30 Days Notice

Dear Friends

Dear Friends,

Because I have been remiss at changing the link on the avatar, you may have been directed to this site. This site was an experiment and of course, I welcome you here, but there will never be anything new posted. It was just a 30-day exercise, and now it’s done.

If you’d like to see newer work, please have a look at Occasional Songs, where new things do sprout from time to time.

Thanks again for your interest.

L.

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FINAL NOTICE

Well, this is it then.

The last of 30 Days Notice. Not surprisingly, it was past due. It was designed to run December 1 through December 30, and here is the 5th of January. I guess I could have stopped when I got to December 30, because I didn’t promise that I would write 30 separate pieces, but somehow that felt like a threshold I had to cross.

I did write every day for thirty days. I never missed a day, even though I wasn’t always able to publish. Sometimes the pieces that mean the most to the writer are the ones that are  most elusive. In the end, I logged 45,926 words. That doesn’t count this piece (650+ words), or the 1730 words I had leftover from something I worked two days on and could never get to coalesce. The shortest piece (by design) was 100 words. The longest was the last piece: 3,584. On average, each essay was 1500 words.

I laughed while I wrote some of these pieces. I struggled to stay awake with others. Sometimes I wept, and sometimes it was worse than that. Every single day I learned something, and that was incredible.  I think some of the essays may be a little mediocre, but on the whole there’s nothing here that I’m ashamed of. Some of these are as good as it gets, at least for me.

I did discover, no big surprise, that I still have a problem with time management. I don’t know how I’m going to work that out exactly. Staying up writing until five, six, seven in the morning doesn’t work with real life. At this point, I just have to take a few days off in order to get my circadian rhythm back in order. I think that I’ve trained my husband (my dear husband) to not talk to me so much when I’m trying to work, but really, that’s not too sorely tested when I’m the only one up. I also discovered that my desk really is too tall and lifting my shoulders to type every night has made them stiff and sore.  I guess one has to suffer for one’s art. Or something. I love my desk, so I will have to find a workable solution.

If I look at this through the eyes of my toughest critic (that would be me) I think that it was a success. I have re-gained the habit of writing again, and that was an enormous hurdle. When I start the new project, I will have new challenges. I won’t be able to post each day’s efforts to Facebook. (What a Godsend that was– thank you dear friends for your wonderful support and feedback.) I won’t even be able to post it to a blog. (And many thanks to my new WordPress friends for your support and feedback– a lovely and unexpected surprise.)

Those outlets kept me honest. Richard Brautigan used to keep a calendar on which he noted, each day, how many pages he wrote. (I think it was a pages– some days it says 7 or 2 or 25, and even with his strange habits, he was writing more words than two per day.) I don’t know, I’ll figure it out.  I do think that my self-discipline and will to write are well-honed after their 30 day tune-up.

And yes, there is another blog. There won’t be new posts every day. You can find here, at Occasional Songs, with a nod to Handel along the way. The first piece there is one I wrote quite a long time ago, though I think most of you have never seen it. It’s called “A Chinese Funeral in L.A.”  I hope that you will come by there and see what’s going on from time to time. I’ll miss our daily connection over the writing, but I couldn’t sustain this pace much longer anyway.

Thank you all, again, so very much. I’m so glad we’ve had this time together, I’m so grateful to all of you.

LEARNING TO FLY

Like many of the best things in my life, this story begins with a dog. Except that I never knew this dog and for that matter, he’s been gone 85 years. The dog was a beautifully bred St.Bernard from Nina Dodd’s White Star Kennels in Long Branch, New Jersey. He was sold as a puppy in 1917 for $75, which works out to somewhere in the neighborhood of $1400 in today’s figures. Apparently the puppy’s new owner went to the train station to pick up the puppy with his nephew– telling the boy they were going to the train station to meet “Mr. Bernard.”  It took me awhile to piece together this tale of a St. Bernard from the  faded photograph of Orville Wright walking his dog, Scipio.  As it turns out, there are dozens of photographs of Scipio, romping among the hawthorn trees, lounging on the front porch, riding in a canoe on Lake Huron, stretched out across a Persian carpet. When Orville Wright died, decades after his beloved dog, there were pictures of Scipio still tucked in his wallet.

Before Scipio, the Wright Brothers didn’t foster much interest for me. Yes, I knew they invented the airplane, just as I knew Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Important things, sure, but not the stuff that keeps me up at night.  But because we live just a few blocks from the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park (Honestly, the name! It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like “Yellowstone” does it?) we decided to take some visitors there one spring afternoon.  It was engaging, and I did learn how to tell one Wright Brother from another (Orville had a mustache all his adult life, Wilbur never had one) and I was impressed with their sticktoitiveness. We knew about their bicycles, but not the printing business, and we thought the sidebar about Orville’s friend Paul Laurence Dunbar was kind of interesting. Other than feeling a little piqued every time we saw a North Carolina license plate (First in Flight, indeed) we still didn’t give much thought to the Wright Brothers.

When another project brought me to Scipio and I discovered the collection of photos in the Library of Congress, I began to be more curious about these men that were the first to fly. As it turns out, Wilbur  had been dead for five years before Scipio came along, and though he helped his brother design their fine house in Oakwood, he died of typhoid fever before it was completed. Like many of us, the image I have of the Wright Brothers is that of young men in bowler hats and bow ties at the turn of the century, so I was surprised to learn that Orville had lived until 1948.

At the time of his death, we had airplanes “skywriting,” regularly scheduled airmail, planes had flown over the north and south poles and across every ocean and continent. There were crop dusters, paratroopers and aerial traffic reports. You could catch a regularly scheduled flight on PanAm from New York to San Francisco, or a Northwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Asia, and there were in-flight movies, with sound. Even Saudi Arabia had their own airline. The September before Orville died, the United States Air Force separated from the US Army, jet bombers were in regular use and a fighter jet had been clocked at 300 mph. That’s a lot of progress from those windy winter mornings on the dunes of the Outer Banks. If anyone ever asked  him  what his thoughts were about the use of the airplane to annihilate millions of people, I haven’t found the answer.

There have been scores of books written about the Wright Brothers and their quest for flight. Trying to find out something about the nature of the men themselves in those books is often like looking for a pearl in the sand. Mostly the books end with the success at Kitty Hawk (even though they truly did not hammer down the problems of powered flight until they were back in Dayton) or they end with Wilbur’s death in 1912. When the personalities of the brothers are described, it is in the broadest terms: Wilbur was “formal,” or “studious,” Orville was a “prankster” or (conversely) “pathologically shy.”  Wilbur had to be dressed by his sister to be appropriately attired, Orville was a dandy. Wilbur was the brains, Orville was the enthusiasm. Like many generalizations, there may be a kernel of truth there, or it may just be that a yarn repeated often enough takes on a ring of authenticity.

Take for instance, the notion that Orville Wright was “pathologically shy.”  (And yes, that’s the very phrase one sees over and over and over.) Think about this for a minute. Pathologically shy people do not stop to visit with school children on the street. They do not enlist the help of strangers in far off coastal towns to help them with gliders and later, powered aircraft. They do not entertain guests from all over the world. They do not play practical jokes.  Orville Wright eschewed public speaking, but there are documented instances where he did it anyway. He did not suffer journalists very well– and who can blame him? Journalists screw up the simplest things– imagine trying to get them to understand something as complicated as powered flight. These things do not confer on him even genuine shyness, let alone some kind of clinical state of dis-ease.

Continuing to sift through the sand, the dry, dry sand will turn up one little gem after another though, tiny landmarks in an amazing life. For instance, Orville Wright’s march to a different drummer started early– in kindergarten. Every morning, he’d start off — and never get there, preferring to spend the day playing with his friend, Ed Sines. At the appropriate time, he went home.  This continued for several weeks, until Susan Wright stopped in at the school to see how her youngest son was getting along. They’d never seen him.  Orville was then home-schooled by his mother (who turns out to be the source of real mechanical ability and curiosity in the family) until the second grade.

In the second grade, he was given opportunity to advance directly to the third grade, provided he could pass a reading test. The teacher chose a passage in the primer for Orville to read, and read it Orville did, holding the book upside down.  More in the realm of the prankster, he once dumped a packet of red pepper into the heating registers to see if that wouldn’t result in school closing for the day. This one kind of backfired, though. For three days, nothing happened. On the fourth day, the pepper was suddenly activated, making all the students sneeze.  But the teacher just apologized, opened the windows and went on teaching to her roomful of students, their eyes streaming from the red pepper in the atmosphere.

By the time he was at Central High School, at Fourth and Wilkinson Streets in Dayton, Orville had abandoned a regular course of study to take instead advanced academic classes in subjects that interested him, particularly Latin. (There is a photo here. Orville stands in the middle of the doorway in the top row. His friend Paul Laurence Dunbar is all the way to the left.) When he realized that his self-designed program made him ineligible for graduation he quit.

Interested in printing, Orville designed a press and his older brother, Wilbur helped him build it. By March of 1889, at the age of 17, he was printing a weekly newspaper, The West Side News. On the masthead, he is listed as publisher and Wilbur as editor. The paper is an amusing amalgam of “news.” For instance “Mrs. Harrison is sick and is obliged to refuse visitors. She will probably be out again in a few days” runs alongside an account of former president Grover Cleveland visiting St. Augustine, Florida en route to Cuba.  There are many “one-liner” stories, like “L.M. Brown wore the first straw hat of the season,” or “Miller’s slaughterhouse on South Williams Street was consumed by fire Friday morning.” (Yes, that’s the whole story.) However five column inches was devoted to “The Sand Blast,” a rhapsodic piece about, well, sand-blasting.

In April 1890, the West Side News became an evening daily, but the boys couldn’t sustain the pace, and in August, the paper closed. They did go on running the presses though, producing handbills, tickets, broadsheets, and booklets as a commercial press, including Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Tattler, beginning in 1892. In December 1892, they opened the bicycle shop, and in the fall of 1893 attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago where Octave Chanute’s aeronautical exhibit rekindled their childhood interest in machines that fly.

I’m not going to talk about the flying. The innumerable accounts of the Wrights’ efforts to make possible powered flight have ground that topic into dust. We know they did it. Let’s move on. Well, there’s one thing to consider though. In 1901, Wilbur Wright quit. He decided that man would never fly in his lifetime and he refused to waste anymore time on the endeavor. Orville, the clown, the tinkerer, the dreamer would not let go. He gave his brother reasonable arguments to continue. He wheedled. He cajoled. He stormed. Though it’s not recorded, he probably stamped his feet and slammed the door. Whatever he did, Wilbur reconsidered and the experiments in flying continued.

In 1900, Orville had taken up the mandolin. His sister Katharine wrote “Orv has begun lessons on his mandolin and we are getting even with the neighborhood for all the noise they have made on pianos. He sits around and picks that thing until I can hardly stay in the house.”  Orville’s  1900 Washburn mandolin is in the Smithsonian, along with report cards of both Wright brothers, the stopwatch they used at Kitty Hawk and scraps of fabric and wood from the 1903 Flyer than went with the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969.

It horrifies me to read of the September 1908 accident in which Orville Wright crashed during a demonstration for the U.S. Army. The right propeller broke, catching on a guy wire that braced the rear vertical rudder. The wire in turn tore out the rudder and the plane nose-dived.

“Our course for 50 feet,” Orville wrote to his brother, “was within a very few degrees from the perpendicular . Lt. Selfridge to this point had not uttered a word, though he took a hasty glance behind when the propeller broke and turned once or twice to look into my face, evidently to see what I thought of the situation. But when the machine turned for the ground, he exclaimed ‘Oh! Oh!’ in an almost inaudible voice.”

Orville and the Lieutenant were thrown against the ground, and Lieutenant Selfridge hit his head on a wooden upright that supported the framework of the wing, fracturing his skull. He underwent surgery, but died during the night without regaining consciousness. Orville suffered a broken femur, broken hip, and several broken ribs and was hospitalized for seven weeks in traction. He never quite recovered from the effects of the accident. It left him with ongoing back pain and sciatica for the rest of his life, as well as a lingering sense of guilt and sadness over the first passenger death in aviation history.

As soon as Orville was well enough to travel, he and his sister Katharine sailed to Europe to join Wilbur there in promoting the aircraft, training pilots in Italy and demonstrating flight in Germany. When they returned home in May 1909, they were greeted by a crowd of 10,000 people at the Dayton train station. Their father and their brother, Lorin and Lorin’s family were there to greet them, and a special livery of eleven carriages had been arranged to carry the Wright party home. The crowds followed them on foot and when they crossed the bridge to the West Side they found the streets festooned with paper lanterns and flags. Across the street from their home, a bandstand had been set up and the  band began playing “Home Sweet Home” as they arrived.

I love that when the brothers Wright were finally (and very belatedly) officially honored by the City of Dayton (okay, boys, we’ll claim you now) a month later  in June, 1909 that they rode in carriage with lifetime friends Ed Sines (remember him, from kindergarten) and Edward Ellis, and that the two Eds spent as much time leaning out of the carriage shaking hands as Orville and Wilbur did.

It wasn’t all wine and roses though. With success came issues with patents, and vigorously defending those patents in a court of law. In 1912, Wilbur died from Typhoid fever. Orville believed that the stress of the patent issues had weakened his brother and made his susceptible to the typhus, and he vowed to finish out the patent fights to honor Wilbur’s memory. The house that Orville and Wilbur and Katharine designed together on Hawthorn Hill, across the river in Oakwood, is completed, and they move their with their father.

When I read Milton Wright’s diary entry in 1913 that his son Orville had narrowly escaped arrest for “rapid driving”– I wrote it down mistakenly as “rabid driving” and I smile when I think of Orville careening down Harman Avenue and rounding the corner onto Far Hills in front of the high school, people scattering in all directions and the Oakwood Police turning a blind eye, because they don’t really want to arrest their most prominent citizen.

No doubt he could be insufferable too. His sister’s nickname for him was “His Criticalness.”  As Orville didn’t like the taste of refrigerated food, the Wrights went on with an ice box long after their neighbors had moved on to electric refrigerators. He did design a special door in the pantry so that the ice could be delivered without water being tracked across the kitchen floor. Workmen could not get the reddish color stain that Orville wanted  right on the woodwork of the Hawthorn Hill house, so he re-did it all himself. (Did he roll over in his grave when NCR  -who bought the house after his death- painted all the woodwork white? It’s all right, Bubbo, the white looks good.) He was working on developing an automatic record changer, with a mechanical arm that reached for records, ordered in specific slots, and placed them on the turntable. Unfortunately, it didn’t work as expected, instead breaking most of Orville’s records by flinging them on the floor. In need of more records, he went to visit all of his relatives asking for their records in order to fine tune the machine.

One of Orville’s nephews was inordinately fond of mashed potatoes, and in family memoirs,  “Uncle Orv” was remembered to have fastened a thread to the bottom of his nephew’s plate. He noted at the dinner table that the boy’s plate just seemed to gravitate towards the potatoes, while surreptitiously pulling the thread to make the plate move across the table. The same method was employed at Thanksgiving to simulate a tin “cockroach” racing across the dining room table which caused the housekeeper to drop the turkey.

Ivonette Wright Miller, the daughter of Orville’s older brother Lorin, recalled for reporters the Christmas dinner of 1919, when her new husband  Harold was the butt of one of her uncle’s jokes.  The place cards that year were a card from  Orville with a $20 bill tucked inside. ($20 in those days was the equivalent of about $250.) Except at Harold Miller’s spot, where instead of a card there was a small box of candy. Harold thanked Orville for the candy and set it aside. Others at the table encouraged  him to open the candy, saying that the $20 must be inside the box. Orville chuckled away at the head of the table. The box was opened, but there was no money inside. Harold set the box aside, quite embarrassed now. But the family urged him forward , and he removed all of the chocolates to see if the money was hidden underneath. No. Again, he tried to stop, and again he was encouraged to continue to search. Finally, when he unfolded the lid of the box, there was the $20 bill peeking out. Fiendish, in its own way.

As I sift through these dusty books and snippets of  information, trying to winnow fact from fiction, I realize what is happening here and I can no more stop it than I could hold out my hand and stop a train from coming down the tracks. A simple essay takes days because it’s like falling down a rabbit hole. I wander down this path, and then that one. I stop to drive out to Huffman Prairie and let the wind blow across my face. I check and cross-check, and check again. I drag my relatives to look at the 1905 Wright  Flyer III here in Dayton at Carillon Park. I suggest to the docents there that the pronunciation of the dog’s name is “Skipio” like the Roman general, rather than “Sipio” like the town in Ohio. I search for a Washburn bowlback Cremonatone Mandolin on eBay.

Falling in love changes everything. No, no, not that I’ve fallen in love with a man dead 14 years before I was even born. (And even if not dead then, he would have been, let’s see, 91 years my senior.) Well, maybe a little bit in love with Orville, but more so in love with Orville’s story, with discovering the real stuff of the men who gave us wings. (And in the parlor game of who would you invite to dinner, living or dead, if it could be anyone– he’s zoomed right to the top of my list, way ahead of George Washington or T.S. Eliot or Jesus Christ.)

Tom Crouch, the author of The Bishop’s Boys, to date one of the few books that stops to actually look at the Wright brothers, rather than just the race to powered flight, describes them as “warm, interesting, witty and articulate.”  Yes, well, all that and so much more.  The thing is, it’s difficult to write about a group of people– whether it’s Little Women, or the Barn Gang, or Poets in Their Youth, there’s so little focus on the individual that they are not much more than cardboard cut-outs to the reader; two-dimensional and flat. Combine that with the highly technical aspects of the invention of flight and you have something dry, dry as the sand blowing across the hills at Kitty Hawk.

Driving home alone one evening in the Saab, nimbly moving along the curves of Far Hills Boulevard, coming down out of Oakwood into Dayton, I have a kind of epiphany. It is momentous enough for me that the hair rises on the back of my neck. I realize  in that instant that I know what I have to do, and how I’m going to do it. There are many more stories to tell.

The next morning I am browsing online through something entirely unrelated, and I run across a little tiny article, written by Leonard K. Henry, someone I’ve never heard of.  As part of the Federal Writers Project, he had interviewed Orville Wright on the third floor of Wright’s laboratory.  They are leaving together and Orville asks Leonard Henry if would be so kind as to look down the elevator shaft and see where the elevator is. “It always makes me dizzy and nervous to look down from any place higher than the second floor,” the aviator explains. Orville Wright was afraid of heights.  He explains that while learning to fly he was too busy thinking to feel afraid. “It had all the exhilaration of a great adventure,”  he said.

There are literally thousands of documents online and in special collections having to do with Orville Wright, and his family. There are diaries and letters and photographs and interviews and ledgers and blueprints and patent applications. I could spend the rest of my natural life reading about Orville Wright and not only not know everything there is to know about him, but not know everything that’s documented about him. I know now what I have to do to really begin to understand, and I am going to learn to fly.

I can get on an airplane as a passenger and I can fly.  I don’t like it much. For nearly a decade, I couldn’t even do that, and would drive or take trains or simply stay home. Then I realized that I needed to overcome that fear to prevent my life from becoming circumscribed by distance. So I worked out a means to stop being afraid, and those first few flights, beating back that fear– I was giddy with euphoria afterwards. Now it’s dull and ordinary again, and a tablet of Valium makes the anxiety manageable. That’s commercial travel, and that’s not the kind of flying I mean.

I am going to go out to the airport and take lessons in a little tiny plane and learn how to race up the runway into the wild blue skies. I am going to learn how to soar and bank and climb. My family is absolutely speechless every time I mention this. That matters not. I know I will be afraid, but I’m going to do it anyway. Maybe I will be too busy thinking to be afraid. I hope to find there all the exhilaration of a great adventure, and in the exhilaration of learning to fly, I’ll be looking for Orville.

BREATHING ROOM

It isn’t writer’s block, quite. In fact, the word counts make me look entirely productive: more than 5000 over the span of two nights. And when I say “over the span of two nights,” that’s exactly what I mean. This morning I went to bed at 7 am. Yesterday it was 6:30 a.m. Both times I fell asleep in absolute defeat. I have wrestled the essay two nights running and I am losing.

I want to write about why I live where I live. In the 1970s, “Why I Live Where I Live” was a regular column in Esquire Magazine, each one featuring a different writer. I read them avidly. The two that stick with me are those written by Annie Dillard and Harry Crews, both of whom lived in places where I too had lived. I’m not sure you would have recognized either place if they hadn’t named them. In the course of trying to coax the piece into shape, I re-read Harry’s column. It rambles all over the place too. Esquire notwithstanding, maybe it’s the topic that doesn’t work. Still, just like a dog with her teeth into something, I don’t want to let go.

Where we live is sometimes dictated by necessity, sometimes by whim. (Occasionally you have to wonder if fate intervenes. Why did I pick up and move to Montana, a place I’d never even visited? And then I was stuck there. For years.)

Whether or not you are at home there is at the heart of the matter. I chose Montana and lived there 18 years, but I was never a Montanan. I spent a decade in Boston, but found no peace there. However that city influenced me, it’s since washed off like a watercolor. (Well, maybe some driving habits remain.)  I wasn’t even a citizen of the one place that did feel like home, and couldn’t claim it as anything but borrowed. My whole life was like something out of Goldilocks. Too hard, too soft, too small, too large, too hot, too cold.  Until now.

So why can’t I write about it? I love this town, but when I try to organize those thoughts on paper, they read like something creative from the Chamber of Commerce. When I try to talk about how we came to be here, the essay takes on that terrible pedestrian narrative – “and then, and then, and then.”

Harry Crews said one of the reasons he lives in Gainesville is because three hours away there’s really good fishing. I like horse racing, but I don’t live in Dayton because it’s three hours from the Kentucky Derby. If “really good fishing” was the criteria for living somewhere, you’d think Harry would have moved closer to the beach. Of course, he lived in Gainesville because he taught there, just as we live here because we chose the extraordinary public performing arts high school for our son.

Why I think I’ll stay for ever and always is a whole different question. And for that matter, Harry has long retired from the University of Florida, and yet he lingers quite near there, in Melrose. I lived Gainesville as well; three times. In utero, as a little girl from age 2 to 6 and again when I was 17, and I returned for college. I don’t go near Gainesville now, it’s clearly my geographical tar baby and I’m terrified I might get stuck.  And when I left there in 1980, I didn’t even glance back.

I did take a couple of classes from Harry Crews, though. They were upper-level creative writing courses and I never should have been allowed to sign up. Lucky me the computer didn’t kick me out and neither did Harry. We used to meet at night. We’d have an assignment to read and then we’d talk about it. We’d turn in our papers to Harry and he’d return those that were already graded. I don’t think we ever talked about each other’s writing, and so much the better. We really only cared what Harry thought. One night, after we’d read Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” he asked me to tell the class what I thought about it. So I told them. “A brilliant story,” I said, “but I didn’t really care for it.” (Which I still think is an entirely legitimate opinion.)

Well, Harry was on that like white on rice. “Didn’t care for it! Little Miss Coed here doesn’t care for the great Kafka!”  And so on. Really, I suppose I should have figured that it would have been one of Harry’s favorites. I’d read all his novels in high school, and a love for Kafka should have come as no surprise. I sat there and listened while he raved and tried not to cry.

At the break, I went up and asked for my story. If you didn’t pick up your work, he threw it out.

“Name?”

“Larkin Vonalt.”

“Oh yeah. The one with the people wandering around in the middle of the night.” He shuffled through a few more papers. “Here it is.”  I could see he’d marked it with a B. He paused, though, before handing it over. Leaning back in his chair he looked at me as if he was seeing me for the first time.

“Are you kin to Larry Vonalt? He drew the word “kin” out three beats.

“Yes, I’m his daughter.” Harry slapped the desktop so hard people in the room jumped.

“Well, how the hell is he??!! We were the dearest of friends. You tell him, you tell him the next time you talk to him, you tell him Harry Crews sent his luvvvv.”

Well, I did tell him of course, and my father called Harry and they had a fine old time rekindling their graduate school friendship.  What I learned from Harry over the next two semesters was how to not flinch. It has served me well. I wish I could learn from him now how to say why I live where I live.

Why do I live where I live? There’s the history of course– the brothers Wright and their bicycles, their friend, Paul Laurence Dunbar and his poems. Jane Reese and her camera, John Patterson and his rowboats (yes, yes cash registers too) Esther Price and her chocolates. There’s the Federal Courthouse where Lincoln spoke, and damn near every president after  him. There are the 3000 creches at the University of Dayton and the 104,000 inhabitants of Woodland Cemetery, itself a National Historic Landmark. Every mover and shaker Dayton ever had is buried there– but the most visited grave is that of a boy and his dog.

There are the long straight boulevards of fine houses and the cobblestone streets, and the river, like a great grey ribbon curling through the town. Great old industrial sites dot the town, factories and warehouses and great hulking ruins. There are fountains in the river and a skating rink in a park downtown and a baseball stadium where the minor league team boasts the longest sell-out record of any professional sports team. Colored lights flicker underneath the bridges.

I lost my dog here for nine days. Everyone wanted to help: letter carriers, A.T. & T. repair crews, UPS, the Police Department, the Sheriff’s office, college students, homeless men and women. A local mover and shaker wrote about her in his blog. Days went by without a word. It was like she’d fallen off the edge of the earth. The hardest call each day was to street maintenance, to see if they’d found her body. When she was finally spotted, five miles across town in a wooded area behind the Hospice, nearly the entire staff became involved in our reunion. I’ll never forget the euphoria that swept over me as she raced into my arms, and I’ll never forget the UPS man dancing a little jig on my front porch that afternoon, upon hearing the good news. “The guys are gonna be so  happy to hear this, we’ve all been looking for her.” When I brought pastries to the hospice to thank them again on the anniversary of her return, the whole story was written up (badly, but it was a sweet gesture) in the Dayton Daily News as if the return of a lost dog is a story that ought to be newsworthy. Something like that can make you partial to a town.

Just a few weeks ago they named one of the bridges across the Great Miami River the Richard Holbrooke Memorial Bridge after the late American diplomat.  In 1995, Holbrooke brokered a peace treaty here in Dayton  that ended the Balkan conflict. He wrote about Dayton in his memoirs:

There was also a real Dayton out there, a charming Ohio city, famous as the birthplace of the Wright Brothers. Its citizens energized us from the outset. Unlike the population of, say New York, Geneva or Washington which would scarcely notice another conference, Daytonians were proud to be part of history. Large signs at the commercial airport hailed Dayton as the “temporary center of international peace”. The local newspapers and television stations covered the story from every angle, drawing the people deeper into the proceedings. When we ventured into a restaurant or a shopping center downtown, people crowded around, saying that they were praying for us. Warren Christopher was given at least one standing ovation in a restaurant. Families on the air base placed “candles of peace” in their front windows, and people gathered in peace vigils outside the base. One day they formed a “peace chain”, although it was not quite large enough to surround the sprawling eight-thousand-acre base.

When I read that out loud to my husband, I have to stop for a second to regain my composure. Why should that make me cry? It’s not sad. That’s Dayton for you. Not always the most sophisticated, perhaps, but hopeful and optimistic and caring. Even when the city keeps getting cut off at the knees– the departure of GM was dreadful, but NCR leaving by far the worst betrayal. (No doubt John Patterson rolled over in his grave several times.) Even when that happens, the city is like a scrappy little terrier– up on its feet and ready to go.

But when I try to write about it I get tangled up in keeping all the details straight and carefully drawing each line on the dot-to-dot. I try to keep my own story in there as well– after all, it’s supposed to be why I live here, not why those other 142,000 do. (Or a million if you want to count the outlying areas.)

I’d like to tell the story of the drunk guy that helped us unload the moving truck the hot August night we arrived here, or the woman who lived across the alley from us and her beautiful daughter and how the daughter died one night while they were making dinner. Or the man across the street who helped us carry a treadmill up the stairs and the stricken figure of a dog to the car, has cut the grass, strung the lights, and borrowed every tool we have, all the while keeping us apprised on neighborhood gossip. There are still so many things I don’t want to forget. But I just can’t seem to make the words cooperate.

It’s nights like that where my skill as a writer is less than useful. The sentences are pretty. They scan well. The metaphors are clever or apt. But it’s all so boring I can hardly stand to read it out loud to myself. Two nights of that is about enough to make me wild with despair.

Now comes the question of what to do? This experiment, this 30 Days Notice, was supposed to be neatly tied up and put away two days ago, on the 30th. I cannot seem to climb over this one piece and there are still two more lying in wait on the other side. Am I supposed to just give up and walk away after devoting two days of my life to it? Or should I go on wrangling the sentences until at last they move forward together? Maybe I just say forget it about the other two stories and move on to the next thing, closing down 30 Days Notice two days overdue instead of four?

I needed breathing room to sort it out. I used to sleep on this sort of thing, but I’m so exhausted by the time I fall into bed in the morning, that the sleep is hard and dreamless.

So today I let myself breathe a bit, hugging my sides like an exhausted runner, and I made some decisions.

I’m going to save “Why I Live Where I Live” for another project. It may take 10,000 words to tell that story. Or a hundred thousand. There will be one more piece here tomorrow and after that, a little wrap-up. And though the curtains are coming down on this show, I’ve left the stage door open– and I’ll leave a note with directions to the next theatre. One of these days I’ll figure it out, and then I’ll tell you how it is that I came home at last.

 

AMBIENT LIGHT

A Writer Talks About Photography

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic 126. It was under the Christmas tree for me when I was six years old. The first photo I took with it was of a pen full of hound dogs, neatly foreshadowing the hundreds, nay, thousands of pictures I’ve taken of hound dogs since.  It made little square pictures, all of them fuzzy because while Kodak was making these dandy little cameras for middle America, they were outfitting them with the cheapest little plastic lenses ever. It was like making a photograph through the bottom of a plastic wine glass.  Did we even realize how awful they were?  Looking at these snapshots now really is like looking at your own hazy memories, everyone is no more than a suggestion.

Eight years later the Christmas tree once again bore photographic fruit. This time it was a much nicer camera, a Rollei B35, at the time the smallest 35 mm camera made. The “B” is for “Belichtungsmesser”– a lightmeter, which was built into the front of the camera. (You can see a B35 in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Melinda Dillon used one to take photos of the landing of the spaceship.) I didn’t have the opportunity to take a picture of any spaceships, but I did photograph chocolate shops in Brussels, friends eating herring outside the Hague, and a shot that showed early promise– I turned around and got a photograph of the hordes of tourists all taking snapshots of the Notre Dame.

I was already cast in bronze as a writer. Of course, I planned to be an actress and took to my high school stage as the Fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof, and Mrs. Smith in The Bald Soprano. I couldn’t sing well enough for the big roles in the musicals (the Fiddler, you might remember, is not Tevye, but a mute) and when I was cast as one of a dozen nuns in the Sound of Music I hotly told the theatre teacher, Don Oickle, that I couldn’t waste my time with such things. Which was probably the truest thing I ever said in that room. I was already editor of the school paper, after all, and for the first time ever I had an English teacher who both recognized my talent and raised the bar so high for me, that for the first time in my life I was having to work at writing.

I liked my camera, but I didn’t  think of it as anything other a means of recording memorable events, and always on slides. My stepfather had a very nice camera, a Leica IIIf from the 1950s and he shot (exclusively) Agfa slide film, so I shot Agfa too. We had a lovely Rollei projector and a good slide projected across the room can make a breath-taking image. They’re just a little inconvenient to casually leaf through. In time I started experimenting with different films, taking “artsy” photographs with an array of strange film from Ilford. I remember well a series of “eggs on a table top” that all came out cyan. My first year in college I stretched myself with the camera, shooting in the rain, at the beach, and all kinds of scandalous images that I’m surprised the local photo place deigned to print.

These were, however, good enough to get me into art school. On a trip to New York before I went off to MassArt, I “borrowed” the  Leica, and shot several rolls of the Chelsea Hotel, including a wonderful portrait of the famous hotel’s famous manager Stanley Bard. The Chelsea (in those days anyway) was very plain. Radiator pipes that banged all night long, narrow beds with thin blankets. But the wrought iron staircases were extraordinary, and the lobby was resplendent with boys in leather and raccoon-eyed girls, the celebrated and the notorious, cheek by cheek. I think that week is probably when I first started to use the camera as a different way to see. When I (ahem) “returned” the Leica, I left a roll of film in it, about half the exposures gone. I understand that when my stepfather went to pick up “his” roll of photos that he was quite bewildered by half of what he got back from Eckerd’s.

At Mass Art, I studied with Nick Nixon, who must be one of the most patient people alive.  My little Rollei had long since packed up (salt water and whatnot is hell on cameras) and with the first installment of my student loan, I bought an Olympus OM10 with a motor drive and two lenses.  Nick’s work is unflinching, capturing the beauty in the faces of people with AIDS,  people in nursing homes, the blind, the sick . . . and thank God, school children and city scapes. I wanted to take photographs like that, but I was shy about approaching people, so I shot almost exclusively with the telephoto lens. Yeah, it was a cop-out.

Even worse, I couldn’t get a grasp on exposure– I struggled with the light meter and most of the time just ignored it. I still can’t tell you exactly what “bracketing” or “matrix metering” is.  I understood why it was difficult to shoot a photograph of a black horse in the snow, and what to do about it, but I couldn’t explain it to you.  I suppose that’s like a writer who never bothered to learn to spell. It’s not that I meant to be disrespectful and careless. I was just in a rush to get the photograph. Somewhere I read a statistic that professional photographers believed that about five percent of the shots they took were successful. Five percent! That was one in twenty. I could produce a reasonable photograph one time out of twenty, well, most of the time.

I started in filmmaking at MassArt, drifted to photography and then upstairs to the Studio for Interrelated Media– “Performance Art.” There I built installations, made tape loops, shot film, and piled them all together to tell a story. Even though I was using various visual arts techniques to produce the finished piece, at the core all of my installations was the essence of it all: writing. I might have been running from words, but they were chasing me down.

The Olympus with telephoto lens and motor drive weighed in at nearly three pounds– which is a lot to carry on your shoulder day after day. Though I kind of hated to give it up, years later I finally packed it away in a box on the shelf for a much lighter Nikon SLR.  I was a long hold out for film. I’d see film stock from different companies disappear forever and each time would die a little  inside. Every time I had film developed, there was grousing about the expense. I understood the transient nature of a computer file though. Formats change, things disappear, they can’t be read down the line.

Daguerreotypes from the 1830s are still very much with us. Henry Fox Talbots “calotypes” of prints made with a silver solution fixed with salt still exist. You can make new prints from very old glass negatives. I love old photographs, particularly those of dogs, but also of family. My grandfather was an avid photographer and chronicled his family’s life with a medium format Speed Graphic, which belongs to me now. I have a photograph of Grampa, when he was just two years old, sitting on the lap of his grandmother, Elizabeth Tressler, who was born in 1837. So here’s a photograph taken in 1910 that is of someone I knew very well, well into my adult life,9 in the company of a woman who was born 125 years before me. I look at this image and I am connected to her. I can see that connection– he’s sitting on her lap!

I hated to change over to a format as tenuous as a computer file, and if the risks of losing the image weren’t bad enough, there was the trouble with capturing the image. I’d used friends’ digital cameras, snapping a picture for them at school functions and the like. There was no mistaking that lag between pushing the button and the shutter opening.  That  might be fine for taking pictures of a house or a tractor or an African violet, but what about shooting dogs, horses, children? You’d never be able to capture anything. They’d be long gone before the camera even cooperated.

Well, you know what comes next right? Nikon made a digital version of my beloved SLR, and it had no shutter lag. So I capitulated and agreed that the camera should be under the Christmas tree for me, 39 years after my first Instamatic. It’s been wonderful. Given that I never did master the technical aspects of photography, the digital format allows me shoot dozens of images to get the one I want.  This year, as part of a fundraiser, I used it to take pictures of pets with Santa Claus. I know, having had my owndog’s picture made with Santa Claus, that it’s usually one shot and you’re done. Not for me. I photographed each dog, as many times as necessary, until each owner had an image that made them smile. We would have gone broke trying to be that accommodating with Polaroid film.

None of my photographs has ever stopped anyone in their tracks.  Well, one maybe. In 1998, a friend and I spent 9 days crossing Wyoming on US 20. One evening, I took some photographs of an old fire truck parked under a sodium vapor lamp at the aptly named “Hell’s Half Acre.”  They were slides, and some of them were pretty fantastic. I chose the best one and entered, for fun really, in the Gallatin County, Montana Winter Fair. I should have had copies made, but I didn’t. Imagine how surprised and delighted I was to find that the photo had been named “Best Overall Photo” at the fair and “Grand Champion.”  When the fair was ending and I went to pick up the slide, and some other prints, my ribbons and prize money, none of it was there. Someone else had picked it up. At first I thought it must be a mistake, but as no one came back with them it was pretty clear they’d been stolen. You had to wonder about the man who usually won the photo contest at the fair, if he could be that small?  They reissued the prize money  and rosettes but the picture was lost forever and now Hell’s Half Acre itself is gone.

I take lots of pictures of the place I live, my family, some of the food that we conjure up in the kitchen, and of course, the dogs. One schmuck, an acquaintance, posted online a series of photographs he’d taken of Dayton. They could not have been less flattering. They weren’t even honest, just bad snapshots of parking lots and vacant houses and the quality was horrible– they might have been taken with my old Instamatic. When I shared my own photographs of Dayton with him he said they were the “typical yuppie bullshit” and called me a name. Another person looked at some photos I’d taken along the river  in Mississippi and saw in them a condemnation, when really that was not what I meant at all. So I think I’m not very successful in using photographs to communicate.

What I am good at is that I can make a great snap shot, an informal portrait. I can take a picture of a building or a harness horse or a carnival ride and make you go “Hm, that’s interesting.” No one’s ever going to want to buy them and put them on the wall and that’s fine with me. They work for me as illustrations, something to make the stories bigger. Photography for me was always about seeing, and writing is about feeling. Each photograph may indeed be worth a thousand words, but when I look at a compelling image, the journalist’s old maxim rises up in me: who, what, where, when and why. I see the photograph and I hunger for the details.

The noted photographer Shelby Lee Adams was a close friend of my late father’s. He is best known for his images of Appalachian family life, and those images are stories just begging to be told.  There has been an ongoing controversy about his work and whether or not it is exploitive of its subjects.  These people are poor, to some they might even seem grotesque– but surely no more (and perhaps less) than the homeless on the streets of L.A. or New York, or the babies with AIDS that Nick Nixon photographed. Or the children made famous  by Diane Arbus’ work. If we look at a photograph of another human being and it makes us uncomfortable, do we then deem it exploitive? Utter nonsense. When I see Adams’ photographs, I don’t feel pity or compassion or contempt– I feel curiosity. I want to know more about what’s going on in the picture, how these people are related to each other, what the circumstances are. It’s not up to me to judge their lot in life, but I greatly appreciate the glimpse into their world. When Dad was alive we used to look at these images together and he would explain to me what he knew about them. He and his wife were invited to go to Kentucky for a “Dinner on the Ground” with Shelby and came back with more great stories to go with these faces.

I like to take photographs, but I am not a photographer. I’m a writer, so I want to use words to tell these stories, but a single image catapults that person into our lives front and center, if only for as long as it takes to turn the page.  Over my desk hangs a large print of “Chester and His Hounds,” which Shelby Lee Adams made in 1992, and when I glance  up to really look it, it always makes me grin. But then I always had a thing for pictures of hound dogs.

NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP


 

The clock ticks over another minute. Thoughts spin round creakily like a hamster on its squeaky wheel. Fold the pillow, rearrange the blankets. Next to you your spouse sleeps peacefully. 3 a.m. Count sheep, count former lovers, count days left. Doze for a minute or two. 3:20 a.m. Get up. Check Facebook. Open the refrigerator door and peer in. Leftover pizza– ooh, chicken, bacon and spinach on white sauce, your favorite. Put a slice in the microwave. Eat the limp slice of pizza. Drink a glass of water. Brush teeth. Trundle back to bed. 4:16 a.m. Sigh. Turn over on your other side. Practice breathing. Think about your father, the bill you forgot to pay, the thing you said that time. Just as the sky begins to lighten in the east, sleep overtakes you at last. And then it’s time to get up.

We can’t fall asleep. Well, of course we do eventually lose consciousness, having worked until we’re bleary-eyed, or driven in straight-through from San Antonio, or had enough cocktails to fell a small horse. But we aren’t sleeping easily or well. 70 million people in the United States are believed to be afflicted with sleep troubles, generating some 43 million prescriptions for five billion dollars in sleep aids.

In 2006, when Lunesta first appeared on the market, people were so seduced by the lurid green butterfly floating across their television screen (promising them the good night’s sleep they deserved) it more than doubled the amount of money Americans spent on sleeping pills. One physician,David Claman, director of the UCSF sleep disorders center, told the San Francisco Chronicle “In the 12 years I’ve been in practice, this was the only time I’ve had a line of people out the door waiting to try a medicine.”

The National Sleep Foundation estimates that including health care costs we spend $14 billion dollars a year trying to fall asleep. When you add in indirect costs like loss productivity and property damage (i.e. from accidents caused by the sleep impaired) the number shoots to more than $35 billion dollars. Ad Age reports that the current recession has not affected the sales of sleeping pills (or antidepressants.)

43 percent of people aged 13 to 64 report that they rarely or never get “a good night’s sleep,” and 63 percent of American adults believe that their sleep needs are not adequately met during the week.  Between 2000 and 2004, prescriptions for hypnotics for individuals age 20 to 44 doubled and those for children age 10 to 19 increased by 85 percent.

We’re really in a state here, aren’t we?

The ability to transition from a busy day into a state of restful sleep is for many people a lifelong challenge, and trying to get children to fall asleep (and children arriving in your room wanting another story, a drink of water or the eviction of the monster from under the bed) contributes to our bedtime woes.

Nowhere has this been more humorously illustrated than in last year’s smash hit of Go the Fuck to Sleep, a children’s book for adults, written by Adam Mansbach, which reached number one on Amazon.com’s bestseller list  a month before it had even been published. (An email link sent to booksellers in advance of the book went “viral,” because anyone who has ever tried to get a toddler to go to sleep felt resonance with the book. The combined “hits” on YouTube for readings by Samuel L. Jackson or Werner Herzog are at 1.4 million.)

When my own son was an infant, he suffered from colic. Night after night, he wailed. My mother was staying with us and the three adults took turns walking the floor with him. I remember feeling asleep on my feet, it was all so exhausting. Then one night I put on some music and he stopped crying. Within a few minutes he’d settled down and fallen asleep.  It was a Billie Holiday record and over the next few days, we discovered that the child could be soothed and eased into sleep by Billie Holiday and nothing else.

I wonder if it would work now, as that baby boy is 17 years old, and he still doesn’t sleep much. I can hear him moving around in his room, listening to music or talking on the  phone. On mornings where he doesn’t have to get up, we won’t see him until noon at the earliest. At least we don’t have to walk the floor with him anymore.

It’s hard to put away your toys and go to bed. (And conversely, once we do fall asleep, it’s hard to stir out of that cozy and warm bed and face the day.)  But we need the sleep. That suspended sensory activity creates a heightened anabolic state which allows for the growth and rejuvenation of the immune, skeletal, muscular and central nervous systems. Many migraine sufferers find relief in a sleep state, and conversely  numerous studies show that wound healing is significantly slowed in the sleep deprived. A very rare and terrible inherited condition called “Fatal Familial Insomnia” has cruelly demonstrated that  we cannot survive without sleep.

While it is difficult to shift from the constant forward motion of our days to a good night’s sleep, anxiety is one of insidious components of insomnia that plagues us day and night. Not necessarily clinical anxiety, just the regular day-to-day worries can keep you awake. For instance, the number of people seeking assistance with insomnia jumped dramatically after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

When we are asleep we are vulnerable. We are not in control of the situation that surrounds us. We must be willing to let go and let nature take its course. It’s hard to do that if you don’t have faith that you will wake up again. People do die in their sleep. My own mother-in-law sat down for a nap in her recliner after a nice breakfast with her daughter, fell asleep and died so quietly that no one knew until they went to wake her. She was 94, but it can happen to people of any age. Every new parent knows the anxiety that lurks in the spectre of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Or pity the poor man or woman who awakes to find their spouse’s body cooling next to them. Each year 38,000 people die from sleep apnea. No wonder we’re reluctant to let go.

As a child I used to recite a bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Well, honestly, I don’t know what my mother was thinking when she taught me this. We didn’t go to church on Sunday, we went to dog shows. The message I got from this little ritual was not “God will look after me no matter what” but “I could die before I wake up.” (I’ve noticed on a recent recording that the prayer’s been adjusted to the less worrying “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, Thy Love go with me through the night and wake me with the morning light.” ) But it was the prayer she’d been taught as a child and she simply handed it down. I counter-acted this by saying this little five-word spell  to my parents every single night “See you in the morning.”  I didn’t teach the bedtime prayer to my son, but I noticed that after my father died that he added that same promise each night before he went to bed. See you in the morning.

In addition to bedtime prayers, most of us had sleep rituals as children. We would put away our toys and start winding down for the day. We’d have a bath and put on our pajamas. We’d be tucked into bed. Perhaps there would be a story. I started thinking about this one night when the hamster wheel was going around and around in my head while I was struggling to get to sleep.

We pack our days full. An estimated 95 percent of us engage in some kind of electronic stimulation in the hour before bed– television, computer, cell phone, and sometimes we bring that stuff to bed too. We fall into bed exhausted, our brains still feverishly working on whatever dilemmas we faced in our waking hours. No wonder we aren’t falling asleep. Though my husband can fall asleep anywhere, he was game to try the experiment I suggested.

We cleared our bedroom of accumulated junk, books and newspapers stacked next to the bed, clothes left across a chair and never put away, things stuck in the room because we had no other place to put them. I cleared all the surfaces and put a vase of fresh flowers on a dresser. I made a point to actually pull together a complete set of sheets, lovely Egyptian cotton the color of hope. The bed was made up with the precision of hospital staff. (That would be my husband, I’ve never been any good with corners.)

We chose midnight as our bedtime. It might not be optimum, but it was realistic given our habits. An hour before bed we turned off the television and the computer. (Harder than you might think.) We put the phones on the charger and left them there.

Night-clothes were laid out on the bed. One of us brewed green tea. We had showers and put on our jammies and sat in bed together drinking our tea. We talked, but we agreed that we would not talk about the problems that had beset us during the day, whether in our own household or in the wider world of news and politics. We were gentle and quiet with each other. Occasionally we read, but again, we tried to choose carefully; a biography of John Wooden or a well-loved novel. No controversy, and no despair. Sometimes there was soothing music. Sometimes I had to make a conscious effort to settle my thoughts, but having the hour of bedtime preparation really helped. Occasionally I’d use breathing exercises to relax. The end result? We fell asleep. We slept well. We awoke in the morning refreshed and energized.

Then the inevitable happened. We got busy with other projects. We started using every last minute until the one where we fell into bed. Elmer started dozing off in front of the television. I started staying up all night writing. The room filled up with more stuff. The tea stayed in the cupboard. I was going to bed as my husband was getting up. (And I have to say I’m not beset with insomnia now, but only because I’m exhausted. I’m running on afterburners. When I wake up again, it might be three or four in the afternoon. And that’s no way to live.)

So to ring in the New Year, we are turning off the television at eleven. We are clearing our bedroom of accumulated junk, books and newspapers stacked next to the bed, clothes left across a chair and never put away, things stuck in the room because we had no other place to put them. Surfaces will be cleared and polished and there will be flowers again, and Egyptian cotton sheets the color of– spring. Maybe I’ll buy myself new pajamas. Santa brought a glass teapot and flowering tea with which to close the day. We will make an effort to be kind and gentle with each other for at least that last hour of the day. Thy love go with me through the night and wake me with the morning light.

 

FAIREST OF THEM ALL

A few weeks ago I came across a tiny little object that left me feeling most vexed.  It was a bathroom scale the size of a postage stamp. Well, it was a miniature plastic toy bathroom scale, in pink. With the weight permanently set to read at 110 pounds.  Barbie’s bathroom scale.

I’m not militant about Barbie. I had Barbies as a child. They’d been given to me in 1968 by a friend of my mother’s when her daughters finished playing with them. My mother used to leave the whole black vinyl trunk of them on the front steps at night hoping someone would steal them.  I bought Barbies for my stepdaughters and I’ve amassed a vintage train case full of them and their silly outfits for our 4-year-old granddaughter to play with when she visits. I realize that Barbie sets forth an entirely unrealistic role model for little girls, but I give little girls enough credit for imagination and good sense to know not to base their life expectations on an 11″ plastic doll.

But a bathroom scale for the leggy blonde? That just struck me as particularly insidious. Barbie is designed on a 1:6 scale, what’s known in the industry as “playscale”.  The proportions for Real Life work out like this: she’d be 5’9″ tall, with a 36-inch chest, an 18-inch waist, 33-inch hips and a body mass index of 16.24, which fits the weight criteria for anorexia. A study at Finland University’s Central Hospital revealed that Barbie would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat that women require in order to menstruate.  She does not need a bathroom scale.

Yet Mattel issued a play set “Barbie Baby Sits” that included a book called “How to Lose Weight” with a page that instructed “Don’t Eat!” Two years later, the play set “Slumber Party” included that same “book” and also a bathroom scale which permanently read 110, about 35 pounds underweight for a woman 5-foot, 9-inches tall.

Little girls do grow up hearing their mothers complain about diets and needing to lose weight. In fact, in Sweden (where there is no childhood obesity epidemic) a study at Uppsala University revealed that one-out-of-five seven-year-old girls believed that she needed to lose weight. In 2009, the British Journal of Developmental Psychology reported on a study conducted at the University of Central Florida which found that of the little girls studied, age three to six, half of them thought they were fat.

In 2008, the New York Times published a story on a study that had just been posted in the German medical journal, Deutsches Artzeblatt International that interviewed 7000 girls aged 7 to 12. The study asked the girls to rank themselves on a scale that included Far Too Thin, a Bit Too Thin, Just Right, a Bit Too Fat, and Far Too Fat. 75 percent of the girls were in a normal weight range, but half of those girls (of normal weight) thought they were too fat. It gets worse. Normal weight girls who felt they were fat scored as poorly on Quality of Life and Self-Esteem tests as those girls who truly were obese; and they scored worse than obese girls on tests regarding family relationships.  The same story noted a 1999 study by the American Dietetic Association that found 55 percent of American girls 7 to 12 years old wanted to be thinner.

It’s not much of a stretch then, to imagine a little girl playing with Barbie and the Barbie bathroom scale and telling her anorexic doll “Oooh, Barbie you’ve gained weight! No dinner for you tonight, you little piglet.”  This is seriously screwed up.

As a child I was pretty active, busy with dogs and horses, and by the time I was in my teens, sailing and skiing. I don’t remember thinking I was fat. I did have a friend in high school who was carrying a few extra pounds– and I mean a few– I look at yearbook pictures of her and she does not look significantly fatter than the rest of us. If she was teased about her weight, I don’t remember that either, but what I do remember is how hard she tried to diet, existing for weeks at a time on carrot sticks and Tab.

The anorexic daughter of friends lived with us for a while, while I was in high school. Ruthie was a few years older than me and her arms were as big around as the core of a paper towel roll. Her parents had put padlocks on the cupboards and the fridge. Still, Ruthie would manage to eat whole sticks of butter or an entire pound of raw bacon and then vomit it all back up again. She was always trying to kill herself by taking overdoses of aspirin.  She was trying very hard to look just like David Bowie in Aladdin Sane.

One of my worst and most-embarrassing moments regarding weight stems from an evening at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I was writing for a cutting-edge punk rock magazine, Dogfood, and I was 20 years old. We’d just interviewed the headlining band,  Psychedelic Furs before the show and now I was sitting in the balcony with the band watching the opening act, Romeo Void. I was absolutely thrilled to be sitting next to Richard Butler, the raspy-voiced lead singer, replete in pleated trousers and silk scarf. On stage, Romeo Void was playing their hit “Never Say Never” (famous for 15 minutes for the refrain “I might like you better if we slept together”) Richard was enjoying himself immensely, shouting down repeatedly at the singer “Fat Chicks Suck!” What were the rest of us doing? We were laughing hysterically. Every time he yelled it, we all rolled with laughter. I was laughing so hard tears streamed down my face.  Now there’s no way that Deborah Iyall could have heard him across a theatre of screaming fans, and she was sort of Rosie O’Donnell plump. But when I think about that evening I am ashamed.

Payback would come for me sooner rather than later. A few months after that evening I moved to Boston.  I’d married in a rush (to get in-state tuition, we told everybody) and not surprisingly the marriage fell apart in pretty short order. Boston is a cold town, and I’m not talking about the climate. I may have been hip in the south but that didn’t count for shit in Massachusetts.   I was studying performance art, which is all about laying one’s self bare (sometimes literally) and surrounded all the time by people who were prettier, skinnier, cooler.  My nominal husband was staying out all night and I was staying home by myself eating buttered egg noodles.

When I looked in the mirror I saw a fat girl-woman. It didn’t help that Bob would not touch me at all if he could help it. In retrospect I was probably twenty pounds overweight, but on the Boston art scene that meant I was invisible.  A friend of mine wrote recently about his time in Boston: “One of the things I hated the most was the absolute lack of positive energy, lack of drive and ambition, the lack of wonder about the world that always existed in that city. I have lived all over the world– that place just sucks the life out of people. I have never, for one second had any regret for leaving.”  He was in a band, for God’s sake, he was popular. Reading his message was like long-won vindication.

By 1986, Bob and I split and I moved across town. I’d finished with school and had a job with people I liked, and even found some kind of modicum of self-acceptance, and was doing my best to hold onto that with both hands. I hadn’t lost the weight, but I still looked fine in my little boots and black tights, vintage dresses and leather jackets. One afternoon I was walking through Kenmore Square, when a homeless man called out to me.

“Hey, hey, c’mere, I want to tell you something.”  As it happened this wasn’t just any homeless man, this was Mr. Butch, a minor celebrity in Boston. (Honest to God.) That didn’t matter, I tended to give money to panhandlers when I had some in my pocket, and anyway I was curious as to what he had to tell me. So I stepped towards him. He leaned in closer and pointed his finger at me. “I want to tell you that you’d look human if you lost fifty pounds.”

Twenty-five years have passed since that moment on the sidewalk, and I still vividly remember how I felt like I’d been physically smacked. I reeled away, angry and embarrassed. I kept telling myself “He’s a homeless jerk, why do you even care what he thinks?” but my own voice was not enough to quell the unsolicited opinion from a stranger.

The funny thing is that I did lose weight– fifty pounds and then some, and I was horrified at what a pig I’d been. I swore I’d never put that weight on again. I was working at a tony art museum, going to openings in tiny little black dresses and tall shoes and everyone was so nice to me.  Women wanted to be my friend, men wanted to fuck me. I had never been so miserable. I don’t have many photographs from that time, it seems I sent them all to my mother. But when I look at them I can’t really find myself there. I look gaunt, not slender. Even when my mouth is smiling, the rest of my face isn’t.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to gain weight, but I did find a man who loves me for all the important reasons and we had a child and we live in a culture that celebrates every occasion with food. Within ten years I’d gained back every ounce and then some. There are times that I am self-conscious about my size and shape, but I guess I don’t care enough to do anything about it. Last summer, I went back to Prince Edward Island, where I’d gone to high school, after being away for 31 years– and yes, I wish I’d been thinner. Not that anyone said anything, but you know, everyone wants to make a triumphant return.

There was just one thing. I was invited for drinks at the plush waterside home of a man who, when we were in high school, had been my first serious boyfriend.  Our parents were friends and our high school romance went on for three years. My parents were terrified that when he went away to college that I would run away to be with him, and indeed I did plot that for a time.  So, now decades later, we are having a pleasant evening over a glass of wine in his living room with him and his wife. At one point their adult daughter appeared on the scene, and asked “Who’s that?”  Her father responded “This is Larkin. She went to Three Oaks at the same time I did.”

I should have called him on it, but I didn’t. Instead, I went back to the motel that night wondering if I’d shown up looking like Kate Moss if he would have claimed me then. Really, though his inability to be honest with his daughter, and his dismissal of me says more about him than it does about me. It just makes me happy that I married the man that I did, and that all those fervent high-school prayers went unanswered.

We continue to be sold the message that thinner is better. Even some of  Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit models look like they could use a meal or two or ten. Every few months the media reports the death of another fashion model from causes related to eating disorders. Britain has taken the steps of banning print ads that show women who are dangerously underweight. Milan, one year, would not let models participate in the annual show who did not have a “normal” body mass index. (You have to wonder if designers had to take to the Italian streets to find those women.) But that seems to have been a novelty for that year alone.  It’s a mystery why designers want to use women built like clothes hangers to show their season’s offerings anyway. I mean, why not just use a  hanger if that’s the look you want? Or why not design clothes for women of a healthy weight?

It’s worth noting that these models don’t actually look like women, they look like children. A size zero model (which is among the current industry standards) has a waist measurement of 56 cm, which is the same size waist as an average 8-year-old child. Isn’t using sexually provocative advertising featuring women that look like pre-pubescent children feeding into the burgeoning problem of pedophilia? Men are sent the message that this is what they’re supposed to be attracted to, and women are sent the message that voluptuous is grotesque.

For years it’s been rumoured that Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16 dress. While the rumour isn’t true, what is true is that the iconic actress, at five-foot five, had a weight that fluctuated between 118 and 140 pounds. For years, she had been the epitome of sex appeal, yet the scrawny Elizabeth Hurley (an English model most famous for being Hugh Grant’s one time girlfriend) is known to have said “I’d kill myself if I was as fat as Marilyn Monroe.”

How did we get to such a twisted measure for the value of a woman? Men aren’t judged solely by their appearance, and even when their appearance is considered, they can still be deemed attractive (especially by themselves!) even when they have pot bellies, thinning hair and pasty white legs. And that’s as it should be . Surely that kinder appraisal ought to be extended to the fairer sex too, using more important facets like intellect, compassion, talent, and insight as the measures of someone’s worth rather than just their physical appearance?

I know that there is an astronaut Barbie, and a NASCAR Barbie and Pillow Talk Barbie, and veterinarian Barbie. It’s amazing that she can do all those things while dangerously underweight. I just hope to God that our daughters aspire to share those achievements rather than Barbie’ body mass index and 18 inch waist. But in either case, Barbie’s bathroom scale has got to go.

A Letter to Yo-Yo Ma

Six years ago today, my father died. In the years since, I have written this letter in my head many times, as I have wanted to tell you what a profound and lovely part your recording Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone had in the last days of his life, and how it continues to connect us to him even now.

My father, Larry Vonalt, was chairman of the English Department at the University of Missouri at Rolla. I wouldn’t have mentioned that except that teaching was such an intrinsic part of everything he was. He was very interested in film, and loved music, though he himself was not particularly musical.  When my son Julian turned five, Dad suggested that we sign him up for cello lessons, and offered to pay for them. Julian’s father is Chinese American and Dad noted that Julian could look to you as an excellent role model. Surprisingly, we were able to find a cello teacher in Livingston, Montana. We bought our son a half-size cello and he began to learn. He did not turn out to be a virtuoso, or even very disciplined, but he stuck with it for several years.

In the meantime, my father was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. He took an optimistic view and we followed his lead. We should have seen that if the disease didn’t destroy him that the treatment surely would. In January of 2005, they took out the larynx, robbing him of his voice in an attempt to save his life. He went on teaching, using a little box that buzzed when he held it up to his throat to “speak.”

That summer Julian, then age 10,  and I went to spend a few weeks with my Dad and stepmother. Julian dragged along the cello– now three-quarter size. We have dozens of photographs Dad took during that visit of Julian set up in the livingroom, all knees and elbows, glasses sliding down his nose, lost in concentration as he played. He would play until he made a mistake and then he’d say “Wait, I messed up, let me start again.”

In September, Julian turned 11 and among his many presents was a copy of Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone, a gift from my mother. I don’t know when Julian started playing it, I don’t even remember hearing it until I finally heard it, if that makes any sense. We had learned just before that there was nothing more to do for Dad’s cancer. I don’t know if they told Dad to get his affairs in order, or if they suggested an amount of time that he might have left. All I know is that one day late in August he’d sent me an email asking if I wanted his poetry books, and when I read that I began to sob.

My husband and I went with Julian out to Seattle one weekend in November. Driving home on a gray Sunday afternoon, through the Bitterroot mountains of western Montana, Julian leaned forward and asked if we could play the CD that my mother had given him for his birthday. I said sure, and he handed it forward. For the next four hours, we listened. We listened to it through the dying light of evening, and we listened through the star-spangled darkness of a Montana winter night. If we spoke at all, it was only a word or two. My husband stopped to put gasoline in the Volvo; Julian and I remained in the car, listening.

When we arrived at our little farm, I got out of the car, unlocked the door, walked into the house and booted up the computer. I did not even take off my coat. When I found the CD on Amazon, I ordered a copy to be sent to my father by next day mail.

By some miracle, they actually got it to him on the next day, and the email I received read “Thanks for the Yo-Yo Ma CD. I like it very much. I’ve always liked the music Morricone did for spaghetti westerns, but I had no idea it could sound like that. The piece from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly reminds me of that t-shirt you sent me when you were in school in Boston. You know, the one that says ‘The Good, the Dad and His Money.’ Thanks again. Love you guys, Dad.”

We drove from Montana to Missouri see my father for the last time that December. When we walked in the door, he was listening to Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone.  He listened to it every single day we were there. Sometimes his wife would go to put on something else and he would shake his  head. No, he wanted to hear the Morricone.  He was failing quickly. He went into the hospital briefly to have a feeding tube placed, and he wanted to hear the music in the car as we drove him home. It was on all the time. It was as if that music gave him the courage to accept his own death, which was coming for him, whether he was ready or not.

You’d think we’d all have grown to hate it. You would think that none of us would ever want to hear it again. But we went on listening. On the 17th of December, we went back to Montana, promising to return in a few weeks. The doctors assured us he had at least that much time. Hospice made it possible for him to stay in his home, but on the morning of the day after Christmas, pain management became problematic. The ambulance came to take Dad to the hospital, and when they closed the door, Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone was still playing on the stereo.

His wife called early in the afternoon to say that he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. I did my damnedest to find a way to get there. They’d hold the only flight for me leaving Billings, Montana if I could get there in the next 40 minutes. But Billings was 120 miles away. My husband said “Just get in the car, I’ll drive you straight through to Missouri.”  Missouri,  1481 miles away. It might as well have been the moon. Julian put on the CD and we sat together for the rest of the day. When the call came at 8:30 that night to say that my father had slipped away, we were still listening. If we’d gotten in the car to drive there we would have only made it as far as Denver.

I did go back the first week in January. That evening, as we sat down with a glass of wine, my father’s widow put on the CD. Perhaps I looked stricken, because she paused and said “Oh, I’m sorry, wouldn’t you rather not hear this?”

My voice cracked when I answered her. “It’s fine. Please. I’d like to hear it.”

“I just couldn’t bear to lose the music too,” she whispered.

Julian stopped playing the cello. He said that after his Grampa’s death it just made him too sad. I only listened to Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone in the car, because hearing it was so intensely painful and so intensely beautiful and it forced me to embrace my grief. Sometimes I cried so hard I just had to pull over to the side of the road until I could regain my composure. It’s a funny thing because even though I was so sad, the music made me feel connected to my father, as if when I listened to it we were still together. Ecstasy of the Gold was particularly difficult because it always reminded me of that dopey t-shirt, and it was the track I listened to the most.

Not too long after we left Montana for good and moved to Ohio so that Julian could attend a performing arts high school. He was admitted to the 8th grade after auditioning for creative writing. One day, though, he stopped to talk to a boy carrying a cello case– and the boy invited him to try out for the orchestra. Julian was pretty rusty– it had been two years since he’d even picked up the bow. But he did try out and they did accept him, and he did make his way up through the ranks. He’s a senior now, and his major area of study is music.  He plays the cello every single day, sometimes I fall asleep hearing him play into the night. He has two private teachers, plus the cello instructor at the school, and daily orchestra practice. I imagine he will play the cello for the rest of his life. We have talked about the music from Ennio Morricone’s films, but of course, the printed score is not available to the public. When I hear him picking out passages by ear, I don’t know if my heart will break or burst, but I know my father would have been very proud of him.

With time, the grief has eased a bit, it’s less ferocious. I can listen to Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone now without falling apart, and I do choose to listen to it quite often still. Thank you so much for making this wonderful recording that allowed my father music for his last days with us, a score by which to leave this earth,  and years later, still a way of staying in touch. It has been a most remarkable gift, and we are forever grateful.

Maybe Sex for Christmas

Best Read Late at Night

Writing about sex is troublesome for me. That’s something of a puzzle, because I can (and do) talk about sex: at the dinner table, in public, in casual conversation, in bed. I’m not shy that way. I said something mildly scandalous in that realm this afternoon while we were all sitting in the livingroom drinking cocoa. My husband muttered his protestations about propriety, to which I responded “What? This from someone who put something called ‘Lady Monkey Butt’ in my stocking?” I think the cocoa shot straight out of my mother’s nose.

But when it comes to writing descriptive narrative about sex, I can’t quite get it together. The rhythm eludes me, the delicate balance between the vulgar and the poetic. In December 1940, Henry Miller received an offer to write erotica for a “collector” for a dollar a page. He tired of it in short order, and his friend and lover, Anais Nin took up the slack. She never met the “collector,” but the intermediary, an art dealer, would tell her “The old man likes it. But concentrate on the sex, not so much poetry.”

“So I began to write tongue-in-cheek, to become outlandish, inventive, and so exaggerated that I thought he would realize I was caricaturing sexuality,” she wrote in her journal. “But there was no protest. I spent days in the library studying the Kama Sutra, listened to friends’ most extreme adventures.’Less poetry,’ said the voice over the telephone. ‘Be specific.'”  Anyone who has spent a moment (or more, or less) reading the dreck that passes for contemporary literary erotica can tell you that the stuff “without poetry” has an ugly crudeness that works opposite its desired effect. Just like certain marital aids, if you apply it long enough, you will eventually arrive at your intended destination, but you won’t have enjoyed the journey much.

Nin’s stories, on the other hand, are brilliantly balanced, progressing steadily in their long waltz to culmination. In “Artists and Models,” (an 8500 word story from the collection, Delta of Venus) she wrote:

“When she stood by the big iron bed, waiting, he said, ‘Keep your belt on.’ And he began by slowly tearing her dress from around it. Calmly and with no effort, he tore it into shreds as if it were made of paper. Louise was trembling at the strength of his hands. She stood naked now except for the heavy silver belt. He loosened her hair over her shoulders. And only then did he bend her back on the bed and kiss her interminably, his hands over her breasts. She felt the painful weight both of the silver belt and of his hands pressing so hard on her naked flesh. Her sexual hunger was rising like madness to her head, blinding her. It was so urgent that she could not wait. She could not even wait until he undressed. But Antonio ignored her movements of impatience. He not only continued to kiss her as if he were drinking her whole mouth, tongue, breath, into his big dark mouth, but his hands mauled her, pressed deeply into her flesh, leaving marks and pain everywhere. She was moist and trembling, opening her legs and trying to climb over him. She tried to open his pants.

As we truly only know what goes on inside our own heads during sexual congress, I couldn’t possibly say if that description of response is universal in any way, but it is damn close for me. As she develops the story over time, the language changes, growing coarser, more urgent. (You’ll have to go looking for that yourself. If I read too much, I’ll be distracted, and this project will be abandoned for the night.)

When I was a senior in high school, I’d translated an interview with Nin from the French Vogue for a class. It was a fascinating piece and it noted the titles of two books of short stories that had been recently published. I asked for them for Christmas, really having no idea what they were. My mother had a look at them in the local bookshop and demurred. When I discovered them for myself my freshman year in college, I was relieved that she hadn’t bought them for me. Not that it was an act of censorship (my parents were never like that) but it would have been a weird gift to get from your mom.

For a long time, I didn’t even try my hand at writing erotica. Even garden variety love letters felt forced and false– I found that I was cribbing from “real writers” like Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds to express myself. Then about ten years ago, a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is a jazz singer by trade and of course, she had no health insurance. So we had a Valentine’s Day fund-raiser for her. I was fairly well noted in my own community then, and I offered to contribute an original one-copy-only signed erotic short story for auction. To sweeten the deal I included a plateful of handmade bittersweet chocolate truffles laced with cayenne.  (I was sure of those, I knew they were sublime. The story was another matter altogether.)

I’d seen how many other writers had handled sex scenes and often cringed. I feared and expected that same response to my own efforts. I may be able to fuck you on top of a car in a National Park but I can’t write about “throbbing members” or “moist folds of the flower” without giggling. Even if you can’t hear me giggling  you can read it between the lines.

So auctioning off this story was a little like auctioning off one’s knickers, and I felt a bit shamefaced all night long. A local architect bought the truffles and the story for $75, and I still turn slightly pink when I think about it. Maybe he just ate the truffles and threw away the story, I never heard. The climax of the evening was a celebrity spelling bee, star-studded with the local literary luminaries. And me. (This is Livingston, Montana we’re talking about. If you throw a rock in the street, you’re more likely to hit a writer than not.) Damned if I didn’t win– and the Calcutta style betting had me as a long shot. Among that group were numerous men who were a bit notorious for their sexual adventures and proclivities.  I wasn’t known for my sexual proclivities, I was married.

Well, I guess they were married too. I understand the problem, though. People fall in love with writers. They underline phrases on a page. They utter “yes” when some passage resonates. If the writer is similarly in love with themselves, it’s easy to succumb to this society of mutual admiration. Thank God I have a patient husband, and luckily I haven’t given him too many instances to be patient about. I have been told, more than once, by more than one man that I am the “manliest woman (they’ve) ever met.” It is meant as a compliment (coming from a man, after all) and I take it as such.  What they are acknowledging is a temperament that is neither squeamish nor shrill, along with somewhat masculine appetites: good whiskey, raw oysters, rare meat, sporting dogs, leather, European cars, and bawdy jokes.

I had a friend in college, another writer, who could match me stride for stride on most of that, though she had a real predilection for the most ridiculous pumps. Starting in college, and continuing for about twenty-five years, she maintained an affair with a man we both knew. He was tremendously ambitious and in time, tremendously successful. Eventually, her husband -working in the same field- found out, and was understandably furious. In turn, he took up with a woman he’d just met at a fundraiser, and eventually left my friend and married the woman he’d turned to. What happened next ended our nearly 30 year friendship: this beautiful, intelligent woman chose to wear a scarlet letter– not the “A,” you might expect, but “V,” for Victim. It’s invisible of course, but it colours her every action and decision. I couldn’t believe she’d grown up to be such a hypocrite.

Twenty-five years of sex without being compelled to make a partnership isn’t love, it’s just sex. She could have saved her marriage and the pain she embraced (and visited on her three kids) by just owning up to it when it was discovered. A mistake, but one that she compounds with self-righteousness. But then, that’s the golden question, isn’t it?  Is it more egregious to be in love with someone (and never act on it) or to engage in a sex act with someone you don’t love? I don’t know the answer. In a perfect world this would never come up, we would each be forever satisfied with our spouse, and no other person would make our pulse quicken. Years and years ago, we had a pastor who was kind of attractive in that “Jeremiah Johnson” way. He had a very plain and unhappy wife, and I imagine he’d wrestled this question more than once. He said one day “To be attracted to someone is human nature, but you don’t have to act on it.”  So that was his answer, and it’s fine advice for keeping a happy home.

Long, long ago I loved one particular man fiercely, and that love went on for years.  We spent quite a lot of time together, but we never, ever touched. Not in passing, not on purpose. That’s kind of hard to do– think about all the times you lay your hand on someone’s arm, or hug them, or shake their hand, in the most casual and platonic manner. When we were talking (and God, we talked a lot) the air seemed to shimmer around us. People noticed. I never touched him. He never touched me. I don’t know if we were afraid that once we crossed that threshold that we wouldn’t be able to stop, or if we would spontaneously combust. Or both. It’s all long over now, but the question still hangs. I’m not sure if you can help yourself in those situations though– do we even choose them? And certainly you can decide with whom you will take off your clothes and fall into bed.

So each night I fall into bed with the man I married nearly twenty years ago, when I was just a slip of a girl, all elbows and sharp edges. That first ache to close the distance between two humans is ancient history now, a shared common image, family folklore. There is comfort in knowing the roadmap of his bones as well as my own, and joy in the occasional surprise.  Now, older, rounder, I am less pleased with my own over-upholstered body, but when he whispers you are so beautiful, it carries the ring of truth. Perhaps not to anyone else anymore, but to him, there is still a loveliness in my soft flesh. Allowing for cricks and kinks, the architecture of connecting is familiar as breath, this goes here. Just for a moment we are pliant as newlyweds, bending, arched, couldn’t stop now if the Pope himself walked through the door. Then, like stepping from  the Tilt-a-Whirl, we take a minute to regain our bearings. Pillows are adjusted, plumped, the quilt is smoothed. We settle together like spoons, witless into sleep.

BUTTER

In the second grade, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Opylacz, we made butter. We gathered around her desk to watch her peel open the carton of cream , pouring a thick ribbon into a sparkling clean glass mayonnaise jar. The metal lid was screwed on tight and then the jar was passed from hand to hand, each of us shaking it. One of the little girls in the class put a real shimmy into it, shaking allover with abandon and we laughed. It seems we shook that jar all afternoon before anything began to change, but of course it wasn’t nearly that long. When the transformation began, we were transfixed– in the bottom of the mayonnaise jar was a pale yellow fist of pure butter and a few ounces of palest buttermilk. We returned to our desks and awaited our reward, a Saltine liberally spread with the butter we’d just conjured out of a jar of cream. On the other side of the room a shy girl in a murky green dress declined the cracker, whispering “No thank you I’m not allowed” when Mrs. O stopped at her desk.

When I bit down on the cracker, it was as if I was tasting butter for the first time. The cracker crumbled in my mouth, but the butter was like sunshine on my tongue, sunshine and silky warmth. When I got home from school that afternoon I waltzed into the kitchen slamming the door behind me and demanded that we make butter.  My mother thought I was being silly and sent me up to change my clothes. In those days she might have bought “real butter” if we were having company for dinner, or if  a recipe demanded it. Otherwise, it was a pallid tub of Blue Bonnet or Parkay.

Then we moved to England and butter came to stay. The kitchen of our stone house at Buckley Hill was 300 years old, heated (somewhat) by an AGA coal stove and refrigeration limited to a tiny fridge, about two cubic feet. No matter, butter would stay cool on the counter on a day in high summer. Bread came from Pogson’s, unsliced and crusty. We’d saw off hunks of it, and carefully piece out bits of butter over the bread. The bread was no match for cold butter, but the combination of the two was sublime.  Pogson’s was also the source for “butties”– ham butties, cheese butties, jam butties. As a bakery, the atmosphere there was considerably warmer and their butter spread beautifully over the slice of bread, a thin gold sheen topped with ham, or cheese or whatever it was you wanted. That was it: bread, butter, and something. It was the best kind of food heaven — simple and perfect. Even now, if I am so lucky to have good bread and a good meat I’ll use just butter to wed the two. Otherwise, you have something that just tastes like condiments.

I’ve never brought margarine into my house. Even when I was so poor in Boston that I had to sell records to In Your Ear in order to buy groceries, I always made the grocery money stretch to buy at least a single quarter-pound stick. My first husband had grown up with Fleischmann’s margarine. When we moved in together, he fell in love with butter. He’d put a whole stick of it in a pot of brown rice, which meant there was one thing in the pot worth eating. That much butter made the rice almost palatable. Occasionally, he’d lift the lid of the butter dish, slice off a pat and pop it in his mouth, like a chocolate.

All of the best comfort foods are better because of butter. Butter in a little golden pool melting into clam chowder. Butter seeping down through a bowl of perfect southern white rice. Folding the melted butter into grits, watching it spread gently across a pan before laying in the eggs, or mushrooms, or sweet onions. Butter in a little pot for lobster. Oh, God.

The popularity of butter and oil coincides roughly with the development of spoken language. According to A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, the Indians of Vedic times (1100 BC) invoked butter as a primordial deity: “Tongue of the Gods, navel of the immortal, let us praise the name of butter, let us maintain it with our sacrificial homage . . .” the Rig-Veda reads. “As a wild steed breaks through barriers so does melting butter caress the flaming logs and the fire, satisfied, accepts it.”

In many cultures, the offering of butter became a form of prayer. In Tibet, where a rancid cheese-like Yak milk butter was mixed with tea for consumption and spread on statues for worship, they also would simmer dead lamas in boiling butter prior to embalming them; a custom that only ended with the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1951.

Ancient Romans and Greeks were less enthusiastic about butter, considering it a food of the “northern Barbarians,” an opinion probably influenced by butter’s rapid spoiling in the Meditteranean climate.  The Greek comic playwright Anaxandrides referred to Thracians, on the northern edge of the Aegean sea, as “the butter eaters.” (A real laugh and a half those Greeks.) But in the first century Pliny the Elder conceded that butter was “the most delicate food among the barbarous nations.” There were some physicians in early civilizations that considered that butter had medicinal properties, and Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat writes that it was “Not for nothing did Little Red Riding Hood take her grandmother a little pot of butter.”

Scandinavian countries were involved in the exportation of butter as early as the 12th century, and texts from Iceland document prayers around 700 AD to the God of the Forge, Gobhin, to watch over the butter . In medieval Ireland, firkins of buried butter were left to ferment in the Peat Bogs. This “bog butter” was more cheese-like in consistency and so immune to putrefaction, that some still exists in museum collections. By the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church allowed for the consumption of butter during Lent, and within the century, melted butter had become a popular sauce for meat and vegetables among the English.

In “The King’s Breakfast,” A.A. Milne charmingly describes the popularity of butter with a member of the monarchy. The King requests butter for his breakfast, and it is suggested by the Alderney (the cow!) that he might prefer marmalade instead. In the end, he gets his butter:

The Queen took
The butter
And brought it to
His Majesty;
The King said,
“Butter, eh?”
And bounced out of bed.
“Nobody,” he said,
As he kissed her
Tenderly,
“Nobody,” he said,
As he slid down the banisters,
“Nobody,
My darling,
Could call me
A fussy man –
BUT
I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!”

In the 20th century, the consumption of butter in the western world has declined, due to the popularity of margarine, first introduced in the late 1800s as beef tallow worked with milk.  I’ve eaten margarine. Friends serve it and what can you do?  It was thought for a period of time that margarine was healthier than butter, until we sorted out “trans-fats” and how terrible hydrogenated oils are for our well-being.  Margarine puts up a good front– they’ve figured out how to make it look like butter, but as soon as you put in your mouth, there’s no mistaking that greasy mouth-feel. It’s always such a disappointment– like kissing someone for the first time and discovering that they don’t really know how. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, my ass.

Missing is that glorious slippery spreading warmth on your tongue, that sense of langour, that delicate pale yellow perfection, that prayer. Butter is an offering, a culinary spell, bliss.  And margarine? Well,  margarine is just margarine.

These days I’ve been fortunate to have a first class ciabatta to serve as vehicle for my butter, but because I’m never happy, now I find the butter is not good enough for the bread. I’ve been practically living on toast. I love toast in all of its varieties– I can sing the praises of toast made from Wonder Bread if called upon– but this is really fine bread. This is the kind of bread that makes people feel humble and grateful and I think I’ll make another piece of toast all at once. It deserves better butter.

Better butter. The very concept takes my breath away.