Sunday, March 29, 2015

"My dumb life," and Cakes and Ale

The pictures of a March sky look as bleak as a November or a February sky. I can tell you, however, that all in one day I heard three wonderful spring sounds: the scratchy trool-cool of sandhill cranes migrating, at a low altitude this time (I'll wager it sounds a lot more like "trool-cool" than dickcissel sounds like whatever dickcissels say); the strumming peep or froggy sound of those unseen frogs in wayside ditches and marshy areas, which I think are called spring peepers (the frogs, not the marshes); and at long last, the bright announcing chup ... chup of a robin, followed this morning by a robin's carol.  So now you know that.

And I want some couture designer to use wintry images like this to create gorgeous frocks. Think black lace on ice blue, or deep brown lace and net on pearl-gray. That glowing light is the hidden sun, though it looks almost as pale as the moon. Years ago Diane von Furstenburg did an ad campaign claiming to draw from nature in just this way. Big glossy spreads in the magazines showed her gawking pleasedly in the woods. Probably they were only a stand of trees in Central Park twenty feet from her Upper West Side offices. I don't recall being wowed by the clothes. She tacked a few brown leaves on a hem, was all.

I show you photos of the bare trees in my woods, and I tell you that the sandhill cranes and the robins have returned. But why?

If you are a blogger writing on this, the Blogger platform, you know that at the top of the page the toolbar gives the simple option "Next Blog." You can click on it, and be directed to some other blog in "the unnavigable morass" of the internet, still only via Blogger, that somewhat resembles yours. If ever, like me, you get excited about your 950 visitors a month, and think "hey! Pinterest must have helped! I've got an audience for the spring peeper thing!" -- clicking the Next Blog option will bring you back to an understanding of your own anonymity. Most of the blogs you'll meet in this way have been defunct for years. Most of them were about a mom's children, or somebody's sewing projects, or somebody's advice on the best way to pack for a trip to London. Don't think you are not in the same unvisited stream. Except so far you're not defunct.

I have a niece with literary ambitions who also half-despairs this anonymity of blogging, but who further notices that there always seem to be a few people who attract attention, get a book going, or at least get some ad placements and therefore some revenue. "I could write about my dumb life, too," she complained. Yes, she could. She should work more. If nothing else, writing more would give her a pile of personal papers to bequeath to her grandchildren ... oh wait. Why is it that so many right-thinking, compassionate young millenials don't bother having children to pass their right thoughts on to?

Anyway the pattern of success she notices seems to be, write softly about your personal life, get yourself a loyal following of women (let's be honest) who feel ushered into your living room, and then approach the legitimate publishing industry, largely staffed by women, with proof that you have an audience and can sell your blog-book. Hello, A Homemade Life and Delancey, neither anything to render even Pride and Prejudice ridiculous. Hello cashing in.

But good heavens, how personal and living room-y must one get? I hardly dare tell you that my friend's ex-husband just crashed and totaled his, I don't know, maybe fourth car in the last four years, out in California where he went to be with his internet girlfriend, who dumped him after a year of True Love and medical problems and "neediness." My friend, Fanny, told me she knows what the girlfriend means. She got a text from him, mistakenly one night years on, simply saying "Hi!" when it turned out he had meant to send it to Her who was sitting on the couch beside him. And now who knows what will come of the new job as a security guard since he doesn't have transportation anymore and will have a hard time buying a new car, having just got out of bankruptcy. Isn't it weird also that his new job is the same as my friend's gentleman friend's? Even though Fanny's ex can't really carry out the basic duties of a security guard, because he has an unresolved diabetic foot injury, so he can't walk much. His new employer hired him to drive the perimeter I guess. And to crown all, how in the world is Mr. Pacifist, "I'm not sure I could protect you and the kids if an intruder came into the house, because of my pacifist beliefs -- though I think instinct would probably take over," how is Mr. Pacifist going to reconcile himself to carrying a gun on the job? I'm thinking the bevy of sisters back home are going to have to go and rescue him in time. Thereby hangs another tale.

As I say, I hardly dare tell you all this because after all in our grandmothers' day there was such a thing as privacy, and besides I know He used to read my blog ("I read your blog") whenever he was mad that Fanny asked him for money while my blog was proving that she bought new couches or good liquor. But if enough chuckling women feel ushered into my friend's living room, a book contract or some ad placement might make it all worthwhile. And if that doesn't happen, what are my 31.66 readers a day, women or men,  going to care about my cashing in on anyone's Dumb Life anyway? Next Blog.

What we are talking about, I suppose, is just human achievement, of the best use of time. My niece and I and all of us except maybe her, we know we're not Jane Austen. We are talking about the 'why bother' of it.

I wonder if the productivity spurred by the internet, among writers or would-be writers (garrulous, often delightful people who like to write but have nothing to say -- "my hair lost a ton of volume after I started taking birth control pills" -- and she has great photos, great clothes, a following and ads), I wonder if all our productivity levels must be similar to those once spurred by old-fashioned methods of subscription publishing. By these methods an eighteenth or nineteenth century 'Lady' for example got friends to "subscribe" for a copy of whatever she wanted to write once it was finished. It was her stab at non-anonymity. Unless you had absolutely no human contacts to give you a sou, subscriptions meant that nothing stood in the way of your getting professional packaging for your wuhk, except your desire to work or not. By subscribing, friends essentially loaned you money to live on, or for your father to look after, while you wrote. Or friends ponied up to help hire a printing press for a couple days. Or the booksellers themselves, "liberal-minded, generous men," in Samuel Johnson's words, bought your book and printed it "in the hope of being indemnified," much as publishing houses do now -- provided you've got in their door first. At any rate, largely without gatekeepers your little eighteenth- or nineteenth-century book was released to the world exactly as you wrote it, as if it had been wanted. It might only reach your own circle, much as a blog does, or it might go further. For Fanny Burney, the result was intoxicating fame and a post as lady-in-waiting to the Queen, which nearly killed her; for Jane Austen, the result seems to have been scarcely a ripple. Anonym-- .

Gradually publishing changed, and one submitted one's manuscript to a publishing house which already owned the press and which now employed editor-gatekeepers, who decided whether or not one's book was not only worth the business risk, but also perfect in execution, too. I feel sure this was a formal change because so many of the classics of yesteryear are flawed. It isn't only a matter of different tastes in different eras. Any editor with gatekeeper power would have told Charles Dickens to pick just one ending for Great Expectations. Any editor would have told Daniel Defoe that the last quarter of Robinson Crusoe is a hash, and would have sent it back to him for revisions. Ditto for 'Currer Bell's' Jane Eyre. These books stand as they do because the writer thought he was done. In fact, I remember reading that, once upon a time, writers were paid by the word. The more they puffed out their books with verbiage, the more they earned. Some Continental master, Victor Hugo or someone, made fun of the practice precisely by having two characters discuss it, wondering at it at great length .... If my memory serves me right and that practice really existed, then my lord the Editor cannot have existed, or he would have slashed many a classic's bulk and therefore many a literary giant's pay. Only now, with blogging, do we seem to have come full circle. Now we publish whatever we like anytime, whenever we think we're done. We don't even have the bother of writing longhand or soliciting subscriptions, from anyone. We also don't make any money as a rule, and yet, curiously, it costs AdSense nothing to load a blurb into our sidebar if we wish; at a time when real newspapers are losing ad business, Google/AdSense will take a chance on getting an eyeball or two from us.

By blogging we also don't have to face, if we don't want to, what you might call the moat outside the true, the Simon-pure gates, and that is: the professional agents who can submit your wuhk to a publisher if you first please them. This is not easy to do. They are young and smiling and very particular women. Freshly minted university graduates looking to build a stable of authors and a career, they are "excited about" outside-the-box murder mysteries featuring "three mothers with children in the same school," or looking for "anything upmarket with series potential." They are interested in suspenseful historical fiction with unreliable narrators, "anything set in Poland," "Adult Dystopia," anything involving women working in STEM fields. Etc. 

Seeing all this on Writer's Digest "new agents" page, I got up from my desk in a snit and went to my bookshelves to pluck down the oldest and most dog-eared classic I could find. I opened it to page one, determined to read the first paragraph and ask myself whether any young woman would accept this as a query today. 
I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it's important, the matter is more often important to him than to you.When it comes to making you a present or doing you a favour most people are able to hold their impatience within reasonable bounds. So when I got back to my lodgings with just enough time to have a drink, a cigarette, and to read my paper before dressing for dinner, and was told by Miss Fellows, my landlady, that Mr. Alroy Kear wished me to ring him up at once, I felt that I could safely ignore his request.
Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale, 1930. No, I think she would not. Coincidentally enough Cakes and Ale is about writers, or rather about a world in which a lot of otherwise ordinary people write books. What the young women have not been trained to look for, what they would never dream of looking for, are just manuscripts of one thoughtful person's slow-unspooling reaction, in fiction, to life as he knows it. Back then it was Maugham, among many. Today it doesn't have to be me. But some anonymous out there is doing better things than Adult Dystopia or (Polish?) women in STEM fields. Where are they?

They're blogging, I think. They've come full circle, we all have, Next Blog if we stick with it, perhaps to the personal productivity levels of pre-gatekeeper days. We're not paid by the word but we don't have to watch our word counts, either, for example to make sure each post hits, but does not exceed, "take me seriously" numbers. Hint, your debut novel, for example, must be at least 80,000 words. My question is, Is our productivity worthwhile? -- need you know that the sandhill cranes are trool-cooling overhead, or about my friend's ex? And if the internet was shut down tomorrow, or taxed to death or its content policed for correct thought, would we all take out pen and paper and go on writing for maybe nobody, as A Lady did? Then we might see how important all those recipes are, or your hair's volume. We might see how important privacy is. Yet after all, human beings are built to achieve. Why not bother? 

Early in Cakes and Ale Maugham muses on the one "compensation" enjoyed by a writer -- any writer, the Writer -- otherwise aggravated and disappointed by the dreary routine of success. (Really? Really? More evidence of an era without gatekeepers. And we haven't even addressed outside evidence that people used to turn to writing to earn a living when all other sources of ready money dried up. How on earth?)  "Editors harry him for copy," Maugham says, " ... secretaries of institutes want him to lecture ... youths want his autograph." But at least he is free in the (Aristotelian, isn't it?) sense of purging the mind.

Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as a theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

 There. Even if your productivity is maybe stupid, and your 31.66 visitors a day click Next in five seconds, at least you're free. So the sandhill cranes, grus canadensis, are in the midst of their spring migration. The spring peeper, pseudacris crucifer, is the size of a paper clip and those trilling peeps come from the males, cruising for chicks in marshy wayside ditches and open fields near gas stations. Finally of course we salute our beloved robins -- formerly turdus turdus I think, horrible name now thankfully amended to turdus migratorius -- a change by which science seems to acknowledge that for all the claims of robins being year-round residents across  North America, no they are not. They do vanish for the winter and they do, blessedly, migratorius.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"She took nothing else" -- in camp with Joan of Arc

"She took nothing else" but four or five soups mixed together in the bottom of a "receptacle," with wine put in first. She is Joan of Arc, Jehanne la Pucelle, the Maid of Orléans. The year is 1429.

Now here is something extraordinary. Not the soups, but the source of this story and something else it divulges. I have it from Christian Guy's Illustrated History of French Cuisine, translated by Elisabeth Abbott (New York, 1962). The paragraphs on page 28 simply attest:
...soup was then in its heyday. It was customary to serve three or four different soups at one meal. And it was not unusual for a dinner to consist of six, eight, or even a dozen. 
This passion for soup lasted until the reign of Louis XI [ca. 1470], in fact down to the Renaissance. It was still in honour in Joan of Arc's day [ca. 1430. Perhaps it would have been clearer to say, "That means of course" soup was still in honour then]. Gilles de Retz, one of the Maid's closest companions, who preferred the raw entrails of infants whose stomachs he opened, tells us that "Jehanne put some wine in the bottom of a receptacle and poured four or five different soups over it. She never took anything else." 
Did he. Did this fellow de Retz prefer infants' entrails. Never mind Jehanne's five soups, and small questions about dating the French Renaissance. Did her companion really prefer the raw entrails of infants whose stomachs he opened ... well well.

This little fact crops up because some time ago I thought it would be fun to write a book called The Meals of Heaven, one of whose chapters would be "In Camp with Joan of Arc." So I looked her up and found she ate soup. The idea for the book as a whole kind of fell by the wayside, perhaps because writing about it purged it from my memory. Self assignments often go that way.

And then I was so flabbergasted by learning what de Retz ate that I looked him up too. He was a rich and unspeakably evil nobleman, who served bravely alongside Joan of Arc in her battles against the English and for "her" Dauphin, the future French king Charles VII. He was made a Marshal of France in reward. After that, de Retz (or de Rais) retired to his castles in Brittany, spent money, wrote and staged his own cast-of-thousand plays, and kidnapped and butchered children and young people, perhaps as many as 80 or 150 or 200 or 600, depending on what sources you consult. At long last his own family got a royal decree forbidding him to spend money, and at long last the local church authorities opened an investigation into seven or eight years' worth of missing peasant children. In my reading of an old online biography, which I can't retrace now, I came across a dramatic scene. When the net of justice at long last closed around de Retz, and he was escorted from his castle by men not his own, the local people, mothers and fathers, heard the clatter of hooves, looked up from their fields and yards and realized the monster had fallen. They rushed to the roadside, emboldened, to surround the entourage and shout and cry out their children's names. This same biography, written I think by a careful Victorian lady, also noted that not much evidence was ever found; just things like a small pile of ill-smelling ashes in a barn, and a child's bloody shirt in the bottom of a trough.

De Retz and his two worst henchmen admitted guilt, offering some details so depraved that the judges at the time ordered them stricken from the trial record. What seems not to have been stricken is the monster's own admission that yes, he enjoyed cutting his victims open for the sake of their inner organs. All three men were hanged and then burned, in the town of Nantes in October, 1440.

Joan of Arc had already been martyred ten years before. Her king was still king. And all this throws a strange light on her career. For centuries historians have marveled that this illiterate teen girl obeying her "voices" was actually taken seriously by powerful men in the midst of war and national crisis, -- was actually allowed to lead armies. Could it be that one of her greatest helpmeets and "one of the wealthiest men in Europe," this de Retz, at first only got close to her and propped her up because he saw her as a plump little pigeon of a target?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The beautiful simplicity of the Orange Blossom (cocktail)

It was such fun rediscovering some photos from the Lincoln Park Zoo/Conservatory/Schiller Park area that we decided to rediscover, or recover or uncover, a few more. Mostly orchids, plus an orange in winter.  Then, the Orange Blossom.

Orange Blossom.(from the Calvert Party Encyclopedia).

2 ounces (a little more than a jigger) gin
1 ounce (a little less than a jigger) fresh orange juice

Stir well with cracked ice, and strain into a cocktail glass.

Saturday, March 7, 2015



Somewhere in the depths of the piles of papers I have accumulated over the years -- to talk of one's "personal" or "private papers" sounds so scholarly and sophisticated, doesn't it? -- somewhere I am sure I jotted down at least one list of ideas for future writing projects. Self-assignments, if you will. Ten years ago for example, when I returned to college to finish my degree, and thought thereby I would concentrate on the History of Education in the West, I drew up a pretty thorough outline of a book about just that. Introduction, ancient Egypt. Then, Babylon and astronomy -- then the training of Greek youth -- Plato's search for truth, which exists -- Aristotle seeming to know everything -- Roman rhetoric, and Pliny (weren't there two Plinys?) studying the whole natural world -- the Bible and the Church fathers -- the seven liberal arts -- the peasantry learning faith from stone and stained glass -- the Renaissance -- science erupts in the modern world -- young gentleman make the Grand Tour, young ladies learn deportment and drawing -- everybody plays a musical instrument -- the McGuffey Readers expect American prairie kids to get something out of the trial of Warren Hastings, plus memorize The Wreck of the Hesperus. Finally John Dewey comes along and commences the destruction, on the theory that it's all too boring and children should have self-esteem.


So there you have at least one book, among my old self-assignments, that will never "get itself written," as John Galsworthy modestly said of his own Forsyte Saga. I have a day job and can't travel all over the world doing original research, as is required now. On that note, many years ago a contributor to Commentary wrote an article about the death of the "secondary-source intellectual," that is, the absence from cultural life and bestseller lists of persons who write good books based on their own general knowledge plus happy research, done at home, into other people's books. (That would be me.) Alas, it's original research, only, that with a bit of luck now leads to Ph.D.s, publication, and general taken-seriously-ness. It's why you see people writing dissertations on intensely specific research into new matter, say, "empowering interior designers" -- I know a lady who did this, and then smiled in her cap and gown all over Facebook -- and why huge rambling multivolume sets like Will Durant's Story of Civilization don't roll off today's presses. Then again, he was kind of dotty. I never have been able to find the collected letters of Beatrice and Isabella d'Este that he claims was so amusing.

Over the years I'm sure I jotted down more than two notions. But jotting them down also seems to purge them from the memory in a quite appalling way. One can shuffle through old papers and marvel "My! Was I really interested in that?" Was I interested in writing a biography of Mary Leiter, 1890s Vicereine of India? She was born in Chicago so perhaps the possibilities of primary source research beckoned. Or, was I interested in McGuffey Reader-style peeks into American education, evidenced in the place- and street-names of yesteryear? and did I intend to chronicle what I fiercely regarded as its debasement? Cincinnati -- Pella (Iowa) -- Kenilworth, Illinois; Goethe Street, Cicero Avenue, Mozart Street. Not that there weren't always bland Elm Streets and New Towns everywhere across the continent, nor that unimaginative people haven't always named things sloppy in ages past ("hey, let's call it New Carthage!"). Still I don't think anyone will ever again name streets and parks for Schiller, and erect a statue too. If you have ever visited Lincoln Park Zoo and the conservatory there, and seen these pretty fishponds and flowers, you have been near Schiller Park.

Even if you find old lists of things you wanted to write about, and even if you decide to have at it via secondary sources and the hell with all Ph.D.s and acceptability, blogging does change the way you write about the world. Blogging makes you productive, but is reactive. You are essentially keeping a diary; you are not poking your nose out into the world, armed first with an original idea, and investigating why anything is so. Perhaps that's why women love blogging. It's cozy, passive, and emotional. Sometimes when I surf about among the shoes, recipes, wedding gowns, and photos of children, all of it "amazing," I wonder if there are any men in the world at all. Here's another book title for you: Do Men Blog?

All of this is just to let you into my little world, such a thrill for you, and to set down, to challenge you with, a new writing idea. I hope I don't now forget it, having purged it. I suggest we secondary source intellectuals go out and buy ourselves a fat thick notebook (remember how Diary of a Mad Housewife begins with the woman spotting a pile of notebooks in the five & dime store? Immediately her eye stops twitching, and she knows what she must do). Take it home, and begin writing, longhand, some project you had in mind. In other words give yourself an assignment beyond reactive wooziness. If the sight of all that blank paper unnerves you, consider this. Don't your words flow without scratchings-out or hesitation when you are scribbling privately? Come, half of us are diary keepers anyway. Is it only because you find your own inner life so fascinating -- or could it be that the technique is important? Austen and Dickens and Victor Hugo produced mammothly using it. Sit down and write, and the hell with Ph.D.s and acceptability.

Of course lively interests and an advanced vocabulary still help, so I think we must all also leave off the time wasting activities that blogging encourages. Reading comment streams under fiery political articles, for example. And beware the women's blogs, some of them. Shoes are great but you've got to learn other adjectives besides "amazing." 


Friday, March 6, 2015


A picture on Breitbart suddenly clarifies things. It's the picture of the "three-way gay" marriage among some young men in Thailand, who are no doubt laughing all the way to the bank. But it couldn't even be a joke (and one of the trio's names is "Joke") if there weren't a fast-moving cultural understanding behind it, -- an ability for the language of a joke to be understood. 

So the clarity is this: it seems that the prime mood of the sophisticated world around us is mockery. I am not the first to have this bright idea. Someone much brighter than me once pointed out that when daring "irreverence" is all that matters, irreverence becomes both easy and pointless to do. What's the use of irreverence when nothing is revered?

Hence, clarity. Gay marriage was never an expansion of rights, it was always a mockery, and it didn't take long for a Thai "three-way" to shine even a joke-light on that. In the same way, global warming is a mockery of science, amnesty a mockery of citizenship, Obamacare a mockery of health insurance, and oh, let's say Republican electoral victories a mockery of electoral victories. Just as, below, the dried and pressed Queen Anne's lace -- it fell out of a Bible, strangely -- is a kind of mockery of a summer roadside under a hot August sun.  

These are just matters that you have to be clear about, I think, in your own mind so that you can live an honest life surrounded by a din of falsehood and folly and mockery that you personally cannot affect much. "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world", or platitudes to that effect? Maybe sometimes. Very often, it seems the million dollar donors who don't like election results rule the world. Perhaps that honest soul Samuel Johnson had come to this sort of conclusion, not about election results per se but about cant -- although we could give him the most astonishing lessons in cant -- when he said --
"My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do; you may say to a man, 'Sir, I am your most humble servant.' You are not his most humble servant. You may say, 'These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.' You don't mind the times. [Aha!] You tell a man, 'I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.' You don't care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don't think foolishly."  Boswell's Life of Johnson, Thursday 15 May 1783
Now you may have a glass of wine.  A pure, light, and honest French chardonnay. Retail, about $10.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...