Happy Birthday Alan J. Lerner

You know Alan Lerner -- of course you do. You must have heard of Lerner and Lowe. Brigadoon, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Paint your Wagon, Gigi? They did some other musicals, and later adapted them to the movies, but these are their best.

Born August 31, 1918, Alan Lerner is member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He received an Academy Award for Gigi, both the score and the title song. Can anyone forget hearing Maurice Chevalier croon "Thank heaven for little girls, for little girls get bigger every day, Thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way!" Lerner also received an Academy Award for writing the screenplay of An American in Paris, though George Gershwin composed the music.

One of the first live plays I ever saw was My Fair Lady, and I loved it. In fact, I convinced my mother, who had taken my brother and me to Nebraska with her while she worked on her MA, that I needed to see My Fair Lady -- every single night. I think it ran two weeks, and I never tired of Eliza Doolittle or Professor 'Iggins. From "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?" and "All I want is a room somewhere, Far away from the cold night air. With one enormous chair, Aow, wouldn't it be loverly?" through the rain in Spain staying mainly in the plain, (finally) and "I could have danced all night," we arrive at the finale "I've grown accustomed to her face. She almost makes the day begin. I've grown accustomed to the tune that She whistles night and noon. Her smiles, her frowns, Her ups, her downs Are second nature to me now; Like breathing out and breathing in." When I later read Pygmalion I understood, even approved of, the ending. But I secretly rejoiced that I had already experienced it differently.

So today I take a little time to salute a special kind of writer, one who could write "Hand me down that can o' beans Hand me down that can o' beans Hand me down that can o' beans I'm throwing it away," then give us "The mist of May is in the gloamin', and all the clouds are holdin' still. So take my hand and let's go roamin' through the heather on the hill." and finally this 1965 Grammy winner.

"On a clear day
Rise and look around you
And you'll see who you are.
On a clear day
How it will astound you
That the glow of your being outshines ev'ry star.

You'll feel part of ev'ry mountain sea and shore.
You can hear, from far and near,
A world you've never heard before.
And on a clear day...
On that clear day...
You can see forever and ever more!"

Thanks to you, Alan J. Lerner

Read Well, Friend

(Pygmalion, written by George Bernard Shaw.)


Dear Mrs. Pollifax,

Or my Adventures with One Feisty Old Lady

I’m sorry, Mrs. P., I know you prefer not
to be referred to as old, but what else could I say? Elderly is even worse, and Senior just doesn’t describe you at all. I can only hope I’ve known you long enough to get away with a little cheek. I hear that you are unofficially retiring from our organization, which you never officially worked for to begin with. I shall have to miss the lovely garden party, and seeing your Cyrus beaming over you like a benevolent guardian Cyclops, only Cyrus has both his eyes. (I was trying to think of someone very tall and strong -- oh well, if you don’t know what I mean after all these years and all we’ve been through, well, shame on you.) Of course this is a time to look back, and funnily enough my first memory of you, Emily, isn’t a memory at all. It’s that check-up you told me about during that cold, frightening night we were locked with Hafez in Castle de Chillon. The check-up where that pathetic young doctor ask you if there wasn’t something you always wanted to do with your life, and when you told him he laughed in your face. I like to think he’s a lonely old doctor by now, thinking of the dreams he once had and how sorry he is that he didn’t take them more seriously. (Don’t say that’s unkind of me, I know it is but I wish it anyway; you’re much more lady like than I.) I feel like I knew you then, but of course I didn‘t see you until you stepped off the bus, walked into the office, and offered your services. You realize, I’m sure, that everyone else thought you were nuts, but I understood your logic. You said you’d lived a full life, you were in excellent health, and our country could better afford to lose you than a young person. (You were wrong there.) I guess I understood even though I was much younger than you. (Why do I feel much closer in age to you now? You just get younger all the time.) At that point my life seemed destined to be, to my great disappointment, kind of ‘samey’ and safe. Because you took courage in hand and stepped in Headquarters, both our lives drastically changed, dear friend, and I am so thankful! You deserve to ‘retire’ but oh how I shall hate not working with you again.

I am looking forward to having you over when you get back from Sofia. Make sure Cyrus keeps you out of trouble, I should hate to miss out on any last minute escapades you might fall into. Have you talked about driving around the little square one more time? No one could justify the Panchevsky ‘Institute’ as a tourist site, except maybe those of us who helped Phillip and the others escape. Do you know what I wish? That somehow I’d managed to hold on to the list you made at our planning meeting-- the one where you recorded all our
assets: geese, one pistol, fireworks, knots, motorcycle, bow and arrow. Can you believe we actually got everyone out of that prison fortress, toppled General Ignatov and managed to get that nasty Nikki in trouble, too, with only those assets, and your refusal to give up? So much has changed in Bulgaria since then, I wonder if any of the rest of them are still alive? Bishop says there’s no way to tell, and he would know. I’m sure you’ll go by the government cemetery while you’re there. Please leave a token for ‘Tsanko’. For me.

You were right about being married to Bishop, you know. He spends all day at work organizing people’s lives to protect the free world, and then he tries to organize and protect me. If you asked him who I need to be protected from, I’m afraid he might say you. But don’t worry, when he gets too bothersome I suggest a nice excursion to Mexico, perhaps a visit to a bookshop where we can look for a copy of a certain book. He starts muttering about Albania and Ferrell, and gets very pale. Personally I don’t think you can be persona non grata in a country you never officially entered and from which you escaped as quickly and quietly as you possibly could. But you know how he worries, so it works every time. I once tried to blackmail him by offering to travel back to Turkey and introduce him to Anyeta and the other gypsies. He thought it sounded like fun, so if you get a postcard of a caravan from us some day, you’ll know he took me up on it. Speaking of the gypsies, Cyrus would just adore them, and if we could arrange another love-in, well, can you imagine watching him dancing with flowers in his hair, if he had any, with all the lovely Turkish girls? There are so many fond memories of that mission I can almost forget finding Magda drugged and held prisoner in the house of Dr. Belleaux, the man who was supposed to be helping us. I learned what courage is when you and Colin dragged her down the main staircase and out the front door in the sight of him and all his important guests. Not to mention Magda, Colin, you and I hurling ourselves into the police helicopter while they chased and shot at us. I’ve always felt one of your crowning moments, Emily, was when Magda asked you if you knew how to fly a helicopter. You said “Of course not!” and proceeded to do it anyway. How many cars did you take out on the way to the Kayseri Airport? I’ve forgotten.

There is so much more to talk about, but my plane from Hong Kong is about to leave. I’ll take a bit of a nap -- or sleep like the dead, as Bishop insists -- and write more tomorrow, my dear Mrs. P. (as you will always be to me.)

Your Friend in Adventure.

Read Well, Friend

Hear about Mrs. Pollifax on NPR by clicking here.

(Books referred to in this post are
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax, The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax, and The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax, some of the series written by Dorothy Gilman.)


534 Miles, 18 Hours, 19 Boxes, and 197 Books

It was going to be an ordinary day, until my daughter, browsing through Craig’s list, cried “Eureka”! Well maybe not quite that, something more along the lines of drawling “That’s interesting,” which is pretty much the same as eureka, coming from her. It turns out that “interesting” referred to the offer of 197 Heritage Press books for $400. At two dollars each for books easily sold for $10 or more depending on condition, this was quite a find, especially for a collector preparing to open her own online book business. A perfect opportunity to gain stock -- except we live in TN and the books were in Chicago. Even if the seller were willing to ship them to us, the cost of postage on 197 books is simply too scary to think about. Betsy’s husband works incredibly long hours and makes last minute trips to other cities, so the possibility of a spur of the moment romantic second honeymoon to the fascinating city of Chicago was also out. I, however, wake up each morning practically begging for something interesting to happen, so the very next day Thelma and Louise, or maybe Hope and Crosby, cleaned out the trunk of the Corolla and headed up north. Steppenwolf would have been proud of us.
”Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way…”
(Born to be Wild)

Born to be wild or not, nine hours of construction on 1-40, construction on I-55, and, you guessed it, construction on I-57 makes for a long, not so exciting day. As much as we enjoy each others company, if we hadn't had the books to talk about -- which ones would be there, what kind of condition would they be in, how would she get the extra shelf space -- the nine hours would have seemed a whole lot longer. Thanks to our GPS we made it to the pick up point with some time to spare. There we found an angel of books waiting for us in her garage. The Garage, filled with books, “hundreds of books, thousands of books, millions and billions and…,” oh all right, it was just those 197 books, the ones that her co-workers had urged her to throw away. Instead they were neatly tucked in 19 boxes, each box numbered with a matching list of contents. We’d had visions of lugging all those books up narrow stairs from a dank, poorly lit basement, through the house out to the street -- one armload at a time. Instead, Sue had a cart to load the boxes on and helped us tote all nineteen to our car, thrilled that someone wanted her parents castoffs. That night we loaded the hotel’s luggage cart with some of the boxes, lined them up between our two beds, opened them and plunged in. What would we find? A Shropshire Lad, Nicholas Nickleby, The Compleat Angler, Homer’s Odyssey, The Tales of Hoffman, or William Tell?

In case you don’t know, (because I sure didn’t), Heritage Books released about 1000 titles between the 1930's -- 60’s. An imprint of George Macy Companies, they were reprints of the exclusive Limited Editions Club. The idea was to offer the same special volumes, though less luxurious, to people who couldn't afford to be one of the 1500 subscribers to the special editions. Each volume was treated as an individual release, its size, cover and shape chosen to suit that title. Tucked inside is an informative, sometimes amusing, pamphlet called The Sandglass, and every volume is fitted into a matching slipcase. One surprising feature of Heritage Press books are the illustrators. Imagine, Picasso's sketches interpret Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. Francisco Goya’s works illustrate a novel about him, This is the Hour. Norman Rockwell did
Poor Richard: The Almanac, and the childrens classic The Wind in the Willows illustrator is, of course, the incomparable Author Rackham. Who else? Because of the illustrations you can't just pull out the books you recognize; you have to open every single one to see what's inside. You might find full page paintings, an occasional small woodcutting, or colorful border decorations on each page. Eager to look at our plunder, we loaded the hotel’s luggage cart with boxes of books, then lined them up in the aisle between our beds to easily share the wealth. We ooh’d and aah’d for some time until Betsy, exhausted from all the driving, fell asleep. I fondled Walden, dipped into Elegy, renewed my friendship with Paul Bunyan, and honestly goggled at the brilliantly colored, intricately Middle Eastern-style decorations on every other page of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam until, exhausted, I couldn't hold it upright any longer.

It's always faster driving home. I don't know if it's because the impatience created by anticipation is gone, or because I begin to recognize the landmarks while still hundreds of miles from home. This way to St. Louis; here's that lousy construction stopping traffic again; 22 miles to Lambert's, Home of the Throwed Rolls. Yep, we're almost home. (Yes, they really do throw the rolls to their customers, sometimes. Mostly it's a pig out on all the Southern food you want place to eat.) Eventually we turned into the driveway, greeted the dogs, and toted in boxes of books. The driver, not surprisingly, was exhausted. The passenger, me, was energized and ready to do something. We excavated a few more boxes, then Betsy picked up one of her old favorites, one of those books you've loved for years but somehow misplaced, and settled in to read. I pulled out books only to replace them. I carried stacks to the sofa, read a bit here and there, then carefully put them back into the correctly numbered box. Darn that book fairy lady! If she hadn't been so helpful I could be alphabetizing and recording each book, matching up the sets and noting the publication dates. Instead I was left with nothing to do but read. Betsy finished The Mysterious Island and eagerly began The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. No, not Ali Baba, though he and Hajji might be cousins I suppose. And don't assume, as I did, that Hajji Baba is a book only someone who double majored in History and Middle Eastern Studies would look forward to reading. It turns out to be a classic romantic comedy offering a true portrayal of Persia of that time. Watching her happily immersed in her second book, something dawned on me. Trying to take on 197 new books has created a type of reader’s overload in my brain, a dog pile of choices that makes it impossible for me to single anything out of the crowd. Walden Pond? Longfellow's poetry? The Brothers Karamazov? Something, please? My eyes glaze over just looking at the boxes. I've stopped peering inside them, stopped studying the six page list. Should I read an old favorite or something I've never heard of before? Maybe I'll pick the shortest one and read it really fast, and have it over with. I could pick a number or close my eyes and point, like people do when they want help from the Bible but have no idea how to find it. It's been almost a week since our drive to Chicago, and I'm still bookless, unable to find a way to force myself to make a choice. I haven't a clue how long this deadlock will go on, but if I ever manage to actually read anything, trust me, you'll be the first to know.

Read Well, Friend

"Hundreds of books" paraphrased from Millions of Cats, written by Wanda Gag.


In Love with American Names

“I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,”
(Steven Vincent Benet)

I, too, am I love with American names, and the maps that show me those names. What better time to meditate on the great variety of our country's names then on a 'quick' drive to Chicago and back with my daughter at the wheel. Two nine-hour days of interstate, our only Chicago sightings Wrigley field and the airport. A pity really, as Chicago is a city to spend a week in, at least. Still, even super fast road trips needn't be all bad. The best part of traveling, besides arriving where you want to be, or maybe getting home from some place you didn’t want to be, is the scenery and the names of the towns you pass. Since you can’t always count on the scenery -- I-70 through Kansas, anyone -- I rely on maps and road signs for inspiration. Probably we've all joked about the oddity of travel in America. For example, on the way to Chicago we found our selves passing signs to Manhattan, which got Betsy pretty excited. The Statue of Liberty, Broadway shows! Unfortunately our deadline kept us from that detour. I did point out that it might take us on a much shorter trip to Manhattan, Kansas. But that plainly didn’t interest her at all. It seems our family has driven through Kansas way too many times already. (No offense to Kansans intended.)

In the same way, from my own little corner of the country I can travel quite easily to Egypt. Memphis and the pyramid are just a few minutes away. A little over an hour takes me to Cuba Landing where, presumably, refugees regularly sneak ashore under cover of night. I don’t begrudge them. I do, however resent our proximity to Paris. After I save up all my quarters and finally visit France I'll come back proudly sporting my Eiffel Tower T-shirt and carrying my Gay Paree hand bag and no one will even notice. They’ll just assume I spent a few days in Paris, TN. How deflating! The same would be true of Milan, Moscow, London, Hayti, (sic) and Belfast. Kind of makes you wonder why we Americans bother going overseas at all, doesn’t it?

Leaving aside the towns named by people either homesick or completely lacking in imagination, I prefer the Illinois towns of Eureka, Goodfield, Sweetwater, and Fidelity. What treasure made the towns people cry Eureka? How special is that good field, really? If I swing by Sweetwater for a quick drink will it taste better than the freezing cold, uncontaminated water coming straight from a Rocky Mountain stream? Is that even possible? Could it taste sweeter than the natural artesian that comes out of my taps everyday? I’ve drunk a lot of water from a lot of places around the world, and some of it was nasty. If all that water was lined up side by side would Sweetwater's win? I’d like to think so, but I have my doubts... As interesting as the town’s I’ve just named are, the one that intrigues me the most is Fidelity. Just think of it --Fidelity. Did the women of the town get to pick the name? Or the preachers? Is naming a town Fidelity a warning to any riff raff to keep moving? What happens to fools who don’t live up to the name? Puzzles like this give one something to think about on those long car rides.

My home state of Colorado is blessed with strong sounding town names that describe its history and terrain. Copper Mountain, Leadville, Marble, Gypsum, Granite and Silverton speak to our mining past. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that high in the Rockies one finds the National Mining Hall of Fame. Well, alright, so it did surprise me. Obviously I need to brush up on my Colorado maps. With towns called Aspen, Snowmass, Evergreen, Crested Butte and Elk Springs, who needs a glossy tourist brochure? Add Gem Village, Whitewater, Grand Lake, and my personal favorite, Tin Cup, and I’m not sure why I ever left. Personally, I think Colorado has the best town names anywhere, but I’m forced to admit some people believe the honors should go elsewhere. One of those people is a certain southern governor’s wife. Meeting a television producer who had several successful shows set in the South, the governor’s wife encouraged him to research the names in her state for the setting of his next project. And why not?
Choosing from Apple Spur, Lone Sassafras, Pickles Gap and Tomato, Flippin and Toad Suck, (please don’t lick the toads, they’re hallucinogenic), Violet Hill, Frog Town and Tulip can’t be easy. One wonders how he made that decision. Why, soon after that meeting, was the television world introduced to Burt Reynolds and Marilu Henner in Evening Shade, Arkansas? What do you think of the choice? Better yet, what would Stephen Vincent Benet say? You decide.

"You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee."

Read Well, Friend

Let me know what you think, share some of you favorite place names with the rest of us, or nominate your favorite state for the honor of Best Names.

Also, I want to thank you for your patience and support during this difficult time. I am doing a little better, and I hope to be up to full speed again soon.


In Memory of My Beloved Bill... 29 Years are Not Enough.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in de
ath, O Lord, abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me

William Lauren Kelsey
April 15, 1958 -- August 12, 2008

(Abide with Me composed by Henry Francis Lyte in 1847.)



The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Last night I picked up the book my daughter has been urging me to read for several weeks, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows. At what I hope will turn out to be one of the most difficult points in life (there are worse things than approaching the one year mark of the early and unexpected death of your spouse, but I pray I’ll never experience them), I lay in a strange bed at a friend’s, literally unable to endure night in my own home. Consumed by emotions I’m completely at loss to identify or explain, I finally opened the pages of the book, and began to read.

I could tell as I read that Mary Ann Shaffer was a lover of books. (Annie Barrows is her niece and a childrens author. She stepped in at her aunt’s invitation to complete revisions when Mrs. Shaffer became to ill to finish them herself.) Mary Ann had worked as a bookseller, librarian and editor. A marvelous story teller, she also wrote prolifically, but never managed to produce something that satisfied her. Her standards, it seems, were high.
The Guernsey Literary… Society, set in a post WWII Channel Island, began in 1967 (according to her obituary) or 1980 (her publisher), as a biography of the wife of polar explorer Robert Scott. Disappointed by a research dead end in Cambridge, she took a side trip to Guernsey. Socked in at the airport by dense fog, she did what any sensible person would do, and looked for something to read. Here a bit more mystery arises. Was there, as her obituary relates, a library at the airfield, or was it simply a bookstore, as her publisher claims? I suppose it doesn’t matter, but I really hope it was a library. In the literary society’s Guernsey a branch library would have been installed to benefit all who passed through. Mrs. Maugery would have insisted. Whatever the source of Jersey Under the Jack Boot, it and other books on the Nazi Invasion of the Channel Islands fascinated her. That interest eventually allowed her to fulfill her lifelong ambition to “Write a book that someone would like enough to publish.” When her book club convinced her to do just that she started to write seriously. She was about 70 at the time.

To some reviewers Dawsey Adams and rest of the accidental literary society seem far-fetched, too quirky to be true. I didn’t find them strange, maybe because I grew up in a rather remote, rural area myself. Ingenuity, mutual reliance and eccentricity are almost required in a small isolated society. Shared hardships seem to makes those qualities stronger. My grandmother’s family made soup out of straw during the great famine that eventually drove them from the Ukraine to NE Colorado. In similar circumstances Potato Peel Pie sounds pretty clever to me. Had she known of it, Great Grandma Bauder might have asked for the recipe.

The deprivations people suffer in the book were very real in England and Europe during WWII. The tiny island in the English Channel actually was occupied, and their children were evacuated before the invasion, some never to be reunited with their families. One book reviewer mockingly asked if no one on Guernsey at that time ever read a trashy novel. I don’t imagine they did. Books would have been burned for fuel soon after the wood supply ran out. Guernsey’s bookseller, we are told, boarded up his shop because people are buying up his treasures to use as fuel. Only a book valued highly by its owner might have been saved, and only by someone as strong minded as Amelia Maugery, the supplier of the society's books. Before she wrote her novel, Mrs. Shaffer spent years researching the Nazi occupation of the Channels and corresponding with many of its survivors. Whether created by the author’s imagination or drawn from documented facts, Guernsey and it’s people are real to me. Maybe because of what they lived through the literary society member’s letters don’t just portray facts, but truths as well. “’When my son, Ian, died at El Alamein…’” Amelia Maugery writes, “‘visitors offering their condolences, thinking to comfort me, said "Life goes on." What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn’t. It’s death that goes on.’”

It’s true that
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is endearing, charming, smart and joyful, as critics have said. If that’s all it were it would be enough. We could use more well written books like that to lift our spirits and make us smile, couldn’t we? It was more than that for me last night, though. It didn’t just lift my spirits, it comforted me, gave me some confidence and a bit of hope. My daughter said the she felt that, too, when she read it. I don’t want to sound mystical, or somehow imply that The Guernsey Literary… Society is a profound work. It isn’t and I’m glad. But when a book can tell its story honestly, with real characters and situations that feel true, it gives us more than a great read. It gives a piece of life. Why that means so much to me at this moment, I honestly don’t know. But it does.

Read, and sleep, well, Friend


Zombie Haiku

While I'm waiting to figure out what's going on with my computer, I thought I'd make sure you've heard about the poetry contest taking place at The Bookshelf Muse. I'm not much of a poet and I know next to nothing about zombies, but I'm sure there are a few of you out there who do, and you know who you are. There's a link on my sidebar to take you directly to the blog, if you like. At the very least check out what's been submitted so far. There were a couple I found quite... tasty. I was afraid to ask what the prize for the best poem is, you'll just have to ask yourself.

Oh, and by the way, don't forget today is National Book Lovers Day.

Read Well, Friend


Gratitude to Old Teachers

Water that once could take no human weight-
We were students then- holds up our feet,
And goes on ahead of us for a mile.
Beneath us the teachers, and around us the stillness."

Henry Bly,
Gratitude to Old Teachers
- In honor of all those returning back to school this month: students, teachers, administrators and every one who supports education.

Read well, Friend


The Trouble with Bookstores

It started innocently enough. Now that I’m home again I don’t have access to WiFi, and my kids assure me I have the slowest dial-up in the country. They might just be right, so yesterday I spent quite a while in a local WiFi restaurant with my computer. After an hour or so I decided the chair was just too uncomfortable and adjourned to Starbucks, with their lovely stuffed chairs that are better than the ones I have at home. On my way there, my eye was caught by shelves of books in the store next door. Ah, yes, Applegarth's Books, the new used bookstore. I’d never stopped in there, I owed it a visit. To my surprise it was big. It was clean. It was well-lit and well organized. I was in love. The problem, as you may know, with falling in love with a new bookstore is that then you fall in love with the books in them, probably a lot of the books. And that means you'll spend the money you were going to use on a venti iced Chai Latte with extra cinnamon. Also, you now have to find space on a shelf, or a table, or the floor, or someplace to put them. You also have to give up all the other things you wanted to do today, like vacuuming the coils behind your refrigerator. Is it worth it, you ask yourself? Do I even have to answer?

It was bookstore love at first sight. I managed to control myself, however. I showed great restraint. I put back books I really wanted, really needed. Eventually I narrowed it down to eight. I found my first volume right inside the door. A cloth bound hardback with green printing on a cream spine caught my eye immediately. My favorite colors.
The Near Woods by Millard C. Davis needed a look. I passionate about books on natural history, especially if they’re about trees and woods. A few peeks inside convinced me it should be mine. Thank you, Murrey David Goldberg, for passing it on to me. It was a steal. Around the corner I found several shelves of books about writing. They yielded Novel Ideas, (Cute title, no?), in which ‘Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process‘. Two of my favorite things to read, essays and books about writing. Definitely a keeper. In the same section I found What’s in a Word?, one of those books about the source of common sayings and names. Opening it randomly I was taken aback to see bassinet in the military section. As a grandmother to be, I had to read on. It seems the term started in the Middle Ages when the French developed a bowl shaped helmet. As it resembled a basin they christened it bassinet. Somehow, passing down from French soldiers to Sir Walter Scott, folks decided the similarly shaped baskets their infants slept in should also be called bassinets. If you don’t find that fascinating, well I just don’t know what to do with you.

The most exciting find of the day was a beautifully preserved, probably never even taken off the shelf, copy of
How To Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. A classic first published in 1940, I’ve wanted it for years, but for some reason I never actually bought it. Now I know why. This absolutely perfect copy, published in 1972, has been waiting for me. It’s pristine, feels absolutely right in my hands, and cost me 6 dollars. It doesn’t get any better than this. The next books I picked out are two old favorites -- The Count of Monte Cristo, (Dumas), and Howard Pile’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Pile's is the version I grew up with, a big green cloth-bound book with occasional color illustrations, all managing to make men in tights look pretty good. Actually, I didn’t pay too much attention to that part; I was much more interested in joining Robin and Friar Tuck and Allen a Dale. We would all live outside in Sherwood Forest, hunting and cooking, singing songs and telling stories. We’d wash our clothes in the river, and play tricks on rich, pompous travelers. What a grand life! I’d been camping in the Rockies, and I knew camping could be dirty and smelly, but this was Sherwood Forest. It would be perfect.

I bought
Jude the Obscure because my daughter-in-law told me to. That's not quite like it sounds. I’d just spent 8 weeks there, and we both love reading, writing, and talking about them both. (We both love my son, too, but that’s neither here nor there.) I mentioned at some point that I’d never managed to finish anything by Thomas Hardy because his books seemed soooo depressing. She recommended Jude; she was even pretty sure I’d actually like it, so I’ll give it a whirl. Just for her. I made myself stop shopping then. I had enough books to keep me reading for a while, and I'd spent as much as I could afford to help the store survive. I was done. Then something magical happened to me on the way to the register. My eye was drawn away by a familiar black and orange binding. The boldly lettered title jumped out at me. The Power and the Glory. It had been so long, too long in fact, since I’d thought of the whiskey priest and his struggle with organized religion, God, and most of all, himself. That’s why I ended up walking out of the store with nine books and no regrets. I’ll find space on a shelf, probably by taking some not so worthy books to the store and trading them in. For more books of course. It could be worse. I could collect bassinets. Imagine how much space I'd need then.

Read Well, Friend

Novel Ideas by Shoup and Denman, What's in a Word? by Garrison, and The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.)


Rain, Rain, Go Away

"The rain is raining all around, it falls on field and tree, it rains on the umbrellas here and on the ships at sea." And it is raining. My front door was open, airing out the house that had been shut for a month, the big trees in the yard filling the screen with deep shades of rich green. Then I glanced up to see steady stripes of rain falling straight to the ground. As Thoreau wrote, "The scattered drops are falling fast and thin," so quietly I almost missed them. Now it's coming more heavily, accompanied by occasional thunder. It is the perfect summer downpour. Once it's finished the humidity will probably be even higher, but right now I don't care. I love rain.

I love a late summer shower, like the one that even now is silently polishing leaves and grass to a lighter green. Birds love them, too. They sing through the bits of thunder and momentary downpours. I expect they love the rain even more than I do. To them it means fresh water and worms crawling out of the soggy soil, offering themselves as a tasty banquet on the grass and driveway. Frogs love the rain. The fat one who lives under one side of my little garden pond croaks his appreciation of the fresh water flowing into his pool, the one he shares with some small lilies and a brass frog. The frog is a fancy of mine. It has a little valve in it's mouth that water is supposed to flow out of, and a slightly obscene one on the other end that the kids tease me about. I just nestle him into a flower and say no more. It's not his fault he was created that way. He's meant to spit water, of course, but I chose him for his size and shape. I don't know what my real frog considers him -- some kind of weirdo neighbor perhaps. The kind best ignored. I do know that they sit out during rain showers, apparently enjoying themselves. Rain is so wonderful, who doesn't love it?

I don't. I hate the rain, especially the long drawn out ones in October and November. They fall day after day, graying out the sun, making us drive with our wipers on perpetual swish-swish. They soak the ground, saturating it and clashing with the already high water table, a battle of two unalterable forces. Every day there is more. It makes permanent puddles on our lawns, rivers in our driveways, and turns the deep drainage gully by the street into a canal. The heavy clay that masquerades as soil in my yard becomes a slippery, sloppy goo that permanently stains my sneakers and socks. My porch fills up with pots of perennials, tiny trees desperate to get into ground and start growing, and my beloved shrubs. Digging and planting are impossible. Seeds will wash away, and the dirt can't be moved or even walked on, as that turns the clay into an adobe-like brick. So I watch the rain and complain. Every spring and every fall it torments us with it's capriciousness. I've never read a poem in which a gardener laments the rain, rails about the unfairness of its timing, curses the way it willfully keeps him from his planting and tending. No poet appears to have tackled the subject. Perhaps thats because gardeners are too busy to write poetry; they're all inside planning the minute details of next year's vegetable gardens or their new, expensive irrigation systems. As for poets, their gardens probably die in the first heatwave. Who can remember to tend the herbs when one is tending the muse instead?

Yes, I definitely hate the rain. Longfellow knows what I feel. "The day is cold, and dark, and dreary, it rains, and the wind is never weary... Into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary." Farmers hate the rain, too, rather like gardeners. Most of the year they pray for it but when fall arrives, with the approaching harvests ripening, they swear at weather forecasters who even dare say 'precipitation'. Every tiny cloud is examined and discussed in minutest detail. The space shuttle could be cleared for take-off, but crops at harvest time are much more demanding. A bit of rain can spoil a year's hard work. Too many ruined crops and another family loses their land. Technological advances aside, farmers are still at the mercy of weather. But let's not forget about the biggest haters of rain -- children. One of the first chants they learn pleads "Rain, rain, go away." How they wish it would! Enough to spend an entire day by the window, imploring endlessly.

Then again, I
do love the rain. "I thought I had forgotten, but it all came back again to-night with the first ... thunder in a rush of rain." (Spring Rain by Sara Teasdale.) I hope I'm never so far gone that I grouse about summertime rain. Here in the SE it can make a day livable. The low gray clouds stop the burning sun. Rain drives temperatures down. Even a few extra degrees of coolness are appreciated, especially at night, when I stand on my back deck watching the storm clouds forced in by northwest winds. The a/c won't have to be turned down quite so far tonight, and the house may be a little cooler in the morning when I get up. It's no secret that farmers love rain. It saves them from having to irrigate. It fills wells, replenishes aquifers and rinses the grit from their skin as they ride their tractors. Everyone knows children love the rain, too, don't they? They open their mouths to it, jump in its puddles, fling mud at each other, and become drenched to their bones. I like to do those things, too. Even rain gear is fun to wear, as A. A. Milne knows. "John had Great Big Waterproof Boots on; John had a Great Big Waterproof Hat." The name of the poem? Happiness. It's there right now -- outside my door waiting for me. A lovely August rain, and something even better -- happiness. Who knew?

Read Well, Friend

Rain, by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Summer Rain by Thoreau; A Rainy Day by Longfellow.)