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)
            

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Writer's Block



            “What’s that in the bowl?”
            My journalist friend and I were looking at a photo taken at my first real job, when I was a copy boy at The News-Sentinel in Knoxville. I was the first female copy boy they’d ever had, so the reporters often shouted “Boy! I mean Girl!”
            “It’s a paste pot,” I said.
            “A PASTE pot?”
            “We pasted the pages end to end and cut off the bottom with a column rule. I was probably doing television listings.”
            “Well, we all had to do television listings,” she said, laughing.
            A couple of years ago, I started a mystery novel set at a big newspaper in the old days. I have a large binder full of notes, lists, and false starts. The story is about a crazed concrete worker who wants to be a famous artist, and a cub reporter who winds up naked in a vat of plaster of Paris.
            What I really wanted to write about was how newspapers used to be in the days before computers, in the days where almost everybody read newspapers and most people took them seriously. The crash of the Linotype machines, the sucking sound of the pneumatic tubes which delivered things between the newsroom and the composing room, the throb of the presses: That's what I wanted to write about.
            The first poem I had published was about those sounds. Graphic Arts Monthly bought the poem and sent me a check for what it called my “filler.”
            I don’t much care about the story line of the mystery, and it shows. The reporter’s name has changed several times, her grandmother has moved from Knoxville to San Francisco and back, and even the seasons have progressed rapidly from spring to winter. I have a dozen Chapter Ones.
            We had five deadlines a day at The News-Sentinel (as well as a policy that the “T” in “The” had to be capitalized.) I pestered C.W. Orcutt, the managing editor, for a job while he was on the Home Edition deadline, and I think he hired me just to get me out of his chair. I joined the Newspaper Guild. Once a week I picked up my paycheck, $49 minus Guild dues, for five eight-hour days a week on swing shift.
            I still dream about The News-Sentinel. Sometimes I have been away on assignment and haven’t been paid for a long time. Someone in the newsroom tells me where the cashier is located, since the building has changed. Sometimes I have moved back to Knoxville and the paper has hired me back, the way they did when I came back from Greece. Some times I am worried because I have lost my notes or missed a deadline.
            Maybe that’s what I need in order to finish my mystery novel: A deadline. Or maybe a paste pot.

            

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Queen Anne's Sign


In the days when newspapers were known as the Fourth Estate, copy editors sat around a U-shaped desk, cutting, clarifying and checking whatever the reporters and news services put out.

We were known as the Masters of Little Known and Useless Facts...such as the fact that the word restaurateur has no “n” and people from Ghana are Ghanaians, not Ghanans.

I have accumulated any number of new little known and useless facts since I started doing crossword puzzles (the definitions of “olla” and “etui” among them), and during a game of Bananagrams last week I learned that there are names for the Solf├Ęge notes between Do, Re, Mi, Sol, La and Ti. Imagine!

But the most interesting useless fact I’ve come across recently concerns Queen Anne’s Sign or the Sign of Hertoghe. It is the thinning or loss of the outer third of the eyebrows, a sign of hypothyroidism often disguised by women with a clever stroke of the eyebrow pencil. Wikipedia demonstrates Queen Anne’s Sign with a 1612 portrait of Anne of Denmark.

The Fourth Estate, the press, by the way, came after the First Estate (clergy), the Second Estate  (nobility), and the Third Estate, commoners. The term implied an importance and dignity which not everyone would accord newspapers since journalism became media.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Precious Ramotswe

Precious Ramotswe, the creation of Alexander McCall Smith, is one of my favorite fictional characters. She's right up there with Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey, E.F. Benson's Lucia and Dostoyevsky's Myshkin.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the latest in McCall Smith's series which began with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. In Mma Ramotswe's Botswana, nobody dies; they instead may become late. An orphan farm figures prominently in the stories, but the thing which has created so many African orphans is never named. Instead, we hear how house mothers try to take care of all these children of late parents and how Precious steps in to solve the mystery of a board member who wants to replace the households with a dormitory to save money...and get a kickback from the contractor.

The books are full of quiet courtesies, kindness, good versus evil, sanity and wisdom.

Preparing to go out into the bush in search of the orphan farm matron who, despairing, has gone back to her lands after being fired by the crooked board member, Precious tries to reassure her husband, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, that she will be fine despite the dangers of driving her ancient little van to the edge of the Kalahari desert.

"I have known many cars that have died out in the bush," Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni says. "And that has meant a very long walk for their drivers."

"That is a risk we shall take," Precious replies. "It is the same with people. People can become late at any time--just like that. But that does not mean that we should not do anything and not go anywhere just because there is a possibility that we may suddenly become late."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What I Did for Love


 May 10, 2012: Got up at 4:45 A.M. after cat reached Stage Four annoyance level (walking on glasses). Groggy, lost balance but caught self on ikon, of all things. Ikon did not pull off the wall. Good. Fed cat. Went back to bed.
            Got up for real. Straightened ikon. Made bed. Went to computer to check on baby falcons atop the PGE building in San Francisco. (The two males, Perry and Sutro, have fledged, but the girls, Amelia and Electra, are still in the nest on the 33rd floor.)
            Began looking for “What I Did for Love” for the Chorale.
            After searching in the studio, opened heavy oak library ladder and climbed up to put sleeping bags and pillows back in the eaves (Our last house guest left a month ago.) Put away ladder, replaced music stand, stand light, boxes, etc.
            Sneezing from studio dust. Took antihistamine.
            Watered the yard with hand-held hose. (The yard is a quarter-acre.) Tried to think of other places that sheet music might be.
            Answered e-mail.
            Moved couch to get at music books behind couch. Lifted couch to replace wheel which came off. Moved more furniture and searched old files and four more bookshelves for “What I Did for Love.” I guess I lent my Broadway Music book to somebody and never got it back. Looked in car trunk. Found AP Music Theory book which had been there five years, but no “What I Did for Love.”
            Ordered “What I Did for Love” on line.
            Checked falcons. Girls still afraid to fly.
            Answered e-mail.
            Washed dishes (by hand).
            Ate breakfast.
            Watered house plants.

            Resolutions:  Make donation to the falcon rescue people. Throw out five thousand pages of photocopied music which I never play and can’t find anyway.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Word Fads


              There are 44 synonyms for the word “awesome” in Roget’s Thesaurus, and I think it is high time the awe-struck used some of them. 
             These days, everyone is “devastated”, not just by tsunamis or the situation in the Middle East, but by the most trivial of concerns.
            “The bottom line”, “at the end of the day”, “24/7”,”community” (as in the International) and the word “share” are suffering badly from overuse.
            It is as if we love words which make us sound smart, important or generous. Or maybe we just roll the words around on our tongues and like the way they feel. Two years ago, people could barely get out a sentence without using the word “venue”. I think they liked the feeling of the "V", just as people are in love with the long "I".
            The smaller the vocabulary, the more dramatic the words have to be.
            In England, “brilliant” and “massive” pop up in every other sentence.
            I took down my page called “Apostrophe Control” after reading—in Jane Austen, for heaven’s sake, the words “her’s” and “your’s”. I give up. People are going to keep putting an apostrophe in the possessive “it” no matter how many of us harp at them. They don’t care if it makes them seem dumb. They’ll keep saying “Give it to she and I” because they like the way the long I sounds highfalutin.
            I don’t know how these word fads get started. Some of it is television, of course, but other fads seem to drift through the air like pollen, fertilizing the eager imaginations of easy victims. It’s the same with baby names. Suddenly all the little girls have to be named something starting with Mac or Mc, like hamburgers.
            Nouns are becoming verbs (“access”) or combining with other nouns the way they do in German (“backyard”, “boyfriend.”)
            Already there are so many acronyms around that I sometimes feel I am dealing with a foreign language rather than standard English. One of our local pharmacies has gone from being Long’s to being CVS, and nobody seems to know what those letters stand for, if they stand for anything. Do you remember when KFC was Kentucky Fried Chicken? At least the letters came from something.
              And don’t get me started on texting abbreviations, IMHO, BTW, and especially LOL. Here’s a new one: LMA. Leave me alone.
            Once in a while you’ll happen on a new combination of words which immediately produces a delightful image, as in an editorial in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, speaking of the unlikely accord between Democrats and Republicans: A kumbaya moment. OMG, wait for it. It’s a phrase too good not to replicate.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Girl Scout


Chickens, when they first begin to get their feathers, are awkward, ugly, oily, vulnerable and more or less useless. They are something like middle-school girls.

If you have a pre-teen or know one, you understand that this is an age of vast confusion and nameless dissatisfaction. Being a middle-schooler is a bit like the view from the window of an airplane at 30,000 feet. All the particulars are lost in a vague wash of neutral color and cloud.

I must have learned something in sixth and seventh grades, but I am at a loss to say what it was. In sixth grade, we tried to get Mrs. Cochran started on the subject of Mexico so that she would forget about arithmetic or English. In seventh, we were all aghast that Mrs. Diggs hadn’t heard of the New Look and wore her skirts too short. Only piano lessons were exempt from criticism. Mrs. Pack was a cool deity and everything she had to say was Received Wisdom.

My poor mother sewed pretty clothes for me, only to have colorful little dresses hang in the closet in favor of whatever was dumpy, gray or brown. She cooked meals which were pushed about on the plate. She took me to hairdressers to try to do something about my looks. Photographs from that time show an unhappy girl with pink glasses and a permanent.

I mostly lived in a dogwood tree in the back yard, even after my father built me a playhouse so I could get out of the rain. I played Tarzan, picked blackberries, hid under the bed and sang to myself. I was not turning out to be the genteel little lady Mother had hoped for.

She signed me up for the Girl Scouts. She sprang for the full uniform, beret, belt, scarf, pin, probably in place of a winter coat for herself. She bought me a Girl Scout knife and put my name on the list for Camp Trefoil. I got my tree finder’s badge and put it in a cigar box with my treasures. Up in the dogwood tree, I whittled kite sticks, bows and arrows with my Girl Scout knife.

When we were moving Mother to the rest home a few years ago, I found the Girl Scout uniform hanging in a closet. The hem had been let out. I had grown taller during my brief tenure with the Troop, but the troop leader had quit and no replacement could be found. The uniform went unworn and unhemmed, but there it was in the closet after all those years.

I liked being a Girl Scout as well as I liked anything in those days, and I was sorry the troop disbanded for lack of a supervising adult. I’m sure it wasn’t much fun trying to interest a bunch of middle-school girls in anything besides finding fault.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Gerasimos and His Lion



Today is the feast day of the Fifth Century monk Gerasimos, who had a lion as companion and servant.

Gerasimos was a desert hermit who, while meditating, encountered a hurt lion near the banks of the Jordan River. After he doctored the lion, the beast refused to leave him. It accompanied the saint back to the monastery and was put to work guarding the community’s donkey, which fetched and carried water for the monks.

Apparently Gerasimos and the lion have been written about extensively (possibly even inspiring George Bernard Shaw’s tale of Andronicus and the Lion), but I first made their acquaintance in this morning’s church bulletin. The story is based on the writing of the Byzantine chronicler Sophronios of Jerusalem, himself observed as a saint by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

A passing trader stole the donkey while the lion was sleeping. The lion, after searching far and wide, returned alone to the monastery. The monks concluded that the lion had eaten the donkey, so they gave the lion the donkey’s job of carrying the saddle pack with four earthen jars to and from the river.

When later the thieving trader passed by with the stolen donkey and three camels, the lion recognized the donkey and, roaring, frightened the trader away, returning to the monastery with the four beasts. “Knocking with his tail on the door of the saint’s cell, he acted as if to show that he was offering them to the elder as game,” the church bulletin said. Gerasimos then named the lion for the first time: Jordanes.

The lion was freed, but returned once a week to the monastery to visit Gerasimos. When finally the lion returned to find only Gerasimos’ grave, he lay down on the grave and died.

Scripture from earliest days is full of lions, and it is not much of a stretch for a cat-lover to imagine a solitary male attaching itself to a community of monks, making friends with the only other beast in the area, or taking a nap while the donkey grazed.

I don’t know about the part where the lion knocked on the door with his tail. St. Sophronios didn’t write about the lion until the next generation, by which time a wonderful tale probably had become even more wonderful. However, very old paintings show Gerasimos with, not angels, but a lion and camels. There is little doubt that there was a Gerasimos who founded a monastery, Deir Hijla, in 455 A.D. The monastery still stands on the north side of the Dead Sea, and there is statue of a a lion in the yard.

And all of us cat-lovers know about twitching tails.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Talking Bridge

My friend Wylie once said it would be good if we had some sort of report cards or signposts in our lives, such as “Leaving Adolescence, B-plus” or “Approaching Maturity, credit/no credit class.” My friend Marc, handing over the baby he lovingly fostered to its adoptive parents, said “I guess I should give them some kind of owners’ manual.”

What I wanted to be when I grew up was some sort of explainer, a person who might make that sort of sign or give that sort of report card or owners’ manual to myself or anybody who asked. Sort of a Talking Bridge. A kind of interpreter.

Just what form this career might take was not clear to me, but certainly I enjoyed pointing out this or that, so I started writing and playing the piano. It didn’t matter that I was entering a crowded field filled with people more skilled than I. I figured that it was one of those areas where one might find useful work almost anywhere, something like giving a tourist directions to the beach.

As for my own cosmic report card, I gave myself an A in Childhood, but a D-minus in my awkward and unkind adolescence and purblind twenties.

I went back to school and constructed a thematic major titled “Music As a Therapeutic and Tutorial Tool,” something San Francisco State would allow Liberal Studies majors to do in those days. We chose our own classes and defended the curriculum before a committee.

And I tried to be a good Talking Bridge, passing along information and observations which seemed useful to me under the umbrella of writing and teaching.

Sometimes the report cards come from outside. After I published The Phoenician Sailor, a book of poetry, in the sixties, a woman got my address from the printer and walked a mile to my house to thank me. That was an A, even if the woman was my only reader. My piano teacher said sometimes I belonged to the Mr. Magoo School of Piano Playing. Grope and hope. D-minus. But he added that I had so many technical problems, he thought I might be a helpful teacher to people with the same problems. B-plus.

When I retired from teaching piano at Skyline College, a woman only a little younger than I, weeping, said “How can we go on without you? You cared about us.” I took that as an A. And when the boys said “The dads came and went, but Mom was always there,” that was a definite A-plus. One I needed badly.

We have these landmarks in our lives, whether they come from inside or outside. When I turned fifty, I hand-copied all 81verses of the Tao Te Ching, which certainly took less time than hand-copying the New Testament or the Koran. At sixty, I went back to Greece with my mother and sister and sought an oracle at Delphi. Which I found: “Get the trash off the mountain.” At seventy, it was back to Greece again and to Delphi again, and it was a humbling lesson about the dangers of romanticizing anything.

Now I am at an age where we begin to lose our spare parts (starting with the gall bladder in two weeks). I suppose the signpost should quote Itzhak Perlman: “Do the best you can with what you’ve got left.”

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bilious

They want to remove my gall bladder.

The specialists who have made this decision have not actually examined me. They have looked at the reports of an extravagant number of imaging procedures and have given their advice from a distance of four feet in a period of five minutes or less.

Everything else having to do with this advice is delegated to receptionists and physicians’ assistants, paramedical personnel whose duty apparently is to be pleasant.

“I’m a sick man...a mean man,” Dostoyevsky writes in Notes From Underground. “There’s nothing attractive about me. I think there’s something wrong with my liver.”

The gall bladder, as you may know, is where the liver stores bile, something which assists digestion. Apparently my gall bladder is full of stones which cause a great deal of discomfort and, according to literary wisdom, a bad disposition.

I could almost diagnose myself with Webster’s synonyms for the word bilious: Peevish, bearish, ill-tempered, cantankerous, disagreeable, dyspeptic, ill-humored, ill-natured, ornery, surly, petulant, cranky, cross, grumpy, huffy, irascible, peevish, testy and waspy.

Not true, you say? You believe I am cheerful and nice?

It’s an act. Webster has me pegged.

What I wonder is whether this bad nature will change if and when my gall bladder is gone. There are lots of synonyms for the word bilious, but not too many antonyms: amiable, good-humored, good-natured, good-tempered.

Hm.