A Perfect Day

A Perfect Day

Sometimes the writing gods are on duty, and extraordinary conversations overheard fall into my lap without any effort on my part.  I’m not one who sees writing as an “open the vein” sort of exercise in frustration and pain anyway, probably because I have avoided editing, self-editing, or corrective opinion of any kind as I present myself in print.  Those of you familiar with my work (?)  know that I court the spontaneous, serendipitous, shapeless reflection; I woo the slightly goofy muse, and she obliges by the pound.

The which is to say that as I drove to town this morning, I stumbled on a story about a the prospective creation of an energy farm in a neighboring county in Oregon.  Yes, yes, renewable energy, responsible stewardship of the planet, high-minded conservation all well and good, but … the proposed hydro-electric system would plant poles and wires smack in the middle of an Edenic chicken farm overlooking the Lost River.  The owner of the farm, Jon Hobbs takes the well-being of his chickens seriously.  As a treat in the deepest months of winter, Hobbs chucks bales of alfalfa next to the chicken houses for his 3000 plus chicks, understanding that even alfalfa gets old after a while.  As reported on NPR, Hobbs admits, ““The chickens love alfalfa, but if it gets a little stemmy, then they’ll come over and say, ‘You gotta do better than this, Jon.’ They’re very spoiled.”

Hydro political cackling aside, Hobbs, concerned about the effect of incursions into chicken heaven, describes the life of the chicken in terms even I can understand.  “For a chicken the perfect day is the day just like the day before.”

I get it, and it brings me to a sudden and unexpected realization:  I’m with the chickens on this one.  In my impetuous youth (until I turned 50), I hungered for endless variety, spontaneity, unexpected twists and turns, the twistier the better.  Then, as it must to all men, the twists started to come  home to roost, forgive me the cheap humor.  I am not currently indicted, I do not have an attorney on retainer, no bracelet on my ankle.  That’s a good thing.  My kids know I’m a phone call away; my wife can plan her life several weeks in advance. We watch different shows on Monday than we do on Wednesday, and I might experiment with new ways of cooking zucchini (sautéed in olive oil with tomatoes and my carefully guarded blend of herbs and spices), but there’s something like a heady blend of gratitude and acceptance in our relatively consistent lives.  Perfect?  No.  The usual responsible adult stuff (taxes, leaking roof, aging dog) comes along, but these are what are called quality problems.  Lots of gratitude.

So, the day began with chicken wisdom, closely followed by a conversation with a friend about her experience growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a region so distinctly itself that it boasts one of the few remaining stop-you-in-the-middle-of-a-sentence accents.  You’ll know a Yooper by his/her/their Yooper English or Yoopanese (look it up if you don’t believe me), and by the words only Yoopers know.  “Ya, dat’s some good swampers, eh?”  My friend was easy to place when she announced that she had lost her “chook” when she “went store”.    Swampers, rubber boots with leather uppers; chooks knitted winter hats.

Not to digress, but words used for the generally knitted, usually woolen hat without brim pretty much indicates where you’re from, i.e. watch cap, ski cap, stocking cap, toboggan, wooly hat, snow hat, beanie, toque, poof ball hat, tossel cap, chook.

Ok, yup, I digress.

So, my friend’s dilemma (no chook) lead to stories about her father, a barber with a sense of style and humor.  Once a year he would offer friends and family a free haircut, sculpt their hair with idiosyncratic care, sending them home with a topknot or bare head with side chops, this back in the 1950’s when uniformity of hair was pretty much demanded of males over the age of thirty.  They came back in a day or two, shaved everything off, and started over in preparation for the next year’s barbering.  Pretty nifty, I replied, only to learn that her dad was even more inventive than I could have possibly imagined.

Those of us who remember the days before credit will remember what a huge deal it was to arrive home with a new car.  Same for this family, and to celebrate, the Yooper barber painted the house the color of the new car, and this back in the days when nobody drove a Vanilla Shake, Tahitian Pearl, or Glacial Glow, essentially white car.  Ambulances were white.  The milk delivery truck.  Mail truck.  We live in a grayscale car universe today, but in 1956, dad might have arrived home with a two-tone red and white car, or a wagon with wood panelling.  Either would have made for a fairly distinctive home decor.

I sat astounded as the story spun out, silently cheering that barber, when it struck me that my days are often exactly like the day before, except for the stories waiting to be told.  There are a bunch of lousy and painful stories out there, of course, and the distress with which many people live is not to be ignored, but there are sustaining and healing stories as well, and not just on mid-afternoon tv.

Traditional stories pull us in with an opening line – “A great while ago, when the world was full of wonders …”, “At a time when men and animals were all the same people and spoke the same language…”, “In a place neither near or far, in a time neither then or now…”.  I spent a few years trying to develop some skill as a storyteller, didn’t get very far, but learned that if I felt the urgency of the opening lines, the story told itself.  The key, as is evident in the lines presented above, is to give the story some space and some time.

My best attempt began in this fashion, “Once in the city of the Sultan, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din a wretched boy was born …”  Pretty good opening and it allowed me all kinds of room to paint pictures, introduce characters, and finally get down to a star-crossed love story with an ironic twist at the end.

I haven’t thought about that story in a while, and it’s brought to mind some others I wouldn’t mind telling again, especially the ones about the selkies and the White Snake.

So, here I am, at the end of a day very much like yesterday, but now brimming with stories.

Perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hmmmm. Lessons I’ve Learned From Harry Hole

Hmmmm.  Lessons I’ve Learned From Harry Hole

“There are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people…mystery writers and serial killers.”

The quotation was penned by Richard Castle, the pen name, perhaps, of Tom Straw, but not scripted by the Richard Castle who is a character on Castle, a show about a mystery writer turned detective.  Ah, murder and fiction, and in this case, fictionalized fiction about murder.  Amusing, diverting, and the rabbit hole into which hours of my life have been poured, but, and here’s the point of this piece, I’ve learned some significant lessons along the way, none of which have to do with poison, hatchets, or woodchippers.

I inherited the habit of bingeing on mysteries from my mother, who simply grabbed the next twenty mystery novels on the library’s shelf, moving alphabetically, row-by-row until the time came to begin harvesting again.  I suppose she must have read other genres; she had worked in publishing with an inspiring editor.  By the time I kept track, however, Eric Ambler still set the carousel in motion, and Rex Stout was always  somewhere near the end.  Her favorites,  Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers ended up in her permanent collection, as did Josephine Tey and Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Mary Stewart crept in near the end, nudging her toward historical fiction if a mystery lived somewhere in its midst.  I suppose I could have done my own shopping at the library, but the titles in her bi-weekly mystery bag – Death on the Nile, The Unpleasantness  at the Bellona Club, The League of Frightened Men, The Man Who Could Not Shudder – irresistible, and so, I developed an appetite that has not been sated.

I have observed that detectives have to appear clever, but the best of them also have a distinctive intelligence that is frequently as disabling in their personal lives as it is necessary in their nabbing of a villain.  Holmes was clearly somewhere on what is known as the spectrum, a savant with little in the way of easy exchange with ordinary humans.  Hercule Poirot was capable of friendship, but as his pal, Captain Arthur Hastings observed, “The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.”  Boston Blackie could not quite shake off the habits he had developed as jewel thief, while Dr. Gideon Fell, corpulent master of  “locked room mysteries” drank and ate far more than was good for him.  Mike Hammer was a bit too willing to shoot first and ignore questions altogether, whereas Philo Vance was virtually agoraphobic, rarely leaving his comfortable armchair and the cultivation of his orchids.  It goes without saying that many of the more contemporary sleuths somehow manage to close a case despite fumbling in a thick haze of alcohol and smoke.

I have spent quite a bit of time recently with Jo Nesbo’s detective, Harry Hole, whose name does not command immediate respect when pronounced with an American accent, but whose work is pretty darned impressive.  Hole (Ho-leh as he’s known in Norway) is a mess, I mean a genuinely damaged alcoholic mess, who manages to pull himself together long enough to unwrap mysteries ordinary mortals could not solve.  He’s intelligent, but also intuitive, sensing connections rather than rooting them out.  Hole is not universally admired; he has a few loyal pals on the Oslo police force, but most find him contemptible, and they are not mistaken in expecting a royal dumpster dive from Harry at some point. Nonetheless, Hole is a remarkable mind, a decent man who has, in addition, developed a manner of responding to virtually any situation that I have found extraordinarily helpful.

No matter how provocative, insulting, demeaning, encouraging, ridiculous the statement, Harry almost always responds with a sub vocalized, “Hmmmm”.  It’s genius, really; Harry acknowledges that he’s heard whatever twaddle has been served up without expressing affirmation, dismissal, appreciation, or contempt.  In fact, the more egregiously unfortunate the statement, the more judiciously Harry hmmms.  Let’s not give Harry too much credit for judicious behavior, he is capable of stunning stupidity in his personal life, but even there, he offers a calming hmmm when up against what could be familial Armageddon.

Conversations in my own sphere are equally fraught with menace, especially as I am now teaching through the adult education arm of Southern Oregon University.  My classes invite large numbers of formerly exceedingly well employed and highly intelligent people into sessions in which discussion is encouraged.  Time is short, in the class day and in the life span of my cohort, so opinions, now rock solid after years of contention, are offered as fact.  Opinions differ.  Mine are correct, but I’ll entertain other points of view, responding to each with a well modulated hmmmm.  The method works equally well in my civilian life, particularly as I encounter folks up here whose political compass does not point in the same direction as mine.  I’m right again, but there are some battles I’ll have to take to the ballot box rather than shove a permanent wedge between my house and the electrician who knows where the wires have been crossed.

My other job is with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a repertory theater company with a mission to promote inclusivity, our collective humanity, and social justice.  Patrons arrive with expectations, those expectations may be upended by the decision to cast two women as the leading roles in Oklahoma, and despite my conviction that the performances were stunning and moving, I can still meet strong objections with a well delivered hmmm.

I’m nearing the end, I think, of the Harry Hole novels, unless Nesbo is willing to pick up the burden once again, but I’ve got an appointment with Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s rogue force of nature in an unappreciative LAPD, whose terse rejoinders ( I’m relaxed, Belk.  I call it Zen and the art of not giving a shit.”) are probably not going to serve me well unless I find myself in a holding cell.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a perfect acknowledgment of message received

Why I Don’t Watch Scary Movies … Much

Why I Don’t Watch Scary Movies … Much

In my younger days, I tortured myself by watching what were then considered scary movies, shivering in pre-adolescent agony as monster after monster threatened to do all that it is that monsters are inclined to do when they roam unchecked. Giant apes, giant dinosaurs, giant insects, mummies, creatures created in laboratories, dueling skeletons, invisible men – I could (barely) handle them all.  Bump the terror up a notch and I’d still hang in, but start to get all witchy on me and all bets were off.

Let’s start with Disney’s  Snow White and  the Seven Dwarfs.  The Queen, Snow White’s stepmother, figures out that the huntsman sent out to kill Snow White has tried to pass off a pig’s heart (vivisection not shown in the cartoon version) as Snow White’s.  It’s in a nice box with ribbons, but the Queen’s no patsy.  Visibly disappointed, the Queen descends into her crone-cave to whip up a few quick potions, obviously at ease in thumbing through the evil potion recipe book. Within a storm of gaseous green wind, she transforms from a preening beauty into a toothless hag.  That’s not entirely true; she has one tooth, warts on her great curved nose and exophthalmic eyes bulging in anticipation  of Snow White’s vivisection .

She was a cartoonish witch to be sure, and as a hag not that terrifying.  It was the act of transforming that unhinged me; you think you know who she is, just another cruddy stepmother, then Puff Pop Pow, she’s a witch.  Wait!

I’m not a practicing clinician, but I think it all goes back to the good Mommy/ Mad Mommy, Good Daddy/ Mad Daddy conundrum.  Which Mommy do I get?  The good Mommy who thinks I’m adorable, picks up my sippy cup thirty times in a row without complaint, or the Mad Mommy who slams the sippy cup on the floor and says, “See!  That’s gravity!  See!”, picks it up and slams it down again.  “Oh, look!  It’s down.  Hope the dog doesn’t eat it.” Which Daddy is in the house?   The good Daddy who has a great day at work and comes home with a toy or treat because I’m just so cute, or the Mad Daddy who walks in the house, slips on the cup, throws it against the wall and says, “When does this drooling bag of phlegm learn how to pick up after himself?”, discovers that the sippy has spurted strained beet juice on the wall, and adds, “I think I can find a guy downtown who buys children, no questions asked.”

Nothing on films, books, or stories scared the bezonkers out of me more than the moment of transformation, when someone I’ve seen one way metamorphose into a terrifying, extremely dangerous, implacable, and entirely evil creature.  Starting with Queen Grimhilde, my aversion to witches became increasingly clear, but I continued to wander unsuspecting into the late night Creature Features, not spooked say, by the menace of the bandaged version of the Mummy, but by the living incarnation of Imhotep, played by a wrinkled Boris Karloff, kind of metamorphosed, alive, yet not, bandaged and unwrapped as his incarnations bounced around.

It’s a more complicated story than absolutely necessary, as were most of the horror films released by Universal Studios in the Golden Age of Universal’s horror films.  The main attraction was generally an actor in make-up, usually Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, or Boris Karloff.    The back stories tended not to matter very much once the monsters arrived.   Lugosi kicked off the Universal Monster Money Machine on 1931 with his portrayal of Count Dracula, ostensibly a Transylvanian aristocrat, a role that established his career as a vaguely menacing odd person with an Hungarian accent; both the accent and the oddity limited the range of parts offered. A few months later, Boris Karloff became the first filmed Frankenstein, a part he would reprise in The Bride of Frankenstein and The Son of Frankenstein, cultivating the broad modulation of his speech in later roles in film and as the narrator of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Chaney, Jr. was the son of the most celebrated makeup artist and horrifying actor of the silent era, Lon Chaney, known as The Man of a Thousand Faces, two of which were the iconic faces of the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Unlike his father, Lon Chaney, Jr. had an open, unremarkable, reasonably friendly face, almost immediately transformed by makeup artists into the ferocious or disfigured.

And so, in 1941, in The Wolf Man, Chaney played the role of Lawrence Talbot, long-lost heir to Talbot Manor and the Talbot fortune.  Chaney returns to Wales, which apparently looks like Transylvania, after having been … somewhere … for eighteen years, during which time he has become a bulky six-foot tall skirt-chasing, grammatically challenged American.  The senior Talbot, Sir John Talbot, played by Claude Rains (French collaborator in Casablanca addressed in the final moments by Humphrey Bogart, “Louie, I think this is the start of beautiful friendship”), a tiny, tidy Englishman (also not Welsh), apparently given to spying on his Welsh village with a telescope powerful enough to read newsprint on Jupiter.  The telescope comes in handy when Lawrence wishes to check out the shop girl he finds irresistible; the foolish girl thought that life in rural Wales brought relative privacy.  As was often the case in the Universal universe, Welsh/Shmelsh, the town was packed with Americans playing local constables and civic leaders, cockney wags tossing off one-liners, and a Gypsy caravan tugging Bela Lugosi (incredible moustache!) and Maria Ouspenskaya into the fog-engulfed Welsh countryside.

OK, Talbot and his shop girl and another young woman trot through the pea soup shroud of fog to ask the Gypsies to read their fortunes.  Lugosi is willing, but when he looks at the palm of the young woman, he sees a pentagram, the iconic mark of the lycanthrope, pretty much assuring us that he, Lugosi, is a werewolf and will inevitably hunt down and eat the young woman, thus complicating the telling of this fortune.  Instead of saying (in an Hungarian accent) “I see myself dragging you through the woods until I am able to tear you into bite-sized morsels”, Lugosi simply says, “Come back tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, at least three characters have found it necessary to recite a pithy poem to Talbot; we have to guess it’s an old Welsh favorite and probably has something to do with where the plot needs to go.

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright”

General fog shrouded violence ensues, during which time, Talbot steps in and is bitten by a wolf, which we are meant to believe is Lugosi, but is more accurately a stuffed wolf puppet.  Talbot kills the puppet with the silver handle of his cane, but the damage has been done; he is now doomed to live out the rest of his days (about a weekend) as a werewolf, which is to say as a man who is transformed into a “wolf” when the moon is full, compelled by his wolfish nature to stalk and kill innocent people in Welsh villages, apparently just for the heck of it, as we never see werewolves actually feed on their prey.  It is Ouspenskaya, Gypsy grieving mother, who breaks the unvarnished news to Talbot.

Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives, becomes a werewolf himself.

There you go.  That explains everything.  Well, it doesn’t explain why a werewolf doesn’t look like a wolf, a transformation that would have been much more terrifying.  I understand that computer graphic imagery was not available and latex and fur can do only so much, but even with a chilling score and plenty of fog, Chaney looked like a sheepdog with a hangover, looking out of matted fur with bloodshot eyes.

All of which is to say that the “transformation” was obvious, expected, and not all that alarming.  My daughter reminds me that the werewolf is a victim; he didn’t intend to be powerless over lupine instincts, and, in fact, spends considerable time and energy trying not to hunt and howl.  Even a man whose is pure in heart, etc.  So, I cut the wolfman some slack.

Which is not to say that all shapeshifters get off that easily.

The general term for those who shift from human to animal or from animal to human is therianthropy (lycanthropy being specific to the wolf shift), the earliest depiction of which is to be found in a drawing apparently scribbled in the Cave of the Tres Freres in 13,000 BC.  So, they’ve been around for a while.  Leaving totemism, shamanism, and the Greek gods aside (“Hey, Leda, ever been with a swan?”), and now over-familiar with werewolves and vampires, the shapeshifters who give me the willies now come from other traditions.  Skin-walkers in Navajo  are so adept at their shifting and the Navajo so careful in speaking of them, that we don’t know a lot, except that they are likely witches and not welcome.

Let’s not think much about the notion that speaking of them (or any therianthrope) might bring one into the house.  Invitations are now and forcefully withdrawn!

There are many, many Celtic spirits and sprites capable of shifting, most of which make amusing reading with anthropological distance.  The exception, for me, however is the selkie, not inherently terrifying, but still, there are so many complications to consider.  One falls in love, marries, notices the mate’s frequent absences, hides in a cave (or whatever) and sees one’s true love slip into a sealskin, turn, and swim away.  What’s a guy or gal to do?  ” Loving means setting free”, but some get nasty, hiding the skin (where? ) or salting it, which strikes me as downright evil.  Selkies and merpeople are closely related if not identical, so they all have the ability to drag an unsuspecting suitor to a watery grave, which is one of the things to which I do not want to be dragged.

Armenian folklore ups the ante with the Nhang, a serpent that moves back and forth, drowns its victims, then drinks their blood.  Over the top, if you ask me.  Admittedly, mixed marriages can be tough, as is evidenced in the Chinese tale, Madame White Snake, a complex story in which a bride’s true identity as a large white snake is revealed, the unprepared husband dies to be brought back to life, a son is born, and many, many challenges come to Madame White Snake and her family.

All slightly shivery and not something to think about in the dark hours, alone in a cabin, but the number one flesh the goose moment for me came in watching what most probably consider a relatively inoffensive, highly atmospheric, Burn Witch Burn, an adaptation of Fritz Lieber’s novel, Conjure Wife.

Witches get me, and the trick in Burn Witch Burn, which is set in the comfy environs of a small university, isn’t simply that the seemingly inoffensive faculty wife is an active conjurer, or that there is at least one other witch in campus,  but that a good witch’s body is hijacked by a bad witch, primarily  because the good witch’s husband doesn’t believe in superstition and magic and has trashed his wife’s nifty magical store of protective juju, leaving them to witchy attacks and possession, and possession is essentially a kind of shapeshifting, so I got the double dose with a possessed witch being manipulated by yet another witch.

I don’t seek out horror films anymore; the world is more than scary enough.  I’ll endure and mostly enjoy a well crafted thriller, and Get Out was so well done that I watched it twice, but houses in which the walls drip blood, and reincarnations of demon children and fang-heavy chomp-fests are off the table.

I awake at times in the hour of the wolf, sleepless, agitated, slip to the window, see a full moon covered with tendrils of fog and cannot help but think:

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright”

By the way, wolf’s bane is also known as monk’s hood or aconite and is the source of the poison used to make deadly the swords featured in Hamlet’s last duel.  Stay away, even in full daylight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lounge Lizards, Lotharios, and the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet

Lounge Lizards, Lotharios, and the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet

Cad, boor, lout, oaf, rake, louse, pig, brute, beast. 

The nouns reek of disapproval.  Turn them into adjectives, however, and  Hey Presto sort of ok.  If a guy is caddish, is it the “ish” that pulls back some of the disapprobation?  Boorish, Loutish, Oafish?  Moving into the merely unappetising. 

Lousy?  Nada. Zippo.  Mildly unpleasant at worst.

Piggish, brutal, and beastly still sound pretty bad, but Pig, Brute, and Beast, much worse.  Actually, as I write this, it sound like a law firm.  

I’m interested in the words we choose to use in describing the world about us and increasingly interested as I am made aware of the subtlety and precision with which other languages operate. 

English is a good language; don’t get me wrong.  I like it, use it every day, and it has a lot of words. about a quarter of a million give or take, reckoning that a bunch fall out of usage and new ones pop up like acne in middle school.   Shakespeare is credited with inventing more than a thousand words and phrases, of which “hoist with his own petard” is undoubtedly the niftiest and least used, whereas “heart of gold” and “faint hearted” seem obvious, dare we say inevitable?  Combination words such as “mumblecore” appear with regularity, attaching an action (mumbling) to a group (a core group of actors who speak indistinctly).  New words that describe what we do and feel in terms of the implements we have invented have immediacy now, but who knows how long words such as “googling” and “facebooking” will serve a purpose?  

The least inventive of new words are shortened versions of other words.  In the last two years, Merriam Webster has added the following abbreviated words to its dictionary:  “fave” (favorite),  “Bougie” (bourgeois), “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read), “marg” (a margarita), “adorbs” (adorable), “rando” (random person), and “guac” (guacamole).  So it goes, and so it has probably always gone.  1990 gave us “hoodie”, “fam”, and “props”, 1980 “dis” and “camo”, 1970 added “op-ed”, “techie”, and “za” (za and brew go together like mag and guac).  

Nominations?  

Of the 6,912 languages in current use (516 are threatened with extinction as of 2/10/19), the language with the fewest words, Taki Taki, spoken in Suriname, has 340 words.  Now that’s a streamlined language.  Do we need all our hundreds of thousands of words cluttering up our attempts to communicate with clarity?  I’m going with, yes we do, because it seems almost any mangled relationship, small or large, comes down to miscommunication or misinterpretation.  A ridiculously huge number of mangles has brought the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements into the conversation challenging us to find the right words to describe the malefactors we meet.

As it is more than evident that “No” apparently means “Whatever” to a subset of bipeds still preying on women, the various varieties of male slimebag (is that the right word?) provide a window into where language works and where it fall short. 

The far end of the spectrum stakes out territory fairly quickly.  A rapist is a rapist is a rapist – no obfuscation allowed. We can add abuser, violator, assaulter, despoiler – essentially the Cosby/Weinstein level nouns, those who need to be in prison.  It’s the other end that need some linguistic attention, and that is today’s puzzlement.

The title of the piece, Lounge Lizards and Lotharios, refers back to a simpler time, when men were fascinated by women but stopped short of pressing themselves upon them.  The stakes are much higher now, and the qualities once seen with some wry amusement no longer seem relatively benign. 

Lotharios were selfish and manipulative, entirely reprehensible, but just … just within the boundaries of civilized behavior.  They were seducers, enticing women to relationships in which they were taken advantage of.  Jane Austen knew them well;  George Wickham and John Willoughby almost pull Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood into truly disastrous errors of affection.  Without pulling punches, Austen makes it clear that the seducers may suffer a few dings in terms of career, the seduced end up on the street selling matches, or worse.

Ah, the Lounge Lizard, reptilian, perhaps, but essentially a wannabe Lothario.  The “Lizard” frequents the haunts of the rich and foolish in the hope of attracting a flighty heiress or foolish widow.  Lotharios might come in any shape or size (Austen’s were all in great shape), but the Lounge Lizard has to be handsome enough to snare a prospect with no more than a smouldering glance at the hunt club.  

Are there terms that signify what might be termed “interest” without implying harassment?  It’s not easy to find them as lines get crossed pretty quickly.  I’m inclined to use the word “flirt”, although I am aware that the term means something very different for men than it does for women.  If a man flirts, is flirtish, is flirty, the general tone of the term is playful, expressing attraction without threat.  Mostly.  The term generally assumes that flirtation is, if not consensual, at least not entirely unwanted. 

When the term is applied to women, the stakes go up.  Not fair, of course, but a flirting female may be termed a coquette, which is to say, a woman who feigns interest in order to get attention or admiration.  As far as I know, there is no male equivalent of coquette; apparently men get attention and admiration in different sorts of posturing.  Not sure about that one.

Upping the stakes one more notch, female flirts may also be seen as various varieties of tease, someone who is provocative – “look but don’t touch”.  There are so many imbedded and unfortunate attitudes in that definition that we may have now reached the point at which words fail us.  If a man were to say, “look but don’t touch”…?  Would that be provocative?  Would that incite retributive behavior?  No, the scales are definitely out of whack here.

The which leaves me with but one final term to consider, and it is one that I have never personally encountered.  It is clearly not ok to call a girl or woman, boy or man, “a tasty bit of crumpet”.  What’s the impact, however in adding modifiers as in  “the thinking man’s/woman/s crumpet”?  Benedict Cumberbatch is apparently a thinking woman’s crumpet, whereas Helen Mirren is the thinking man’s.  I have to admit complete bafflement here.  Welcome compliment?  Odious objectification?

Your call.  Operators are standing by.

 

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I Say, Chives: Whatever Happened to Language?

I Say, Chives: Whatever Happened to Language?

I know.  Language is fluid, expansive, inclusive, and mutable.  Uh huh, and yet, an entire, dare I say, class of language appears to have evaporated more quickly than one (see?) might have guessed.

Language is still  fun and full of frolic as the yearly reporting of words absorbed into dictionaries attests, and some of the new are every bit as good as the old.  By good, I mean evocative, surprisingly exact, inescapably the right and only word for a condition which has in the moment come into existence.  Well, I suspect that the word “ghosting” used to describe the circumstance by which a spurned someone is completely cut off arises out of experiences that might have arrived in any age, but, still, good word.  Could we have limped along without “froyo”?  Probably, but the world seems brighter with froyo in it.  “Shade” has long been a perfectly utilitarian noun and verb; we can give a hearty shout out to “shady”, cousin to the Briticism, “dodgy”, and refer to the shading of truth with absolute confidence that we will be understood.

“Throwing shade”, however, is a trickier expression.  Merriam Webster defines throwing shade in this fashion: “to express contempt or disrespect for someone publicly especially by subtle or indirect insults or criticisms”.   It may be that the expression was first spotted in the 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. Jennie Livingston’s vibrant picture of Black and Latino drag queens and the last days of ball culture in New York City.  It has certainly moved into the  mainstream since then.

The expression has arrived with full force in the reporting of sports news on those days in which there is no news.  “Were LeBron (James) and (Jim) Boeheim throwing shade?”  “Did LeBron James Throw Shade at Kyrie Irving Again?”  Stay tuned.  Top of the hour.  Around-the-clock LeBron non-stories dripping with shade.  My favorite shade blurb thus far accompanies a picture of Rihanna (Barbadian pop icon/ ambassador) shaking hands with a fan courtside at a Brooklyn Nets basketball game.  “Hands say friends.  Eyes say shade”.

So, huzzah for the relentless swirl of old and new language and for a diversity of manners of speech.  I’ll admit that we Boomers came up with expressions I hope have died and are largely forgotten – “groovy” being the most notably affected pseudo-hip affirmation in modern times.  Ok, “what’s your bag?” was pretty awful, and “bippy”, as in, “you bet your bippy” come very close.  The best of the new survives; the worst, well, can also survive, but that’s not the point.

The point is that lovely, slightly stuffy, language once flourished, primarily in books of a certain genre and on the screen.  This come to mind as yet another tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective premiered last week.  Holmes and Watson, played by comics Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, apparently bumble about with comedic good cheer, adopting the sort of mangled consonant gurgle Americans think of as the delivery used by educated Brits at the turn of the last century.  Their expressions, as one would expect, though amusing, are hardly of the period.  One suspects that Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle’s Watson rarely used the expression, “Mother of Shit”.  If he did, I missed it several times around.  Incongruous and in the trailer perhaps funny, but not really to the epoch born.

Watson might have said in expressing his surprise,”What the deuce is this?”  The devil being frequently called to task for all sorts of unpleasantness.  Watson was, of course, a physician, ostensibly trained in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and also a military man having served in India and Afghanistan.  Holmes and his brother Mycroft speak with the assurance of lads raised in the comfortable ease of country gentry.  A more elevated manner of speech arrived in the novels written by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, DSO), son of Mortimer Gerald Bredon Wimsey, 15th Duke of Denver and Honoria Lucasta, educated at Eton and Oxford, devoted to criminology, bibliophily, music, and cricket, negotiated the solving of crime with impeccable grace, beautifully dressed by his valet, Bunter.  The following exchange is found in the 1923 publication  of Whose Body.

“That’s your idea, is it, Bunter? Noblesse oblige—for a consideration. I daresay you’re right. Then you’re better off than I am, because I’d have to behave myself to Lady Worthington if I hadn’t a penny. Bunter, if I sacked you here and now, would you tell me what you think of me?”

“No, my lord.”

“You’d have a perfect right to, my Bunter, and if I sacked you on top of drinking the kind of coffee you make, I’d deserve everything you could say of me. You’re a demon for coffee, Bunter—I don’t know how you do it, because I believe it to be witchcraft, and I don’t want to burn eternally.”

Sayers, who was among the first women to be awarded a degree at Oxford, was not an aristo, but she picked up the lingo of the right schools and clubs, as did P.G. Wodehouse as evidenced in this exchanges between his central character, the feckless Bertie Wooster, and his valet, Jeeves in the eponymous, My Man Jeeves.

“Jeeves,” I said that evening. “I’m getting a check suit like that one of Mr. Byng’s.”

“Injudicious, sir,” he said firmly. “It will not become you.”

“What absolute rot! It’s the soundest thing I’ve struck for years.”

“Unsuitable for you, sir.”

Well, the long and the short of it was that the confounded thing came home, and I put it on, and when I caught sight of myself in the glass I nearly swooned. Jeeves was perfectly right. I looked a cross between a music-hall comedian and a cheap bookie. Yet Monty had looked fine in absolutely the same stuff. These things are just Life’s mysteries, and that’s all there is to it.”

It occurs to me that the phrase, “Injudicious  … unsuitable for you, sir” fits almost any situation in which I am at odds with a decision I consider unfortunate.  Bertie and his pals, including the unfortunately named Gussie Fink-Nottle, mix public (private) school slang with odd locutions of their own, as immortalized in Fink-Nottle’s Sodbury Grammar School speech:

“Boys,” said Gussie, “I mean ladies and gentlemen and boys, I will not detain you long, but I propose on this occasion to feel compelled to say a few auspicious words. Ladies – boys and ladies and gentlemen – we have all listened with interest to the remarks of our friend here who forgot to shave this morning – I don’t know his name, but then he didn’t know mine – Fitz-Wattle, I mean, absolutely absurd – which squares things up a bit – and we are all sorry that the Reverend What-ever-he-was-called should be dying of adenoids, but after all, here today, gone tomorrow, and all flesh is as grass, and what not, but that wasn’t what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was this – and I say it confidently – without fear of contradiction – I say, in short, I am happy to be here on this auspicious occasion and I take much pleasure in kindly awarding the prizes, consisting of the handsome books you see laid out on that table. As Shakespeare says, there are sermons in books, stones in the running brooks, or, rather, the other way about,[16] and there you have it in a nutshell.”

Indeed.  All flesh is grass.

To return for a moment to the purpose of this short screed, some phrases have a short half-life, disappearing before being absorbed into the permanent collection of words to be used on a daily basis.  I’ll nominate five right here, right now, and for better or worse pledge to include them in my conversations with the general public this week.  The first of these, and the easiest to fling about is “jolly”, not the Santa and bowl of jelly jolly, but the extremely urgent commanding, “You will jolly well fill my prescription while I stand here”, or the extremely complimentary affirmation, “They serve a jolly good sandwich at Sams Samwhich stand.”  Another affirmation?  “Rather!”  “Did you think Rihanna looked smashing at the Nets game last week?  Rather!”  Rather as a sly adjective is also quite useful.  “I felt rather timid in approaching her.”

Encounter someone of unimpeachable character, dependable, forthright, honest? That paragon is a “brick”.   “He’s been a brick since the indictment came down.”  On the other end of the spectrum, the friend who lets one down has also been beastly to countless others.  “Beastly” brings to mind the more rapacious beasts, not the fuzzy creatures great and small.  Finally, having used the word “spiffy” for decades, I’m resolved to use the more decorous “smart”, more restrained than swanky and less obscure than modish.

Oh, and I’m not going to the picture theater to see Holmes and Watson as the hope of finding a trove of expressions chronologically inaccurate but blooming marvellous is rather unlikely.

 

152 Days Until Fire Season

152 Days Until Fire Season

I live in Oregon, only a few miles north of the California border.  The local paper of record, The Medford Mail Tribune, arrives with close observation of the daily events that animate Jackson County, from the sudden emergence of hemp production as a primary agricultural enterprise (“2018 – The Year of Hemp”) to the celebration of local teams (“Crater High School, Home of the Comets, 5A State Champions in baseball!”).  Big news at the start of the new year is that motorists may now take dead deer and elk from “grille to grill”, as the paper so tastefully put it.

The paper arrives each day with a large box bordered in red on the front page announcing the number of days left until the start of Fire Season.  I wasn’t expecting that sort of countdown to be part of my daily life here, but then, I hadn’t expected to live next to a hemp field or to cheer the Crater Comets.  We moved to the Rogue Valley from Coastal California, a quiet beach town halfway between Ventura and Santa Barbara.  Our home was adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest.  It’s a large forest; its tendrils stretch from Palmdale in the Antelope Valley to Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County, almost three thousand square miles, almost two million acres.  The forest has a second location in Monterey County, including the Big Sur coast.

When we arrived in 1996, Santa Barbarans still talked about the Painted Cave Fire of 1990, a fire that burned about five thousand acres, a fire blazing at a height of more than seventy feet at its worst, a fire caused by arson during a hot spell in which the temperature had reached 108 degrees.  We knew several families who had lost homes in that fire, most of whom rebuilt in the same  area, in the canyons and passes between Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez.  During our time in Santa Barbara County, we saw ten more fires move quickly as Sundowner Winds brought by high pressure to the north preceded the Santa Ana Winds charging from the south.  We had moved to Oregon just before the Thomas Fire, pushed by the Santa Ana winds, swept from Santa Paula in Ventura County to Santa Barbara, torching almost three hundred thousand acres, destroying more than a thousand homes, and bringing about two billion dollars in damage to the area.

Fire is now a way of life in this region.  The causes are many and blame moves at the speed of a Santa Ana blast.  Timothy Egan’s remarkable book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that saved America, published in 2009, documented the Fire of 1910, a fire that destroyed an area of Idaho and Montana the size of the State of Connecticut in a weekend.  It’s a book of large purpose, examining the impact of the fire as well as its causes, and it’s a book I used in 2010 as the central point of focus in a school wide exercise in inquiry as it presented issues of immigration, large-scale exploitation of the western lands, and the emergence of a progressive movement resulting in the establishment of National Parks and the conservation of public land.

It wasn’t a hit.

Although the region had been damaged by eight large fires at that time, the small town in which we lived and taught had escaped danger.  We drove through fire ravaged areas, but we hadn’t faced evacuation and the loss of our own homes.  The Thomas Fire changed all that.  The school’s playing fields were used by firefighters from around the world as the base from which the Thomas Fire was fought.  Before the fire was contained, all students and all teachers had been evacuated.  The book appears more prescient now.

Southern Oregon was devastated last summer by raging fire to the south and north, resulting in a period of about six weeks in which heavy smoke so filled the valley that readings of air quality determined the daily business of the region, essentially devastating towns such as Ashland, dependent on income earned during the summer months.   We’ve come to expect summer after summer of extreme fire events as global warming has altered the landscape and high temperatures accelerate winds carrying fire to the region.

152 Days until Fire Season.  It’s the new reality and one we are only starting to understand.

OK, OK, I’m Doing It Myself

OK, OK, I’m Doing It Myself

 

It’s not Home Depot’s fault.  Except that they promised that I could manage whatever home related project came to mind.  “You can do it”, they said, and like the lemming that I am, I happily dove off the cliff of home repair.*

*Apparently lemmings don’t actually do the cliff diving ascribed to them.  Here’s some homegrown heartbreak – Disney faked the lemming suicide scene in 1958’s White Wilderness.  I’d like to know who pitched the wholesale tossing of lemmings into the void; there’s a naturalist with a serious lack of respect for lemming migration.

I digress.  Home owning handiness.  Right.

The first small projects ought to have been instructive; replacing light bulbs and air filters, surely within my reach.  And, after a few tries, they were.  Bulbs of proper wattage and of proper luminosity are now in place and filters appropriate to the task set them and of the correct size are equally happily placed.

Apparently the “few tries” might have informed more ambitious projects, but they did not.

We had moved into a perfectly fine house, laid out exactly as we had wished, in great shape.  But the door knobs in the kitchen differed from those in the living room, which were not the same as those in the bathrooms or bedrooms.  Not simply different in size or color, but violently different in what might be called character or tone.  Large circular bronze knobs in the kitchen, a semi-Florentine tubular crest opened the front door, and the rest of the doors had a variety of sleek curlicues in mottled beige.

Not acceptable, and equally unacceptable was the thought of hiring a locksmith or other door knob specialist to do what Home Depot assured me I could do myself.  I was advised that the contemporary door sports a sleek handle rather than a clunky knob.  In addition, I’d been advised that handles were easier for the “older person” to manipulate, particularly in situations in which we had to flee from fire or flood.  I always appreciate recommendations directed to the quasi senescent homeowner, but sleek and sensible?  I ordered ten sets in brushed nickel.

Were there moments of challenge?  To be sure, but my memory is that most were met with serene acceptance and abiding faith that all would be well in the end.  I like to think that I displayed unflappable determination throughout; that would be a nice fiction, but other voices were less certain of my eventual success.  There may have been a moment in which I let slip an oath of unfortunate volume and specificity, and a screwdriver may have been driven into the laundry room wall in an attempt to convince the do-it-yourself gods that I meant business.  I admit to momentary lapses in buoyant good cheer; setbacks are to be expected, properly identified by aforementioned oaths.

Mission roughly accomplished, I then turned toward the maintenance of the lush front lawn.  I’d killed my share of plants over the years, but had learned a valuable lesson in the aftermath.  Apparently, I kill with kindness, over-watering, constantly fidgeting with pots, soil, fertilizing sticks.  This lawn would be different.  I would follow instruction to the letter, mowing, raking, fertilizing, and seeding as the experts advised.

This lawn was doomed.

I mowed, raked, fertilized, seeded.  Within a month, the lawn was marbled with yellow patches of dead grass and crisp brown rings that may have had something to do with four dogs finding what professionals call “The Squat Spot”.  In any case, the meticulously measured lawn food and the artfully spread seed appeared to have had little success in battling fungal grass cholera.

Not to worry.  The internet is rife with advice offered by lawn doctors from every region.  I knew enough to stick with tips from the Pacific Northwest and just enough to not spring for “Kobi”, the Roomba of Lawn Maintenance, and I’ll pause to suggest that life has already begun to have its way with me as I find myself using the phrase,”Roomba of Lawn Maintenance”.  And there’s something just wrong about longing for a lawn robot to do my job, but I would have bought a Kobi in a flash had the cost of Kobisizing not exceeded the value of my car.  As I looked across the expanse of  mottled , crusted silage that my lawn had become, however, I was tempted to sell the car,  buy a Zamboni, flood the yard, freeze the damn thing, and invite the neighbors over for a quick round of snap-the-whip and mugs of hot chocolate.

Except for the global warming thing.  So, that was out.

The which is to say I do have moments of quiet desperation as a homeowner, and yet … The doors operate smoothly for the most part, the lawn comes back to life in the spring, the surface of the deck no longer buckles every summer, and the fruit trees actually bear fruit.  There are pleasures to be had in holding the place together, and as tasks go, these are relatively rewarding.  

There is also some pleasure in recognizing that the nice folks at Home Depot are unlikely to pop in should I decide to rip up the floors and lay down tile.  I can watch ambitious handy folk tear down and restore homes from Waco to Vegas in an hour or less without feeling the slightest compunction to grab a crowbar myself.  I am free to admire their gumption, invention and resilience without having to do a dang thing other than make more popcorn.

And there’s not much point in taking on a lawn robot when I still get a kick out of mowing a pattern on the thick grass in  the pasture.  It’s not uniformly green; I skim over the bald spots and double down on the mounds left by the tireless gopher.  Still, at dusk it looks ok, and when the leaves start to fall, any imperfections become a tapestry more handsome than any I could design.