Clearing Out

Two friends of ours in their eighties have been forced by a number of physical challenges to move into “assisted living.” It’s coming to all of us, folks, one way or another. They sold their house precipitously and somebody threw all their possessions into cardboard boxes, which were moved to a storage unit and piled ceiling-high. I will quickly pass over the fact that the same hand that packed their stuff higgledy-piggledy—or perhaps some other hand—got away with all the lady’s crystal, fine china, and jewelry.  She’s over it, so I should be over it too. Now it’s time to deal with what’s left.

tintypeOur friends go to the storage unit every day and open these boxes, which have to be cleared out before the rent comes due on the unit.They try to sort things. What to keep, in an assisted living facility where there is no storage, there are no locks on the doors, and the staff is light-fingered?  What to throw away, among the memorabilia of two long and distinguished lives? Since they haven’t any children who seem to be interested, we—that is, some of their friends from church—have been stopping by every so often to try and help. Snapshots, souvenir travel booklets, certificates of awards, linen table napkins, children’s books, handkerchiefs, razors, cups, straw baskets, screwdrivers,  old clothes, knick-knacks, tintypes of mysterious unknown relatives, all thrown together in three-foot-square cardboard boxes, with packing paper crammed in to fill the spaces. Bit by little bit we get it squared away.

Why am I telling you all this? As a warning, that’s why. Those of us who are still able-bodied and more or less in our right minds need to go through our own stuff now, today. At least one of the helpers went straight home from the site of this disaster and started in on her stuff.

I must start in on mine. My first editor (may he rest in peace) told me to keep all my papers. He said they would be valuable someday, so I have three bins of literary papers under the guest bed, and you know what? No one will ever want to look at them. I have long since abandoned the fantasy that some graduate student in the distant future might be interested in my work. As for the editor, he died in a hospice in Brooklyn (possibly the same hospital where my grandmother did her nurse’s training in 1903, but that’s neither here nor there). He had no children. What happened to his papers? Probably hauled away by the New York City sanitation people, along with his worn-out handkerchiefs, razors, cups, screwdrivers,  old clothes, kitchen utensils, and knick-knacks.

It just seems sad. Sometimes the passage of time itself seems sad. What to keep? What to throw away? The time to decide is now. Get busy.

 

The Idea of Dancing

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A nice lady interviewed me the other day and wanted to know what I might have liked to be if I weren’t a writer. When I was ten years old, I said, I wanted to be a ballerina. And there are a number of other choices I feel I would like to have made, now that I’m grown up: opera singer, movie director. But I have no noticeable physical grace, no voice, and no Hollywood connections.

The one thing I never wanted to grow up to do was anything that involved making a lot of money. I don’t know why that is. I like spending money; I like having money. But there always seemed to me to be something nasty about making money.

Being a ballerina is the anti-rich person choice. Dancers have even less chance than writers of ever making a buck. All the dancers I ever knew were broke all the time. But I tell you what. A great dancer, or even a moderately good dancer, has something that no amount of money can ever buy, and that’s the ability to create fantastic, ephemeral beauty just by showing up and moving around. Mere rich people can’t do that. It’s not even a gift. It’s an ability dearly bought with hours of arduous daily practice.

Some years ago Harold and I attended Celtic Week at the Ashokan music camp in the wild woods of New York State. He took his famous Irish fiddle, of course, and I brought my English concertina, which I play about as clumsily as I dance. There was dancing. There were serious dancers. Several of them put on a show on the last evening. I was particularly struck by one, a dark-haired girl doing charming things with a red chiffon scarf. She looked like the queen of the world.

Next day I ran into her in the parking lot as we were packing up to go. We chatted, and she revealed that she had no way to get home to New York City and no money for a cab. I was stunned. “I could never do that,” I said, by which I meant go somewhere for the sake of art and create ecstatic beauty with no way to get home again.

She thought I was criticizing her for her lifestyle, but it wasn’t that at all. I was dumb with admiration. Dancers. They’re like butterflies. Seriously, would you sooner be a dancer or a hedge fund manager?

Bar Stories

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Wednesday I went into New York City to attend the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Week Symposium. The high point of the event was Oline Cogdill’s interview with Walter Mosley, who was made a Grand Master last night at the Edgar banquet. In the course of the interview he told one of his best stories, which I’ve heard him tell before. It never gets old.

The story is about Mosley’s father’s family, which is the African-American side. Many years ago a number of them were at a night club in Los Angeles, where they lived, when some guy made an insulting remark or an unwelcome advance to one of  the young women.

“Ima kill him,” Mosley’s father said, pulling out a knife.

“Let me,” Aunt Betty said. She was the biggest and strongest one in the family.  The reality of life in Los Angeles in those days, Mosley explained, was that the police wouldn’t bother a black woman who killed a black man, but a black man who did that could get in a whole lot of trouble. So she took the knife away from him and went for the offender.

But Aunt Betty was not skilled at knife fighting. She made a pass with the knife, missed the guy, and stabbed Mosley’s father in the leg. When they saw the blood, everyone in the place rushed out.

Walter Mosley’s tale reminds me of the story a friend of mine tells about his father and his  uncle, Irishmen both. The uncle came visiting and complained that he hadn’t had a good Donnybrook in a while, and the father said, “Let’s go down to the bar and we’ll see what we can do. We’ll take Sally.”

Now, Aunt Sally was a ravishing creature with a movie star-quality bottom. Inevitably, one of the men at the bar admired her bottom in such terms as to give offense. So the uncle swung on him. Soon the whole place was embroiled in a good old-fashioned Donnybrook, the likes of which can hardly be found outside of a John Wayne movie. Big fun, the uncle thought. What Aunt Sally thought is not recorded.

Fortunately Dad was a policeman, so that when the cops came to break up the riot he had only to flash his badge and lead his party to safety.

Which brings me to my bar story.

I was ten years old. My sister was seven. We lived in a small town in Illinois. The four of us were driving home from dinner somewhere, dark night, kind of chilly, when the parents had a sudden urge to stop in at Matt’s Tavern for a quick one. They parked out front. Liz and I curled up in the back seat and waited uncomfortably.

After what seemed like an excessively long time it occurred to me that our house was only a mile or so from Matt’s. My sister and I could easily walk home to our warm beds. We didn’t have to shiver in the back seat all night. But we would need the house key.

So I went into the bar. “We’re going to walk home,” I said. A shocked silence fell over the revelers inside.

Mommy and Daddy had completely forgotten that they had left us out there.

But that was fine. They said, “No, we’re going, let’s go,” and they came out and drove us home. Not until the following day did I realize what a scandal I had caused (I guess I caused it, though it would have been worse for my poor parents if the two of us had died of hypothermia while they were drinking in Matt’s). Katherine Curtis’s mother asked me in her kitchen whether my parents had really left us in the car outside the bar in the middle of the night. I forget what I said to her, but I tried to make it sound as if it weren’t as bad as she seemed to think. Then I started to think, well, maybe it was.

There’s a point to all these stories, and it’s this: none of us grew up to do the kind of thing our parents did. Walter Mosley loves and reveres his father, but he doesn’t live the way he did. He lives by his wits. If he wants to kill somebody he can do it in a book,  the same as I can. I can’t imagine him pulling a knife on anybody. Dennis, as far as I know, has never started a bar fight in his life. As for me, I don’t even drink.

Attracting Eyeballs

What do you look at when you look at the internet?

which_dog_breed_do_you_look_like_featured_largeI asked myself this question the other day after blowing an hour or so on Facebook when I was supposed to be working. Why was I looking at all that? Mindlessly. Why did I take those stupid quizzes? We all know they’re worthless. If I don’t know by now, at my age,  whether I have an adequate grasp of English grammar or what country I should be living in, I’m afraid it’s way too late.

And yet we are drawn to this stuff, this clickbait. If only we knew why, we could use the knowledge to write irresistible blog posts.

WarningSignsofSociopathThe Knowing Ones give me tips from time to time on how to get people to read my blog posts. You know who they are. They write articles for the internet on how to improve yourself and your work, articles which you are irresistibly compelled to view. Mentioning a number in the title is effective, they say. Seventeen Terms Only Jersey Girls Understand. Ten Celebrities Who Have Big Bottoms. Anybody would click on that. I think about trying that ploy—Eight Ways to Cheat Death, Five Unpleasant People I Have Known. I dunno, it seems to me that anybody I would want to write for would be too smart to fall for it.

kittenI don’t really know for sure how to attract eyeballs. My own eyeballs go to ladies’ fashions from the olden days, notes about the state of health of my various Facebook friends, may they all be well, pictures of cityscapes from times gone by, and other folks’ political posts, sometimes. And cats. Cute cats. And babies. Cute cats with babies.

Also videos of Donald J. Trump. I hate myself for watching them but I can’t look away. With a sick fascination I watch him aggrandize himself, bluster, repeat himself while saying nothing, and when challenged on his policy positions, change the subject with practiced incoherence. What a showman. Watching him is like picking a scab.

TrumpBut one has to be so careful. Out there in Internet Land relentless bots collect information about everything we do on our computers. I go to Nordstrom.com and look at an interesting dress or pair of shoes and the next time I’m on Facebook there it is again, the same item, offered to me in an ad. Little does Zuckerberg know or care that I can’t afford the shoes, and the dress isn’t available above a size two. Maybe it’s cookies. It feels like some kind of conspiracy. Five Ways Your Computer Works to Destroy You.

I just had a horrible thought. The Internet knows that I watch Trump videos. What if they think I’m a fan and give my email and home address to the Trump campaign? What if they come after me for money and support?

Here I go to erase all my cookies. Or toss them.

Hooked on Spanish Soap

I must confess to a shameful addiction. If you have Netflix, you can succumb as well, if you’re inclined that way. It’s Gran Hotel.

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They call it the Spanish Downton Abbey, and in many ways it is—the period costumes, (complete with corsets), the rigid class distinctions, the multi-generational story lines. But it’s darker, more melodramatic. Family secrets are turfed out like ants from an anthill. Bodies drop in almost every episode, and not from car wrecks or natural causes as in the tepid Downton Abbey. Nearly everyone is some kind of murderer. And it’s all built around a charming love story between the married heiress to the hotel (Amaia Salamanca) and the hero, a handsome waiter (Yon Gonzalez). Muy Guapo, Yon Gonzalez. Possibly the prettiest  young man I’ve ever seen.

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As you can tell, I’m learning a little Spanish while I binge-watch this rip-snorter, which is subtitled in English. Already I’ve learned five or six words. By the time I get to the last episode—number 66, I think—I’ll be bilingual.

You’re saying, why doesn’t she get busy and write something herself? Hey, I’m studying. What is it that makes Gran Hotel impossible to turn away from? If I can discover their secret, I can write thrillers that nobody can put down, right? Anyway the week after Easter is a time to goof off and vacate. But that isn’t what I’m up to. No. I’m working. I’m studying. Here’s what I’ve discovered, the formula for a riveting and compelling story:

First of all the characters have to be interesting, varied, and deep. The plot twists have to be dizzying. And the writers must have no qualms about hurting people. No punches are to be pulled here.

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So that’s how you do it. I’m going to go forth and do likewise, as soon as I find out about the affair between the Marquesa and the priest, and whether the inspector ever discovers that the maitre d’ is the serial killer. And the explosion. I think there’s an explosion coming. I’m going back and watch some more.  Con su permiso.

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My Favorite Book

by-waysEvery so often someone wants to know what my favorite book is. I’m not sure about that. I know what my mother’s favorite book was—an Edwardian romance called The By-Ways of Braithe, the sort of novel that was said to ruin the morals of young girls. It was given to her by my Great-Aunt Kathleen, for whom I was named. The plot had everything: a lovely young red-headed heroine (my mother was red-headed), a priceless opal, an old mansion, secret passages, a dissolute but handsome cousin with carnal designs.

When I was two, or thereabouts, she put me down for a nap in the same room as her beloved copy of The By-Ways of Braithe, and instead of going to sleep I tore it up. I may even have eaten part of it. It was the sort of romantic twaddle that one could happily devour.

Years passed. I would have forgotten The By-Ways of Braithe, but for the fact that my mother mentioned it so often. Long after I grew up I discovered that there were such things as book-find services, and so I wrote away to one of them and secured a copy at last, which I first read and then gave to my mother for her birthday.

It was every bit as good as she had said. She was very pleased to receive it. She read it twice, or maybe three times, and then she laid it aside and began to pester me for other books that were lost in the mists of antiquity.

So I suppose one’s favorite book is the book one can’t quite have. For me, then, it’s The Yield of the Years, the memoirs of Admiral Sir Guy Gaunt, K.C.M.G., C.B., with twenty-seven illustrations. He makes an appearance in Firebomb, my spy thriller, and I’d really like to know him better, if only his book were available through interlibrary loan, or for sale in my price range.

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If you see it anywhere, please let me know.

Screaming

peacemarchYesterday I opened the front door to the warm winds of spring and heard the happy shrieks of the children playing down the street. “It’s fun to scream,” I said to Harold. “I haven’t had a good scream since 2003.” It was March 7, 2003, International Women’s Day, in fact, when George W. Bush and his cohorts had already decided to attack Iraq and a bunch of us mistakenly believed he could be dissuaded from this by hearing from the People.

It was fun to scream. Most of us were women; it was a woman’s march. As we might have expected, W. was out of town, but the DC police herded us as far away from the executive mansion as they reasonably could and told us that twelve of us at a time would be allowed into Lafayette Square, out in front of it. We gathered on Meridian Hill and marched down Sixteenth Street, chanting. Hey, hey! Ho, ho! I forget how the rest of the chant went. From time to time we would stop chanting and simply scream.

You’ve no idea how satisfying that is if you’ve never tried it, to bellow as loud as you can together with a huge crowd of like-minded folks and hear the echoes of your screaming bouncing off tall buildings. At the end of Sixteenth Street the parade was diverted way around the White House. We couldn’t even see it, let alone be seen by anybody who might be in there. The women milled around the Mall for awhile and then marched back up to try to collect on the promise that twelve of us, at least, would be let into Lafayette Square.

The Twelve were famous writers and like that, Maxine Hong Kingston, a beloved idol of mine, Alice Walker, and ten other luminaries whose names are lost to my fading memory. They got into the square, the police asked them to leave, and they sat down, whereupon they were all led away in handcuffs.

I got there just in time to see them being led away in handcuffs, most of them grannies like myself, arrested for trying to speak truth to power. I could have been among them, if I’d been a little spryer. It would have been an honor. But the sight of better women than me being dragged off to jail, along with the sight and sound of the twenty burly motorcycle cops who came roaring up to the curb, batons in hand, to keep all the other grannies in line, took some of the starch out of me. I haven’t had a good scream since.

Pretty soon it might be time again. We’ll see how this election progresses.