Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Alice


             Alice hated being alone so much that as a youngster she did her homework on a park bench in order to have people around her. She died this month on her 91st birthday, on Pentecost Sunday. We had the same birthday, but this year for the first time I didn’t send her a birthday card, as if I already knew she had other plans.
            We couldn’t have been more different. She was 13 years older, sociable, cheerful, confident, bossy. But we recognized something in each other the first time we met. She was a family counselor and I was going through the Valley of the Shadow. Alice knew that what I most needed right then was to feel safe and be left alone.
            When I finally began to feel like myself again, I stood up to a neighbor who warned me not to plant anything near the fence which might shade her yard. “You mean like a giant sequoia?” I said. Alice thought that was about the funniest thing she had ever heard and she repeated the story more than once.
            Long after I graduated from therapy (with heart-shaped balloons and a party) Alice would call me up or send  me a card. She once confessed that she prayed for her clients, a surprising admission.
            Alice never got very far from the church. She was a Dominican nun, then a nurse, then an associate of Holy Names, a teaching order. She once asked me to convert a set of tape-recorded religious lectures into compact discs. I could hardly believe anyone could listen to 20 hours of lecturing, but Alice was delighted to have the tapes preserved and sent me two silk scarves as a thank you.
            She gave away almost everything she had when she moved to St. Anne’s home in San Francisco, where she spent the last several years of her life. A friend and I took her to lunch at the Palace of the Legion of Honor one day, wheeling her around in her chair, laughing and joking.
            Someone at St. Anne’s found my telephone number among Alice’s things and called me to tell me about the memorial service. “Alice really liked you,” the caller said. Hearing that was almost as good as getting to say goodbye in person. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Channeling Theodora




She was the daughter of a bear wrangler. As a child, she was probably a beggar and in her teens was some kind of entertainer, which in Sixth Century Constantinople no doubt meant prostitution. In a caste-defying miracle, she married  the heir Justinian and with him in 527 became the most powerful ruler in the Byzantine empire, which extended from north Africa to Rome to present-day Turkey.

Most people have heard of Cleopatra, who lived some two thousand years ago, but few have heard of Theodora,  500 years nearer us in time. Hagia Sophia, the cathedral in present-day Istanbul whose building Theodora supervised, still stands, a world heritage landmark. Her political and military influence affected the course of history.

Mosaics at the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in northern Italy completed the year before Theodora’s death show a serious dark-eyed woman framed by the extravagant gold and gem-encrusted decor which came to characterize Byzantine art.

Years ago, I read The Female City, a book written about Theodora and the city of Constantinople, written in the 1950s by one Paul I. Wellman, an American journalist.  I  tried for a long time to find another copy of the book  and finally on eBay last month I found and bought a well-worn edition offered by an Australian book store.

Theodora was becoming much better known while I was searching for that book. Unknown to me, Wellman’s book dropped the “City” from the title and was reissued. No fewer than three books about Theodora were published in 2013: Theodora of Constantinople by Elizabeth Elson, The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton, and The Bear Keeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw.

I have these three on my list to read, but frankly, I am not hopeful.

Historical fiction can be a little like Classic Comics or, in the case of Dan Brown and Nikos Kazantzakis (“The Last Temptation of Christ”), sheer fantasy. On the other hand,  it can be so convincing (as in the case of Mary Renault and Patrick O’Brian) that it seems to make a case for some kind of extra-sensory perception. Mary Renault’s books set in Crete were consulted during restorations of the ancient sites. Readers of O’Brian’s 21 Aubrey-Maturin seagoing novels find it almost impossible to believe that someone with that detailed knowledge of tall-ship sailing never spent any time at sea.

How Theodora came to reign almost single-handedly over all Byzantium is a bit of a mystery.  Wellman paints Justinian as an indecisive recluse who in his later days wore a monk’s habit and spent his time reading the book of Revelations in hopes of understanding why his empire was beginning to self-destruct. He was happy, according to The Female City, to let Theodora make the decisions.

The Female City has all the names and dates right, but it seems old-fashioned and almost voyeuristic in its attention to the lives of Constantinople’s working women. Wellman’s central female characters spend most of their time bathing, dressing up, and plotting their next conquest. Interestingly, all  his other books were  set in the American West. Some were made into cowboy movies.

While it is a wonder that a writer could have researched this material as meticulously as Wellman did decades before Google and the Internet, what he clearly intended as praise of the central character often seems patronizing and trivial: Three cheers for the little lady.

At the end of The Female City, Wellman writes “A man, though he be nothing himself, may be called great through chance fame, or position, not power. But being a woman is far more fateful and important, not only to herself, but to the world. A woman is judged always as a woman, no matter what she does or is, aside from that all-important fact. So this grave injustice has been done by history: though Justinian, far her inferior in mind and spirit, has come down to us as ‘The Great’, the only title given to Theodora is ‘The Notorious’.”

Justinian is indeed known in history books as “The Great”, but far from being called “The Notorious”, the empress Theodora was canonized as a Christian saint.  She was buried in  548 in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the edifices built under her direction, and her feast day is November 15.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Stranger in a Strange Land


 Let us assume that you have been dragged, as I have, kicking and screaming into a world dominated by gadgets. Cyberspace. The virtual world. A Strange Land.
            Unless you live in a convent or go to extraordinary lengths to isolate yourself, it is barely possible any more to get by without a computer or a mobile telephone. In addition to this, your automobile, clocks, printer, electronic reader, sewing machine, kitchen range, coffee maker, television and microwave all operate on some kind of computer system which may (and usually does) go wrong. The sewing machine, for instance, must not get below 50 degrees Fahrenheit or the computer will not work until it is warmed up again.
            New gadgets will appear minute by minute, and the pressure is on for you to have the most recent versions of the various gadgets.
            There are manuals to all these things. They are filled with errors and flat-out misstatements and are sometimes only available on line, which is not much help when it is your computer which is acting up. There are also help lines available by telephone; good luck. If you are very patient and your computer is still working, you may be able to get a chat window where a person in a distant land will eventually politely offer to assist you. It is the prepositions which give these people away. They do not know that “in the wireless gateway” is quite different from “on the wireless gateway.”
            The vocabulary for all the devices is ever-changing and non-standardized. Waiting in the electronics section of a department store, we asked the clerk “What do you call the device which records from the television. It isn’t a VCR any more, we know.”
            “Oh, you mean a DVR,” the clerk replied.
            “O.K.,” we said. “Can we buy one of those?”
            “No,” he replied. “That’s only available from your cable company.”
            Clue: Most of the gadgets are known by initials. Nobody knows what the initials stand for.
            Add this to your list of things obvious to natives of the Strange Land but maybe not to the rest of us: When entering letters on your new telephone handset (just purchased, because the expensive three-month-old telephones were not compatible with the new wireless gateway): Each number on the keypad (where you punch in the phone numbers) has three or four associated letters. Say you would like to have the airport taxi number on your quick-dial. To enter the first of these letters, press once. To enter the second of these letters, press two. So if you want to enter “cab”, you press three times, then one time, then two times. You may have to manually move the insertion point, but then maybe not. Something so obvious nobody would dream of mentioning it. The way “a space is a character” came as a computer typing revelation when somebody told you about it off-handedly.
            Your friends do not want to help you with this. It’s just the way they got tired of helping you move the piano in the old days. They figure if they had to suffer through useless manuals and unending bad music while being on hold for the help lines, you can jolly well do your own suffering.
            Clue: Sometimes turning everything off and starting over will work. Or you can do as the teenagers do and just try anything which occurs to you until something works. You may, however, have to get a technician to re-install your system if you get too wild.
            I got my first computer because I wanted e-mail. The computer stayed in the box for a week because I was afraid to hook it up. I joined Facebook because I wanted to find out what my grandchildren were doing. But you see what a slippery slope the Strange Land can be.
            “You are like your brother Les,” Nicodemus says. “You like your gadgets.”
            “I do not like the gadgets,” I answer. “I can’t figure out how to do without them, is all. And you don’t want anything to do with them.”
            “Yes, well,” he says.
            “I’d rather have two tin cans and a string,” I say, peevishly, trying to figure out how Skype works so he can talk to his friend Michael in England. (The new wireless gateway does not support 10-10-987 calls, which was the cheap way to go when we had a land line.)
            “I used to talk to my friends with tin cans and a string,” he says.
            “It would have to be a really long string to reach to England,” I answer.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

James Gandolfini



            James Gandolfini could have created the role of Tony Soprano without any dialogue at all. He had an uncanny ability to express the entire spectrum of human emotions on his unlovely face.  The eyes alone told you what he was thinking.
            I was such a fan of James Gandolfini, who died this week at the age of 51. I think his television character Tony Soprano in the Home Box Office production "The Sopranos" will join the likes of Candide, Blanche DuBois, Lieutenant Kije, Willy Loman and other figures in our drama, music and literature who have had a life beyond fiction. Maybe even Hamlet.
            Most of the media response to Gandolfini’s death at the age of 51 seems to think that age 51
was too young to die and that if the actor had taken better care of himself, he’d still be with us.
             I read the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song “Temporary Like Achilles” again, expecting to see some reference to the Iliad and the choice of leading a short life full of glory or a long life full of very little. The title, however, was about all Dylan had to say on the subject. The lyrics could have been made up on the spot.
            Some of the news stories used Gandolfini’s death to preach about the virtues of a low-fat diet. (The actor had eaten paté and shrimp for dinner.) I’m sure somewhere there were sermons mentioning his obesity or his cigar-smoking. But we don’t know enough to judge Gandolfini or others whose lifestyles may have contributed to an early death. Maybe their choices were what allowed them to reveal themselves to us in such a public way. Maybe the choices were crutches. Maybe their minds were just elsewhere. Who knows?
            I don’t think the death of a genius should be used as an occasion for sermonizing. I think we should be grateful for what we got, not what their longer life might have given us (look at J.D. Salinger.) I think their spouses and children should be grateful and not blame them for spending time and energy on extending their earthly days.
            My brother Les, speaking about a talented departed friend with bad habits, said “We respected his right to live his life as he wanted to live it.”
            Really, we owe them that for the moments of revelation they gave us.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fruitcake



            It was my first Christmas in Greece. Christmas in Athens in those days was a minor holiday; there were no carols, trees or decorations to speak of. I was pregnant and homesick and couldn’t understand much of anything. The kind Trimis family called me their nyphi—their bride—and used another word which sounded like Ka-ee-men-ee. When I began to understand Greek, I discovered that the word meant “poor little thing.”
            I had dismayed the family by having to excuse myself from the dinner table when I saw the treat they had prepared  in my honor for American Thanksgiving: Octopus.             Now I wanted to redeem myself by making an American treat for them: Fruitcake.
            With a great deal of help and with notes scribbled in phonetic Greek, I assembled all the ingredients. I had  karidia (nuts), phrouta (fruit), zahari (sugar) voutero (butter) and alevri (flour.) There was no Greek word for baking powder, which was simply called bay-ek-keen.
            The enormous kitchen was well-appointed, with a European range and oven, a point-of-use water heater, and a real ice box for which a block of ice was delivered every week. I mixed my ingredients according to a recipe I had come by somehow, put the cake pan in the oven, and was perplexed that the heat settings didn’t go as high as 350 degrees.
            The family suggested I use the highest setting and cook the fruitcake a little longer, but after about twenty minutes, it became obvious that something was burning. That’s how I learned about the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit. 350 degrees Fahrenheit is 662 Celsius.
            The Trimises were very sorrowful that my American cake looked like a very large charcoal briquette. I wrapped it up in a napkin and took it to my room. Sometimes I would nibble on it, occasionally finding a piece of candied fruit which had survived the cremation.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dragon




The Dragon and I are just beginning to become acquainted.

I resisted the idea of voice recognition software. My way of writing involves a fair amount of back-and-forth  about word choice. I'm not as bad as Flaubert, who supposedly rolled on the floor, gnashing his teeth, searching for just the right word. However, I do like the sensation of trying out words, rather than composing entirely in one's mind and dictating the result. When I'm writing poetry, I actually have to do it longhand because it is such a slow process.

The Dragon for me is a byproduct of carpal tunnel surgery. Because my problems with carpal tunnel syndrome involved years of piano playing and typing, my surgeon suggested getting voice recognition software in order to reduce typing and therefore to reduce some repetitive motion. "Save your hands for the piano,"  he said.

Coincidentally, I am looking at a news article which says SAT reading and writing scores have dropped to a 40 year low this year. The College Board, which administers the test all college-bound students must take,  estimates that only 43% of SAT takers in this year's freshman class were well prepared for studies at four-year colleges. Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, said when “when less than half of kids who want to go to college are prepared to do so, (the preparation) system is failing.”

My Dragon is quick, accurate, can spell correctly. Even if it did make Mr. Caperton "Mr. Coppertone" before I corrected it.. 

Sometimes, playing a really good, responsive piano, I get the impression that I am dealing with a frisky animal which is anxious to please.  My initial impressions of Dragon are the same. I think it is trying hard, even though I know that a team of clever engineers has tweaked it and tweaked it until it could pretty much type what the user spoke.

 Imagine, however, if some of those students making such miserable scores on the SATs were able to compose their essays with a voice recognition program.They could give the impression of being literate when in fact they are not.

In such a hypothetical case, you might even call voice recognition software a an attractive nuisance.

As for me, I am willing for a while to try being a talker rather than a writer.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Another Side of Mother


            She could only play one song on the piano: “Home, Sweet Home.” But she played it with both hands and an Alberti bass.
            As a little girl, she liked to draw and write poetry.
            She played in a ukulele and harmonica band in grammar school.
            She knew all the words to “The Prisoner’s Song.”
            She kept a scrapbook on the Status of Women for her WSCS Methodist group long before anyone ever talked about feminism.
            Her purse smelled like chewing gum because she kept treats for a child who grew bored at church.
            She would have been valedictorian of her high school class except for me.
            As it was, she was voted the Flappingest Flapper.
            She ran away to marry Daddy when she was 17 years old on August 4, 1935. They were married 50 years.
            She named me for her sister Elizabeth and for a Civilian Conservation Corps boy named Michael who was allowed to walk her to church. She said she just liked the name and didn’t care whether it was a girl’s name or a boy’s name. Elizabeth had too many syllables, so it was shortened to Lysbeth. She called me both names when I was in trouble.
            When I repeated a racial epithet I had heard at school, she said in her scariest voice “I don’t ever want you to say that word again.” I still can’t say it.
            The strongest word I ever heard her use was “Criminy.”
            She was little, but she was brave and physically strong. She could lift boulders. And she could be fierce, a quality I have admired all my life.
            She listened to Roosevelt’s third term inaugural address on the radio. She cried when he died. She hardly ever cried.
            She never really got over my brother Lindle’s death.
            She only had one cookbook.
            She drew the line at cleaning fish.
            She didn’t care for off-color jokes. She couldn’t really tell a joke because she always garbled the punch line.
            She read every Erle Stanley Gardner mystery ever written.
            When my sophisticated college boyfriend said he thought she had good taste, I was astonished. I didn’t know she had any taste at all.
            I overheard her having a political discussion with a smart lawyer. “You can’t beat City Hall,” she said.
            She had three older sisters with college degrees, but she had us instead. When I asked her what she would have studied in college, she said “Why, History, of course.”
            On my 76th birthday this June 8, she phoned me up and said “I just wanted to tell you that I think we did a good job with you.”
           (Frances Ensor Benedict, May 16, 1918-September 2, 2012)