Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Years' Eve: Billy In Trouble

New Years Eve is usually presented as a time of champagne, carousing in good (or bad) company, and soul kisses at midnight. The following excerpt is taken from a novella called BILLY IN TROUBLE. Billy is a selfish, foul-mouthed, often drunken student who's been sent by his parents to live with religious relatives, in the icy far north of the state, as a punishment. His uncle and aunt go to bed early on New Year's Eve. Billy creeps out hoping to locate some company and excitement, and finds more than he bargained for:

"I climbed out the window, crossed the frozen lawn and began walking down the dark road. I had no plan. There was no one around me. It was lonely. But about a mile down the road I could hear the howling of the wild dog pack Joe had told me about. They just raged around the country and tore a living out of the land with their vicious teeth. A minute later they howled again, closer. Joe had told me what they did to deer: ate them alive and spat out the crunchy bits. I began to picture myself, disembowelled and gobbled up while those big northern stars coldly looked down.

"I was turning to run back to Joe's when headlights surged over the hill, then an old Chevrolet followed with the backend souped up high and shouts and loud music coming from it and even legs hanging out the open windows. I almost wept with joy. The wild dogs weren't going to get me, not this time; but also, I'd been missing kids my age, and here they came, roaring and pillaging right down the hill.

"They knew I was the sheriff's nephew Billy, and I knew they were from those crazy Finn families that lived back in the woods. They were about my age and there were seven of them, ice-blond like ghosts would be if ghosts were born Finns--and they were all related, brothers and sisters and cousins. I never did get it straight. We were all jammed in together. They were all bigger than I was, including the girls, a white-headed giant tribe, and they were at the stage of drunk where you're blazing with the flammable delight of existence. They had names like Helga and Elga and Friedelund. It seemed they'd been having a whale of a time all evening and hadn't finished yet.

"We drove flashing fast like a comet cuts through stars down those deserted country roads, tossing bottles of whiskey and peppermint schnapps back and forth and glugging out of them, stomping our boots and doing some kind of seated jig to the rock music hard enough to pop the rivets in our jeans. Gradually I noticed that several of my new friends had teeth missing, a scar where normally an eyebrow would be, or a nose mashed toward an ear. One of the boys had what looked like a serious head injury, and he laughed about how he'd been piling wood with his dad that afternoon and the old guy thought he was too slow and threw a log at his head to wake him up.

"There was no heat in the car, and you could see the moving road through holes in the floor. There was duct tape over every inch of the car seats, and old and new fast-food wrappers and empty bottles were jammed into every crevice One of the girls dandled me on her knee like an infant, she was that big, and then the old Van Halen song "Jump!" came on and she suddenly jogged me up and down hard with her knee in time to the music so the top of my head kept smashing into the car ceiling. I hoped this was some kind of primeval Finnish seduction. I was timidly making the first moves to feel up her tremendous chest when she whomped me hard with her fist like a mother bear and just about knocked my head off. Even though I feared I wouldn't survive the car ride I laughed with everybody else.

"I never knew kids that were so much fun, until I asked if somebody had a doobie. Then all of a sudden they fell silent, and seven pairs of icy, crystal-pale eyes looked at me with whiskey-bombed malice.

"We don't use them dirty drugs," the drunkest one said in a quiet, deadly voice. They all leaned in toward me, the girls too, clenching their paws into fists, and I began to gag and retch wildly. I was afraid I would faint from terror and these boys and girls, who seemed to exist out of time, would do something terrible to me--maybe eat me, and my bones would join the fast-food wrappers and empty bottles.

"He's throwing up, he'll ruin the car!" somebody shouted, and as I was seized by enormous hairy hands and flung out the door of the moving car I heard the radio solemnly and sweetly begin to play "Lest old acquaintance be forgot..." The car peeled out smoking. The dog pack began howling again.

(excerpt from "Billy in Trouble", a novella)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Wedding: Conjuring For The Bride and Groom, a poem

A wedding is a curing ceremony.
The priest formally disarms the dark
of spooks, red teeth and loneliness,
but the rest of us know
white satin is so frail, and fate the guest
that's always hungriest and thirstiest.
My ears quiver like tuning forks
to these spells and pledges. I feel us all,
mother, father, sister, brother, friend,
conjuring safety and charmed zones,
fields of honey for the pair.

What could ever be safe enough?
Because they know nothing, nothing.
Furiously we spin from straw
a favorite saint crowning each bedpost,
a Cossack with sword guarding the door,
huge wingspreads unfurling warmth and light
over the baby steps of the couple.
May they take care of their lives.

We can only hope. But this morning
through battering sleet you couldn't stop
with a train, cathedral stone
flowered into biblical beauty.
And at the night dance
we saw the bride's ordinary human hair
turn to a mane of stars.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

EATING THE BLACK RADISH: a winter poem, by Margaret Benbow

"For general winter misery, pioneers used to cut a hole in a big old dirty black radish, and fill it with honey. They let it rot on a plate for a few days, then ate it."
Eleanor Randolph

A big black torpedo of sour and sweet
blows open the airways and routs them out,
old gorgeous ghosts waving their arms like Ivan the Terrible
reeling through the scarlet corridors of the sinuses
and also thoughts born on white nights
of a seven-month winter, small as nose-hairs
but each hair an iron root,
and mental fumes rising from bogs of cabbage soup,
icy firefalls of brandy, so that a man can hardly find
the tight growth lines of his own mind--

all blown sky-high by the black radish bomb:
you're lightning-struck, surprised to be alive:
then ribs of the brain-cave flare outward
to gold air and sun.

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Maximus, I Want To Have Your Baby!"

Many years ago, I happened to be reading a trashy showbiz rag when I noticed a photo spread of two poor, struggling, raggedy young actors. One of them was blinking at the camera as though he'd never seen one before. Maybe he hadn't. He was strikingly called Jude Law, a cool name like two bold calligraphic slashes. The other unknown actor suffered under a dumpy, commonplace, plumber's-mate kind of name: Russell Crowe. God, you had to feel sorry for the guy. Who would ever remember that? The caption underneath the two grainy pictures asked: WHO IS THE HOTTEST? I took a close look, and then I thought: Are you freaking kidding me?

Here we had young Jude Law, with flossy gold hair and lips like a Southern belle. I don't want to be mean, and it's not his fault, but Jude Law looks like a girl. He always has. These days he looks like an older girl.

And over here we had the strapping young Aussie/New Zealand buck Russell Crowe: laughing at the camera as though he didn't even care that he was obscure. His chestnut curls were in manly disarray, but what counted, then and later, is that he's got something extra in his face. Maybe it's the blood of his Maori great-grandparent, maybe plentiful pints of gleaming beer, or a brain lobe he'd shaken loose with all his thrashing and head-banging in his youthful band. There's a liveliness in his eye.

Crowe's rise to stardom and his filmography are well-known. I'll focus instead on the tribulations of his faithful fans, including me. It's not all peaches and cream, being a Russell faniac. Because the good news is that the man literally breathes talent and fearlessness and a robust appetite for life out of his pores. But the bad news is that if he can get his tit caught in a wringer in public, he will.

There was the time during the BAFTA awards that a producer edited out Russell's recital of a sonnet in his acceptance speech. Russell furiously threatened the man: "You'll never work in Hollywood again!" Doubtless the producer would have wet himself in fear, except that he was an Englishman who'd never worked in Hollywood, and never wanted to. This incident probably cost Crowe the Best Actor Oscar for A BRILLIANT MIND (2001).

Next Russell was vilified in the press when he bounced a phone off a desk clerk's head. Russell was in a New York hotel, lonely, passionately missing his wife and baby Crowe, and the goddamn phone wouldn't work. WE understood perfectly, but the police led him away in handcuffs. Not every actor can rise above handcuffs, but Russell was unfazed. He looked as though he was planning what to have for lunch. Eventually there was a settlement with the desk clerk, well in excess of $100,000. A few more customer complaints like that, and the guy could retire to Palm Beach. "In Australia, we would have settled it over a beer," said Russell.

Then there was the interview I saw, where the newslady was scolding Russell for being on a different continent when his wife Danielle gave birth to their second child. "Oh," he said with a sunny smile, "it will make her happy to get back in shape so she can be Magic Girl for me when we see each other again."

Whoa! In America, for some reason, a guy isn't considered a good father unless he's not only present in the delivery room, but practically has his nose up the birth canal urging on the crowning baby while simultaneously capturing professional-style footage on his video camera. So Russell's remark enraged the Birth Fascists. They thought he was commanding Danielle to lose the lard so he wouldn't be repulsed by her balloon bazooms and gross baby fat when he finally wandered in. But WE knew that both Russell and Danielle were gym rats, and this was probably her wish more than his. And if they hoped to be Magic Boy and Magic Girl together, with a newborn and a toddler, well, good luck with that!

Personally I believe that Russell's true character is within shouting distance of his most famous role, the noble but gentle warrior Maximus Decimus Meridius in GLADIATOR. Maximus is brave, but also wise and tender. And if one dropdead gorgeous killing machine is called for, he is the man for the job. In fact, a geneticist might think that Maximus should be allowed to father all the babies in the world. But there is one tiny, tiny hitch in his behavior in GLADIATOR that troubled this faniac and, for awhile, made me lose faith in my Maximus. (I first worried about this in my October 12 post, WHAT WERE THEY THINKING??)

We're all familiar with that moment in the movie when all of the gladiators are in the Coliseum, in the death ring, and feeling very nervous since Siberian tigers and Roman legions and spiked chariots and numchuk-swinging dwarves are about to descend on their trembling enslaved asses. It's at this moment, not before, that Maximus casually asks the others, "Were any of you guys ever in the army? Because it would really help us if we can use our old battle strategies..." It turns out that they are old soldiers and they do snap back into fighting form, and within two minutes Maximus is taking his victory gallop on a white stallion around the Coliseum, prancing over his enemies' corpses. But does he deserve to?

Why, I worried, did he wait until this juncture to ask that question? Wasn't it important? Hadn't they all been together for days in their cells with nothing to do but chew the fat? What if, with the Coliseum's giant tigers' saberteeth breathing down their necks they'd answered, "Actually, I was a potato farmer from Thrace," "I gave the Sultan foot massages in Turkey," etc.

It was troubling. Had Maximus done something dumb? But the fine veteran blogger Cal happened to see my post, and was kind enough to explain Maximus's thinking. Those gladiators were not talkers, even at the best of times. They were seriously mad at the world. And they would not have taken kindly to some big dude shimmying up to them in their cells wanting to practice frenzied battle rollovers with them. "And just let me oil you up a little bit so those nasty breastplates don't chafe!"

Yup, makes sense. Maximus would have known better. So now I'm a true believer again, and can watch GLADIATOR with a tranquil heart.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Daydream For The Partner Of A Picky Eater

Do you have a partner who tortures you by turning his nose up at all the magnificent dinners (banquets!) you've prepared for him over the years? Well, at least you can get revenge in your dreams.)

Seize your picky eater by his birdy shoulders,
head-butt him with your stony righteous forehead,
nail him in the eye with your eye and snap

Tie him to his chair.
Then roll up wads of angel food cake
and mash them down his throat.
Forcefeed his gaping jaw
slabs of fat bacon,
green pearl strings of peas fresh from the pod,
all the things you're just dying to see him eat.
Tromp crazy-eyed around the kitchen
as you whip up dozen-egg fat-farmer omelets
spraying yolks to the ceiling,
and grease them down his gullet with
big ladles of redeye gravy.

Let a bagel be his belly ring.
Paint his face with daisy cream cheeses,
cram candied pineapple cloying in his armpit hair.
Grow wilder,
peg bananas in his ears,
stuff stink-cheese up his nose,
work guacamole dip through his hair
like ice-green styling mousse.

Finally, crown him with a birthday cake
as big as a tractor tire,
frost it with a pouffy moon cloud of marshmallow whip
and on it perch a single cherry
red, fat, and sweet.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cabin Fever Frenzy!!!

Isn't it time Jay Leno found some material about Wisconsinites in winter other than fat jokes? It's completely untrue that there's nothing to do up here in winter except sit around and watch our butts get big. There are many fun things that add sparkle to our seven long, icy, blizzard-battered months. Our winter only SEEMS to be excruciatingly crappy.

For example, my friend Emma says she always stops shaving her legs around Halloween and doesn't pick up a razor again until lilac time. She says there's a morbid fascination in watching her "coat" grow out. She claims that by New Years, she could coax her leg hairs into neat little braids and put ribbons on them, like you would for a prize-winning show pony.

Speaking of leg hairs, it was in February that a highly intelligent, well-respected in-law of mine set a match to the stubble on his lower legs "to see," as he put it to his wife, "what would happen." His theory was that the hairs wouldn't burn. Well, they got really hot and burst into flame. He hastily put out the fire and then had to listen to his wife wonder aloud for several minutes why an up-and-coming young executive, often consulted for his mature wisdom, savvy and business acumen, would light up his leg. He replied huffily, in an offended voice, that he had considered it a CONTROLLED burn.

I recall it was in the winter that some people in the area brought several whoopee cushions down to the street at midnight, and jumped up and down on them. These folks were originally from Illinois, so nobody was surprised. The cushions were LOUD. I woke bolt upright from a beautiful dream about the arctic wilderness. My first horrified impression was that a herd of flatulent polar bears had invaded the foyer, passing gas as they came.

Friend Sam dedicates his cold months to eating food that not only sticks to the ribs but encases them in a puffy flotation vest of blubber. He says this is nature's way. Sam wallows in the butter tubs of many nations, but said that the Land of Braveheart stands alone as a noble monument to hard fat. Scotland is the home of the deep-fried Mars bar. Scots also believe that pizza slices are improved by being boiled in tallow, eaten with scalding grease running down the chin, and chased with pints of bitter dark beer. Sam's favorite export, though, is the king of all pub food, the Scotch Egg. And you can make it at home, if you remember than an authentic Scotch Egg does not use fresh ingredients.

You take a hard-boiled egg that's been sitting around awhile, peel it, and gum it all around with odorous or even downright stinky ground-up swine's private parts. It shouldn't smell good, and if it does, you've failed. At this stage, a cowardly lily-livered cook might fear botulism; but the strong ones forge ahead, like Braveheart would. Roll the egg in seasoned bread crumbs from a dubious old loaf that's been kicked around the barnyard and peed on by cats. Then you deep-fry it in grease you've inherited from your old granny. Drain the egg on a funky old grocery bag that's been moistened by some unspeakable leak. Then Yay, the waiting is over! From now on, it's all BON APPETIT!

This kingly Egg, this majestic cannonball, had 1500 calories, a paunchy 300 grams of fat, and single-handedly acts on an artery like a potato rammed into an exhaust pipe. Sam thinks this is good, because "it keeps the heat in." He eats them all winter, with pickles and beer. "Beer is food," as he puts it.

Then in the spring, Sam advises, you need to clean all the winter crap out of your system with an old-fasioned but effective remedy. Take a really big dose of castor oil, one that would drop a moose, or blast you into outer space. You may feel a little bit weak, disoriented and dazed and not be able to remember your own name afterward, but you'll be as fresh and sweet as those sunny spring crocuses pushing up through all the ancient rotted tires in your yard. And that can only be good!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Good Dogs

Until we got our dog Britt, I had a harsh Darwinian theory about how to tell a good dog from a bad one. As I saw it, the best canine achievement took place in 1925 in Alaska when relays of noble dog teams brought diptheria serum over a thousand miles to Nome, to save the children from an epidemic. Could YOUR dog brave blizzards, shattered ice floes, fight off polar bears? Could he save the children, or not? He couldn't?

Tough, pal. My Skipper could have gotten the serum to Nome on his head, smiling all the way.

I grew up with Skipper. He was a large, stunningly handsome border collie, with the wisdom of a Yoda. I didn't have to bother with kindergarten. Everything I needed to know, I learned from Skipper. In many family photos, guests are standing around looking at him admiringly. As I recall, they were saying things like, "What a great dog!" "Where can I get a dog like that?" and even "Why do you get the best dog? Why not me?"

Many years passed. Skipper went up to Good Dog Valhalla. And one summer afternoon, we bought a tiny shetland sheepdog puppy. She could easily fit in my hand. She would have been outweighed by a dinner roll. Yet she already had a massively well-developed vision of herself as Crown Princess Britt.

Her reign began a few minutes after we bought her. For the ride home, I'd brought a frayed old towel for her to rest on (and pee on, if need be). She looked at it in horror. "This crummy rag?" she was plainly thinking. "Why, I wouldn't touch it with BORROWED puke. Is this any way for my subjects, I mean owners, to treat the darling little sheepdog?"

She quickly noticed, however, that I was wearing a beautiful Scottish wool shawl. In fact, the shawl cost so much that it was accompanied by literature to persuade chumps to buy it. A brochure on slick paper informed me that the wool was "harvested from happy sheep, bathed in the silken, sparkling waters of Loch Lomond, woven by cottagers dedicated to their ancient craft."

When Britt nudged the shawl with her cheek, she began jumping up and down, yipping ecstatically. "Oh, thank God, they got it right after all. Happy wool that cost an arm and a leg,what could be more appropriate for adorable me?" Firmly overcoming my feeble struggles to keep my prize, she nestled in its folds, sighing with relief.

So I gave up the shawl. When we got home, she indicated with certain averted glances and delicate hesitations that she considered the puppy kibble inferior. By that time, it seemed completely natural to rush off to buy this graceful little creature the finest shaved deli beef and tender niblets of peachfed ham, luxuries which the humans in the household had never ventured to buy for themselves.

Things went on like that. And in the years that followed, unkind friends would sometimes ask me where Britt would fall in the mushing-the-serum-to-Nome scale. I'd answer that it was only Britt's body that was small; in spirit, she was an unstoppable Amazonian Goddess Queen. I would tell these doubters that I could easily see her standing on top of the rushing dog sled like a tiny lion, keeping the serum warm with her royal shawl. Her ears would be up and her dark eyes outshining the whiteout storms, and throughout the long days and nights she would never rest as she kept everybodies' spirits up by yapping lustily all the way to Nome.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Life's A Feast, and Sometimes You Have to Eat Big!

I don't know why it is that setting your teeth into a well-browned hunk of hog makes you feel good, but it works for me. For Thanksgiving and Christmas I want meat, and I don't mean a measly, puny, stunted portion, either. I want big, maddeningly fragrant mounds of steer, hog or bird, or maybe all three, drenched with gravy.

Holiday meats should be baked until all you have to do is gently nudge some critical joint, and the whole thing sweetly falls apart into neat little sheaves. This meat is not burned, it is charmed, and you can eat right through its coral bones.

I wonder what spiritual eunuch first banned "cooking odors" from the home? I want to smell that heavy hunters-and-gatherers food baking. Morning of the banquet day you put the standing rib roast or the big boss bird in the oven. If it's a turkey, I will have dipped a length of cheesecloth into a pound of melted butter and snugly wrapped up that tom; he's now our big gilded turkey baby. In the next hours, ragingly delicious smells expand in golden waves from the kitchen.

Then the best time of all comes: you sit down to eat the food you love the best, with those you love the best. A glass or two of crystal white wine, or potent red goes well with this--wines that are the soul of grape, so that they seem to kiss you back when you smack them. At the end, there are berry pies nestled in buttery crusts. In our family, there's also a hundred-year tradition of serving candied nuts in the same gorgeous china bowl. I'm sure you know there are saints' bones that are handled with less reverence than we lavish on that bowl.

Then everyone alternates sipping his or her dark, fine coffee and nibbling the brown-sugar-crusted nuts of the field. We look around the table at these faces that we love, and every one of us (even the agnostics) thinks, "Thank you, God!"

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


(I wrote this poem, and it STILL scares me!)

Vampire Meets Maiden

Old cruncher stalks the midnight prize. He knows
she's out there, a juicy warmblood
whose neck is his perfect small world:
white earth of flesh, rock of bone,
and luscious vein tributaries
sleek with red. He turns a corner

and there she is, a lone lamb-girl
strolling home with dreaming gait.
"Look at the darling stranger," he thinks,
"so adorably helpless,
and her tender meat, soon to be mine.
God bless the meek, who die so young.
Will she beg, cry? Her terrified eyes implore?"
His claws unsheathe with switchblade clicks.
His sideburns swell, his pulses cry NOW.

She looks up
and there at last he is, the dark real thing.
Slowly, voluptuously, he bends his lip
to her nectar neck, drives his nails
through the lace at her breast, and feels---

"SWEET JESUS!" he screams in his head.
But already he dangles from her iron wrist
like a dolly. He's eaten alive
by her eyes, steel brilliants
in a hairy angel face. She licks his cheek slowly
like the sweetest plum, breathes
"Marry me, bloodsucker-boy?" Her wolf-teeth gleam.
He thinks, "I'm dead." She bounds away for home.

He's lashed across her body like a dead rabbit
as the werewolf bride
springs to her den
over the dark earth, through wind and storm.
Mashed to his ear is a terrible nuptial drum:
her heart's
boom. Boom. BOOM!!!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Queen of Sheba Chocolate Cake: Search No Further

When I was a child, cake was supposed to be dry. If your morsel of devil's food left a smear on the plate, it was considered a disgusting sight. In fact, there was a white angel's food recipe that was so parched, so arid, my sisters and I called it Choke Cake. You had to gasp down a big tumbler of water with each cupcake, just to stay even.

There's a whole generation of recovering Choke Cake victims who've made it a life quest to find the perfect moist chocolate cake. It seems to them that the right sweet dark balm, sheathed in buttercream, would definitely evaporate all nightmares of the desert, and maybe sort out their problems in general. How depressed can you be when you've got paradisal ambrosia melting in your mouth? So they obsessively test recipes.

I'm always baffled by the instruction to add, say, a grand total of two tablespoons of cocoa to the batter. "What was that?" the eater might ask. "It flew by so fast and light, like a dream. Could it have been a whisper, a thread, a tiny seed of--of chocolate? Could the baker spare it?"

I am more the type of eater who wants her chocolate to suggest a herd of chocolate buffalo thundering toward her, who at the last minute magically condense into the delicious bite-sized niblet sitting on her fork. I want my chocolate cake to make me think of whole fields of cocoa, complete with brilliantly colored tropical birds and maybe workers glugging streams of Kahlua out of gleaming jugs. I like my chocolate intense.

I won't claim to have found the best recipe in all eternity. The Amish have it right, and only God can make a perfect chocolate cake. But the following recipe is a very good one indeed, every bit as fine as we earthlings need or deserve. Besides, I've gone through some grief for it.

I have a foodie friend who takes her baking very, very seriously. She says this cake is an imposter. Her nanny-like reproaches include the claim that a true Reine de Saba gateau (note her French) contains NO FLOUR, but it DOES include currants, cognac and ground nuts.

My response is that I've heard no complaint from the Queen of Sheba. She passed thousands of years ago, and is unlikely to be heard from now. Besides, I said, a cake SHOULD have flour in it. I like that glint of grain, a hint of earth. It reassures us that we aren't eating moon food.
So, this is:


1 egg
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1 softened stick butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup strong coffee

Put these ingredients in a big bowl in the order given. If you want to be fancy, substitute a couple tablespoons of Kahlua or Godiva liqueur for part of the coffee. Run your mixer on High for two minutes. Bake at 350 in a greased 9" by 9" pan. Begin checking carefully after twenty or twenty five minutes. DON'T LET THAT CAKE GET DRY!!
Frost with your favorite chocolate buttercream frosting. Again, you may choose to add a little Godiva or Kahlua for part of the liquid.

I like to serve the slices on thinnest rosebud china, with the pink cloth napkins...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Red Jacket: A Poem For My Mother

Kathryn Edmund Savides: September 23, 1915 - January 26, 2004
(Happy Birthday, Mom)


She was borne away by an engine ornate, fiery and black
on a rescue mission: to oversee an uncle's burial.
Huge Uncle Bill had been the King Kong
in our family fairy tale, bolting rows of sweet corn
and inhaling ingots of butter at Reunions,
beer bubbling out of his ears, Snickers bars up his nose,
his roaring beefy tongue popping with hotdogs
and Scottish curses, a new wife
sitting on his hand every few years.
Suddenly he'd exploded, his football-sized pigskin heart
split at every seam,

and our mother's calmness was frantically summoned
by the hysterical fourth wife.
Mom rode to the rescue on a dragon-black train,
bolt upright and pushing it all the way. Once there
she ordered the special, jumbo casket,
she blessed the giant's exploded corpuscles
with a gentle veil of white flowers,
dignified his furry pagan paunch in a kingly suit of black.
She directed when cables would lower his bulk,
heavy as a crusader in full mail, to the inner earth
where seethed gobs of minerals, and his ancestors' lacy bones.
Old wives' and young wives' cupid's-bow kisses
colored his big ornery face
ravishing shades of rose.
At the funeral lunch, the peach-fed oils of Mother's baked ham
soothed mourners' torn nerve endings.
The precise rectangles of her bar cookies
made them feel they could go on.

At home we shivered in coldest eclipse,
for she was the queen
of our tribe of dwarves.
At five years old
I fought my baby instinct to stroke her red jacket
in the closet where it glowed.

Finally one midnight the dragon brought her back.
Finally we could breathe her warm air again.
But I'd heard that corpses were green,
and rotten-bellied with fear
still had to ask.
Yes, she said, Uncle Bill had been a little green,
but he was now shining in Heaven,
silvery with Grandma and Father Abraham.
She believed it, too.
When she looked up, all of her beloved dead
were sparkling in the constellations.

My hard little coconut head
processed her words. I looked up
suspiciously at those stars, privately had my doubts:
then looked into her gentle face and decided
then and lifelong,
never to tell her.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Favorite Movie Dance, Bar None

In general, I detest movie musicals. When actors begin to dance and sing in a mob, I just wish they'd sit down and shut up. It's probably a genetic thing. My grandfather deeply loved classical music, but if male ballet dancers in tights began doing scissors kicks to Stravinsky across the TV screen, he'd turn it off. My aunt rose and stalked out of the theater during SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. She claimed she'd been offended by the broad Morning After grins of the Brides. Later, she admitted that the sight of all those actors caroling and prancing around "was enough to make me throw up twice." An uncle has said he can endure THE WIZARD OF OZ, but is waiting for the non-singing, non-dancing version. As for me, over the years I've sighed loudly, gossiped, shredded Kleenexes, devoured Milk Duds, and griped my way through other musicals which friends insisted I see.

But every once in awhile, a song or dance arises so spontaneously in a NONmusical that it's lodged like a sweet ember beneath my ribcage before I even know what hit me. Take Rudolph Valentino's smoking hot tango toward the beginning of the great old silent FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE. He awes the murderous drinkers in a cutthroat cantina with his coldly sexy moves, hurling his little monkey-woman partner all over the floor. Ninety years after that scene was shot, it still reduces a female audience to infatuated silence...and a good portion of the male. Or there's that moment in GODFATHER II when the little Vito Corleone, child of a murdered father and murdered mother, completely alone, friendless and quarantined in a foreign country, sits up in his pauper's nightshirt and sings his Italian folk song--in an unwavering voice.

And then there's this movie dance, my all-time favorite....

The film is Jim Jarmusch's DOWN BY LAW, and involves the escape of three prisoners who rush into a swamp for concealment. The most eccentric fugitive is played by Roberto Benigni (of course), and when the trio happen upon a young woman (Nicoletta Braschi), she and Roberto instantly fall in love. One minute they're strangers, and a few heartbeats later you sense they'll never willingly be parted. It's a wonderment, something like watching a car go from zero mph to 1000.

At the breakfast table next day, the fugitives are eating their bacon and eggs. Roberto says casually, "Let's have some music." He turns on the radio and we hear Irma Thomas's slow, lovely, funky version of the blues song "It's Raining." Roberto and Nicoletta begin to dance. Gradually it turns into the sweetest, most intimate and sensual dance you ever saw. There's no showy choreography, nothing especially graphic, just chemistry and true love. And it doesn't hurt that you know Roberto and Nicoletta are married in real life.

You can see it on YouTube, and if you haven't, don't wait another minute:

Down By Law - It's Raining

I'd write it in gems if I could.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Moving Actor: "Whoa, Look At You Go!"

Actors fight, dance, leap from great heights and even walk better than you or I do. They may be privately shining with sweat from the effort of making these moves, but up on the screen they're dusted with stars. We've spent many a happy hour admiring them in the dark. Here I'm going to concentrate on several of my favorite actor-walks (although, just to break it up, I'll include one demented little jig.)

l. John Travolta owns the best walk in the business, and he shows it all in his street-strut through the credits in SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. He steps out strong in his pointy-toed red shoes which match his flare-collared red silk shirt. The infatuated camera admires him from the ground up, lingering on the billowing cuffs of his black polyester slacks. He's also carrying a paint can, but is way too cool to care. That whole white-suit/dancy-dance nonsense he gets up to later is pallid by comparison.

Travolta also delivers a hugely satisfying moment when he climbs stairs in a busy restaurant to vent justice. In GET SHORTY he's been insulted by a wannabe-tough henchman standing on a landing. Wrong move, goon! Travolta heads up the stairs with that brisk can-do set of his shoulders. He's unhurried, with a confidence so staggeringly complete he doesn't even look cross. He collects the nasty guy like a bad debt and heaves him down the stair rungs like manure off a pitchfork, all without missing stride. Travolta is the Walk King of his generation.

2. In my opinion, Richard Gere is never convincing in good-guy roles. Maybe it's too much of a stretch, who knows? But he did surprisingly well in INTERNAL AFFAIRS as a cheating, lying, betraying, fornicating, murdering bad guy. He was also very effective as a shameless sleazebag of a celebrity lawyer in PRIMAL FEAR (although outgunned, I'd say, by Ed Norton's jaw-dropping debut performance). And years ago he was also good in AMERICAN GIGOLO--avaricious, social-climbing, amoral and sexy. All of which brings us to his walk.

Maybe it's not his fault. After all, human babies learn to walk around a year of age. But Richard Gere walks like a tart. He walks as if he's thinking about his hips more than men usually do. There's a crisp little hitch in his get-along, to put it mildly. This fits in with his dark and ambiguous roles, but is one of the reasons we can't believe him in the saintly ones.

3. John Wayne walks with his whole bulky body, something like a sasquatch would, as if he were holding the sky up on his big shoulders and the earth down with his feet, and plowing ahead no matter what the plague or disaster. In THE SEARCHERS, for five long years he never ceases to search for his kidnapped niece, by sunlight, moonlight, firelight, through storms and floods, under attack and threat of death. He searches mostly by horseback, but also in large part by the almost demented concentration and unstoppable forward impetus of that walk. We never doubt he'll find her, and he does.

4. Now for a dance: Donald Pleasence is an English actor known for his extreme style, which reached its height when he played Mike Myers' unfortunate doctor in the HALLOWEEN series. In the Western WILL PENNY he's a wicked psycho/preacher who's trying to force a virtuous widow (Joan Hackett) to marry one of his heart-stoppingly hideous, homicidal sons. There's a moment when he seems to have won, and in sudden celebration he does an evil little jig with such vile delight that he almost puts his foot through a chair. We hate him, but the moment still has a satanic glow.

5. For me, the most endearing walk is that provided by Roberto Benigni in IL MOSTRE (THE MONSTER). Through his usual series of disastrous misunderstandings, Roberto's character Loris is under suspicion of being a mass murderer. Nicoletta Braschi is the tough-minded undercover detective assigned to his case. She shadows Loris constantly, and gradually becomes fascinated by the wildly eccentric little man.

Now, the walk: in an early scene, with typical Benigni reasoning, Loris has decided he'll avoid the notice of his landlord, to whom he owes money, if he crouches down and walks like a duck below the man's line of vision. He does this more or less successfully, but rather sadly. There is something very lonely about a man who is walking like a duck all by himself. But Nicoletta sees this ruse of his. By this time she's realized that, evidence to the contrary, he's an innocent at heart. She gently crouches down beside him, and as they duck-walk away together, his face lights up with a shy man's happiness. It's a fine moment.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"In Praise of Aging". Photographs by Sandy Wojtal-Weber. Poem by Gerda Lerner.

This beautiful little book might just as well be called "In Praise of Living" because to use Lerner's words it is about "celebrating what is/ what still is..."

Sandy Wojtal-Weber is an accomplished photographer with an instinctive skill in seizing images from the natural world, with tenderness and grace, at just the right moment. It is no surprise to learn that she particularly admires the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. In this book, her pictures illustrate the lines of Gerda Lerner's poem "In Praise of Aging." Many of the photographs were taken at Parfrey's Glen, in Wisconsin, as well as other far-ranging locations. The two sunflowers were taken from her garden.

Essentially, Lerner's poem is about living life mindfully, with both gravity and joy, in a way that moves us naturally to an acceptance of the end of life. For example, on an early page Lerner writes "On that path, step by step,/we must give up something forever..." Wojtal-Weber's accompanying picture is of a rocky, steep, and difficult climb through heavy woods. At first glance, it might almost signify Gethsemane. Yet the texture of the stones and mossy boulders, the green beauty of the woods, show the indestructable loveliness that accompanies us through hardship.

Wojtal-Weber's pictures are fully true to the object or scene in her lens, and sometimes something more: an homage. The two pages of glorious sunflower budheads--"discovering the pleasure of the modest particular/Growing awareness of purposeful seeing"-- for the first time made me think the words "Powerful! All-seeing!" about a bud. Her color photographs are often sumptuous, her black and white winter scenes impeccable. Although her work is the furthest thing possible from sentimental, the viewer's sense is that she has captured these images with respect and love.

There is a great deal to admire and enjoy here, not least the last picture. It shows a curling green frond, with behind it a huge, veined green leaf and the words "and grace." But perhaps my favorite image of all is of the bird--with fragile limbs and delicate beak, but mighty wings--flying straight up into a storm so threatening it looks like the bottom of the sea:


Sunday, August 23, 2009

French Movies Break My Heart...And Gladden It

I saw my first French movie at the age of ten. It was a bitterly cold winter's day, and I sat with classmates in the odd but glorious little bijou theater in Baraboo, the exuberantly gilded Al Ringling. The Al Ringling is supposed to be a tiny replica of a theater in Versailles. What Versailles is doing in cow country, I don't know; but I've always enjoyed the place.

The double bill that Saturday matinee was WHITE MANE and THE RED BALLOON, both directed by Albert Lamorisse. It should have been called the Killer Bill. At first the other kids and I were just having a typical afternoon at the movies. There was a lot of boisterous climbing over seats in the dark, hissed arguments, fighting over arm rests, and a strong smell of funky winter coats and barn boots, as well as a constant hail of flying goobers. But then we started to actually watch the film. I've never really recovered.

WHITE MANE takes place in the Camargue, which is a harshly beautiful region of France, on the sea. A brave little boy, Folco, befriends a gorgeous wild stallion. White Mane is the glittering silver of moon and stars and sea foam. Folco defends the horse against greedy, brutal cowboys who would break the animal's proud spirit, use and destroy him. The cowboys start a fire to trap White Mane. He barely escapes. He's forced into a savage fight with another stallion for dominance, loses and almost dies. This horse goes through more suffering than the whole cast of Les Miserables. Throughout, the boy Folco (always dressed in white) does his best to defend him. In the end, after a terrifying chase Folco and his beloved horse are backed against the wild sea by the cowboys who want to trap them. Because we in the audience were Americans, we fully expected some version of the cavalry to thunder up and save them. In our movies, it always did. But instead, the French boy on his French horse wheels his magnificent stallion away from their tormentors and rides straight into the sea. Not only is there no land in sight, but we slowly realized they would have to swim across the Atlantic to find any. The camera follows the struggling pair until the stallion's snowy mane disappears--inevitably, beautifully, agonizingly--into the sea foam...

Soft little voices could be heard throughout the theater. "Where--where are they going?" "Are they...DEAD?" There were sobs, many of them, and the loudest was mine.

We perked up a little when the next film appeared: THE RED BALLOON. Oh, this was more like it! We'd swoop and soar on a jolly red orb, and forget all about Folco, who was our age, glugging the icy grey waters at the bottom of the sea.

The French boy in THE RED BALLOON wore a tragic little grey sweatsuit throughout. Young though we were, we noticed that he was the only one of the children who was dressed this way. His home life with his cranky grandmother sucked. And he was heartbreakingly isolated. He had no friends, not one. The other children were really mean to him, even for the French. Then one day he finally found a friend, a big red balloon which followed him, and which was so sensitive to his moods that they ran and danced and sang together. They were soulmates. We sighed with relief. Thank God he wasn't alone. Now he had this superbly bouncy and upbeat red friend. But the mean children hunted them down. They punched the fragile little boy, and pricked--killed--the beautiful balloon. It deflated before our eyes, and lay dead on harsh stones. And the "happy ending" consisted of the little child in his grey sweatsuit being lifted up to heaven by a cluster of balloons.

Once again soft little voices arose in the theater: "Where--where are they going?" "Is he--DEAD?" And more sobs. I staggered outside, glazed-eyed, having undergone my first aggravated battery and sophisticated sucker punch at the hands of European cinema. Worse, somehow I knew I would never be able to forget White Mane, or the all-too-human red balloon. And I never have.

Eight years passed. I went to a college which had a very, very serious Film Society. Film critic Mike Wilmington went to the same college, and has written about movie discussions which ended with members throwing hot coffee in each other's faces, or rolling on the floor searching for strangle holds. My sophomore boyfriend, whom I'll call Wally, cultivated his cinematic tastes like fine orchids. For example, he thoughtfully described an ex-girlfriend by saying, "She has this wild mane of black hair, like Stefania Sandrelli in SEDUCED AND ABANDONED." He also mocked Ingmar Bergman as "Swedish chicken fat," but not very loud.

Wally told me that my ignorance of fine European film was barbaric. We would go see JULES AND JIM that very night. And we did. For the first time I saw Jeanne Moreau in the role of Catherine. Catherine is a born muse. She has a subtle, fascinating smile which ensnares the friends Jules and Jim with its mystery. "Where does that smile come from," these European men wonder, in their sumptuous ponderings, "what does it mean?" ("Who the fuck cares?" one American girl in the audience thought, but didn't say.) Catherine breaks the hearts of both Jules and Jim, not once, but many times. She marries Jules on a whim, is the worst mother since Medea, flares through the movie like a psychotic comet. In the end, when Jim tries to escape her, she murders him and herself by driving off a bridge--still with the same mysterious smile.

As we left the theater Wally raved about her: "Oh man alive, Catherine is the queen of everything, her smile, those eyes, that little song she sings--"
"She's an evil bitch!" I protested. "She ruined their lives. She's a murderess--"
"She's a REAL WOMAN," Wally sighed adoringly. "American girls just don't have that subtle femininity."

I dumped Wally. And that evening I wanted to dump Catherine and Jules and Jim, and White Mane and the Red Balloon too. But I never did, because in their arbitrary, violent, and often exquisite ways, they'd already invaded my bloodstream.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cee-Cee Chews Me Out

The background to this post is that I write letters to the editor, early and often, usually about justice issues. I'd like to think of these letters as bold and illuminating, but friends keep me from vanity with remarks like, "I see where you were gassing away in the paper again," or simply "Blah, blah, blah."

My friend Cee-Cee (not her real name) is a retired policewoman. I met her, if that's the right word, when she called me up very late and out of the blue, to chew me over, grind me up and spit me out for a letter of mine she'd just read. The letter concerned what I saw as a poor judgment call on the part of a police officer.

Keep in mind that this was around midnight. I'd been asleep. Cee-Cee, a stranger to me then, has a voice of mighty thunder when upset, sort of like God and Thor combined. She said, or shouted, that although the facts in my letter were "technically correct," I had written it in a spirit of smug fault-finding and from a place of ignorance. Like most civilians, I had no idea of the thousands of judgment calls which every officer is required to make, often under severe stress. Neither I nor any other civilian would hear about the great majority which turned out to be right. Cee-Cee said I'd been wrong to zero in on this officer's rare mistake, when what mattered was an honorable career as a whole.

I was speechless for once. You would be too, if the side of a mountain suddenly split off and fell on your head, or if an avenging angel suddenly swooped down out of heaven and began flogging you like a racehorse. But I come from an ancestry of bossy teachers and ministers confident in their salvation, and those genes kicked in. I told Cee-Cee the truth. I said that I admired the police, because they have such a tough job. I said that I would never say or even think a single harsh word about an officer, as long as he seemed to keep alive and active in the front of his mind the fact that he'd promised to protect and serve the innocent public. He had not vowed to protect and serve himself.

"This cop you wrote about is a good one," Cee-Cee said bluntly. "You were wrong." Then, still angry but in a lower voice, she said, "I bet that if you ever needed help, you'd be the very first to be yelling for the police to come and save your puny butt!"

I said, "You got that right, I'd be the first, and if there were some number before 'first' I'd be that. I would stand there screaming like a toddler for them to come and rescue me, to come charging up in their shiny cars and obliterate criminals threatening me and sweep me to a place of safety, because in crisis that's their duty. That's what 'Protect and Serve' means!"

Unexpectedly, I heard Cee-Cee's deep, jolly, and striking laugh for the first time. She said, "You don't expect much, do you? You certainly are a STUBBORN little shit." I wasn't crazy about being called a stubborn little shit, but her tone had warmed up. After that the conversation was much more amicable. She even generously allowed that my letter had been "an honest, though stupid, mistake."

And a few minutes later, after a thoughtful pause, she said slowly, "Not that every single cop who ever existed was an altar boy or altar girl. There's a story or two I could tell you--no names, though--"

"Over a glass of good red," I said. "My treat."

"Deal," she said, and laughed.

And I think that Cee-Cee is a woman who keeps her word.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Just Another Shade of Blue" and "Casualty Crossing" , by Kevin Hughes

Kevin Hughes has a Superman job and a Clark Kent job, although there may be disagreement as to which is which. He's a Dane County Sheriff's detective with a 30+-year career, and he also writes mystery novels.

"Just Another Shade of Blue" was Hughes' debut novel. It was based on the real-life homicide case of Doris Ann McLeod, which he investigated. The novel achieved the almost impossible task of finding justice for the murder victim by setting forth the circumstances of her tragic life. From childhood onward she had been so isolated and exploited, so uniformly betrayed, that when she disappeared nobody reported her missing. A mutilated corpse was found, but its identity remained a mystery for many months. The actual McLeod case was solved, in the end, by the strangest of flukes: a toddler happened to lisp a few words, chilling ones, that a detective realized were a description of the victim's terrible last moments. In Hughes' book, Detective Toby Jenkins finds a solution every bit as harrowing and odd.

Hughes' second novel, "Casualty Crossing," begins by describing the abusive home life of 14-year-old Billy: "He was the kid who ate lunch alone, who chose to sit in the back of the room. In the locker room, eyes were blind to the bruises on his back as he quickly changed outfits. Those bruises weren't small; it was just that nobody noticed the wallflower of a kid or had any reason to care." Billy has a confrontation with his violent, repulsive slob of a stepfather, Virgil--and it has to be said that Virgil is so evil, most readers will want to somehow jump into the book and knock his head off. Billy flees in terror, the book follows him on a desperate odyssey without ever pausing for breath, and so do we.

Hughes gets so many things right in these books. He has the storytelling instinct which drives action ahead--not always gracefully or smoothly, but then, these are mystery novels, not ballroom dances. The dialogue, especially between T.J. Jenkins and his colleagues, is the tough real deal: it jumps back at you with raw candor. And it's a pleasure to make the acquaintance of T.J., although he isn't one of your glamorous pretty-boy detectives, consulting wine lists, and combing society nymphets out of his hair. He's defiantly rough around the edges. He has an alcohol problem, is on terms of mutual contempt with a boss, his divorce left him with little more than the shirt on his back, and he's often rude, crude, and unkempt. (The grimly hilarious first scene of "Casualty Crossing", which has a hungover T.J. frantically smelling garments in his scruffy wardrobe to find the least gamey for a court appearance, demonstrates the last.)

In one scene, T.J. describes his world as "shitty," and himself as a buffoon. But the reader sees much more. T.J. is honest to the bitter end. He's loyal to friends, and he has a tremendously cranky but real dedication to his job. He has skills: in the crunch and at his absolute best, he can see like a deaf man and hear like the blind. He's committed to hunting bad guys, and he protects and serves the innocent. He gets the important things right.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Defanging The Vampire Bully

"Never allow yourself to be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life. Define yourself.
Harvey Firestone

"A bully is a big a--hole with a little bit of man attached."
Mickey Rourke, actor

"I was the kid who used to get shoved into lockers by school bullies. Because of that, I have never felt like a star in my life."
Winona Rourke, actor

"I paid a worker at New York's zoo to open it just for me and Robin (Tyson's then-wife). When we got to the gorilla cage there was a big silverback gorilla there just bullying the other gorillas. They were so powerful but their eyes were like an innocent infant. I offered the attendant $10,000 to open the cage and let me smash that silverback right on the snotbox. He declined."
(As a young child, Mike Tyson had been savagely abused.)

"A bully is an emotionally retarded vampire. He is not entitled to your blood."
Marlena de Blasi, writer

"Stalking is bullying. One of the hardest jobs a cop will ever face is getting it through the head of a true sleazebag that he can't dog, stalk, threaten, and otherwise torment a woman he wants, who won't have anything to do with him. He thinks it's in his Slimeball's Bill of Rights somewhere."
Officer Billy Leo

"All bullying should be met by steel."
Gypsy saying

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Crunchy Glory Fried Chicken

"It's not any good unless it's got some grease in it."
Tina Turner

This was my family's favorite chicken recipe. The dish first became popular in the 50's, when people became fascinated by the culinary possibilities of the potato chip. Maybe it should be called Tina Turner Fried Chicken. It's sumptuously greasy, but if you MUST pump up the health factor, substitute extra virgin olive oil for the peanut oil.

Pour most of a bag of Lay's potato chips, the ridged kind, into a sturdy plastic bag. The chips should be fresh, not the kind that have been mellowing on top of your refrigerator in a gaping bag for three months. Take your rolling pin and whale away at the chips until they're ground small. Put them into a bowl.

Dry your cut-up chicken pieces on paper towels. Next, roll them in vegetable oil (peanut oil is best, but corn will do) and then in the ground chips. Make sure they're very well coated all over. Place them skin side up, in a shallow pan big enough so that the pieces aren't crowded. Bake at 375 degrees for somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half, depending on the doneness you prefer. I like to bake chicken until I KNOW that hen won't scratch no more. There's nothing more disgusting than seeing blood and raw tendons on a nasty, undercooked bird. At 90 minutes the pieces will have reached a deep, crusty, delicious mahogany brown. Let them cool slightly, then have at it.

This is so good it's ridiculous. Even if you've eaten half the bird, you'll still want to scrape the crispy bits out of the pan. Sweetened iced tea is nice with this; or you might try a favorite picnic drink of the 50's: a tall glass filled with half grape juice, half 7 Up, and ice. And to round out the 50's theme, and make your heart and eyes glad, you might serve the meal on one of those lovely vintage tablecloths: crisp cotton that you've ironed, with a design of berries and green vines and rosy flowers...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Karma, The Great Boomerang

I've always been fascinated by the concept of karma: what goes around comes around. Here are a few favorite quotations, and if you have more, I'd appreciate hearing them in the Comments.

"You should tremble with fear when you disrespect man, woman, chick or child. The universe has all the time in the world to grind your bitter grain, to force upon you a hateful bread..."

"My karma runs over your dogma."

"If you want to see the boomerang of karma in action, be cold, be cruel, be unjust--you can live perfectly well without half of your head, can't you?"

"I love my dogs, and my dogs love me."
Mickey Rourke, actor

"The filthy-minded man shouts out in triumph that he sees filth in a pure stream--not realizing it is his own reflection."

"The highest stupidity is for one human being to try to withhold blessings from another. Who does he think will lose in the end, who will be scoring his cheeks with his own nails and screaming with loneliness?"

"Karma is sort of like cause-and-effect, but on a diet of blood and honey."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

There Are No Small Pleasures

During our student days, my friends and I were death-defying young women and proud of it. Rising nineteen and with energy to burn--and far too stupid to spot the Grim Reaper even when he was sitting on our handlebars--we'd soar and drop on bikes without brakes down and around Bascom Drive's unforgiving, cement tumble of curves to the Union. We'd fly between furiously cursing bus drivers and stone walls as the large capes we obnoxiously affected whipped in the wind. We may have been hotdogs, but we were hotdogs with capes.

I wonder what my friends would have thought if they'd known of the real pleasure I get, these days, just from rising early, making coffee and reading the newspaper?

Soon after dawn I'm up and looking out the window to see what the birds are up to. There's always a crow, on the highest branch of the tallest pine, looking over his world and seeing what's in it for him. I've never seen a crow, in this position, who didn't look as though he'd do just fine.
If there's a red sky behind him, it foretells an interesting but possibly stormy day.
For humans, this first hour should have a nursery peacefulness. There's plenty of time later to toil, sing, battle and laugh. Soft, warm clothes are nice. My favorite dawn shirt is a red plaid flannel, washed to the tender softness of red milkweed floss.

Next, coffee. I don't know if the java-jive loves me, but I love it. The French Roast brew should be bear-black in color, and a lion in action: strong enough to turn your eyes from back to front. You want that coffee to come roaring out of the mug shaking its mane. You want the jukebox of the sleeping brain to be slapped awake, light up in all its reds and yellows, and begin spinning its songs.

In regard to the newspaper, I know that world disasters are not my fault. Still, I'm neurotically compelled to read about them carefully, once a day. After that, it's all right to have some fun and study the behavior and remarks of embezzling or randy evangelists, close relatives of felons, and all political candidates. Scanning our dailies, I see that co-pastors of a Pentecostal church are on the outs. "He said he would punch my jawbone up my nose and pull the weave right out of my hair!" complains one. "That man's behavior would make Jesus puke!" storms the other.

Next, I learn that it's Barbie Doll's 50th Anniversary. According to the tabloid fashionistas, Barbie is innocently responsible for tens of millions of egg-yolk-yellow, fairy-gilt and hoochie-gold dye jobs "sitting strangely," as they put it, on 50-to-60-year-old grey American heads: mature women who'd adored her as little girls and whose personal ideal remains the stardust princess.

Next, the relatives of a serial murderer puzzle over his behavior. "He must have only become a monster recently," the stepfather says tolerantly. "He has always sent me very nice Father's Day cards. Hallmark."

Reluctantly, I fold up the newspaper and for the first time that day, look directly at the computer sitting on the oak table. The English language has at least a million sinewy words in it, most of them capable of root-binding and branch-whipping any fool who handles them carelessly. I walk to the table, but take one last look out the window at the strange sky: red, with high storm clouds, and a spellbindingly defiant sun.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Good Girl, Bad Boy

Three high school teachers were chatting in the Borders cafe over their blueberry scones and cappuccinos. Shelley said, "I really love my job...except when I hate it." Emma and Judy sighed, and nodded in agreement. "My biggest challenge this year was the same as always: keeping the good girls away from the bad boys. It seems that just as soon one of those 110% pure, nun's-pet kind of girls hits high school, she pauses just long enough to decide who is the most surly, foul-mouthed, dirty-minded, useless punk with the worst possible future, and then hurls herself at him with cries of rapture. I just don't get it."

"Romeo and Juliet," Emma said wisely, "Bonnie and Clyde...and GUARANTEED to drive her parents crazy."

Judy watched the cream belly its spirals through her dark coffee. After a moment she said softly, "I had a crush on a bad boy in high school."

"EEEEKKKKK!" "You didn't! Get out!"

"I did. Oh, don't worry, I didn't have the guts to speak to him. But he enthralled me. Shane was dangerous and wild, and dressed all in black.He was a dark boy--black-haired and black-eyed. He wore some kind of savage musky cologne. He had big cleats on his motorcycle boots, so you could hear him before you saw him. He raced trains on his motorcycle, cutting through the crossings a hair before the train barreled through. The teachers were AFRAID to give him detention slips. He would swagger into class late, in a fog of cigarette smoke and beer fumes. He had a big jackknife, which the teachers pretended not to see. He'd flick open the big blade and casually clean flesh tissue out from under his fingernails. His father was a butcher, and Shane helped him in the cutting-room.

"As for me, I was a maiden nerd who wore goofy spectacles, read a lot, and my aching heart bled for him under my Honor Society pin. This was the beginning of the Madonna era, and many girls in my class aspired to copy her Early Strumpet look, with ripped stockings, tight skirts and desperate hoochie hair. This horrified my mother. She dressed me in pink sweatshirts with kitties on the front, and cut my hair in a sensible bob. I died from mortification.

"I secretly watched Shane, and he watched the blond prom queen who sat across the aisle from him. He got her attention in bold ways. He'd let loose with thunderous belches, and when people looked at him, he'd solemnly point to Her Highness. I guess he found a painful pleasure in the shades of horror and revulsion passing across her fair features. Or he'd blow his nose, honking tremendously into a dripping snot-rag, and then stare into its folds with cries of incredulous wonder and delight, as though discovering rubies and emeralds. She would literally turn pale with disgust. He must have figured that, if he couldn't get her, at least he could make her sick.

"Did he graduate?" asked Emma, always the teacher.

"Of course not. He got expelled. He did two bad things in the same week. First, he got caught making out with his slutty girlfriend behind the school incinerator. Then, he and his goon friends got drunk one night and vandalized the library. He was only allowed to come back once, to clean out his locker. And that's when we had our one and only high school conversation. Somehow I got up the nerve to talk to him. I stuttered out a few words, something about how Home Room would seem boring without him. He smiled at me, really looked at me with those dark eyes. Then he said something I've never forgotten. He said, "I'm sorry about the library. It made my mom feel bad."

"What happened to him after that? Did he go to prison? Did he get shot?"

"Shane inherited his dad's butcher shop," Judy said. "He still reeks of smoke and beer, but he's a good butcher. My husband and I go there to get our steaks for cookout, and our Thanksgiving turkeys. And to this day, Shane teases me about school days. He says, 'I suppose you're still readin' up a storm?' as though he were talking about some wildly impractical, exotic activity peculiar to me. And he asks where he can find one of those cool pink sweatshirts with the kitties on the front, for his daughter Theresa. He calls it a Chastity Sweatshirt, and says it would go huge on eBay. Theresa is a good girl. She'll be entering high school this fall.

"Shane has a beer gut now, and that curly hair isn't as black as it used to be. But..." Judy looked down into her coffee, sighed and smiled, and said in a very quiet voice, "he's still pretty cute."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Doris And Rock And Me

An editor recently asked me for "your first literary memory." After a lot of pondering I realized it would have to be this incident.

It was a sweet-smelling, balmy summer evening in a little country town, many years ago. My sister and I, sixteen and seventeen (we were "Irish twins") were sitting in the tiny Prairie du Sac movie theater. We were watching the romantic comedy Lover Come Back, with Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

Because we were innocent to the point of mental disability, we saw nothing bizarre in the fortyish Doris's frantic attempts to preserve her virginity against the lecherous assaults of leering playboy Hudson. She fled his slobbering pursuit in her high heels, both flirting with him and flouncing away from him with such manic energy she almost bounced off the screen. She scolded sex-crazed Hudson for his base desires, shaking her finger at him and telling him off, a high-minded ash-blond angel in tight-fitting suits.

My sister and I were fascinated, rooting for Doris and filing away her strategies for taming bestial, drooling, skirt-chasing Hudson--who, as became obvious later, was a far better actor than anyone gave him credit for.

The movie was well-started when a huge bulbous man entered and began fumbling his way down the dark aisle, looking for seats. He was holding the hands of two small fair-haired children. Everyone in the theater recognized the father, who in terms of mass alone was the most gigantic man in Sauk County; and they knew his children, April and Wally. On the screen, at that very moment, Doris Day was vigorously shaking her blond French twist at Hudson and showering him with maidenly reproaches; and in the aisle, the brilliant regional writer August Derleth looked at the screen, listened for a minute, snorted, and then laid down the most tremendous, roof-lifting fart.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


"Rise early, and sharpen your knife."
Czech saying

""I hated the vain turd on sight."
character Billy Leo about con man Geoffrey
in short story "Geoff In Disgrace"

"If you sit beside the river bank long enough,
the bodies of all your enemies will float by."
(All countries have some variation of this)

"You can smell him before you see him."
Lyndon Baines Johnson about his enemy,
conservative journalist Robert Novak

"You should always enter a room in such a way
that your enemy feels the day is not as sweet as before..."
Ernest Hemingway

Above all, "Illegitimi non carborundum" (Latin)
Don't let the bastards wear you down!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mother's Day Haiku--Late But Sweet

prodigal's sunbrowned hand
wraps mother in flowers--silk
scarf, from Africa

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Eat Me: The Food And Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin"

If you like good food and aren't afraid of hot pepper and sizzling spice, you'll enjoy Kenny Shopsin's book. Shopsin is the most ornery, foul-mouthed, and talented diner cook in New York, and his cookbook/memoir/rant will bust your sinuses open like his Brazilian Chicken Garlic Rice Soup.

As you read, you gradually become aware that, although Shopsin doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, he's got one. It comes through in the fierce love and care he shows for his family. His book has a huge-lettered dedication to his late wife, the saintly Eve. His children have chosen to work side by side with their often-raging Dad. It's evident in the decades-long devotion he feels, in his own way, for certain customers. (For example, although Shopsin has an ironclad rule that he will absolutely not do takeout, a sick bed-bound customer and friend found that food "came around.") Shopsin treats his good suppliers like precious jewels, and remembers the sins of his bad suppliers with elephant-like clarity forty years after the event.
His attitude toward food critics can probably be guessed.
He can write, he can think, he's genuinely fearless, and judging by his recipes (which are excellent) he can cook like a madman. Toward the end of the book he says this:
"I have a lot of character defects, but reaching above myself in terms of my desires is not one of them. I don't pretend to like things or try to like them because someone told me to or because I think I should like them. I have no problem with my lack of sophistication when it comes to anything and certainly not when it comes to food. It is not necessary to tickle my palate with subtle nuances and exotic hidden ingredients. With food, I don't like subtlety. I like gusto. I think that is why I like Mexican food so much. You take a bite of good Mexican food, and it just explodes..."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dahlias of the Storm

By early May, when my garden has the promise of green, I've almost recovered from a traumatic scene that takes place during every November's first big storm.
Typically I'll be in the livingroom, peacefully watching a favorite Marx Brothers movie. I'm eating Fritos Scoopers with tahini, and thinking it's almost time to put the three-cheese ravioli on the table. The windows are lashed by icy rain or some variation of huge record-breaking dumpings of snow driven by gale-force winds. I think how cosy it is to be inside, all warm and comfortable.
But as I stare hypnotized at the sleet flowers on the window, very slowly I realize that the storm is sure to bring about the season's first hard freeze. And at these words, the hair on the back of my neck slowly rises. Surely I didn't forget, once again, to dig up the dahlia roots and bring them safely in?
Five minutes later a puny figure can be seen in the garden, through the blizzard, frantically digging. She is alone, since she tried to persuade the family dogs to come out with her, but they were too smart. She spades furiously, trying to separate the dahlia roots from clumps of ice forming around them.
Swags of snow cover this figure and turn her into a shoveling snowwoman, or perhaps there's no snow but only sleety rain under a thunderously swollen black sky torn by zigzags of lightning, striking close. No matter; she digs on, cursing. She has to. Finally the roots are chipped and gouged out, and rushed to the house in a bucket as the snowwoman loudly screams "Shit!" It's painful to recall that only a week before, on a honey-scented, Indian summer afternoon, she had sentimentally admired a late rose.
Six months pass. Spring comes. I put it off, but the day comes, as it always will, when I have to go to the basement and open the bags of dahlia roots I'd sealed shut on that storm-driven night in November. I take a hard look at them. They look dead as nails: dried, shriveled, unpromising. They haven't made it, and it's all my fault. While I was lounging in front of Marx Brothers movies eating Fritos Scoopers heaped with tahini, the fragile dahlia orphans were perishing in the storm.
But then I take another good look. In the cold, dark basement air, it almost seems as though there is a minute red ember on one of the roots. When I keep looking, very close, I gradually see that each root has one or two tiny red fronds. They are sturdy, alive, and seeking the light. And that is all it takes.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Visiting A Smart and Kind Mighty Huntress Up North

Last Fall, during hunting season, we visited my sister Anne who lives close to Iron Mountain. This
is serious deer country. If you drive along the roads at dusk, you'll see deer coming down out of the hills and feeding in the fields like Biblical cattle. You will also see coyotes and black bears whether you want to or not. The wild world is very close up north, and humans live beside all those teeth and claws and bloodlusts without fear.
We went for a walk through the late Fall woods. Anne, who is a mighty huntress with her own deer stand, kindly pretended not to hear my squeaks of terror as a black bear crossed our path."You never have to be afraid of a bear," Anne told me, "unless it's a sow who has cubs. Then, back up fast!"
We walked through a light, pearly fog which turned the snowy woods into an ethereal dreamscape. Anne's beagle Babe added some horror movie elements as she bounded up behind us and proudly showed us the deer foreleg complete with stringy ligaments dangling out of her mouth. Finally she dropped the leg, and I thought to myself, "Thank God we won't have to look at THAT anymore."
But a minute later the fog parted to reveal Babe now running TOWARD us, grinning hugely, the deer leg snugly reinserted in her mouth. She repeated this manuever 70 or 80 times, dropping the leg, snatching it up, worrying loose a delicious morsel of the knee, or crunching up a bit of hoof, weaving and reweaving figure eights to show off her prize. Dogs never quit. This is one of the things I like about them, but not always.
Now, Anne knows perfectly well that I'm a yellow-bellied weinie who can't so much as think of words like Vein or Incision without growing faint and queasy. But she never loses hope that she can toughen me up. Her kind intention is that I'll grow to share her fascination with the natural world, no matter how raw and real. So she showed me where she'd field-dressed her buck, leaving a big pile of guts. Barely a grease spot remained. The coyotes, the black bears, the crows, hawks, raccoons, eagles, and Babe had all had their banquet at the Guts Buffet. But there was a tiny, mysterious, furry little animal chunk of some part or other. Anne pondered over it for several minutes, intrigued, tried to identity it, and finally tucked it snugly in her pocket to take home. She thought it was part of the liver or maybe the spleen, and was going to check it out on the internet when she got home. (My sister has won Best Science Teacher in Wisconsin awards, and I'm never surprised.)
Then we went back to her log home, and in front of a crackling wood fire we had savory, tender venison stew, chunks of delicious meat breathing garlic and caramelized onions and mushrooms. With this we had a swashbuckling red wine from Anne's own grapes, "a bossy wine with shoulders," she said. After this came berry pie with thick cream.
Then Anne went to the computer, intent on checking deer anatomy charts so she could identify the furry animal chunk she'd collected in the woods; while I grabbed my notebook, sat in front of the fire, and recorded impressions. And we were both very happy.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Sly Dog Meets His Match

The first dog my husband and I bought was a beagle puppy. Our then-teenage son insisted on naming him, and so the puppy's name, properly registered with the Kennel Club, was Eddie Van Halen II.
Eddie's faults grew huge and fluorescent as he matured. He was sly, greedy and power-hungry almost beyond belief. He would watch us carefully until our attention was elsewhere, and then fight our toddler tooth and nail for her bottle, trying to be alpha baby. Eddie would then drag the bottle off by its nipple and we'd discover him later, reclining voluptuously behind the piano, ravening over the soy milk, eyes crossed in a swoon of ecstasy.
Eddie was incapable of seeing anything in the yard that was smelly or dead without doing a belly-buster in it. He was also a bully; our children would have to rush out and rescue kittens, or baby birds with bits of the shell clinging to them.
I compulsively watched Barbara Woodhouse's dog-training show on TV. She would stalk the turf of the training ring like a dominatrix, barking orders at the humble, cowering dog owners. In fact, she always treated humans like crap: a bunch of sniveling, chuckle-headed dead-asses and drooling screwups who were sure to muff her simplest commands.
However, she believed all dogs were sensational darlings. She wooed them with musical, brightly joyous and extravagantly approving praise and treats. I noticed that everybody, man or beast, obeyed Barbara instantly.
During one session she casually mentioned that she liked to arm herself with a stout cudgel when she walked her dog in case she ran into anything that needed bashing. This nugget of information made the humans noticeably pick up their heels as they galloped haplessly around the ring at her command.
I brooded over the fact that I lacked Barbara's natural authority. I was at my wits' end about Eddie, and that is why I took him to the Blessing of the Animals ceremony at the town's Episcopal Church.
Devout farmers brought their livestock to be protected by angels from hoof rot, spontaneous abortion, death by lightning strike and the whole ocean of disaster toward which farm animals rush with gleeful neighs, quacks, gobbles and moos. I hoped that in the general swells and backwashes of grace, some of it might slop over onto one bad dog.
People beamed at the cute little beagle. They didn't know he was the notorious Nasty Eddie. He made an appealing picture as he stared with wonder at mighty draft horses, and trotted admiringly after a couple of goats, yellow-eyed reeking sons of diablo whose ferocious smell and horrible attitude problems impressed him greatly.
The rector was tall, dignified and nobly spiritual. In the golden light of a paradisal afternoon he made holy gestures over the animals and told them to be good horses, goats, cats, ducks and (graciously patting Eddie) beagles.
Eddie slobbered fawningly over the rector's boots and, with a smarmy look on his face, cuddled close to the lace hem of his robe. Eddie preened, smirking, as photo were taken. People talked about the peaceable kingdom.
It couldn't last. Fatally, refreshments were served. Eddie never met a deadly sin he didn't like, but gluttony was his favorite. Shedding his fresh blessings like lint, he frantically attacked a 90-year-old church organist for her handful of popcorn. He thought she would be easy pickings, but he was wrong. This ancient gentlewoman seized her walker and brandished it at him. Eddie bolted off as though shot from a cannon and could be heard baying with terror up and down faraway hills. And I remembered, as clearly as though it were written above me in the beautiful blue sky, his breeder's cheerful comment that beagles were very long-lived. With luck, We might enjoy Eddie's companionship for twenty years or more!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I Like Reality

Speak the truth, but ride a fast horse.
Cowboy saying

The carriages of the past will take you nowhere.
Nikolai Gogol

He who limps is still walking.
Stanislas Lee

I like reality. It tastes of bread.
Jean Anouilh

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Samson and Delilah and Me

On a recent icy Sunday I could be found in my old Morris chair, snugly wrapped in a favorite red plaid afghan, watching Bible movies on TV. Close at hand was a big plate of buttery garlic bread, heavy on the garlic. On the screen over the course of the day were Moses, Samson and Ben-Hur. I first saw these movies in the great old Al Ringling theater in Baraboo, Wisconsin with a few hundred other innocent tots like myself. We may have been a little vague about political or religious conflicts in the movies, but we alertly followed orgies, dismemberment, mass execution, torture and assassination with fascinated attention.

It was easy to tell who was good and who was bad. The good were raggedy, but virtuous. They wore burlap bags and worked to exhaustion on the pharaoh's hellish construction sites. Bad people wore glamorous, shiny fabrics and were studded with gems as big as duck eggs. They showed their moral corruption by lying sideways while eating, lounging on marble daises. In The Ten Commandments, Yul Brynner has Psycho Pharaoh written all over him. His oiled chest is garnished with weaponry and fabulous jewels. He glares at his slaves with brutal command, and eyes his fiancee (Anne Baxter) with a carnal leer. He also thinks he is divine--a delusion guaranteed to set off the hair-trigger temper of Cecil B. DeMille's God.
No wonder Moses and his followers flee hotfoot into the desert to get away from him. However, they aren't home free yet. The moment Moses goes up into the mountain to get God's word, the freaky-deaky element among his followers take over. They're fermenting manna, gilding a heifer, exchanging somber robes for rhinestone bustiers and chiffon dancing pants. Where did these clothes come from? These people are in the middle of a desert. They must have packed them earlier in case they felt inclined to bust out later.

At the Al Ringling, we kids knew that wherever you had dancing girls doing high kicks in shiny fabrics, God's wrath was not far behind. It looked like Southern California. We all waited with real anxiety for Moses to come back down. When he did, he was as disgusted as we were and nipped the frenzy in the bud.

These epics specialized in brutal truths. In "Samson and Delilah," one minute Samson is riding high, sweltering in the embraces of the darkly adorable Delilah/Hedy Lamarr. But when he lets her hack his hair off, he's blinded by his enemies in an instant. He finds himself in a show ring being tortured by dwarfs. You may recognize several ex-Munchkins among them. Ten years before this movie was produced, these little people were dancing in tiny lederhosen and singing to Dorothy, "We represent the lollypop guild, lollypop guild, lollypop guild..." but now here they are, tormenting Samson with whip and spur. In the climactic scene, there are dancing girls, graven images, a 4-story pagan god with a nasty sneer on his face and flames coming out of his mouth, the whole can of worms. And a huge mass of evil people are conveniently gathered together, being mean to Samson. For some reason none of them have noticed that Samson's hair has been growing out and his Old Testament 'Fro is quite huge and fluffy again. However, we kids had noticed. And we weren't really surprised at what happened next.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Feast With Friends, In Honeycomb Walls

Years ago, there was a certain day when I traveled by bus, for ten hours, through a dark gray, sleeting, hopeless winter landscape, over roads that varied between frozen mud and black ice. I had a lot of time to brood over unhappy recent events.

It was a long trip. However, the kind hands of my friends Nancy and Al were there to help as I climbed stiffly off the bus. Minutes later, I was sitting in their kitchen. Nancy is an artist. Two of the walls were parakeet yellow, and in fact exuberant wings were drawn flying to the ceiling. The other walls were painted a warm apricot, with cross-hatching in dark gold to represent a honeycomb's cells.

They had cooked all day. Correctly gauging my mental state--"Your blood sugar must be in your boots," she said--we started with dessert. This was my favorite: French vanilla ice cream with eggy golden pound cake. You tear off chunks of the cake and use them to scoop up smooth, soft, vanilla-fragrant gobs of the ice cream. Eat them together.

A crisply browned pork loin followed, with rich gravy. Let's admit it: succulent grease is good for what ails you. It gilds and heals the nerve endings. There was Seven Jewel Rice, there were brandied peaches in a blue canning jar. There was comforting Grandma food in the form of creamed corn in a blue willow dish, with poached eggs on top and three tiny circles of spice--cumin, pepper and paprika--on each egg. They had done all this for me.

Hunger is said to be the best sauce. I think that a better one is when you realize that affectionate eyes have studied your tastes, quietly and without fanfare, and acted on them. There are people on earth who think you should have what you like. And within their walls of apricot, honey and sun, the most stubborn ice crystals can thaw.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


"He must have an angel in his head."
(Picasso said this after looking at one of Marc Chagall's paintings of heavenly swooping figures)

"I know--it's terrible--but I love her so much!"
(Picasso's reaction when a friend told him that Gertrude Stein was ungratefully selling the portrait he'd made of her to buy, as she put it, "a better picture.")

"It looks like a hair in my soup."
(Picasso, frowning, when he saw a line drawing by Matisse, his lifelong rival.)

"He steals my blue."
(Picasso, lying, about Matisse. Actually he tried to steal Matisse's blue.)

"Forgiveness, the first sign of senility."
(Picasso, known for his stamina in holding grudges.)

"The main thing is to outlive the bastards."
(Picasso, who lived into his nineties.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Mildly Blue Story On A Beautiful Green Earth Day

(Original Earth Day was March 20, 1969)

My good friends Sue and Charlie both grew up in Colorado, and they insist this story is true:

Wolves were multiplying like rabbits and growing fierce as tigers in the remote Colorado hill country. Ranchers were infuriated as their sheep flocks were attacked and gobbled up. They often shot the wolves on sight, which put them at odds with shiny-faced young environmentalist students in the state university. Finally the students persuaded the ranchers to meet with them, promising that they would come up with a solution to the problem.

The meeting took place in a village town hall. The ranchers in the audience were a tough, hardened, weatherbeaten crew, dressed in frayed ranch clothes which had seen many storms. They were also angry, and they were not in the mood to take any crap from The Greenie Babies, as they called the students. However, a crisply tailored student, smelling of men's cologne and with a freshly styled hairdo, strode with huge confidence to the lectern.
"My colleagues and I have discussed your situation," he said importantly. "And we have come up with the one and only solution that can save both the wolves and the sheep." He paused impressively, then announced his plan: "We will castrate the wolves!"
The ranchers were stunned into silence. Then, slowly, they began to mutter between themselves. Finally they chose a spokesman, Vern, the most weathered of all. He stood up, nervously twirling his hat in his hands, tried to speak, and fell silent. "Tell 'em, Vern! Tell 'em!" the other ranchers urged.
Vern finally got it out. "Perfessor," he said, "we don't care if the wolves f--k our sheep. We just don't want them to EAT them."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

And I Won't

"Don't let anyone prophecy over you who doesn't like you."
David Gonzales, evangelist minister

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Duffy and His Harry Houdoggy Moment

As everybody knows, Harry Houdini was a master escape artist who could compress himself into, and then work his way free from, the tiniest spaces. Our dog Duffy has perfected only one feat of this type, but it's dazzling to watch.

First, a little background to the Harry Houdoggy moment. We supposedly bought a purebred shetland sheepdog, but Duffy has grown fabulously huge for the breed. Can you picture a 50-pound sheltie? Friends, relatives, and even total strangers walking their dogs have taken it upon themselves to kindly let us know we were total chumps if we thought we were getting a purebred. But we don't regret it, because Duffy is one of life's sweethearts. For one thing, in his heart he's still a tiny guy. He will crawl confidingly into our laps, crushing us. And he's passionately attached to the little crate which he used as a puppy, and insists on taking his naps there. It looks impossible, but in his mind the sun shines on all his endeavors, so he never hesitates. First he crouches and creeps through the tiny door. I worry that the day will come when he can only do this if he's covered with grease. He eases forward until his nose touches the back of the crate. Then comes the Harry Houdoggy moment: slowly, but with fabulous confidence, he twines his loo-oong, flexible spine around on itself like the unfurling of a rosette, and ends up facing out, in a compact bundle. His big, dark, furry head and shoulders loll out the door, and his face has a look of ecstatic stupor, as with half-closed eyes he gently mumbles a shred of the battered red flannel shirt that's been his blankey--also since puppyhood.
And we smile, because we know we're looking at perfect happiness.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Scents Of Memory

The five friends were sitting around Marta's kitchen table, toward the end of dinner on a cold Sunday night in March. They were well into the third bottle of the Polish Bullsblood wine that Sam had brought. The topic of conversation was memorable smells.
"The most comforting smell on earth was my grandma's hot pastry, baking," Marta sighed. "Her strudel had such integrity. And if I asked Gram, she'd cut out pastry leaves and flowers to bake on top, and a M for my name--"
"How precious," Josh said bitingly. "Well, my favorite scent is the way my first girlfriend smelled. She was an arty bohemian girl with hair in her armpits."
"Why are we talking about your love life when I'm trying to eat?" Anne said, looking at her scone.
"Well, I love the smell of wet dog,"said Carol, who always hated to be outdone. "I grew up with a Lab/shepherd mix named Sluggo. Sluggo was one of those big, goofy, slobbery, happy dogs that make you feel good just looking at them.
"He did smell truly awful when he got wet, but I never minded. He lived with us for years and years. His favorite thing was to go out in the rain and roll in the rotting mulch in the garden. He would stink terribly. Then my mother would scold him, and he'd be ashamed and try to force his way behind the leather armchair to hide. But he was way too big. So my Sluggo would sit close BESIDE the armchair, and hope for the best.
"Anyhow, it rained the day after he died, and there was no reek of wet fur. I looked at the armchair and started to cry. I said to my mother, 'Would it have killed us to move that chair out a couple inches, so he could hide there when he wanted to?' She thought I was crazy."
Jennie, who still missed and often spoke of her noble Skipper many years after his death, had tears in her eyes.
"I'm the only person in the world who can't stand the smell of popcorn," Sam said hastily. He detested sentiment, and thought Sluggo had brought them dangerously close. "This began when my parents and I moved here from Poland.
"Friday nights my mom would make up a big vat of popcorn for our cozy American evening at home, as she'd seen on television. But my Dad's idea of entertainment was to insert his butt into the La-Z-Boy and tell me about the 10 thousand years back in Poland during which our serf ancestors had been treated like crap in their godforsaken hovel on the landlord's estate. There had been a long line of vodka-crazed psycho landlords, but my father called them all by the same name: an unpronounceable Polish word that means Butthole in the Big House."
"What a coincidence," Marta said. "My Lithuanian ancestors also had a landlord called Butthole in the Big House."
"In Poland," Sam continued, "the males in my family, the Dudeks, were traditionally horse grooms. The landlord's idea of fun was to kick a Dudek to death with his jackboots if the horse wasn't looking properly twinkly-eyed. You would think it would have occurred to somebody to leave. I said this to my mother, and she said, 'We must respect their struggles.' I understood this. I knew my ancestors had modest expectations. They thought things were going good if nobody had recently been flayed alive by the bullwhip.
"But every Friday night in America, as my dad ate popcorn and told me about our sacred dead, I silently raged," Sam said. "I was a merciless little American, and I wanted to enjoy my life. Doing this around my dad was like trying to learn to dance while having to edge very carefully around a huge bucket of blood which stood dead center in the livingroom. It was like we left Poland but never really got away.
"So that's why I dislike the smell of popcorn," he said.
Sam's friends stared at him in silence. Then Carol leaned forward and very gently poured the last bullsblood wine from the last bottle into his glass. He swirled it, breathed in the harsh, bitterly sweet bouquet, and drank it down.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Message to All Artists

When the gulls are flying off with your pancreas, just tell yourself, "This will all be very useful someday."

Jim Carrey

Sunday, March 1, 2009


(A tribute to my friend May, who received a death sentence from her doctor. He was off by about twenty years. She wore her pink survivor's ribbon with honor and joy.)

One day the doctor told May
"Your turn for a wasting disease"
but she refused to let him
prop her ribcage up a tree just yet.
Instead, she began eating her head off.
She lived on lard, all her nerve endings
sheathed in rosy fat.
She dunked her rosette curls
into butter tubs of gluttony.
She spit on her bad gut, her bad heart,
and all but the most sumptuous
deadly sins.
The doomy wag of the doctor's tongue
had twisted her to the roots, but
closer to the earth
she prized up gobs of tubers, anklets of peanuts,
and embraced whole racks of lamb.
She saw the doctor chop bits most cherished
from other patients. Savagely physicked,
they crawled to the cooling board.
May ate steadily forward,
never putting a foot wrong,
gilding every jiggle, dimple and crease.
On appointment days the doctor would look at her,
sitting on two chairs, her big smile
smelling of pie and ham fat,
and the old skull would fall silent.

(originally published in The Georgia Review)

Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Navajo Grandfather Once Told His Grandson.....

There is a story about a Navajo grandfather who once told his grandson, "Two wolves live inside me. One is the bad wolf, full of greed and laziness, full of anger and jealousy and regret. The other is the good wolf, full of joy and compassion and willingness and a great love for the world. All the time, these wolves are fighting inside me.

The boy said, "Which wolf will win?"

The grandfather answered, "The one I feed."

Elizabeth Berg

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How Mark Bittner Became A Writer

Mark Bittner is now the well-known and well-respected author of a best-selling memoir, *The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill*. It's a fascinating account of his interactions with a flock of wild parrots that lives in the North Beach area of San Francisco. For many years Bittner studied, fed and protected these birds even when he was struggling with homelessness and poverty. He kept a detailed journal on the flock, but resisted the idea of becoming a professional writer. Bittner was a devoted student of Eastern religions, and wanted to cultivate peace and serenity in himself. All the famous writers he'd heard of seemed to have become drunkards, drug addicts, brawlers, wife-beaters. Bittner was afraid that if he wrote, he would become some kind of psychopath, develop a host of exotic problems and die years before his time.

Eventually, however, Bittner noticed that his journal on the parrot flock had become 1000 pages long. In other words, he was already writing. Also, he loved reading and studying books, and slowly he accepted the idea that maybe it would not be too bad an endeavor to write one. This is his description of his change of heart:

"As for my old fears about the fate of writers, I was ALREADY destitute, and having survived the streets, I was no longer afraid of going insane or becoming an alcoholic. I found some milk crates and an old door and improvised a desk. I'd written short stories and I'd written songs, but I had no idea how one went about writing an entire book. My usual method would have been to buy some books on how to write a book, but I didn't see myself as having the time for that. I didn't delay even a single day; I just sat down and started writing."

*The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill* is one of the most delightful, as well as tough-minded and informative, books you could read, this year or any other year. It continues to sell very well. Bittner can now afford a real desk and computer, but he still often likes to write by hand. He's now reached the second-draft stage of his new book, *Street Song.*

His fears about turning into a degenerate never materialized. Bittner and his wife Judy live a remarkably healthy life. They can often be seen biking up and down the San Francisco hills, or swimming in the icy, rambunctious waves of the Bay in close proximity to waterbirds, sea lions, and harbor seals.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Attention, all you joyous Dems and everybody else who enjoys having his country back: I think you'd like, as much as I do, a cover story in Kotori Magazine which is titled "666 Reasons Sentient Citizens Are Still Celebrating the Long Overdue Departure of George W. Bush." Political writer Dan Benbow did an incredible job of research on what is a virtually complete record of the abuses of the Bush presidency--specifically, large and small disasters which occurred during those eight lost, dark years. It may seem odd to describe an article with 666 power points as "concise," but Benbow's focus is lazer-like. The link is:


Throughout, the article is compelling. And personally, I think it would be a good idea to print it out and re-read it at least once a year. Lest we forget.

Friday, February 20, 2009


The great filmmaker Akira Kurosawa had an onset nickname: cast and crew called him Tenno, The Emperor. One close friend described Kurosawa as "a demon of strength" when directing his magnificent films, which included The Seven Samurai, Rashomon and Yojimbo. His personality was so imposing that actors would endure the most incredible hardships to please him. This might vary from painless but disgusting tasks like wearing the same stinking rags for months, both onset and off, since he believed that actors should stay in character; to being nearly drowned, since he liked torrential rain in his films, and plenty of it. In the final scene of Throne of Blood, actor Toshiro Mifune was nearly skewered by the hundreds of real arrows that were shot at him by expert archers. In The Seven Samurai actors attacked each other with real swords, knives, pikes, and cudgels in hip-high mud while being deluged by The Emperor's favorite Biblical-strength rain.
Apparently actors seldom so much as said "Boo" to Kurosawa about his methods. He was just too big, too powerful for them to question.

Because of incidents like these, Kurosawa's scriptwriter friend Uekusa told him that obviously he had never known regret, desperation or defeat, the weaknesses that most people struggle with. Uekusa said that "Tenno" had been born strong and born lucky, and that his achievements had come easily to him. This is the way Kurosawa responded:

"I only wear the mask of a strong person...I am not trying to defend myself. But I feel this is an opportunity to make myself understood. I am not a special person. I am not especially strong. I am not especially gifted. But I hate to show weakness, and I hate to lose, so I am a person who tries hard. That is all there is to it."