My Funny-Sad Diary of the ’70s & How to Keep a Book Journal

Long ago, in a parallel universe in the ’70s, I kept a  charming diary.  It is the only diary I wrote that is enjoyable reading, and I would gladly burn my later sad-sack diaries, except that burning one’s journals in a bonfire is banned by the EPA (air emissions).

My girly vinyl-and-silk '70s diary

My girly vinyl-and-silk ’70s diary

Much of this charming, funny, girly vinyl-and-silk diary is about my student days.  I described the politics of the classics department, flirtations and friendships, my charming soon-to-be-ex-husband’s extravagant dinner parties, a never-ending paper on Jane Eyre, and going to bars to listen to Greg Brown (good) or Chickie and the Dipsticks (not so good).

Here is my mocking inscription on the first page of the diary.


A Useful Document for Janitors
Aspiring to be Classicists.
One woman’s story.
Her trials and tribulations.
Outer struggles with
clogged toilets reflect
inner mental crises.

I had a satiric outlook, but also described the ups and downs of everyday life.  My ex- was the most charming person I knew, but he and his friends were hard drinkers. We once spent Thanksgiving with an alcoholic friend who had lost his English professor job and who became drunkenly abusive to his wife at dinner.  But my witty husband, who, even when drunk, brought out the best in everyone, managed to divert him by describing something on PBS as “the Stratford-on-Avon picture torture.”   We all laughed, and the friend calmed down.

Occasionally I wrote about books.  Well, I must admit, I wrote about books all the time.  I loved Anna Karenina, and wrote reams about Levin, who was my favorite character.  I wrote about all kinds of books:  Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, Dickens’s Hard Times, Cicero’s Pro Caelio (I was very indignant that Clodia Metelli, an older woman, was blamed for Caelius’s  problems), Euripides’s Medea, Colette’s Break of Day, and a trashy French romance series, the Angelique books.

Jane Austen’s Emma was my favorite book, but  I wrote disapprovingly of Pride and Prejudice.

Aug. 22

Am writing at the laundromat, drinking Pelican Punch tea from a defective Gunsmoke thermos purchased at a garage sale.  It leaked all over my purse.

I am reading Pride and Prejudice, and am astonished that I could ever have read Jane Austen as a satirist.  For the first half of the book Elizabeth Bennet looks critically at the world; in the second half she learns her mistake and accepts traditional propriety.


There you have it:  Gunsmoke and Pride and Prejudice.

Surprisingly, my views on P& P have not changed much. I enjoy Lizzie’s sharpness and wit, but the last part of P&P still annoys me.  Lizzie doesn’t fall in love with Darcy until she sees his property, and Darcy, like so many Austen heroes, is a stiff, even if he’s played by Colin Firth.  Could anyone really fall in love with Darcy/Knightley/etc.?

But I’m really here to talk about:


I no longer keep a personal diary, but I love my book journal.   I recently filled a book journal of five years of my reading.  I need to pick a new notebook for my book journal.

Big or little?

So far the format has been easy.  It’s a list.  And if I want to keep this format, I have two small notebooks that will work.

NOTEBOOK CHOICE #1:  The novelty notebook


This small notebook looks like a Penguin edition of On the Road.  I’m not a big Kerouac fan, but I saw the exhibit of his typed scroll of the manuscript at the University of Iowa Art Museum.  A guard had to warn me not to lean on the glass case.  I was fascinated by the scroll.

All I can remember about On the Road is that “the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”  This struck me because I’m a Midwesterner.

NOTEBOOK CHOICE #2:  The Moleskine reporter’s notebook

IMG_2260I deliberately bought the reporter’s style notebook so I can flip it open and take notes.   You never know when Nick Hornby, Michael Stipe, or Dovegreyreader might walk down the street.  Of course I’d flip open my notebook and  ask them a few questions.

“Sir? Ma’am?”

NOTEBOOK CHOICE #3:  If I want to change the format to an actual journal with brief critiques of each book, this irresistible Miquerlius softbound journal might do.

IMG_2256No idea how many pages, but at least two-to-three hundred.

I bought most of my notebooks for occasional teaching, but as you know who know me from my previous blog, I have no students at the moment.  No one to study Wheelock or Catullus?  Dear me!

Do let me know what kind of notebook you use for your book journal.  And whether you list books or “journal.”

Best Book of the Year: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue

I had to start a new blog to escape my “debts” to charming publicists who kindly sent me new books I didn’t get around to reviewing at my old blog.

I’m joking.  I started a new blog because I felt constricted by the parameters of the old  (Frisbee:  A Book Journal).  I wanted to branch out and write at least occasionally about things mirabile dictu, “wonderful to say,” rather than horrendum dictu.  (N.B. And I will review some of those books publishers sent me.)

I am happy to say I’ve recently read one new novel so dazzling I am going to post a picture of it on my sidebar:

Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

Telegraph Avenue Michael ChabonIf you know his work, you won’t be surprised that his new novel makes my “Best Book of the Year” list.  Chabon won the Pulitzer in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (a novel about the comic book industry) and the Hugo, Sidewise, Nebula and Ignotus awards for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (billed as an alternate history mystery set in Alaska). His gorgeous, convoluted, poetic sentences and intricate plots make him one of the best writers in America. (Other contenders are Ruth Prawer Jhabvala  and Jonathan Lethem.)

So, yes, now that I’ve read Telegraph Avenue, I’ll be reading more Chabon.

Set in 2004, Telegraph Avenue hinges on the fate of Brokeland Records, a used vinyl record store in Oakland whose future is threatened by the prospect of a corporate media store’s moving in.  The novel revolves around the different outlooks  of the two owners, one black and one Jewish, in a way that reflects counterculture life-styles in Oakland. Laid-back Archy Stallings, who borrows a friend’s baby to prepare for fatherhood, is a fan of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which he constantly rereads, an amateur musician, and the son of Luther Stallings, a once famous Blaxploitaion film star of the ’70s.  His bipolar Jewish partner, Nat Jaffe, a hardcore vinyl fan who writes angry letters to the editor and often shows up for work in a volatile temper, “his bad mood a space helmet lowered over his head,” is ready to go into battle for the small business.  The partners are equally passionate about jazz, blues, and funk, but they disagree about what to do:  Nat snaps at Archy’s suggestion of selling espresso or chai in the store, and Archy is furious when Nat calls a neighborhood meeting without telling him.

Once a barber shop, Brokeland Records still has that social vibe going.  Neighbors and customers hang out at the store, among them Cochise Jones, an elderly musician accompanied everywhere by his parrot; Moby, a save-the-whales lawyer who wants to be black; Mr. Garnet Singletary, the King of Bling and their landlord; S. S. Mirchandani, a taxi driver; and Chandler Flowers, an undertaker and powerful if sinister city councilman with a lot of thuggish bodyguards.

When Mr. Singletary tells Archy and Nat they’re “fucked,” that Gibson “G Bad” Goode, a former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers and owner of Dogpile, is breaking ground in a month for his Dogpile “Thang,” a mall with a three-story Dogpile media store, they hope the information is wrong.  They had thought Chan Flowers was sticking up for them at City Council and doing environmental impact studies.

But in a sense they know it’s really the end.

So many of the other used-record kings of the East Bay had already gone under, hung it up, or turned themselves into Internet-only operations, closing their doors, letting the taps of bullshit go dry.  Brokeland Records was nearly the last of its kind, Ishi, Chgachgook, Martha the passenger pigeon.

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue isn’t just about Brokeland Records.  It’s about the survival of neighborhood, family, and individuality.  Archy’s pregnant wife, Gwen, and Nat’s wife,  Aviva, are midwives struggling to keep their jobs while doctors and hospitals barely tolerate them.  Nat and Aviva’s son, Julie, is having a gay affair with Archy’s illegitimate son, Titus, whom Gwen doesn’t know about.  And Archy’s father, Luther, whose life has been a struggle since his martial arts exploits in Blaxploitation film days, has come back to Oakland for shady dealings to try to raise money for a new film.   His longtime girlfriend, Valetta, loyally accompanies him, but is not afraid to tell him when he’s an asshole.

Chabon is fascinated by the ’70s and has done deep research on politics in the Bay Area in the ’70s, the Black Panthers, and Blaxploitation films. Part of the novel traces a violent adventure shared by Luther and Chan Flowers in the ’70s.  Luther drives the Toronado, and Chan carries a gun he borrowed from a Black Panters house and a mask and gloves from his younger brother’s Halloween costume:  his brother had been hit by a car.  At the bar Bit ‘o’ Honey, he goes in and shoots Popcorn.

Their young lives are like a Blaxploitation film.

Chabon’s prose is of transcendent beauty, the voices of the characters are pitch-perfect, and the dialogue is often very funny.  Those of us who are/were/have known people trying to live outside the of the corporate-defined-and-dominated society can empathize, even when the characters get a little strident or overwrought.

Easily the best new book I’ve read this year.

Holiday Musings: Gifts, Books, & Manners

Christmas in Connecticut

“Christmas in Connecticut”

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Are you breathing easier?

The big day is over.

Did you spend Christmas morning in bed with a heating pad for your lower back?

I got up later and did yoga.  Then I cooked beef stew. It is a family tradition.

Yet there was something about the day that didn’t feel right.

I know, I know.  We did everything.  We even went out in the  snow and looked at the beautiful blurry moon.  What could be better?


It always feels empty to me.

I should have watched Christmas in Connecticut before the holiday.  If you haven’t seen this romantic comedy, you need to find a copy and sit down and enjoy.   Barbara Stanwyck plays a columnist for a women’s magazine who pretends to her readers she is a farm wife, mother, and excellent cook.  In reality, she is an undomestic single New Yorker living in an apartment.  When her boss orders her to entertain a war hero (Dennis Morgan) for Christmas, she has to borrow a farm, a baby, and her restaurateur friend, Felix.  This brilliant movie is an excellent break from holiday disappointments.

christmas-gift-isolated-over-white-backgroundI know some of you enjoy the holidays.  For you it is not about materialism.  You go to Midnight Mass and watch A Christmas Carol. Your family gathers round the tree for a reading of William Dean Howells’s excellent anti-materialism short story, “Christmas Every Day.”

Holidays are far from unmaterialistic in my household. I want to say Christmas is all about peace, love, and understanding, but it doesn’t always turn out that way.  The volume of family misunderstanding can get turned way up when too many presents on the coffee table confront us like an accusation.

As I get older, the present-giving feels sillier and sillier.  Shouldn’t Christmas gift-giving cease now that we’re too old to want Barbies and Legos?  Aren’t we capable of loving our families without gifts?  But perhaps not.  We just had Thanksgiving.  Too much family in too short a time.

The materialism ruins it.

Last year I spent a lot of money on gifts and was very excited about my choices.  Finally I had it down:  I had researched the perfect gifts for everyone.  I gave an organic watch made from corn to an environmentalist:  he explained it wasn’t organic, and the process of manufacturing the material from corn pollutes.  I gave an adorable cream-colored pant suit to  a relative in a nursing home, and then realized the hue is far from practical:  they wear bibs in the dining room.

I planned this year to move the holiday away from materialism. I said I would give one book per person, and  would only accept one gift apiece from others, too.   I took requests.  One person requested a Library of America volume of Melville, and I bought it shortly after Thanksgiving.  I bought P. G. Wodehouse’s comedies for the others.

Shopping was all done, but I felt uneasy.  The books sat in a drawer like a ticking bomb.  I say like a ticking bomb, because on Friday, having noticed many, many packages arriving at our house, I bought more back-up books (National Book Award winners and finalists) in case there were dozens of packages for me on the coffee table on Christmas morning.

And there were.

When I saw the pile, I sauntered into the bedroom and got out  Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, and David Ferry’s Bewilderment as though I had meant to give them all along.  They weren’t wrapped. I had planned to give them for various birthdays if they weren’t needed for Christmas.

There were no gift faux pas.  Everybody was satisfied, and I received some lovely gifts.  There was perhaps a little edginess over my books-only policy, but I had mentioned it in advance.

There were some delightful moments before Christmas.  We made chocolate chip cookies instead of Christmas cookies because we really prefer them, and they are delicious.  We played cards with my relative in the nursing home.  And she loved her gift,  a stuffed snowman with an adorable sweater and scarf to display with her other winter decorations.  She has wonderful manners, and even if she had not liked it, she would have pretended to. I thought idly how my generation does not have wonderful manners.


The most astonishing thing about Christmas was thinking about how connected I am to all these people.  The bonds between us are strong and old.  The day itself is usually a disappointment, but I learn something from it about family this year.  I had an epiphany, which I won’t share with you, but am sure you had your own revelation anyway.

Dark Relief: Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye

Muriel Spark’s mordant comedies are the flip side of P. G. Wodehouse’s featherlight farces.  After a Wodehouse Bertie-Wooster-and-Jeeves binge, I turned to Spark’s satires.  I happened to pick up her very funny early novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the story of a wily bachelor who is the antithesis of Bertie Wooster.  Although Spark’s comedies take a dark turn, she, too, has a penchant for labyrinthine plots and silly names.

ballad-peckham-rye-muriel-spark-paperback-cover-artSpark’s spare, humorous, upside-down Ballad, published in 1960, makes you wonder who exactly the angels and the devils are in Spark’s fictional world. The hero, Dougal Douglas, a Scottish trickster, moves to Peckham and, without a twinge of conscience, accepts two jobs from rival textile companies.  The company directors, Mr. Druce at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, and Mr. Willis at Drover Willis, say they want him to bridge the gap between art and industry in his new position as assistant personnel manager.

But to what avail?

It is all about absenteeism.

Mr. Druce, a man who childishly spends Saturday mornings riding elevators at a department store, has already hired an efficiency expert from Cambridge to limit movements among the factory workers for optimum productivity. Dougal, hired because of his less intimidating background as a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, quickly recognizes Mr. Druce’s soulless fascination with limiting movement.  During the second interview, he “sat like a monkey-puzzle tree, only moving his eyes to follow Mr. Druce.”

Mr. Druce assures Dougal that he can define his job, but forbids lectures on art. Soon it becomes clear that art is a sop, and Dougal’s real job is to control.

” It will be my job to take the pulse of the people and plumb the industrial depths of Peckham.”

Mr Druce said:  “Exactly.  You have to bridge the gap and hold out a helping hand.  Our absenteeism,” he said, “is a problem.”

“They must be bored with their jobs,” said Dougal in a split-second of absent-mindedness.

Dougal’s absent-minded remark reflects his real attitude toward the workforce.  He rarely spends any time in the office, and he urges employees to take more days off.  Soon even Miss Merle Coverdale, head of the typing pool and Mr. Druce’s mistress, is calling in sick and taking walks in the park with Dougal.  Is absenteeism a bid for freedom from oppression, or a demonic joke on Dougal’s part?  Only Humphrey, a “refrigerator engineer” and Union member, resists absenteeism, and says it is unethical.

Ballad of Peckham rye first edition sparkDougal is so outrageous that the reader cannot feel sympathy for him.  Although he has a deformed shoulder–I kept thinking of Richard III– he uses it to get sympathy from women.   He has no compassion:  he refuses to visit his fiancee, Ginny, when she is ill, especially when she is in the hospital, because his “fatal flaw” is an intolerance of illness. Ginny doesn’t think much of his fatal flaw, and drops him. But Dougal uses this breakup with Ginny to get to know women at work:  he has a crying breakdown in the canteen, and the women pity him, comb his hair,  and tell him their stories.

Dougal has a third job:  ghostwriting a memoir for a retired actress, Maria Cheeseman.  He interweaves the Peckham women’s’ stories with her history.

Not only does he devilishly charm people, including his aged landlady, but he stirs people up, and his enemies equate him with the devil.   His initials, DD, are devilish, and he encourages them to think he is the devil by showing off bumps on his forehead which he claims were horns removed.

But there are plenty of other devilish characters:  Mr. Druce, an exploiter of labor, also has the D initial and his name rhymes with “deuce.”  And many characters have slightly devilish funny names:  Mr. Drover, the director of the rival company; Dixie (another D name), a 17-year-old bossy, avaricious typist; Mr. Weedin, head of persoonel; and Miss Frierne (think “fryer”), the landlady.

At one point, in a graveyard, Dougal “posed like an angel-devil, with his hump shoulder and gleaming smile, and his fingers of each hand spread against the sky.”

Is he an angel or a devil?  Well, he certainly is not an angel, but are all his messages about work injudicious?

The characters are flat:  Spark’s manipulations of her puppets are masterly, but we don’t care about them.  In her best books, this flatness works to the hone the narrative, but The Ballad of Peckham Rye is not as polished as, say, Memento Mori and A Far Cry from Kensington.  It is fun to read this from a devil-angel perspective:  is it a satire of capitalism or a tale of temptation?   Spark, a Catholic convert, often uses grotesque symbolism:  think of Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh.

I enjoyed this novel, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting place for Spark.

By the way, Merry Christmas!

A Man & Woman Discuss the Snowstorm, December 20, 2012

A very snowy day, December, 2012.

A very snowy day, December 21, 2012.

Dec. 19, 2012.  A man and woman discuss the snowstorm.

“I’m going to work.”

“But the snow.”

“The governor will never cancel.”

“They’re saying not to go out.”

December 20, 2012. I woke to a dazzling frozen world:  12.4 inches of snow had fallen.  It was our first real snowfall of the year.  We had a little mushy stuff one day.  That didn’t count.

I went to the kitchen to make tea.

Had my husband gone to work?

All the lights were on.

Perhaps he had to run for the bus.

No, he was out shoveling.  I counted three men with snowblowers, blasting up and down the block, helping neighbors dig out.  My husband prefers to shovel.

He took the day off.  The buses weren’t running.

I stepped outside and took a few pictures, then ran inside shrieking because it was so cold.

He walked to the gym.  It was closed.  There was a power outage.  He walked to the neighborhood store and bought noodles.  The lights were out, and they couldn’t sell refrigerated or frozen food, but they had a generator and the cash register was working.

I was content to hang out at home in pajamas, the ones with the dancing coffee cups.  I curled up and read Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn.

Dec. 21, 2012.  Today I actually went out on a walk.

In the middle of the street:  no traffic.

No traffic, Dec. 21, 2012.

I wore long underwear, a turtleneck, thick wooly sweater, jeans, parka (good for down to 10 below), a hand-knitted scarf, hat, headphones (grooving on the tunes), my hood, and boots.  The snow was deep.  I walked slowly.

Our block was shoveled, but elsewhere it was a bit wild.  Some trees were down.  I maneuvered around an evergreen tree whose snowy branches swept the ground like a dryad’s hair.  Sparrows chirped in a bush.  Occasionally I  had to walk in the street.

On the corner of a well-traveled, packed-down main street, the snow had been banked high by a snowplow, and I couldn’t climb over it.  The traffic was roaring.  People had lost a day of shopping.  They had to get to the mall. I finally found a gap in the bank and scuttled across the street.

I kept thinking about my bicycle.  As I admired the beautiful snow, I imagined coasting downhill in the bike lane.

I miss my bike. I miss the warmth.

I wanted to walk to Smokey Joe’s.

I couldn’t get there.

A few more months, I thought.

Winter is beautiful.

In my constantly snowbound childhood, my mother wasn’t keen on winter.  She bundled us up in more wool than the average child had to wear, and anxiously made us promise to keep buttoned up.  “Don’t lose the mittens.” I always lost the mittens.

Sparrows in a bush.

Sparrows in a bush.

After one bad storm, my mother wanted to keep us inside as much as possible.  “The wool has to dry,”  she said wildly.  She promised us all kinds of  rewards if we stayed home.  I remember one especially bad blizzard, reading one Nancy Drew book after another.  Every time I finished one, she sent my dad out to buy more. After a while, I had almost a complete set.

One night my dad couldn’t stand it.  There we were, playing exactly the same board games over and over.

“We’re going to a movie.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” my mother said.

“It’s okay out there.”

“It’s slippery.  It’s NOT safe.”

Another man and woman discussed a snowstorm.

But, as so often happens, she had no power.  And  she wouldn’t let him take us to a movie alone in this weather, so we all piled into the car. My dad drove badly on purpose, veering and sliding from one side to the other of the street, laughing.

Ha ha, we kids said.

My mother was worried.  “Stop it!”

I enjoyed the slipping, but saw her point of view.  I was beginning to think like a woman.  In other words, I was developing common sense.

We were the only people in the theater.  My mother made us take our coats off because she thought it was unhealthy to wear them  indoors. (I still think that when I see people in theaters sitting in their coats.)  We  had popcorn and Cokes.

There she was, a woman who hated snow, isolated in a cold theater with two children and a man.

The movie was very funny, and we were united again when we got home.

One day of a blizzard is just about all anyone can take.

Reading on the Number 6

“My e-reader is planning my future.”

Not possible, you say.

phineas-finn--anthony-trollope-paperback-cover-artPerhaps not, but it is reviving my ability to read long books in public.  I recently downloaded a free copy of Phineas Finn, the second novel in Anthony Trollope’s political Pallisers series, from to my e-reader.  At home I am reading Phineas Finn in a beautiful Oxford World’s Classics edition, but on the bus my e-reader is lightweight and a 700-page book is an invisible accessory to my stylish e-gadget.

I don’t like to be seen reading Victorian novels.  Odd, I know.  But  nobody reads Trollope anymore, except David Lodge, who recently wrote a piece for The Guardian on Trollope’s obscure SF novel, The Fixed Period; David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, who wrote about Phineas Finn in 2011; and a few dozen members of a Trollope discussion group at Yahoo, who are always happy to chat about ideals of High Victorianism.

Does it matter if anyone sees what I’m reading?

Yes, perhaps it does.  When everybody else is on his Blackberry, phone, or  other unidentifiable object, I don’t want to step up to the bat with a book, and, like the old woman in the zealously book-banned society of Fahrenheit 451, say, “Play the man, Master Ridley. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace as I trust shall never be put out.”

I prefer being seen in public reading the odd candy bar wrapper.

Actually, on this day of a Midwestern snowstorm, ten inches of snow make the streets impassable, branches, twigs, and wires are swathed in snow, and the buses won’t run till noon.  I am able to stay home and read my paperback.

I am in the world of Phineas Finn.

Phineas has made his maiden speech in Parliament.  It has not gone well.

Phineas Finn had sundry gifts, a powerful and pleasant voice, which he had learned to modulate, a handsome presence, and a certain natural mixture of modesty and self-reliance, which would certainly protect him from the faults of arrogance and pomposity, and which, perhaps, might carry him through the perils of his new position. …But he had not that gift of slow blood which on the former occasion would have enabled him to remember his prepared speech, and which would now have placed all his own resources within his reach.

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope

His friend Monk tells him his speech was nothing great, but was on a par with other maiden speeches.  Phineas is miserable.

Lady Laura and her friend Violet wonder if Phineas’s speech were as bad as Lord Brentford said it was.

On the bus later today we will not be in the world of Phineas Finn.   The few people who chat are not politicians.  They are often just out of prison or  recently converted to a gushy brand of Christianity. Those who read will read “the paper,” which has gone to hell since it fired and early-retired so many staff members, and they talk about what is in the paper that has gone to hell, and how much better it used to be.

Nobody is reading the Oprah book on the bus.  Perhaps they are reading it on their ereaders.

In general, reading on the Number 6 is a private affair.  We stick to newspapers and  e-books.

P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith

Leave-It-to-Psmith overlook

P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith saved my life.

It happened like this.

We were on vacation in the woods of Wisconsin.  I did not fish.   When fishing went on, I slept soundly, or if I woke up, I stayed indoors and read P. G. Wodehouse.

I left the cabin occasionally to walk the Birkie, slap bugs, and visit a fish museum. Then I slapped one too many bugs.  I got ill.

Imagine being rushed to the hospital with a puffy and infected ankle and clapped into the infectious disease ward.

Illness is mysterious.  Was it a spider bite?  Maybe. They didn’t know.   The edges of the bite were dark and necrotic.  The team of doctors couldn’t identify the infection.  They gave me X-rays, MRI, ultrasounds, blood tests, EEGs…

They gave me IVs; they tried different medications.  I tried to be brave, and then stopped being brave.  After a week, my arms were sore and bruised from IVs.  I argued with an intern on a weekend about the IV.  I was there so long they had finally put the needle in my hand.  There were no more veins.

“Change it NOW.  I’m in pain.”

“The only place left is the crook of your arm.  You won’t be able to bend it.”

“Fine.  Just change it.”

I was dazed and scared.  My arm ached, but anything was better than having the needle in my hand.

The nurses looked like aerobics instructors, bouncing into the room in white sneakers. I was disheveled in a pink bathrobe over scrubs, and  IV bags hung decoratively from my arm.  I would go out to the nurses’ station and say, “I can’t sleep.”  Finally they gave me Benadryl.

I got sicker and sicker.  I just lay there for days.  I couldn’t read my books.

Finally they gave me sleeping pills. And I got better from one of the medicines, though they never identified the illness.   And then a friend brought me P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith.

Leave It to Psmith Norton One day I was sitting up at dawn reading  Leave It to Psmith.  I had never read anything so funny.  It was astonishingly well-written, too.  I read it quickly and recovered in a day.  I SWEAR TO GOD.

If you’re not familiar with Wodehouse’s comedies, you must add them to your canon.  Tropes repeat, but never boringly:  in almost every novel there are cases of mistaken identity, impostors, thefts of jewelry or pigs, and accidental engagements. Wodehouse’s stock comic characters are stuck in an Edwardian, or possibly slightly later, time frame, where nothing very bad ever happens, but they never seem hackneyed.  Wodehouse’s pitch-perfect dialogue and flawless prose are mesmerizing.

The plot of Leave It to Psmith is very silly, thank God.  (I would not have liked to be “healed” at the hospital by something very serious.)  Lord Emsworth at Blandings Castle is concerned about his hollyhocks and roses, while his sister Connie insists on entertaining literary types.  She arranges for Lord Emsworth to meet McTodd, a Canadian poet scheduled to join them, and he sets off peevishly.

Here is an example of Wodehouse’s wit.

“He shuffled morosely.  It was a perpetual grievance of his, this practice of his sister’s of collecting literary celebrities and dumping them down in the home for  indeterminate visits.  You never knew when she was going to spring another on you.  already since the beginning of the year he had suffered from a round dozen of the species at brief intervals; and at this very moment his life was being poisoned by the fact that Blandings was sheltering a certain Miss Aileen Peavey, the mere thought of whom was enough to turn the sunshine off as with a tap.”

Meanwhile, Lord Emsworth’s son Freddy has hired, or tried to hire,  the clever Psmith, an upwardly mobile fishmonger-turned-jack-of-all-trades, to steal Aunt Connie’s diamond necklace for his uncle, who plans to give some money to his stepmother and to Freddy–it’s complicated. And Psmith, who falls in love with the young woman who has been hired to catalogue the Blandings library, decides to impersonate McTodd and…

Does that sound sufficiently silly?

Is it any wonder that it became one of my favorite books?

I asked the doctor, Did the reading help?  The doctor said it was hard to know how these things worked.

They found a medicine that worked.  They didn’t know what I had had to begin with.

May P. G. Wodehouse be read by all of us in need.

The Uptight Hipster: Christmas Lights

Christmas lights downtown in the 1950s or '60s.

Christmas lights downtown in the 1950s or ’60s.

It’s cold.  It’s winter.  I want to stay indoors.  I want to drink cocoa in front of the fireplace with my jolly family.

But I am already dressed for the outdoors, so I must go.  I wear an all-purpose wool sweater that resembles a llama.

It is getting dark.

Did you forget your shoes?

Slip into the fleece-lined slippers that double as shoes.

The Rolling Stones are singing “Winter” on my iPod.

The Christmas lights in my neighborhood are already on at 4:30.  The scene is stark: bare trees, chunks of icy snow under the evergreens, and a pink-orange sunset as faraway as outer space. The lights are the only sign of softness.  When I walk around the block, I see 25 decorated houses.  Lights twinkle from roofs, trees and bushes.  Tacky lit-up creches, LED sleighs, reindeer, and window menorahs glimmer.

I miss the bleakness. The bleakness is kind of pretty.

I don’t approve of Christmas lights. I am an uptight hipster, not as oxymoronic as it sounds, who doesn’t do drugs or concerts but who cares about energy conservation. The lights waste energy.  The greenhouse gas emissions are huge. I read that each bulb on holiday lights produces enough carbon monoxide to fill 15,500 hot air balloons.

So what are my neighbors thinking?

LED lights are supposed to be more eco-friendly.  Are my neighbors using LED lights?

I can go door-to-door and say, I wish you a Merry Christmas, I wish you a Merry Christmas, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and do you use LED?

Uh huh.

At least they're LED.

At least they’re LED.

People have different attitudes towards Christmas lights in different neighborhoods.  Poor?  No lights when we lived in a neighborhood of mostly run-down houses.  Urban apartment house?  No lights, except indoors.   Working-class?    Bright bright lights, Santas, sleighs, reindeer in a competitive neighborhood trying to design the best displays.  Wow!  I want to go back there and take pictures.  Middle-class urban neighborhood & Suburbs?  Very subdued, mostly very pretty, as if in church, only a few fright shows of explosive high wattage.

Why do I think so much about lights?  I sit in front of my computer under low-energy light bulbs that don’t emit enough light.  Soon, I understand, we will not be able to get the bright old-fashioned kind.  I feel that I am being deprived of good light for the sake of an invention that isn’t quite good enough.  Perhaps this is how people feel about Christmas lights

The Rolling Stones mention Christmas lights in “Winter”:

And I wish I’d been out in California
When the lights on all the Christmas trees went out
But I been burnin’ my bell, book and candle
And the restoration plays have all gone ’round

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

And W. S. Di Piero describes them in “Chicago and December”:

I walk north across  
the river, Christmas lights  
crushed on skyscraper glass,  
bling stringing Michigan Ave.,  
sunlight’s last-gasp sighing  
through the artless fog.  

W. S. Di Piero

W. S. Di Piero

They fascinate us with their different rhythms and ways  of thinking about lights.

In the end we have to accept the lights. It’s Christmas.

Friendly Persuasion: Why It’s Okay to Have an E-Reader

Photo by Sarah Mackinnon; GETTY IMAGES

Photo by Sarah Mackinnon

On a recent journey, I was much occupied with my new e-reader.   Like many of us in the electronic age, I spend as much time with “e”-things as I do with human beings. My e-reader feels like my friend.  It is basically a small computer that supplies me with infinite choices of books; allows me to open my email and surf the web; plays music; and provides me with crossword puzzles. It is tactile.  I have my hands all over the screen every day.  I tap, click and drag, swipe, and read.

I told everyone recently that I didn’t need a new one.   “What do we need with all this new electronic crap?” I was haunted by images of e-waste I saw in a 60 Minutes story in 2008:  computers, phones and other electronic devices burning  in a dump in China where old computers and other electronic devices were sent to be “recycled.” One expert told Scott Pelley that these devices leak toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chloride.

I was horrified.  I want to make my e-things last.

But then my e-reader broke, and I had to replace it.  Call it Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony Reader: all of them are genies.

On Saturday, while my driver listened to Bob Dylan on the radio, I clicked on my e-reader and looked at the screen.  My device informed me that the temp was 36 degrees, and that on the basis of  recent library activity, which it semi-literately refers to as “picked for you based on recent library activity,” I might enjoy James Salter’s Burning the Days or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

I am indulgent of my e-reader’s faults, such as recommending books I already have, like Smith’s book, one of my favorite novels.  It is like having an encounter with a bookseller.  I might appreciate Burning the Days.

Suddenly the  screen dulled to gray because of the glare.  At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. Then I realized, “It’s so smart! It’s making it easier for me to read.”

Here is a short digression about my reading.   You probably think I was reading Disraeli’s Sibyl, or some other obscure 19th-century text available for download free from Project Gutenberg.

drowning-girl-caitlin-r-kiernan-paperback-cover-artNo, I was reading a new book I could just as easily have found at a bookstore:  Caitlin R. Kiernan’s strange, lyrical, fantasy-cum-psychological novel, The Drowning Girl.

Did I feel guilty that I hadn’t bought the paperback?  Not on the journey.  I was too fascinated by the poetic voice of the heroine, Imp, who is schizophrenic, like her mother, grandmother, and great-aunt, and who is writing a ghost story, about ghosts of mermaids and wolves.

She says:  “Sure, I’m a crazy woman, and I have to take pills I can’t really afford to stay out of hospitals, but I still see ghosts everywhere I look, when I look, because once you start seeing them, you can’t ever stop seeing them.”

I was guilt-free about my e-reader until we arrived in Iowa City and browsed at independent bookstores.  Why wasn’t I supporting Murphy-Brookfield Books, Prairie Lights, or Iowa Book & Supply?  Well, they’re too far from home.  I order books online,  books or e-books, because they are not available at physical bookstores in my city, where at least 12 independent bookstores have closed since the ‘90s.

Murphy-Brookfield Books

Back in the car, after buying a book, I immediately loved my e-reader again.  THE SCREEN LIGHTS UP IN THE DARK. I could read my e-book in the car.  I had to wait to read my paperback till I got home.

E-readers have their disadvantages.  At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a study tells us that most e-readers have the capacity to track our searches and monitor our reading habits.  We mostly ignore that.

Lulling us with e-readers and computers, encouraging us to post our thoughts on Facebook,  Twitter, and e-mail, is fun for us, but great for surveillance, should it come to that, and provides employers with data to fire employees or information for divorce lawyers to prevail in court. In a strange kind of way, it also prepares us for the apocalypse, not Triffids, as in my favorite science fiction book, The Day of the Triffids, but perhaps for The Day of Climate Change.  We are indoors so much–except in Kindle ads–that we should be less panicky if it comes to the point where we can’t go outdoors.

Meanwhile, our e-devices are our friends. My e-reader is a female friend.  Does anyone else have a feeling like that?   And we sincerely hope our e-things will never jeopardize us.

Carpe diem while we can!