Pills & This Is Dedicated to My Mom

idolatrysticker black fridayI do not shop on Black Friday.  I get depressed after Thanksgiving and stay that way till after Christmas.  It’s partly the holidays, but it’s more the dark and cold.

This is the season when, if you have pills, take them.  If you don’t have them, get them.

You can buy St. John’s Wort and other alternative antidepressants at the health food store. Or you can get prescription drugs.  As far as I can tell, anybody can get prescription antidepressants.  One tenth of adults in the U.S. take antidepressants, according to the CDC.

The holiday depression is partly because of my mother’s recent death.

Mom and me.

Mom and me.

Last year I bought her a tall hideous stuffed snowman at Walgreen’s, the kind of thing she very much liked.  My sibling moved it into a corner out of sight.  “He said it might catch on fire from the radiator,” my mother said.  We both laughed very hard.

Poor Mom.

Poor me.

The truth is I didn’t see enough of her.  Every time I went to the nursing home I came home and bathed, washed my hair, and washed all my clothes because it stank.  Doris Lessing writes of the smell of incontinence and old age in Diary of a Good Neighbor.  She writes,

 I was full of revulsion.  The sour, dirty smell was in my clothes and in my hair.  I bathed and washed my hair and did myself up…

I knew exactly what she was talking about.

So I was a good enough daughter, but not good enough if you know what I mean.

In many ways, my mother was the last person who loved me. I don’t mean  “likes,” but actually loves.   Mothers may dislike us as young women, but they approve of us after a certain age.  We wearily look each other over and know who is who, what is what.

Unlike me, she made very good Christmases.  “Gifts are fun.”  One year she gave me a beautiful patent leather billfold. “Where did you get that?” everyone asks.   And before her house was dismantled, I found two boxes with the same billfold, bought for and rejected by her grandchildren. It was one of her many sorrows, that she couldn’t give them anything they liked.

For years she sent me warm clothes–some I couldn’t possibly wear, like the white sweater with the faux fur collar–but the meaning was M-o-m  l-o-o-o-v-v-v-es  K-a-t-h-y!  So you’ll still see me in the fleece jacket with the reindeer design.  No, I wouldn’t have bought it for myself!

Stay married, she always advised during the holiday season. (She got divorced the week before Christmas, poor woman.)  You don’t want to break up over Christmas.  No, indeed.  But it can be a slippery slope:  your mate may turn into a serpent, a Minotaur, a griffin, or far worse. He won’t be giving you a patent leather billfold or a white sweater with a faux fur collar, now will he?  (And now let me put several emoticons here so you won’t take me too seriously:  🙂 🙂 🙂 )

Just listen to a LOT of rock music over the holidays because it makes everything easier.  Although I can’t say “Because the Night,” written by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, is appropriate for the season, it should distract everyone and put him or her in a more affectionate mood.

Here is a video version with Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe.  Totally different styles, but it’s great to see them together.   Intense  Springsteen and his band do what I call “the Trojan horse” movements onstage.  (It always looks to me as if rock bands are forming a horse; don’t ask me why.)  Stipe has a different elegance.  I love Bruce’s sweat and Stipes’ dancing!

Steve Yarbrough’s Safe from the Neighbors

safe-from-the-neighbors-steve yarbrough

You have to understand that Loring, Mississippi, isn’t the kind of town people come back to, for any reason whatsoever.  It is, in fact, the kind they leave.  Very few of those I grew up with are still here…”–Steve Yarbrough’s Safe from the Neighbors

Steve Yarbrough’s Safe from the Neighbors is one of my favorite novels this year.

It is set in Loring, Mississippi, where his novel The End of California takes place.  Yarbrough, the son of Mississippi Delta farmers and now a professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College, creates a vivid, fully-realized small Southern town that will remind us of other small towns in the U.S.

In Safe from the Neighbors, the narrator, Luke May, is a historian and a high school history teacher.  He has tried to write, then abandoned, a book about a racial incident at the turn of the last century that caused Theodore Roosevelt to shut down the post office in Loring. He is also obsessed with the year 1962, when James Meredith was the first African-American to be admitted at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi); and Nadine, the sexy mother of his friend Maggie Calloway, was shot by her husband.

Although Luke likes teaching, he is in a limbo period of his life: his marriage to Jennifer, a poet, has  soured.  Yarbrough’s descriptions of marriage are hyper-realistic.  While their twin daughters were growing up, Luke and Jennifer gradually ceased to make love.  Now that the twins have gone to college, the marriage is still asexual.  He observes,

I imagine similar circumstances prevail for many married couples, though it’s hard to say because people don’t talk about this subject unless sitting across a desk from somebody getting paid one hundred seventy-five dollar an hour to listen sympathetically and nod every thirty seconds.

Yarbrough often describes disillusionment with marriage.   Sometimes marriages in his novels survive affairs, sometimes they don’t.  In The Realm of Last Chances and The End of California, characters have affairs with varying results.  In this novel the affair is tangled up with history.

When Luke’s old friend Maggie, now a widow, returns to Loring and works as a French teacher, it is not surprising that they have an affair. (The workplace is fraught with affairs, isn’t it?)  He’d always loved her mother, Nadine, a tall former high school basketball star who hugged him and told him not to mess with her in athletics:  she’d always win.  Although Maggie’s father Arlan was arrested for killing Nadine, he was never indicted.

And so Luke is astonished that Maggie has moved back. He and Maggie mesh sexually:  she tells him no one has made her feel that way except her late husband.  And he tells her that he has never made anyone feel that way.

But you can’t have an affair in a small town.  He doesn’t want to get caught.

The novel is also about history.  Luke is haunted by his memories of a 1960s childhood;  he conducts interviews to learn what really happened in 1962.  His father, a farmer who later maintained school buses, was peripherally involved with Arlan Calloway in wanting to protest the desegregation of Ole Miss; Arlan takes a gun.  Luke also learns the cause of the murder of Nadine Calloway.

I love contemporary novels filled with domestic details and descriptions of work.  It is no coincidence that four of the six books on my Best of 2013 list (see sidebar) deal with modern life: the other two are a history/memoir about Cleopatra and a counter-factual novel. I read mainly older books, and I have a possibly inaccurate impression that most contemporary novelists are busy writing blockbuster historical novels:  Wolf Hall, The Luminaries, Parrott and Olivier in America, Arthur and George, TransAtlantic, etc. These are mostly very good, but I read them with a different part of my brain.

Yarbrough is one of my favorites authors of the year.  I have also written about his novels The Realm of Last Chances and The End of Calfornia.  I also interviewed him here.

Icarus, Favorite Bookstores, & London or Austin?

There’s a problem, feathers, iron
Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys
Feathers hit the ground
Before the weight can leave the air–R.E.M. “Fall on Me”

"The Fall of Icarus," Marc Chagall

“The Fall of Icarus,” Marc Chagall

There is that Icarus feeling when one gets on a plane.

Will it stay up?

Do I care?

It’s so fast.  If it crashed, it would be fast.

I want to stay up in the air, but it is worth the risk to leave home.

Do you also love that feeling of leaving?

I praise my city where there is nothing to do–it’s probably the way we are meant to live–but it is also good to go somewhere and do something.

And so I flew to Washington, D.C., where I used to live, a dowdy, political city, but supportive of the arts.

Daedalus made wings to escape the tyrant Minos.  In Horace Gregory’s translation:

“The skies are open:  my direction’s clear.
Though he commands all else on earth below
His tyranny does not control the air.”

The wings are made of feathers, wax, and cord.

Icarus’ wings melted in the sun.

My hands are burned-lined-and-puckered, a different kind of burn, from years of bicycling in the sun.

It is not the bicycling time of year.

It is the flying time of year.

I took a long walk this afternoon to distract myself from the holidays.  The baristas at the coffeehouse were busy.  The coffee kept me warm on my walk, but I was sorry they had to work.

I am plotting my next vacation, my next flight.  Where next?  London or Austin, Texas?

I  would love to fly to London and walk Dickens’ streets.  Didn’t he walk 10 miles a day?  I also want to find myself in a ’30s or ’40s English novel, perhaps by Aldous Huxley, Norman Collins, or Elizabeth Bowen.  Do you think it’s too late?  I rather suspect so!  But I don’t mind modernity.  And there are bookstores, are there not?  (And, yes, I like museums, etc.)

Austin is a gorgeous university town and the capital of Texas. Beautiful city! Great restaurants and clubs.  I spent a weekend there once.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go there in the spring when there is still snow here in the Midwest?  There used to be bookstores; I’m not sure if there are anymore.

Please let me know your favorite cities, because I do like the urban life occasionally.

And your favorite bookstores, because the shopping season is here.

My  favorite bookstores in the Midwest (both used):  Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha and Murphy-Brookfield Books in Iowa City.

You may not be coming to this area soon, but if you do…

We’ll have coffee.

And here is another stanza from the great R.E.M. song, “Fall on Me,” and the video.

There’s the progress
We have found a way to talk around the problem
Building towers
Foresight isn’t anything at all

Happy Thanksgiving

Black Friday:  My idea of hell.

Black Friday: My idea of hell.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

Turkey and dressing: no stress.

Family or no family: no stress.

It’s an excuse to eat.

This year I wish I’d gone to Missouri.

My cousins are gathering there.  They are very smart, but few are conventional.  They experimented, they pushed boundaries, they dropped out, and waited till their thirties to finish college and get regular jobs.  Although I consider myself unconventional, my life really took a predictable trajectory. I was (almost) on time finishing school and getting jobs.

One side of the family is very straight; the other side is creative. Give me the creative side any day.  Show me a manic vet on psychiatric drugs and I’ll show you someone who will make you laugh.  Oh, sure, they’ve got problems, but they make jokes at funerals, tell funny stories about Viet Nam (the only funny stories about Viet Nam you’ll ever hear), and have a good attitude toward a life that was obviously derailed by the military.

And the wonderful women in my family are the steady workers.   If these brilliant gals weren’t favored by big corporations or other good-paying employers, it’s because they’re female or didn’t have the connections.

But there’s the family clash:  your husband doesn’t care for your relentlessly unsuccessful relatives, and you find his family a little dry and by-the-book.

So this holiday we’re home.

I turned on the TV while we ate supper.

I had forgotten all about Black Friday.

Don’t shop.  That’s really the best idea.

I spent so much money in Washington, D.C., that I won’t give presents this year.

But if you want to shop on Black Friday, you should shop for books.

You can read various Best Books of the Year lists to get ready for a day of shopping.

Here are links to some good lists, though they tend to be too long.

The Guardian:  Too long, in my opinion.  Did I really count 39 writers’ suggestions?  More likely 40, don’t you think?  I couldn’t make myself go through them.

The TLS:  Recommendations by 27 writers, including my favorite, Margaret Drabble.  This is part of a longer piece to be published on Friday.  Naturally I read only the bits by writers I know.

The New York Times:  100 Notable Books of the Year (way, way too long).  They haven’t published their best of the year yet.

Amazon’s Best Books of 2013 and Amazon’s Best Books of the Year Celebrity Picks.  I skimmed the list:  Amazon has good taste.  Then I looked at the Celeb list and asked, Do I care what Julianne Moore recommends?  Well, she was one of my mother’s favorite actresses, and turns out she and I both like Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.

Barnes and Noble’s Best Books of 2013:  I haven’t actually looked at this.

I won’t make up my list till the end of the year, but my favorite new books of 2013 are:

Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra

Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings

D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction

Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms

Susan Choi’s My Education

I’ve written about all of these on my blog, but am too tired to give you the links!

What to Read on a Plane, or Which Pocket?


Which pocket?

I don’t travel much, but when I do I travel light.

So after I packed a couple of turtlenecks and a cozy sweatshirt/pajamas ensemble that I WOULD wear down to the hotel lobby when I couldn’t get the WiFi to work, I decided what to read on the plane.

The Nook was probably all I needed.

But what if the Nook broke?

“Maybe I should take this book?  Or that book?”  I asked my husband.

He didn’t know what I would like to read on the plane.

I have a big bag with many pockets.  I finally packed a mystery by Canadian writer Louise Penny, Still Life.

And I packed a Dorothy Sayers.

And I brought Cicero’s De Senectute (About Old Age), a Latin text with vocabulary and notes, because I know from experience that if pills (my first choice) fail Cicero WILL put me to sleep.

What I didn’t count on was reading Cicero on the plane.

Here’s what happened.

I was very bookish for four hours when a plane was delayed.

Then I got on two planes and read through the short flights.


What I read on my Nook.

In Washington, D.C.,  I was busy with my friend Ellen going to the Kennedy Center, the Folger Theater, and the National Gallery.  At night I blogged and read Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City on my Nook.

But on the way home I suddenly needed a mystery.

I needed it because I didn’t want to talk to my seatmate.

Do you have “grandkids?” This woman did.  If you do, please SHUT UP about it on the plane.  We’re bored, we’re Zero Population Growth, and we can tell from the sound of your voice that you’re bored, too.

Looking at the woman, who was probably my age, I thought, Oh no, TELL me you didn’t spend your vacation babysitting.

You’re in the prime of life.

For God’s sake, just go to Washington, D.C., New York,  or even Anchorage, Alaska.

No, she had flown to a faraway city so she could babysit for her children so they could go somewhere.

She sounded desperate. And so sad.

She might have been my friend under other circumstances.

But I was really tired.

And so I refrained from chat.

I reached for my mystery.

I knew what pocket it was in.

I could only find Cicero.

The mystery had sunk down to a pocket within a pocket.

And so I read Cicero.

Yup.  Flipping back to the notes and the glossary.

Cicero de senectuteCicero wrote this philosophical work in 44 or 45 B.C., and dedicated it  to his famous friend Atticus.  In the “dialogue,” Cato the Elder tells Scipio and Laelius that old age isn’t so bad.  He’s Stoic about it.

He tells them, “For to those who have no resources to live well and happily, every age is heavy.  But nothing that the law of nature brings can seem bad to those who seek all good things in themselves.” (Quibus enim nihil est in ipsis opis ad bene beateque vivendum, eis omnis aetas gravis est; qui autem omnia bona a se ipsi petunt, eis nihil potest malum videri, quod naturae necessitas afferat.)

It did make me feel better.

It was calming.

I’m not quite old yet, but soon.

And so I have time to do everything I still want to do.

Not that I have a list.

But I do seek the good in myself.

By the way, it’s LIVE LIKE A STOIC WEEK.  Go to the website for directions and read the Stoic Handbook.  I intend to read something by a Stoic later this week and post about it.

Maybe on Thanksgiving!

In Pious Memory margery sharpTHE BOOK I SHOULD HAVE BROUGHT ON THE PLANE:  In Margery Sharp’s light comedy, In Pious Memory, Mrs. Prelude, the wife of a famous financier, survives a plane crash, but her husband does not.  Later, she is unsure if she has correctly identified his body; and she and her youngest daughter, Lydia, fantasize that he is still alive.  Lydia and her cousin set off on a bicycle trip to look for her father in France.  It is funny, though a bit Disneyish.  Perfect plane reading. Not very good, but entertaining.


Washington, D.C.: Music, Art, & Money

National Gallery of Art

National Gallery of Art

I spent three days in Washington, D.C.

I visited my kind friend Ellen.

I love the feeling of city streets.

Long ago, when I lived in D.C., my haunts were Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe at Dupont Circle, The National Gallery, The Freer Museum, Safeway (my daily destination after work, naturally), and 10K races. In those days I thought Washington a very dowdy city, but now it seems glam beyond my wildest dreams.

Ellen and I did enough to last me a year (and it will have to, as I live in a city where there is nothing to do–though that has its own virtues). We enjoyed a Classical Master Session at the American Voices festival at the Kennedy Center, where Eric Owens, an opera singer, coached young singers and almost brought them up to professional level when he told them not to sing like opera singers.

It made me think not of opera, but of rock (yes, that is more my medium):  R.E.M.’s “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)”

Your Achilles heel
Is a tendency
To dream
But you’ve know that from the beginning
You didn’t have to go so far
You didn’t have to go.

Then, at the Millennium Stage at Kennedy Center, it was moving to see the enthusiastic Washingtonians lined up in their warm coats to attend a free concert of opera and blues on a first-come, first-serve seating basis.  I very much liked Afro Blue, Howard University’s jazz ensemble, who  sang “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street

Now let me critique the one event that was in my line of expertise.

It is an exhibit is at the National Gallery: From the Library:  The Transformation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Alas, as soon as you walk into the tiny almost-corridor space, you realize that the curator doesn’t know Ovid.  The books on display are, inexplicably, translations in Italian, French, and German–none in English, oddly, if that’s the route he/she is taking–and only one in the original Latin.  Clearly he/she did not understand that the Latin text of Ovid was widely read from the Middle Ages through the beginning of the 20th century, not only by scholars and schoolboys, but by brilliant writers like Chaucer, Petrarch, Thomas More, Marlowe, Marvell, Erasmus, Milton, and Pope.  In fact, Marlowe, Dryden, Pope, and Joseph Addison all translated Ovid.  Many European writers wrote not only in their own language but in Latin, or exclusively in Latin:  Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, some of Milton’s poems, and Thomas More’s Utopia were written in Latin).

I left a nose print on the glass case as I squinted at the one Latin edition of Ovid I saw, with a commentary by Thomas Farnaby, published in 1637.

Thank you, Guard, for not warning me to step away from the case.  (When I got too closed to the scroll of Kerouac’s On the Road at the University of Iowa Art Museum, I had to step away from the case–slowly–no, I’m kidding about the “slowly.”)

There are a couple of nice engravings and a lithograph by Braque of Phaethon, but it’s really just a very few books in a very few glass cases.

And scholars’ heads will spin if they read the brochure.  The “Selected Reading” was apparently chosen at random by a person with moxie whose boss fortunately knew nothing about Ovid. Recommended is a 1955 Penguin edition of a prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Mary M. Innes (why the 1955 edition? when there are so many brilliant poetic translations); and a random article that does not apply to the exhibit;  and a book that barely applies.

Have I trashed this enough?

I think so!

I love the National Gallery, but skip this exhibit.

I very much enjoyed the Impressionist paintings, and we admired the 19th-century photographs of Paris by Charles Marville.

I’d love to live in D.C., but every time you leave the building you spend $10—and then $10 more–and then $20 or $30 more–and then maybe $50 more–and then your Metro card gets mysteriously demagnetized and the guard has to let you through the gates because frankly you’re out of money.

For those of you who read about my harrowing flight to Washington (here), let me say that flying home was great.  I was pre-approved.  Yes, I got to WALTZ through security with only an ID card.

It’s the way to go.

Fresh Ingredients, Mouse News, & Mollie Katzen’s The Heart of the Plate

It was late at night.

A friend had left something in a restaurant. I banged at the door, and an employee kindly let me in to retrieve the item.  It was a pleasant place, the food was good, and I enjoyed the calm after-hours ambiance.

Then I saw something.

The mouse wasn't quite this cute.

The mouse wasn’t quite this cute.

About fifteen feet away a mouse scuttled across the floor.

I’m not afraid of mice.  I was startled to see a mouse.

It paused under a table.

It wasn’t afraid of me.

I pretended I didn’t see it.

I said nothing about it.

The restaurant is clean.  It is in an old building, and I would not be surprised if there are mice in many of these old buildings.  Your favorite restaurant has probably seen a mouse or two.

I was from out of town.

I am not the health department.

Yes, vermin can be a serious problem.

But I’m quite sure they swab the place down–it looked very clean that night–and they don’t leave food out on the counter for the mouse.

I have a lot of empathy for restaurateurs. The restaurant business is tough enough without some out-of-towner’s reporting a mouse problem (and if you’re going to report it, report it to the restaurateur first.  Give him/her a chance.).  It is estimated that 60-80% of new restaurants go out of business in five years.

In my freelance-writing days,  I was not concerned with mouse-reporting or reviewing.  It was the food industry per se.

What is/was happening at McDonald’s?  Are/were sales flat?

Yes, they are/were.

What is the secret of every top chef in the country?

“Always use fresh ingredients.”

What are people eating on Thanksgiving?

Nineteen percent of Americans plan to purchase prepared items from a grocery store or retailer this year, 6% said they would use a restaurant or caterer, and 4% plan to use both, according to Food Business News.

I was not critiquing food, but oddly many people didn’t notice that.  I had a very hard time explaining that I was writing the “Who? What? Where? Why?”, and not the “How good?”  Somehow, God knows how, the word got out among restaurateurs that I was writing about “food.”  Once a chef presented me with a rich chocolate dessert gratis, and I was unhappy about it. Take free gifts and you’re not much of a journalist.  But you can hardly be rude when somebody makes you a present in front of other diners, and I suppose I must have written something about him somewhere, if not actually about the dessert.

Anyway, I was freelance.

A freelancer recently approached a friend and me.

As usual, his/her story was a tortuous one that made no sense–talk of The Washington Post, followed by the admission that she/he wrote for a website–that is always the tale of a freelancer.

And  his/her business card was a little scatty.

My freelancer friends and I always hilariously had strange homemade-looking business cards.

If we had cards at all.

When I said I was writing for so-and-so, they always wondered why I didn’t have a card.

Because I was freelance, I explained.

Well, I’m not Lesley Stahl!

I no longer write about the food industry.

I rarely eat out these days.  One reaches an age when one wants good healthy food at home.  I do not particularly like to cook, but I spend a lot of time chopping fresh vegetables and cooking so we can avoid the high sodium and chemicals in prepared foods.  Fresh ingredients are the secret of good cooking.  Go to Whole Foods, get organic vegetables, some fresh pasta, and you have a meal.

HeartofthePlate by Mollie KatzenMollie Katzen’s new cookbook, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation, is remarkably good.  We have been eating many roasted vegetables lately:  a favorite of ours is her roasted cauliflower with cheese.

Here is the recipe

Cheese-Crusted Roasted Cauliflower
Makes 4 servings

Cauliflower offers the broadest textural range of just about any vegetable. When spanking fresh, it’s delightful raw: Its crunchy white puffballs make satisfying crudités. And at the other extreme, cauliflower is also brilliant when boiled to oblivion and mashed. In this recipe, the high-temperature roasting process allows the cauliflower to become simultaneously fork-tender and chewy, with delicately crisp surface points (helped along greatly by the cheese) surprising you at random.

The roasted cauliflower will keep for up to 5 days in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator and will reheat beautifully.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium head cauliflower (about 2 pounds), trimmed and broken or cut into 3/4-inch pieces
2 cups minced onion (1 large)
¼ cup grated Italian fontina or sharp cheddar or shredded Parmesan, or more to taste
¼ teaspoon salt
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400, with a rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil and slick it with the olive oil. (You can use a chunk of cauliflower to spread it around.)
Arrange the cauliflower pieces on the sheet and sprinkle them with the minced onion. Roast for 15 minutes, then shake the baking sheet and/or use tongs to loosen and redistribute the pieces—gently, so they won’t pop off the baking sheet.

Roast for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the cauliflower is becoming uniformly golden, then push everything together in the center of the baking sheet, keeping it a single layer. Sprinkle evenly with the cheese.

Roast for 10 or so minutes longer, or until the cheese is thoroughly melted, forming an irresistible golden crust. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and season with the salt and pepper. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Optional Enhancements:

Roast a sliced carrot along with the cauliflower. Try this same process using broccoli instead of, or in addition to, the cauliflower. Sprinkle some toasted bread crumbs over the cauliflower after it comes out of the oven.


kennedy_center_jfk_bust_frontPeople were snapping pictures of Robert Berks’  bust of John F. Kennedy at the Kennedy Center.

I stood in the lobby.  I was there for a concert.  I was not thinking about JFK. I was thinking in a desultory way about opera.  I do not admire this bust.  I would not have photographed it if I’d had my camera.

But today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of  John F. Kennedy.

A very sad day for our country.

There is a bit of the conspiracy theory paranoia in me, as in many Americans.  The assassination often seemed the beginning of the slow, deliberate destruction of the liberal Kennedy dynasty.  Robert assassinated five years later.  Ted’s reputation wrecked, though he survived to be a champion of social programs. And then John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death in the small plane.  (Count the Democrats killed in small planes and…remember Paul Wellstone?)

Okay, that’s quite enough of that!

Now, understand, I am not Kennedy-obsessed.

But my family was proud of the first Catholic president.  We were sent home from school early on Nov. 22, and we simply could not believe he had been killed.  It was a confusing time of watching black-and-white TV in what seemed to me to be a darkened room.  And then going around the block to my friends’ house to play on the porch with Sugar and Spike paper dolls:  we cut the pictures of Sugar and Spike from our comic books and glued them on cardboard.

And I actually had Jackie and Caroline paper dolls.  (Expensive ones that my mother bought me.)

As children we were fascinated by Jackie and her children.

I never thought John F. Kennedy was handsome.  Sorry.

And honestly?  I don’t remember my memories very well.  I do not feel anything sharp when I think about that day.  I was too young.

I am reading Minae Mizumura’s gorgeous novel, A True Novel, and this paragraph sums up what I feel about these very old memories.

These are my memories, but they just don’t seem like mine.  The sensations remain vivid, as if engraved on me, but…how shall I put it?  I feel my mind has changed so much that they’re no longer part of who I am now.  I can see no link between the world of my childhood and my adult life.

The Zipless

Have you flown recently?



I don’t mind flying.

I don’t fear flying.

I love flying.

Get in a plane and FLY.

It’s quicker than driving.

But when I flew recently, it was not at all fast.

zippersLike Isadora Wing in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, you are always looking for the zipless…but not her kind of zipless.  You are looking for the zipless flight.

You get to the airport a couple of hours early.

You take off your shoes, put your laptop in a bin, probably a few other things you’ve forgotten, and four ziplock bags of samples of shampoo, toothpaste, etc.   You see someone else throwing ziplocks into the bin so YOU throw your ziplocks in.

Only one of them belongs there, the guard says.  The one with the mouthwash.

Why mouthwash?

So you quickly throw the other ziplocks back in your bag.

You don’t have any gels or hairspray.  You thought that was the problem.

Naturally, they don’t want people doing their hair on the plane.

After you are cleared by security, you wander off to some nonexistent zone because you misread your gate number and huh…it’s just not there.

Finally you find the right gate number.

Then they change the gate number.

Then you all move, and then you sit down, and you can’t find your e-reader  because your new bag is far from zipless…Zip, unzip, zip.  Too many pockets.

Everybody else is pulling phones and laptops out of zipper bags and presumably going online.

Your tablet won’t go online.

The plane is late.

Then the plane is so late that you have to reschedule your connection.

At the next airport everything is well-marked, and you happily get to your gate, but there are no passengers.

You ask the woman behind the counter if you are in the right place.

Yes, barely in time…

You drag your bag onto the plane.

And there is no place to put it.

So finally a place is found far, far from your seat.

And then when you arrive, your phone doesn’t work.

And then you lose your phone.

Yes, it’s in one of the pockets.

You’ll find it days later.

It’s zipless!

Quo Vadis?

wheelock7_frontcoverA few years ago, I taught an adult education Latin class.  The group was eclectic.

Some had taken Latin in high school. Some wanted to take it “before they died.”   Others  were there to meet people.  One week a young woman popped in who clearly was the lonely new Latin teacher from the suburban public school.  Her tattered Wheelock (the textbook) had obviously seen much use, but she declined to participate:  “I’ve never been much good at sight-reading,” she said.  Perhaps she was self-conscious; at any rate, she never came back.  Essentially we were too ancient for her.  It must have shocked her to come into the classroom and see not her peers, but a group of people with gray hair.  (And she quit her job at the end of the year.  I was not surprised.)

Adult ed classes have a dynamic all their own. It is not college.  It is after-work school.  It is, We’re out of the house; let’s make the most of it!  This group was very friendly.  They liked to chat.  They liked digressions.  Some of them had no idea of English grammar at all. My plan to cover two chapters a week of Wheelock proved untenable.

I soon realized what was going through my students’ heads was rarely going through mine.

Some were very religious and remembered the Latin Mass.  When a student asked what “Quo vadis?” meant, I gamely translated it, “Where are you going?” and knew it was a title of a historical novel and a movie.  I did not, however, realize there was a scene where the disciple Peter asks Jesus the”Quo vadis?” question.   Fortunately the ensuing critique of Peter Ustinov’s and Deborah Kerr’s acting did not take a theological turn.

Then there were the amateur military historians.   “Ah, yes, good old Vercingetorix,” I would say absent-mindedly as they chatted about the Helvetii.  Though bored by maps of battles, I was perfectly happy to translate Caesar for them after class.

I’m a nice woman who likes Latin poetry.  If you’re going to read Latin in translation, I assure you that Virgil, Catullus, and Ovid are more fun to read than Caesar.

One can’t read much poetry when a Latin class meets for only two hours once a week, though. One has to teach the language.   “I can’t get my head around the ablative,” they would say.  “Oh, yes, you can,” I would say right back at them.  We covered some basic grammar and vocabulary, and  translated  passages from Virgil with the help of reams of worksheets I spent hours making.

Some of us went on together for a couple of years.  The sad thing about teaching older people is that you lose them.  Two got very sick.  One had a heart attack in the classroom.  (The EMS squad was great and rescued him.)  Another died.

Sometimes I think I should offer the class again, because Latin programs have folded like dominoes in the U.S.  State universities still offer classics, and a good thing, too, because without us hoi polloi state university classics graduates, who would teach the students at eastern private schools that blessedly still offer Latin (and Greek)?  The oligarchy would not thrive.

Teaching Ovid in the Big Glasses era. (Yes, I allowed them to put their feet up...but only if they did their homework!)

At an Ovid gig in the Big Glasses era.

Many years ago my friends and I got our M.A.’s in classics and almost died of boredom teaching conjugations, declensions, and, yes, even Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil in private schools.  It wasn’t the students:  it was a question of over-work and endless repetition.

I know lot of silly mnemonics from teaching:

bo bi bi, bi bi bu, future sign in 1 and 2

I was big on chanting conjugation endings.

-o, -s, -t,
-mus, -tis, -nt

Chant, repeat, learn.

Most of us lasted a couple of years.  I taught for five, not counting various part-time and substitution gigs.  The money was terrible at private schools, we had four preparations, and taught five 50-minute classes five days a week.  At the public schools, one was required to know very little Latin–only three college Latin classes were required in one state–but many education classes were required. No one who actually knew Latin seemed qualified to teach in public schools.  You could have a Ph.D. in classics, but you could not get the good-paying public school job.  (No wonder the Latin programs in public schools have folded.)

According to the The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, approximately one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years.  Of course these statistics apply to the public schools, but the turnover is also very high at independent schools.  Certainly these stats sound right as far as the small group I know.  Only one old friend is still teaching Latin.

So many talented teachers simply can’t hack it.

Occasionally one reads about a Latin renaissance in the U.S., but it usually amounts to very little.  A school here or there adds a program.  Yet Latin is essential. It is the template for our literature.   One studies Latin to read the poets.  Or to learn about oneself, because that kind of discipline takes you into a zen state that almost makes you feel as though you’re in ancient Rome.  (Oh, and, by the way, more than 60% of English words come from Latin.)

If one is to judge from the TLS, there is a classics renaissance in England.  Mary Beard, classicist, Cambridge professor, and author of a new book, Confronting the Classics:  Traditions, Adventures and Innovations, writes a blog for the TLS, A Don’s Life.  She frequently mentions various Latin programs in the UK:  recently she and Peter Stothard, author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra (whom I interviewed here), gave a presentation on “How to Read a Latin Poem” at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.

Can you imagine such a presentation being given at, say, the Iowa City Book Festival?  Or The New Yorker Book Festival, for that matter?

I cannot.

And that is probably why the very nice and doubtless psychic classics professor said all those years ago, “The future is going to need the Ms. Mirabiles.”