Friday, December 3, 2010

Turning Away Wrath

I know that I have a sharp tongue, which is why I have to make a special effort to keep it under control. My angry letters to erring commercial institutions are legend in our family. Just last month, I let Volkswagen have it, and as a result, after several visits to the dealer, my car is finally repaired. Last year when an orchestra member criticized Nicodemus for not doing something he had in fact done, I wrote her an e-mail which I think shriveled her right up. She hides when she sees me coming.

So this morning when a driver yelled at me in the parking lot, I was careful to give a soft answer. “Why don’t you park it right?” he screamed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You’re half way into my parking bay,” he said, getting into his ugly truck, which was a full four feet away from my car.

“I’ll back up,” I said meekly, and then tried to do so with my hand brake on, I was that rattled. He gave me a dirty look and drove off. I would like to think that, as Stephen Gaskin once advised, that I had taken a bit of meanness out of the world, but I am not that good, and I stewed over the scene for a while.

I remember the last time I ever hit a child of mine (for hitting his brother). I could see my handprint on his sweet face, and I told myself that I would never, ever lose my temper with the children again.

Nicodemus, who can be bitingly sarcastic, can also be a master of the soft answer which turneth away wrath. When someone remarked, thirteen or fourteen years ago, that he didn’t know why people our age bothered to get married, Nicodemus replied “Well, we’re rather conventional.” Anyone who knows us knows better, but the sarcastic man was left speechless.

Once when he was substitute-teaching at a local elementary school, a little girl tugged at his jacket and complained that so-and-so had pushed her or taken her pencil. “Forgive him,” Nicodemus said. I don’t know if she knew what that meant, but I imagine she still remembers it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Time Travel: The American Farm School

I had a Facebook friend request this week which catapulted me some 9,000 miles east and 50 years back in time, to Christmas, 1958 at the American Farm School.

We had just moved from Athens with our five-month-old son to the school outside Thessaloniki, Greece. We had a small upstairs apartment in a staff housing unit. The kitchen had a deep north window for food storage and a hooded charcoal burner for cooking; I had no idea how to use them. The power went off at 10 P.M. unless the poultry department was incubating eggs, in which case we had electricity all night.

I said I had to have a refrigerator, and the Farm School came up with a kerosene refrigerator which worked fine. I said I had to have a stove, and unknowingly I caused a crisis in the life of my downstairs neighbor, Demetra, who took the bus seven miles to Thessaloniki to do her baking in a public oven. Demetra calculated the cost of the public oven and convinced her husband, George, that she should have a stove at home.

Next door in the upstairs apartment lived Margaritis and Hariklea and their daughter Efthimoula, who was a little older than our son Nonda. It was Efthimoula who invited me to be her Facebook friend yesterday.

Life in the small community of the Farm School was pretty communal. Everybody spoke Greeklish except the 200 high-school-age boy students, who had to go to class.

I substituted at the English class once and taught the boys to sing “Camptown Races”. For months, the students would greet me on the path with “Doo-dah, Doo-dah”. We had the best milk in the world from the school’s fine Jersey cows. I would simply shake a quart bottle to make butter. There was always ice cream at the dairy, and because the boys learned animal husbandry, we could get meat, chickens and eggs from the proper department and vegetables from the huge class garden. Home repairs became classes for masonry, carpentry, plumbing and electricity.

We moved from the apartment to a beautiful stone house on campus. We had fig trees and a view of Mount Olympus. Our teenaged nanny was in heaven with 200 boys about, and she seized upon any excuse to take Nonda walking. We had dance classes on Saturdays, a shopping bus, and a beach bus for the mothers and children in the summer. I had little jobs teaching music at Pinewood, a school for foreign dependents at the edge of the Farm School campus and working on public relations and scholarships for the school. Occasionally I helped teach short courses in theater for people from nearby villages.

It was another lifetime. Actually, it was paradise.

Nicodemus and I visited the Farm School a few years ago. We saw the old house and Princeton Hall, which was the main school building. We visited the Orthodox church where Ed was christened and looked at the 20-ton rock the boys rolled from a neighboring town for a memorial to Theo Litsas, a saint who was my dearest friend; was, in fact, everybody’s dearest friend. I scooped up a little red dirt and brought it back home.

On Theo’s grave are these words from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

(Photograph is Nonda in the manger scene, 1958. Unfortunately, there were fleas in the hay and Nonda got bitten.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Symphony of Bells

A Symphony of Bells

Every loss tolls the bell of every other loss

so that what began as a solitary mournful knell

becomes a pealing of farewells:

The kiss on the lips,

the turning away at the dock,

“Must it be? It must be.”

“Can you see me?”

“For all we know, we may never meet again.”

She took her regal pose in a forbidden place,

looking perfectly entitled. We didn’t know

that she was telling us goodbye.

Later, she appeared in a dream,

but she was running away, not staying.

Mourning for a small animal

brings with it the ghosts of friends

dead, too busy, estranged or distant,

the helpless affectionate shrug

from the spirit about to depart,

reluctant, but having no choice in the matter.

The tolling of remembered farewells

becomes a symphony of bells.

Does it sing of love lost

or love endured

or something else entirely?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Good Edumacation

Matthew, a former piano student, when asked what he was getting from Home School, said “a good edumacation”. When I heard that it now costs $50,000 a year to attend the University of California at Berkeley, I thought about what I learned at my (much cheaper) college back in the seventies.

*Other people are not necessarily like you (Political Science).

*Teach scales in parallel, not by key signature (Piano Pedagogy).

*Everybody—even you-- has to take the junior English exam.

*Freshman English is fun, even if they make you take it in your senior year.

*Weekend credential courses: Take lots of snacks.

*When you phone somebody with a question, get their name. Write it down.

*If you know some Greek, you can ace beginning Biology.

*When you graduate, take with your left and shake with your right.

I learned left from right, however, in kindergarten. Left was the windows; right was the restroom. I also learned how to pronounce “W”, which unlocked the code of written letters. I learned that it is important to be self-sufficient, like the Little Red Hen. I learned that you have to brush your teeth. I learned that it was OK to sit in the teacher’s lap.

I am sorry to say that at San Francisco State’s graduation, where they herded all of us down to the football field in our disposable caps and gowns, I got confused and took the diploma with my right hand.

Friday, September 24, 2010

No Fond Return of Love

I am re-reading Barbara Pym's hilarious book, No Fond Return of Love. Parts of it are like looking into a mirror.

I was once agonizingly in love with someone who essentially bore me no ill will. I couldn't do enough for him. I made him a quilt which (since I am not a very good seamstress) took a very long time to make. I made him a shirt which unfortunately opened the wrong way. But the worst folly was when I made him, at his request, a nylon cover for his kayak.

Dealing with tent-weight fabric and thread was enough of a challenge, not to mention trying to deal with something eight or nine feet long on a small sewing machine in a cramped space. The design, made after taking many measurements, was something like a banana peel.

When at long last I had finished the kayak cover, I found that there was no way to get the kayak into it. It was a kind of metaphor for the love affair (which is what he called it) itself. I don't mind writing about this now because my husband, who truly DOES love me, never reads anything I write.

As for the kayak owner, Bob Dylan said it best: "You just wasted my precious time. Don't think twice; it's all right."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Brenda, upon being criticized for talking about trivial matters, said "The way I figure it, we've got all eternity...and if I want to spend a few minutes talking about hair, that's OK."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Live Long and Prosper

One-fourth of my high school graduating class has died. My sister gave me this sobering piece of information during a recent visit to see my 92-year-old mother. Certainly the 229 members of the Class of ’53 are well beyond the threescore and ten which some scripture says is the term of human life. But that was then. Today, seventy-somethings are doing what forty-somethings did a generation ago.

A fourth of 229 dead seems a high number, and it spurred my curiosity about long lives. According to the Minnesota State Retirement System calculator, the current life expectancy for the class of 1953 should be 85.9 years for men and 87.7 years for women.

The factors contributing to a long life (according to Minnesota, which I want to think is conservative in its perceptions) may surprise you. We all know about exercise and veggies. But did you know that living alone is as perilous as smoking? The Minnesota calculator adds five years for living with a friend or spouse, and subtracts a year for every year you have lived alone since the age of 25.

Did you know that a college degree adds a year to your life, and a graduate degree adds two? That sleeping more than 10 hours a night takes four years off your life expectancy? That if you are aggressive and easily angered, it is worth three years of your life?

Why fifty members of the Class of ’53 have died at least ten years before the national average might bear some investigation. Our high school was Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the home of the Manhattan project and the atomic bomb. We used to have occasional A-bomb drills at school. At one point, my friends and I began drinking lots of hot tea because we had been told that tannin could counteract radiation sickness. One boy built a Geiger counter in a metal lunchbox and brought it to school. It would click when he pointed it toward something radioactive like a watch dial.

One of the plants vented something into the air which combined with rain to make an acid which ate holes in the workers’ cars parked near the workplace. My father thought this was funny, and the plant paid to have the cars repainted. We joked rather fearfully about our fathers being radioactive and glowing in the dark.

Since those days, I know there has been an ongoing cleanup of the town which now sometimes calls itself Historic Oak Ridge. During hunting season, the story goes, quarry deer have been scanned with a Geiger counter, and if they were too radioactive, they would be confiscated and the hunter would get a permit to shoot another deer. Compensation has been paid to the families of some of those daddies who may or may not have glowed in the dark. Since I don’t live in Oak Ridge any more, I do not know what steps have been taken to solve the problems the unsuccessful storage of nuclear waste may have caused, only that it has been a concern which was addressed with lots of skill and money.

My father did not know that he was working on the Manhattan project. He thought he was involved in cancer research, which would have been a good thing since my little brother had died of leukemia. We learned about the atomic bomb when the newspapers announced the story of Hiroshima. A newsboy selling extras stood in Town Square and called “Read all about it: Japan Hit By Automatic Bomb”.

When a few years ago a nearby elementary school set about folding a thousand paper cranes to send to Hiroshima, I joined the project, folding origami cranes while I gave piano lessons.

The city of Hiroshima has sent a peace bell to Oak Ridge. I believe that bell is rung every August in somber remembrance of the bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Oak Ridge was a wonderful place to grow up. It was a small town, 30,000 or fewer, with a celebrated school system and a public recreation hall with a grand piano where we gave our piano recitals and watched foreign films. Oak Ridge had a local orchestra, a community theater and children’s theater, a daily newspaper which sponsored me for a college scholarship in journalism. There were lots of churches and a synagogue.

I just hope the surviving members of the Class of ’53 find somebody to love, finish that college degree, mellow out and don’t sleep too much. I would like to think they would live long and prosper.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


In 1962 a bearded dark-eyed sixty-six-year-old man came to San Francisco after traveling from the Ukraine to Shanghai, the Philippines, Paris and Belgium. Although in life he had done many remarkable things, after his death in 1966, so many circumstances described as miracles were associated with his influence that he became known as the Wonder Worker.

Nicodemos and I heard about a tour of this man’s various places in San Francisco and decided to take the tour. We saw the man’s work spaces, his office and his books in 15 languages, his paintings, the orphanage where he oversaw the upbringing of some 2000 children.

We sat in the chair where he always slept—only an hour or so a night, the tour guide told us, and never in a comfortable bed. The chair was yellow vinyl, missing several springs. Along with the 24 or 25 others on the tour, we were wrapped in his clerical robe and given a blessing. Singly, in pairs and in small groups, we knelt down and had the robe folded over us like a tent. It had a sweet, clean old grandfatherly smell.

The sensation was not unlike getting a hug, but many of the group were weeping as they returned to their places.

There were two infants and three young children in the group, all well-behaved, cheerful, and not at all intimidated by all this churchy activity. When one family group went up to be covered by the robe, we could see five pairs of shoes in all different sizes peeking out from the faded old vestment.

The man called Wonder Worker, now called Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, was born Mikhail Maximovitch. Our friend Nathalie had known Saint John in China and in the Philippines, and she told of how he would leave his residence fully clothed and return without shoes or coat, having given them to someone who needed them more than he.

Throughout the tour, the guide and others spoke of miracles which they had experienced or heard about. Driving home, I was thinking about miracles. I thought that they involved not so much extraordinary circumstances but rather something like a suspension of disbelief.

The tour guide showed us what he called self-healing ikons, paintings of saints which all by themselves grew cleaner and brighter. Clearly the tour guide was not only wonder-struck by what he described to us, but he was willing to suspend disbelief, whereas, I, harumph, was thinking about chemical reactions of egg tempera under glass. But would a chemical reaction have made a self-healing ikon any less miraculous? Chemistry is a miracle unto itself.

And what about saints, then? John Maximovich is a saint to Orthodox Christians; many others have never heard of him. Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral in San Francisco includes Albert Einstein (Jewish) and J.S. Bach (Lutheran) in its roster of saints. I saw church frescoes in Greece which included Plato and Socrates among the saints.

I once asked a wise old priest about saints. “Well, there are general saints, and then there are local saints,” he said, smiling, without explaining. I would consider this wise old priest a saint not because any miracles have been attributed to him, but because in his seventy years he so inspired so much love in so many people. He was a local saint.

Another saint I knew had no association with religion. He taught at a boys’ school and his aim in life seemed to be to make people happy. He was a walking party. He would bring all the students to your house to wake you up with a serenade for your birthday. He organized parties and receptions, song and dance. He once snatched a bouquet from my hands to give it to an unexpected guest. On his own birthday, he gave presents to other people. He was a saint of light-heartedness.

Nobody would argue about the saintliness of Mother Teresa, even though her writings showed that she had human doubts. She was a saint of service.

What do all these saints have in common? Not necessarily holiness or goodness. I think what they all have is a kind of devotion, to a cause, an art, a science, even a religion, which transcends ego. They spend most of their time in service to this devotion, whatever it may be. At times they are vectors or mirrors for us; they help us to see better and to grow bigger. And often what seems to be a miracle associated with these people arises at least partly from our improved perception.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tyger Requiem

After they shot Tatiana

he went back to that halting gait

he had as a widower,

before her sensual energy

bounced off the rocks, twice felt.

That she, not he, went after the boys

who taunted them tells something

about the couple. Ferocity:

that was hers, and he let her have it,

even if it meant she cuffed him

once in a while, her ears laid back,

her lethal claws retracted.

Tatiana never lost her wildness,

viciously attacked the hand that fed her,

then sank into a corner and glared

at the terrified witnesses.

Her old mate went into fits of fear

at a tiger poster the zoo put up

and then took down, from pity.

Tatiana groomed her sunset stripes,

pretended not to notice.

Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Sleek, amber-eyed, big, bumbling.

After Tatiana was gone,

it hardly seemed worthwhile,

the great yellow-toothed yawn

which made the children scream.

His joints ached; he was confused

without her direction. He wet himself,

couldn’t get out of the dry moat

where she had forced her freedom

(was he trying to follow her ghost?)

Finally they came crying with his release

and with a mild flick of the black and orange tail

he left his lovely body.

(Tony, March 21, 1991-June 22, 2010)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Outside, Looking In (2)

Alessandro, the journalist from Rome who was with us this past week, showed us how difficult it is to be under dispassionate scrutiny for hours at a time.

On the other hand, the scrutiny went both ways. Alessandro was unguarded, surely an unusual trait in an investigative reporter.

After only four days, for instance, I knew that he was careful with money, didn’t drink much, that he gave up trying to learn to play the flute. He knew his little daughter’s shoe size. I learned what it takes to get a press card in Rome (roughly like passing the Bar examination in the U.S.), learned how he voted in the last election. All the while adjusting lights and focus, working, plying his trade, Alessandro showed who he really was, simply because he didn’t try to hide.

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” Michael Brackney brought this quotation from Anais Nin to my attention.

This makes me feel fortunate that the eye behind the camera this week was that of Alessandro.

Outside, Looking In

I have been watching myself all week long.

Instead of wearing the same thing every day, I have mined my frugal wardrobe for something colorful. I have put on makeup, have combed my hair, polished my fingernails, lamented my wrinkles.

The reason for all this extreme self-consciousness is a documentary filmmaker from Rome who was here Monday through yesterday shooting footage for a show about my daughter Anna, who went missing 37 years ago.

The show isn’t even about me, but there seems to be something in us, or at least in me, which wants to put a good face on things. Literally. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

The Italian journalist, a charming and engaging second-generation movie man, must have worked ten hours a day behind his camera. He filmed the house, inside and out. He set up interviews which necessitated moving all the furniture and changing all the lights.

He filmed us talking, practicing, going through trunks and boxes, trying to find what he called “artifacts”. Taking a break to pull a few weeds in the garden, I looked up to see that I was on camera and hoped that I hadn’t shown an unflattering backside.

This may seem like a lot of camera work, he explained, but images go by in just a few seconds, and we have to have images to match the script. All this is expected to form a 15 or 20-minute segment on a show called “Que l’ho visto”, which has been running for some 22 years in Italy.

By yesterday, as we ate spaghetti (was it sufficiently al dente for an Italian? Was the sauce good? Should I have hand-grated the parmesan?) and prepared to say goodbye, I felt completely looked-at. Nicodemos and I went to play some music for our guest before taking him to the airport.

“But I don’t have my camera!” he said.

“Good,” we said. “So you can’t work.”

(Searching for Anna, published by Lulu Press, is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lost in Translation

We have been having conversations about translation lately, especially, as it happens, the translation of the word "evil" from the Aramaic to Greek and then to English. When I was still naive and idealistic, I wanted to be a translator. I have had a few opportunities to exercise or exorcise this desire since then, and I now realize that the task involves much more than words.

For starts, one must be truly bilingual, which I am not, with my smattering of French and my kitchen Greek. But one must be truly bicultural or multicultural as well; one must know something of the history of the cultures involved in the languages. I once was so rash as to "translate" a large collection of German poems.

The result would have been called, had it been music, something like Variations on a Theme or Fantasy Upon. What relationship the "translations" had to the originals was probably mostly in my mind. The only positive outcome of this effort was that it got the German poems, whose author had gone to that great Iamb in the sky, out of the grocery bag in the poet's son's basement.

While cleaning out the mountains of paper in my house, I came across a little essay made for a French class. On a whim, I had Yahoo's BabelFish to translate it into English, with this result.

A Life of Trompe-l'oeil My friend the painter liked the art of trompe-l'oeil. He made small tables with the watercolour with the postage stamps, however well realize that one cannot know where was the stamp and where was painting: Mislead the eye. Its small house also was folds up of this merry art. Its room had flowers with oil on the wall. With the kitchen there were false briks. The fence of the garden had a painting of vines. If something in the house were broken, Howard repaired it with ribbon and color. My friend lived eighty-two years. He had many things, neither car, neither money, nor luxury articles. But its life was also rich parce au' it had good mood so much. When it was dying, I visited him to the hospital and spoke to him about a film which I had seen, “Babette' S Feast”. “My dear Howard,” I said to him, “This film had a wise message… that the artist is never poor.”

If you read French, here is the original as corrected by the College of San Mateo French teacher:

Une Vie de Trompe-l’Oeil (9 June 1989)

Mon ami le peintre aimait l’art de trompe-l’oeil. Il faisait de petits tableaux à l’aquarelle avec les timbres-poste, si bien réalises qu’on ne peut pas savoir où était le timbre et où était la peinture: Trompe l’oeil. Sa petite maison aussi était replie de cet art gai. Sa chambre avait des fleurs à l’huile sur le mur. À la cuisine il y avait des briks faux. La clôture du jardin avait une peinture de vignes. Si quelque chose dans la maison était brisé, Howard le réparait avec du ruban et de la couleur.

Mon ami a vécu quatre-vingt-deux années. Il n’avait pas beaucoup de choses, ni voiture, ni argent, ni objets de luxe. Mais sa vie était aussi riche parce au’il avait tellement de bonne humeur. Quand il était en train de mourir, je lui rendais visite a l’hôpital et lui parlais d’un film que j’avais vu, “Babette’s Feast”.

“Mon chèr Howard,” je lui ai dit, “Ce film avait un message sage...que l’artiste n’est jamais pauvre.”

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Respectful Apostrophe

June Morrall's last book, Moss Beach, published by Arcadia, came out last week. Because June is no longer with us, Deb and Mike Wong and others who helped out with the book were at a sort of signing party in a Half Moon Bay book store.

I have a Facebook group called Apostrophe Control, born of a curmudgeonly proofreading moment. I think people who don't know how to use apostrophes should have to take a remedial English class, so I was stunned to see a photograph of a place called The Reef's (as in belonging to a reef) on the cover of June's book.

Actually, the photograph of this beach place in Moss Beach had two apostrophes (or a close quotation mark). Whoever edited the book--maybe even June herself did a respectful and fascinating bit of apostrophe control in the text. It made me think of William Blake's Tyger, which would not be the same with conventional spelling.

Every mention of the club in the text retains the apostrophe (but not the double apostrophe or quote mark, which would just be silly.) After the club was washed away by the ocean and rebuilt farther away, the apostrophe did not appear in the sign, and so the book calls this place The Reefs II (no apostrophe).

I got a kick out of this quirky little bit of editing. I could imagine someone saying "Well, even if the person doesn't know you don't make a plural with an apostrophe, that's how the sign is written." Or "We could correct that; maybe nobody would notice." Or "Well, we have to be consistent. The second club doesn't have the apostrophe."

You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she punctuates, and not just whether they made As in English class. In this case, June or the editor or both showed themselves to be careful proof-readers and faithful historians. I hope June's spirit celebrates the launching of her book.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Kay Ryan

The April 12 New Yorker features a story about Kay Ryan, poet laureate of the United States: "In her essay in Poetry, she describes listening to panelists talk about how teaching creative writing fuels their own creativity, and feeling the same kind of guilt a four-star chef might feel at a church picnic.'My sense of this that these are sincere, helpful, useful people who show their students their own gifts and help them to enjoy the riches of language while also trying to get some writing done themselves. They have to juggle these competing demands upon their souls and it is hard and honorable. I agree and shoot me now.'"

Checking Your Sources

I was on the copy desk of the Knoxville, Tennessee, News-Sentinel when the teletype machines began to spurt out the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. It was after the final edition deadline, and only two of us were on duty at the copy desk, editing news service stories for the next day, cutting, marking capitalization and paragraphs and writing headlines.

This was a long time ago, but I distinctly remember our quandary as to which news service to trust as we scrambled to get the story of the president’s assassination into print, shorthanded and dazed from the almost unbelievable news.

The first Associated Press transmission and the story from United Press International had very different information concerning the number of shots which had been fired, the grassy knoll, descriptions from witnesses. The phones were going like mad, and under pressure to get out an Extra and remake the newspaper’s front page, we had to choose which story to run. We went with the Associated Press because there was no way to check the sources and the AP story seemed more conservative, more believable.

We live in a time of unparalleled access to news, and yet it seems ever more difficult to find out what is going on. Almost every time I try to research something through the Internet, I run into conflicting information. In order to stay current, I read the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times and the Athens News; I watch the local news and BBC America on television. There is not as much overlap as you might think.

Which is not to say I shouldn’t have checked my sources on the Brautigan Library information. Writing a blog is a little like putting a message in bottle. I don’t really know who will read it. Besides this lack of feedback, I find that I’m a bit glib when using the computer to write. (I always write poetry in longhand.)

Dr. John Barber, who has left a longish comment on my blog of March 30, "The Library Lives", reminded me that even if I am putting a note in a bottle, I need to verify my sources.

A story by Kevin O’Kelly in The Boston Globe on Sept. 27, 2004, said “If Brautigan (Library) founder Todd Lockwood’s plans work out, the (contents of the Brautigan library) will move to the Presidio Branch of the San Francisco Public Library next year.”

In 2005, The Fletcher Free Library, where the Brautigan library was housed, wrote in its newsletter that the Brautigan collection was going home to San Francisco. Lockwood had, according to the Fletcher newsletter, “negotiated with the San Francisco Public Library to arrange a permanent home for the Brautigan Library at the Presidio Branch of the SFPL, the exact location where Brautigan placed his fictional 24-hour-a-day library”.

To my credit, I did e-mail the Presidio Library to see if the collection had made it, but when I got no response, I didn’t keep after it. The Brautigan Library, as Dr. Barber says in his comment, never made it from Vermont to San Francisco, and, mea culpa, I never followed up to see if the Fletcher Free Library newsletter or the Boston Globe had noted that fact.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Everyday Author

Dr. Barber just sent this note updating the reference number on The Dioscuri:

Actually, the Library has been stored in Burlington, Vermont, and is now on its way to Vancouver, Washington, where it will become and permanent, interactive exhibit in the Clark County Historical Museum.

Ahead of the collection's arrival we have received an inventory and your book is listed as part of the collection. The Mayonnaise System Catalog Number is different, however. Here is the listing as it appears in our inventory:
Michaele Benedict
(Montara, CA)
Love: LOV 1990.004
This is a novel set in Greece which incorporates myth, magic and music into a contemporary story. Madeline and Yanni, daughter and adopted son of an American Quaker doctor, are the “twins" who are inseparable as children, and who, as adults, try in vain to live separate lives.

The Library Lives!

The Brautigan Library is alive and well in Vancouver, Washington, after traveling from Vermont to San Francisco, where it reposed in storage for four years. This collection of unpublished manuscripts written by "everyday authors" will becomea permanent collection of the Clark County Historical Museum, the former 1909 Andrew Carnegie library building in downtown Vancouver.

As one of the "everyday authors", I am gratified to learn that this funny bunch of writing, about 400 manuscripts inspired by a fictional library in a 1971 novel by Richard Brautigan, will be preserved.

The Digital Technology and Culture Program at Washington State University, headed by Dr. John F. Barber, is working with students and a team of local and international volunteers to reopen the Brautigan library and to "continue its original mission of connecting writers and readers of personal narratives".

According to the Library's web page ( plans call for the organization to collect and circulate unpublished digital manuscripts and to "provide opportunities for research, conferences, exhibits, and creative activities."

Dr. Barber says "The Brautigan Library is not about publishing, or even about literature. It's about people telling their stories in a democratic way. It is a public home for personal narratives in a digital age."

I'm not sure how I feel about The Dioscuri's being called non-literary or about being called an "everyday author" (whatever that means), but I'm glad the Library is coming out of the basement.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Telling Your Story

In his novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, Richard Brautigan wrote about a library where anyone with a story to tell could write it out and put it on the shelves for others to read. The overseer of the library, which was open 24 hours a day, lived there. The fictional library was based on the Presidio Branch of the San Francisco Public Library,

Inspired by Brautigan’s idea, in 1990 the Brautigan Library was founded in Burlington, Vermont, by Todd Lockwood, a Brautigan fan, together with poet Robert Creeley and Brautigan’s daughter Ianthe.. Instead of the Dewey Decimal System used by most libraries, the Brautigan library categorized its books according to the Mayonnaise System, referring to the fact that the library in the novel used mayonnaise jars as bookends.

My unpublished novel, The Dioscuri, registered with the Brautigan Library May 25, 1990, was given the Mayonnaise catalog number LOV1990.05.003. The 325 books of the Brautigan Library archive (which included Brautigan’s typewriter) traveled to Seattle for a book fair, then back to its basement home in Vermont. It changed addresses in Burlington a number of times, finally winding up in the public library. In 2005 the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington decided it would be fitting to ship the collection to the Presidio branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Whether or not the collection actually made it I have not been able to find out, despite many inquiries. The last posted information about the move was a 2005 story in the Boston Globe.

What I wanted to talk about, however, was not the Brautigan Library itself but rather the idea behind a library where everyone could tell his or her story without the assistance of agents, publishers and editors. True, there is the Internet. But not everyone has access to a computer, and some people still like the idea of something written on paper.

I spend at least four hours a day writing at the computer, mostly for fun these days, though occasionally I will send something off to a magazine, and once in a while something will be published. I am a hundred pages into Murder at the Parthenon, a mystery novel set at a Tennessee newspaper in 1954. Certainly this effort is spurred by the love of the old newspaper technology, with its Linotypes and locked pages. I meet regularly with a writer friend so we can toss ideas back and forth and nag each other about keeping our noses to the grindstones.

I am working on a biography of the pianist and teacher Egon Petri, part of which has appeared in magazines and on a piano pedagogy website originating in Finland, of all places. I am editing a wonderful work in progress by a friend who wants to tell her story about meditation. And I am proof-reading an exquisite collection of songs by a composer friend.

There is a modern facility which somewhat resembles Richard Brautigan’s library. My nonfiction mystery, Searching for Anna, was published in February by this organization, Lulu is an international print-on-demand publisher, some of whose thousands of titles strongly evoke those of Brautigan’s fictional library, such as “Growing House Plants By Candlelight”. Anybody can tell a story on Lulu. For a small fee, a book book can even get an ISBN number and be entered into Books in Print, which means it is available through outlets such as Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Everybody has a story. Jung said that in most disassociated “normal” living, one’s story was often interrupted. He said psychology’s primary function was to retrieve that story and reunite the individual with it.

One of the best pieces of writing I ever encountered was by a Skyline College student who had brought his essay to the Tutoring Center, hoping for help with his English. The story, laboriously written in longhand, was about how to wash dishes. The student’s grandmother had taught him the proper way to wash dishes, and in the telling of the story, the student revealed himself: Loving, respectful, obedient, attentive to detail, humble. The language was awkward, but the story was truly touching.

How to tell your story: Hemingway said to place the seat of the pants on the seat of the chair and move the hand from left to right, or something to that effect. I would add a bit about spelling and grammar, but really it seems to be mostly about having something to say, saying it as honestly as you can, and then hoping somebody reads it and understands what you meant.

(Reprinted from June Morrall's Half Moon Bay Memories)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Greek Practice

Nicodemus and I practice our Greek every day by reading the calendar to each other. He recites the date (Paraskevi, 26 Fevruariou) and the year (Dio hiliades deka), then adds the previous day's date and the date and day which is to come.

My job is to read the information on the particular saint's Day (Photeini, the Woman at the Well) and the historic event (Feb. 26, 1936, Volkswagen named its first model Genesis) and to translate the daily joke:

The policeman said to the thief "Since you claim that this gold brooch is yours, you need to prove it to me." The thief turned the brooch over and said "It says right here, 'Yours forever.'"

Thursday, February 4, 2010


The labels on the homemade soap I give family and friends say “Sapouny”, which is the Greek word for soap. My Greek relatives used to sing an old song about soap: “Sapouni, two cents a pound, for dirty clothes, for floors, for plates.” And in the South, there was a song about Grandma’s Lye Soap “good for everything in the home. The secret was in the scrubbing; it wouldn’t suds and couldn’t foam.”

Sapouny does actually make suds and foam, but my soap mishaps are the subject of as much teasing as was the soy turkey I tried to construct one Thanksgiving. The worst mistake I ever made with soap was transferring a full pot of just-setting stuff into an aluminum pan because the mixture was threatening to boil over.

Sodium hydroxide or lye, the active ingredient in many soaps, will eat aluminum. In my case, there was an explosion, the kitchen filled with gas, I ran to the bedroom, closed the door and called 9-1-1.

After the firemen had arrived and asked if I was all right, they put the aluminum pot in the sink and ran water into it, simultaneously cleaning the sink really well and diluting the still-caustic soap mixture. When they finished (they were all decked out in fancy yellow HazMat suits), they showed me the pan, which had a big hole in the bottom. They said that sodium hydroxide and aluminum put out aluminum hydroxide gas.

“Why would you make soap?” they asked. “You can buy soap at the store,” they said, laughing. “It’s not that expensive.”

This was the most spectacular soap goof, but there were others: The butter soap which smelled like bad cheese, the grey lavender soap which was supposed to be purple. I once tried to make my own lye, dripping water through wood ash, which would make potassium hydroxide if you knew what you were doing. As it was, the mixture was far too weak to combine with oils and saponify (the official word for the process) and I had to throw the whole batch away after stirring for hours.

I have made a few batches of cold-process soap from scratch since the 9-1-1 episode. It is expensive to make and very labor-intensive. You don’t cook it, but you sometimes have to stir the oil-and-lye solution for a couple of hours. The hardening soap has to cure for about a month before it is safe to use, and if you make the mistake of putting a raw bar on your table, it will eat through the finish. However, it smells really good while it is curing and if you make it with olive oil and coconut oil, it is really good for your skin once it is finished.

You must scrape the ash from the bars, because it is the residue of the lye. I save it in a jar for really difficult cleaning tasks (wear gloves).

Lately I have mostly made recycled soap, which uses the easiest of all hand-milled processes and doesn’t involve physical danger. You pare or wash soap scraps to clean them, grate them and put them in a pan with a cup of water, heat and stir until they are liquid and more or less amalgamated (an electric hand mixer helps here), then add whatever fragrance or additives you like. Let the mixture cool and harden and then put it in molds or shape by hand.

The biggest hit of the hand-milled soaps has been chocolate soap, achieved by adding chocolate fragrance oil and cocoa powder to the soap mixture once it has liquefied. You can, of course, use any mild hand soap for milling if you don’t want to recycle scraps, and soap-makers’ supplies on the Internet include melt-and-mold blocks in several formularies including glycerine.

I don’t know why it is so satisfying to make soap. Maybe it reminds me of making mud pies as a kid. Maybe it is because all the utensils you use to make soap wind up shiny and clean instead of sticky and greasy. Or maybe it is as simple as bathing with a bar made to order.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Transcendental Metaworry

Last night, worrying about the storm and our old trees, my mother, Haiti, the Senate results in Massachusetts, and a half-dozen other things, I remembered Lewis Thomas’s essay on Transcendental Metaworry in his book The Medusa and the Snail.

His only half-joking premise was that worrying is a form of prayer, and that rather than avoid it, we should make it into a discipline and get really good at it.

After I found the book and blew the dust off it, I was once again drawn in to the mind of Lewis Thomas, who might have written the book yesterday instead of in 1974.

Most of the essays in Thomas’s books originally appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, but their subject matter was wide-ranging. He wrote about the United States health care system, about cloning, hypochondria, extra-terrestrial life, warts (“warts are wonderful structures”), music, meddling, language.

Lives of a Cell (Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1974) was the first Thomas book I read. Ann Woodlief’s Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 275, says that in this book Thomas “builds on the analogy between the workings of the cell and the workings of the earth and its lives, including man’s.”

Thomas’s point of view was Mozartean, a synthesis, an overview, expressed in optimistic terms without denying that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.

By the time Thomas wrote Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, his point of view had become darker: He spoke about the possibility of nuclear war and called the nationalism which divides humans as “probably the most stupefying example of biological error since the age of the great reptiles, wrong at every turn, but always felicitating itself loudly.”

In The Fragile Species, 1992, Thomas’s final book, he expressed the need for some “powerful steadying cohesive force” to bring about what he called not peace, but rather “the comity of nations.” As in previous books, he spoke of the earth as a living organism whose cells include us, with a “vast wiring diagram that maintains the interconnectedness and interdependence of all its numberless parts, and the ultimate product of the life: more and more information.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula

(in memory of June Morrall)

“It’s as if someone

tore through the paper of the sky,

showing the light beyond.”

He has put away his telescope,

has come in with cold cheeks

and starry eyes.

He is describing the Orion nebula.

But I am thinking of her,

how she would greet you like a sister,

with such familiarity you might turn

and look behind you

to make sure it was you she meant.

What with the fog and the trees,

you can’t always see the stars here

and of course to see the nebula

the night must be quite dark.