
She writes about families: ordinary, quirky, dysfunctional families–dysfunctional as ordinary families tend to be. They’re humble people, living in ordinary houses, working at ordinary jobs; their furniture is often mismatched and their carpet runners often worn from someone’s pacing. Her families stick together; children and grandchildren don’t stray far, come home often, and sometimes don’t leave at all.
Even their extraordinary problems are ordinary, the kinds of problems real people experience.
Her characters’ days are filled with matters of little importance. “As for huge events vs. small events,” says Tyler, “I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me….It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful.”
She loves to “think about chance–about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe…The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure.”
If her plots meander, it’s because they reflect the common, insignificant, everyday events that are so important, because, taken together, they form the essence of life.
Tyler cares about her characters. “My people wander around my study until the novel is done,” she said in another interview. “It’s one reason I’m very careful not to write about people I don’t like. If I find somebody creeping in that I’m not really fond of, I usually take him out.”
And therein lies my problem, and the reason that Anne Tyler is, for the moment, on my bad list.
She isn’t alone in liking her characters. I like them, too. Some of them, I love. And when one dies–or, as I see it, when she kills one–I take it personally. The character’s family stand around in the kitchen saying all the plain, simple, often awkward, frequently funny things that real people say when someone they love has died. They crowd together in pews to hear a sermon by a minister who didn’t know the loved one and might not know how to pronounce his name. They return home to refrigerators stuffed with casseroles and play host to friends and neighbors until they’re so tired they’re about to drop. Left alone, they get on one another’s nerves and offend with, or take offense at, the most innocent remarks. Then they pick themselves up and go on with their lives.
But I don’t. Because even though I stand outside the novel, reading about people who don’t exist, never have, never will, I know them. I’ve been where they are, said what they say, done what they do. And when I have to go through it one more time, with them–that seriously messes up my day.
Tyler always manages to redeem herself, though. One of her characters says or does something so remarkable, so absolutely right. And the world of the novel shifts. And so does mine.
In the book I’m reading now–I won’t mention the title so as not to spoil it for you–Tyler gives that role to the “disconcertingly young” minister who conducts the funeral. After a friend and a sister-in-law and a fourteen-year-old granddaughter wearing “patent leather heels and a shiny, froufrou dress so short she could have been a cocktail waitress,” have paid tribute to the deceased, he approaches the lectern and does what the deceased wanted–to “say something brief and–if it wasn’t asking too much–‘not too heavy on religion.'”
He starts by saying he didn’t know their loved one and so doesn’t have memories like they have.
But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories–all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth. The hardware store their father owned with the cat asleep on the grass seed, and the friend they used to laugh with till the tears streamed down their cheeks… The spring mornings they woke up to a million birds singing their hearts out, and the summer afternoons with the swim towels hung over the porch rail… and the warm yellow windows of home when they came in on a snowy night. “That’s what my experience has been,” they say, and it gets folded in with the others–one more report on what living felt like. What it was to be alive.
And so Anne Tyler performs her magic. Once more I start bawling. I reconsider. My hostility passes into nothingness. I forgive her. We’re friends again.
I leave the church and go home with the family to a refrigerator stuffed with casseroles, and visit with their friends, and watch them give and take offense but then quickly, or perhaps slowly, repair their relationships, and pick themselves up and go on with life.
Now I have to read the second half of the book. That’s a lot of pages to cover without the character I love. But, like the others, I pick myself up and get on with it.
If I can’t have the character, I can still love Anne Tyler. And I will. And I do.
And because the music is so much fun, I lay there listening, replaying, listening, replaying… I don’t know how many times I listened to it. I also don’t know what time I finally went to sleep.
Ragtime is my favorite music–pianoonly, no interference from lesser instruments. Morath is my favorite ragtime pianist. There’s something about his touch… I can’t describe it, but it’s right.
I discovered him years ago in a program on PBS. Then I bought the LP. Recently I repurchased it for Kindle. (Or Fire, or whatever this beast is supposed to be called.)
Tonight, googling for a link to the album, I came across a 1986 New York Timesreview of Morath’s one-man show, “Living a Ragtime Life.” Serendipity. I didn’t know there’d been a show. Or that Morath is a musicologist.
Or also, according to Wikipedia, a composer, actor, and author. Or known as”Mr. Ragtime.” Or called a “one-man ragtime army.”
I hadn’t planned to say this much about Max Morath, but he’s worth some words, so I’ll quote part of the Times review (which you may skip if you wish):
”IT’S our music that labels our history, more than our wars and our politicians,” asserts Max Morath early in his one-man show, ”Living a Ragtime Life.” Seated at a grand piano under a Tiffany lamp, and flanked by an Edison phonograph, the musicologist, storyteller and expert in turn-of-the-century Americana seems the very epitome of an old-time vaudevillian. But in reflecting with a sly ironic humor on our longing for ”the good old days,” Mr. Morath is much more than a devoted nostalgist. He is a philosopher of American popular culture with Mark Twain’s gift of gab and farsighted historical view. The picture he paints of the 1890’s, ”when sex was dirty and the air was clean,” is of a world that we might want to visit, but, he convincingly persuades us, we almost certainly wouldn’t want to live there.
But back to what I was listening to over and over last night and why.
First the why: As I’ve already said, it was fun.
The what: Music from the turn of the century–that other century–through World War I. Some pretty bad songs. Some pretty silly ones. Some pretty good ones, usually because they were pretty bad or pretty silly.
Chorus: We don’t want the bacon We don’t want the bacon, What we want is a piece of the Rhine. We’ll feed “Bill the Kaiser” with our Allied appetizer. We’ll have a wonderful time. Old Wilhelm Der Gross will shout, “Vas is Los?” The Hindenburg line will sure look like a dime; We don’t want the bacon We don’t want the bacon, What we want is a piece of the Rhine.
CHORUS 1: “You are going far away, but remember what I say When you are in the city’s giddy whirl. From temptations, crimes, and follies, Villains, taxicabs and trolleys, Oh! Heaven will protect a working girl.”
2. Her dear old mother’s words proved true, for soon the poor girl met A man who on her ruin was intent. He treated her respectful as those villains always do, And she supposed he was a perfect gent. But she found diff’rent when one night she went with him to dine Into a table d’hôte so blithe and gay, And he says to her, “After this we’ll have a demitasse.” Then, to him these brave words the girl did say:
CHORUS 2: “Stand back, villain! Go your way! Here I will no longer stay, Although you were a marquis or an earl. You may tempt the upper classes With your villainous demitasses, But Heaven will protect a working girl.”
Never take a walk with Mary Never take a walk with Sue Never take a walk with Maude or Carrie That’s the kind of girl you’ll have to marry
If you take a girl out walking Down a little shady dell Always take a girl named Daisy ‘Cause daisies won’t tell
The lyrics quoted here are just excerpts of the songs, and are just a sample of Morath’s presentation.
So there’s my idea of fun, the pastime that kept me awake when decent folk were sound asleep. It’s not for everybody, I realize–though, of course, it should be.
Says Morath, “Scorned by the establishment as ephemeral at best, trashy at worst, ragtime was the fountainhead of every rhythmic and stylistic upheaval that has followed in a century of ever-evolving American popular music.”
If ragtime and its offshoots strike your fancy, the album cited at the beginning of this post and “Living a Ragtime Life” are available from Amazon (and other vendors no doubt).
And the program “Max Morath: Living a Ragtime Life!” that I watched on PBS many years ago now appears in seven parts on Youtube:
CHORUS: I’ve got a ragtime dog, and a ragtime cat; A ragtime piano in my ragtime flat; I got ragtime clothes, from hat to shoes; I read a paper called “The Ragtime News.” I got ragtime habits, and I talk that way; I sleep in ragtime, and rag all day; Got ragtime troubles with my ragtime wife: I’m certainly living a ragtime life.
Fortunately, it won’t look like my doodle. If I’d been sensible, I’d have chosen to travel to a two-dimensional setting, something flat, with no corners or gables. I’d have planned the drawing more carefully, too. I was so wrapped up in keeping the gables from running off the page, I forgot the house would need a roof.
To help with identification, I numbered the gables.
Many years from now Will you still be sending me a valentine Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three Would you lock the door? Will you still need me Will you still feed me When I’m sixty-four?
Lennon & McCartney, “When I’m Sixty-Four”
My cousin Mary Veazey (the cousin who used to boss me around) told me that while preparing to attend her high school reunion, she wondered how many years it’s been since she graduated. She did a little subtracting and came up with the number 60.
She subtracted again, several times in fact, but kept getting the same number.
Sixty years since high school graduation.
She’s the oldest of the cousins, and I’m the baby, about fifteen years younger. That used to mean she was practically a generation ahead of me. She says I was more like her niece than her cousin. Lately, though, she’s suggested I might be catching up with her. For instance, she’s been saying things like, “When did you get so old?”
But I’m kind, so when she said she graduated sixty years ago, I agreed the number is impressive but refrained from saying, “Wow.” Wouldn’t have been prudent. She might have asked how long ago I graduated.
I’ve been sitting here playing a game on my laptop–Scary Halloween Match, which is a silly because there’s nothing scary about it except how many hours I’ve invested in playing it–and letting my mind wander. It’s funny the things that floated by on my stream of consciousness. James Joyce would be impressed.
One of the floaters took me back to high school. My friend and I played guitars and sang here and there whenever an invitation arose. Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul, Mary; a lot of our material came from their recordings: “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” songs like that.
At one program we sang Lennon and McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four.” I don’t know whether our contemporaries approved, but several retirees told me they got a real kick out of it.
I got a kick out of it a year later when Mary Veazey’s seven-year-old son asked me to sing, “Blow Your Hair Off.” It took a while, but finally I realized that’s how he remembered, “When I get older / losing my hair.”
One thought, however, stopped my stream of consciousness, just dammed it up and let nothing else through:
When did that happen?
I don’t feel sixty-four. I don’t look sixty-four. Or didn’t. After six rounds of chemotherapy, I really look a hundred and twenty-four. Tonight at dinner I remarked that chemo has brought out every wrinkle I never expected to have. David said I don’t have any wrinkles at all. He’s kind.
He’s something else as well. He’s sixty-three. And at fourteen months my junior, he’ll never catch up with me.
Which means I married a younger man.
Which means I’m a cougar.
Sixty-four, you can go jump in the lake.
I searched for a recording of “When I’m Sixty-four,” but they’ve all been blocked because of copyright. As a writer, I support the right of artists of all kinds to be paid for their creative efforts and their labor. As a former librarian and as a blogger, I wish the people responsible for the blocks would loosen up and give me what I want.
Doodle #4. Doodle something you love about yourself.
Doodle #4: I thought about skipping #4 because I couldn’t think of anything. But skipping one might lead to skipping two or three, or… It’s a slippery slope. So I settled for the question mark.
Then I remembered hair. We’ve had our battles, but for the most part I like it. Neil, my stylist, told me if he ever puts on a show, he will take me along as his model. I’ve been taken to spelling contests, declamation contests, prose reading contests, ready writing contests, and typing contests, but at each I had to do something. Neil is the only person to suggest I could just sit and let people look at me.
About that typing contest: Friday morning, my teacher thought I could type. Friday afternoon, she knew I couldn’t. She never said a word of reproach to me, but I’m sure she wished I’d just sat and let people look at me. What she said in the teachers’ lounge I can imagine.
But back to hair: Here’s a personal chronology:
*Bald plus curls.
*In vogue: the ponytail.
My ponytail was so successful that the neighbor’s granddaughter, Connie, wanted one and wanted it now. Her mother, thinking way outside the box, pulled up what hair Connie had in back and put a rubber band around it. Then she cut strips of newspaper and stuck the ends under the rubber band. Instant ponytail.
*Gone with the ponytail.
Weary of doing battle every morning over tangles, my mother and I agreed a new ‘do was in order. Dixie at the beauty shop whacked off the ponytail. Somehow, the curls went, too. Cowlicks stayed.
Pink foam rollers. Brush rollers. Bobby pins. Hair dryers. Teasing combs. Hairspray. Hairspray combined with high humidity. Wishing for the ponytail.
*Short and… Short and straight. Short and Afro. Short and straight. Short and gray. Short and rinse. Short and gray. Curls are back. Don’t know why.
I had the official outfit, complete with coonskin cap, and a charred mop handle named Old Betsy, and I spent a lot of time in the back yard hiding behind the butane tank and shooting bears and Indians. I would have made a good Davy Crockett. I knew the song by heart and was happy to belt it out for anyone who asked.
But somewhere along the line I lost focus–maybe when the TV show was canceled–and by the time I was eight, I had my heart set on growing up and wearing very high heels and smoking Winston cigarettes and leaving a red lipstick stain on the filter, like my cute little red-headed aunt Betty did. She gave me a pair of decommissioned very high heels for play clothes. I tied an old sheet around my waist and clomped up and down our concrete driveway, holding a candy Winston in the approved fashion and looking teddibly sophisticated. It’s a wonder I didn’t fall and break my neck.
Actually, I wanted to grow up and be Betty. But I didn’t have red hair. You couldn’t be Betty without having red hair.
Well, anyway. By the time I was ten and had outgrown Betty’s size 4½B shoes–she was my cute little red-headed aunt–I knew that wearing spike heels and smoking wouldn’t be quite enough for a career. I also knew that if I even thought about taking a puff of a real cigarette I would be grounded until I was older than Betty. So I settled on my third and final choice:
I would grow up and be Roberta Peters.
I would wear low-cut gowns with fitted waists and big, swishy skirts and sing at the Metropolitan Opera.
My specialty would be Adele’s “Laughing Song” from Johann Strauss’ The Fledermaus. In English, of course, so the audience would know how funny the lyrics are.
I would include lyrics here, but the only ones I’ve located online aren’t nearly so amusing as those Ms. Peters sang, and I refuse to settle. If I ever find my opera book, I’ll come back and fill in the blank. The book is around somewhere, in a box or maybe just under something. Many of my possessions are currently under something.
The doodle depicting my career choice shouldn’t require commentary, but I’ll comment anyway, just in case. As you might have inferred, the ha ha ha‘s are taken from “The Laughing Song.” The notes rising from my/Ms. Peters’ right hand to the top of her head symbolize the range the singer covers at the end of the song. I think it goes from D above middle C to a high D-flat. When I find my opera book, I’ll check that. Some singers work their way up. The genuine articles make the jump from low to high with nothing between. No safety net.
Here’s Roberta Peters singing “The Laughing Song” in German. The language doesn’t really matter, nor do the lyrics. The voice is everything.
Doodle 2. Doodle one of your favorite things to do.
My favorite thing is to fly to Albany, rent a car, get a hotel room in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and spend several days driving up U.S. Route 7 to Burlington, Vermont, and down U.S. Route 7 to Lenox, Massachusetts (Edith Wharton’s house), and up to Burlington, and down to Lenox, and then turning east to Amherst (Emily Dickinson’s house), and on to Lexington and Concord (Emerson’s, Hawthorne’s, the Alcotts’, Margaret Sidney’s, etc., house…) But that’s more of a video than a doodle.
So I chose to draw my Saturday morning occupation, the Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle. We don’t subscribe to the Times, so I wait till it comes out in the Austin American-Statesman and do it retroactively.
Working the puzzle is a two-step process.
Step One: I start. Sometimes I finish the whole thing or leave only a few squares empty. Sometimes it goes fast. Sometimes I suffer and struggle but persevere. Sometimes I get mad and read Dear Abby instead.
I use a pen. It’s better to blot out wrong answers than to erase and make holes in the paper.
Step Two: When I’ve gone as far as I can go, I hand the paper to David. He fills in the rest. In other words, I do the easy part and he does the part that uses the other 90% of the brain.
Here’s a current photo of today’s Step One. It’s not as neat and tidy as I’d like because (a) Ernest the Cat was draped across my right forearm, pinning it to the arm of the chair, while I wrote; (b) Ernest the Cat insisted on nudging the pen while I wrote; (c) I woke up in a nasty mood and hadn’t worked my way out, and superior penmanship wasn’t a priority.
Yesterday I veered off course and skipped the Times puzzle, and because these things have to be done in the proper sequence, the Los Angeles Times puzzle, which I normally work on Sundays, will have to wait till tonight. Or tomorrow. Or whenever.
In other words, until the nasty mood has passed, I may do no puzzles at all. I may instead hop a plane to Albany and spend the rest of the year visiting every literary house in New England.
Ms. Channing didn’t know she was a doodler until she was forty, when she accepted an online 30-day Doodle Challenge. When the month was up, she began doodling with friends… and with strangers… and then she started teaching doodling.
Why? Because doodling is–I’m pulling from her long list of adjectives–“fun… liberating… fun… energizing… youthfulizing… clarifying… fun…”
I’ve never been a doodler. I have a heavy touch and a tight grip. My pencil doesn’t sweep lightly, freely, and steadily across the page. The pictures on my paper don’t look like the pictures in my head. Frustration guaranteed.
But at Words & Wine, Ms. Channing made doodling sound as much fun as her book claims it is. She handed out paper and markers and invited us to draw.
I used the prompt “Draw how your day started.”
The picture wasn’t worth a thousand words, so I added some. The zigzaggy lumps that look like armadillos are cats.
David is a word person, too, but he employs more subtlety:
Ms. Channing’s books were, like Mt. Everest, there, so I bought one.
Today I did my first official doodle, displayed at the top of the post.
Of course, I dithered first. Abstract? My doodle shouldn’t be anything? How can I draw without knowing what I’m drawing?
Didn’t Jackson Pollock’s wife say to him, “But you have to abstract from something. What are you abstracting from?” (If Mrs. Pollock didn’t really say that, Marcia Gay Harden said something similar in the movie, which is close enough.)
I quashed the dither by turning my pencil on its side and making a blurry square, and another one, and then a couple of ovals, and another blurry square, and another oval… and the ovals began to look like eyes and a mouth. An oval blur in one of the eye-ovals looked like an iris, so I added a blur to the other eye-oval. That made the eyes focus. I restrained myself from putting a ladybug on the shoulder.
So much for abstraction. Some of us, I guess, abstract to rather than from.*
Where creativity is the goal–and this is oh, so important–judgment must be silent. As Mr. Pollock no doubt said to his wife.
*I write that way, too.
Typewriter Rodeo, who create “custom, on-the-spot poems for event guests, using vintage typewriters,” was also featured at Words & Wine Wednesday. The typewriters are beautiful. More about that in a later post.