Bringing in The Leaves

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “Apres Moi, le deluge.”  It means, roughly, “After I go, everything’s coming down” and if everything refers to leaves, the “deluge” is lugin’ .  It’s amazing.  I mean, if deciduous trees were water, my address would be “Alabama River”. Now this front’s blowing in and my river of leaves has turned into Niagra Falls. Why send me more foliage to rake away, God?  Don’t I have enough to clean up already?

Luckily, I’ve been a rake warrior for most of my life.  My hometown was blessed with a ton of elm trees and every fall brought the Battle of Leaves, where each family’s goal was to get those discarded solar panels of photosynthesis off of the grass and over the curb before rain and time glued them to the earth.  There was an undeclared neighborhood competition for the cleanest autumn yard and ours usually came in dead last.  Oh, my mother, sister and I would comb leaves from the  of crabgrass, but our lawn never looked better than “lived in”.  

The best lawn on the street was next to ours, an unsullied, emerald crew-cut of grass that was perfect because our neighbor lady removed each leaf as it fell to earth, picking them up with two fingers and placing them in one of the garbage cans she washed out every other week.  Although her behavior seemed silly to me at the time, I think I understand it a bit better now and not just for health-related reasons.  In tidying her yard, our neighbor was caring for the smidge of earth she recognized as “home” and that care was an overt act of love.


As children, we learn to store away our toys before sleep.  The practice saves toys (and bare feet) from mishaps in the night and the toys can be found the next day. By removing the fallen leaves, my neighbor was preparing her yard for its annual nap.  While daylight was waning, birds were boarding their migratory flights and other mammals were settling down for their sleep, she was scooping up those last souvenirs of summer – the leaves – and preparing her lawn for the winter season so nothing could obscure the sunlight when it shone on new grass in the spring. 
Some more summer to clear away before sleep

It’s a wonderful act of symbiosis to care for the land that nurtures and shelters us in return.  So I rake my leaves and tidy the yard, like a parent straightening the toys and bed covers in a beloved child’s nursery.  Once my yard’s bedtime preparations of late autumn are finished (which include multiple requests for water but no reading aloud) it will settle into its season of somnolence.  Then, I’ll go back in the house, we’ll all snuggle down and dream dreams of warmth till the Spring.

How the Other Half Lives

There’s something in humanity that makes us split ourselves into groups, don’t ask me why. Yesterday, people in my state split into groups for a football rivalry that sometimes resembles a blood feud. When we’re not divided over sports teams, we split apart over divisions like politics, gender, or income.  And too many of us still divide into groups based on ethnic background and/or  skin color. Those divisions still run so deep populations coexist side-by-side as strangers, wondering how the other half lives but too afraid to reach out.

Then someone like Randi Pink comes along, brave enough to speak the truth.  That’s what she does in her debut Young Adult novel, Into White.   It’s the story of LaToya Williams who calls herself Toya; a black girl in a mostly-white high school. This kid knows a lot about alienation and fear. It’s not bad enough to be treated like the Invisible Girl by a fair percentage of the students and teachers. It’s not just anxiety about her parents’ marriage.  When one of the few grounded black students picks on her, Toya utters the same prayer every miserable teenager has made: “Please turn me into somebody different.”  The kick is, her prayer is heard.  When she wakes up, Toya is white.

Randi Pink
To everyone outside of her loving, flawed family, Toya now looks like she has Nordic ancestry and right away she sees some changes. Pants fit a bit better, some teachers are nicer and she’s no longer Invisible Girl. On the other hand, visibility means becoming a target of those who never saw her before. The “popular girls” praise and then undercut her, suggesting she’s fat because she wears a size 6.  (For the record, a size 6 is small, but that’s another thing Ms. Pink gets right. In the world of competitive, adolescent, mean girls, it’s good to be thin and popular but no one is ever good enough.) And some who knew Toya when she was black now react to her with mistrust.  In other words, it can suck to be white as well.
Any writer good enough to carry the title can develop a nuanced hero or villain, but an author’s true talent shows in creating interesting minor characters. Through exposition and suggestion, Ms. Pink deftly sketches a secondary antagonist named Aunt Evilyn and then illuminates the lady in a small but key scene.  In the family, Toya’s aunt may be tactless and bossy but there’s a whisper of scars in her untold back story.  In defending her aunt, Toya finds the voice that will carry her into the future (which is good). I want to learn more about Evilyn and her past.
In her TED talk, Ms. Pink talks of how we limit ourselves by fear and how confronting fear helps us transcend those limits. Perhaps that same fear is why we wall ourselves into groups.  If so, a courageous voice can knock holes in those walls.

InSantaTy

In the South, we like to decorate for the holidays.  All the holidays.  This is where I first saw an Easter-Egg tree and specialized autumn decor for September, October, and November.  Of course, nothing competes with December and its holiday season.  People began opening boxes and stringing lights down here before their Thanksgiving dinners were completely digested.  So when my friend, Edna said her badly injured back might keep her from putting out her “Santa Collection” I said I’d be glad to help.  I had no idea she suffered from In-Santa-Cy.
I walked into a house that, during Decembers, shelters two people, some plants, and approximately a thousand Santas.  My poor friend lay bound the couch by her TENS unit while her niece, Tanya, had been emptying a treasure trove of Santas from stacks of storage boxes  Santas made of wood, paper, plaster, and metal. Santa’s image imprinted on cloth.  Seriously, I don’t remember seeing this many images of Father Christmas when I went to Santa’s Workshop as a child.  
Don’t get excited folks; these are just the coffee-table Santas!
Kris Kringle was on everything: Santa towels, Santa spoon rests, Santa cups and hundreds of Santa statues.  I gulped a little and said, “Where can I help?” and was sent off to the library.
The book room played host the “Historical Santas”, statues of St. Nick from various countries made in different years.  There was a whole carton of international Santas and it took awhile to unpack and arrange them. I didn’t begin to photograph them all.

Who needs books, when you can shelve Santa?
It the exception of Brazil, we’re looking at a NATO of Santas
Good luck reaching a book before New Years!
Not my fault, this trio of Santas all moved
the moment I took the picture!
Hours later the house was bursting with Santas, there were still more boxes to unpack and I was seeing Edna in a different light.   What had turned this sweet, sane little woman into a full-fledged Santa groupie?
Another group of Kris Kringles, complete with holiday mouse.
She laughed saying her son called it her “InSantaty”.   Some of these images are souvenirs, some are gifts and others come from crafts she made with her children.  In other words, Santa is more than her ambassador of Christmas, he’s a talisman of memory.  Given Edna’s generous, sweet nature, I suspect he’s her role model too.  As far as role models go, she could go far and do worse.
So I went home to my husband and thought about our collection of 10,000 books, a few toys and some Wind-In-The-Willows figurines (4 moles, 2 water rats, 1 badger, 0 toads).  Yes, one person’s collectibles are another’s waste of time and money and, like most things, extreme collecting can be bad for the health.  But what someone collects says something about who they are and I can think of few characters more benevolent than Santa Claus.  So, in the interest of kindness and Peace on Earth, perhaps we could all use a touch of InSantaty.

The Real Kings of Broadway

Thanksgiving is celebrated all over the US but most Americans start out their day in New York City. Virtually, that is.  Long before the turkey comes out of the oven, Americans are in front of their TVs, staring at Macy’s famous parade.  Some watch it for the tradition, some tune in for the bands, and lots of kids can’t wait for the balloons but I watch the parade to see Broadway.  Before the main event kicks off, actors perform excerpts from currently running shows.  The stars seem like the kings of Broadway.

But are they?  Actors are the most visible part of theatre but how much power do they really wield in Times Square?  Very few, it seems.  Behind them are the financial and creative engineers behind every show: the writers, directors and composers but even they can be hired and fired.  Behind them are those that can make a show work and invest the money needed for the show to open: the legendary Broadway Producers.  Do you think Producers are the ultimate in show-biz power?  According to Michael Riedel, there’s still one group that’s higher.

No matter how good it is, no show can open on Broadway, unless it’s booked into a theater and the cadre of people who own and run the theaters on Broadway should really be considered the ultimate power-players in their field.  Riedel’s book, Razzle Dazzle is an amazing account of these show-business moguls and the impact they’ve had on our culture.

Enter, the Schubert Brothers, Sam, Lee, and Jacob, who ran theaters in upstate New York before 1900. With the change of the century, they moved to NYC and bought or built theaters across the country and filled them with shows people wanted to see. More than 100 years later, if you look at the current list of Broadway theaters, the Schubert organization owns 17 of the 41 buildings. Book good shows into those theaters and watch the money flow into the box-office; even if the biggest profits are “ice”.

Ice are the profits that come from reselling tickets.  The box-office employee sells blocks of these for a bribe.  Then employees of the theatre or the production company sell the tickets they get as an employment perk and pocket the difference.  The ticket scalpers resell what they got for hugely inflated prices and keep the unearned, untaxed income.  The people who invest funds and talent into the show don’t make a dime from this revenue based on their work and the audience dwindles because of the high cost of tickets.  A 1960’s investigation began to curtail some of the Ice, but it’s still a huge problem: this year the creator of the hit musical, Hamilton, begged the legislature to pass a law stopping computer software “bots” from continuing the practice.

Riedel

The Schubert and the Niederlander (who own 7 theaters) organizations helped create decades of show-biz legends as they saw their business rise, fall and rise again.  There are the good stories, like how Chorus Line brought people back to the theater when NYC itself was bankrupt and there are bad tales, like Dorothy Loudon threatening a kid. (” If you make one move on any of my laugh lines, you will not live to see the curtain call.”)

Gossipy, gregarious, and suckers for razzle-dazzle, we’re all suckers for Broadway and why not?  It’s the New York out-of-towners all want to know and as American as Pumpkin Pie and Thanksgiving.

A Date That’s Hard to Forget

Our cultural memory is built around a series of events that resound in our collective memory.  Some of these are good like the date man first walked on the moon, but many are terrible to recall.  Yet we recall them when each anniversary comes around and remember where we were when “it” happened. For my Dad, his first “It” date was December 7, 1941.  His childhood memories were divided by the day he went fishing and came home to a country at war.   For me and a lot of other Baby Boomers, our first “It” day is today.  November 22, 1963.  President Kennedy’s assassination threw such a big rock in our river of memory that the ripples hit our personal lives.  
Those ripples are one of the big themes in the King novel titled with that date.  In a way, it’s a normal time-travel tale: a man goes back in time to prevent something bad and finds out success can breed a bigger failure.  In another way, it’s much more than that; it’s a tour of history and a trip through a human heart.
King’s research in story tale showed me I don’t know very much about the event I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life.  Yes, I remember my mother crying uncontrollably when the president was shot and how so many grown-ups around me hated, just hated he’d been killed in our state, Texas.  But I didn’t know the assassination probably wasn’t Oswald’s first attempt; seven months earlier, a retired army general had been shot at in his home and evidence indicates Oswald pulled the trigger. That information suggests something in Oswald’s motive to me: he was killed people for fame, not politics.  The segregationist/arch-conservative views of the general were the opposite of Kennedy’s liberal ideals.  Oswald wouldn’t have targeted both men because of their deeds; they were political opposites.  What the victims had in common was their celebrity status which makes Oswald like Mark David Chapman: someone so determined to be remembered, they’ll kill to get into history.
11/22/63 also looks at how America has changed in fifty plus years and how we’ve stayed the same. Our wage rates and prices may change but our attitudes towards these don’t.  There are still good people and bad ones and a lot of souls caught in between.  We all know we live in a global economy but we tend to look at the world through home-town glasses.  We still root for the hero and cry when he loses.  We still get up again after we fall. And, like every generation before or since, there are dates we will never forget.

The Very First Fine-Dining Cookbook

Every Thanksgiving a fair proportion of the American populace tries to transform themselves into chefs.  Although we spend more money eating out than on groceries these days and not cooking 40 percent of the suppers we serve, Thanksgiving is the day when we take to our kitchens and attempt to cook “traditional” dinners.  Add that to this decade’s obsession with fine dining and there’ll be a lot of untrained cooks in the kitchen this week trying to pretend they’re Escoffier.  If you’re looking for a cookbook rich in tradition that will make your Thanksgiving feast the talk of the town, have I got one for you!
How to Cook a Peacock a/k/a Le Viandier is so much more than an eye-catching cookbook, it’s a journey into medieval France.  These are the recipes of Gillioume Tirel, chef to Philip IV, Charles V, and Charles VI of France.  So when you serve dishes that come from this book, your guests can claim they feasted like kings. But I should say this is no ordinary cookbook.
See, the 14th century wasn’t as obsessed as we are with precision.  There’s not a word about cooking temps or time in the book.  Nor are there any of those lovely measuring amounts, like cups and teaspoons, that we hold so dear.  Instead, you’ll use your imagination and tastebuds and learn a few new cooking terms as well.
For example the first direction in the recipe Lark Grané says:

 “Take larks, restore them, then brown, and put veal in the pot with them, for a better broth.”

Restore them? Is he kidding?  Bring them back to life? Luckily the glossary says restoring meat means blanching or brining it.  I remember blanching from Home Ec.  Unfortunately, the recipe also calls for verjuice, something I don’t think they sell at my local Piggly Wiggly.  Too bad since it comes from under-ripe grapes
For the truly ambitious, there is a way to prepare “Pheasant and Peacocks In Full Display” that calls for a marinade of (amoung otherthings) long pepper, true cinnamon and rose water. and preservation in sugar and household spices. Not a word about what to do with the feathers. You know, cooking for royalty is all very well but I think I’ll stick to turkey this year. The peacocks can stay in the zoo.

What Booklovers really need: A sign

When I became an office manager, my sister sent me a terrific sign that became my Prime Directive (sorry, Star Trek).

If I ever forgot, this sign reminded me of the purpose of  my job.  I was the designated gatekeeper, tasked with running interference on every distraction that phoned or walked in the door.  I dealt with them so my bosses could focus on the work that kept us in business each month.  Most sales reps. were willing to work with me but if one of them complained, I showed them the sign. That message gave me that last word.
These days, I’m beginning to think that stories, like people, also need signs.  I was in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop the other day and found a few I really liked.
Now that’s great advice, no matter who you are.  Every life is a story and yours is only as good as you make it.  So live the life that will become the story you want to tell.
If I ran the universe this sign would be on the desk of each teacher and librarian in every primary school. Maybe the secondary schools as well.  I’m just sayin’, okay?
And now the sign that all readers need:
What do I want for Christmas this year?  This slogan printed on everything I own, from T-shirts to toilet tissue, and cars to my coffee cup.  A sign to run interference for me like I ran it for my bosses.  I figure folks will have to respect it.
After all, it’s a sign.

A Story for the Broken-Hearted

Most of the time, I try to be happy.  I think everybody does.  Either we find that’s a good way to deal with the world or we think that’s what the world wants from us.  But sometimes, happiness isn’t an appropriate choice for what’s going on in our lives.  Now a motivational speaker might say the thing to do when you’re sad is paste a smile on your face anyway.  Fake being happy until you cheer up again.  While there’s something in the “fake it till you make it” idea, I don’t believe in divorcing yourself from your real feelings.  Sometimes, the only way to deal with grief is to feel the grief.  When that happens, I reach for Low Country by Anne Rivers Siddons.  It’s a guidebook for the broken heart.
At first glance Caro Venable wouldn’t seem like the right kind of guide to learn about grief.  For one thing, she’s got a life most of us would kill for.  She’s got some talent, a loving spouse, a son that’s doing well and two houses, one on her very own island.  Sounds perfect right?  But Caro’s still tortured by the memory of her daughter’s death five years ago and there’s another problem: Caro drinks.   Not snot-slinging, commode-hugging, drunk but too much and too often. Booze also keeps Caro from seeing her comfortable life have cut her off from a much that she loves; that art and the nature have been replaced by her husband’s business and ambition.  
Into this half-life of booze and melancholy come a pair of catalysts to shatter the inertia.  First a Cuban landscape artist with insight into drunks and the tongue of an adder.  Then the news that her husband’s real-estate development company is at risk and Caro has the ability to save it…if she is willing to let him destroy the Gullah settlement and nature preserve already on the island. Caro has to choose between the life she left but holds dear and the man she’s loved since she was a kid.  It’s only in the face of this “lose-lose” situation that Caro finally reaches back out to life.
So what’s great about this book?  Maybe, not a lot beyond the descriptions of the Ace Basin and a kind of life peculiar to the Coastal South.  But what the book has is an honesty about loss and how sometimes it can’t be avoided.  If we live long enough, we all endure loss and the longer we live, the more grief we endure.  What we do with that grief and how we honor the lost dictates how we’ll cope with whatever comes after.  Caro shows how to comes to terms with despair and still fight for a better tomorrow.  That’s something worth knowing when you’re broken-hearted and you need to start living again.

Finally, getting it right

There’s a wonderful line in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that says, “Everything will be all right in the end…if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”  There’s more than mindless optimism in that phrase, that’s an expression of faith. It encourages you to keep going, and not be dismayed, even in the face of disaster.  It’s a faith Jane Austen endorsed when she wrote Persuasion, her last story with a sensible heroine.
Austen wrote about two types of women, those who think before they speak and the rest of us. The impulsive, strong-willed ones like Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse and Catharine Moreland are easy to identify with because they say what they feel and they cause most of their own problems.  The responsible heroines are a little bit deeper.  Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are always aware that odds and circumstances are against them so they’re careful about what they say and when they speak. Most of the time, this is a good trait but in Persuasion, Austen shows the downside of being too careful.
In case you don’t know it, Persuasion’s set-up is simple.  At nineteen, Anne Elliot broke her engagement to Lt. Frederick Wentworth.  She didn’t want to but her best friend persuaded  her that the couple was too broke and too young to create a happy life together. (Anne’s father thought a naval lieutenant wasn’t good enough for his daughter at the time.)  Now, nine years later, Anne’s still unmarried, still missing Wentworth, and living in a house her father can’t afford to maintain. Her ex-fiance reappears, complete with a promotion, and his fortunes have climbed as much as her father’s have fallen.  Anne can’t tell her ex-boyfriend she’s still nuts about him. If she does, she’ll just look like another gold-digging tramp and lose what little respect he may still have for her.  So Anne has to be quiet and watch other unmarried girls chase after the man that she loves, knowing she made a mistake.
Amanda Root in the 2007
adaptations of Persuasion
What happens next is the rest of the book but this story’s already broken the Austen pattern.  In the other books, when Austen’s girls get the right guy, the tale is told. Persuasion is about people making mistakes by relying on the judgment of others and whether anyone hurt so deeply can find the courage to try again. It’s also the story of a middle-class that fights to keep up all the wrong appearances.  Anne’s father is so wrapped up in being a minor aristocrat (he’s a Baronet) that the benefits of the navy’s meritocracy completely escape him. When setbacks befall him, all he’s left with is his title. In contrast, Anne is the only one with the vision to see what really matters and where her true future lies.
If Austen ever sought another title for this book, Patience would have been as good an idea since it takes patience to correct a mistake.  But in the meantime, if you are under stress, keep Anne Elliot’s faith to make the best of each bad situation and do the next right thing.  If that doesn’t work, remember that everything will be all right in the end…so trouble now means the story’s not finished.

See the Movie or Read the Book First?

The holiday season is coming up fast with its compliment of “prestige” films, those high-budget, critic-favored movies all aimed to become Oscar bait.  That’s fine, but since a lot of prestige pictures are based on written works, some readers face an unusual quandary.  When a book-based picture comes out, which should you do first: read the book or see the movie?  Or, if you love one of these, should you even look at the other?

I found out how hard that question was long before I grew up.  Somewhere around age 9, I discovered Dodie Smith’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians.  To say I fell in love with the tale is a gross understatement: I re-read it so often, I could recite whole pages of it from memory.  So I should have loved the Disney adaptation, right?  Wrong!  I couldn’t stand the picture because it altered key parts of the original story and removed the comfortably British narrative voice.  I went home swearing at the film industry in general and Disney in particular for trashing a classic.  I believed no movie would ever respect a book.

Flash forward 25 years or so.  I’m still a fan of British lit. but, there some books I won’t touch, like Howards End.  I heard the book was difficult and dull so I avoided it on principle. It took the beautiful 1992 film adaptation to open my eyes. Even after falling in love with the picture, I was a bit unsure about the book.  Given the usual film-adaptations, would I like the original story?  Little did I know that Merchant-Ivory, that film’s production company, was known for their sensitive treatment of original material.  Howard’s End remains one of my all-time faves on the screen and the page.
The truth is, some movie adaptations of stories work while others don’t .  Film is a visual medium that makes some story-telling easier but it requires light and movement to keep the audience interested. Watching somebody think is dull.  And while words only require a reader’s imagination, every reader’s vision can’t be incorporated into a film adaptation.  So it’s your choice to read the book or see the movie first/  Just be prepared to accept the two versions may have nothing in common beyond the title.